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What I learnt running through the desert

What I learnt running through the desert

Spending 27 hours on a straight road through a desert gives you plenty of time to think about what and why you are doing what you are doing, what you should have done differently and then what you wish you were doing. The latter always includes a vast feast and, in this case, an ice-cold plunge pool.  At times the hours and kms seem to drag on tediously and when running against a headwind of +30km/h it sometimes feels as though you are exerting so much energy yet barely making progress. That’s when I had my lightbulb moment during the Tankwa Crossing - how often do we keep repeating the same insane patterns hoping that things will be different, and yet they stay the same and we just stay stuck. Exerting masses of energy to try change the situation or move forward, but we just seem to stay in the same rut.

What I have learnt above all is that everything we do takes courage. It calls for us to step outside of what we know or what feels comfortable and take a step, whether it’s for a cause we believe in, wanting to change our situation, as simple as saying no to someone. With courage you will always move forward, regardless of whether it’s a giant leap or a tiny step.

So, onto the practical side of things because in all fairness, it takes a bit more than courage to run 207km across the karoo desert in the middle of summer with temperatures reaching 47 degrees Celsius. It takes a flipping hard head, grit, determination, and grace. Yes grace! Grace to say:” I think I need to walk this section” even when you know the leading man is less than 1km ahead of you.

The race started relatively easy. It even felt fun! I ran the first 20km or so with my good friend and DGT partner-to-be Amri Williamson. We chatted a lot but,  her pace was a bit faster than I had planned as she was doing the 107km so I backed off and was running by myself for some time. As dusk came so my sense of humour disappeared. I began feeling quite lethargic as the melatonin of my usual 8pm bedtime routine increased. Just then Herman Mulder appeared, he had struggled a bit in the heat but had made up time as the temperatures cooled. We ended up running and chatting throughout the entire night section. We spoke about our communities and ways we could possibly make a difference to communities most in need. These are the types of conversations that fuel and drive me. We spoke about the latest book I have been listening to “A manifesto for a moral revolution” by Jacqueline Novogratz and how we sometimes feel our small contributions to the world don’t make a difference but that every one of us can change someone’s life even if only by a small act of kindness. I was very grateful for the deep conversations which refuelled my soul tank, ready to take on the long day ahead.

As the sun was rising, I could feel my body perking up and the energy levels rising. I felt optimistic and in a good head space, my parents were delighted with my cheery disposition (unknowingly for them this did not last forever). I had the great privilege and honour of having my mum and dad crew me on this race which was very special considering the journey we have had over the past 33 years. A lot of ups, downs, hopes, and fears. Nonetheless they stood by me through thick and thin, me the value of unconditional love and this race was no exception.  

At around 12:30pm I reached Tankwa Padstal, the 163km mark. At this point I was feeling depleted and nauseous. I jumped into the plunge pool and changed my clothes and shoes, hoping that the wardrobe change and “bath” would be a quick fix. But running that distance in those conditions takes a lot more than a change of clothes to recharge the batteries.  The going got really tough from that point. Knowing that Johnny Young was just ahead of me kept my ego charging but my legs were not cooperating. Eventually I had to remember the wise words of my coach Linda Doke: “Slow and steady wins the race”. I slowed down to a walk and then that insidious negative self-talk bubbled up telling me I wasn’t good enough and that I was going to fail. I verbalised this to my parents when I next saw them, and they told me to stop sounding like a crazy person and that I was doing well. In those moments I find it hard to not hear that dark voice, it lures me into the self-pity cave. Just then Amri and her two friends come whizzing past in a car, Amri shouting out the window “Come on woman, you are nearly there!” She jumped out the car and started running with me! (Bear in mind this woman had run 107km just 12 hours before this and had come first overall!). My mood lifted immediately! When she could run no further her friend Brigetta took over on her bike, cycling beside me full of great stories!

With just 5km to go, Johnny was just a few 100m ahead of me. Due to the heat, I was struggling to keep anything down apart from a few sips of water. You can have a “nutrition plan” but sticking to it after 20 hours of running is something I’ve yet to master.  My back, feet and calves were throbbing. I knew this was the final push, the one that counts the most - this is where you learn what you are made of. I got my poles out and powerwalked the last few km, my parents and wonderful friends cheering me on even when these smiles were met with a half dusty, brown-toothed smile/grunt. I live for these moments, it’s like those instants when you feel that there is no hope, you’re drowning in despair, and you say a prayer, and just at that moment a miracle happens. Crossing the finish line with my mom and dad beside me was one of the most joyous experiences I have had the privilege of sharing with my parents on this three-decade-long rollercoaster ride. The 207km was symbolic of our journey together. There were times during those years it felt as though we were scrambling over rocks and boulders, not always sure if we would make it over to the other side but somehow we always did, by offering one another a hand when we needed it most. Yes, we didn’t get through unscathed, and we still have the scars to remember the pain but as Khalil Gibran says, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

Every event in my life, whether it is a running race, a relationship with someone I care about or dealing with conflict is teaching me courage.  So, practice courage, it will prepare you for those times when you and the world need it most.

My top tips for ultrarunning through a desert:

  1. So much of what you are going through is in your head – make the journey count or else it’s a suffer fest with no growth. For me I find that it always helps if I know that I am running/suffering for a cause, for something greater than myself and that is why I used this run to raise funds for the Southern Lodestar Foundation, to fund books raising awareness around child abuse and boundaries.
  2. Hydration triumphs nutrition. Using a good electrolyte is key (I used Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes Extreme powder) and as supplemented drinks I used a combination of Maurten, Hammer Perpetuem and Tailwind.
  3. For food, I tried to eat as much real food as possible, like sandwiches, bananas, baby potatoes and watermelon but toward the end I was nibbling on GU chews.
  4. Make sure you are comfortable!!! I knew I was going to have a terrible sock tan but I know I like to wear mid length socks as they don’t drop as I run or accumulate pools of sweat in my shoes. I wore the First Ascent corefit shorts which were amazingly comfortable and cool. And thanks to those shorts, no inner thigh chafe! The ladies Luxor hiking hat was a game changer and I reckon it saved me 10 years plus of ageing on my face and neck! It kept me covered whilst not blowing off (thanks to the draw string) in the 30-40km/h winds. This is my go-to hat for future endurance events. The UV protector sleeves kept my arms protected by from the harsh sun whilst also keeping me cool – I pretty much wore those from midday to the end of the run and was reluctant to take them off – they practically became my security blanket!
  5. Good shoes equal happy feet. I took photos of my feet straight after the race and no one could believe they had just ran 207km. Not a blister in sight. I wore the SAUCONY Endorphin Speed 2 for the first 163km and switched over to the Xodus 10 for the second section as they have great cushioning.
  6. Always smile. What you show on the outside may not always reflect what is going on inside but eventually all that smiling will make you feel happier and encourage those around you to smile too. Remember the seconders, volunteers and pacers are all there for you, to help and give of their time and the least you can do is give them a smile!
  7. Being able to do these events is a privilege, often at the expense of taking away time from family (not only for the races but all those hours spent training) and also financially so I always try be of service to my family and friends when I am back from such an event, making it about them and spending the next two weekends doing what they want to do.