“If you’re not enjoying it, you’re doing it wrong.” I can’t lay claim to this catchy little cliché but it’s a phrase that Richard and I have spouted from our lips a few times. When you’re running ultra’s, you will be tested, you will explore some dark and dingy places in your mind, you will hurt and you will resolve to never fucking do this again, several times over. So, the word enjoy, is not always the verb on the tip of your tongue when you’re on the frontline of your existential crises.
I was looking forward to UTCT, I knew it would be a serious challenge at the end of another big year but I felt ready for it. Richard and I talked a lot about the race leading up to the big day, steadily sipping on a cocktail of nerves and excitement as the day drew closer. Dom (our Johannesburg attaché) and Morag (my eldest daughter) would be taking on the 65km. It would be Morag’s first ultra and Dom’s second. Both of them had struggled with injury leading up to the event so neither was anticipating an easy day out. “I’m just going to take it easy, enjoy myself and try not to die.” Was the familiar refrain from Dom and Morag leading up to the start.
The 65km race had a generous 15h30 minute cut-off, so in a sense, the opportunity to go out and enjoy the day was not misplaced. The cut-of 17hours for the 100km was not as generous. Richard and I would have to put in a very serious effort early on or we would be chasing cut-offs all day.
Cape Town is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The surrounding coastline is gorgeously decorated with pristine beaches and secluded coves, framed by rugged coastline where the base of the mountain and cold Atlantic Ocean collide. I am grateful every day that I get to call this place home. I’m even more grateful that I am able bodied and fit enough to explore the trails in this wonderland.
Be warned though. The landmark Table Mountain National Park is an enchantress that casts her spell on everyone who steps foot on her paths. Her stunning views and delicate fynbos disguise her brutal climbs and unforgivingly technical trails. She demands that you enjoy all she has to offer, but if you disrespect her, even for a second, she will curse you without hesitation. She owes you nothing. Broken bones and even death are no strangers here.
The more I commune with the natural wonders surrounding me, the more I appreciate that the world is so much more than human. All of this, and more, was here millions of years before our party of atoms had even begun to introduce themselves to each other. Although we seem intent to do more damage to our natural world, when I run in the mountains I have hope, I have optimism, I’m at peace.
We got cracking at 4:00a.m for the 100km. The weather was kind with cool overcast conditions predicted until lunchtime when things would clear and the temperature rise a bit. But we were to be spared from the recent +30C and howling South Easter that can be typical for December in Cape Town.
We were anxious to run the 1st 37km of the race to Constantia Nek as if it was the only race we were running, but by the first climb around Lions Head Richard was already complaining about nausea and stomach issues and we were only 10km’s in. This was new to us, neither of us have ever suffered from this in any of our previous endeavours. I became increasingly annoyed and irritated as I pushed ahead a few hundred meters and then waited. It is totally impossible for me to feel justified about being pissed off with Richard. When the shoe has been on the other foot, Richard has been nothing but patient, empathetic and massively supportive. After waiting a few minutes at the top of Kloofnek at about 20km’s, I abandoned Richard and charged on by myself.
Platteklip Gorge is a monster grind but it’s a familiar one to me, having done this route more than a few times. I was looking forward to getting to the top and running the trail to Constantia Nek. I knew this route and was feeling strong. As I charged across the top of Table Mountain, making up any time that I thought I had lost due to a slower than expected start, my emotions took a detour and started running their own race. One minute I was feeling very focused, strong, happy, proud even. The next minute I just felt fucking sad.
Richard and I have been friends for more than 20 years. Our past is colourful, very fucking colourful. The last 4 years of running together has added another dimension to our friendship that I honestly don’t think is very common. We’ve achieved more in terms of ultra-distance running than most people would in a lifetime. In 2018, I think we did 8 ultra’s together. This year we’ve run 2 x 100 milers, our 3rd consecutive 2 Oceans and Comrades together. We’ve spent countless weekends in the mountains with many other friends as we share our love of trail running. But change is in the air for 2019. Richard might be moving to Berlin, my own immediate future is equally uncertain. Yet, here I was, charging across Table Mountain, on my own.
My brain started firing questions at me faster than I could run. What are you doing? Why are you doing this? What are you trying to prove? To who? Who do you think cares? Do you care? What do you care about? Why are you such a dick? Are you enjoying yourself? What makes you happy? With Existential Crises mode now fully engaged I was slowed down by a pair of runners who had stopped and were taking a few selfies together while trying to incorporate the magnificent views and scenery. As I edged passed them I said: “Yeah guys, don’t forget to take a moment and enjoy the views.” They responded enthusiastically and replied: “Thanks hey, enjoy your run.”
That brief exchange was the catalyst for me to critically re-evaluate the day ahead and make some decisions. I didn’t deliberate for very long, in fact the decision just popped into my mind as if by itself and without any resistance or further consideration on my part. I would enjoy my solo effort across the top all the way down to Constantia Nek. I could go as fast or as slow as I wanted, I could stop and take pictures if I wanted. I could smell as many flowers as I wanted. I could strip myself naked and swim in the dam if I wanted. But I would wait for Richard at Constantia Nek whether he made the strict cut-off or not. I immediately felt a physiological change throughout my body. I was relaxed, I was enjoying myself, I was present and I was at peace.
Richard arrived at Constantia Nek just a few minutes after after cut-off. He was relaxed and happy. He was also very surprised to see me.
Richard: “What the fuck dude, why are you here, are you ok?”
Jim: “Yeah man, just decided on the mountain that I wasn’t very happy so decided to wait.”
Richard: “Why, what’s wrong man, are you ok?”
Jim: “I just had a moment and became a bit sad on the mountain. Its’ been such a rad adventure so far and we’ve had such a big year so I just thought, fuck it, why am I being such a dick? This might be the last race we run together for a while so let’s try enjoy the day out together.”
Richard: “Fuck dude, I’m really sorry man.”
Jim: “No dude, I’m the one that should be sorry. You’ve waited for me and helped me through many a shitty race. Now let’s just take a chill and enjoy the rest of the day. We’re under zero pressure from here on in.”
We didn’t rush out of Constantia Nek, we took a few moments to get our bromance back on track. The section from Constantia Nek to Alphen Trail is really easy going and we barely broke a sweat, choosing rather to amble our way through some beautiful trails that we had never run before. We enjoyed our surroundings and were truly grateful for being there together.
When we got to Alphen Trail, Lara and Shaz (our phenomenal support crew) told us that Morag wasn’t far behind us, perhaps only 40 minutes or so. We decided on the spot to wait for Morag so we could run the final 23km’s with her. Richard and I sat chatting and reminiscing for about 45 minutes, just enjoying being part of the day. We watched some of the 100km front runners come through the refuel station at pace and we cheered them on. It was so awesome just to sit there for a while and soak it all up. UTCT is an incredible event and at this moment, sitting down, drinking a cold cup of coke with my wee running buddy, life was good.
Morag arrived about 45 minutes later looking so relaxed and with a smile so big and broad that it made my heart swell with pride. Although she’s no stranger to trail running, her lead up to the event was far from optimal. The 65km is a beast and the furthest Morag had run before this event was 25km. Yet, here she was, at the 42km mark looking like she was having the time of her life, and she was.
I ran up to her as she entered the aid station, clearly happy to see her.
Jim: “How’re you feeling my baby?”
Morag: “So good, I’m absolutely loving this Dad.”
Jim: “Wow baby, I couldn’t be more proud and happy right now.”
Morag: “Thanks Dad, are you going to run the rest of the way with me?”
Jim: “For sure baby. Hopefully we’ll keep up.”
Morag: “Yay, let’s get going.”
Jim: “Ok, shit, you’ve only just arrived, don’t you want to take a 5 minute rest at least.”
Morag: “Nope, no more dilly dally, time to get back to work.” She said with a grin.
Jim: “Where did you leave Dom?”
Morag: “At about the 5km mark.”
Chip of the old block it seems, although Morag didn’t seem to suffer from any kind of existential crises with regards to leaving her appointed trail buddy behind very early on in the race.
Richard, Morag and I set off towards UCT at a nice steady pace. It was very clear early on that we either keep up with Morag or we would be seeing her later. Her pace was responsible though and I was feeling quite comfortable. I was also just so bloody happy and grateful to be able to experience this with my daughter.
The climb up Nursery Ravine was another grind with 50km in the legs, we took it easy but for the first time in the race, Morag hit a little bit of a dark patch. To be honest, I was slightly relieved as it slowed her down for a bit. But such is the benefit and privilege of youth my respite was short lived. About 5 minutes after chasing down a Gu with some Tailwind, Morag was back to strength and the pace quickened again, although the technical descent through the forest kept things honest and enabled me to keep up.
We arrived at UTC, the final aid station, tired but happy. The end was in sight and we were all fairly relaxed. After a 5-minute stop to refuel we started out on the final stretch. I was once again overcome with a sense of joy and pride that I could barely contain. Here I was, with my longsuffering running buddy and my daughter at the back end of another epic ultra-trail run. I kept on telling Morag how proud I was of her and how amazing she is and how much I loved her. I was so thrilled that we would finish this race, her first ultra, together.
Then we started climbing the very steep and technical section up to the blockhouse. Morag is relentless on the climbs and she immediately started putting some distance between us.
Jim: “FFS woman, take a chill for a few seconds and wait for me. I really want us to finish this one together.”
Morag: “Well then keep up.”
Oh dear, I’ve created a monster, but I dug deep and managed to stay in touch up the climb to the Blockhouse. From there on, it was easy going all the way home. As we trundled along the contour path and the final descent towards the finish, the afternoon sun was igniting the colours of the fynbos on Table Mountain. She was showing off now, resplendent in her magnificent beauty. We acknowledged her with our heartfelt but inadequate compliments and gratitude as we approached the finish line.
Morag and I finished together, with Richard just a few minutes behind us. The runners high kicked in about 2km’s before the finish and remained strong for the rest of the weekend. We came back on Sunday to support Lara and Shaz in the 21km race, they had an amazing day out as well, running the entire race together. UTCT delivered way beyond what any of us expected and we’re all looking forward to the 2019 edition. If you haven’t done this race, do it. You won’t regret it.