Ever since I saw a skinny guy with long hair and a beard on YouTube running without a shirt on, smashing out mile after mile in 2007, I have dreamed of running 100 miles. After that I was glued to YouTube devouring any film or documentary on trail running I could find. I had only just made the transition from competitive Olympic distance triathlon on the road, to trail running (I have moving to Cape Town and Table Mountain to thank for that) so the thought of covering 10 miles off road seemed crazy enough, let alone 100 miles.
Fast forward 11 years of running distances up to 50 miles and a couple failed attempts at the 100km distance, an advert popped up on my Facebook feed showing the most insane forest and valley views I had ever seen, at first glance it looked like something out of 'The Lord of the Rings' but when I realised it was in South Africa, the Karkloof100 was immediately on my radar. I spent the first year’s event on twitter, constantly checking the updates as the race unfolded feeling all of the FOMO. I knew then that this would be the race to attempt my dream of running 100 miles (I mean if you are going to run for 24 + hours, for the first time in your life, it might as well be a pretty route, right?). It appears I am not the only one who thought this as after just two years the Karkloof100 is South Africa's biggest 100 miler event.
As soon as entries opened the following year I entered and before I could even blink race day had arrived. I was feeling great, I was feeling healthy, I had put in more training than I had ever done, and I wanted that finishers buckle so bad. More than that I was just so excited to get out there and test my limits more than I ever had.
The race started promptly at 20h00 on the Friday night with a flurry of cheers from a large crowd of family and friends. As they cheered us all on we made our way out of the small town of Howick, in the Natal Midlands, and into the uncertainty of the night. As with any race the pace at the beginning was rather ambitious but I managed to keep things conservative while still making sure I wouldn't get bottle-necked at the first single track. The race turns onto beautiful flowing single track after just 3 miles and actually has so much single track during the race it barely felt like we were running on dirt roads.
The Karkloof Conservancy is widely known as the mecca of Mountain Biking in South Africa, so naturally it has hundreds of miles of manicured single track. This makes the route incredibly fast with the winning time this year being just under the 18 hour mark, with only around 2800m of climbing throughout the 100 miles. I’m convinced, though, that one of the faster American runners could run the route in sub-14 hours.
The route is an out and back race, 80km out, turn around and run the same route back. With an aid station every 10 miles and the altitude sitting between 1000m and 1400m above sea level, the route is very achievable for runners aspiring to run their first 100 miler. The area is known to get a lot of rain and I was relieved to get to the half way mark before any real thunder storms hit. Within 10 miles of turning around we were being hammered by large marble sized hail stones, thankfully only for about 10 minutes (the large hood and ‘peak’ on the Ultra Jacket v2 literally kept my face from being stung by those unrelenting ice missiles) and then the heavens opened up and didn't relent for 24 hours.
To say that the rain and mud tested every fibre of my resolve would be an understatement. I am no sissy to extreme weather, in fact the worse it is the more fun I have. In spite of this I had a few moments (more than I would care to admit) where I had to sit down on the side of the trail with tears flowing down my face, mixing in with the mud and sweat, well into the second midnight. The unrelenting rain pouring down and the incredibly thick mud making a finish all the more uncertain. My original goal of a 22 hour finish was now looking more like a 30 hour + finish, thoughts of if I would I make the cutoff or even the finish for that matter began to weigh my mind.
The toughest part of the route on the way back is between 116km and 132km, mostly because it is the highest point but also because it is a thick rain forest with low branches hanging over the trail, steep inclines and because of the unrelenting rain, a river of mud was now flowing down the path of least resistance, which also happened to be the very trail we were supposed to be running on. I knew if I could just get to the second last aid station at 132km I would make it to the finish. The mud was so thick and slippery on the trail that I had to use the embankment on the side of the trail, where there was some vegetation, to try get even the tiniest bit of traction.
There is a point, though, in every race where the route seems to throw absolutely everything it has left at you, in a last gasp to try and defeat you. It was on this section that I went toe to toe with this beast. The gloves were off and the Karkloof was throwing punches with such ferocity that all the negative thoughts I had tried so hard to bury pre-race came flooding back like an avalanche of doubt. “You can’t do this”, “It’s your first 100 miler, it’s ok to quit”, “What will everyone think if I don’t make it?”, "You see, I told you this was too big for you!"… doubt after doubt, punch after punch, blow after weakening blow.
Suddenly, in the midst of all of this, I was right back to all those YouTube videos I had watched over the years while dreaming with such a fire in my belly to run 100 miles. Of all the videos out there one particular quote from Anton Krupicka in ‘The Ingenious Choice’ has fueled that dream the most.
In it he said, “That's why you do these 100 miles races, you're almost guaranteed to be challenged at some point and then have the opportunity to push through and learn something about yourself and prove to yourself that you are strong enough to do these things that would have seemed impossible at first.”
With a renewed resolve we pushed up to the highest point. Constant flashes of lightning showing the way forward, fast enough for enough visibility to get your bearings, short enough to not overwhelm you with how far you still have to climb; before taking you back into the darkness and the comfort of the soft light from your headlamp.
As soon as we rolled into the aid station at 132km I burst into tears, the weight of what we had just been through flooding off the shoulders. With the toughest part of the route behind us, my pacer Andre Pienaar and I felt like we had just gone through 10 miles of all the Rocky Balboa movies at once. Punch drunk, we sat shell shocked in front of a warm fire trying to keep some vegetable soup down. The silver lining though, I had the joy of knowing I was on the home stretch.
The final 30km are all runnable, if you still have legs here you can make up a large amount of positions and if you are fast enough you will be treated to the incredible views across the valley towards the Howick Falls before the sun goes down. I'll have to see the views again another day as I finally rolled through the finish line around 04h00 on the Sunday morning after being out on the route for 32 hours with 10 minutes of sleep. It was the toughest, most rewarding 32 hours of my life.
Friends and family keep asking me if I will do it again. Despite the agony and being an emotional wreck, I knew after 10 minutes of finishing that I would be back. Why? they ask, well because “you’re guaranteed to be challenged at some point…”