I n three years of racing to date, I’ve toed the start line at 33 races of which 27 have been trail. Now, although I haven’t always been a competitor, it’s important to learn from your past and not disregard the small stepping stones that got you to higher ground.
Like all of you, I started moving from birth, and it’s therefore hard to define at exactly what point one becomes a runner — although if you’re a BornToRun die hard then birth really is the answer. I’m going to keep it simple by using my first Strava log to pinpoint my origins as a runner. 18 September 2013 marks the day, and what a romantic love affair it’s been to date. Running, all she asks is that you give her your undivided attention and she’ll shower you with affection forever.
It was on 15th July 2017 at 06:30am, that I found myself alongside 73 other runners gathered together in Franschhoek to kick-off the main event in the Salomon Bastille Day 50k. Like the previous year, it was cold and miserable — exactly how trail runners are supposed to like it, right? I’d had a decent night’s rest and prepared well by my own standards, but I still wasn’t feeling entirely confident in my ability to throw down and take names, at least I didn’t feel that way during the chilly 5°C drive towards the venue. If I’m honest, I really did visualize the image of winning the race and had even mentioned it to a few close friends, so the only thing left to do was to unleash what my body had in store on the day. Goals are funny, on one hand they’re great because they encourage focus and discipline, but on the other hand they create pressure and expectation; it’s personal.
I stepped out of my heated car, into the frosty abyss that lay ahead; zombie like people (because early starts are hard guys) littered the grassy expanse of the parking lot, each fiddling with some aspect of their race kit, each probably as agitated as myself. Nonetheless, it was game time — the moment you realize that all comforts have been left behind, and all that remains is for you to make your way to the start line to prove your worth…
After a few exchanges with familiar faces and friends, I made my way to the start chute. My rain jacket pulled over my head, index finger on the start button of my watch, feet twitching away in nervous anticipation of gaining insight into whether I’d put enough work into my training to run 50k, never mind claiming a podium position! “1 minute” Trevor Ball — the race organizer of Energy Events said. It’s in these last few seconds that you do your final kit check: are my laces tight enough? Should I keep my jacket on or off? Oh shit, why are my headphones so fucking tangled. “30 seconds”. I give a quick glance to Andrea Biffi & Jock Green — my main rivals in the race — and then fist pumped some dude I can’t recall. 3.. 2.. 1.. and we’re off.
The first kilometre was mostly flat, but nevertheless it’s immediately a jostling of arms and limbs to establish a good position that many hope to maintain, and if lucky, improve upon. I stick right behind Jock, while Andrea sets the lead pace taking us towards the first climb of the day — a series of switchbacks that elevate will us from 250m (above sea level) to 535m in under 5km. I’m usually in tune with my body, and on this day I sensed that although I hadn’t been feeling overly confident in the wee hours of the morning, the fact that we’d already started our watches made me grin; I felt in the mood to suffer if you will — a good sign. The three of us progressed up the landscape at a good pace, although Andrea and Jock were pulling away from me around 3.5k, clearly burning more diesel than myself.
In the past I’ve always been fairly cautious at the start of an Ultra given the distance that needs to be covered, and I’ve thus more often than not been unfazed to let a lead pack vanish into the distance. But not today. I was feeling good, I was in tune with my heart rate and breathing, my confidence was growing, and I sensed that I was in a good position to allow myself to warm up without letting go of my prey; I put my head down and went. Making my way around the third switchback, I glanced at the horde of runners behind me and noted that we’d (the leaders) collectively put two or three minutes on the general field, with the exception of Darryn Patterson who was less than a minute behind. I pushed through the last section of climbing and was relieved to pop out onto a single-track contour path that would shoot all the runners along for the next 3k’s.
At the 9km mark I discretely passed Jock who seemed to be struggling with a tricky section of foliage; this section marked the start of a windy descent that I’d been looking forward to. With Andrea still in the lead, and myself right behind his tail, we both seemed to increase the pace as the rock littered trail threw us down 200m in less than 1k. I really wanted to overtake Andrea at this point; I was feeling bubbly as ever, but I knew it would be pointless to make a move on a short technical descent as early as this in the race (we were at the 10k mark). It’s fair to say that I was definitely a hell of a lot more confident at this point that I was at the start, but I still didn’t have any illusions of actually being able to pull of a win.
The true test took place at 13.5k with the start of the main climb up the arduous Fortesnek: a 2.5k vertical stretch with 535m worth of gain to the minor summit. In the rain, while the chill factor started to become a notable force at play, Andrea, Jock and myself were all tucked back together again, with Darryn not far behind little be known to us. This ascent marked the second unusual breakthrough for me in a race of this type. Not only was I right up there in the mix with the lead pack, I actually felt quite eager to fight, and suffer.
There’s a strange kind of bravado that occurs (at least from my experience) when a group of runners are all going at threshold effort levels-breathing heavily and in earshot of each other. No one wants to break the run first, almost like it would be a sign of weakness, but someone has to do it so that the rest can say thank fuck, now we can recover! Andrea was leading up the climb, and he, much to my delight broke into a walk-run routine about halfway up. I matched his pace, but not after getting right up close to him in order to make it known that I was there (perhaps I was way too confident at that point). Jock was right there too, albeit it a few meters behind. As we all ascended higher into the mountains, visibility started to wane and wind speeds picked up. Things were starting to get real (little did we know), but we soon found ourselves stepping out at the peak of the highest low point of the Fortesnek climb, only to be greeted by a cheerful photographer who snapped a portrait. Cute
© Energy Events | Left to right: Andrea Biffi, Myself, Jock Green
It was 17k into the race, and the three of us found ourselves lost. We’d been head down, trying to forget about the sub zero temperatures while straining our eyes to make out the obscure pink tape-markers that seemed to be placed at gaps far too sparingly for my liking. I must give kudos to Andrea for taking charge of the majority of the navigation towards Fortesnek peak; he certainly burned more energy than Jock and myself.
For three minutes we all tussled with shrubbery while trying to make sense of where we turned wrong. One moment we were on track, the next it seemed liked we’d drifted off the face of the earth; lost, cold, and desperate to keep moving to stay warm. After a short backtrack we collectively found two markers which guided us upwards into the void. It was during those moments that I realized how perilous our current situation was: numbing crosswinds, freezing temperatures and poor visibility meant should any one runner start to border on hypothermia, they’d easily make a wrong turn and literally be between a rock and a hard place! I recall thinking to myself “I can’t actually believe that this is what everyone has to go through”. As I said before, I don’t mind suffering and prefer (maybe even enjoy) horrible conditions because it toughens you up, but I thought that this was questionable at best. All that said, It’s plausible that my own judgment was impaired by the extreme cold.
With less than a kilometre to go before the summit (although at the time, I had no idea how far off we were) I glanced back and noted that Jock had dropped off a hundred metres or so, clearly suffering a little more than Andrea and myself. I didn’t think anything of it. While furiously shaking my hands to keep the blood flowing, and with no clue how far we were to the top, I spotted a figure darting across a rock in the mist ahead of me; it was startling and for a second I couldn’t believe it. There way up above the clouds, in the rain and in the cold danced a man clad only in what to me seemed like entirely inappropriate gear for someone who wasn’t hauling ass up and down a freezing mountain. “What’s your name?” the man of the mountain peaks called up to me; “Lucas 1466”. After having addressed us both he droned into his two-way radio to signal our arrivals to the team — Jock had still not made it to the top yet.
Out of nowhere, Andrea hit the gas like a bat out of hell. Like all downhill runs, I’d been looking forward to the descent a while back, but by now-half frozen-I was just happy to run toward warmer temperatures. Like a slippery slide in a storm, this descent — although not technical — was a hairy one: over lush foliage and jagged rocks, muddy chambers made for an exciting ride back down towards the minor peak. We passed Jock what seemed to be only a minute or so from the summit, but I recall looking into his eyes for a split second and noting something — a kind of glassy gaze you might expect one to have when not fully in the present. I, again, didn’t think anything of it at that moment as Andrea and myself were neck and neck carving our way back down.
That was the last time I saw Jock; what transpired since that moment I’d learn after I finished my race, was that he had succumbed to hypothermia. “I honestly thought I was a gonner” Jock Green told Stephen Granger in a post-race interview for the Argus; “Brothers Andrew and Steven Erasmus saved my life. They just lay on top of me as I was hypothermic and got others to do the same”. In trail running it’s a custom that if you encounter someone in need of medical assistance, you help them no matter what. Much respect to the Erasmus brothers and everyone else who helped aid Jock.
With only a few metres to go before the final 3k technical descent back down to the low lands, I decided to pull my trump card; I veered off across the trail in front of Andrea to signal a clear desire to lead the race from that point. Game on. I’d been mulling over the idea of attacking on the down for the last 2 km, but then it struck me later on that perhaps Andrea was trying to do exactly the same thing with me from the peak down to the minor summit where I now assumed the lead! I cranked up my waterlogged iPod (various electro music was the day’s genre) and let rip down the sketchy descent which even for my own standards of downhill running, was pretty dodge. I looked back once or twice to see what kind of damage I’d done, and was happy to see a gap between myself and Andrea. It’s important to note that just because you can run fast downhill, doesn’t always mean you should; sometimes pulling the proverbial trigger can cost you a dead pair of quads, and at only 23k into the race I guess it could have been a silly move in retrospect.
I found myself walking up a hill, which if I’m to be honest, took me by surprise. I hadn’t been eating much over the last hour, and my stomach wanted nothing of the race food I had left. I wanted something fresh, something clean, but by this point I had slowed down to walking pace for the first time in the race due to general fatigue. It dawned on me that I still had a lot of work to do, and I think it’s accurate to say that the high I was on from leading the race had worn off. Dammit I thought. Why are my legs packing up now! I consoled myself by acknowledging that this was only a small hill, and all I needed to do was pick spots every few metres, get to that rock, rest for a minute, and repeat. After I’d walked my way up the 1k stretch to join a contour path, I felt defeated and sure that Andrea was just around the corner. The hill I’d just climbed strung out behind me in full view, and I looked back frequently to see how much room I still had to sob. I imagined suffering that painful moment when you get passed by a runner you know you’ll probably never see again. It didn’t happen. I’d started shuffling a few minutes after joining the contour, and although I was now moving again, it was clear that my legs were made of lead, and that I’d really need to evaluate my chances of simply finishing the race — never mind winning it.
As this internal dialogue manifested (as it does with so many who start to accept the limitations of their body) I glanced over to my right and saw a figure moving just a few metres below at the start of the climb I’d just come up. Andrea. Fuck I thought. If I’d only done this better, eaten that instead, didn’t go so hard there, blah blah blah I winced to myself.
There’s a difference between assuming someone is on your tail in a race, and knowing it to be a fact. I now knew it. He was probably a good couple minutes behind me, but the sight of his flailing rain jacket prodded at my mental acceptance of a botched race; I didn’t want to let up just yet though. Perhaps If I just found some momentum I could.. It doesn’t matter I thought to myself, there’s 16k’s to go and you’re barely moving faster than 5:35km pace over a slight grade. You know there’s a horrendous section of climbing up ahead, so just cut the crap. I tuned this internal conversation down, cranked up some beats and just kept chugging along.
After having just completed a section of “trail” — a 4k stretch of mountainside that had literally been chainsawed open — I gained a second wind of energy and felt invigorated as I realized that I only had 10k to go with the majority of the hard work well behind me. It was game time once again. My legs felt clear of lactate, my mind was starting to believe that I could actually make this stick; I wanted it bad. I had friends waiting for me at the finish, and there was of course the actual Bastille Festival to attend to that evening — how fitting it would be to pull off my first ever win on a day such as this.
It was at that moment I tripped on a rock and promptly pulled myself together; knowing all too well that a job isn’t done until it’s done, and you’re more than likely to do something stupid when projecting into the future while racing. I collected my thoughts, upped the rpm and proceeded to run harder towards the Berg River Dam crossing, where I’d finally be running straight towards the finish with nothing but sweet single track to keep me company.
I chomped down on the last bit of race fuel I had with about 5k to go, and watched the cliff side in the distance that signified the start venue where all runners had set off almost 6 hours earlier that day.
With about 1k to go and the finish chute in sight, I was still frantically looking over my shoulder, worried that Andrea would pop out at any moment, sprinting up from behind. It didn’t happen. I was now part of wave of runners filtering in from different finishing points: 15, 25 and 35k runners were all in the mix, all wet and soggy, all with the same fixated expressions on their faces.
I crossed the line with my rain jacket still on, covering my race number that would’ve otherwise given the marshal’s a clue that I was a 50k runner; I raised my right arm, pointed into the air and then stopped my watch at 5:49:09 for 50.5km.
I had just won my first race.
© Lucas Adams | Left to right: Darryn Patterson, Myself, Andrea Biffi
I’d like to say thank you to Salomon & Energy Events for hosting yet again, another fantastic event which I will undoubtedly return to in 2018. I hope to see you there too!
Lastly for the gear enthusiasts, I’ll break down what got me through this race. I used:
A Salomon ADV Skin 5 Set race-pack to hold all my equipment in one place,
A pair of Salomon Sense 5 Ultra’s to carve through the Franschhoek brimstone,
A pair of Salomon 250ml Soft Flasks,
A Salomon Bonatti jacket to repel the rain,
A Suunto Ambit 3 Peak to clock all my mileage,
And a pair of short-shorts (no, that’s not a brand name)
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