Thursday, September 10, 2009

My Wild Run!

I had never been to East London, I had never been to the Transkei and I had certainly never run 112km without once setting foot on anything that could be even remotely referred to as a road.

Adidas were about to change all that and with great foresight and a show of extreme intelligence they saw fit to invite me to take part in the Wild Run …. the inaugural Wild Run that is, which they were excitedly going to be sponsoring. I played it cool and told adidas I would get back to them. Truth be told, I had been incredibly keen to take part in this event since a buddy had told me about it a couple of months back. I waited a day and then replied that I was happy to be a part of all the fun with them in what is now called the Wild Coast.

After 6 weeks of training from a relatively fit physical condition, I was stoked to be landing in what I think the locals call the Buffalo City. A precarious landing on a little SAA Express flying machine had me all confused. You see, upon approach to the runway, we were tossed around enough to get some exotic angled viewings of East London itself and the one that stood out clearest was some sort of dump – well I hoped that’s what it was because if this was my life passing on front of my eyes before I died in a tangle of twisted SAA metal, it was clearly not much of an existence so far. A quick thought of my sub B class teacher and her sweet smile, an automatic reminder that the Springboks are the current world Champions and the smell of cinnamon convinced me my life had not in fact been a dump and that we were indeed just moments from crashing into one.

The talented pilot chap managed to not crash us into the dump, although I was not convinced for at least another hour that this was the case, as East London, it turns out, does a pretty good dump ground impersonation for its first time visitors. I am sure I am missing a ton of fun and classy establishments, however I was happy to have left it behind and moving in a Northerlyish direction towards Morgan Bay and to be more precise – Kei Mouth.

The river Kei would be our first point of rest on the eve before setting out on the adventure. Now as worldwide cavorters such as I know only too well, Coca Cola branding finds its way to all sorts of obscure places, but I was not prepared for this onslaught in what was a pretty out of the way little coastal hamlet. I think Coca Cola had tarnished every single commercial venture in Kei Mouth. In fact it intrigued me so that I took a little stroll around to see if there was any brave enough not to carry the most recognizable brand in the world. The Bush Pig pub across the road looked tough enough to shun the Coke branding, but upon closer inspection this was not the case as a 4m high board advertised 2m worth of Just Ginger, The Parlotones and Robbie Wessel’s and 2m worth of The Red and White. The Fisherman’s Den was just the same as was Kei Mouth Liquors, The Green Lantern (Gotham City?) and the B&B across the road too. A ha …what was this! Just as I was about to despair and give in to the 100% domination of Coca Cola, a sign indicating the Kei Mouth Library stood proudly naked of any Red and White branding. Now you might argue that I had declared the search for those commercial ventures in town, but let’s all agree that, with even a newspaper few and far between, Kei Mouth is certainly no place to boast its own library. This clandestine building with what looked like metal braai grids over the windows, was clearly a front for a little old lady selling some form of contraband – which is this part of the world could be anything from the latest LosLyf publication to a can of two stroke motor oil.

With my incredibly easily satisfied hunger for entertainment satiated, I returned to The Thatches Accommodation to meet some of my fellow runners and to listen to race director Owen Middleton’s race briefing for the first days stage which was just one restless sleep away. I took enough information in to know where to meet for the start, to make sure I had at least two litres of water in my pack and to not expect any form of route markers. Not an arrow, not a cheerful traffis ocifer, not a flag waving volunteer … not a stitch. The only thing that mattered was to keep the ocean on your right and to keep running we were told. This sounded very uncomplicated. Almost Forrest Gumpesque which suited my simple mind just fine and I went to bed happy to have escaped the lure of East London and excited to be running towards a wall with a hole in it.

Thursday breakfast is followed by a 6am barge crossing over the river Kei (wasn’t there a song named after crossing the river Kei? No wait it was a country … see above) delivering a group of 73 brightly clad runners to the start where they stood wondering what lay in store over the next three days.

Then in a whirl of button pushing and cap adjusting, the starter gives the signal and we’re off! It’s like the start for the 100m-Olympic-dash-for-people-with-no-sense-of-direction as individuals and groups head off in totally different directions along all their own chosen routes. This was going to be some event, what with the trickery and guile needed to make sure one was not going to lose out to others more adept at choosing the correct way. If in doubt though, the best clue always lay in the long white strips of glistening sand that lay tantalizingly in front of us like a stairway to Heaven or a path to Nirvana (your subconscious mind may now have just matched Stairway to Heaven with Nirvana so make sure you untangle that one before you stupidly blurt out around a braai one night: “I’m telling you, Nirvana were the dudes who sang Stairway to Heaven” … of course this in totally incorrect, it is in fact sung by the Jackson Five and composed by Mike Myers).

I must admit that 112km that lay ahead was a huge challenge in my mind and I had no inclination to race the three days. So the start pace was extremely leisurely and how glorious to watch the sun come up in front of us and a little to the right over the Ocean. The bothersome wind from the day before had died down to almost nothing and the sea, rocks and sand were combining in kilometer after kilometer of magical delights. It was truly a surreal experience to just shuffle along this coastline as it introduced itself to me for the first time.

The waves were full of energy and large swell, but calmed down when they met the sand which was generally in the form of very wide, flat and hard packed beaches that continued blemish less for about three to four kilometers before coming to a headland of rock. This was a pattern that repeated itself over and over. Sometimes these rocks were too young and brash to let us by as they played their games with the waves that were not as polite as they were when meeting the beach, but willing to tumble with the rocky outcrops like two lion cubs, on and on in what seemed a never ending sparring of mutual understanding.

If this was the case we would simply skip the rocky outcrop by leading a little more with the left shoulder and taking the option of running over the headland of green hills which supplied us with a cow track, or if too steep for the cattle, then a precarious goat track. Generally though, the rocks were of the older sort that had been worn down by the never ending energy of the waves and we simply hopped and bounded from boulder to stone, up and down and every which way until our efforts brought us to the sand on the other side to start the whole cycle again.

This went on again and again and it was quite something to experience a rhythm in what was before today, a place I could not have imagined running 44km in. A rhythm for this distance is normally played back to you in a metronome like fashion as the light road shoes slap against the unforgiving tar of the streets. The rhythm of the Wild Run is one more akin to the type found in chaos. There is no pattern apparent and in fact if one wishes to find some form of smoothness it is by letting the rhythm find you. Somewhere between stumbling over a huge molten rock spewed up from the earth’s mantle millions of years ago and cooled instantly in the sea; and crunching the shells under your feet, or the sinking in the cheeky bits of soft sand that sometimes envelope your shoes with no warning; the ubiquitous sound of the waves help bring a runner the algor rhythms that make such a challenging task materialize into something profound – if you will let it that is. Mostly the mind works too hard and fights frantically to keep control as the feet struggle against a running experience that is not perhaps so familiar to them. This is of course to the runners own detriment and the unfortunate victims are energy and confidence, making the journey a whole lot more of a difficult challenge.

On this route though the power of the surroundings are so overwhelmingly apparent and with absolutely no man made distractions what so ever along the way, most of the runners are able to benefit from opening themselves up to the privileged experience that they are a part of.

Most of that day I spent with a fantastic running buddy and could not have asked for better company than Guy from Johannesburg. An Ad agency owner by trade and distance runner by nature. Calm and appreciative of his surroundings, Guy and I solved many of the planets problems and left them for the rock pools and King Fishers to keep secret as none would believe two ranting running lunatics.

By the time I reach the finish of the first day I was alone, my mind is a little fuzzy and takes some time to adapt back to just being able to lay in the cold pool water listening to the stories of the day that come tumbling out of mouths that bare huge grins of satisfaction. The long distance took its toll and the heat played its part. Everyone had a story as richly satisfying as the next, no matter what time or place the finish line was crossed.

As the day went on, so the tides rose (and such are the Days of our Lives haa haaa!), making the river estuaries more and more difficult to pass. When Lofty the sweeper came in the full field was home. Not one casualty on day one. Amazing stuff. This was a strong group of runners even though the one dude had never run longer than two hours in one go – ever, before today. Today he ran over 5hours. Another friend of mine had only ever run a half marathon in races, today she did 44km of trail running.

The pictures presented later that night show people swimming across the rivers I had waded through at knee height just a few hours before. I felt the swimmers got more out of the river crossings. I made a decision to make a point of swimming at least one of these rivers before the end of the event.

I noticed the bar was doing a fair trade and make no mistake; those beers were deserved, but did not go on too long for most. By 9pm the majority are sleeping, but there is still a bottle of rum out there that was being looked after till a lot later. The minders of the bottle of rum would suffer a little more the next day, but they knew it and it was all factored in so no worries mate.

Back at The Thatches in Kei Mouth I had been paired up with iAfrica’s adventure babe Thamar Houliston, but someone must have cast doubt on my integrity, as the next night at the amazingly appointed Kob Inn; I was to share a room with Rocket Van Breda who knows me a little better. Rocket came into the race barely able to walk with the pain in his left foot at excruciating level. He reckons when he left the house the day before, his lovely wife Bridget just shook her head turned on her heal and left her determined husband to do what he had set out to do. Well he had made it through the first day with a mixture of hobbling and walking and was ready to have a rest and hit the beaches again on day 2.

A chilly morning greeted us the next day, but the sun was already starting to rise and conditions looked decent for another cheeky 35.something k’s. It took me a while to find some sort of feeling and bounce in my legs after leaving the comfort of Kob Inn, but once we got through some bumpy fields of grass and cows, it was back on the beach where the lead group of five of us get to about 5min/km if the sand remains hard. The check point which would be a refill station for water was only at 23km into the race today and you can’t drink the water from the rivers as they are used way inland by the locals for all sorts of living activities, so although they looked tempting and were refreshing to wade through when we needed to, it was vital that we were supplied with drinking water at the check points.

Today we were also going to be afforded the chance to spot a White Rhino when running through the nature reserve Dwesa. Unfortunately all we spotted once we have vaulted the fence to the reserve was the Common Irate Incompetent Ranger Fool Local species that was gesticulating manically and twirling his wrist that had a stick hungrily attached to it. Apparently his frustrations were directed at us which was surprising as all permits and the necessary organizing had taken place back in April. We stopped to chat, but only for a very short while as we decided to ignore the fool and to keep running. Ranger man then stopped and detained the rest of the race for over an hour. That morning only 10 of us got through initially and the rest had to wait till things were sorted out which made the going hotter and a detour meant more distance covered for some that forgot to keep the beach close by.

We carried on up front oblivious to the fracas back at Dwesa Nature reserve and enjoyed the pristine route that we followed in a mesmerized and euphoric run that we had now settled into very comfortably. Jolene from Knysna was a surprise visitor for a while. We were not used to running with a chick up front so the guys were happy to see her. Not so for Jo, after chastising us for not talking enough she turned up the volume on her earphones and went bounding of into the lead. We all had a little laugh at the exuberance, but I think that iPod must have run out of power as Jo then decided to drop back for some company to talk to and clearly we were not up to scratch so the visit ended and we just kept cruising along wondering what was around the next corner, all the while knowing it was more beach and hills.

By the time the end was in sight though each man was running alone and not a little weary. A particular long stretch of beach lead to another river crossing. The last kilometer before reaching The Haven was run in squelchy shoes which were happily discarded as I jumped into a welcome cold pool that managed to take a lot of the last 79km fatigue away - for a while. Once out of the pool though it was the pain of the blisters on my feet that I felt more than tired legs and the realization that the last day was going to be a little bit more of a challenge, hit me like a raw egg dropping into sizzling hot pan.

After a massage though I lay down to watch the rest of the runners come in with tales of woe and anguish in the details, but once again told through a head full a smiles and delight. Again all 73 runners made it to the finish. Rocket Van Breda not only amongst the finishers, but in the top 20 and on a foot that was only getting better for some strange reason.

Once again I was dumped by a roommate as he and I were split and I was placed once more in a room with original roommate Thamar who was running like a champion and possibly trusted be more now that she was back in cell phone range to her fiancé.

The rest of the day and night was an eat as much as you can competition between me and my belly. As much as I would put in, stomach would just destroy it. I was first at the buffet line with plate in hand and once done with main course, had to be tapped on the hand by a large silver cast iron looking serving spoon that the head chef Mike was wielding, as I tried in vain to take possession of the full tray of Apple Pie laid out for desert.

I settled for 3 servings worth, but was once more warned by Mike’s furrowed brows and steel serving spoon weapon, that I was to go easy on the freshly whipped cream with its hidden sugary delights. I was done with all my feeding before most even knew what flavour the soup was for the evening. As I slid out of the dining room I noticed a few new friends nods of understanding as to why they had been introduced to me as Pie Face. Not in the least bit worried about this after many years of thickening of the skin, I directed myself to the bar to see if there were any snacks available. Before I could get too close though I heard Lofty and wife Tatum ordering Tequila with friends from Umtata and I opted for a sharp right away from the bar instead. A fortuitous move for one with a hunger such as mine as it turned out, as I walked right into a serving lady who was quickly rested of her packs of biscuits that she was taking to stock up the cookie jar with. Cookie Jar remained cavernous and my belly took the bounty.

I went to bed a trifle bloated as you can imagine, however the next morning I woke up on an empty stomach. It was a later start so plenty of time for breakfast. I must say though, I did not feel like walking around much on feet that were just not used to this kind of distance and were coming apart somewhat, starting at the toes and ending …as a foot does … on the heal. Perhaps this was where all the food was leaking through. My feet basically had as many holes in them as my retro Jamie Oliver pasta strainer I use to impress gorgeous angels when cooking them dinner.

You see, always the mind returning to food. Best I pack my potatoes and head to the start. First though I was going to have to find a way to get my feet into my shoes without them noticing. There was no way they were going in voluntarily. I thought of distracting them with some shiny new plasters. Naaa … it was going to have to be a brand new pair of socks.

I slid a thick but soft pair on after disposing with the label and the 500 sneaky stickers they hide all over new socks for some reason, and before my feet could think what was coming next, they were covered in shoes once more and about to begin their last 34km of the adventure.

Today’s start was 13km of normal trails that took us all the way to the check point and water station and then we were on our own. Well that was the briefing the previous night, however after about 4km we were on the beach and stayed on it till the check point. I was feeling decent on the beach and found that together with the St Aubins Adventure teacher Gary (A teacher dedicated to adventure I kid you not …times have changed of that there is no doubt. When I was a lad the adventure teacher was the punk at the other end of the cane issuing adventures of pain management!) I had opened up a gap between any other runners. We were not pushing it but still moving quickly while having a good chat in the front of the field about all sorts of crap.

Today was a particularly technical route if you wanted to do it in the shortest manner though, and every time Gary and my pace took us ahead, Guy and overall race leader Dale would close the gap with Guys experience of the route from setting it up with race director Owen earlier in the year. Gary and I were working way too hard compared to the others and even though I was feeling good and thought I would probably run on ahead and make a significant lead, I realised it would be closed by me having to wait for some form of indication on where to run or I would simply get lost as this was not a time when instincts were enough to keep me on the shortest route.

This was not a problem at all though as strangely enough there was very little in the way of racing other the just some natural competitiveness that would have been strange had it not been there at all. What transpired next was something quite incredible. After sliding down an 80m high cliff face (it really was a cliff face that was so steep that you could just not run down it at all) covered in grass on my ass and coming out to greet the group of three runners that was about 200m behind just moment before, we realised that it would be more fun and intelligent to just cruise home together with absolutely no stress of racing which in the circumstances was going to prove futile anyway (as explained above). Every one of us agreed this was a lekker idea and the five of us set of to cover the next 15km or so as a group.

Along the way we found a large dead whale on the rocks that was proving to be an 8m buffet for the fortunate local birds and sea life that were dining on it; we enjoyed some ludicrously steep hills to climb that rewarded us with fantastic views of beauty in every direction once at the summit and eventually, were lead to the last high vantage point which presented the famous Hole In the Wall far below. We had reached our destination. Just the descent off the mountain left which was done laughing out loud and agreeing that this was indeed a special place to be at any time, but to have approached it from Kei mouth and with 112km of running behind us it made it as sweet and memorable as any human should care to imagine. This was the culmination of something special, of that there was no doubt and I was very happy to be a part of it.


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