words by : Sven Musica
photos by: Sven Musica and Arlo van Heerden
1.(of food or drink) sweet with a bitter aftertaste.
“she sipped the bittersweet drink”
2.arousing pleasure tinged with sadness or pain.
“bittersweet memories of his time in London”
7 months ago Billy Yang films release a movie titled, “The Why | running 100 miles”, and it digs deep into the mindset of an Ultra runner. 2 Years ago i suffered post race injury after Lavaredo Ultra Trail, at the time i was quite bitter about it, All the hard work and dedication leading up to the race got me to the finish line, but beyond that i couldn’t keep going to capitalise my fitness towards my performance to my next Ultra to ultimately complete my dream to run at UTMB. I was going backwards when i wanted to go forwards. My reasons were probably selfish in that i wanted to be “good at this”. I wanted to race. I wanted to perform.
Its been Months since i last thought about another Ultra, Let alone a 100 miler. Karkloof 100 might just have changed all that. You see, being a father to 3 young Boys, 5 months to 6 years old. I can’t put any large amounts of time towards running fast, and if i did i would feel like a complete arsehole in the process by putting my wife in a situation that she would need to look after the kids and run the business while i chase glory. Lets face it, i needed a change of mindset.
Being asked to shoot stills and video at Karkloof 100 was a massive privilege, being one of a small handful of 100 milers in the country, it does grab attention within the running community, so therefore its massive pressure to produce the goods because, lets face it, most people won’t run one every month, so as the calendar fills up with other 100 milers, you won’t have as many runners from the small pool of crazy ultra runners willing to take on the challenge…. Unless….
…Unless the drive to invite the Non ultra runner is strong, strengthened by multiple elements such as a positive experience by the athlete. Yes sure, anyone can put together the distance and get a runner or 2 to take to the start line, but what experience does that athlete walk away with, what experience does the athletes supporters walk away with.
In the words of Dean Leslie’s narration of “The communal art of foot racing”, He states “We are in the post marathon age… Where to run 100 miles no longer feels impossible… No longer seems inconceivable”. This becomes apparent when you ask around the race start as well as on course as to how many 100 milers has each person run. With the general response being “NONE”. Well everyone needs to have run their first 100 miler to run their second. But we as South African trail runners are starting to explore the distance, and we are exploring it rapidly.
Incase you feel like my intro is dragging on, i apologise, watching friends suffering over 3 calendar days has made me somewhat emotional, so let me get to my days experience as a small fraction of the media crew that watched the carnage unfold.
The Karkloof 100 miler is a KZNTR event partnered together with Trail lab. It takes place in September in Howick, South Africa. Its the trails and roads that Lauren and Andrew Booth from KZNTR lays tread marks on. Its their home, its where they go when: “they need to go for a run to clear their heads”. If the 100 miler distance is anyones Passion, and drive for the event distance, i would probably guess that its driven by Jack Davis, or Jack Mark Davis, or Mark Jack Davis, im not even sure, i dont even think his name is even Jack, or so i have heard. But for the sake of not confusing anyone any further, Lets call him Jack, Together with Michelle from Traillab. Jack has run some good 100 milers, he knows whats awsome.
So on arrival at Howick on the friday afternoon, we heading straight to the race village at Yard 41, the start and the finish to the race. The energy was building slowly, being a 8PM start, athletes are probably tossing and turning somewhere hoping that they can catch any amount of sleep that is possible knowing that they won’t be getting almost any over the next 17-36 hours.
The Route is an out and back course from Howick towards Karkloof conservancy and Benvie gardens. We had made sure Peugeot Boutique hotel was packed decently enough to take power naps between Arlo and myself so that we dont end up being too fried to actually produce any content.
3-2-1: And off the runners went into the dark of the night following the pool of light in front of their feet glancing into the distance for the reflective markers that would guide them for the next 10 hours.
The first aid station was 11 Karkloof, with a series of bunker looking tunnels producing some fluid and sustenance. The evening chill had set in but the energy from the athletes was electric, with it being 17km from race start, all except 1 athlete looked good. yip, 1 athlete was not looking so hot at 17km in a 161km foot race, it was going to be a very, very, very very long race.
We jumped rock wood and headed straight to Bushwillow to get a few updates out to the media crew of race leaders and visual imagery. Bushwillow was home for 3 days during the 3 cranes challenge in Feb. It was the 50km and 100km mark on Karkloof 100. Athletes began to slowly flow in. I learnt that many had been suffering with upset stomachs. Was it the food? I have a different theory. So athletes would tend to put their headlamps on a low power to conserve battery power to get through the evening, everyone fears being left with no light. Following a dim pool of light sometimes creates disorientation, leading to Nausea, much the same as car sickness and ocean sickness. My experience is that if you blast more light onto the trail, you are less likely to suffer from Nausea.
At Mbona aid station i took a 2 hour Nap while Arlo continued shooting, after what felt like 5 minutes i was woken up by my damn alarm. Shoes on, pack on, it was time for me to cover some of the course on foot towards Benvie. The trail started with open grass fields with meandering contour trails. Heading down towards the dams in the valleys below. I bumped into some friends along the way to pat them on the back and rudely interupted Bennies Conference call.
Its a different experience photographing a 100 miler with 92 starters. For most short events, the action happens continuously, every 2-5 minutes you get runners on course. This was a totally different experience. At times you could wait 20 minutes before a runner passes a cool spot you creatively thought would be amazing, so you wait, and wait, and wait, and shoot some cutaway video of plants, and leaves and skies until a runner finally arrives, and then *click*… Ah Fuck.. stupid lens was still on manual focus from shooting video… , now ask yourself, do you wait another 20 minutes…
The stretch along the dams felt all too familiar, i had shot here before, produced the goods, but the season was different and the runners were tired. It was at this point that the 50 milers started making their way towards me, they Started at the halfway point. They came in a steady stream. its funny, you can somehow tell who was running the 50 miler and which of the 100 miler athletes were on their return journey at close to 90km of running, and no, the pacers are not the give away.
At this point i picked up Arlo and we headed back towards Benvie. We managed to get a lift with Michael Robey to cut out 3 km and save some time. Benvie was pumping with Max Cluer on the mic as the athletes came shuffling in.
Hopping past Mbona again, we went back to Bushwillow to backtrack on some trails and get more images on route. At this point there was a distant thunderstorm making its way rapidly towards us. I managed to get a cracker of a shot anticipating lightning and getting runners into the image. Satisfied with my achievement, Arlo and Myself headed back to camp to avoid being taken out by the hail and lightning. Watching Emily Clarke casually walk through the hail while i fetched some strapping in my car for some athletes i felt the FOMO, so decided i would provide 1 minute of my time to be a bit of useless company.
After capturing some of the Athlete decay at Bushwillow which at this point was the 100km mark, we headed out to Canopy tours and up a jeep track with Peugeot boutique hotel proving itself useful on the snotty road. At the top, we unpacked our burger patties, lit up the gas burner, and fried ourselves some “pot burger” patties. Man, after very little to eat and the occasional snack, what a magic thing to put something substantial in the direction of my face.
At this point Frikkie Pienaar and Eloff Hoffman decided to grace us with their presence and humour, and magic moments for a behind the scenes video blooper edit.
The mist at this point had covered the mountainside and the faint mumbling of tired athletes would be a guide as to whether anyone was approaching.
Heading back to Karkloof 11, we knew that being the last aid station before the finish with only 17km to go was going to produce the dramatic imagery needed to complete the story of exactly what goes down in a 100 mile foot race.
I took to the course to follow some runners which also happened to be friends for the last 17km of their race, to dig deep into their minds as to what is going on and hopefully capture the magic audio.
So coming back to my long winded intro. I never clarified as to my bitterness 2 years back. I wanted something out of the distance that the average runners should not look for, that being performance, And performance is the very thing that is not a guarantee when you go out to race 100 miles. Watching the guys having fun in the process of challenging themselves between the middle and back of the field and being apart of it all made me realise one thing, my “Why” has been changed for me, and i never understood it the way i do now, testing yourself physically without putting to much pressure on yourself is one of the only ways you will get from the start line to the finish line consistently over and over again.