Nicolette shares her first hand struggles of running ultra-distances at the front of the field

Author: Nicolette Griffioen

It’s often said that the negative emotions of loss, sadness and disappointment weigh much more heavily on us than their positive counterparts of success and happiness. My firsthand experience of this phenomenon came in the form of another 100km Skyrun. It was 2017 and I’d been training consistently all year, planning my grand return to the Eastern Cape’s high mountains to better my previous years’ time. I naturally assumed that my fitness would have improved over the last 12 months, that racing the course for the second time would have navigational advantages, and that I was more mentally prepared for the challenges of ultra-running than ever before. Additionally, I’d have a support crew this time around. A one-man crew admittedly, but the best I could possibly ask for - my boyfriend - partner in crime and all-mountain adventures! A Skyrunner himself, he would know exactly what I’d need at the single support point just over halfway. I was sorted.

Stories abound of the year-round severe weather conditions that can afflict this southern tip of the Drakensberg range, locally known as the Witteberge. My Skyrun debut in 2016 had been a rather hot affair, but 2017 saw a late cold front coat the ridges with a generous layer of snowfall two weeks ahead of the event. Race day arrived calm and clear-skied, but the 4 am start was icy, and competitors were warned of the persisting snow up on the route. I wore a thin set of thermals to maintain my core temperature and set off into the pre-dawn darkness. Upon gaining the ridgeline along which the first 50-odd kilometres of trail meander, I discovered that a thick icing of snow concealed much of the trail, despite the harsh sun glaring down and relatively pleasant air temperature. What followed, instead of the easy and flowing running I’d been expecting, was several hours intermittent trudging through knee-deep snow, more off-route than on. Knowing that there was plenty of “water” on the course, I hadn’t carried much up with me, stupidly overlooking the fact that snow cannot be drunk while running... And so, slowly, imperceptibly, I began to dehydrate and overheat as the hard work-induced sweating of fluids I simply wasn’t replacing.

By the time I reached the 60km aid station, it was probably game over, but somehow, I still didn’t see it coming and wasn’t prepared when it really hit. About 45 minutes later I finally reached the top of the wall – a viciously steep, pathless climb with a few hundred meters ascent - and had to rest at the top. I sat for a while and ate a packet of jelly tots to boost energy and morale before continuing down the other side. The descent and 7km of the relatively flat road did little to improve my fatigue or dwindling motivation and I arrived at the next checkpoint in a bad space. I realised with dreaded certainty that I would never be able to beat my own record of the previous year – that the snow had taken its toll on me, mentally and physically. All was lost. There was nothing left to run for. I dropped into a chair and promptly drifted into a light slumber. I told myself I had to go on, that I’d leave with the next runner who passed through. That runner came and went, but still, I couldn’t summon the energy to rise from my too-comfortable camping chair. And by the time the next group came in, it was game over. I’d decided, with the same single-minded focus required to finish an ultra, that I couldn’t finish this one. And I wouldn’t.

Skyrun 2017 was my first, and to date only, race DNF - “did not finish.” And I can say with absolute confidence that the disappointment of that one “failure” outweighs all the successes of my running history. By finishing another 50km race just one week later (I call it “revenge running”) I was able to console myself somewhat, and I have since taken all the positives one possibly can from a DNF. I told myself that it was a valuable life lesson, a necessity, bound to happen and that I’m stronger for it, more experienced, more mature. But I won’t lie, A DNF is now my worst running nightmare...