Warning! This blog post goes on and on and on.
South Africa has some of the most beautiful landscapes. I especially love this time of year when the winter fires have cleansed the world of all the rage and ravages of winter and the first hints of green are starting to show through the parched grey and yellow of winter. And so the joy in my heart as I drove along staring out the window, sometimes as a passenger and sometimes as the driver, was overflowing on Friday at the start of our journey to something I had heard loosely referred to as Lormar. Because the journey to Lormar in the middle of the Karoo desert was a long one, EP, Illuminati Michelle and I had agreed to split the journey into two legs with a Friday evening stop-over in Bloemfontein (which means flower fountain). The Free State, of which Bloemfontein, or rather Mangaung, is the capital, is not known for its beauty, but I just adore the early September Free State. The solitudinal square houses on massive expanses of yellow, grey, blue and green plains are comforting and at times breathtaking. Truly beautiful! And the plains just seem to go on and on for days. We ran the Naval Hill Parkrun in Bloemfontein on Saturday morning together with Francis and Kerry, who, at this stage of the weekend, had on all her clothes. What happens in the desert, stays in the desert!
If you ever choose this lovely parkrun, do not park at the bottom of the hill and walk up, unless you need an 11km training run instead of just a 5km parkrun. Trust me on this! Illuminati Michelle and I did an 11km training walk/run on Saturday. That hill to Naval Hill seemed to go on and on around one corner after another…..both ways! Even though I knew what to expect, coming down was no different! After the Parkrun (and the extra 3km up and 3km down the hill), we rushed back to the gorgeous B&B we had stayed in – Touching Senses Garden Cottages – showered and started our journey to the middle of the Karoo desert.
I’m not entirely sure where the landscape changes from Free State fields for days to semi-desert scrub, but the landscape changes subtly as you drive along, and soon, the Free State fields are replaced by days and days of sand and rock and xerophytic, scrubby vegetation. Of course, as with most trail runs, there is the obligatory drive along kilometres and kilometres of gravel farm road which never seem to come to an end. But they do eventually and then you find yourself in a new little world, away from cars and the stress of living in the city. Away from the noise of the neighbours….well for some of us, that is! Away from “the real world”. I looked at the people who are lucky enough to call this little world their “real world” and I thought how fortunate they are to be able to do that. I don’t know if you’ve been feeling it too, lately, but the world seems to have gone mad. It’s almost like we have replaced the blood in our veins with venom. We are on constant high alert and we’re suspicious of everyone. It’s just not natural. For the past year or so it has felt like we’ve been spinning into the centre of our own self-made vortex and something cataclysmic is going to happen which will spit out the small pieces of those of us still living. And so this little Fairview Farm in the middle of the Karoo which seems to go on and on and on and on brought a moment of peace and escape from “the real world”.
The Karoo desert, a semi-desert, is a place of extremes. Searing hot temperatures in the day and freezing cold, fire-worthy nights. Howling winds in some places and peaceful silence in others. Lormar stud farm located on Fairview Farm, owned and run for four generations by the van der Merwe family, is home to sheep, cattle, turkeys, chickens and horses. The farm is bordered on the south by the Sneeuberg mountains. That name was all I needed to hear to know that, even though those people were lucky to live there, I would never be living in something named after snow! The farm is home to a herd of Arabian horses and world-renowned Arabian endurance horses have been bred there. Portraits of some of the family’s favourite horses peppered the dining hall, along with a large happy portrait of one of the patriarchs of the family, the most recent of whom died sadly last year just after the 2017 Lormar event. The pain of the family’s loss was still evident and regular reference was made to Piet van der Merwe’s passing last year throughout our weekend of events.
You know, I’m night blind. Not night blind enough to not be able to drive at night, but I can’t see at night. I never enter night races because it’s not really fun running when I can’t see. I’ve also had very little luck with head lamps and I find I am constantly having to buy batteries which are just terrible for the environment. Through some strange events, I was entered into Lormar Endurance trail run which is made up of two stages: 1 x 8km Night trail run on the Saturday night and 1 x 24km trail run on the Sunday….in the desert….in the day…..in Spring. Let me try and remember who it was that entered me into such a stupid endeavor. *thinking* I started to panic because a night trail run. What the hell? The events company sent us a mail a short while ago, advertising stadium quality headlamps with rechargeable battery packs, at a discount just for race-goers. So I bought one and started training with it. Extreme Lights were not joking when they invented this thing. I’m sure there should be laws about running with it because it could blind a truck driver 20 kilometres away! I was pleased. The first hurdle navigated, I started to worry about the distance and the pack. I hadn’t been training with a hydration pack, I’d only recently started training at all and now I was going to run 24kms on trail in the desert in Spring. *thinking* And then my vortex got in the way. Several things on top of one another had me either out of time or just out of energy to train for such a big distance, so I squeezed in two 15km road training runs, run with my hydration pack, the weekend before Lormar! I have trained less for more, so I felt ready. It is quite laughable how little I had trained for this race, but I had already resigned myself to just going for the experience and to enjoy the peacefulness of the Karoo and to walk a long hike if necessary. What I have been very good about, however, is going to the biokineticist once a week, doing the programme he gave me once or twice a week at the gym and rolling and stretching every single day. I can almost sit upright now with my legs in front of me. Don’t laugh! It’s a thing. I explained it in “Yoga Schmoga”. So although I’m not fit and I’m not fast, I am quite strong now and I’m able to use muscles which had theretofore been unutilized for anything I had ever done. And I was largely pain free. You don’t know how much that means to me to be running largely pain free. It’s been a tough vortexy year to eighteen months, I tell you.
I knew nothing about anything about this weekend. EP had entered me *aha* when given someone else’s entry. EP had made all the accommodation bookings, EP had planned the trip. EP had done everything. All I did was pack a bag of running clothes and a warm top for the cool Karoo evenings as instructed by the event organisers. I forgot my gaiters, which is a very stupid thing to forget when you’re running a trail run in the sand and rock and xerophytic, scrubby vegetation of the Karoo. I also forgot that it’s only early Spring and the Karoo. Luckily, the goodie bag for the event contained a pair of calf length socks and EP had ordered a lovely pair of pink ankle-length socks with some of the money going to a worthy charity when I’d been entered. I was told to be at the start of the night run at 6.30….I think. I really just followed the herd, so to speak.
The night run was lovely, commencing with a running of the Arabian horses.
I was one of the first to switch on my stadium headlamp, lighting the way for many of my fellow runners from early on. My eyes were fixed on the light in front of me, hoping that I didn’t throw myself head first into the person in front of me because I didn’t see them. For the first bit, I ran with Francis and told her I would not be able to maintain the swift pace she had set. Soon after that we became separated and I wasn’t sure if she was in front or behind me. I’m not sure where we ran. I didn’t know where I was most of the time. What I do know after the Sunday run is that I am very grateful that we were running at night. If I had seen the last two kilometres of that route stretched out in front of me like it did on Sunday, I swear I would have given up. I ran a really good strong race on Saturday night and I finished happy that I had done my best and saved very little for the following day. I had no idea how I was going to manage 24km the next day. I had run a 5km Parkrun, walked 3kms to the Parkrun from the car, walked 1km and ran 2km from the Parkrun to the car and now I had run my level best 8km with no clue and no sense of self-preservation. That distance on that Saturday was further than I had run in one week for months, notwithstanding my two training runs the week before! And the next day I would do another 24km. Okay, so no gin and tonic for me then. I’d have to at least get some sleep in preparation for the day. Sleep would have been possible, had it not been -2° that night and of course I’d brought just a warm top for those “chilly Karoo evenings”. Listen Lormar! Next time, maybe a little warning that it gets freezing cold at night would be a kind gesture. Added to that, the rooster! There’s a rooster there that is still on British Summer Time and that fucking thing started crowing at 3am right outside our window. And it just went on and on and on and on. I resolved to, after the race, drive to the nearest town, buy some Nando’s sauce and cook him for supper! But I can’t hurt animals so…mxm! I thought someone else was bound to oblige because many people were cursing that rooster on Sunday.
The start was cold on Sunday, but I get hot quickly so I was dressed in shorts and a little top with my hydration pack. The hydration pack was prepared for a reasonably warm 24km long run which should be about 3-4 hours considering I was planning on walking most of it, my being so very undertrained and all. Francis had lent me her gaiters from the previous night’s run so I was feeling a bit better about that. We went off and were soon heading up a very steep hill. I tried to run a lot of it, but I was tired. The year’s tiredness seemed to descend on me on that hill and I walked more than I had hoped. Then the hill got steeper and harder to climb and I found myself pushing my legs via my quads into the ground with my hands to get myself up the next layer of rock. It was starting to get very hot and I knew the first water point was only at 6kms, about 4kms from the current trudgery. Soon after we summited this hill (it wasn’t the top top of the hill, but it was a good look out point), several people stopped to take pictures of the view and I realized a very steep technical descent was upon us. I took the opportunity to get in front of as many people as possible because I love those bits and I knew many other people would be fraidy catting their way all the way down the hill. I passed many people. Many people. I was polite and asked them if I could pass on their right when they got a chance and most people let me pass. Some were stubborn, but eventually, they surrendered to their fear and let me pass when they got a chance! Then there was a technical undulating stretch in a gully at the back of the hill which was slightly technical but very runnable. And then. Then the run opened out onto a large, flat, runnable plain. My enthusiasm waned and I began walking. The entire pack of people I had just passed on that hill came past me like a herd of antelope on the move. I felt like they ran right over me with little concern for the fact that I was alone on this desert plain with the sand and rock and xerophytic, scrubby vegetation of the Karoo. They disappeared. I walked. Trudged. I attempted to run, but it seemed like a crazy mammoth task, this running thing, so I walked some more. The windpomp (windmill) appeared and I knew that would be the first water point. I turned in there and some friends who had come along for the experience greeted me. I was still feeling good. I had a drink of the fresh windpomp water and headed off again. The split for the 12km race and the 24km race was at this water point. I know! There was a 12km race and no-one bothered to offer me that option!!! *thinking* Do you even love me at all? All those antelope that had run over me on the ugly Karoo plain headed off to the 12km finish and I turned onto the 24km route. The rest of the day would be spent alone with occasional interventions from other lonely runners.
That Karoo desert certainly goes on. Schalk reminded me of that as he ran up to me on a very dreary piece of the desert which was now heading towards the searing side of things. He commented somewhat out of frustration and somewhat out of resignation as he passed my trudging self, that “Wil net nie ophou nie”. This is difficult to translate into English because the direct translation of “Just doesn’t want to stop”, doesn’t really capture the meaning of what he said to me that day. There are a lot of things in the Karoo that wil net nie ophou nie. Schalk and I went forward together for some time. Sometimes he was in front, sometimes I was in front. And then, on a slightly easy downhill, while heading towards a herd of cows and the second water point, the most magnificent sight engulfed us. Schalk called out and pointed to the right. There from out of the sunshine came a herd of between 10 and 20 Arabian horses. They were magnificent and they were free and running wild. They turned sharply at the cows and headed towards Schalk and myself. We stood there, awestruck. They sped past, their athleticism seething from every pore in their bodies. They looked free. They sounded free. They felt free. They were running not because they had entered and they should go forward because it was further to go backwards to the start. They were running because they were born to run and they were free to run. And they ran. And ran and ran and ran. Schalk looked up the hill at me and shouted, “All worth it!” It was. All the searing heat I had endured, the loneliness, the frustration. All that we had endured….and were to endure….was worth it for that moment in our lives. I cried. I was quite overwhelmed by their beauty and their freedom. I hate that we harness animals for work or worse, for sport. I hate seeing people ride horses. I hate watching horses jump over things with people on their backs. I hate that jockeys hit horses to make them run. I hate that we humans hammer shoes into horses’ feet “to protect them”. I think it’s monstrous. I loved seeing those horses free. I realise that they’re probably not as free as the horses in Kaapsehoop that roam the environment free, because these are bred to be sold to other people that will force them to race for them. I get it, but on that day, in that moment, in that place, they were free and they were doing what free, wild horses will do. It was wonderful.
At the water point, Schalk and someone who I just refer to as Cape Town because I never got his name, marveled at our fortune in having seen that sight. Then we walked off together basking in our collective joy. At some point, I suggested that we were on a reasonably runnable section and we should run. It was strange. I think none of us really wanted to start running because it would mean heading off into the lonely desert alone again, whereas here, we had a couple of kindred spirits with whom to pass the kilometres. But we started running together. At some point I had looked up toward the mountain I had been warned of the day before. I saw a gorge that went up to the top of the mountain and surmised that we would not be able to go up that way because it seemed too steep and pathless. And then I tried to figure out where we would go up. We ran along and slowly turned back towards that too steep and pathless gorge. The hill to the gorge was rocky and steep. My back started to ache and I took my pack off. I started a run 200 paces, walk 100 paces strategy partly to forget about the pain and partly to ensure that I ran as much as I could. Schalk passed me as we headed into the gorge that was not fit for human consumption. I was walking with my pack in my hand, but as I arrived at the first climb into the gorge’s rocks, I realized that I’d be needing both my hands for this part of the “run”. Lol. Road runners would probably not understand the concept of requiring one’s hands for any particular part of a run! I’d be needing my back too, but I just had to put that pain in my pocket for some other time.
For the next two and a half kilometres we would ascend 270m of altitude. It was frighteningly steep and difficult. I cried a few times. Whenever I cried, I would look up and Schalk was there with his hands on his knees, on the verge of tears himself. It’s a funny thing, really. There were times when I felt I would never be able to complete this climb. There were times when I felt it was too hard and I couldn’t do it. But looking back, it seems irrational to think like that because 1. There were no dead people lying around so other people had been able to do it and 2. The organisers wouldn’t want people to die, right? Right? But at that time, it just seemed so impossible and so impassable. So I cried. I also once cried out, “I can’t do this.” But then there was no easy way of getting down, so I just carried on. It made me laugh at myself and my petulant whine. I saw Schalk posing for a picture with his hands on his knees (I don’t think he was posing so much as just near dead) I cannot wait to see that picture because I am in the background with my pack in my hand, scowling at the mountain! I had taken my pack off again at some point because my back was screaming, “I can’t do this,” louder than me. Once at the top, I attempted a pose for the camera and then assumed Schalk’s hands on knees pose because it was the only plausible way to be upright at that point. Then I shared a laugh and a nice smile with the photographer and I went and got some juice from the water point. There was an array of treats at the water point, but I didn’t want anything. I had enjoyed a Pace & Power Soutie biscuit and a Pace & Power Jooblet (I love those things) half way up the gorge to make myself feel better so I didn’t really feel like eating anything else.
We had been told at race briefing that after that hill, it was downhill all the way with a steep technical section just over the top of the mountain. It was. There were a few kilometres of switchbacks and I was reminded of my bucket list wish to run up Alpe d’Huez. This was not road like Alpe d’Huez, however. This was loose steep, sharp uneven gravel and rock. It was incredibly technical and I only figured out how to really run it half way down. You have to totally engage your core to run it and once I harnessed what Oarabile, the biokineticist, had been trying to get me to do the past few months, I ran the last bit quite easily. By now, it was 11am and the sun was baking me and the surrounding Karoo. I was almost out of water and EnduraPower juice. I had been smart by not filling my pack to capacity because I knew my back would not be happy. But now, with the sun baking down and my not really knowing how much further or longer I would be out in the desert, I started to sip sparingly. I started to get a pain in my rib cage which appeared when I ran and then, if I held my chest tight with my hands and deep breathed while walking, it seemed to ease it. I got to the bottom of Alpe d’Huez with still 6 or 7km to go. It just seemed to go on forever. My back pain had been replaced by rib pain.
My legs were tired. I had promised myself several times that I would just walk the rest of the way, but there’s this idiot inside me that will run. So I switched to my 200 run 100 walk strategy again and that worked well. While I would walk, I would hold my rib cage together. As I neared the road that I had run on the previous night with just over 2km to go, there sat Wilson in the Karoo heat, directing us to the finish. I asked him if he spoke English or Afrikaans. He told me Afrikaans. I asked him, “Wilson, kan ek ‘n drukkie kry asseblief?”. He was quite taken aback by this very strange, old, bedraggled lady asking for a hug, but his face broke into a gorgeous smile, he jumped up, opened up his arms and gave me a wonderful hug. And with my love tank all filled up, he waved me on to the finish, promising it was only about 2 or 3 kilometres to the end. It was. But oh my word, that long, boring, dreary desert road almost crushed my spirit.
Until I realized. I realized that I was still strong. Of course, I had just done something quite hectic, so I was a bit sore and a bit depleted. But there I was. Not dead. Not last. Not crying all that much. Not kicking stones. How amazing! I was strong. I was not doing my usual Quasimodo impression. I was following my walk run strategy without wailing when I had to run. How far I’d come from not being able to walk up and down stairs just a few months ago. I can be really proud of the consistency I’ve had in my strength training and rolling and stretching. I am. Of course, I could probably be even prouder if I had done some actual running training for this, but I’ve picked the high value exercise and done what I could to get and keep strong. Sometimes it’s just about doing as much as you can with the time and money that you have available and forgiving yourself for everything else. I finished that race still strong. I could have managed another 5km if you’d told me to, and I was pleased with that. I had seen some really beautiful things that day and I’d overcome some interesting challenges. Sometimes the spirit wil net nie ophou nie.
I had finished the challenge well, not realizing that my biggest challenge was still coming.
We ate lunch, drank a few Hope Gin and tonics (I can really recommend the Salt River gin from Hope), had a nap and then we were herded onto tractors for a sundowner in a secret location. The tractor ride there was exciting and dangerous and I sometimes found myself hanging onto the tractor with my butt muscles! The band, Bad Peter, were excellent and loads of fun. The lead singer had impossibly white teeth. The whole thing was just so lovely.
When it was time to go back on the tractors, EP, Illuminati Michelle and I got onto a different tractor that only really had standing room left. I didn’t think I had the muscle tone left to ride the moving tractor over this bumpy terrain like a surfer! EP, Illuminati Michelle and I looked at each other, very concerned about the imminent falls we were about to have. EP has torn foot ligaments, so standing was just not an option. EP sat down on the floor of the tractor. My knees were just not going to do that. Lol. Falling flat on my face was a more attractive prospect than bending down to sit on the floor of the tractor trailer. Hahahaha! Bernard and Judy offered Michelle and I their knees for us to sit. Illuminati Michelle and I sat gingerly on their knees in a semi squat because we were too nervous to put our entire weight on their legs. And so began the great squat challenge at Lormar! That tractor ride went on and on and on and on. Then, just when you thought it would come to an end, we went over a crazy bump in the road, Bernard and Judy called out in pain as their backs slammed against the tractor side. Illuminati Michelle and I felt bad so we upped the ante on our squat game and hovered slightly more gingerly over their knees. When the tractor finally came to a standstill, we stood up and thanked Bernard and Judy, but both of our legs were shaking. Bernard and Judy must think we weigh next to nothing. The two of us, in an attempt to not offend or hurt other people, had squatted for in excess of 20 minutes! Oarabile would be so proud, but I’ll never tell him, because his squat torture would just be dialed up after that! Thank you for your knees, Bernard and Judy! The only pain I have today is quad pain!
And that was it. A good old-fashioned farm supper, followed by a good night’s sleep, interrupted only by the British Summer Time rooster at 2.55am, and we started our journey all the way back to Joburg. It didn’t go on and on and on as I had anticipated and we had enough snacks to keep even EP entertained.
The human body is an amazing machine. Here I am, heading towards 50 years old, a grandmother to one and two halves (they’re coming in November and December) and I am still able to do almost unachievable things with my body. I am stronger and my body is more resilient than ever before and I’m getting stronger every week. Simply amazing! The human body is nature’s finest creation. Thank you God for this gift of a healthy, strong body. I can’t wait to do more amazing things with it. Kaapsehoop is coming!
Thank you to all the lovely friends with whom I shared this little weekend. Well done to Illuminati Michelle for winning the shorter version of the challenge on her first trail run without proper trail running equipment! She really is something quite spectacular! Thank you God for the lovely Karoo and the beautiful Free State. We live in an incredibly beautiful country. I love exploring it with EP. Can’t wait for more!
Yours in the love of running and things that wil net nie ophou nie.