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Cape Town trail runner, Liam Gannon, tackled his first 100 miler at the tough Addo Elephant Trail run recently. Tired and happy after 28 hours he remember the highs and lows …

Cape Town trail runner, Liam Gannon, tackled his first 100 miler at the Addo Elephant Trail recently, and after 18 hours, finished tired but happy ...

The honest (and very long-winded) truth ...
It was 7am on 19 March 2019 and I was desperately trying to go back to sleep. The effects of sleep
deprivation remained largely unknown to me. I had tried to fool myself into believing that if I slept late,
I could bank sleep for the race. I would find out later that this was a pipe dream.

By 11am I was registered, my kit was checked, I had been issued with a race number and I had
committed to zip-tying my drop bag. The next 2 hours were spent making multiple hurried trips to the
car. There was no real point to these trips. I was stuck in a vicious cycle. Put on my pack, take it off, try
on my shoes, take them off, sip some water, eat something small, and put on my pack again. This was
repeated until the time to for the start had lapsed.

After those 2 hours, there is no doubt in my mind that my wife is an extremely patient woman.
Race briefing finally arrived. The brief given to us was a golden thread of wisdom. Sian’s vivid
descriptions of the route and surroundings were invaluable to me when I found myself in the middle of
a nature reserve, at night, trying to establish my location relative to the checkpoints.  Sian’s jokes and
warnings would soon ring loudly in my head as I ran his 100-miler course.

All pics by Richard Pearce   www.richardpearce.co.za

Eventually, I found myself fully kitted up and standing at the start line of the Addo 100 miler. The
countdown took forever and was over in seconds. That is the point when everything changed. Suddenly,
nothing else in life mattered anymore. There was a unified, collective consciousness whereby everyone
was geared towards reaching the same goal. The finish line. This brought us all together as we went
from individual racers to a group of adventurers.

The first 10km were deceptively “runnable” and plenty of the participants obliged despite the intense
humidity (I swear it got hotter from the time we were briefed to the time we started). I decided to take
this section very easy. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the start of an extremely long journey.
From CP 1 onwards, the Addo would slowly show us its teeth. The cute puppy face that was the first
10km to CP 1, quickly started growling at us as we headed for CP 2.

I decided to prevent wasting unnecessary time at aid stations and I believe that this strategy paid off for
me in the long run (ha ha ha “the long run” – the irony). The result of my strategy was that I spent most
of the time on route alone, with my mind and its multiple personalities ...  soon my legs would join the
conversation – so too my feet!

At some stage in a 100-mile race, the distance/time that must still be travelled becomes
overwhelming. The race becomes a journey between CP’s. Well, at least it did for me. After self-
motivating by promising myself ridiculous things such as I would burn my running shoes if I finished; I would
look at my watch, calculate my projected travel time to the next checkpoint, reconcile myself with the
stark realisation of how far it truly was and then I would forget everything, ignore that pain and head out
for that next CP. It is an adventure of CP’s, eventually culminating into an entire race.

 

The CP’s, ah the glorious CP’s ... let us not forget those magnificent places of happiness, support, and
rest. The CP’s were filled with amazing people who had taken time out of their lives to camp along the
route, for us. Their sole purpose – to feed us, hydrate us and motivate us. They fulfilled this task with
perfection. Thank you, thank you, thank you and thank you again! Every single person at every single
CP was amazing and fulfilled a vital role in every racer's experience. You would help me forget the pain,
the hardships, the sleep deprivation and I would smile, if only for a brief moment. All this at a time when
racers are thinking to themselves “Why the hell did I do this to myself”.

There was some extra motivation at the CP’s, perhaps not as “nice” of a motivation, but a motivation
nonetheless. From CP 9 onwards – it would become customary to hear the crackle of the radio as they
called out racers who either had withdrawn from the race, were pulled from the race or were DNF’s.
Whilst no one wants to hear about a fellow racer having to pull out, it was increasingly motivating to
know that you were still there ... you were still alive ... you were still moving forward. Not only did it
help to motivate the journey to the next CP, it also confirmed that the Addo 100 miler is no joke.
Back to the race ...

The journey to CP 2 was spent alongside a true legend of the Ultra Trail distance; Tobie Reyneke.
He is undeniably the most prolific and well-known 100 mile runner in the country (a local record holder
for the most 100 miles ever completed in RSA – 53 after Addo!!!). He was super friendly and very chatty.
I soaked up as much information as I could after asking him for tips for the race. As I left him I recall
shouting, “See you later when you catch me!” in response he looked at me, smiled slyly and said, “I
have gotten very used to seeing people again.” “Challenge accepted,” I thought. Luckily, for me – Tobie
did not catch me again.

 

The journey from CP 2 to CP 4 was the first real taste of what Addo had in store for us. After a
challenging climb away from Camp Fig Tree, we were blessed with the beautiful views and exposure
offered by running the ridge line. Unbeknownst to me, this ridge line would later become the site of some
of the most tortuous running I had ever endured in my life. Nevertheless, for now, the views were
spectacular and I felt the vibe... the good vibe.

Somewhere between CP 4 and CP 6 I passed what I could only assume to be the first victim of the Addo
100 miler. In-between the multiple river crossings, I passed a racer (kitted in “Jim Wamsley” style
Salomon gear) who had clearly succumbed to a serious bout of nausea. When I reached him, he was
buckled over in a sort of yoga-styled standing-foetal position, re-evaluating his life choices. All I could
offer my fellow racer was some Enos, Rehydrate or a sip of an energy drink. He respectfully declined
between heaves and I left him in the dark. He had underestimated the humidity at the start. As cruel as
it might seem, I took motivation from this – if I could make it through such a tough first afternoon, I might
actually be able to finish this race ... I hoped.

CP 6 to CP 11 was some of the most amazing running I had ever embarked upon. Even though it was
all at night, in the pitch dark, with nothing but the beam from my headlamp guiding the way. This was
where I made some of my fondest memories of the race. By now I had been running almost exclusively by myself, save for the odd runner who would pass me,
or who I would pass when I had linked up with two other runners, Paul Freeth and Bakhyt Kabylbekov,
as we all seemed to be running a similar pace. Paul and I immediately got stuck into some serious
conversations about our past – turns out we knew each other from primary school days. The
conversation alone got me through the next 5-6 hours of running. Thank you Paul, what a legend!
Eventually Paul left me in his dust. I had mentioned to him that, based on our current pace, a sub 26-
hour finish was a real possibility for us. Okay, maybe not for me, but definitely for Paul. This comment
seemed to spur him into a new gear and soon Paul left me to live the dream again, alone in the dark, as
he chased the finish time.

Bakhyt was a completely different animal. He was from Kazakhstan (man – I had to try so hard not to
call him Borat) and his English was limited. We had been running “together” since CP 3 – by running
together, I mean we were passing each other maybe every few hours or so. The main memory of him,
the reason he has which stood out for me, happened somewhere around CP 8 or CP 9. Bakhyt caught
up to me and began to repeat a word, which I eventually made out to mean “allergy”. Paul, who was
still with us at this stage, can attest to what happened next.

Bakhyt was asking whether any of us had allergy medication. It was only when I looked up at him and
the light of my headlamp lit his face that I appreciated the reason for his request. Bakhyt’s right bottom
eyelid had swollen out like a mini balloon under his eye. He was unable to explain to us what had
caused this. All we knew was that he was in need of medication. The next few hours were spent by Paul
and I debating the cause, treatment, chances of medication being at the next checkpoint and how long
it would take us to get there. We did not breach the topic of whether Paul or myself were able to perform
an emergency eye-lid amputation. I think it was best that Bakhyt did not completely understand what we
discussing at this time. Luckily, Bakhyt was able to get hold of the required medication at the next CP.
That was when I left him. I did not see him again for the rest of the race and I was overjoyed to see him
marked as finished in the final results.
That swollen eye will live in my memory for a very long time, the shock value alone in the middle of
the night when everyone was exhausted ... priceless.

From CP 10 onwards I again found myself tackling the terrain in the dark and by myself. It was between
these checkpoints that I first began calculating finish times. I was well into the race and I was heading
for CP 11 at 95km’s. This CP was my first real personal milestone in the race. It was drop bag time
and prior to the start I had promised myself that I would get to my drop bag no matter how I felt. I might
have only spent 10-15 minutes at this aid station trying to lighten my pack instead of caring for my feet
(I would come to regret this soon enough)...

The run / walk / crawl from CP 11 to CP 12 was amazing! I recalled from the race briefing that we were
now entering some of the oldest and wildest parts of the park. It was hippo and black back jackal time.
Trust me when I say that the race briefing is not required for you to realise that you are now in the middle
of the wilderness. One needed only to look into the dark bush surrounding the road to see the hundreds
of eyes watching you.

I expected to see this and tried not to be alarmed. After all, we were properly warned about it at the
race briefing. I was totally expecting smallish eyes, close together and near to the ground. These are
what I expected the eyes of little black back jackals watching us from their dens would look like as we
passed.

Unfortunately, I was not so prepared for the eyes which floated from a much higher position off of the
ground. Eyes, which were much bigger than expected and much further apart than anticipated. Eyes
which made an effort to hide behind brush when you focused on them long enough to show the owner
that you had seen them. To this day, I have no idea what owned those eyes, but trust me, that was no
jackal my friend...

Apart from the unidentified eyes, there were other telling signs that we were very far away from
civilisation. Anyone who has owned a pet would know the musky smell that comes with an unwashed
animal, which has spent time outside on a hot day. Now take that “wild animal” smell and multiply it by
100 000. This smell was everywhere and a stark reminder that wild animals surrounded us. Whilst the
smell did not persist, it was most pungent in the area where hippos were a concern. Running along the
Sunday River, near  the black back jackal territories, more signs of hippos appeared. I feel is
appropriate to remind my reader that I was completely alone during this section, unable to see any
headlamps ahead of, or behind, me.

As I ran along the river, approaching FHS, I could clearly see where the brush across / opposite the
river had been damaged by the passing of something massive. There visible “holes” in the thick brush
where I assumed hippos must have pushed through when leaving the river to go and feed at night.
Whilst this was motivation enough to refrain from shining my headlamp into the bushes for fear of seeing
one, there was more to come. At some point, I passed a huge and I mean HUGE pile of fresh animal
scat on the road. I could still see the steam rising from it as I passed by. At the same time, the smell of
wild animals became overwhelming and the air temperature seemed to increase slightly. To this day, I
remain uncertain as to what left that telling and steaming mark, but whatever it was, I could feel its eyes
on me as I passed. I could also smell that it was close, very close, to where I was running. I ran a little
faster until I felt “safe” again.

I then arrived at the famous FSH, in the dark early hours of the morning. Disclaimer – from about 95km’s
every hill is FSH, but this one is particularly brutal (until you need to leave Ellies Tavern for the second
time)...
The darkness was a gift and prevented me from being able to actually see the entire scale of FSH as it
rose before me. It was no easy hill I can tell you that much. So much so, that just referring to it as a “hill”,
seems somewhat insulting to its grandeur. Even thought I could not appreciate the entirety of this hill
due to the darkness surrounding me, I felt every single false summits and steep inclines. They easily
made their presence known in the darkness. I knew I was on FSH and I repented when summiting.
CP 12 marked the start of the next big adventure, trying to get to the infamous Valley of Tears before
the afternoon sun had an opportunity to bake it. First, I had to get to CP 13 and pass the medical check.
The rising sun marked the journey to CP 13. Knowing that I had made it through a full night of running
was, in itself, pure motivation. This was the first time I entertained the thought that I could maybe finish
this race.

My arrival at CP 13 was marked by the barking of baboon troops who sat on either side of the kloof
watching you as you entered. At first, I was comfortable with the thought of the baboons being far up
the kloof. I was so comfortable in fact that I stopped briefly to appreciate my surroundings. Then a
baboon sitting maybe 40 metres from me along the riverbed barked at me. I ran and we never saw each
other again.
I almost missed the medical check. The road to the medical check turned right, whilst the race route
turned left into the Valley. I initially turned left, following the bright orange route markers. Luckily, a
volunteer in a large SUV saw me and shouted at me as he drove past. I was redirected to the medical
check and was thankful that I did not miss this compulsory stop.

The doctor at CP 13 was an amazing person who easily helped me to forget about the pain with his
eloquent conversation and well placed jokes. I remember just talking to him non-stop, so happy to have
a chair and someone to listen to me. Having contact with another human being after being alone in the
dark for the past few hours was refreshing. The entire time that my vitals were being measured I was
trying to focus on not being stressed. Do not raise your heart rate, try to look healthy, show him you can
eat, show him you are properly hydrated. I had been muttering these mantras to myself prior to and
during the medical check. In a matter of seconds, the doctor looked at me and said “well Liam, even if
I wanted to, I cannot stop you from continuing”. With these final words still in my ears, I thanked the
doctor and his team, grabbed a banana and headed off into the Valley of Tears.

The Valley of Tears was brutal and lived up to its name – I swear that it is only the tears of Addo’s
victims, which feed the river down there. I had promised myself that I would do everything in my power
to make it here. When I finally entered, I was arguably the most excited participant at the Addo 100
miler in that moment. I had now run the furthest I have ever run in one attempt, I had been running the
longest I had ever run in one attempt and I was at the door to the infamous Valley of Tears. Life, at that
moment, could not get any better ... then, life got worse.

From the start of the Valley of Tears to the end, I was extremely fortunate. I had caught up to a new
group of runners who seemed super capable and very friendly. I was delirious, just blurting out words
and phrases as if they constituted conversation. They obliged and answered. Later I would find out that
these people were the great Frikkie Pienaar and Warren Douglads – old hands at the 100 mile distance.
These people were two of the most amazing individuals I have ever met. I can only imagine what they
must have thought when they were confronted by my appearance, which probably mirrored that of a
dehydrated, emaciated human being in the final stages of delirium, muttering to himself as he
hobbled along in agony.

By now, the failure to look after my feet in the early stages of the race had caught up with me. My feet
felt like they were one entire blister and they hurt so much that I was unable to run, even at a very slow
pace. In my mind, my feet were doomed and would probably have to be amputated after the race.
“It is worth it! Deal with it when you finish! You did not come here to bail because of a little pain!” I
was now uttering these mantras to myself. The pain in my feet was at a stage where I was too scared
to remove my shoes. I had built it up in my head over the last 5 hours to the point that, in my mind, my
feet were bleeding, broken, blister ridden, and the only thing holding them together were my shoes. At
some stages, the pain became so unbearable that I would pour water into my socks, just to deal with
the hot spots. This was probably the worst thing I could have done at this moment. Regardless, I was
adamant that I would keep trucking, and I did.

In any article or blog or race report concerning distances of 100 miles or more, there will always be a
mention of the ”pain cave”. A metaphor that speaks to the moment in a race where your entire world is
consumed by pain, regret and discomfort. It is the moment where you must decide on whether the finish
is worth the effort. Prior to entering the Valley of Tears, I was deep in my own pain cave.
I am unsure as to when exactly it happened, but at some point whilst negotiating the trail through
Hottentotskloof, I made the conscious decision that no matter how sore it got – I was going to finish this
race. I had beaten what was the most important cut off for me. By now I had completed just over
115km’s and only (ha ha ha “only”) had about 45 km’s to go. These last kilometres would take me at
least another 10-12 hours to finish. I knew this fact and had already accepted it. I cannot describe the
emotions that I went through at this point. All I can say is that I had a mini self-assessment,
acknowledging the excruciating pain I was in, and I had consciously decided that no matter what the
price was that I would pay later, I was going to cross that finish line.

I had every reason to bail, every reason to give into the pain, the nausea, the sleep deprivation, but I
refused. I had a new mantra now. “Just truck it out. This is going to be a long and hard slog. You got
this. You can walk this in and you are still walking. Pain is temporary, memories last forever.”
Back to the Valley and my new found friends. I did not technically run at all from this stage onwards and
I certainly did not run with Frikkie or Warren. I walked the rest of the race, with determination. I walked
as fast and as hard as I could. Frikkie and Warren would disappear into the distance ahead of me,
leading me through Valley of Tears (even if they did not realise it). Only when they would stop for a
break would I catch up to them. Each time I would express my joy at seeing them, which they returned
by expressing their shock at the fact that I was still moving. This pattern continued until the final CP at
153 km, perhaps the most brutal CP of them all.

If there is one principle that I have learnt in long days spent running; a principle, which applies to life in
general, it is that often we are forced to find our own forms of motivation in life. To identify those little,
insignificant moments which we defiantly acknowledge as personal accomplishments. Whilst these
events might seem frivolous to others, they are a cornerstone of our own internal system of self-
acknowledgement. Seeing Frikkie and Warren at the remaining CP’s became mini-moments of self-
achievement for me. Each time I saw them, each time I saw the look of complete disbelief on their faces
at seeing me, I would pat myself on the back and remind myself that I was still moving forward. It was
a confirmation that I would indeed finish the distance, albeit haphazardly and whilst in ever-increasing
pain.

Once out of the Valley of Tears we arrived at Ellies Tavern for a second time. By now, the heat of the
day had settled in and the pain/exhaustion was making its mark. I recall just flopping down on a chair
across from Warren and Frikkie, having water poured over my entire body, watching the 76km runners
complain about the heat, whilst being fanned with torn pieces of water boxes by the amazing people
manning this CP. This was the moment where everyone seemed to realise the gravity of the task that
lay ahead of us. Just the sight of the climb out of Ellies was enough to strike fear into the heart of the
most seasoned of trail runners. It looked like a wall it was so steep, rising above us into the blurry lines
of heat emanating from the gravel road.

The climb out of Ellies was brutal, soul destroying, and invigorating. I have never been so entertained
by my own self-misery. The extent and brutality of this climb helped to give context to what was now
my own internal pity party. I cannot recall how many times I stopped in this hill but it was a lot with 10
metres forward, 10 seconds leaning on my sticks pep talking myself. This was my reality and this would
be the vicious cycle for the remainder of my race.

It was also at this stage that the true carnage of Addo became apparent. From 76 km racers to 100
milers, everyone was suffering, openly. I have tried to explain to friends and family what I saw, but a lot
seems unimaginable to them. Coming up to a bush ,not even 1 metre high and finding someone, curled
up in the foetal position underneath, desperately trying to enjoy whatever shade was made available by
the “bush”. This was the scene from CP 14 to the finish. This was also the scene all along the ridge line
to the final CP at 153km. Bodies lay along the route, beaten into submission by the sun and terrain,
driven by the need to find any means to control internal temperatures. When we reached CP 17 (which
was moved from 149km to 153 km’s) the heat had taken its toll on many. If it were not for the allure of
the famous swimming hole, located at the bottom of our penultimate decent, I fear many would have
given up here.

Frikkie and Warren were still ahead of me at this stage, but still within reaching distance. They led me,
like prophets leading the blind, to the glorious swimming hole. I was so tired and delirious at that stage
that I can barely recall Frikkie having to tell me to dunk myself in the swimming hole. Prior to this, I just
stood knee deep in the water, dipping my fingers, moaning at the searing pain in my feet. It was
wonderful to be able to dunk my entire body into freezing cold water. The shock helped wake you up,
it was invigorating whilst the cold water temperature helped with internal controls. Granted this only
worked for about 5 minutes after you left the swimming hole and then you were bone dry again.
It was now the final 9kms of the race. There was one final climb to the finish and the pull to the finish
was stronger than ever. Frikkie and Warren turned to me to tell me that they had officially decided to
pull me through the remainder of the race. Deep down this meant the world to me. As much as I wanted
to take them up on their offer, I knew it was unrealistic for me. By now I had lost control of my nutrition,
I was running on the small and intermittent sugar highs that I could give myself by sipping on an energy
drink that was basically just concentrate, and my feet felt like murder (seriously, I accepted that I would
probably need crutches after the race). In the face of the unbelievably kind offer I explained to Warren
and Frikkie that despite my shattered state, I had made it this far and I had in excess of 10 hours to
finish. Thanking them for their offer, I respectfully declined and I watched them run away from me, as I
started with my slow arduous walk up to the finish.

The last 9 kms felt like a 100 mile race all on their own. The final climb refused to arrive. I would move
for 5-10 metres and then stop to have another sip of the disgusting sugar concentrate I had made for
myself. I wanted to cry, I wanted a moment of watershed. I needed to feel sorry for myself. But
somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, there was a voice telling me to suck it up.
“You want cry!?! Get to the finish, then you can cry!” no sympathy here.

Finally, after what felt like hours, I reached the final contour and entered the gates of Zuurberg Mountain
Village. The finish line was in sight, well partially, through my tears.  I could see my wife in the distance,
her smile like the light of a lighthouse, guiding me to salvation. I recall running past her and all I could
think about was how much I had missed her. I told her that – my first words to her since leaving the start
the day before “I missed you so much!”
Finally, after 28+hours I had completed my first 100-mile Ultra Trail event ...


Crossing the finish line was a blur of emotion. I cannot recall a lot of what was said or what happened.
The only instruction I had given my beautiful wife was to point me to my camping chair and hand me a
beer. She executed these instructions with fervour and complete accuracy. What a legend ... I shall
refrain from setting out the remainder of her role in assisting me in my recovery, save to state that it has
been many years since I needed someone to help me bath.
Before leaving to go home and lick my wounds, I had the privilege of thanking Frikkie for all his help as
he sat smiling, shoes off, beer in hand; waiting for a well-deserved massage (he made it look so easy).
Warren came up to me and congratulated me – he also mentioned that I should probably wait until I got
home before I removed my shoes – little did he know that I had already made this decision about 10
hours ago. I was then handed a polystyrene cup of stew – the best stew I have ever had! It was oh so
good. Please could I have some more?
The Addo 100 miler was my first 100 miler and I have no other points of reference. It was the most
painful and difficult experience of my life. It taught me things about myself that I never knew. This race
will push you to your extremes and then push you past them. It WILL punish you. It will show you the
harsh reality of what it takes to conquer such a distance. It will show you what true isolation feels like.
It will change you. It will bring you to a place in your mind where you have never been. It is the most
amazing moment of misery you could every experience! This race is a gem that should be protected.
It is now my happy place. People say that when you run 100 miles your life will change. They were
right. Much like them, I cannot articulate what changed inside me or how it changed me. Things have
just changed. For the better ...
Now that I have run my first 100-mile race, I am hooked. Hooked on the pain. Hooked onto the misery.
100 miles is too far of a distance to be able to appreciate it in one go. There is so much involved in
running 100 miles. So much so, that it is impossible to be able to reflect on it all after only one attempt.
That being said I herewith confirm my commitment to returning in 2019! I will be back – if not for the fun,
then for the pain.
In closing, I would like to thank every single person who took a moment to support me on this journey.
From my family and friends, to the amazing people who I met on the route and who I felt it apt to mention
in my report. I also thank all the people who took the time to follow my personal blog as I went through
my training and entered my first 100 mile race. I did not call myself longwindednothingness for no reason.
Thank you for slogging through my long-winded and often dysfunctional reports/posts. Seeing your read
receipts, likes, mentions and comments inspired me to push further and your messages support
repeated in my head when the tough times came and stayed.
A huge thank you and MASSIVE amount of love to Sian and Sheena for everything that they did to make
the race possible and to make my experience memorable. These are two of the most amazing people
you will ever meet in your life and they have the ability to make you feel like you have known them for
years on your first meeting with them. I cannot express my gratitude in a manner that I feel properly
encapsulates my feelings towards them! Anyone who has these people in their lives is truly blessed.
You are all part of my family now – sorry...
Finally and most importantly, to my wife ... my struggle and strife ... Megan, you were so amazing,
understanding, supportive, firm, and realistic and wonderful. I am reminded everyday of how lucky I
am to have you in my life. You are my world and the sole reason for my continued existence. Through
all the lost weekends that I would disappear to go training, to the days where you would help me get out
of my kit after an exceptionally tough training session. You are my everything my love! You are my
world! You supported me and it was the thought of seeing you that drove me to the finish line. I owe you
one, or one million. You are my angel!
So ends this chapter for this once Addo 2019 novice. I made it! I will return!
Looking forward to seeing some familiar faces on 6 March 2020. I have never been so excited to be
miserable!!!

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