At the risk of sounding like a complete trail running snob I am confessing that a road race (with exception of the Comrades Marathon) has never left me in complete awe! Ultratrail Cape Town (UTCT) took my breath away and swept me off my feet. If you are not from Cape Town or have never run the trails in Cape Town then UTCT is the ride to get on.
I grew up in Stellenbosch in the heart of the Winelands surrounded by mountains and vineyards. I’ve always been in awe of the mountains and cherished the fact that I was blessed to have grown up in the most beautiful town in South Africa but I never got the opportunity to explore any of the mountains; even Table Mountain remained an iconic mystery! Of course, we all went up Table Mountain with the cable car and behaved like tourists at the lookout areas. Lol!
When I visited Cape Town in 2013 with my family I decided that was it. We are climbing Table Mountain! We went up via Platteklip gorge and that’s when I saw all the beautiful trails and started dreaming about how nice it would be to run them all. When I saw the inaugral race of UTCT in 2014 I knew it was a race I had to do!
What did I get myself into!
I entered for the 100km race in January already (the very 1st day that entries opened) that’s how excited I was. The idea was to use the race as a long run in preparation for my 300km desert race next year. I’ve never run that far on trail before and was curious to see how my body would cope running 100km non-stop. In hindsight, although the first 50km of my desert race includes traversing a mountain range UTCT was probably not the right race to be simulating desert-like racing conditions. Lol! I suppose a three day multi-stage race like Golden Gate would’ve probably been a far better match to test equipment like pack, race gear, nutrition and recovery.
Oh well…water under the bridge! My heart was set on running this race. However the night before the race I made peace with myself and SETTLED for the 65km; to be honest my training races indicated that I would probably need about 18hrs to finish a 100km mountain ultra instead of the ridiculous 15hrs!
My strategy was to keep things simple (run from aid station to aid station) and to not get too caught up in the environment. Physically I was well prepared (over prepared!). I had all that Comrades mileage in my legs as well as Magaliesberg and Mont-Aux-Sources. I was more than ready to run Cape Town!
A Race of Eating, Drinking…and Walking
Registration was quick and included a compulsory gear check. I met Noel Ernstzen at registration who was kind enough to walk me through the route. His advice to me was…firstly; this is a race of eating and drinking. If you hydrate and fuel throughout you will do well. Your body is ready and can do the job. Secondly, he said…this is not Comrades where you’re expected to run the hills. Lol! You are going to take it easy; walk the climbs and run the flats and downs. Noel wished me good luck and said he will be waiting at Groot Constantia. I must admit I felt much more relax after that briefing. No pressure!
I also met the lovely Tailwind couple Grant and Melanie Markey; always exciting to meet my tweeps in real life! They told me that they would be at the 1st aid station at Kloof Nek and the last one at UCT.
Great, I had supporters…this race must just start now!
We were blessed with some light showers the morning of the race; that after we had clear blue skies the day before. Someone send me a tweet afterwards saying…”That’s the Mother City. She can be a “bitch” sometimes”. I normally wear long tights for trail but that morning I opted for short tights and a racers T. I still regret making that decision! Despite the cold and rain the spirits were high. What is a little bit of rain, right? We are well trained extreme ultratrail runners…besides the weather forecast said rain in the morning and sunny and clear from midday.
It was a cold wet start but when the start gun was fired I forgot about the weather. I was so excited to finally get going that I actually enjoyed the little curve ball from the weather gods. The first section of the route would see us run through the Company’s Gardens. I suffer from chronic calf fatigue disease and numbness in my feet (only the first 8km of a race) so I tried my best to keep things easy. I loved running the streets of Cape Town in the dark and the soft showers made it easy for me to stay relaxed though my heart was pounding from excitement. I had to focus hard not to get caught up in the hype. It felt as if everyone was passing me but it wasn’t long and BOOM! We hit the first hill in the Bo-Kaap. Phew! Relief. EVERYONE was walking. LOL!
A lot of runners passed me going up this first hill but I decided to take it easy. I run my own race. What are these people smoking? We still have about 14hrs of running ahead of us!
Signal Hill and The Sweepers!
We were greeted by the first trail as we reached the top of that Bo-Kaap hill. It was all single track and I could follow the trail via the headlamps of the front runners. Eish, I still have to go all the way up there? I suddenly noticed four runners behind me. They sounded all excited and energised. I didn’t spot them earlier so thought they might have had a late start and wanted them to pass me as it sounded like they were on a roll. I stopped to let them pass but the one guy said “No rush. We are the sweepers”. I said nothing but though to myself. No way in hell am I going to be the last person in this race. Not today!
Those first few climbs were tough. My feet went completely numb. My calves were screaming at me but I decided to IGNORE them. I am not stopping for silly calf stretches today. My mind was telling me that I was going to regret it but I didn’t care. I kept moving as fast as I could. I spotted my first victim. Male. Yes, sweepers…that is your man…now leave me alone. LOL! I felt great passing the guy and soon I spotted my next 2 victims. Male and female running together. Yes, I can kill two birds at once. THAT felt great. Though I must admit they gave me a run for my money. Finally we reached what seemed to be the top of that “little” section and were running on tar road. I spotted victim no.4! Things were starting to come together. I could wiggle my toes and was finally on a roll!
It was so refreshing to be out in the rain (and cold). The climbing seemed to have stopped and by the time I got to Lion’s Head I was flying!
KLOOF NEK (Aid Station 1 – 11km)
It was still raining when I got to the first aid station. I spotted more runners at the aid station but they left as I arrived. The volunteers and spectators were just amazing. It was great seeing the Tailwind couple. Grant apologised for the poor weather. Melanie told me that it will all be trail from here on….just a short climb to get to the contour path. Ya right!
There was a group of 4 ahead of me and 1 other person with running poles. All walking up the hill. OMG! That was the first VERY steep climb I’ve encountered since the start of the race. Everyone seemed to be struggling on that climb. I couldn’t go any faster than them. The guy with his poles (Japanese) seemed to be nailing it. I remembered reading an article in the Runner’s World about poles and saw a picture of a guy walking with a stick and decided that is it. I looked around for stick. Today, the stick will be my friend. It worked. I’m so investing in Z-poles after this race! Then came the steps and I started to laugh at myself. There is only one way up this mountain and that is to take it…SLOW. I managed to pass the Japanese guy with the poles and I was stoked!
I finally made it to the contour path and started to relax. It was pouring but I passed 2 more runners! The path was slippery and little pools started to form. If there’s one thing I love more than running then it is running in the rain. I was soaked; cursed myself a few more times for being so stupid to not have worn the long tights and top at least I would’ve been warm but I still loved every minute of it!
The climb up Platteklip gorge came way too soon! I should’ve worked out how long it would take me to get to the top. That would’ve kept me focused but I didn’t and at that stage I didn’t have the mental capacity to do any complex calculations so resorted to asking 20 millions times…how far to the top? I passed another 2 runners; great motivation to keep going. I wasn’t tired but couldn’t pushed myself up that mountain faster. It was a real hands on knees affair (lol!). I battled the element as it started to rain harder and the wind started to blow. I don’t know how long it took me to get to the top but the minute I could stand up straight I was back to my old energetic self. I felt good…but eish…still a few big boulders to be conquered to finally get to the “real” top of Table Mountain!
On top of the world!
What’s worse than battling elements to get to the top of a mountain…discovering that all the trails are flooded! This is where I completely surprised myself. I would’ve normally tiptoed around the path trying to find the dry spots to put my feet but not this time. I was charging through the water. It was pouring and the wind blowing but I felt strong (hard core!). I was not going to stop now. I ran as fast as I could. I kept checking in to see how my body was responding. I read a hikers blog a few weeks back about how they got lost in bad weather on top of Table Mountain not properly dressed and was hypothermic by the time someone got to them. I felt great…kept thinking my body must be really strong…a well trained athlete!
It was beautiful running all by myself with the mist blocking what would’ve been a spectacular view. In some weird way I found this much more interesting and challenging. I’ve Google Earth the route a couple of times and together with the awesome recce runs had great insight into the route so I think it would’ve been a bit boring if I just saw what I already knew. Instead I got beautiful mysterious pathways just blindly following the route markers!
I spotted another 4 runners ahead of me. Yes! I am going to pass them. The trails were becoming a bit technical. I kept thinking..no this can’t be it? But then I spot the markers…yes, really this is it! The bad weather turned into a full blown storm on top of the mountain. I felt like a badass warrior woman taking the lead. I didn’t look back to see what was happening to the others just kept running until I got to the next aid station. I was so happy (lol!).
WOODHEAD DAM (Aid Station 2 – 22km)
I felt so sorry for the volunteers standing on top of Table Mountain in the miserable weather while I was having the time of my life. I was frozen but on a high! My first thought after leaving the aid station was to get off the mountain as fast as possible. Easier said than done as a lot of technical sections await so needless to say… it was slow going. I recall one section where I literally had to sit down, grabbed onto a piece of chain that was edged into one side of a rock and prayed that I was strong enough to pull myself over to the other side. I have no idea how I did it but I did it! I passed 3 more runners on the down. One was sitting down saying he is giving his knee a bit of a rest. Yes, Platteklip gorge got me but I was back on a roll.
The view from the top descending Constantia Nek was spectacular. I’ve never been so excited to see vineyards. I knew I was close to the next aid station so gave it my best run. I did some downhill training and had the confidence to go a little faster (lol!). Right at the bottom of Constantia Nek was the aid station. From there on it was straight into the vineyards. As I entered the vineyards the marshal told me to take it easy as there was a steep downhill and it was very slippery (thanks for that tip!). It was a slip and slide muddy affair through the vineyards (not a lot of running) but I loved it! We exited the vineyards and ran through Constantia until we got to Groot Constantia where the next aid station was. I was quietly getting excited again.
GROOT CONSTANTIA (Aid Station 3 -31km)
This was halfway mark. It was still pouring. I was so hungry and cold. Noel was at the aid station as promised. He welcome me with a huge hug! I was so happy to see him (felt like I’ve known him for years…lol!). The spectators and volunteers were fantastic! I grabbed a peanut butter sandwhich and someone asked me coffee or soup. I’m thinking…what? Who has time for coffee or soup? I took the soup. Never had soup and peanut butter sandwhich before. It was yum!
Pushed to my limits…by BABOONS!
I left the aid station in the pouring rain feeling really strong and psyched! There were three guys running in front of me. I thought about joining them but they were a little too fast so I settled into my own little vineyard trot. It was still raining and the paths were muddy. I imagined I was doing a UK fell running event. I was really impress with how my Brook Cascadia’s was handling all of this; thought to myself this is why you wear trail running shoes… so that you can walk through the muddy mess and not care! I made sure the three guys in front of me stayed within eyesight. They joined up with another group of 4-5 and I was suddenly excited again….would be nice if I could pass them. They were all doing the run/walk shuffling thing at that stage and I was getting into a nice running rhythm; it was only going to be a matter of time before I would catch up with them (they were still I about 500m ahead of me). We left the vineyard onto a gravel road and this group suddenly stopped in their tracks and I thought great, they taking a break but then I saw some of them walking back. I thought that they might have missed the marker and is turning back…but then they re-grouped and all continue to move forward together…and that’s when I saw…THE OTHERS!
A pack of BABOONS!!!!! Sitting…Standing…Waiting…Blocking The Road!
OMG!!! MY WORST NIGHTMARE COMING TRUE! I seriously suffer from ZOOPHOBIA (irrational fear of animals). I can face torrential rainstorms climbing up a mountain all by myself. I can slide on my butt down a muddy snowy slippery gully. I can go up two sets of chain ladders cramping like hell (thinking I was going to die) but there’s no way in hell I am walking pass a pack of baboons all by myself! I looked around to see if there were other runners behind me but couldn’t see ANYONE! Where are the marshals when you need them. I went into a full blown panic attack!
How de hell was I going to get pass THE PACK! Think…think..think!
Then, like an AHA moment. The only way to make it through “alive” is if I join the group in front of me. I could see they were also very cautious. I cannot let them pass and leave me behind. I shouted for them to wait. They ignored me. I shouted louder. They ignored me. I started to run…very fast. I shouted, they IGNORED ME!! Then I threw a terrible two tantrum and went into full blown shouting crying running mode. PLEEEEAAAASSSEEEE…WAIT FOR ME!! Then I heard someone say…No, No, No…Let’s Wait For Her!
OMG… my tears were rolling, partly from being shit scared and partly from pure relief and being grateful to these guys for waiting. Phew! The worse wasn’t over…we still had to pass the PACK. The scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I felt like Jane from the Tarzan movie, surrounded by baboons! Lots of them, big ones…babies, families! NOT.MY.THING! I will forever be grateful to a lady called Sam who literally took me under her wing, calmed me down and walked with me; obviously to the entertainment of everyone else. I even got a Go Pro stuck into my face; I guess they thought this would make a UTCT funniest moments clip (lol!).
So embarrassing…but I will reserve a space on this post for this clip when it becomes available. I am sure it will!
We made it. Everyone was scared. Then I heard someone said…they wouldn’t let us run through a section if it wasn’t safe. I was having my doubts!
I needed a few moments to catch my breath before I could get into “running” mode again. I expressed my sincere gratitude to the group and my new found friend Sam. We were back on tar roads so I up the pace and slowly broke away from the group. I really enjoyed this bit of easy running but it was still raining and I was starting to feel really cold. How I longed for that waterproof jacket…
ALPHEN TRAILS (Aid Station 4 – 43km)
8h30mins later and I ran into Alphen aid station full of energy and excited! The volunteers and spectators were fantastic cheering in all runners. I grabbed a peanut sandwich and jelly babies and head off without wasting too much time. The next section would see us running through Newlands Forest – 12km of a steep up and down to get to UCT. I had a look at the times predicted for the slow runners to complete this section and it was a good 3hrs. Worst case scenario, I figured!
The trails were slippery and with all the rain the rivers were flowing at full speed. All of a sudden this race became a real challenge! I even had to ask a runner to help me cross a river. It was tough going up all those stairs in the forest; literally one step at a time! Quite a few 100km runners passed me in the forest including SA Masters Champ Graeme McCullum. His comment when he passed me “Well done, keep going. I am so ready to get back to the road races!” If the SA Masters champ say that you you know it’s tough day out. LOL!
Cry me a river
I felt good physically so kept plodding on. Mentally I got a bit frustrated. UCT had disappeared from the face of the earth and somehow crossing the rivers became a real challenge. I got to one of the crossings where I literally tried about 5 different options to get across. Close to tears from frustration I decided to wait for help. Who arrived? My new found friends…Sam and her friend to the rescue! We held hands as we went ROCK HOPPIN…a new skill I will have to learn and master! It was so hilarious but I knew there was no way I could’ve crossed that river without their help. Forever grateful Sam!
UCT (Aid Station 5 – 55km)
FINALLY! U.C.T. The cheering and support from volunteers and spectators were amazing. I thought it was the end of the race. My energy levels were high. I mean, serious…only 10km to go! Only a steep section up Devils Peak. That shouldn’t be too hard. I was on a high. The whole race I was telling myself to just get my butt to UCT because from there on it’s only 10km. The organisers estimated 3hrs for the back of the pack runners to finish this section. I mean 10km, 3hrs? Just didn’t make sense. Until I started…
The devil is in the peak
Holy Moly! WHY…didn’t anyone said ANYTHING about DEVILS PEAK! The BIG WALK through Newlands Forest got to me mentally. It was slow going but Devils Peak had me at a complete stand still trying to balance myself to stay upright and grabbing onto grass and plants to pull myself up. The word mountain climbers suddenly had meaning! Quite a few runners passed me here.
No doubt physically the toughest section of the day…billed in my books as the “Polly Shortts x 20” of UTCT. LOL!
Trail runners are the best!
I finally made it to the infamous BLOCKHOUSE! I could see all the others that have just passed me. Everyone was running again (lol!). A few of the 100km guys also passed me on this section. They all looked buggered yet determined to keep moving forward! You can’t help but admire the effort.
My Japanese friend with the poles that I passed right in the beginning of the race also caught up with me. I moved as fast I could. Can’t let him pass me now! It was starting to get dark (again) and I needed to get my headlamp from my bag so stopped and the guy passed me but then he also stopped for his headlamp; told me it’s better to be safe. I switched on my headlamp and…Oops! No, light…batteries died! I tried to move a little faster to take advantage of whatever natural light was still left. We were still descending the mountain and I had no choice but to tuck in behind my Japanese friend. I told him my batteries died and just like that he stopped and took out a hand torch. I guess one can never be over-prepared (lol!) and offered to run with me. I was in complete awe…trail runners are the best! We ran together for a while but I felt so guilty keeping him back I told him to go. I will just walk the last section which was about 3km of jeep track. I am forever grateful to him; wouldn’t have survived the last section of this race without his help!
THAT FEELING WHEN YOU FINALLY FINISH
Trying to run in the dark on jeep track with lots of loose rocks was very frustrating; ankle breaking stuff if you ask me but I was so close to the finish I could smell it (more like hear it!).
I have no idea where the energy was coming from but all I wanted to do was run. As I turned into Tech Rugby Fields they rang a cow bell to announce my arrival. I was beyond myself with excitement!
I just ran the longest race of my life (14:47) and it felt amazing finally setting foot on that blue carpet again!
The crowd support at the finish was amazing. Everyone was shouting and cheering me! Cameras were flashing. I felt like an elite runner that has just finished a UTMB race!
I ran a 65km of mountain ultra trail in the most adverse weather…and I loved every minute of it!
Thought of the day: