Friday, 17 November 2017

Ultra Africa Run 2017

I always find it amazing how sometimes a few short days, hours or even minutes can imprint in your memory so intensely and other days and weeks go by and it feels like nothing has changed.  Time is so relative.  These past few weeks I know will stay with me for a lifetime.

The adventure I signed up for was my first self-supported race and my first time in Mozambique. It was the creation of canal aventure. Five days, 220 km, 3600 meters of positive elevation gain and self-supported, through the beautiful beaches and tracks of Mozambique.

The week leading up to leaving for Mozambique I had this persistent low grade nausea and restless nervousness. The floodgates of self-doubt had opened and I was overwhelmed by all the last minute anxious thoughts, I haven't trained enough, I don't want to leave home for so long, why did I spend all this money, what if I get lost, what if I get attacked, what if I suffer every day, what if I can't my gear through customs, what if they decline my entry visa, and so on. 

"It takes courage to endure the sharp pains of self-discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives" Marianne Williamson

Despite all the self doubt, I said my goodbyes and I left home the afternoon of Oct 30 and arrived at my final destination of Maputo, Mozambique Nov 1 in the afternoon. It was a 40+ hour journey.  In the last few months I have been really have been focused on trying to stay in the present, meditating more and assuming the best case scenario in every situation. It's amazing how much these practices help with my anxiety. Although it was a long journey, everything was seamless and I arrived in good spirits at the hotel.

The hotel was listed $$$ place to stay in my Mozambique: Lonely Planet Guide. If you know me I only stay at $ accommodations.  It was recommended by the race and the crew and other competitors would be staying there as well.  To simplify logistics I decided to stay there too, and after such a long journey I was happy to have the comforts of a western style hotel. The first night I just had a shower and dinner and went to bed early.

The next morning after breakfast I was going to set out to do some sightseeing and then Rafael, a fellow competitor from Germany spotted me in the hotel lobby. I guess a white girl in running shorts was easy to assume I was part of the race. He offered to go for a walk with me and I was happy to have the company.  We went for a 2 hour walk around Maputo. It is quite a modern city and I found it less chaotic then Moshi. It is the capital, so most people seemed well dressed and stylish.  There were the typical street vendors, but no one was very aggressive and there wasn't anybody begging in the streets. Of course we talked running and the race.  This is when I started to learn how experienced and accomplished some of the other competitors were. Former UTMB  winner Marco Olmo, four of the competitors had published books (including Rafael) about their adventures in running, one of the female competitors had done TDS, Tor de Geants and 4 deserts, Atacama crossing, all this year!! One of the other female competitors had run across America, Europe and Siberia!!  Oh and Takeo a runner from Japan, had a whole film crew following him. Usually my anxiety dissipates when I actually get to the race, but learning all of this, it just got worse! Serious imposter syndrome!

Then we started talking gear and pack weight and I became even more anxious that I had made the wrong choices and my pack was too heavy etc.  Rafael was very positive and encouraging and he even commented on my walking style and said he could see how strong of a walker I was.  I agreed and told him I hoped this would help me because I couldn't see running a lot of the miles and hoped my walking would save my race.  We parted ways and I went about distracting myself with pool and free WiFi.

That afternoon I met Brian who is from South Africa and was helping out with the race. This was great because he was fluent in English and beer drinking and didn't want to talk about running. So I finally started to relax as we joked and talked about travel, politics, family and his love of Celene Dion.  Later I met Andrea and went for dinner with her and Rafael. This was her second self-supported race, she had completed the 4 deserts Namibia race earlier this year (this made her infinetly more qualified than myself) .  She was a part of Rafael's Little Desert Runners Club, an online club that helps runners new to multi-day self supported races. I wished I had found something like that before the race.  We made fast friends and I took in any advice she and  Rafael offered.


The next morning we took a six hour bus ride to the lodge where we would start the race. I was pretty quiet, the other competitors seem to know each other and there were many different languages being spoken. I was the only competitor whose first language was English. I silently cursed my entitled North American background of being mostly unilingual. When you have limited language it's hard to get past small talk.  We arrived at the Nhambavale Lodge in the afternoon. It is this picturesque place with traditional huts on the shores of a beautiful lake. It was hard to remember we were not just on vacation.

We were assigned roommates and I was assigned Kuzuko from Japan.  There were many blessings on this adventure. But this was truly one of them.  Kuzuko is 64 and is probably half my height and maybe weighs 100lbs.  She has the biggest smile and her spirit is amazing.  I speak zero Japenese but Kuzuko tries really hard with English and we soon figured out a way to communicate with each other.  She has kids the same age as me and has been doing long distance running for over 30 years and has run across continents. She is the most humble, gentle and kind person.  We became fast friends, she made me feel at ease and my anxiety started to lessen.
Kuzuko

The next morning after breakfast, Rafael, Andrea and I went for a short 3 k run to shake out our legs and get a look at the terrain.  After that was gear and medical check. Rafael kindly stopped by my hut and helped me get rid of extra weight. I got rid of a ton of gels and all of my medical stuff and half of my fire starter. My pack ended up weighing in a 7.7 kg without water. Far better than the 10kg it was before.  I hoped I wouldn't regret anything I left behind.

Day 1:  Nhambavale Lodge to Kanda 35 km 657 m ascent.

It was a simple breakfast of cereal and coffee, last minute check of my pack, pics with the competitors and last minute bathroom break and we were ready to go at 8 am.  My plan was to go super conservative and make sure I looked after myself.  The first 2.5 km were sandy rolling double track.  I took it easy and walked any climbs and then we were over the sand dunes and on the beach.  I am more of a mountain girl than beach girl, but this beach was breathtaking.  The sky was so blue and the water was turquoise and crystal clear.  To the left were sand dunes.  This section was 19 km and there were no houses or resorts, we would see the occasional fishermen.  Thankfully the tide was out so this section was quite runnable.  I found myself in 11th place.  I ran conservatively and passed three runners before we left the beach. I was feeling good and stuck to my plan of drinking each km, gel every 5 km and salt tab every hour.  There was a breeze on the beach, but once we turned off you could feel the heat and it was getting later in the day.  I stuck with my plan of walking the uphills and if the sandy track was using up too much energy to run then I would walk for a bit.  After check point #2 I caught up to Ita.  She said she was a bit tired ( no wonder, she was the competitor that had done TDS, TDG and Atacama).  She said she was good so I carried on.  Along this section we ran past our first villages and everyone was friendly.  At 30 km I stopped and bought a soda. Jerome the Race Director had said we were allowed to stop and by a cold drink if we wanted as it would give us an opportunity to engage with the locals. The last 5 km were hot with sandy rolling track. I knew I was second female and so I took my time and finished around 4.5 hours. I arrived at camp to find out I was only 5 minutes behind Rafael and Andrea (the first place female).  I felt good, I didn't feel like I pushed too hard.

There were lots of kids to greet us at camp. I got set to make sure I got my recovery drink into me and ate my salted cashews. I then observed the other competitors and followed their example of resting.  I organized my gear and tried to stay off my feet. That afternoon, many locals stopped by to observe us, we sang and danced with the kids.  It was awesome.  This is really why I wanted to come back to Africa, it is amazing to be able to spend time with the local people and see villages and schools where tourists don't usually go.  Even when your hot and tired it is impossible not to have your spirits lifted by the laughter of the kids.

The evenings are short. I cooked my dinner early and choked back the tasteless backpacker meal, drank more water, meditated and went to sleep by 7 pm.  I had survived my first day!!


Day 2:  Kanda-Quissico 39 km 716 m ascent

I woke up early around 4 am. I took the time to meditate and then got ready packing up and cooking breakfast.  I was ready to go by 6 am, but we weren't starting till 7 am.  So I rested, I watched the village come to life, kids walking to school, women going to get water or carry materials to town, young boys taking cattle somewhere, and then we were off at 7 am.  I felt ok, my legs weren't sore at all, my back now that was a different story.  Finishing well the first day, my goals had slightly changed from merely surviving to maybe trying to stay second female or to try and win a stage.  I still knew I had a lot kilometers ahead so I started off conservative again. Today was mostly sandy dirt track and we ran through many villages to start. I passed a few runners and stopped to take a few pics with locals.  After checkpoint # 1 I felt a little low and was worried about how many more kilometers I had to go. I took a gel and decided to use my i-pod. The combination of the sugar and music was amazing, all the sudden I was smiling to myself and the kilometers were clicking by. I caught up to Rafael and Andrea and kept going.  Running faster I was a little worried I would miss a marker. So I stopped a few times to double check. Rafael caught me at the 30 km I tried to keep up to him but he was too fast so I slowed down to my pace again. After 30+ km of similar looking terrain, we were treated to solid dirt road with a crazy view of this beautiful lake and palm trees, like a postcard. I was running well till the last 5 km, the hot sandy track started again, I could feel myself losing motivation, again I stopped and got a Coke from a stand and rolled into camp around 5 hours and 9 minutes. Ita from Italy had taken the lead as first female. My time was good enough again for second female and seventh overall.

Camp was a surprise, we were on the lake! That meant swimming! I went down to the lake with Steven a French competitor and told him in my awful Franglais that if we saw snakes I would be jumping on top of him. But there was nothing scary there. It was pristine, clear water and white sand. I just floated and felt on top of the world. After, was reality check, my feet were getting some blisters and I had lost a flip flop (dammit), now I'd have to wear my running shoes around camp. On the bright side though, it was a few less grams that I would have to carry. Dr Bruno helped me out with my feet.

Dr Bruno became such a good friend to me.  He reminded a bit of a great teacher I had in high school, Mr Fischer. He kind of had that same quiet but encouraging attitude of having higher expectations for you than you do yourself. Once he knew I could speak French, there was no going back to English, he let me struggle to find my words and even if I was speaking Franglais he would answer always in French.  He was accomplished ultra runner in his own right. He competed in the first Marathon des Sables among many other ultra adventures. A cervical fracture while skiing in the mountains prevented him from running competitively anymore.  He has since been the medical director on 34 ultra trail adventures all over the world.  He was so knowledgeable and looked after the competitors so well.
Dr Bruno Thomas 

One of best things about these adventures is the simplicity, there is no distraction of the internet, work, family and other obligations. Routines are simple, recovery, foot care, cook, eat, drink, sort gear, go to sleep. Smile and play with the kids and chat to other runners in between.

Day 3 (The long day) Quissico to Lac Poelela 51 km 803 ascent

After two days there was only a few minutes separating the top 3 female competitors.  I was hoping to be conservative again and maybe catch the leader Ita later in the day.  This did not work out.  She put a gap of almost 50 minutes on me. Her strength and ability are really amazing.  I started out the same as always, this was probably the worst day for my back, I was getting these sharp stabbing pains in my shoulders and upper back and my feet were starting to hurt.  I caught up to Andrea early and we ran into check point one together.  I took some Aleve, knowing the risk but hoping to only take it the one time.  My back settled down and I continued to run with Andrea.  It was so great to have the company because this was going to be a long day.  We enjoyed the kids and stopped to take some pictures and video at the local school, shortly after that I got a little ahead of Andrea.  I was running by myself and suffering a bit, thinking how hot and tired I was and I still 25 km to go. Then I heard the sound of a giggle.  I turned around and there was this beautiful girl probably in her early twenties named Iza. She was in a blouse, skirt and flip flops and she was running with me.  This instantly lifted my spirits and we ran the next mile or so together.  We shared few words, but running and smiles are universal.  She stopped when we met up with her friends I thanked her and kept going. I rolled in check point # 2 at 30 km in good shape.
Iza
Then I saw that Julen the current second place competitor from Spain, sitting on the ground looking hot and exhausted.  I quickly learned he was not injured but maybe just overheated? He had been walking a lot and he didn't want to do the race like that. Andrea came in just behind me.  Andrea, Bruno, Jerome and I convinced him to keep going. I was ready first so I left and he and Andrea left just after me.  There's a saying if you want to feel better or worse in an Ultra just wait 10 minutes. Just minutes after leaving the checkpoint I started feeling hot and tired and lamenting to myself how long these next 21 km were going to take.  Julen quickly caught me on a long hot dusty uphill and I was happy to see he decided to stay in the race.  The next few kilometers were solitary, no smiling villagers, no little kids to run with me and although near by I couldn't see Julen or Andrea. I tried to stay focused on looking after myself in the heat and lost all interest in trying to catch Ita the female leader.  Even after a few kilometers when I came to the next village it was hard to run fast enough to satisfy the kids who wanted to run with me.  I came to a stand and bought a COLD Coke.  (This in itself seemed miraculous) .  In Tanzania I never found anything that was cold.  The sugar rush hit and I was running, I caught up to Julen again and came into check point # 3 just ahead of him.  This checkpoint was on the beach and the water looked so inviting.  I decided to go for a swim, best decision, I could feel my core temperature lower and I was renewed. I left the checkpoint behind Julen and ahead of Andrea. We were warned the next 10 km were hard and they did not disappoint.  It is really hard to run on soft sand, and while the scenery was gorgeous these last 10 km grinded away at me and I hiked most of them.  Finishing hot and exhausted around 7.5 hours second female and eight overall and having no idea how I was going to recover enough to get up and do it all over again tomorrow.

Camping on a beach is kind of like having sex on a beach. It seems kind of romantic but all you do is end up with sand in places you don't want, this meant even in my dinner.  Plus the water was blocked by large vegetation and not the easiest to get to, so most of us didn't swim.  It was later in the day and my feet were getting worse, Dr Bruno helped me again get them sorted. I struggled with starting a fire and thankful Ramon and Raul from Argentina and Chile were able to help me yet again with getting a fire going.  They speak about as much English as I do Spanish but we figured it out.  Hanging out with the South American runners and listening to them speak Spanish made me really homesick and miss Frank even more.  I had drank at least 6 liters of water and hadn't peed since 7 am.  I really wanted to go to sleep so I thought I would try to pee before bed.  I tried and then found I was peeing blood, my heart sank, I remembered the Aleve I had taken earlier (did I take or one or two?), how I still felt overheated and I was nervous this was the start of something ominous.  I went and told Dr. Bruno, and again was thankful for his experience as runner and not just a Dr.  He was unfazed by my revelation and said it had happened to him at MDS and other races and that stress of running can sometimes cause hematuria, he told me it was a common problem and not to worry about it and to stop with damn NSAIDS.  He said my kidneys would be fine and go drink more.  Were only allotted 8 liters a day of water, today because it was the long day we got an extra 1.5 liters.  I went and chugged the rest of my water and waited impatiently for the urge to pee.  It was now 8 pm and I finally I had the urge to pee, by the light of my headlamp I could see it was clear, success!

Day 4 Lac Poelela to Cambula 47 km and 807 m ascent

I didn't know if I could take another day of heat and the universe heard me, I woke up to glorious rain! I can't even say how much joy that gave me.  It's never fun to try and get ready or stand around in the rain but I didn't care! The rain didn't take away my foot pain though, when I put my shoes on they hurt and felt too small. My feet were starting to swell, why didn't I buy shoes a half size bigger!  We started with a few kilometers on tarmac (the only in the race), but I was slow and stayed behind.  Most of the tract was pretty runnable but it took me almost an hour to kind of wake up and find my legs.  I finally caught up to Andrea and we ran and chatted for the next several kilometers.  The track was packed down and it was nice not to fight with the sand.  It was a little frustrating because I could've run a faster pace but it was day 4 and my feet were hurting constantly and so I kept to a pretty conservative pace and the highs were getting more and more spread out.   After checkpoint # 2 I caught up with Giuseppe from Italy. I got a little bit of ahead of him and I had to pee, awesome, I had never had to pee yet during the race, I must be doing a good job of being hydrated, yay me.  Then I look down and blood again, dammit. I tried not to let it bother me and kept focus on drinking. I got to a cross roads and some kids were playing with the marker, I thought no problem, I will pull out my map.... fuck. No map, it must have fallen out when I stopped to pee. I ask the kids which way the marker was they assured me it was pointed to the left and I could see footprints so I headed down the path.  But, I was too unsure, plus I am not in the greatest shape with the sore feet and peeing blood so I don't want to get lost on top of it. I waited for Giusppe and he had also lost his map also but reassured me that all the front runners shoe prints were there so we stuck together until the next marker and then  I kept going at my pace.  These next kilometers were hard mentally. I was kind of over being distracted by the scenery and people.  It was like at the end of a 100 miler, I couldn't think a lot and focused on one foot in front of the other and one kilometer at a time. Four kilometers from the finish Dino (our photographer) and Brian had a surprise checkpoint with Fanta, I took a swig and their encouragement propelled me on to the finish.  I was about 6.5 hours, second female and eighth  overall.

It was still raining at camp, so there was the added challenge of drying out gear and finding dry firewood.  Raul the fire king had no trouble getting a fire going and I was so grateful. I ate my backpacker pasta and it didn't taste half bad.  My feet were super painful and getting swollen and I wasn't sure how well the last day was going to go for me.  Andrea found my missing map, she had also found it day 3 (my map angel).

Day 5 Campula to Jangamo 47 km 507 meters ascent

It was probably my worst night sleep, I couldn't find a comfortable position and were up at 330.  I was done fighting with the fire and skipped my oatmeal and coffee and ate a protien bar (not the best decision). I got rid of anything non mandatory and kept my calories to a minimum. Its the Last Day, just 47 km between me and a swim in the ocean, beer, shower and wifi!! I thought the last day might be like the last miles in an ultra where you get a boost in energy because you can smell the finish line, not so much.  The first hour was miserable although my body was tired I wasn't having any major problems, but my mind was the challenge of day 5. Other runners, kids, music, nothing was getting me out of my funk. I kept moving forward and hoping my mood would change, it did for a bit.  After check point #1 I started moving a bit better and passing a few runners.  I ran through a pretty village and the people were smiling and waving and I looked at all the women in the field with their babies and watched them working hard and reminded myself to be grateful.  I was feeling better once I got to checkpoint # 2 and thought, OK, last 19 km and it is on this beautiful beach and the sand is runnable, let's go! But no, everything was resisting, my mind was kind of miserable, my feet hurt, my knees hurt and my watch died.  The kilometers seemed endless and even though I didn't want to walk I couldn't make it more than 5 or 10 minutes without a walk break.   Andrea was close to me, but I just kept going with my run/walk pace.  Finally I saw our photographer Dino, he snapped a few pics of me and than ran and chatted a bit with me, my mood improved and he said I had 4 km to go.  Then I saw Brian, I was close to tears, I was so tired and done with this run, he tried to cheer me up by saying the first round is on him and promised me it was only 3 km to go.  The beach seemed endless and yet I couldn't see the fucking finish line, where was it!?  I waited for Andrea and I said if the finish line is not around the next corner I am going to cry and walk to the finish, fuck it.  She laughed and reassured me it had to be around the next corner and sure enough we saw some buildings and the race vehicles, and just like that our pace quickened and we were joyous again.  We crossed the finish line together, instant relief and happiness washed over me, celebratory hugs from Bruno, Jerome and Rafael.  Damien had Coke and fresh Coconut water still in the coconut ready for us, amazing. Then I go down to the water, the same water I stared at for the last 19 km, the same water where we started 200 + kilometers ago.  I go in and let the waves crash over me and I laugh and float and go with the flow of the waves.  I just ran 220 km in Mozambique!  How lucky I am I? So grateful for this life! Now where is the beer!?
Dr Bruno, Ramon, Julen, Andrea and Kuzuko

4 comments:

  1. What an amazing adventure - your legend just grows Steph! Thanks for sharing this journey with us in such detail, and it's a privilege to be able to share some running miles here with you in Barrie!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks Patrick! I love reading your blog, and it inspired me to start mine again. Thanks for taking the time to read and share your comment, it means a lot. I am grateful to you and all the runners I have met in Barrie to inspire me to train more and push my pace more. Changing up my training this year I know helped me complete this challenge.

      Delete
  2. Wow! Just wow. Incredible story. Thanks for sharing :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for taking the time to read Sarah! Hope to get a run with you soon!

      Delete