There are races when everything goes perfect, our fitness shines through and we are able to run the incredible races we are capable of. There are races that go to shit and we are left to examine where we failed in fitness or in execution. There are races that go off the rails for reasons we will never understand. There are races that go fine and we run satisfactory. There are so many race experiences we can have and the perfect so elusive, I believe that is one reason we keep coming back for more.
Going into Saturday’s, Ultra Trail Cape Town, I knew I would face the toughest, most technical race I have ever done. I knew that the challenge was immense. After seeing a few of the sections of the course, I knew I would have a novel race experience. I would see once and for all how I could handle a course with intense climbs and super technical trails. I was prepared to be humbled, I was prepared to dig deep and accept the day. On top of that, I have not run a 100km race (or anything over 89km) since June 2012, with my last trail 100km being UROC in 2011, where I ran 10:25. I optimistically thought I could run right about 13 hours on this course. I feel my fitness is really good right now but I didn’t know how the ascents, technical trails and distance would affect me. That is why, from the start I saw this as an adventure. I didn’t come to this race to “race”, I came because I am in love with Cape Town and I wanted to experience the trails. My experience over the last 3 weeks has deepened and widened that love as the ultra community here has embraced me and the trails have inspired and challenged me. Standing on the start line, instead of feeling like I had flown half way to take on a challenge alone, I huddled together with all my new friends and felt that amazing feeling that made me an ultra runner in the first place: these are my people. We are all here to take on an adventure and the struggle before us is a beautiful one. One we will support and cheer each other through. I stood there appreciating the insane hard work that Nic, Stuart and Kim and all the race organizers and volunteers put into making this day possible. I stood there without nerves, feeling surrounded by people who believed in me and knew there were as many at home, huddled by the computers, standing behind me as well.
Of all of the race days I imagined, what I faced was beyond anything I had imagined. I sit here unable to quantify my race as “good” or “bad” or even “mediocre” it is so profoundly more complicated than that. But what I can say is that, I am deeply profoundly proud of myself for making it through that race. It might be the most proud of a race I have been in an incredibly long time. I haven’t once post race had anything but intensely positive feelings of pride for the day I put together in the end. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t easy, it was not perfect, hell, it wasn’t even fun for the most part. But I went to depths I have never before been to and preserved to earn that finish line. I wanted to quit so many times, I wanted to quit with such assurity I am not even certain how I managed to carry on. But there was a moment where I simply said to myself “I will not quit” and that was that.
It is spring time in Cape Town and the weather is a fickle beast. I race Cape Town marathon in 80% humidity and 70 degrees. There have been days of wind so strong you can hardly stand. There were hot days, the next freezing. There has been pouring rain and beautiful blue bird days. I knew it was likely going to be cold on the top of Table Mountain, but unfortunately for me, we lost the weather lottery on Saturday and it had a profound affect on my race. From the start it was raining and very cold, and if there are two things that I have not been in a long time it is wet and cold. I am more prepared for a 100 degree day than I am for a 30. And rain, what is that? I thought my Oiselle bolt sleeves and a pair of gloves, plus my Oiselle Flyer jacket would be sufficient in any weather since there would be lots of hard uphill efforts to keep me warm. I could not even have imagined.
I fared really well in the early miles. We had a lovely “neutral zone” going as we ran through the empty city streets behind the lead vehicle. The field tried to stay together until the first climb out of the city so that everyone would be safe in the city streets. I really enjoyed the warm up and felt good cruising along. We hit the first climb up Signal Mountain and Lion’s Head and I fell in behind Landie Greyling who was running the 65km. I felt really really good climbing. My effort was minimal and I felt like I was running intelligently not pushing hard or breathing hard, knowing that going to hard on the super hard first few climbs would mean destruction later in the day. This course is front loaded with climbs and I knew I would have to start slow and then pull myself back from there to navigate them well. As we traversed the mountain in the fog, I had to smile and think “ha, and everyone think I am not a good climber” and it feeling effortless. We made our way through the rain and fog in the dark and arrived at the first aid station at 11km as the sky began to “lighten” and I tossed my headlamp in my pack. I was a few feet ahead of the other front ladies, Kerry Ann and Chantal, and we headed up the second climb which is a straight up 900 m climb up the technical Platteklip Gorge. I knew I just had to put my head down and power. And I did. We formed a conga line and went up up up. Near the top, I let Landie, Kerry Ann, Chantal and some guys go in front of me as I was feeling self conscious about having 8 people right on my butt. We hit the top and were blasted with intensely cold, wet wind. I tried to put my wet gloves on and took my pack off to get out my jacket. The other runners danced off across the mountain and I quickly made chase but knew immediately that I was too cold. Scary cold. I started shivering and I picked my way across the slick rocks and through the ankle deep standing water. I had to move so cautiously as I could no longer feel my feet and the terrain is the most technical and dangerous at this point. Immense frustration and fear set in. I saw my day unraveling in front of me. What if I couldn’t get warm? Then I started falling and slipping. I twisted and mangled my feet several times and slowed down even more. More than once barely crawling at a slow walk to ensure I didn’t fall on the steep rocky descent. I was terrified and frustrated. But the weather is something we cannot control. There would have been no way for me to better prepare myself. No way, I could have kept my feet wetter or drier. It was just the card we were dealt and because I am coming from dry and hot, its affect on me was great. I cried a lot during this section. I told myself, I should just make the turn at Constantia Nek and opt into the 65km. I could easily justify it in my mind. I cried and yelled my way slowly down into the aid station. And then, there in front of the <-65km/ 100 -> sign, I didn’t hesitate and went to continue. Somewhere in me, there was hope that I could rally. Maybe it would warm up? Maybe my twisted mangled broken feeling feet would be ok. Maybe going so slow through this section would just mean I would be able to really race the second half.
I cried a lot at the aid station, stuffing my face with gummy candies and walking out of the aid station. I hadn’t been eating or drinking because I was too cold and knew that I couldn’t ignore this. And then I started running down a fire road and thought, maybe, just maybe, I’ll be ok. I had rec’d this part of the course with Nic the previous Saturday and so I knew it was littered with runnable sections and I got myself going again. I finally started warming up a little bit and with that first bit of warmth, came the pain. My feet started to thaw and I felt the damage that all the falling between rocks has caused. They throbbed from the trauma. Every time I worked through another technical rocky patch I would slip and fall and my frustration was intense. I felt so limited. I felt like I couldn’t stop being angry and get my head back into the game. I cried my way into the next aid station at Llandundo and blubbered embarrassingly. I was told that I was only 2-5 mins behind the other women which shocked me. It was enough to get me out of the aid station again with the hope, maybe I could turn this around? Nic had given me a good preview of this section leading up to the next big climb to Suther Peak. I pushed across the beaches and sandy trails along the water, getting cold again as the previous sections warmth faded into memory. The weather was not going to relent it was clear. I reached the turn up from the beach and remember that Nic had said “1 hour” to the top of the 600 m climb. With that in mind, I just resolved to put my head down and aim to do just that. I didn’t have to think about it, I just did it. Fitness wise, every time I was actually able to run or climb hard, I felt really good. I again just had that glimmer of hope “just get past 50km” then you have a good runnable (27kms) at least in theory. I powered up to the fire road where Nic and I had turned away from the mountain in our rec run and he was standing there in the cold waiting to cheer me on. It was nice to see him and I was happy to see he had made it through his portion of the 65km relay. He’s returning from injury and had passed me on the top of Table Mountain. I was glad he was able to crush the rest of the first half and arrive freshly showered and all bundled up. It gave me a boost to see him and I continued up to the peak. It was steep, it was gnarly and it was freezing. I could feel myself getting hypothermic again and started to feel frustrated again. I cried. I yelled as I slipped and fell numerous times. And then I hit a second that required some insane and dangerous rock hopping. I scaled the walls and continued to the top. It was slow going and as cautious as I could be, I still couldn’t feel my hands or feet. At one point I hoisted myself between two large rocks and lost my grip and fell backwards into another boulder smashing my elbow hard into it. I thought I had shattered my elbow it hurt so bad. And now, I was more terrified than I had been before. I didn’t want to seriously hurt myself. If I did, I would be in serious danger as the peak was completely socked in and no rescue helicopter would be able to find its way to the top. I made it to the top, having been caught by the Brazilian and a Spanish (?) guy. They tried me to hurry up but I was terrified. I let them pass me and immediately we were faced with a 10 foot drop off a rock and I couldn’t get down on my own. Thankfully, as I cowered on the rock, crying and telling them “I can’t do it”, they said, “we are two guys, we will lower you down.” They put their hands together and gave me somewhere to put my feet down and lowered me to the dirt below. I am so grateful for them. I couldn’t have gotten off that rock on my own. I was too scared. They flew off down the trail and I slowly and cautiously made my way down to the 50km aid station at Hout Bay. My elbow hurt, my feet hurt, I was so cold. I was barely running on Jeep track downhill. I was 1000% I was going to stop. This was terrible. I was not having fun. I didn’t want to be doing this. It was all just too much. I sobbed and sobbed and resolved just to quit, too frustrated, too upset, too cold. I threw every mental and positive strategy I could at myself, but I could not draw myself out of the depths.
After what felt like forever, I made it to Hout Bay. 7+ hours had passed and wasn’t even sure if I was able to make the cut offs at this point since the race has a very stout cut off of 15 hours. Everyone was cheering and supportive at the aid station. I laughed and cried as I told them that my goal earlier had resolved to be “don’t cry in the aid stations” and how thus far I had not succeeded in doing so. The woman of the aid station told me that I was looking awesome and that I wasn’t that far behind Chantal. Maybe 10 minutes they said. The Brazilian and Spaniard were in the aid station and when I mentioned wanting to drop, the Brazilian simply said, “no, you are going with me”. I shoved french fries in my mouth and took my full water bottles from the ladies and simply started walking out of the aid station. No one humored me, no one indulged my desire to drop. I didn’t know anyone at the aid station, so no one was there to dry my tears. They had one job, keep me going and somehow they did. No convincing necessary, it just suddenly felt like the wrong choice. That glimmer of hope came back, what if this slow first half just means I can have a stellar second half. I gave myself until the next aid station just 6km away to see if I was done or if I could turn it around. I knew the section was the most runnable. I had hoped to be able to turn it on between 50-77km and so as the Brazilian and I made our way out of the Marina, we began to run. I felt like it was the first time all day that I was actually able to get into a rhythm and we ran, actually ran, our way through Hout Bay back toward Constantia. And suddenly, the fear was gone, suddenly, the hope grew strong, my resolve strengthened. Each step, I grew stronger. I can do this, I can do this. I realized I was not tired, I was warm (enough) and I had gone so slowly in the first half that I really had the legs and fitness to start moving. I quickly dropped the Brazilian and started crushing it over the combination of roads, dirt track and jeep track. I resolved to just run as hard as I could for as long as I could. I knew 77-finish were again technical and with significant climbs, so I knew this was my only chance to open it up. And for the first time all day, I smiled. I had been brave, I had been strong and I hadn’t quit. I had made it through the hardest part, neither gracefully nor happily but for the first time all day, I didn’t want to quit.
I ripped through the section from 50km-56km and arrived in the aid station finally able to reach my goal of not crying in an aid station. I made quick work, grabbed more gummy candies and filled my bottles. My nutrition plan had pretty much been out the window all day, I had taken maybe 800 calories in by this point and knew that I needed to focus more on nutrition so that I didn’t tank later. I continued to crush it as I made my way into the vineyards of Constantia. I had rec’d some of this section with Kim the previous Sunday, so I knew 60-77km was a bunch of running up and down muddy vineyard trails and through some parks. I had hoped it would be a good section for me to keep making up time, unfortunately as I came into Constantia Glen, I realized that it would be significantly slower as the trails were muddy and chewed to pieces. All of the 65km runners had already passed through and the other 100km runners which means the footing was terrible and I slipped and slid my way towards 64km. I was still feeling good and positive as I came into the aid station. I ate a few potatoes, drank a coke and headed out. The aid station captain gave me a hard time. He said having heard of me crying in earlier aid stations, I heard you need to toughen up. And pushed me out of the aid station. I didn’t really appreciate the sentiment. I was trying to keep the positive rolling and it just seemed so negative to me. I don’t like when people try to motivate me with negatives. It just doesn’t work. As I wrestled with what he said, I hit a low patch and started to become frustrated with the mud in the fields. And my foot started to hurt incredibly on the top, apparently from compensating for the earlier traumas. I started to worry, was I going to be forced to quit? I didn’t want to terribly injure myself. I ran when I could, slid around in the mud and tried to mentally dig myself out of the whole. I felt low. I felt the urge to quit rise up. I felt done. And in that moment, instead of leaving that door open, I just said, “Devon you will not stop. If you have to walk it in, you will. But you are not stopping. Period.”. And that was that. And from there, I pushed when I could, walked when I couldn’t, rolled the highs and lows, but pushed ever forward. The section felt incredible long and I finally arrived at 77km. Nic was there to support me and he filled my water bottle with coconut water since I hadn’t been taking electrolytes all day and was retaining water. I realized I really had to be smart and careful about my nutrition. I had planned to run using Tailwind (as they were a race sponsor) all day as my calories and hydration, but it wasn’t actually available at the aid stations until 90km. Nic told me I was still only 10 minutes back and I simply said, “I am just going to run as hard as I can. I am just getting to that finish line.” It was tremendously helpful to have him walk me out of the aid station and give me encouragement. I headed up into Newlands Forest. I knew there was about 400m of ascent and it would be technical. My legs still felt good and my foot pain was lessening now that I wasn’t simply trying to stay upright in muddy fields. I had energy, I could tell I had fitness, it was simply a matter of how well I could make it through the final 23kms on terrain that had so frustrated me earlier.
And the next 13km to the final aid station did frustrate me. But I simply kept putting one foot in front of the other. Crazy fast moving stream crossings, rock field after rock field, slippery wooden pathways and slippery downhill mud. Sigh. Fuck this shit. I thought so many times, but I kept going. I took in gels finally to make sure the last 400m climb up Devil’s Peak after 90km wasn’t a bonking slog. That section took freaking forever. I came into 90km filled my bottle with Tailwind and exited the aid station with a smile. I was going to make it. I knew that the final 10km might suck worse than the previous 13km, but with 3 more hours until the finish cut off of 15 hours, I knew I would make it.
The final climb was straight up the side of the mountain. But I freaking rocked it. I felt strong and still energetic, I still had legs, despite the pain in my feet, could run and hike quickly. At this point, I was pretty much certain that I was going to be peeling off the entirety of the soles of my feet they had been so wet all day. I focused on my legs power and simply disregarded the pain in my feet. I decided the pain didn’t matter. As I topped out of the climb, my heart sang, I was so proud of myself. I was on the top of the mountain and I was going to finish this thing. I started running hard across the contour path despite it being rocky, I pushed and pushed around the mountain.
I made it over the last little uphill and for the first time all day, the clouds broke and far, far below, I caught sight of the finish line. I pushed. I passed numerous 65km runners and several 100km runners as well. Feeling stronger with every step. I danced down the big stone stairway down to the road and made the turn past dead man’s tree onto the fireroad. I smiled and high fived the race marshall. I turned the corner and got chocked up. For the first time all day, I cried tears of joy. I was going to finish. I ran hard down the fire trail. I knew that I had not been able to compete the way I wanted, I knew I had not been able to truly show my capabilities on that course, I knew I had the fitness and skill to have run faster, but I also knew it didn’t matter. The day didn’t deal me cards that made that possible. Instead, I had a day where I dug deeper than I ever have before.
I made the final turn back into the streets of Cape Town and up into the rugby field. The finish line was a beautiful sight. Never before has a finish line felt so deeply well earned. I ran hard to the line and was welcomed back home by an amazing community that embraced me like their own. I was simply so happy to be there. So many hugs, high fives and a warm blanket later, I was sitting amongst friends sharing war stories of the day. I had done it. I was there triumphant. 3rd women, 11th overall in a time of 13:13. Despite having such a hard day, I still ran the time I thought possible for myself before I started. And I know I could have run faster (we all could have and had quite a battle) if the conditions were so terrible. But that was the day and I have zero regrets.
I didn’t want that moment to end. That moment on the finish line. That deep intense sense of satisfaction for completing one hell of a tough 100km. That joy of being surrounded by so many great new friends, celebrating our day of battling the mountain. I cannot say enough good things about this race. You must experience it. They pulled off a spectacular race and really got it right. In just its second year, this race has really really got it on point and I see it becoming an international destination race for elites and gluttons for punishment alike. Do it. Trust me.
That moment, I want to hold it. I want to savor it. I don’t want it to slip through my fingers. I am so incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to experience it.
I am heading home now, 24 hours into a 30+ hour journey. I am missing my new friends. I am missing the community that brought me in and made me its own. I am missing the mountain and the trails that chewed me up, spit me out and have me begging for more. Cape Town is a special place. And this race is truly special. How lucky I have been to experience this!
I want to say a particular thank you to Kim Stephens, Nic De Beer and Christo Selman. You guys are truly special to me and have a friend for life. I am so grateful for everything. Special thanks to Oiselle and Hoka for making this day and trip possible. And not to be left out, a very special thank you to my husband Nathan who stayed behind at home and worked his ass off double time at the bakery to allow me this opportunity. You are the best.