Long Tom – 56 Kilometers up a Mountain, Who Signed Me Up For This?
I’m not sure I would offer up my training advice to anyone else after a week of perm-garden training, the shortest excursion into Botswana, and then a trek back to the beautiful Drakensburg Mountains once again, it was time to put on my Marist singlet once more. After a good night’s sleep and by that I mean in a tent with two other people through a downpour listening to the sounds of those not racing 34.8 miles the following morning and resisting the urge to join the dance party, we awoke at 4:30 to get to the 6 am start in Sabie. Where the start was, we would find it. So with my old cross country flats and my feet blistered feet covered in mole skin, I lined up with all the other runners who looked like they’ve done this before (or at least raced more than a 9k), along with two other Peace Corps volunteers. We didn’t really have any idea what we were getting ourselves into, so we taped our knees for the downhill and without much expectation or stress hung out until we were told to go. Most of the volunteers opted to do the half and would drive up the first half, but I was seeking an adventure.
If it was an experience I was looking for, that was what I got. The Long Tom race sponsors the KLM foundation, which helps fund the education of a few inspiring individuals. So we trekked up the mountain through the heat, wind, and clouds. Along the way we ate potatoes, bananas, gummies, chocolate, and drank plenty of water, Powerade, and cold drink (Coca Cola) of course. I ran with a group of South African men who encouraged me along the way, and I looked out at some of the most amazing views I ever ran through as we climbed up “The Staircase,” trying not to be blown over. Every noteworthy hill has a name; I learned that long ago and “The Staircase” earned it name 30 k into the race. We came through 42 kilometers (marathon point) and I noted this was 6 miles more than I’ve ever run before, but only 14 more kilometers to go! We ran the last 5 kilometers through Lydenburg with people cheering all along the way excited to see a woman pass through with the men. As I crossed the line the man who collected my number asked me if this was my first ultra-marathon, with little energy I told him it was my first marathon. I finished third women in the race in 5 hours and 12 minutes, and I quickly fell to the ground for a nap after a massage. I earned a small cash prize to use in my village on a women’s soccer league my counterpart and I initiated to encourage women empowerment, HIV/AIDS education, and get the girls off the street playing soccer for the first time! The night of the race we celebrated, I qualified for Comrades (89km race next year), and of course I couldn’t help, but be the last one dancing.
The rest of the week we spent hiking through Drakensburg. We splashed around white water rafting, rock sliding into the river at one point, our tour guide got out to play with a crocodile along the way. We explored Graskop through the guidance of a recruited taxi driver we found and negotiated with to drive us around with pit stops at God’s Window, the Pinnacle, Bourke’s Potholes, and a beautiful waterfall. We hiked through Blyde River Canyon (possibly the biggest “green canyon” in the world) and we ended our adventurous week on kloofing before heading back to our Pretoria to depart for our villages. Kloofing put hiking at a new extreme as we suited up in a wet suit and helmet and for good reason. Along the way we jumped off rocks into water, slid down trees, climbed up a waterfall, and played around in the Mac Mac Pools below one of the most incredible waterfalls I’ve ever seen in a place where it seemed like we had almost found it. Of course it was only because of our guide we made it there, but it was fun for the moment being to think so. It wasn’t nearly as big as Tugela Falls (the waterfall we hiked to during Christmas – the third biggest in the world), but we could feel the mist of it on faces as we swam around in the pool.
I was both exhausted and happy to arrive back in my village to spend Easter with my family before the school week begun once again. We shared a meal; I shared photos and pie, and I showed them my medal. Unfortunately at the state of my feet I don’t think I inspired anyone all that much to go run 56 km up a mountain, but it was a fun story to tell. Before I had left my village my house mother told me, “Just don’t fall.” It seems they know me all too well, and I am happy to say three weeks after the race I may still be recovering, but I did not fall.