I know. Several of you have complained. Last time I blogged was in November when I ran a marathon for no reason and qualified for a race which I have no intention of running….this year. It might help you if I explain this writing process of mine. I can’t write on demand, which is why I work in a bank and am not lounging on my patio all day, perched at a laptop, sipping a fine Chianti while I churn out this nonsense. The blog piece always starts forming in my head when something about a run strikes me. It might be the sunrise. It might be something poignant that someone says. It might be a tree. Something strikes me and the inspiration is sparked. From there, the piece evolves in my head as I trundle along. That’s why you very seldom read about my training runs. Not much time to build a narrative in that short time. So the reason I haven’t written in a while is because I’ve mostly been training on trails for the Old Mutual Two Oceans 22km Trail Run. And although the training runs have been in some pretty places, they’ve been difficult and not very inspiring. Just biting down training.
I’ve also been injured. I know, right? You’re always injured. I know, right? That’s because, as you may recall, I’m not really supposed to be a runner. I’m supposed to be a couch potato. And I have the perfect body for couch potatoing, complete with a hint of scoliosis of the spine and one leg shorter than the other (I suspect the two are related). Jekyll and Hyde confirmed it to me recently, when at my wits end, I went to see her, a biokineticist, about the myriad of suffering I was enduring. She said, “I’m not sure how you’re actually managing to run because you really don’t have any leg strength at all.” Luckily she told me that just three days before I left for Cape Town to run the longest trail I’ve ever run in my life. Luckily the race was billed as “For experienced trail runners only”. But I’ve run the Comrades Marathon, right? How hard could this be?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Cape Town is a really shit place. That fucking wind could put me in a mental assylum. It’s very pretty and the transport system is quite good, but the people are so laissez-faire, it takes forever to get anything done and then, before you know it, it’s 10pm and bed time! So I really don’t like Cape Town, but I was very excited about the race. I knew it was going to be tough and I thought it would elevate my status as a silly Parkrun-type trail runner to a hard core trail runner. Today, as I type this, I find myself hung somewhere between the two. Erica and I had done some pretty appalling training runs in heat and wind and dust and hills and sun and misery so I think we were pretty much ready for anything. We had handled the training runs so badly, however, that both of us were worried that we were in no way prepared for this run. Erica had never run 22km before…on road or on trail. I think I was shitting myself more for her than for myself. At least I knew how deep I could dig after last year’s Comrades. Her petulant temper tantrum on our last training run and her total inability to pep talk herself or to allow herself to be pep talked had me worried that she might not be able to do this. But she’s got loads of chutzpah, that one, so I knew that she’d finish. She also has the advantage of a fantastic homing pony that kicks in as soon as she smells the finish. I kept having to remind her that all runners are liars and trail runners are the worst type of liar because I’ve never ever run a trail run that was the distance that was sold to me. I knew that Two Oceans would be no different. It turns out that the race was not, in fact 22km. It was 23.8km. I kept telling Erica and myself to get our heads around 25km. Luckily I did that or I might have stumbled upon a very angry and defeated Erica at some point near the end of the race. I didn’t and she finished half an hour ahead of me!!! Well done Erica.
The trail race is the first race of the Old Mutual Two Oceans marathon racing weekend. It is run on Good Friday. Good Friday has always been and will always be a deeply spiritual day of reflection for me and I struggled with the notion that I would be doing something I love and find so fun on a day meant for contemplation and mournful reflection. Co-incidentally, along with the lack of creativity in my life, I have struck a pothole in my spiritual life. I haven’t been going to church. I haven’t been praying. Even during Lent, this most holy time of fasting, reflection and self-sacrifice, I have been living far removed from my usual ethereal life. And it was with this realisation, on kilometre three, which was as steep as kilometre one to three, that this piece of writing began to take form.
The start of the race was unremakable, although it was very cold and our gear was checked like our hem lengths in high school by a troop of class prefect-type people. We had been advised with our entry that the following gear was compulsory:
- a hydration pack (or something similar) with a minimum of 2 litres of water. Go get a 2litre bottle from your fridge, now strap it to your back and imagine running 22…er 25km with that,
- a hat (I never run trails with a hat because I’m afraid I won’t see low-hanging branches and then end up knocking myself unconscious. To meet the requirement, I donned peak cap back to front which gave me the appearance of a lanky, over the hill skateboarder),
- a whistle,
- a space blanket (I detest the sound the thing makes. It’s made of that fine crinkly silver foil and sounds disgusting when it moves),
- a rain jacket,
- a windbreaker,
- A cell phone, charged with the race’s emergency number stored (oh shit! I just realised that I forgot to put in the emergency number into my phone. Lucky I didn’t need it then, hey? Oops!)
So you start the race with a shit load of extra baggage….and I’m not even talking about the stuff I usually start with in my head.
The first 4.5km are steep uphills into the rising sun. The views are lovely, but the road is walkably steep. You can try run, but I think only the elites would have managed that. It was at the 3km mark that I got a small thorn poke through my shoe and into my sock. I was suddenly reminded that it was indeed Good Friday and this was a day on which I usually sat in reflection of that most horrific of murders, the death of Jesus Christ. That little thorn irritated me. I could move my foot around in my shoe so that the thorn didn’t poke my toe whenever I put my foot down, but then doing that for the next 19km would do a lot of damage to the rest of my legs. So I just kept tolerating it until it went away. I kept thinking about the thorn in Jesus’ head from the crown of thorns. How absolutely agonising that must have been. I wondered if the pain eventually just went away like the pain in my toe. At about 5km, we started climbing. Now, when runners talk about climbing they are usually talking about this:
For the purposes of this particular blog, the term “Climb” shall refer to this:
I know you’re thinking that I’m joking. Not even. I looked up at someone about three people ahead of me at one point and saw this:
Except this woman has equipment! I thought, “Holy shit! If she lets go now, she will fall to her death. I’m sure one should have equipment for this kind of thing.” I considered my compulsory gear list, and thought, “Did I skip the bungee cord and D-ring altogether when I read that list?” It was quite something. All I can say is thank goodness I have been doing all those bicep curls with my enormous 1kg weights because there is no ways I could have pulled myself up some of those rocks if I hadn’t had the little arm strength I have. It was brutal. At one point, I couldn’t find a place to grab, so I grabbed a piece of bush and a thousand little thorns bit into me. Deceptive little fucker! Immediately, a thousand little bubbles of blood peeked out of my fingers. I shouted to everyone below me, “Don’t touch this little bush. It has teeth!” Once again, I was dragged from my horror to remember the horror of that walk upon which Jesus had embarked all those years ago. I wanted to tap out. I wanted to get my whistle out of my bag and just blow it to get a marshal to come and help me down the mountain. But I was too afraid to let go of the rock and so I couldn’t get my whistle out of my bag. Alas, this way of sorrow was set to continue. The guy behind me, who was now being held up along with about 400 other runners by my pathetic progression up this cliff face, told me that I couldn’t tap out because I had run Comrades and this was just a walk in the park compared to that. Just those words were like Veronica’s compassionate gesture to Jesus as he struggled along. I considered that Jesus too must have wanted to tap out at some point. Must have wanted to blow that whistle. I suppose He had the power and authority to do so, but He didn’t. Those words helped me up the next climb which had been deceptively hidden around the corner from the current climb. We climbed into a cave where a very kind marshal was telling us we were nearly there. “We’re nearly there at the top of this climb or we’re nearly there at the end of the race?” I thought to myself. We were neither. I wonder if anyone said that to Jesus on his way.
That climb was 2km. We climbed literally for 2km. My quads and arms were finished. Now, 7km into the race, I was finished. I almost cried. At 8km, I saw several marshals standing around, looking busy. There was a runner, looking forlorn standing to the side of the narrow path. I greeted her. It looked like she had tapped out. And then I fell. Just out of sight of the small gathering dealing with the forlorn runner. It was a strange fall between two boulders. I must have tripped on a frond of a plant by stepping on one side and hooking the arch made by that with my other foot. I stumbled forward, grabbed the two boulders and almost sighed in relief that I hadn’t fallen, but then I carried on falling and I fell on my good knee. My left knee stung and I jumped up and limped forward and out of the way of any runners behind me. I felt embarrassed until I realised that there was no other runner. No-one around to witness the fall. I cried a little because it was my good knee. My not good knee was so sore from the climbing and now my good knee was also a not good knee. My hands started to bleed. Jesus fell, we believe three times on his journey with the cross. I cried out loud, “Please don’t let there be two more falls waiting for me. Please!” I wonder if, when Jesus fell, he also stumbled, steadied himself or just lurched forward and fell. How humiliating for him. I wonder if he wanted to just jump up and shout, “I’m okay! No worries. Just a scratch.” I wonder if he just wanted to lie in the path, face down and not get up. I wonder if he got up and carried on forward because he knew that at the end of all this treachery, at least he would be home with his Father.
I looked at my watch. 8.5km. I felt like I had been running for days and we were only 8.5km into this race. Moreover, I had already fallen. My newly not good knee started to swell. Blood covered my hand. I washed it down with some of the water which, although icy cold when I started this race, was now starting to warm up.When I looked again, I was at the 12km mark, I had stumbled a few times and berated myself to concentrate and said a small prayer of thanks that I hadn’t fallen and a smaller prayer of please don’t let there be two more falls. I’d had to pass under an overhanging rock because going on the outside of the overhang would take me too near to the precipice of the mountain and I was afraid of plummeting to my death. There were several spots like that. Looking down is not an option on this race. Neither is looking up. If you’re afraid of heights, this one is not for you.
Twelve kilometres and I’d been “running” for two hours and twenty minutes. I am not kidding you, folks. Two hours and twenty minutes. And I wasn’t even last! Not even in my category! Seriously, it was that tough. Of course, at the precise time that I was crossing over the 12km mark, the winning lady was crossing over the finish line which was allegedly 10km hence. On the road, I’m usually finished my 5th cup of coke at the finish of a 21km after two hours and twenty minutes. Here, I was half way! But the kilometres between the fall at 8km and this 12km seemed to have flown by. That cheered me up a bit, but then I wondered, how long the walk from the Praetorium to Golgotha was. Well, upon Googling, I’ve established it wasn’t 25km. Or even 22km. Still, I wasn’t running in the desert. Nor did I have crowds jeering. In fact, there were times when there didn’t appear to be another human on that route. Sometimes I waited till another person came along because I was certain I had taken a wrong turn and got lost. I also didn’t have someone pushing me along hastily to get the whole ordeal over with. You know if someone had been doing that to me as I ran along, I would have become so angry, I would have smashed their head with one of the many rocks that I was rambling over. Yeah. I can’t imagine Jesus doing that either.
And then I had run 17km. I was in pain, but I was still enjoying my run. Some idiot ran past me and announced, “Downhill to the end now!” With that, we turned off the little downhill we’d just had onto an abomination of an uphill. I called out to him, “What have you done? What have you said?” He was so embarrassed, and I think a little afraid, that he sped off up that hill never to be seen again. The marshal who had just directed us up that hill told me to catch him and hit him. I might have tried if my knees weren’t so stuffed. I was quite surprised how my legs had been holding it together so far in the race. I was grateful for that. I’d been in excruciating pain for two weeks before the race. Lower back, knee, ITBs, searing glutes. But now, at this point, all that was really hurting were my knees, one from the fall and one from overuse. A truthful marshal advised that the route was not 22km. I knew it, I told him. I’m aiming for 25km. He told me to keep aiming for that because that was much closer than 22km! Although self-righteously I was glad I could say, “I knew it! I just knew it!”, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit deflated that I still had 8km to go, when I should have had just 5km to go. But then I reminded myself that I had run the Comrades Marathon so this was just a literal walk in the park.
It was really beautiful scenery. We were running through magical forests and jumping over bubbling brooks. We were having to clamber up hills and do climbs, but it was really picturesque running. At no point did I kick a single stone in anger. And then I came into a clearing. I was running downhill and my knees were sore. I almost cried, but then I saw a photographer and pulled myself together. Then I was on the road to the homestretch. That’s when I cried. Four and some hours I had been out there. That’s usually a marathon for me. Here I was just finishing 23.8km in that same time. What a bittersweet feeling. I had done things that day that I never imagined I’d be able to do. I had hauled myself over rocks and boulders, crept along precipices, fallen, got up, and finished the hardest race I’d ever done in my life. It wasn’t as tough, mentally, as Comrades, but I finished feeling exactly as I had felt at the end of my first Comrades down run. I also finished with a real sense of accomplishment, more so than either of my Comrades marathons. I felt like I had experienced something truly grueling and challenging and I had accomplished it. Maybe that’s how Jesus died, with a deep sense of accomplishment. We are told that he sighed, “It is accomplished,” at the moment of his death. I’m not comparing my silly little trail run with a selfless act of that magnitude or more specifically, being crucified, but I had a fleeting sense of how Jesus might have felt as he gave his last breath in that manner.
I wonder if Jesus ever felt a sense of purpose on that horrible journey. He told a group of women who were crying to not cry for him but for themselves and their families. I hope I too can be a person of empathy always. I have found that there is no more poignant way to get close to God than to run out in nature. It is a gift which has been given to me which I treasure. And even though I shout and complain and groan at times while I’m out in nature running, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the gift of running and for the gift of our beautiful country and for the gift of lovely people who I meet along the way.
And at those moments when I feel like I’m being pushed from behind by a faster runner breathing down my neck, I know that God looks on and removes all stones from my reach.
Yours in the love of God and nature and running