Run For Joy, Run UTD 100 Miler
“Running one of the toughest trail runs South Africa has to offer, as an amputee.”
Struggling with the Stump.
The 73km’s of high altitude terrain, traversing the mountain kingdom of Lesotho was now over. I was feeling relieved and excited to drop down into the familiar territory of South Africa. My team and I decided it was best to continue using my ‘walking leg’, as opposed to my running blade, for the descent down Sani Pass and the traverse across the 12 Apostles. At that stage, I was super confident in my decision. The walking leg with the New Balance shoe had served me well in the second half of the Lesotho section. But that confidence only lasted roughly 500m until I had the first of many stops to make adjustments. I had been feeling so strong that I was power walking too fast and the pressure on my ‘walking foot’ was far too much due to the steepness of the road. The first time I had to stop, the nerves in my stump were causing a pain and sensation down to my foot (which actually isn’t there!) and up into my back. I was forced to stop and make a big adjustment to the volume of my stump by adding a layer of socks in order to try and cushion the exposed nerves against the jarring descent. However the added socks had now changed the fit of the socket and I rapidly started developing hot spots. I was forced to stop again and this time covered my stump in Vaseline. This helped keep the hot spots at bay, for a while at least.
At this point in the race, the runners competing in the100km race were making their way up Sani Pass whilst the 100 Milers were on their way down. It was a great experience to watch some of the faster, more experienced runners cruise up the steep sections of the Pass. I also got to see some of my friends and enjoyed cheering them on. Finally I got a glimpse of the water table which signified the end of the Sani Pass road and time for the 12 Apostles. I was very glad to be done with this extremely steep road section. The volunteers at the hydration station fed me tea and snacks whilst I spent a few minutes resting my stump.
With no flexion in my ‘walking foot’ the extremely steep drop off the Sani Pass road was proving very difficult and finally I just sat down and let gravity do the rest! Probably not a pretty sight but it was effective.
As I started traversing along the path the top 2 male runners from the 100km field came sprinting past. Adie (Admire Muzopambwa) was lying in second position behind American runner- Cody Reed.
I still can’t believe how fast they were going as they sped past me. Adie was close on Cody’s tail but still stopped to give me a hug and tell me how much I have inspired him. These incredible athletes inspire me on a daily basis so it felt pretty cool to have one of them stop and give me some support back. Thank you Adie- that meant the world to me!
We were now 90km into the 171km race and my stump took a turn for the worst. On closer inspection I noticed I had started forming a few small blisters and some serious redness. I lathered it in Vaseline, readjusted and fitted my leg back on. This gave me a window period of around 10 minutes before the excruciating pain set in again. So, I repeated this process several times. It was also during this stage of run, stop, adjust and repeat, that I got to meet up with a true legend- Alexis Berg, one of the world’s greatest trail running photographers. He had been waiting for me on that section of the mountain and the time we spent together discussing all sorts of experiences was invaluable. During one of my stump stops to lather up with Vaseline, Alexis’s face spoke volumes as he stared at my blisters on the end of my stump. The cluster of small blisters had now formed one very large ‘super’ blister. As I put my liner back on the pressure from the blister caused an incredibly painful sensation that was draining me of all my energy. I told Alexis that I was going pull out at the next Check Point near Sani Pass Hotel as I just couldn’t take the pain anymore
Alexis was a soul-fulfilling companion. He gave me space when I needed it but was there for me in some very low moments. And all the while, he kept snapping away and captured some incredible photos which mirrored every emotion I had been feeling as well as the magnificence of the Drakensberg mountains. At one point, after I had run out of Vaseline, I remember messaging my girlfriend- Tyler- to tell her I was pulling out at the next checkpoint. I hadn’t been able to run at all and the slow pace combined with the pain was all too much.
Obviously Tyler quickly spread the news of my current physical and mental state and about an hour later, I was met with a very happy sight. Three of my close friends had run back up the mountain to meet me and they carried a tub of Vaseline with them. Quitting at that point was just not an option and they were there to help me assess both my physical situation and carry me through a dark emotional one until I could get down the mountain, across two river crossings and be reunited with my family and full support crew.
Arriving at the Waterfall Aid Station to such a happy sight ( and just a mere 100 metres from the Sani Pass Hotel), I had to fight to hold back the tears. I was treated like a king at this aid station. As I sat down in a camping chair, someone cleaned my liner, other people fed me, gave me juice, took off my rather smelly shoes and restocked my food supplies. I opted to change from my trail running shoes (New Balance Hierro V6) which I had now worn for almost 24 hours and into a pair of road shoes (New Balance 1080). With a fresh sock, a new shoe and my running blade, it felt like I had hit the reset button and the energy levels were just amazing. After walking for more than 12 hours and having the entire UTD field pass, it was now time to put down the hammer and run!
Running was sensational and I actually felt like I had a fresh pair of legs. At the Waterfall Station, the 100 Miler runners are allowed to pick up a pacer for the next 45kms. Rowan Dancer was pacing me for the first half and then Tyler was going to pick up for the next half. With spirits high and enjoying the new found freedom of running, we kept up a decent pace (although who was the crazy route planner who thought it would be a good idea to throw in a tunnel which you had to half crawl, half squat to get through?!). We had made some time on the field and latched onto an awesome small group of 100 milers who were steadily trotting on around the same pace as us. Once again, I employed the run, stop, adjust, run routine. With added friction of the running motion, the super blister was now looking almost alien-like in its appearance. Both Rowan and I were not happy with the appearance and possible lurking infection, so we took some photos and sent it off to my prothesis team in Durban. The pain had returned and I was back to stopping every few minutes to try and adjust the blistered stump. It started to rain and the muddy terrain didn’t suit the running blade. I was slipping and sliding all over the dirt roads. And the sliding certainly wasn’t helping the super blister at all! But Luvan (from my prothesis team) had come up with a plan and we had just met my brother on the road who told us we were a mere 2kms from the Cobham Check Point. We had also heard the news that my good friend Jo Keppler along with Amri Williamson had tied First Place in a record time in the female race of the 100 Miler! And better yet, Jo was waiting to cheer me on at the Cobham Road station. What an incredibly strong lady- to have run 171kms through the Lesotho and Drakensberg mountains and then she still found time to come and see me and cheer for me at the Aid Station before she could finally put her feet up. Thanks Jo!
Once again, I had spent time convincing myself this was the right moment for me to pull out. That I couldn’t take the pain for another kilometre. But then I remember there was a really big bunch of supporters at the Cobham Road Station. As I entered, they were clapping and cheering for me. I sat down and did my best to hide the tears. 114 kms of grit had got me this far but I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. The pain was overwhelming by now. Through phone calls with Luvan, we set about creating a new pain management plan to try and keep me in the race. We added a layer of cotton wool at the bottom of my socket to provide some cushioning and I switched from Vaseline to an anti-chaff cream. This made a huge difference to the pressure on the blister and once again, with the pain subsiding, I felt my spirits lift.
At this point, we needed to switch pacers and Dave Keppler offered to keep me company for the next stretch. Dave and I pushed on at a good pace to get to the Olde Duck. We started passing fellow 100 miler runners and I felt good. The running pace felt like sweet relief after so much walking.
We reached the Olde Duck Check Point an hour and a half before my anticipated time. There is a compulsory medical check at this station for all runners before they are allowed to continue with the last leg of the race. The sun was setting on my second day of running as I arrived at the restaurant. Inside, the venue was heaving with 100 Miler runners, many of whom were in a far worst off state than I was, besides the state of my stump that is. The Doctors didn’t ask me to remove my running leg so I was checked and passed pretty quickly. My team had set up a chair with all the essentials I needed to me get back out on the course and tackle the second night. I drank a second ‘cocktail’ which my coach, Rob, handed to me. And then it was Tyler’s turn to pace me to the next Check Point at Drak Gardens. Everyone’s spirits were high and it was here where my seconding team split up. Some headed straight into the mountains to get to the Cobham Aid Station (the 160km point) and the rest made their way to Drak Gardens Crossing.
As Tyler and I found our way back onto the trails, I recognised the tell-tale signs of discomfort from my stump. By now, the pain was nothing new, so I chose to ignore it and we pressed on. Tyler kept up the pace by walking just in front of me and we chatted here and there to keep the tiredness at bay. And then, around 30 minutes after the sun set and the darkness descended, my whole world fell apart.