THE ZUURBERG MOUNTAINS – SETTING FOR THE ADDO ELEPHANT PARK ULTRA TRAIL
They didn’t mention the snakes when I paid my entry. Well they wouldn’t would they. They did in the final instructions. Listing the ones we might meet on the trail. The ones that can kill you. Hissssssss ! Cape Cobra, Boomslang (Male and Female – nastier bite from the ladies apparently – surely not !) and the good old Puff Adder.
Most snakes scarper when larger mammals approach but not Puff the Magic Dragon. He lies there, cleverly camouflaged, and waits for you to stand on him or generally irritate him. The bite can kill you or lead to massive inflammation and loss of fanged body part. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to take a dump in the bush. The thought of two prongs in the nuts and then having to watch them turn into fleshy basketballs. Followed by death probably. This wasn’t going to be a Hill and Dale.
CHECKPOINT ONE AND STILL ABLE TO FORCE A SMILE
The race was the 50 mile version of the Addo Elephant Park Trail Race. 8,000 feet of climbing included. The route was through the Zuurberg Mountains scene of a famous massacre of the British troops during the Boer War. Apparently the stench of rotting corpses was horrific. I wondered what I’d smell like after a few days dead with melons for testicles.
There were two shorter races and a beastly 100 miler for Broadmoor escapees. Location an hour North of Port Elizabeth in the thickest African Bush on the Eastern Cape. A “friend” thought it would be a good idea for a first Ultra. What are friends for ? Killing is the answer.
The organisers e mailed to say they would endeavour to keep the predatory animals in the park well away from the runners. ENDEAVOUR ! Now there’s a word. “Excuse me Mr. Lion there’s a race on do you mind feasting elsewhere” In the small print they said you were not allowed to wear headphones during the event so you could be aware in the “Unlikely event of disturbing a dangerous animal” I felt a bowel movement and I hadn’t even left for SA yet. I suspected those Puff Adders were going to get loads of opportunities to taste Irish bollock.
The advice was to train appropriately to attempt to replicate the potential conditions of a race in a Safari Park in the African summer so I cleverly did the opposite by packing in a winter of peat plodding in the icy Mournes with the patient Ultra king Greg McCann giving me plenty of great advice. Like “Have you ever thought of having yourself sectioned”
Race week arrived and a heat wave was forecast. How happy was I ? The average temperature on race day was 100 degrees Fahrenheit but in the well named Valley of Tears it reached 120. That’s where Jan Smuts of Boer fame slaughtered the Brits. It nearly slaughtered me. Even after sunset the lowest temperature was 82F. That acclimatisation training in the week before I left in that snowstorm on the summit of Donard would surely work to my advantage.
My 50 miler started early…. before sunrise. I was staying at a nearby Game Lodge and headed to my car early doors. There was a Zebra standing right beside it. It saw me … farted loudly … and bolted. To be fair that’s the way most mammals react when they first meet me. The race began at 0530 just before the African dawn. It was so romantic I almost kissed myself. And we were off. 81 of us. I was the only Irishman. I didn’t really have to tell you that did I ?
The sun came up fast, as it does on the equator, and we faced just short of 12 hours of baking heat. It was a heat that just totally enveloped you. Crushed you. Smothered you. Burnt your soul. I had this feeling that God had placed a super heated concrete block on my head and was trying to drive me into the baked African dirt. God, to give him credit, was well within his rights. I’ve been a sinner.
There were checkpoints every 6 miles or so. All of them well stocked with loads of goodies including boiled salted spuds. Didn’t they realise this would give an Irishman an unfair advantage ? Like Lance Armstrong on EPO. Before the race my lovely chum Oonagh Hunter, herself a noted trail athlete, a multiple completer of the three day AfricanX and an Ironman (Woman) as well, had arranged coffee with her old schoolchum SA Ultra star Linda Doke who had raced on the same Salomon team as Kilian Jornet.
Linda inspired me with a personal experience from the 2016 100 mile race – which she won. At night in the pitch black of the bush she spotted a large dark patch on the trail. Not being able to identify what is was with the narrow beam of her headtorch Linda ran round it. Turned out it was a pool of fresh blood. The result of a Leopard kill. It had leapt from the bush and pulled a Buck to its death. The kill had been witnessed by runners ahead. Thanks Linda. Another bowel movement.
But there were also bundles of rather more invigorating advice from Linda. Hydrate like a madman, take regular salt tablets, eat real food at the stops and use the gels as emergency boosts. Keep the electrolyte levels high. Dip your wrists .. in fact as many body parts as possible … during the multiple river crossings. But don’t moon at the Hippos … apparently that makes them very cross. And they drown you. More advice: Get the aid station volunteers to pour water over you at the checkpoints. Keep cap and neck buff as damp as possible. Be strict with your pace. Slow and steady. Shame that last bit as I’d planned to sprint the whole way.
Despite the quality briefing I was really struggling not long after the half way point. I think I was showing the first symptoms of heatstroke. Dizzy. Skullcrushing headache. Nausea. One lad collapsed unconscious on the trail. Luckily there was a Doctor, a fellow runner, in the following group. The Doc stabilised him and a Medic arrived. By now ten runners had dropped out. I was stuffed and feeling very lonely. Then I heard footsteps behind me. I’m not last ! What a boost. Turned out it was the race sweepers … or Grim Reapers as I called them.. Dylan and Misty. Dylan recommended that I pull out at the next checkpoint … number four. He told me I was over an hour behind the next runner and had no chance of making the seven p.m. cut off at checkpoint seven.
I really did think my race was over and at checkpoint four I sat down in the shade of the gazebo and contemplated the horror of failure. Dallas… yes he really was called Dallas… one of the Chief Marshalls repeated what Dylan and Misty had said… but he did add an extra line. I went all Clint Eastwood … it made my day. Dallas said best to stop as the next segment … a three mile long straight uphill section … would be sure to finish me. I sat there thinking “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’m capable of. A steep uphill section ? I’d like to see you slogging up Bernagh in a blizzard. Feeling lucky punk” See … Clint Eastwood. I visualised how Dallas would look locked inside a barrel of Texas oil but by accident I had found a great motivator. Anger. And off I went. From some where the strength returned. I imagined being back in the Mournes. Except these Mournes were in a blast furnace. But it was a seminal moment.
After the climb we were on an escarpment and at last there was a breeze. Two undulating sections. I got to checkpoint six. I was bright red and ruptured .. it was still over 100 degrees …. and there he was my nemesis … Dallas…. astride his quad bike like Bruce Willis. “You have an hour to cover the next six miles or you’re out. It’s an hour to the cut off time. You’ll have to shift” I seriously considered ramming my walking poles into as dark a place as my depleted energy stores would have allowed. The anger returned. My feet were by now two slabs of mashed mincemeat. I’d been “powerwalking” – without the power bit – for a long time now. I was now at truffle pig pace.
Dallas had gone on ahead waiting with the Sword of Damocles at checkpoint bleedin Charlie. I wobbled in ten minutes after the cut off. I stared at Dallas almost daring him to pull me out. I had secretly sharpened my walking poles on the sharp scree of the last climb. The Death of Dallas would be a slow and painful one. Like a a Matador with a bull I knew exactly where my little spears were going. I think he saw the psycho in the eyes. I think we tight band of Irish fell runners all have the capacity of that look. A subtle mix of determination and madness. Dallas waved me on. He had just saved his own life. (The Dallas bashing is of course for comic affect. He was in truth a great lad. Dallas cajoled and encouraged. He kept me moving. Mind you the bit about making me angry. That’s true !)
The final leg. All in the dark. About 8 miles through forested bush. Snake country. Add about a dozen river crossings. The organisers – Beelzebub and Pol Pot presumably – thought it would be fun to save brutality for the finish. There was a fair chunk of climbing too. It took me over three hours to do that relatively short distance. Empty tank. Frightened … I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was stumbling about looking for race route markers. Little orange ribbons hanging from thorn bushes. I joke you not. At least they had tiny reflectors on them. Which helped. But they weren’t easy to pick out. Especially when you had to watch every footstep on rough ground while trying to look up at the same time. The river banks were high above the rivers themselves so one slip and it was a long way down into a watery abyss. And then there’s the chance of your headtorch picking out eyes in the bush. What is it ? A harmless Zebra or one of those bloody Leopards ? In the Mournes you know it’s a sheep or, in the forests, a deer. Scary … it really was.
After a while I spotted two wee lights through the trees in the distance. I caught them. Two guys in the 100 mile race and, thank the Lord, they were as slow as me. Two Afrikaners and we made the Long Walk to Freedom (had to get that line in) The last couple of miles felt like eternity. The mind was now playing devilish tricks. At one point my fuggish brain convinced me that I would be here for all time. Fumbling from one orange ribbon to the next in the pitch black until the Universe exploded.
Eventually, after, to be precise, several decades the finish inflatable appeared. I wanted to make love to it. I wanted it to have my children. I wanted to include it in my will. 71st and last of the finishers in 16 hours 35 minutes. They talk about emotions at the end of something like this and I know many readers of this blog will have completed many more difficult and challenging races than the Addo Elephant Park Trail Race but only one word had any meaning to me at this stage. Relief. No happiness. No endorphin release. No tears of satisfaction. Just pure relief that the agony and fear had come to an end.
When I look back there were two keys to completion. The anger I talked about … but that lead to a feeling of ownership. If you take ownership of ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING there is a much better chance of success. Own the pain. Own the terrain. Own the race. Own your fear. See everything “negative” as partners on your journey and success will be much more likely. It worked for me. Maybe I’m a little weak. Don’t know. But it was the toughest thing mentally and physically I have ever done. 56 years old and my first Ultra completed. Maybe this wee blog will inspire someone to give it a go or maybe encourage some of you old hands to go for something a little more exotic. Like the risk of death by snakebite or dismemberment by Lion in 100 degree heat in deepest Africa. And meeting Dallas. Think about it. You’ll love it.
FOOTNOTE: Dallas turned out to be a great lad. He was just nudging me along in that South African no mercy way. We even swapped e mail addresses. Buddies now that it’s over. Thanks to to my NLP guru Brendan McCourt. The ownership bit has a lot to do with him. To Karen who got the energy into my body. Brian, the owner of the Kudu Ridge Game Lodge, also became a good friend. We had rugby in common. And finally to Sheena O’Keefe and the organisers for making a brutal event as comfortable as possible. The organisation was spot on and the friendliness of the people was probably the fondest memory.