+27 21 5148351 info@johnmullins.co.za
Finish1

From zero to Ultra Trail in 6 weeks

UTCT 2015…Wow! I’ve read some great stories of fellow runners right from the front to the back of the field, and in my case as a back of the grid level runner, I only want to share some of my journey to the start and finish line because I think this is such a great event and I truly believe it is more possible than people may think.

Nothing can quite prepare you for crossing the finish line of an Ultra Trail race for the first time, because no matter how much you’ve imagined it, the reality of conquering the challenge of spending a whole day on your feet over 65Km’s is just so unique that it brands you with what I can only describe as an emotional tattoo. It is a permanent feeling of achievement and personal appreciation for everything from your health and your loved ones to your fellow runners, the race crew and the beauty of the most amazing backdrop of any race you could imagine.

Six weeks before the race I was really out of it. I hadn’t trained enough, I was injured and there was no way I was going to drag my body over the line just to appear heroic in my own little world. I’ve only been trail running for a year. Before that I was an inconsistent one time kind of guy. I’d managed one Cape Town Cycle tour and one Two Oceans. I completed these more than 17 years ago, so I was in no way ready to tackle an Ultra Trail, physically or mentally. Around January 2014, I was tipping the scales at a whopping 102 Kg’s and I realised that things needed to change. Running seemed like the most convenient way to get fit and hopefully shed some kilos and it’s worked for me before.

Being a glass half full kind of guy, even though I didn’t have much going for me, I still considered myself pretty fortunate. I am lucky enough to live quite close to the Constantiaberg and more importantly just down the road from a great store called Trail and Tar in Tokai, run by legendary Noel Ernzten, a truly inspiring master of the trails. I targeted Noel’s Wednesday evening running groups as a way to get into the fitness regime and started out with their walking group. You can progress through a range of aptly titled groups that vary according to fitness, pace and ability. From a walking to jogging group, a super chilled or nice and easy group, as well as a little effort and Noel’s favourites, the Pure Pain group. I didn’t then, and still don’t have much ambition to join those pain junkies.

I’ll never forget our first walk led by a young lady named Aimee. We headed up into Tokai forest and the steep opening climb had me wondering if I was going to die. My lungs felt like they were about to explode, but as an asthmatic armed with my inhaler, I fortunately managed to pump enough gas into my system to keep my going. I joined the evening group runs in April which also meant that on that night we had to use headlamps, and with some rain about, it made the whole experience feel quite epic. I was hooked. After a few weeks I joined the Super Chilled group, and eventually settled down into the Nice and Easy group for a few months. At about this time, feeling a lot fitter I decided to enter a few short distance races. I got the chance to do the second leg of the Table Mountain Challenge at about 12kms, and also did a Spur Winter Trail race in Kleinmond with a distance of 14kms. Then I heard about the UTCT for the first time.

Knowing I would never be able to run it, I decided to volunteer for the inaugural event and ended up working the Groot Constantia Aid station. This just amped me up for more and when race director Nic Bornman mentioned that for our efforts we’d get an entry into the 20km race in 2015, my race ambitions really started to take shape. I could hardly wait for 2015. At some point throughout my transformation from average dad to average trail running dad, I came across a video interview with Anton Krupicka, multiple winner of the Leadville 100 and top Ultra athlete. He’d come off an injury and explained how his training had shifted to quality over quantity and it made perfect sense to me. I started to concentrate on the type of running and terrain I was covering instead of clocking up huge mileage. I decided to tackle the Platteklip Charity Challenge in April 2015, one year after starting any form of trail running. If you don’t know about this great event, you should make a note of it. This is AJ Calitz’ event without a doubt and it’s where he broke the Guinness world record for vertical stair climbing. Entrants have to basically get people to sponsor them for as many summits of Platteklip Gorge they can achieve in 12 hours. All money raised goes to charity. This gave me a goal even though in my case it was the minimum of committing to 4 summits. Suddenly I had a training plan, and it was all about the vertical. Every little run I did, I looked for stairs, hills or anything resembling a climb. To me, this was way better than trying to run far. The Charity Challenge at 4 summits would only be about 22km’s of run distance, but an incredible 2800m of elevation. I managed to do it all in about 8 hours, and was pleased with my overall fitness to say the least. That’s when I thought I may just be able to do the 65Km UTCT after all.

At the end of April this year, I was 5 months out from the race and even on a good stretch this was apparently just about enough time to get ready. So without committing, I set my sites on a possible Ultra start. I downloaded everything from a 4 month ultra training plan, to best nutritional tips. I wanted as much info as possible to get me in shape. The problem was I ignored the consequences of the rapid increase in training that I had endured for Platteklip. That’s when my Achilles started to give in. It was a bit of a disaster. Anything over 10km’s and I could hardly walk. There was huge swelling and discomfort, and I decided to put the dream of an ultra on hold. That is until Noel persuaded me that I should hang in there. So I laid off the heavy training and put a marker in place. To be honest, even though I kept some hope for a start I had made peace with doing the 20km race, because I would at least still be part of the whole event, and surely I could handle 20km’s with some basic level of training. At 6 weeks out, and after about 3 months of very low level running I had to make a final call. My Achilles improved slightly and at least wasn’t getting worse. So I committed. I also scrambled around a bit to educate myself on anything that would help me get from very average fitness to Ultra trail ready. The most basic solution came back to quality of training over quantity. I had no time to build mileage. The longest trail run I had been on up to that moment was about 20km’s, so I had to really get my head around what 65km’s would feel like. These past six weeks have been such a learning experience, mentally, physically and most of all, emotionally.

With 6 weeks to race day I joined a Trailblazing Sunday group run from Rhodes Memorial to Constantia Nek, including the famous Rooikat ravine. This was essentially the 2nd leg of TMC and although I knew it well, it was a challenge. I also decided to start from Newlands forest and do a longer loop so that I could at least get a few more kilos under the belt. That 22km run set the scene for me. My mid-week runs were mostly in the range of 5 to 9km’s and generally quite flat. On weekends I really tested myself. At 5 weeks out I decided to do one last big fitness test to see if I could handle UTCT. This was going to be my final moment of truth and the outcome was either going to see me starting at 5am or 7am on Saturday the 3rd of October. I mapped out a 36km looped route from Peddlars Restaurant, covering a lot of the UTCT route but excluding the City, Signal Hill, Lion’s head and the Winelands. It was a hot windy Sunday, and I had no clue what I was doing with hydration or any kind of fuelling strategy. I basically packed a bag of usual stuff and off I went. 6 and half hours later, I was broken, but hopeful. It was the longest trail distance I had ever done and it included Platteklip my old friend that I have learned to respect and appreciate for all its toughness and beauty. It was after that run that I contacted Nic and eventually asked for an upgrade to the 65Km. Thankfully he agreed and it was official. I had one month left to plan and train for a race I was never going to be fully prepared for.

During the TMC weekend, I actually bumped into Nic and Stu (McConachie) on a medium distance run while they were supporting some friends. Just listening to both of them with their encouragement and motivation, I began to believe it was possible. That was the weekend I learned to break up long distance runs over 2 days, and rather run tired on day 2 to teach my legs how to cope without breaking them completely. The next weekend I did the same. Two days of 20km’s on each day. Every day in those last 6 weeks filled me with more self-belief. From Nic and Stu’s words of wisdom to my family’s relentless cheerleading. I was also lucky enough to do all my training on the mountain. That’s what I see as quality training. Every day of running from then on was done on the route. If it wasn’t Platteklip, it was Alphen trail, or the wine farms, Signal Hill or the Contour path. I don’t think I would have made it without that kind of access.

3 weeks out I knew I only had about 14 days of true running training left, because I definitely needed to rest my legs in the last week. I mapped out a basic 2 week schedule. I was conferencing in Sea Point around this time so managed 2 runs up Signal Hill on the Tuesday and Wednesday and on my way home on the Thursday I put in a 9km run at Constantia Nek. Resting on Friday, I did my last back to back runs just short of 20km’s each and then focused on my last week. I decided I needed to also learn to run slow, and power hiked a few sections where I knew I would be walking. I ended my real running training with a 10km easy pace around the Constantia green belt. At this stage, the nerves and excitement had really taken over and I was unplayable at times. 7 days to the race and I became obsessed with race day planning. Thanks to my amazing family’s support they made sure I had all my necessary gear including a brand new hydration pack that had more pockets than a championship snooker table. It held everything I needed and made me feel super confident. At least I looked the part.

The final hurdle in my view was the weather. I must have loaded and refreshed every 7 day online weather forecast a hundred times in that last week, convinced we were going to have a dry race. Right up to registration day I thought we’d start with a few clouds, maybe some drizzle and eventually brilliant sunshine. What we got was a reminder that we are just dots on this planet and completely at the mercy of what nature throws at us. At least I felt I had my first win. I made it to the start line. This was it, no turning back now. Having toyed with only taking a windproof, I settled on wearing a waterproof jacket and I have to say, for the first third of the race, it was the best decision I had made. The next best decision was to get my daughter to load an MP3 player with some great motivational songs. I don’t normally listen to music when I run, but I wanted something distracting for the Platteklip climb. Getting past the first aid station was almost a blur. It seemed like we had just started, the adrenalin was still pumping and although we’d already climbed 400 meters, it all felt surprisingly quick and easy. I approached Platteklip by getting my playlist ready, and started the climb to the ominously titled “Young Men Dead” song by the Black Angels. The opening line is “Fire for the hills, pick up your feet and let’s go.” I needed that. Platteklip suddenly came alive for me, and in relative terms I sailed up there, faster than I had ever done. I felt strong and as I hit the summit, I had the Stereo MC’s shouting in my ear, “use your mind and your body every time you step, if you want to cause the right effect.” It very clearly became a mental game with the conditions we found at the top of the mountain. Just about every training day I experienced in the 6 week build up was clear, apart from some wind at times. On race day, we were pelted with rain and wind, but worse was that we had to run through extensive water that had collected on top of the mountain. I just kept hearing Noel remind me that this is not a 65km run, it is about getting from Aid station to Aid station. All I needed to do was get to Woodhead dam and I’d be okay. When I did get there, those poor souls manning the aid station looked so bleak I actually felt sorry for them. Everything was drenched. There was nowhere for them to take shelter and I must say they stuck it out like champs. On our way down to the Nek, I was very aware of blowing out my legs down the very steep descent (thanks for that tip Nic), and although I was running behind on what I had planned on my timing map, I was happy that I was approaching half way. I knew the family was going to be at Groot Constantia with some dry clothes and encouraging words. A nice easy downhill into Constantia turned into a bit of an ice skating mud bath, but that run up from Simons onto the grass embankment with my support crew in sight was a great relief. My family, true to form were all high fives and abundant love, although my girls were all like….”ooh you’re so sweaty.” Like I’d be an Old Spice advert after 32kms?!

Leaving Groot Constantia with a dry set of clothes and shoes I felt good about the second half, but I also knew I was soon to be approaching my longest ever trail run point. I aimed for Alphen Aid station at 43Km’s and took on some of the more familiar wine farm roads. Again, the weather had played a bit of havoc with the underfoot terrain, so there were some slippery moments, but it was certainly the less technical of stages. Coming into Alphen, I was greeted by some of the most enthusiastic volunteers and supporters. It was a good moment to refuel and contemplate passing full marathon distance. No matter what happened, at this point I was already an Ultra trail runner. For most part I had been running with a mate who unfortunately was showing signs of discomfort and pain, and he eventually withdrew at 45km’s. That left me with the last 20km’s to navigate truly solo. Lucky for me, this was the most familiar part of the route. Getting through Cecilia and heading along the contour path to Newlands, I couldn’t help but marvel at the change from the week before. One of my last runs was through a dry contour path, only now to face gushing rivers and waterfalls on race day. It was at one of those waterfalls that Christiaan Greyling, winner of the 100k passed me, but not before we both looked up and said, this deserves a photo moment. What a fantastic champion he is. Very humble and friendly, even though he was being chased down by Jock Green at the time.

It was harder for me to descend down to UCT in a very narrow, technical muddy trail than climbing some of those nasty little stairs near Kirstenbosch. Clearly, my quality vertical training was paying off. As I approached UCT, Kerry Ann Marshall came past me like a silent assassin. As much as I tried to keep her pace, she vanished into the distance. What was most disturbing was that she looked like she had just started the race. I am in awe of her ability. True to their word my family made it to Jammie Plaza at UCT and what a great run it was into that Aid Station. Passing all my old lecture halls, it was a nostalgic moment, with relief again that I had made it to pretty much the same distance as the Two Oceans race, but on far more brutal trail. This was my last hurdle. Get up to the Block House, or give up now. It was simple. If I could make it there, I would have a straight run and downhill to the finish. It was tougher than I thought. The climb to the Block House is steep, but without steps, and with muddy underfoot conditions, this was really quite special. If my Achilles was ever going to fail me, it would have been there. Despite the difficulty, I was very chuffed that my legs were still feeling strong. When I lifted my head up and saw the Rescue vehicle parked at the Block house, I gave them a sheepish thumbs up and headed off to the contour path for my final push. I promised the wife I’d wear something warm, because although forecasts had predicted sunshine at this point, it was already after 4pm, and the wind and mist had picked up again. It was pretty icy. For most part this section was a run of solitude, but one I will cherish. It gave me time to reflect on the whole day and to feel a sense of elation that I was nearly home. I won’t lie. The descent into the finish at times was tough on the legs, and I passed two guys whose pain was well masked by their own sense of relief that the finish was only a kilometre away. Although we couldn’t see much, we heard the PA system and it was getting louder with every step.

When I turned in at the gate to Gardens Rugby Club, I had one more short little grass bank to climb. I was about to curse, when I saw my kids standing at the top cheering me on. It boosted me so much that I ended up running up the hill, and all the way to the finish. And what a great finish line. Nothing will take away that feeling for me, of owning the finish. I was filled with energy. My legs were strong and my heart stronger, seeing strangers and family welcoming me over the line.

I finished my first Ultra Trail, 65km’s in 12 hours and 51 minutes. The memory of that will last forever. Thank you UTCT. You have achieved something remarkable with this event. I have a feeling this will be the first of many for me.

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.