It’s around 3am in the morning and I’m alone on the trail without another runner in sight. Rosie Carey reflects on her first 100-mile trail race
It’s around 3am in the morning and I’m alone on the trail without another runner in sight. My headlamp casts a weak circle of light on the ground in front of me, but it is swallowed up by the complete darkness of the surrounding bush. Above me the sky is vast, the stars piercing pinpricks. Echoes of animal calls I can’t identify haunt the night. Gingerly I take a step forward and the 2 sets of eyes reflecting the light of my torch move forward towards me. I step back again, but the eyes keep moving closer to me. A pair of black-backed jackals. According to race briefing, we are not supposed to worry about them; they are supposed to move out of our way as we run past. But this pair seems very determined not to let me pass. In fact, I’m starting to worry that they’ve decided I’m dinner. I’ve been running since 2pm the previous afternoon but this is the first time I actually wonder what the hell I’m doing running this race.
I entered the Addo 100 miler on a whim (as one does, because anyone who actually gave it any real thought wouldn’t enter). The race page popped up on my Facebook page at a time when I was at my most vulnerable: I hadn’t been able to run for two months because I’d stood on a loose rock and torn all the ligaments in my right ankle; everyone around me seemed to be running or riding THE MOST EXCITING RACE EVER; and my husband was fitter and stronger than he had ever been (while I was feeling like an overweight sloth). So I pressed the ‘Enter Now’ button and entered. It took about a month for the reality of what I’d done, to dawn on me. To be fair, it didn’t dawn on me. It hit me like a ton of bricks falling on my head. 100 miles. 161km. What in the name of every deity in history had I done? The longest distance I had run up until then was 106km, which is a whole lot shorter than 160km, and that had been over a year before. I had absolutely no idea how I was even going to begin training for a 100 mile run. I had a find a solution, and fast because it was already mid-November and Addo was on 10 March.
While I was searching the internet for generic 100 mile run training plans (don’t bother: there aren’t many), I happened to remember that a runner I’d met a couple years before during the Wildseries Golden Gate trail run did some coaching. The only problem was that he was based in Johannesburg and I am in Durban. I sent him a very desperate-sounding message asking him if he’d be able to coach me online. Neville must have taken pity on me, because he agreed and within a week I’d started training properly. I should probably add here that I am not an easy runner to coach: I have very limited time (I’m a mother to two boys and work as a general practitioner) and I also mountain bike (and I wasn’t willing to give that up), so my program had to be very specifically engineered around my needs. As if that isn’t enough, I also have a bad habit of entering races at the last minute- I entered Sani Stagger a couple of days after Neville started coaching me- but somehow Neville managed to work around my craziness (he is very patient) and worked out a program that fitted into my lifestyle.
Bizarrely, I actually enjoyed the training. I did three weekends of long back-to-back runs, but because of the rest days incorporated into the program, I never once felt tired. Having a coach means reporting back to someone and so I managed to restrain myself from racing runs that I was supposed to be using as training runs and, despite the relatively high mileage I was doing, I didn’t get injured or sick. In fact, by the time that I flew down to Port Elizabeth for the race, I felt really ready to run. I can only describe it as having the knowledge that I had reserves in my legs.
The Addo 100 miler starts at 14h00 and the first forty kilometers are relatively quick. By dusk I had settled into an easy rhythm and the kilometers were flying by. I was on the top of a grassy plateau, surrounded by golden-green rolling hills as far as my eye could see, as the sun set and the almost-full moon started rising and I swear that there was magic in the air. This was more than a run; it was an experience, a journey more for my soul than my body.
I had been nervous about the night running but the three training runs that I had done in the dark had prepared me well and the transition to night hardly affected my pace. Most of the time I was running alone and I did start looking forward to the water tables just for some company…and boy were the water tables good! The rangers manning the water tables were incredibly supportive and friendly and the food was…well, lets just say that I didn’t touch the 3kg of food that I had stuffed into my already very heavy hydration pack.
So all was going well (I even managed to remain calm after spotting hippo spoor) until the Jackal encounter. I reached over my shoulder and pulled out a trekking pole hoping that it might double up as a weapon but the jackals showed no sign of retreat. In desperation I picked up a stone with my other hand and then realized it would be pretty useless since I couldn’t even hit a tree from two meters away in broad daylight. I dropped the stone and fled. After what felt like about an hour (but was probably about 10 minutes) at last I spotted the light from the headlamp of another runner. If I had been able to see his arms, I would probably have run into them. Very kindly, he tried to disguise his laughter as a cough and needless to say, the jackals scattered as we ran past them.
I reached the medical check (around 113km in) as the sun was rising. I was still in good spirits and, after having a cup of tea, my blood pressure taken and my GPS checked, I set off into the dreaded Valley of Tears. I had reached it well ahead of the time I had expected to reach it but was expecting to slow down a lot as we had been warned about the difficult terrain in the race briefing. They had not exaggerated the need for an accurate GPS and I spent a lot of the 17km of that section walking, eyes glued on the Garmin in my hand just to find the path. Even with my Garmin, I still managed to go off course a couple of times. The 17km of Valley of Tears took me 3:22, which was actually quicker than I had expected since we had been warned that it could take up to 7 hours. I was still running alone at that stage and was glad, soon after exiting the Valley of Tears, to hook up with the 76km and 44km runners, just to see some other human beings.
At 150km, I thought I was well on schedule to finishing in less than 24 hours. Boy was I wrong! The temperature had soared and in places was registering 48 degrees on my Garmin, and I was starting to feel the effects of having been awake for 23 hours. I slowed down to a walk and then a shuffle until eventually I was hobbling from patch of shade to patch of shade. At times I was so dizzy that it was only by using my trekking poles to balance me that I stayed on my feet. I reached 160km and started counting down in 100meter intervals in order to motivate myself to get to the end. I visualized my husband and sons waiting for me at the finish. I pictured jumping into an extremely large, icy cold pool. I imagined downing a cold Windhoek lager. 300m...200m…100m…161km came…and went. What kind of sadist would do this to me? I don’t think that 1km has ever felt so long. Eventually I spotted the finish-line banners and collapsed through the finish onto a huge, soft, pink beanbag from which I planned never to rise. I had done it. I had run 100 miles. And I had done it in 5 hours less than I had planned to. I will admit that a few tears found their way down my dust-stained cheeks.
I entered my next 100 miler a couple of days later. Yes, I know, I’m a sucker for punishment…
During the first few kilometers of the run, I had the honour of running with a man who was running his 35th 100 miler (that’s not a typo- you read it correctly) and I asked him what advice he could give me. He gave me two gems: he told me to run my own race, at my own pace, and to stick to the shade wherever possible. The advice was invaluable. What advice/tips would I give newbie 100 miler runners (from one newbie to another)?
- Find someone who has run the race before and ask them their advice
- Find yourself a coach so that you get to the race prepared enough and, more importantly, rested enough.
- Try to train in conditions similar to those you will encounter in the race. I was very glad I’d trained at night and in the heat of midday.
- Get your nutrition and hydration strategy right on training races and stick to it. All my nutrition and hydration plans fell by the wayside when I was exhausted and overheated and it was to the detriment of my race.
- Practice throwing stones at targets.
- Above all else, remember that you chose to enter the race. Nobody forced you to. Smile and enjoy it.
See results here