On the 19th of March 2022, I ran my first Ultra-Trail Marathon in the Addo National Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It was the toughest challenge I’ve ever done, one that tested my physical and mental strength, whilst allowing me to witness the grit, determination and resilience of so many other runners, elite and amateur alike, fighting their own battles to finish. As the terrain, landscape and flora transitioned beautifully over the 44km run, I also felt extremely privileged to be immersed in such splendour that I often forgot how tough it was or how far I had to go. There were many moments where I simply looked around in awe and thought, “I get to do this”. This is the story of my 9+ hour race to finish Africa’s wildest ultra.
The Night Before
The trip from Gaborone to Addo was about 1,300km so we split it up over two days – on Thursday, we stopped in Bloemfontein for the night and after a beautiful shake out run on Naval Hill in the Franklin Nature Reserve, we set off for Addo around 11am on Friday. The drive was long but offered spectacular views on winding mountain roads that made it worth it.
The last stretch of road to Addo had a lot of roadworks so I was in a panic about whether we would get to Hayterdale Trails on time where we were to pick up our race packs.
But we made it with an hour to spare and once we had registered, we hit the road again to a little gem of a guest lodge about 20 minutes away called Gerald’s Gift in Sundays River Valley on the road to Kirkwood. We enjoyed some hearty home-made sandwiches, fruit and yoghurt in our room, before double checking our race outfits and backpacks.
It was not lost on me that this was my first race in two years! Funnily enough, although I don’t do many trail races, my last race was actually a trail run in Gabane, a small village on the outskirts of Gaborone, about a week before Botswana, along with the rest of the world, shut down.
After a restless night, we were up at 03:45 to shower and change before hitting the road around 04:40, a bit later than we had wanted. So once again I was tense as we drove on the dusty road to Hayterdale Trails. When we arrived, we found a long queue of athletes waiting for the buses that were to take us to Kabouga Gate, the start of the race. Thankfully, the buses hadn’t arrived yet, so we had time to use the porta-loo and finish our breakfast. As we stood in line, I reflected on the number of false starts I’d had leading up to this point, the tough training cycle, and that only a few years ago I couldn’t run, and now, I was about to embark on this incredible 44km adventure. As I was deep in thought, the buses finally arrived and we lined up for Bus 2. It was an old bus reminiscent of the buses popular in the eighties.
The ride was about 40 minutes long and once we arrived at Kabouga Gate, we headed to the starting chute. I was grateful to see other runners looked as nervous as I felt! As we were taking a selfie, a supporter outside the chute asked to take a photo for us and this kindness was demonstrated by organisers, volunteers, bystanders, and athletes throughout the event.
To Check Point 1 At 2.5km
Once the race started, we slowly made our way out of the gantry. We started on an incline but I managed a slow warm-up jog and when it levelled off a bit, I felt quite comfortable. There were several levels and types of athletes, some very fast runners, some strong hikers and many who adopted a walk-run strategy. The nervous energy I’d felt from the crowd at the start quickly dissipated and was replaced by excitement and happiness all round. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the first Check Point. As this was so early on, most of us ran past without stopping.
It was shortly after this that I saw a runner returning – she was injured and making her way back to the start. I felt so bad for her imagining just how much her heart must be breaking.
To Check Point 2 At 12.4km
The previous day had been extremely hot but the cloudy morning made it easy to hold a consistent pace. Even though there were some inclines, many of them were runnable and the wide jeep track made it easy for people to pass each other. It was exciting to see the bright orange markers in the bush and although nothing was quite as green and colourful as what was to come, there were pops of beauty in the form of pretty flowers and even a golden orb-spider.
As time wore on, the terrain varied with some uphill stretches, rocky paths, muddy sections and several stream crossings, that I “skilfully” avoided, even if it meant a few extra scratches on my arms! Give me scratches over wet shoes any day!
We also ran under many canopies of spiders that left people gasping! As we came closer to the second Check Point, we entered some forest-like sections and if my memory serves me well, this is where the winner of the 76km women’s race, Cath Williamson, ran past us with an encouraging “Well done”. By the time we got to the second Check Point, I was in good spirits. We filled our hydration packs, had some salted potatoes, and grabbed a few pieces of watermelon. As we headed out, one of the volunteers shouted “Enjoy the climb ahead!”.
To Check Point 3 At 16.8km
It was then it dawned on me that the climbs we had seen on the map and discussed several times were real. At this point, there was very little running. A cheerful woman who had done this race six times said I should just take my time and enjoy the views. Then she added, “I don’t want to break your spirit, but this is a 4km climb!” I thought she was joking but she wasn’t.
Step by step, I worked my way up that hill, sometimes pushing down on my thighs with determination, other times holding my hips in despair or leaning over in protest. But still the climb continued. I was so grateful for the number of times I had done Kgale Hill because no amount of running would have prepared me for this. In fact, many of the seasoned hikers were a lot stronger here than the runners. Even as I struggled, I continued to be struck by the beauty of the mountains, the diverse flora including the gorgeous protea, and even a curious grass snake!
On this stretch, I could feel a headache coming on so I took a paracetamol, and I’m glad I did. When we finally reached Check Point 3, I could have cried. I was so relieved to see those happy faces. Sadly, one of the runners we had been with for most of the journey up until now, had to withdraw from the race. One of the guys offered me a shower and I gladly twirled under the cold water! Potatoes and salt have never tasted this good and I took my time to regroup before heading out again. I knew from the map that the next section would be easier.
To Check Point 4 At 25.4km
It was. This was my strongest section which is hard to believe given the long and exhausting climb we had had. But this section was quite runnable and the downward trend made it easy to keep running. The clouds continued to be kind and provide much needed cover. I don’t know how we would have survived had it been a sunny day. Even with all the beauty we had already seen, the vast expanse of orange and pink heather was my favourite of all. And again, the views from atop the ridge continued to amaze me. How magnificent the world looks from above.
It was here we saw a 76km runner struggling with cramps and Ditiro offered him some cramp block. It was amazing how fast he recovered and before long he was running comfortably in the distance. When we reached the fourth Check Point, I indulged in more salted potatoes.
To Check Point 5 At 33.8km
I continued to run at every opportunity. At 26km, when I stopped to cover a blister, I still felt so lucky to be out there surrounded by beauty that extended as far as the eye could see.
There were some downhill sections that were tricky to navigate but I stayed focused and Ditiro remarked afterwards that he was surprised I’d only stumbled once in all 9+ hours out there.
When we got to 30km, I was in new territory. I had never run further than 30km in all my life. But by the time I got to Check Point 5, I was feeling confident. We had reached this point, well ahead of the cut-off, and now we just had about 10km left. One of the volunteers warned me that the last 3km would be tough. It wasn’t the first time I’d been warned about the infamous Zuurberg Section. But little prepared me for what was to come.
At 35km, I remember saying how my training had not actually been as bad as I thought. I felt strong. I felt powerful. I felt unstoppable. But it was shortly after this that things went south.
Around 36/ 37km, something switched off. It’s really hard to explain. But I felt as if there was a sudden disconnect between my mind and body. We were on a flat single track but I couldn’t get my legs to run. I took some more hydration salts, a gel and later a protein bar, but something had changed and I could feel it. This strong and powerful body that had carried me for 36km had switched off. But as this was happening, my mind did something quite extraordinary – it shut down all feelings, it blocked out the noise, and focused on one thing – moving forward.
Ditiro did his best to take my mind off things by starting conversations. I heard him but didn’t have the energy to respond. My mind could only focus on pushing my body forward. One of the 100 milers passed us and said something in Afrikaans. Unfortunately, we didn’t understand and a few hundred metres later we discovered she had thrown up on the ground. But her steely look of determination after running over 158km, is what pulled me for those last kilometres.
When we reached the final 3km, I couldn’t believe the cruel hill we had to climb so close to the end, and one with a cliff on the side at that! But again, I pushed all feelings aside as I stormed ahead. I didn’t see the cliff, I didn’t see the hill, I didn’t see the views, I only saw the finish.
The Final Sprint
I had brought a big Botswana flag that I wanted to carry across the finish. So in the final kilometre, Ditiro sprinted ahead so he could capture me as I came through. With a few hundred metres to go, my legs broke into a trot and then a full-on run. As I ran down the slope, there were cheers at the bottom. I pulled out my flag – you know I’ve always loved a touch of the dramatic! It was twisted but I didn’t waste time fixing it. I turned left where I could finally see the finish I’d imagined for so long. I ran as fast and as hard as my tired legs could carry me.
When I reached the end, I was so confused as I was given my medal. I felt as if I had suddenly come out of the daze I’d been in for the last 8km. I hugged Ditiro and finally allowed myself to think and feel again. I had run, I had hiked, I had crawled my way to the finish in 9:42:53 hours.
As we waited for our shuttle back to Hayterdale Trails, I reflected on my run – I had finished in the so-called “back of the pack” – but I had run every section I could, courageously pushed up every incline, and at the end, I had tuned out all feelings of despair to put one foot in front of the other. I had conquered the distance to proudly call myself an ultra-trail marathoner.
I can’t end this blog without acknowledging a few important people. First of all, my heartfelt gratitude goes to Rebecca who opened the door to this chapter in my life by giving me the race entry she had won at the Gauteng Trail Clinic in 2019; then to the incredible Addo Trail Run Team who organised an unforgettable race, and to all the amazing athletes who encouraged and inspired me during the race. I also have to thank my wonderful family who have always believed in my crazy dreams, my friends (runners and non-runners alike) who motivate me daily, and the wider running and blogging community who offer such solid support and advice. Last, but not least, a very special thank you to Ditiro, who has never had any intentions of running an ultra-trail, but who ran with me to support my dream, ensuring I was hydrated, fuelled and motivated for 9+ hours, all the while taking 200+ photos, so we could bring this remarkable trail to you.
I’m joining two amazing runners, Kim from Running on the Fly and Deborah from Confessions from a Mother Runner for their link up, the “Weekly Run Down”. Hop on over to their blogs and others, and be inspired.