Run For Joy, Run UTD 100 Miler
“Running one of the toughest trail runs South Africa has to offer, as an amputee.”
On the 1st of April 2022, I left Hilton with my team of seconders (the crew that would set up my hydration and food stations along the route and look after my well-being throughout the race) and a brand new running leg, walking leg and set of liners to head for the Drakensberg mountains.
It had been such a journey to get to this point (see Chapter One if you missed it!) that I hadn’t quite processed the momentous task that I was about to take on. It was as we arrived at the Sani Pass Hotel, and I was immersed in the pre-race energy with the enormous southern berg mountains in the background, that my nerves finally kicked in. With covid tests and registration done, we gathered with a group of fellow 100 milers for a beer or two and traded race strategies and music playlists trying to ease our nerves. A last moment of comfort and normality before we tackled the start in Lesotho the next morning. I had a few priceless moments when I met some runners who asked which race I’d entered (The UTD offers race distances from 21km to 160kms). I don’t think any of them were expecting me to say the 100 miler!
That night I packed and unpacked my entire race bag to double check I had everything I needed. Long-distance trail runners have to carry a lot of compulsory items to get them through their race, such as water, food, thermal layers of clothing, head lamps, cell phones, small medical kits etc. In my case I had to carry a whole bunch of extras for my stump and running leg. Lubrication, cleaning detergents, cloths to wipe off excess sweat, a small toolkit in case anything broke on the leg and a lot of food as I still wasn’t sure how long this expedition was going to take me.
This being the biggest race of my life, I surprised even myself by sleeping well that night.
My alarm went at 4am. It was Race Day.
An early breakfast, a coffee and it was time to head for the border of South Africa and Lesotho. Our plan was to get their early, before the organised transport arrived with all the runners. Half way up Sani Pass we broke through some cloud cover and the sunrise was a spectacular bright orange with rays of sunlight pouring onto the enormous Lesotho mountains. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. We checked in and out of the border posts and headed up to the Highest Pub in Africa at the top of Sani Pass. We had a short moment of peace by the fire before the taxi’s of runners began to arrive. I had ants in my pants. I didn’t know if I wanted to sit down or stand up. Walk around or do a jig. I must have had 10 pee’s the hour before the race started! The announcement rippled through the crowd that we had one hour to go and the excitement/nerves in the room were palpable.
The next moment was not something I could have planned or anticipated. Out of the blue, a very good friend of mine- Darren- arrived at the top of Sani Pass to wish me luck for the race and watch the start. He suggested that I give him my Instagram login details and that he capture some of my race moments on social media. I had no idea what impact this would ultimately have as this epic journey was about to be shared by not only my friends and family, but strangers from around the world.
Next moment, we were all lining up at the start of the 2022 UTD 100 Miler. The Race Director, Surgeon Flemington, was on the microphone wishing us luck and then, just like that ,we had started! It suddenly hit home to me that after less than a year of running as an amputee, I had managed against all odds to arrive at the start of a race I had both feared and revered in equal measures. My mind was racing. I was so proud of what I had already achieved, so excited to be a part of something bigger than just running and so happy to be able to Run For Joy, and to know that by the end of this race, she would have her new wheels. I shed a tear. It was an overwhelming moment.
The pace started off HOT! In my mind I thought that the start of a race with a 45 hour cut-off time would have a more leisurely beginning. However the front runners looked like they were sprinting. It was incredible to see so many of the Lesotho locals cheer us on and ring their bells as we made our way down the start stretch towards the road crossing. 90 of us had started the race.
Very soon into the race the altitude started to take its toll on a lot of athletes. I heard a lot of moaning and groaning while people still had the energy to talk but I also had some very uplifting conversations and words of motivation from so many people around me. I probably told my story over 10 times in the first 10kms. For some reason, I was sweating profusely that morning so I was having to stop every 2-3 kms to drain the sweat from the liner of my running leg. I am sure the runners around me must have been very confused with my cat and mouse game in those first few hours of the race!
Arriving at the first Check Point- Stone Lodge- and I was in a comfortable and happy state of mind and body. I was ahead of my expected time which gave me loads of confidence. Plus, I was feeling a lot better than a month prior when I came to run the route tester in Lesotho. My socket fitted like a glove and I hadn’t encountered any problems with my brand new running leg at this point. My crew were on point and had everything set out and ready for me. Luckily I hadn’t experienced any altitude problems and happily tucked into some warm food. It turns out, soup in Lesotho tastes better than it does anywhere else in this world!
It had taken me 5h30 to do the first 32km. By this stage, the field of runners was spread out and I was excited to get back out there as quickly as possible. Adding extra warm gear and a headlamp, it was time to tackle the Black Mountain. Rumour has it that this beast of a mountain was about to put us all in the pain cave. The sun was setting and as I came around a corner and started making my way up this beast of a hill, I could see the twinkle of headlights in front of me leading up to the summit. Then I met Jacq. I was still feeling good at this point and enjoying the uphill hike that came with this kind of climb, but Jacq was in a world of pain and so together we put our heads down and slogged on. As night enveloped us, Jacq regained his strength but I found mine disappearing with every step. I had absolutely no balance on my blade. Jacq disappeared ahead of me as I got more and more annoyed with myself. All of a sudden, my entire left leg was submerged up to my knee in mud. I almost thought I was going loose a shoe. After more frustrations I finally spotted lights of the Aid Station and this gave me the energy I needed to face the last bit of the climb to the top. My right knee was in agony from the instability caused by the blade and I could feel hot spots starting to develop on my stump. Somewhere very deep in the back of my mind, my brain was starting to compile the reasons why I shouldn’t carry on… This internal struggle would carry on for the next 20-odd hours.
As I arrived at the Aide Station I saw a headlamp walking towards me and a voice out of the darkness shouted- “Travis is that you”. It was my good friend Dave Keppler. I cannot tell you how much I needed to hear a friendly voice at that point in my night. Dave could see I was in a world of pain and extremely despondent. He pulled me through to where my A-team, headed up by my Biokineticist, Bryce Jackson, had set up camp under the Movewell gazebo. The team were waiting with a hot fire, a warm cup of soup and some bad news. My friend and running coach had been forced to retire from the race due to medical conditions. I felt gutted for him as I knew what a heart-breaking moment that must have been for him. Matt gave me some of his warm and dry gear and helped me back on my feet to get me going again. I didn’t want to go back out into the cold and dark night again. So as a team, we decided to replace the running blade with my walking leg and add a New Balance shoe, hoping this would provide the stability I needed to get through the rest of this section of the course. Dave joined me for the first few hundred metres and through conversation with him, he provided me with the mental strength to get through the rest of the night.
I was now on route to the summit of Thabana Ntlenyana.
Thabana Ntlenyana, which literally means “Beautiful little mountain” in Sesotho, is the highest point in Lesotho and the highest mountain in southern Africa. We were headed up to 3,482 metres above sea level!
Being on my walking leg meant I wouldn’t be able to run at all as it is not designed to run. However I was feeling comfortable and walking at a good pace. I caught up to a fellow runner and to my surprise its was Jacq again. Making our way down to the river crossing at the bottom of Thabana Ntlenyana I met up with a Lesotho herdsman who I bribed with a chocolate bar to show me the way down to the river. He spoke non-stop to me in Sesotho. From this point you go up and down the mountain on the same route so it was really cool to see more runners around me. I remember asking one runner who was on his way down how close we are to the summit, his reply was another 2 hours. It really confused me as I looked at my watch and saw we had just over 2km to our next check point which was the summit of Thabana Ntlenyana. Everyone around me was as exhausted as I was and I could feel the air getting thinner and the altitude was taking its toll. I had to stop quite often to take my leg off, as I had started sweating profusely. Seeing as it was around 5 degrees Celsius that certainly didn’t make any sense! Finally we summited the highest mountain in southern Africa. The last few metres had been akin to rock climbing so the race organisers had set up a tunnel of LED lights to help us navigate to the top. And that is where I met a bunch of crazies who had set up camp right on the summit of this mountain! They passed around coke and buoyed us with their infectious energy. I sat down on a rock and removed my waterproof pants to drain my liner once more and their eyes almost fell out of their heads! They could not believe that an amputee had made it to the top of Thabana Ntlenyana in the middle of the night!
The descent off the mountain was easier and quicker and following the same path made it a lot easier to navigate. Because I was on my walking leg, which isn’t really designed to go down such extreme terrain, I found myself always having to heel strike and sort of lock my knee out to be able to get any movement out of the foot. I noticed my headlamp was starting to play up bit. Jacq shone his torch into my pack to enable me to find my spare pair of batteries. The spare batteries had disappeared! Luckily Jacq was carrying a Christmas present he received which was a small torch. This worked for a while but ultimately it ran out of batteries and I resorted to using my cell phone light to try and help me navigate through the night. At last we saw a bright light in the distance and were convinced we had spotted Sani Backpackers which was our next check point. With renewed energy we headed towards the light. However after a while we realised that it was a fellow runner, going the wrong way! The female runner was confused and disorientated and was trying to find Sani Backpackers. It turned out she had summited Thabana Ntlenyana twice! Jacq and I made sure the runner stayed close to us as we pressed on to the next check point.
I was so angry about my headlamp issues and it had put a huge dampener on what had otherwise been a really good section of the race. I was feeling great when I arrived at Sani Backpackers Lodge. I ate everything I could get my hands on and one of my coaches handed me a cup of ‘chemical warfare’ that gave me the lift I needed! To this day I still do not know what was in that cup, but it certainly got me moving again! The Lesotho section was over and this gave me so much confidence and renewed energy to carry on. It was time to head down Sani Pass and on to the 12 Apostles. Unfortunately all this energy and confidence would actually have a negative effect on my stump and I was about to meet some of my biggest demons yet as I descended into South Africa.