At the risk of being repetitive, I would like to say (again), that running for me is all about JOY. Running joy is maximised if it occurs somewhere beautiful and if there is an element of adventuring (absent in the suburban Tuesday evening time trial). I love knowing I am journeying with a purpose from point a to b (instead of doing an out and back or circular loop) and I especially love it if I have no idea what to expect between the two points. To combine all this with great (though somewhat bizarre) company and stretch it over 2 weeks – well those are ingredients to create running joy second to none! When George’s dream of the 600km Pilgrimage (actually 582km) from Grahamstown to Knysna along historic ox wagon and settler routes started to become a reality and emails were being exchanged thick and fast, it became impossible for me to think of anything else. I simply had to be part of this amazing pioneering journey, the FOMO would be too much to bear if I was left out.
There are not a whole lot of people who are able to run 600km in 13 days without injury. Lets face it, there are not a whole lot who WANT to do so in the first place. And of course even if you are both able to and want to – there are not a lot of people who can wangle the time off. But I was determined to do so and so the negotiations and planning began…
On 31 August when 8 runners congregated at the Monastry in Grahamstown, filled with anxious excitement (and simply unable to observe the Great Silence), I knew there would be a story to tell. And indeed there was. But how to tell it in a way that does it any justice at all? When I returned home after 2 weeks of tough and blissful Pilgrimaging and was wandering around in my zombie-like state of post expedition depression, I made one or two attempts to explain to a couple of people what made it so special. I almost immediately gave up when I realised that I wasn’t articulating it and they werent getting it. Its just simply impossible to make someone who wasn’t there understand. But I plan to try anyway, even if its just to create a record of it all for me.
The plan was to set off from the Monastry and run along the Highlands 1820 Settler farm roads to Alicedale. The next day we would head to Zuurberg and then through Addo to Kirkwood. From Kirkwood we would run across private farms making our way to Pinnacle Gorge along the foothills of the Grootwinterhoekberge. A big climb through the fynbos up and over the mountains just to the left of Cockscomb Peak would reward us with glorious views of the Gamtoos Valley, Jeffrey’s Bay and the sea, and the rugged Baviaanskloof in the distance. A long descent down the mountain to the Elandsrivier road and then on down into the Gamtoos would follow. We would then head up the river valley to Cambria and into the Baviaanskloof Park and battle a long pull up to Bergplaas. Steep ups and downs would follow through the Baviaanskloof as we progressed the whole way through the park to Zandvlakte (special permission had to be obtained to run through the park accompanied by a back-up vehicle in case of trouble with buffalo or rhino.) Our next destination was Bokloof via Donkerkloof and the legendary wild fig forests, along the upper Baviaans Valley farmlands, a big climb up the Niewekloofpas, into the Karoo vlakte and beyond to Uniondale. The final stretch to Knysna would follow “ die ou wapad” over the hills to Avontuur, down Prince Alfred’s Pass to De Vlugt and then through the mystical Knysna forests to the water’s edge of the Knysna lagoon. Whew!
Of course, the itinerary doesn’t even begin to describe the thrill of an early morning leopard and honey badger in a Baviaanskloof valley, the adrenoline rush from a massive puffadder, the hospitality of the communities who fed us and allowed us to sleep in their NG Kerksaals and on their farms. It doesn’t do any justice to the comeraderie that develops between the runners over 13 days and it cannot convey the heartbreaking beauty of the landscape.
Now I like my privacy and my own space and my own BATHROOM as much as the next person, but there is something about communal kakking off and communal living that creates a great dynamic. (When I try to explain this, many of my mates think there is something deeply wrong with me and that I am possibly more suited to some weird military type existence than nice family life. ) Maybe it comes from spending my formative years in dorms, but there is something very awesome about the comeraderie of sharing hardship and beauty all day and then all going to sleep within chatting distance of each other. Its lekker being part of a herd, it reassuring to hear everyone breathing and grunting and shuffling around in their sleeping bags (or fluffy leopard printed duvet and blankie, in the case of Neville). When we werent all sharing a kerksaal or a shed (even Brian and Laura, the honeymoon couple!) I would end up in the singles dorm with Filippo, (Engineer, running guru, known for his yellow feet and 20 000+ words a day), Neville (enthusiatice, fabulously politically incorrect Mcguyver and goat/citrus farmer and all round good guy) and Peter (lovely mature student, back up car driver turned runner and dispenser of oranges and all good things). As a married adult when do you get to to do this kind of thing? (And why would you want to?) Its only on the self sufficiency races in the Kalahari and in the goats hair tents in Turkey, the Kerksaals in the Baviaanskloof that we experience the instantaeous bonding of the tent family/herd. Its hilarious to chat about the day’s anecdotes, to mock each other for our oddities, to have deeply serious conversations, to shriek with laughter and be irrepresibly silly and the opposite of our usual professional or responsible selves. Its hilarious to lie in your sleeping bag and watch the different preparations for the day (Filippo methodical and organised: ankle strapping, nipple covers, sunscreen, matching kit, carefully packed bag, well planned snacks. Neville (totally hapazard and disorganised remembers to apply sunscreen when fully clothed and sunscreen at bottom of pack). How do you even begin to describe the daily appeal of this bizarre scene to someone who wasn’t there? Without triggering suggestions of therapy? And how do you explain how bereft you feel when ones’s odd tent family/herd all go their separate ways? The seperation anxiety is almost too much to bear.
There is another dynamic that is interesting and wonderful to observe as the herd/tent family begins to develop: in the first 1-4 days, individual ownership of sunscreen, lipbalm, chafe cream, water, clothing, footpowder, dark chocolate, peanut butter and earl grey tea is very evident. As time passes however, there is a seamless transition from individual to communal ownership of everything: the communal lip balm is passed round wordlessly, everyone slurps from the same bottle and dips into the same communal vaseline jar. There is less concern for oneself and more for each other. The strong will take care of the weak and the next day the weak link will be strong and return the favour. We happily and without giving it any thought, wash each others “smalls” (Fillipo terminology), rub each others feet, examine each others chafed backs, make each other comforting beverages and share our chocolate biscotti. How does this happen to virtual strangers in a couple of days? Is it possible that running together makes us better people or brings out the best in us? Is running the magic ingredient for instant and genuine Ubuntu and if so can we force the whole world to go on multi day trail runs as a matter of extreme urgency? Shall we start a running revolution?
Maybe part of the magic is the extreme simplicity of it all. There is no juggling or multitasking or complex agendas. Every day is the same. Get up, eat, run from a-b, survive pain or fear or getting lost, eat, sleep. Repeat. It’s the ultimate holiday for ones’s head. It’s the most relaxing thing in the world. I have always believed that our bodies are for hard work and our brains are for fun and survival and problem solving and for telling stories. But we seem to have it the other way round most of the time. Our bodies sit at a desk all day and our brains wrestle with all sorts of exhausting and complex issues and come the end of the day our bodies are unexercised and our brains are exhausted. Its all the wrong way round. Ass-about-face to quote my running mate, Colin. Maybe we are better people when we have things the right way round?
Ant then there is the other thing – the ability to derive such INTENSE delight from the most ordinary things that we usually take for granted that we become almost tearful with joy: the pure delight of getting clean, lying down, drinking a cup of tea, eating an orange (oh my NERVES those oranges of Neville’s! Were they really that good or was it just the “original thirst” kicking in?) Putting on clean socks. The anticipation of a Padstal. The experience of a whole day of prolonged and extreme Padstal yearning followed by the reward which is better than the fantasy. Laurie Lee once said in his fabulous essay on Appetite: “It is a long time now since I knew that acute moment of bliss that comes from putting parched lips to a cup of cold water. The springs are still there to be enjoyed—all one needs is the original thirst.” Well the herd knows exactly where to find the original thirst! It certainly hasn’t gone anywhere.
And then there is the heartbreaking beauty of the landscape. The Eastern Cape is woven into the fiber of my being. Aloes and Ngunis, acacia, river euphorbia and spekboom make me feel as if all is right with the world. I love this place with a possessive passionate fierceness that makes my chest hurt. The sheer drama of it. The fact that it is simultaneoulsy sweet and wild and terribly uncool. The fact that the land and its people have suffered harship and emerged stronger because of it, is so evident in the landscape. The fact that so few people know it like we do. What a privilege to have run and sweated on so much of it. There were days on the Pilgrimage when I had to restrain myself from lying down in the dirt and pressing my face against its red earth heart and trying to put my arms around this tragic, beautiful, hardy, soulful corner of the earth that I call home. How do you explain that to people who werent there? But certainly Neville, and Brian and Baas George and even those of my herd who don’t claim it has home, they all felt an element of what I am trying to describe.
The companionship and fun and LAUGHTER were really just in another league. You get to know your trail running mates very intimately and very quickly. Everything is fast forwarded. Its usually impossible to spend virtually every minute with someone for 2 weeks, day and night, in good moods and bad. I spent more time with Kylie and Roger on the Pilgrimage than I have with my best mate in the last decade! It was astounding to be welcomed into their space and never made to feel for one minute that I was encroaching on their couple time. I didn’t mean to run with them initially, I didn’t mean to run with anyone and imagined that I would spend hours on my own, it was such a happy surprise. I also didn’t imagine that we would laugh so much. In an effort to entertain and distract each other we swopped stories and anecdotes, debated countless issues, explained our personal timelines, and constructed the MANLINESS spectrum tirelessly. I will never be able to hear the name “Eugene”, the word “TAUT” (torte?) or think of the concept of a “race baby” without collapsing as if I have been shot. Most days my intercostal muscles hurt more than my quads because of the absolute hilarity of it all. I missed them (and everyone!) so much when we all went home that I was beginning to worry that I may have become unstable as a result of the Pilgrimage, like all the dudes who went off to war and had nothing in common with their families when they returned. I worried briefly that I may live out the rest of my days in need of therapy, fondling quarts of beer in dingy pubs and pining endlessly for my brothers in arms. (Oh my nerves, that reminds me of the impromptu Dire Straits evening at Vaalwater with Neville and Filippo! Brother’s in arms indeed!)
As we were running into Knysna, I watched Kylie in awe. She was running determinely with 580km in her legs and no food in her stomach (after battling all sorts of horrible stomach and nausea issues without ever whinging or having a humour crisis) and realised we had transcended friendship in the last 2 weeks. She is without doubt one of the most legendary women I know. I would go to war with her. [Kylie I know you think I was joking when I said I’d go to war with you (and on one level I was joking) but I meant it too and it’s the ultimate compliment from one MANLY woman to another. ] And Laura is much the same. I would look at them both in amazement as they battled with root canal pain, colds and sinus, stomach issues and still managed a 60km run with a smile day after day. I was feeling 100% fit and well with no illness or injury and still had to dig deep on some days to go the distance. You both inspired me, challenged me and made the sisterhood proud!
One of the endless discussions we had (promted to some extent by the pain George was battling) was the question of finding the line between being a hero and an idiot. How do you know, especially in the heat of the battle, when you are going too far? When do we stop having admirable follow through and become reckless and foolhardy? When are we beginning to push our bodies too far and risking permanent injury or even death? How do you find that line and make wise decisions when so much has been invested in a race/expedition? We didn’t ever quite get to the bottom of this but I found a quote which pretty much sums up our dilemma:
The edge: there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” Henri Bergson
What a privilige to have shared this experience, and what an impossibility to do it justice in writing!
It is essential to include this for those who haven’t read it:
By Laurie Lee (1914—1997)
One of the major pleasures in life is appetite, and one of our major duties should be to preserve it. Appetite is the keenness of living; it is one of the senses that tells you that you are still curious to exist, that you still have an edge on your longings and want to bite into the world and taste its multitudinous flavors and juices.
By appetite, of course, I don’t mean just the lust for food, but any condition of unsatisfied desire, any burning in the blood that proves you want more than you’ve got, and that you haven’t yet used up your life. Wilde said he felt sorry for those who never got their heart’s desire, but sorrier still for those who did. I got mine once only, and it nearly killed me, and I’ve always preferred wanting to having since.
For appetite, to me, is this state of wanting, which keeps one’s expectations alive. I remember learning the lesson long ago as a child, when treats and orgies were few, and when I discovered that the greatest pitch of happiness was not in actually eating a toffee but in gazing at it beforehand. True, the first bite was delicious, but once the toffee was gone one was left with nothing, neither toffee nor lust. Besides, the whole toffeeness of toffees was imperceptibly diminished by the gross act of having eaten it. No, the best was in wanting it, in sitting and looking at it, when one tasted an inexhaustible treasure-house of flavors.
So, for me, one of the keenest pleasures of appetite remains in the wanting, not the satisfaction. In wanting a peach, or a whisky, or a particular texture or sound, or to be with a particular friend. For in this condition, of course, I know that the object of desire is always at its most flawlessly perfect. Which is why I would carry the preservation of appetite to the extent of deliberate fasting, simply because I think that appetite is too good to lose, too precious to be bludgeoned into insensibility by satiation and over-doing it.
For that matter, I don’t really want three square meals a day—I want one huge, delicious, orgiastic, table-groaning blow-out, say every four days, and then not be too sure where the next one is coming from. A day of fasting is not for me just a puritanical device for denying oneself a pleasure, but rather a way of anticipating a rare moment of supreme indulgence.
Fasting is an act of homage to the majesty of appetite. So I think we should arrange to give up our pleasures regularly—our food, our friends, our lovers—in order to preserve their intensity, and the moment of coming back to them. For this is the moment that renews and refreshes both oneself and the thing one loves. Sailors and travelers enjoyed this once, and so did hunters, I suppose. Part of the weariness of modern life may be that we live too much on top of each other, and are entertained and fed too regularly. Once we were separated by hunger both from our food and families, and then we learned to value both. The men went off hunting, and the dogs went with them; the women and children waved goodbye. The cave was empty of men for days on end; nobody ate, or knew what to do. The women crouched by the fire, the wet smoke in their eyes; the children wailed; everybody was hungry. Then one night there were shouts and the barking of dogs from the hills, and the men came back loaded with meat. This was the great reunion, and everybody gorged themselves silly, and appetite came into its own; the long-awaited meal became a feast to remember and an almost sacred celebration of life. Now we go off to the office and come home in the evenings to cheap chicken and frozen peas. Very nice, but too much of it, too easy and regular, served up without effort or wanting. We eat, we are lucky, our faces are shining with fat, but we don’t know the pleasure of being hungry any more.
Too much of anything—too much music, entertainment, happy snacks, or time spent with one’s friends—creates a kind of impotence of living by which one can no longer hear, or taste, or see, or love, or remember. Life is short and precious, and appetite is one of its guardians, and loss of appetite is a sort of death. So if we are to enjoy this short life we should respect the divinity of appetite, and keep it eager and not too much blunted.
It is a long time now since I knew that acute moment of bliss that comes from putting parched lips to a cup of cold water. The springs are still there to be enjoyed—all one needs is the original thirst.