In early September 2015 I heard rumours that the old school Addo 100 Miler trail run might be brought back for the first time in over 5 years. As the kind of person who always takes the “big/toughest” option in everything that I choose to do, this immediately was something that I was interested in. But, at that same moment a little devil jumps up onto your shoulder… “But Johan… you couldn’t even make it to 60km in the 2015 Addo 76km run… you will never finish, what are you thinking?”. True, I’ve completed 2 Addo 76km runs, and did pull out last year at 59km. Truth be told though, I was sick leading up to the run and spent most of the day coughing up phlegm. Yeah… nice. At 59km my body had had enough.
Near the end of October 2015 I decided that I wanted to finish it. Not try it, finish it. In a 162km event finishing it was enough for me. It is worldwide tradition that finishers of a 100 Miler events get belt buckles as a trophy. I wanted mine.
I approached Natalie Tissink to get me in shape for Addo. As I understood it they had never coached anyone that wanted to attempt a 100 Miler, so I guess I was a Guinea pig of sorts J. I had no doubt that the Tissinks would sort me out, my main worry was that I might end up disappointing myself, and them.
Training commenced the 2nd week of October 2015. Let it be known that weighed around 83kg when training started. For a guy of my height (1.89m) it was will within the “normal” BMI bracket. Training included everything from speed work (which I hated), tempo runs, core strength session as well as TOL runs on the weekend. In the early days weekend runs was still 1 hour, nice and slow. This steadily increased in intensity, reps and distance over the next few months. Rest days… what are those? Few and far between.
There is a 10.91km loop that I do from my house which I use to test my fitness. Lots of flats, a few long drags and some gravel roads. The best I could ever muster was just over 51 minutes – and that required a massive effort. Going sub-50 felt like an impossible dream. A couple of months into training I decided to give it another go. I got back home in 48 minutes and 16 seconds. I even sent Natalie a photo of my GPS watch, I could not believe it. Hello speed.
I told myself that if I could get my weight to around 78kg by the time Addo comes around (end of February 2016), I would know I was in good shape. By the end of November, 3 months early, I reached my “goal” weight” of 78kg… So what now, bring on the chocolates or keep going? Soldier on was the decision.
Mid December I picked up a nasty tendon injury, so much so I couldn’t put any “running” weight on my right leg. The “push off” as if you were running shot a pain up my leg. I attributed the injury to running over a rocky terrain with pretty crappy Mr Price “Trail Shoes”. Lots of expensive scans, patches and doctors giving all sorts of mixed opinions later, they all came to the same conclusion. The same advice Natalie gave me for free. Rest. Rest until you can run again, you still have time. By now we were around New Years, no running for 2 weeks. Just when the leg started feeling better, I was down and out with a bout of flu – which means another 2 weeks rest. I was not a happy chappy. I could only start running again in the 2nd week of January. Natalie decreased the intensity of my sessions and the length of the TOL runs equally to not hit the body harm immediately again and to allow me to ease back into it. Now we were just over a month out from D Day. Oh, and I was sitting at around 76kg body weight by now, the best I had been in years.
Towards the end of January and early February the mileage crept up again and I decided to not overdo anything, rather get home 10 minutes early from a session and not 10 minutes late. Don’t be stupid, don’t over train and don’t get injured.
By the end of the 1st week of February, training started decreasing ever so slightly and I went into more of a “maintenance” mode. You can’t get any fitter at this stage, but you can get injured and sick if you push your body too far.
I know that when I do get sick it takes around 2 weeks to run its course. So, with Addo being the 26th, the 12th of Feb was the critical mass date. Any illnesses after that date won’t be cleared up before race day. I spoke to my managers at work and agreed to isolate myself in an abandoned office where I could close the door and hopefully filter out any germs. One guy in the office who sits 10 meters away from me had had “viral bronchitis” for the whole of February so isolating myself was top of my list. You would almost be scared to go to bed at night because of the possibility of waking up the next morning with that tell tail scratchy throat.
I only decided on my nutrition plan maybe a week before race day, mostly because during training I tried so many different things – all of which still made me nauseous. Literally, I didn’t know what to do. Drinking sports drink was a huge no-no as I knew that my body would never be able to process all those sugars – causing nausea. The “plan” I decided on was to keep things as natural as possible. How? Water. Surely the body would never reject plain old water. And for carbs, Ener-B, pure honey. We’ve been eating honey our entire lives – the body can’t reject that surely. And then at checkpoints solid, natural foods. Bananas, etc. No weird gels, no sports drink, and especially no fizzy drinks. El Natural baby. Also, I would pop salt tablets every 30 minutes to keep my sodium levels topped up. If your electrolyte levels dip too low you can start feeling very bad very quickly.
Race day came around, I was healthy (I weighted 74kg, yup), and ready to go. My backpack which weighed a good 5kg with all the required gear was packed. Sunblock applied, mosquito patches applied for the night sections, batteries charged, phone charged, battery packs (to keep phone charged), yes, charged. Rain jackets, buffs, etc., all in. Required Kit check came and I got everything that was needed.
At the briefing we were told of all the animals that we might encounter up in the furthest reaches of the park. If we were to come across hippos, just switch your headlight off, drop to the ground and wait for them to pass. You might also see jackal, springbok, kukus, nyalas, leopards, baboons, etc. Everyone sat silently waiting for the ranger to start laughing at his own “leopard” joke. He didn’t. There were leopards. But in 40 years there haven’t been any incidents, so nothing to worry about. Dead men don’t tell any tales hey? Ahem.
10 minutes before our scheduled start the atmosphere was unreal. UNREAL. The Addo car park was crammed with athletes, their loved ones and random visitors to Addo just standing there waiting for a crazy group of people to start their epic journey.
At 2pm sharp, the hooter sounded and we were off. Forget about dashing off the line, you will look like a moron and the experienced guys will pick you up 5km later anyway. Within 100 meters I met up with my mate Rieghard Janse van Rensburg, a very experienced “trailie” and it became clear that we had similar strategies. Walk the ups, trot the flats and the downs. The first 10km of the route would be the easiest. Rieghard and myself stayed side by side, and in those first 10km reeled in quite a few guys that did start too fast. Over the next 20km we would catch, and be caught by, many groups that come and go, everyone still finding their sweet spot pace, everyone still chatty and cheerful. At checkpoint 4, right before the big drop into the gorges below, headlights had to be engaged and warmer clothes put on. I started to feel a little bit nauseous but hoped it would go away. At roughly 50km in, I was super nauseous. I told Rieghard to carry on, I had to walk. If you run all the available blood goes to the legs, not leaving much for the stomach to do its work. Walking gives the tummy a bit of a breather and time to catch up.
I walked for 30km with stacks of runners passing me again whom I had passed during the day, making my mid-pack position now a thing of the past. Backmarker it was. By now it was 9 or 10pm at night. Completely alone in the middle of Addo’s remote hills, it was awesome. The problem was I wasn’t feeling awesome anymore. I was feeling very sick, and super sleepy. Every few kilometres or so I would simply stop, sit down in the dark with my head on my arms and just try not to fall asleep. A few times I would micro-dip and wake up just as I start keeling over. Think of the feeling when you lean too far back on a rocking chair… like that. Another problem I had was with my headlight. I kitted it out with lithium ion batteries which physically weight less than other batteries. The problem was that I got 4 hours battery life out of my light that would give around 30 hours with say Duracell batteries. Epic fail. So here I was being super sleepy, with a headlight that I had to put on extra low beam just to get through the night. I’m sure that with a bright light I would have felt more awake as well. I don’t blame the light, I blame the batteries. I sat down numerous times, losing hours, easily. At checkpoints I saw that my running partner Rieghard was over 2 hours ahead of me.
For a while I ran (read, walked) with an experienced lady runner Kim van Kets. We spoke and I told her of my nausea and that I was just walking. She offered me a suppository which I humbly declined, along with colourful stories of how friends of hers mastered the art of ‘applying’ one in the middle of a restaurant with no-one noticing. Interesting chats you can have at 4 in the morning… Luckily, the suppository wasn’t needed.
At around 90km, the sun started appearing over the East, ever so slightly. And I started feeling better. At 97km I got to the “drop bag” checkpoints, Special Needs in Ironman talk. Here I sat down (like I had at previous checkpoint as well believe me), and took in a nice hot cup of tea and a little bit of porridge. I also swopped my soaking wet Asics Cumulus shoes for a set of Asics Nimbus, with dry socks and new lubricant between the toes. And off we went. If you know your running shoes you’ll realize that I undertook this event with road shoes, I didn’t own a proper pair of trail shoes (the Mr. Price ones do not count at all).
By now the sun was well up and I felt surprisingly good. I could run again, consistently. At around 103km I entered the “17km single track section”. This started all nice along the riverbed, but soon became hell. Hands on the knees type climbing. There was a self-help water point 3km into this section as it was too remote to have checkpoints. Here I refilled my running backpack and my two small front bottles. There would also be another self-help check 3km from the end of the 17km section. The sun was now baking, it was very hot and the going slow with all the climbing. Think of rocky stairs just a bit lower than knee-height. Well before the 2nd self-help water point I was running on empty, all my water gone. But, you had to go on. In the distance I saw a runner ahead of me way up the hill. The first person I had seen in hours. Donkey, meet carrot. Carrot, donkey. After another few kilos I reeled the guy in. And because we were now quietly testing each other, the two of us reeled in another two guys. An hour after running out of water we came across the 2nd water point. We’re saved! Kneeling at the 4, 5L Aquila water bottles – they were all empty. Not even a drop. Clearly what happened was that all the runners ahead had all also run out of water and refilled their running packs completely – leaving us with another 3km of no water. Two of the guys I had caught had a bit of a gap on me and the guy I was walking with. I decided to run a bit, just to get these 3 kilos done. When I reached the checkpoint I told them to please give me Crème Soda, and to keep it coming. I didn’t care anymore for my “No fizzy drink” rule! I left the checkpoint just as the guy I was walking with arrived. I was now on the last HUGE climb out from the valley floor right to the top of the plateau (we came down this same hill the previous night). Within a few minutes of hand-on-knees climbing I caught and passed my first victim, one of the two that has dropped me just before the previous checkpoint. Soon, I caught the other guy as well. Two down. Suddenly I started feeling pretty nauseous again, very nauseous.
I decided that it was now time to reset the stomach. I knelt down next to the trail and immediately the body cooperated and purged every drop of Crème Soda from my stomach… along with my last undissolved Myprodol capsule. Yeah, gross, but every athlete that has done an Ironman or big endurance event knows all about this. After a quick mouth rinse I was up and moving again. At this point I promised myself (again), no fizzy drinks, EVER AGAIN. The guy whom I just caught, caught up with me again after my next-to-trail episode and we stayed together for the next kilo or two right to the top of the ridge.
When I got there, I refilled with water, ate some dates and salty peanuts and put my windbreaker on again. Also, the headlight had to be strapped on and the running cap taken off. I set off just ahead of the other guy and decided to see if I could manage an gentle trot, now already over 120km into the race.
Settling into a “comforting” breathing pattern, I found I could run. And not very slow either. I was feeling AWESOME. Super awake, super alert. It wasn’t long before I zoomed past another runner. Another one down. Not long after that I saw another headlight illuminate the hills ahead of me. I continued my jogging and power hiking up drags and soon I was 50 meters behind the guy. His style seemed familiar but I didn’t think much of it. It now being completely dark I couldn’t be sure who it was. As I was right behind him I saw it was my mate Rieghard, who was over 2 hours ahead of me earlier in the day. His feet were destroyed with blisters he said so he was just doing what he needed to get to the finish. After a bit of chatting I set off running again, still feeling awesome. Another one down. At the next checkpoint I caught up with two other runners, both also broken men who dropped me like a bad habit when I was going through my slump earlier in the run. Both looked super surprised to see me, probably expecting me to have died somewhere in the hills by the way I was looking. Another two down.
Now close to coming off the mountain I saw more lights ahead of me, “I’m gonna get ‘cha”, I’d say to myself. At the checkpoint on the other side of the plateau, I had caught them.
It was now time for the last 10km pull to the finish, mostly uphill. But, I was feeling great and wasn’t worried. This last climb was about to become my bitch. I power hiked the foothills and jogged whenever the gradient allowed. I was what felt like flying up the mountain to Zuurberg Lodge. The route climbs literally to about 2km to go. I flew up the last section of the route… why… because I saw an entire group of runners ahead of me and I didn’t care if I would look like “that guy”, those were placings I wanted. I crested the climb about 45 seconds behind the group, with about 2km left to run. From that point I put a pace down that I probably wouldn’t be able to maintain in a 10km run, probably around 4:30 min/km. With 1km to go, I caught the group, exchanged a little light conversation and pulled away running again. Another 6 placed made up. Nice!
I ran into the finish wishing the race had been 20km more as I’m sure I would have closed down many more runners. I felt brilliant, having caught and passed 12 runners once I started my climb up to the plateau. The guy that I was with when I purged my Crème Soda, 35km from the end, eventually finished almost 2 hours behind me, that is how well I went in that last parts of the race. If I felt that good from the start I’m sure I could have gotten a much better placing than my eventual 15th at the end.
As I lay on the massage table waiting for Jane Barnardo to give me a post-run rubdown my body started shaking uncontrollably. I wasn’t dying or anything, it was just my core temperature suddenly dropping. I was still completely coherent, but not even a space-blanket and fleece blanket over that could stop the shaking. What did stop the shaking… was an awesome cup of instant hot chocolate. Boom, core temperature restored!
That was my Addo, after the massage I hit my bed that night and the next morning got up feeling just a little bit stiff, nothing hectic. It was rather funny in how at the prize giving and buckle ceremony everyone that went up walked just a bit funny. No-one could blame you of course. Even after numerous knee deep river crossings throughout the run, and doing it in road shoes, I didn’t have a single blister at the end.
Thank you to Natalie for the coaching; there would have been no other way to tackle this event. Thank you to my wife Lizelle for supporting from the home-front and understanding that I had to go run if I had any hopes of finishing this event. Also thank you to my parents and sister for also having my back, for supporting and even for coming to fetch me next to roads if I blew during training and simply couldn’t make it home.
Twelve people didn’t reach the finish line, either through not making the various cut-offs or from being evacuated for medical reasons.
I learned so much about training, nutrition and most importantly myself. This was an experience I will treasure for always, a true adventure of a lifetime. Until 2017 that is. I can’t wait to enter for the next one!