You know I live in the most beautiful country in the world. I’m a real city slicker, I confess. I can’t help it. I hate the smell of farms. Cows chase me. I’m afraid of horses. Peace and quiet unnerves me. I was built for the city. Admittedly, getting away for a couple of days to farmy places is good for the soul, I’m sure, but just for a few days. I can’t handle much more than that.
Deciding earlier this year that I didn’t want back on the Comrades conveyor belt of Joburg and Pretoria races, I discussed alternative races that I’d never run before with Illuminati Michelle. She recommended the Cango Caves marathon. Apparently a fast downhill route. Runners are liars and remember that Kaapsemoer was downhill and, I’m yet to believe, fast but it leaves runners broken. I really want to run a sub-4 marathon. Big ask, considering my personal best marathon time, run in March last year at the Kosmos 3-in-1, is a paltry 4:24. What am I talking about? 4:24 is a very good time for a marathon, I just wanted a sub-4. I tell you, if I run a sub-4 marathon, I can give up running because I’ll know then that it can’t get better than that. Crumbs! Every step is a miracle, never mind a sub-4 marathon. *cue tinging bells and angel light shining down from heaven* A fast route was just what I would need to try for my sub-4. As long as I don’t screw things up in training and go out too far too fast too much, then I should stay relatively injury free and be in good shape to run a sub-4. That’s what I thought, anyway. Michelle and I decided that Cango Caves marathon was exactly what we were going to do. She would go for her sub-3 and I would go for a sub-4.
What is Cango Caves? Cango Caves is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. And I’ve seen Michelangelo’s Pieta! And you should see my sons! Really. Cango Cave is the most beautiful anything. It’s a network of caves consisting of stalagmites and stalactites and what was that other thing we saw…..um…flowstones, that’s right. Flowstones. The caves are an extensive system of tunnels and chambers over 4km long in the Swartberg Mountains. More about them later. What is the marathon? It’s a relatively undulating, downhill route from the entrance of the Cango Caves to the infantry school in Oudtshoorn. Where is all this? In the desert! I’m not joking with you. Michelle and I were going to try respective PBs for a marathon in the desert…in summer. Average high in February/March is 30 degrees celsius. It’s a fast route, as long as you don’t die from heat stroke on the way down the mountain!
So Iluminati Michelle and her wife, Michelle and I headed off for Oudtshoorn at the tail end of summer. I’m not sure what I expected of Oudtshoorn. It’s famous for Ostrich farming. Ostriches are indigenous to the area and at some point ostrich feathers were all that and the farming industry there boomed. Since then, a bout of avian flu wrecked that industry, but the town remains a hub of wine and dairy farming and of course, there’s the infantry school. It’s such a lovely place. I really will go back, notwithstanding my city slickerness tendencies. The people have these old school values which make them both serene and friendly. And sheez! That place is so clean. No litter anywhere, except for Meiringspoort. More about that later. Oh! I suppose Meiringspoort isn’t Oudtshoorn. My guess is that the army base has something to do with the spirit of Oudtshoorn. It’s a lovely place.
We flew to George on Friday afternoon, picked up a car with a very wet back seat, picked up a car with a dry back seat, and drove the hour and a half journey to Oudtshoorn. George was also way too friendly to be a real city. My back’s sore. Have a I told you? My hip flexors are frozen in a seated position due to my job which has me sitting on my ass sometimes for 9 hours in a day. I’m really not exagerrating. There have been days when I’ve stood up from my chair, groaned and realised that I’d been sitting in that chair in that position for 9 hours. Yes. I don’t need to go to the toilet often. I ran a 12-hour Comrades Marathon and didn’t go to the toilet once. Judge me if you like. I might not have a Comrades medal if that weren’t a predisposition of mine. Anyway, so my job has buggered up my hip flexors, but I’m out there running marathons and doing speed work and the like so something’s gotta give, right. It was, as Clare-Anne had predicted, my back’s turn next to be a pain. So my lower back had been in spasm for two weeks as I approached Oudtshoorn. Sitting on the flight. Sitting in the car. Sitting sitting sitting. My back was buggered. I’d had an emergency appointment with Francis just before heading off to Oudtshoorn and she’d given me some stretches which I still can’t do but which helped. They helped, but all the sitting didn’t. Urgh! When am I ever going to be a real runner?
So Friday we got to our beautiful little organic farm with…fuck, I don’t remember, some fancy cows that the owner of the farm seemed very pleased about because these fancy cows had just had a baby. I was just thinking, you people sell organic beef. Don’t be excited about the birth of an animal that you’ve sentenced to either sexual slavery or death, but I digress. Like I said, city slicker vegetarian tendencies. The farm – De Kombuys – was so tranquil and picturesque and beautiful. Michelle and Michelle had a nap and I went to look around. The farm owner had told us to go and look, but to close gates behind us. I walked towards the cows, unhooked the gate and spent the next 10 minutes trying to get the fukcing gate closed again. And then the cows started moving in my direction. I had visions of being trampled in a mad cow stampede as they smelled the smell of imminent freedom beyond what was usually a closed gate. The only thing in between them and their freedom at this point was my skinny arm holding the gate closed. Panic overwhelmed me and I whimpered. I thought of calling out for help, but acknowledged even in my panicked state that that would be pathetically city slickerish of me. The fancy cows started moooing at the “ordinary” cows that were seeking their freedom. Probably because the freedom-seekers were getting too close to the fancy pants baby that had just been born. The freedom-seekers stopped heading towards me and regarded the fancy pants cows with bemusement and a certain amount of what seemed like disdain. This gave me time to try and figure out to latch the rudimentary gate lock. By using my big toe and all my might, I was able to pull the gate, pull the lever, bend down (with frozen hip flexors and spasmodic back and everything), hook the latch over the bottom of the pole and then realise that I’d have to do it again because I was still inside the freedom-seekers’ enclosure. Unhook the latch with my big toe, unhook the lever, unwind the wire, catch the gate as it fell over, jump out the enclosure, hold the gate up as it fell over the other way, pull the gate, pull the lever, bend down, pull the pole down, use my big toe to hook the latch over the pole, wind the wire around the gate, unwind the wire because it was supposed to go the other side, wind the wire around the gate, hook the lever and pull the wire over the lever. Not a word of this is made up!
Does this count as my pre-race 20 minute easy run, I wondered to myself. Not that I’d run, but I was sweating and my heart was racing. I was exhausted. Michelle and Michelle got up and we decided to go first to check out the Cango Caves and then on to the Infantry School to pick up our numbers. We’d run our 20 minute easy pace run at the infantry school and then head out to supper, we decided. Illuminati Michelle’s Michelle wasn’t going to run this weekend so she was the designated driver.
The desert is very hot! The caves were cool. I can’t actually explain how magnificent the caves were. Photo’s just don’t do it justice, but I’ll post some of the pics that Michelle took. Suffice it to say, it just got onto your bucket list. Trust me. No runner liars on this one. I’m saving the word “spectacular” for later. After watching some of the cricket highlights, we headed off to the Infantry school to pick up our numbers and to do our pre-race easy run. Please note my liberal use of the word “easy”. I really have to find other friends. The number picking up thing was delightfully festive. It seemed like the whole town of Oudtshoorn had come out to do the fun run and join in the lead up to the marathon. Just wonderful! There was pannekoek. Yor! I love pannekoek. Only Afrikaans people are allowed to call something pannekoek, I’ve decided.
Michelle and I changed and we trudged towards our “easy” run. Both of us have largely sitting jobs and so we’re both prone to stiff hip flexors aka sore butts and tight quads, so the idea of starting a run never fills either of us with enthusiasm. But we knew in 20 minutes, which is no time at all, this would be over. Oh my God! Michelle set off at her easy pace. Oh my God, is exactly how my prayer began. Many people were still coming in to finish the 5km fun run and we were running at Illuminati pace in the opposite direction. I had forgotten my sunglasses which upset me because now people could see the horror of this experience etched in those windows to my soul, which was just about where I could feel the etching taking place. Michelle was chatting. I was close to tears. I was gasping for air and we were basically at sea level. I couldn’t stop and whine about giving up or walking or slowing down. There were all these people looking on in awe. Someone even shouted, there go the winners of the marathon. Little did they know, that for one of us, that could have been the case. I had kept up this “easy” pace for three hundred metres and I wanted to walk home to Joburg. I felt like tripping Michelle or just pushing her into the desert dirt. Six minutes went by and I felt like my life was ending. I felt like I had but three minutes left to live. And was this the way I wanted to spend the final three minutes of my life? At least I was spending it with my friend, but fuck! I didn’t like her much at this point. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to be funny or if she thought pushing me to breaking point would be good for my personal growth or maybe she thought I would in this way become an Illuminati overnight and she’d have some company for her sub-3 the next day. Whichever it was, my praying continued, but at a much more spiritual level. 8 minutes. This watch must be broken. How can we only have been doing this for 8 minutes? When is the 20 minutes going to be over? I don’t want to run a fucking marathon! I want to go have dinner. I want pannekoek. I want the other Michelle. I just want this to end. I’m going to die. Currently, I am supposed to have been dead for 2 minutes and I’m still here. Fuck this place! God has left me. There is no god in the desert. 11 minutes into the torture, Illuminati Michelle took pity on me and told me she would run ahead. You mean you’re going to run faster than this? God bless you. Don’t come back to fetch me, please. You go ahead. Let me die with some dignity on my own here. I swear, I’m never running with Illuminati Michelle again. You hear? I’m never running with her or her kin ever again until I’m 80. Oh no!! She turned back to fetch me. God, please help me. Isn’t this an earthquake region? Now would be a good time. Please save me from this final damnation. 13 minutes and the torture continued. At least this was a downhill. It wasn’t, but by now my legs were going so fast that I had no control over their motion so it felt sort of like a downhill. Into the home stretch, I misjudged the distance to go and I decided to simply run flat out because I just wanted this to be over and 20 minutes wasn’t arriving fast enough for me, but the Infantry school was so I could end this. I misjudged and I felt the springs attaching my heart to my skeleton starting to break off. I’m sure I even heard a “sproing” sound. 16 minutes. Could this 20 minutes be any longer? Yes, it could. I was filled with horror. And the end was up a hill. I tried to run away from Michelle because that seemed like the most practical thing to do, but of course that was not only not possible, but also terribly stupid. What if I’ve broken myself before tomorrow’s marathon? What was even more horrific was the realisation that I would be expected to run not much slower than this for 42.2km tomorrow. That’s the worst thing I could ever imagine happening. The 20 minutes ended mercifully on 19:58, only because I had caused a change in the weather with the sweat pouring from my body and it was likely that they’d ask me to leave because I was scarring and scaring small children. Sweat poured from my head for the next 3 hours.
We had appallingly slow service at the Ocean Basket in Oudtshoorn, but the waitress was a lovely young girl. I didn’t really notice because I was still in a critical state of trauma. But the out of body experience I was having was both compassionate to me and useful to divert my friends’ attention from the fact that I had, in fact, undergone some kind of traumatic accident on the streets of Oudtshoorn. I was trying to be cool about the whole thing, but I was concerned that I had done myself a disservice on this eve of a marathon which, with my back spasm, was looking to be less and less achievable.
I had three plans:
- Plan A – Sub-4:00 which would mean a D seeding for Comrades. Remember?
- Plan B – Sub 4:10 which would be a PB and a F seeding for Comrades
- Plan C – Sub 4:20 which would be a PB and a F seeding for Comrades
- Plan D – Qualify for Comrades with a sub-5:00 which would be the worst case scenario and if this came to pass, I would know that an ambulance would be involved.
I knew that I had trained for Plan A, but my back was getting worse as the evening progressed. I had packed 2 anti-spasmodics and 2 Panados for the race, but painkillers sometimes make me sluggish so I wasn’t very keen on using them. When I lined up at the start of the marathon, I was amped and excited and ready to go for Plan A. This is possibly my favourite marathons to date. I loved it. Even when my back spasmed at 9km, I loved it. Even when it spasmed again at 24km and then I got stitches all the way down my abs, I loved this race. At no point, even when I knew I was 12 minutes behind schedule to achieve Plan A, did I stop trying for Plan A. It was just a fantastic race. The mountains are beautiful, the army’s efficient organisation was unrivalled. The people of the Western Cape are lovely. I’ll go back a thousand times. I ended up running a 4:16 which I did with a huge smile on my face at the end. Michelle had a wobbly at 24km, just like me and managed to finish one hour ahead of me. Neither of us achieved what we went there to achieve, but we got something else entirely and so it was the best marathon I’ve ever run.
I’ll tell you more about the rest in a while. Your bucket list now includes the Cango Caves (the marathon too if that’s your thing). In a little while, you’ll get another bucket list item.
Okay, gotta run.
I’ll chat to you later.
Yours in the love of discovering