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THE RISING OF THE SON – UTCT 2016

Angus and I crossing the line with a tearful mom in the background, hands on head.

What makes UTCT so special for me? It’s the lasting memories as well as the incredible anticipation of what is yet to come. I have been part of UTCT since the very first race in 2014. Originally as a volunteer and then later as a participant from 2015. In each of the 3 years that the race has been run, I’ve always had much more than just a superficial reason for being involved. I’m sure everyone who is part of this incredible event has their own personal motivations and goals and reading some of the post-race reports, these are not only filled with great drama and emotion, but very inspiring.

In 2014, I had only just started out running trails, mostly to regain some almost embarrassingly long lost fitness. The last time I had run anything proper was in the 90’s when men wore cringe worthy outfits that would even make ‘hot pants’ blush. I was looking into the growing list of trail runs, and when I heard about UTCT I was curious and immediately drawn to the idea. It had all the promise of becoming the premier ultra event in the city and although I joined the party late I just knew I had to get involved somehow, so I signed up to volunteer. Based at the Groot Constantia Aid station, I was immediately hooked, seeing runners of all levels dealing with the incredibly tough challenge of the UTCT. From that moment 2015 was all about getting into shape and push my body beyond my own mental limits to run this thing. Dealing with the conditions of 2015 was a triumph on its own, finishing the 65K ultra was a dream come true.

So, what was 2016 all about? While the 100K was tempting with the extended cut-off, as a relatively novice trail runner, this still felt like a checkpoint too far for me. In the end, I settled back on the 65K for a completely new motivation.

In 2015 my son Angus had supported me on the race and to be fair the conditions were more than a little sketchy. Having him out there was close to miraculous, given that he was also 21 at the time and the night clubs had only been closed for a few hours. He left most of the cheerleading that day to his sisters, but did occasionally pipe up that I wasn’t doing too badly for an old man. He seemed far from enthusiastic. So when he floated the idea of running UTCT with me, I was a little surprised, somewhat sceptical but later quite excited. Like I said earlier for a brief moment we even flirted with the idea of the 100K. Then we both laughed out loud and finished our beers.

Angus is one of those slightly irritating characters you get on the trail. He does very little of anything resembling training, but can smash a decent time out on just about any run. He’s built for running in my view, so he must take after his mother. Despite his natural ability, as a young inexperienced trail runner, 65K’s on a tough course like UTCT would need just a little more than a Friday night double burger, 4 hours of Call of Duty, pumping EDM and a few shots of alcohol to wash it all down. He definitely needed some training, and so we began.

I remember vividly the early challenges of running with Angus. We started soon after I had come back from AfricanX, so you could say I was feeling on top of my game. My partner in that event, Tim Pienaar is a true legend, having run and finished the UTCT 100K this year at the age of 65. Tim asked me to join him on AfricanX, because although I am 17 years younger, he needed maturity in the team. So this is what I thought I’d bring to my training with Angus. Maturity. I soon discovered however, that I can also be a bit of a doos.

Maybe it’s the latent memory of the benefits of army training, or just that I grew up in the Eastern Cape, but instead of gently building Angus up, I decided to break him down. I’m pretty sure that’s in the allowables column of the Dad handbook, but either way, one of our first true outings was tackling Platteklip on a warm April morning. More specifically, we got the support crew to drop us at the start of Kloof Corner trail to get a more accurate experience of what we’d find on race day. So with one UTCT 65K under my belt, I really felt confident going into this training run. I’d seen it all before apparently, but if you remember 2015, you’d know that was very far from the truth. Running to get out of a rain storm, and running in clear conditions provide very different experiences. In the rain, all I remember was the rain. I forgot that the climbs were so tough. So while Angus was admiring the magnificent views, I was reaching to those awkward pockets on the back of my race vest to find my asthma pump. I did eventually get some revenge halfway up Platteklip when I noticed his tank was thankfully depleted and I could compete again.

Our training was very well thought out and simple. Break his spirit, knock the kak out of him, and constantly remind him I’d already done this race, so he better listen to everything I said. It was funny that a week out from the race, we bumped into Shaun “Geezer” Gregory and Chantelle Nienaber on Signal Hill, and that’s exactly what Chantelle said to Angus. “Listen to your Dad, he’s done this before.” Shaun was a little more like, “Don’t be a mug my son, listen to your Dad or he’ll dry slap you.” For a moment I thought I was in a Jason Statham movie.

So after some initial opfoks, we started to build some good base running. Nothing more than 10 to 15Km runs, and always on the mountain, or on trails we knew were part of the race. This worked through the winter months, and as we approached about 3 months out, we threw in some vertical stuff as well as a few longish runs to get the legs burning. I kept track of how this year’s training compared to last year and on all indicators, I was way above target. Angus was coming on very nicely. There was a time when I’d smash him on the climbs and he’d blaze past me on the downs, but after a few months of training I felt like I was being tolerated with patience. Every now and then he’d just say something like, “Dad I’m just going to see how fast I can get up this part of Platteklip”, or “I think I can take the Woodhead Dam Strava segment.” As a father it’s great to see your child grow in confidence. As a running partner I wanted him to pull a hamstring.

Before we knew it, race week was upon us. We’d sorted out all our gear with Angus looking like a sponsored Salomon athlete from head to toe, and me looking like the friend who gets the hand me downs from the sponsored athlete. Thanks to Noel at Trail and Tar, Angus and I also had cool custom made T’s that proudly claimed “I ran 65km’s….none on tar”, which is close enough to the truth for my liking. I was also the only one who could wear mine on race day, because after all, I was the one who finished last year. This little upstart next to me still had 65k’s to go before he could wear his.

The start was epic. Bigger, brighter and more intense than 2015. The hype and adrenalin mixed with tonnes of emotion can almost be overwhelming. Thoughts like, “fuck I don’t think I trained hard enough” soon disappeared and when you reach town on the first downhill part, you realise how special this run is. A 4am start seems painful, getting up at 2am to be at race village around 3. You’ve barely had any sleep, but you feel more alert than ever. The early start also meant we had some interesting exchanges with the last of the town clubbers, stumbling out in dismay as hundreds of runners swept past. Wait, I’ve seen this all before. Oh, yes. The only difference is that the guy I was usually lifting from the club is now running this race with me! Hats off to all the Uber dads out there.

Whenever I get near Bo-Kaap, I imagine that dude from Game of Thrones saying, “One does not simply……run up Bo-Kaap.” It is a tough climb that. With the extended section up Signal Hill, this was quite a trek early on. On a clear day and with the sunrise imminent, it was a worthwhile effort. City lights flickering and the V&A revealing itself from the cover of darkness, I almost took a selfie. No time for that. There was an energy gel to be consumed and a dash for Lion’s Head underway. By the time we got to the first Aid station, we were bang on the money. Not before I had to reign the boy in a bit, mostly because that descent from Lions Head to Kloof is fun for the fearless, but treacherous for a back tracker like me and it was a little more than vital that we got to our first checkpoint in one piece. The Kloof splash and dash was a reminder of how well the race is set up. Awesome vibe and people, just in time for the big climbs of the day.

Photo Credit – Rae Trew-Browne

Rae Trew-Browne spent a little time with us going up Kloof corner and I was thankful for his company, not to mention his amazing ability to document the more interesting shots of the day. At times you feel like you’re on the march through Death Valley going up there, and if you’re caught behind someone who forgot to shit themselves properly before the start you really do have a powerful motivation to get past and quickly up to the contour path. With Platteklip in sight I was thankful that we had started at 4am. It was cool and with a few misty clouds above, I was looking forward to a steady climb. Angus by now was chomping faster and more excited than a One Directioner with a Golden Circle ticket, so I was grateful I got ahead of him going up Platteklip. I sort of kept him in his place, and putting my head phones on I managed to drown out any complaining. It’s the only place I listen to music on the run. It was something I learned from 2015. Find a playlist that matches your goal time for getting up there, and follow the beat. While I put myself into a bubble, Angus preferred to take it all in. It’s what I love about running with him. He really embraces the surroundings. Even though we’ve seen Platteklip enough to last a full season of Grey’s Anatomy, he treats it like a new adventure every time.

Getting up and over towards Maclears is a real treat on a clear day, and we soaked it all up with some light witty banter now and then with fellow runners. The new route to the Scouts Aid Station at Woodhead is also breathtaking but at times a little tricky. Those valleys offered up everything from spectacular scenery to the occasional knee busting drop offs. I’m convinced Stu also organised the well timed rain that fell two nights before, because the small waterfalls and streams came alive and I found Angus dropping back every now and then just to get that unique icy mountain hydration that no soft flask can ever offer.

Over the dams we went and if you didn’t try break that Strava segment record you’d have noticed the raging waterfall from the overflows of the dam down into the Orangekloof trail. It was about here that we realised we were running with a few 100k guys who were getting seriously worried they wouldn’t make the cut-off at the Nek. Some were diverted to the 65k with Mike Ohlsson doing his best to transition everyone smoothly. So smoothly in fact, I managed to grab his tightly gripped Castle Light, down a sizeable glug and celebrate 30k’s of UTCT without him uttering a word. Burping my way down to Groot Constantia, there was a little relief in the legs and the promise of some entertainment and family support at the aid station. The Trail & Tar boys had asked us to select a favourite song they would play as we made our way into Groot Constantia. Angus and I settled on, ‘Take Me to the Hospital’ by The Prodigy. Thankfully, no-one felt the need to obey those instructions. It was amazing to hear that song pumping over the PA system as we ran down those grassy slopes, and seeing our good friends and family. Truthfully we probably spent a little too much time there because it’s so damn comfortable and we had given up chasing Rory Scheffer so time wasn’t a factor anymore.

Completely refreshed we set off to the most familiar part of the route for Angus and I. We’re Constantia Green Belt Park Runners so arriving at the Alphen Aid Station was like a home coming. Knowing where all the secret water taps are is a bit of local knowledge that can make all the difference as you approach that marathon mark. For Angus this was a really special moment. In fact, every step he took after Groot Constantia became his longest run ever, but hitting 42k’s was just a little more than special.

By now, the heat was settling in and we were feeling it. Apart from some amazingly beautiful shaded climbing in Cecilia, you’re pretty exposed hitting that contour path. At Nursery Ravine we started to catch some of the 35k back markers, who were seriously in danger of not making it to the finish. I’ve seen less pain on people’s faces when the Springboks lost to Italy, so you can imagine the agony that these folks were feeling. Angus on the other hand was looking remarkably fresh and energetic. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it was kind of at the same time that I had my first race niggle so I wasn’t about to shower him with praise for looking great. At this point I was happy to know we were getting close to UCT where our support team were waiting. Or so we thought!

I promised them I wouldn’t trash them in this piece for not making it to UCT, but then again, they promised they’d be there, so I guess we’re even. It took over 3 hours for us to navigate the 20km’s from Groot Constantia to UCT by foot. I imagine by car it would take about 15mins tops even with some traffic. I wasn’t sure whether we should have been proud of ourselves for beating them there, or obsess over the revenge plot we would inflict once we hopefully found them at the finish. For a good two days after the race, Angus and I would still respond to the family’s usual, “see you later” with, “are you sure about that?”

I was however very grateful to Stu, who kept me going at UCT. His words of encouragement came at just the right time. Basically, he said, “just keep moving, and don’t sit down.” We all know that last 10k’s from UCT to the finish are tough, but we made up some good time. The Blockhouse climb was much easier than 2015 mostly because we didn’t slip and slide our way through a mud bath. The funny thing that got my legs lifting on the contour was about a million little ants that happened to decide it was a good idea to fill the trail that day. Angus must have thought I was really enjoying this part, because I was hopping and skipping all the way back, occasionally slapping my legs like a gumboot dancer as another little biter latched itself onto me. For a brief moment I wondered if Rory Scheffer had also experienced this problem, but then I remembered how fast he is, so I focused on more realistic things like seeing the finish area below us as we worked our way around Devil’s Peak. Just a few more k’s to go I remember telling Angus, who was really enjoying this part of the run. As we got closer to the finish we both began to recount the months of training and bonding we had invested in and we were happy that it had all been very worthwhile.

I love this kid!

Those last few boardwalks heading back towards Gardens Club and then seeing Angus’ sisters waiting for us at the gate were very energising. Like a booster pill had been swallowed, it felt like we could sprint those last couple of hundred meters to the finish line. We actually joked about this on the way in, and true to his spirit Angus really did fake a bit of a dash for it. That was until I threatened him with severe violence if he finished before me. Sanity prevailed and he settled into a nice jog that allowed us to soak it all up. Crossing the line of our father-son Ultra was highly emotional. I can’t describe how proud I am of Angus for rising up to this challenge. Any parent would feel the same. I’ve taught this kid to tie his shoelaces and ride a bike, now he’s on top of the world in that moment. Thank you to all the UTCT crew. This race has a special place in my heart because of what it has provided me. We will be back, for different reasons maybe, but definitely putting everything into another unbelievable experience. Maybe I’ll even get the girls to run, if they get to the start on time. Ciao till next time.

John

As a columnist and speaker I have been able to connect with so many interesting people who have experienced wonderful adventures in life. I am fascinated with the limitless power of people and try to reflect my own experiences and thoughts through these pages.

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