Archive: A back marker on a 4-day (120km) endurance run

Over the past weekend (Nov 2015), I had the incredible pleasure of being a back marker in a four day journey through the Namaqualand, in an event that shaped, altered and confirmed many perceptions that I hold. From running with Green-number Comrades finishers, to finding small victories in subjectivity that excite you beyond reason.

When family and friends ask me how it went. My answer is simply this. The Namaqua Quest four day Trail run is difficult. There is no place for over-the-top adjectives in my description thereof. It would do unto the experience an injustice. For me, as a back marker in this race, it has re-calibrated the words ‘difficult’ and ‘rewarding’.

Day one

We started as ninety eager participants in a prologue stage that would introduce us to the kind of running that we would experience over the following three days. Standing on at the start of an unfathomable 120km race is unnerving, to say the least. My mind was going at a hundred miles an hour, thinking of strategies to conserve energy for the rest of the race, but also avoid coming last. I had few goals and in order of priority, these were: 1) Finish all four days; 2) Start slow, finish strong; 3) If it becomes apparent that the day is in the bag, conserve energy for the next day; 4) Try to do at least one position better than last place, given the limits of priority three.

I met my “endurance partners” on the very first day. These two incredible people, not only saw to it that I would make it through the first day, but also the second. This couple had finished 10 and 11 Comrades Marathons respectively, so for me as novice in the stage racing arena, and never having done a Comrades Marathon, their pace quickly became the upper limit at which I would cap my zeal.

I finished in overall 61st position on day one, knowing I was safely home in front of a lady, with whom I came dead last in the Theuniskraal 25km Trail Run, just two months prior. I was not last.

Day one results however, quickly wiped the smirk of my face, as I realized that I came 13th out of 13 starters in the Senior Men’s category. I was in fact, last. This also-ran competitor, did not take it well, especially given the fact that I was beaten, by only a minute, at a time of 03:27:26.

We enjoyed the lunch and dinner served by the Namaqualand locals, whose incredible “boerekos” and generous servings were the fuel that kept the race collective going and well nourished.

This evening I would contemplate my strategy for day two, the longest of the four days, at 39km. I was apprehensive. Day one did not go well. I was doubting my 1172km of training since mid-February. I rued my obvious lack of any appreciable distance running talent and added to that, my weight of 101kg and the fact that I was easily among the top 5 least experienced runners at the event.

A comment by a top 20 finisher changed my perspective slightly. “If you are not having fun, what is the point?”. I realised that I can either be a 6min/km athlete, or an athlete that enjoys the adventure, but that I could not be both. I tried my best to relax and figure out how to enjoy the remaining three days.

Day Two

I awoke at 23h00, on the evening of the first day, and every hour thereafter due to a reoccurring nightmare that I had overslept the start of the second day by 5 hours and I couldn’t find my headlamp, as I would now be finishing in the dark.

By 05h00, I had grown tired of this dream and I accepted the fact that I can no longer procrastinate in my sleeping bag and tent, but that I had to face the gloomy weather that was making the recognisable sounds of raindrops against the western border of my “two-man” world of familiarity and relative comfort.

I got onto the second bus that would transport us to the top of the mountain where we would start the route on day two. I did not know which direction we had travelled, or how long we’d been travelling for. By the time the bus came to a halt, the apprehension had turned into full-fledged damage control mode. “Just take it slow” I said to myself. “Prepare yourself mentally for eight hours on the track” I repeated. “Stick to your strategy!”.

A little misinterpretation of the weather situation and a last minute gear swap had me start about 45 seconds after the last participant and the sweeper crossed the starting line. Interesting. I would now have to run from dead last. The sweeper at that point was not even aware of me.

It took forever to catch up with the sweeper and the last lady, who on that morning was doing a brisk pace for a Master Female, who had turned Grand Master Female, on this very day.

By the time I reached the river valley, which would stretch for about 9km upriver, I was yet again running with familiar faces. I fell into a train of participants, all of whom I had met and spoken to on day one. It had taken only 12km to catch up the 45 seconds I had lost at the start. I felt proud and it was the first small victory that would be a sign that things might be turning in my favour. I felt stronger than the pace we were going at and from experience running with my mother, a sign that I have transcended into that Goldilocks Zone, where I was both doing a good pace and conserving energy. Spot on with my strategy. I kept eating every hour, drinking every 30 minutes and easily keeping up at the back of a seven-man train on its way to water point 2.

Water point 2 on day two was the turning point that would shape the outcome of my adventure for good. I had my second small victory. I found it in the agony expressed on the face senior male #12. It is then when I realised that he’d run out of juice, the very same juice that I had used wisely and sparingly thus far.

I left water point 2 with Comrades’ 10 and 11, leaving behind four of the seven in the train, and most importantly for me, senior male 12, at water point 2. We were at kilometre 23 and we had 16 still to go. With deeply personal conversations between myself and Comrades 10 and 11 dominating the race-time discussions, the mileage seemed to just fly by.

The time between water point two and three was the best running stretch I had in all four days. It is here, where all three of us (my endurance partners and I) knew we were experiencing a day of invincibility. One of those days where you simply know that, irrespective of what will happen down the road, this day belongs to you. I even had the time to meet and have a brief conversation with the proprietor of water table three, who turned out to be practically my neighbour in Pretoria. We settled on a date for tea and/or wine and we left for home. 9km to go.

Easy does it, all the way home in 06h49. All three of us, finishing together. A moment of true achievement, coming in 1h10min under my planned race time, which saw me elevate to a majestic 11th position out of 13 entrants, with male 12 still in 12th spot and one Senior Male, either not starting or not finishing on day two. Male 12 came home in last place, in just over eight hours. He was supported, congratulated and motivated by everyone, as he is a kind and genuine man. I congratulated him with sincerity, as I could see in his face, he’d been through a seriously tough day. I know, I have been there. All of us have been there at some point in our lives. I was sincerely proud of him and so was everyone else. Seeing him limp away from the finish, I knew that he was no longer my direct competition. Male 11 would now become the focus of my inherent competitive side and although he was ahead by 1h10min after day two, having had such a great day, I was hoping that my training would pay off on day three as it did on day two.

Day Three

I awoke on day three, having slept well on day two, and ready for the 30km challenge in Goegap Nature Reserve. We travelled there with our own vehicles and assembled at the start. Male 11 was standing next to me and I had secret ambitions to destroy him on this day! Day two had changed me. My entire world now existed between kilometres 0 and 30 of the day three route and I would stick to my strategy, in which I now trusted firmly.

We started out with a climb into the mountain which took around 35 minutes to summit. For the first time in the race I was running with unfamiliar faces. I was concerned, because this could only mean one of two things. Either I got out of the gates way too hot and I was due for a sensational melt-down, or everyone else was having a worse day than I was. I quick introspective inquiry supported the the probability of the former being the case and I tried to slow my pace.

Not long after, on the downhill, Senior Male 11 made his way past me, mentioning something about having a bad day. If he was having a bad day, then I was in trouble. Big trouble. He is an obviously better distance runner than myself and if he was struggling, I ought to have been as well. But I wasn’t struggling. I was taking it easy on purpose. Wasn’t I? He disappeared along with a host of probably 5 others, who all passed me before water point one. I was reminiscing about an 8th grade English lesson, specifically a short story by Herman Charles Bosman called, In the Withaak’s shade. This story is about a man who lies in quite, “intentional paralysis”, to avoid the interests of a hungry-looking leopard sniffing on his foot. Was I intentionally taking it easy, or was I just slowly, behind the fervour of bravado, suffering a slow, unavoidable, decay of from?

At water point one, I caught up with Comrades 10 and 11, and we ran together for a short while. I felt strong, and when they assumed a timed walk once more, I carried on with my little shuffle, which at this point was becoming a familiar and comfortable rhythm to me.

I had a serious energy dip between water point one and two. I’d caught up with a Unfamiliar Veteran Couple, who, at that point, I had never previously seen during race hours, and they looked like pros to me. Up ahead was Senior female 11 who on day two, beat me to the finish by three quarters of an hour. At this point it is impossible to account for what happened to my apparent energy dip, as once past the unfamiliar couple, I passed Senior Female 11 on my way to water point two, which was not that far away.

At water point two, only four kilometres out from the finish, I saw senior female 12 heading off as I arrived, and feeling strong, I made it a short stop and set about chasing down female 12 as my final victim for day three.

I caught up with her about 2km from the finish, as she was running past a walking Senior Male 11. I could not believe my eyes. At that moment, every single muscle pain I had was gone. Any concern about preserving energy for day four, gone. My shuffling had graduated to full blown running and I was flying like I had inhered the legs of a 19 year old track athlete. I ran past him as we approached the final technical climb of the day. Senior Male 11 expressed, with colourful profanity, his disdain for the current experienced in which had been enthralled. This put an extra hop in my stride and I ran, yes, ran, up the climb, and even ran down the other side, past senior female 12, who would go on to finish 11th of the senior females on the day.

I finished 49th on day three. I had beaten male 11 by almost seven minutes and moved up the overall table to 56th position, having finished day two on 58th overall.

In the chill zone, Senior Male 11 was part of social group I had formed part of during the non-running sessions on days one and two and we had many great laughs about the events on day three and the respective experiences of the individuals of the group. Senior Male 11 had had a really bad day, but in true sportsmanship, he laughed at himself with a true appreciation of how such moments in such dire straits, teaches us something meaningful about ourselves. He went on the beat me by 30 minutes on the final day, and by more than an hour and a half over all. Still, on my best day, I really hit my straps and it’s the only day which I averaged under 10 minutes per kilometre.

Day Four

On day four I was eager to finish this quest. I had picked up a minor strain on my right leg that would flair up somewhat on the down hills, but on day four, who didn’t have any niggles? Well, I’ll tell you who. A veteran, with a running resume that boasts a total of more than 58,000km in a thirty year running career, including achievements such as six-day circuit races. If you do not know what these are, I too was uneducated, but upon learning what it is, I was simply dumbfounded that this is even a thing, and moreover, that this Veteran runner was a finisher, on several occasions, I believe. So except for the Veteran Terminator, most participants, including the race leaders, had some niggles.

Day four consisted of the toughest route of the four days, by quite a margin. It started with climb that lasted for 1h45min. That is, if you were me. Followed by a downhill, which saw a host of participants with knees, either less tender, or significantly more medicated than mine, leaving me in their dust trail.

The route had a deceiving flat section between the relatively short distance from water point wot water point two, where after, mountain two was the next target. Mountain two, less tough than mountain one, but still tougher than any climb on the previous days by some margin, saw me pass a few familiar competitors. Things were starting to look and feel relatively familiar again.

I wasn’t having a bad day. I was having a slow day, but not a bad day. I kept up my eating and drinking routine and kept putting one foot in front of the other. A shuffle that had developed into an intricate rhythmic synergy with my water-filled back pack as a counter weight. Given the result on day three, I was actually feeling very satisfied with how things were going. I ran the vast majority of the distance on day four, including the technical sections on top of mountain two and most of the way down the technical sections down mountain two and the sections in between. In terms of time, I probably only ran half of the time, if not less, but in distance terms, I proportionally ran more distance than on any the the previous three days.

Mountain three was really only a “koppie” and you start out almost at the top coming down the gully on the other side. From the top, you can see the camping area, you can hear the collective cheers from the organisers, and those who have already made it home. It is then, in the words of Debbie, the race owner and organizer, “you know that you are done with Namaqua Quest”.

I ran 05h07min on the final day. I prepared for six hours, hoped for under five. I ran the last section hard. Very hard, as I wanted to finish strong, feeling like I could do another day. I moved up another position over all, to 55th place. I did not see Comrades 10 and 11 on the final day, nor did I any of the other people I beat on day three. They were in front of me all day. Even so, I did not crumble and I did not have a bad day.

I ran my worst day on day one. I received my medal on day four, like everyone else. I ran a total time of 20h 08 min. I once beat Senior Male 11. I never even saw Veteran Male Terminator on the route. I had extensive existential conversations with Comrades 10 and 11 on the track on day 2. I did not finish last in the race, nor my age category. I shook hands with the man that came first, and I congratulated the last man in. I saw the leading man from days 1–3 sincerely asking around the group, whether or not Senior Male 12 had finished on day two, and started day three. I saw disappointment on the faces of the leading athletes. I saw agony. I saw elation.

Namaqua Quest 2015 had been difficult. It was supposed to be difficult. If it were easy, everyone would do it.