Photo Credit: Richard Pearce Photography

Running through Fire – Addo Elephant Trail Run (44km) 2020

21 May 2020
By: Michelle Mortimer (aka Morts)

2020… summed up so far as, ‘Well that didn’t go as planned’.

Sitting here in lockdown, it’s easy to focus on everything that is negative about the crazy chaotic world we find ourselves in these days. Life is but a shadow of what is was a few short weeks back. Like most things in life, however, ‘This too shall pass’. Like a kidney stone, but yes, at some point we will find ourselves back out doing what we love with those that we love.

So, while stuck in my house, looking out the window and longing for the wide-open spaces I used to frequent, I was reminded of my last big adventure. The Addo Elephant Trail Run – 44km Race in March 2020. It brings a huge grin to my face just thinking back on it. So I thought now is as good a time as any to share my experience with you. My first ultra-distance trail run and easily one of the biggest challenges I faced to date.

A little background, for those that don’t already know, I try to do a new Race / Event every year. The body is an impressive thing, you’ll only know how far you can go once you decide to leave your comfort zone and challenge it.

Addo is a gruelling trail run. Not just the distance and elevation, but the heat as well. It gets hot in Addo in March at the best of times, but 2020 was a record year. It’s hard to explain just how hot it was, saying it hit 40-50’C while I was out there doesn’t really do it justice. Thankfully I had a plan. I was more or less the fittest I’ve been in decades, with a sound nutrition strategy and the mental fortitude of an endurance athlete. I often joke that I’m more of a Diesel Bakkie than a racing snake, so this challenge was right up my alley. It was never going to be about speed, this was going to be up to grit, perseverance and a solid plan.

To conquer Addo 44 my plan was incredibly simple and consisted of 4 basic rules:

  • Do not let my Heart Rate go over Zone 2, too much.
  • Follow my nutrition plan
  • Walk when you must, but don’t stop moving. Provided HR and hydration are good of course. Don’t be a moron.
  • Fill up at every water point.

The 44km Addo Elephant Trail Run was easily going to be my longest trail run to date, by almost 20km. Add to that the monster elevation of around 1380m Elevation, it had me somewhat nervous. Standing on the start line I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing here?’. Ever notice how everyone around you always looks way more prepared and ready to race? I often wonder if they too are slightly screaming on the inside. I may always look calm on the outside #raceface, but on the inside I’m a contradiction of fear and excitement. Experience has at least taught me that all you have to do is take that first step. Start gun, BANG, first step… that’s all it takes. Then the little voice shuts up and I set my mind to the task at hand. From that first step, I focus on one thought… ‘We do not DNF!’. Once the head is set, the heart will follow. Short of being dragged off the course, there was a finish line in my future, it was just a matter of getting to it.

So, bang and we’re off. As predicted, everyone sprinted off ahead of me. I was okay with that; this was not my first rodeo. Let them go, I’d see many of them again before the end.

The first part was a little boring, and up, mostly up. Even the flat felt like up, funny that really. I’d find the odd person to talk to for a moment before they moved on, but I was content with the fact that it was going to be alone with mother nature and my thoughts for a good few hours.

There’d been a lot of rain in Addo leading up to race day, which was a little unusual for the current drought climate it finds itself in. In the forested areas, water crossings came fast and furious and there was going to be no avoiding getting the shoes wet. So, bailed through water crossing number one. Careful not to slip and break and ankle of course, and I do have such dodgy ankles at the best of time.

Slowly the water crossings started to subside and the gradient picked up. It was time to head to the plateau and leave the safety and shade of the trees behind. Up, up, up we went. Most of this was walking of course, Rule 1 was put to the test. Thankfully it is true, every climb is indeed worth the view and it was breath-taking. I’d never seen Addo so green. Once I finally hit the plateau, I just took a moment to stop and appreciate just how privileged I was to be able to take part in this amazing run through such a remote part of our beautiful country. Blessed!

It was round about this point I started to feel the heat properly as well. There is no cover on top of the hill, there are just miles and miles of open grass lands. So, after a quick top-up of all my water bottles, and some divine fresh fruit, it was out into the heat of the day.

The next bit was pretty straight forward, people passed me, I passed people, life was hot but good and the body was holding up much better than I thought. I was strong both mentally and physically. Just keep moving, there’s a finish line out there somewhere.

Then came the descent into the valley. Here’s the thing, knowing it’s going to get hotter and actually descending into the oven that is the valley floor are two different things. It felt like the rubber was going to melt under my shoes and the water in my hydration pack went from a bit warm to a little too hot to drink. Convincing your body that it has to swallow said hot water also becomes a slight battle of wills. Big girl panties, I kept moving forward. I had a plan. I was uncomfortable, but otherwise was still in good nick. I forged on, now focusing on mini goals, e.g. reaching the next water point.

The next water point I got to was a collection of people lying in the shade trying to lower core temperatures and hide from the merciless sun. Quick pit stop for fresh cooler liquid and a bit of super juice refreshing fruit and then back to the trail. It wasn’t too much further ‘til I was back in the trees and heading for the last climb of the day. So Close now. I’d also been told there was a water hole coming up where I could wallow for a moment or two. It’s the little things in life after all that are the best and the thought of a cool refreshing swim sounded like heaven on earth.

There was one interesting encounter on my way to the water hole though, while moving through an interesting grass land. The grass was really long and freaked me out a bit. Ideal place for some of nature’s little critters to hide out and wait for unsuspecting persons, such as myself, to disturb their resting spot. This is where, while focused 2 chaps lying under a tree down the way, I damn near stepped on what I’m pretty sure was a puff adder. I had no idea I had the reflexes of a jungle cat. It must be a hidden skill, but the agility with which I managed to launch in the opposite direction was quite magnificent. Thank goodness they are somewhat incredibly lazy snakes. Rule 1 was officially broken.

Snake avoided and gratefully leaving the grasslands it was back into the cover of trees. The recent rains had left many waters crossing this side of the plateau as well. I could always tell when one was coming around the bend as I could hear the delightful giggles, shrieks and joy of people who had found a refuge from the relentless heat. In an effort not to get stuck at one water crossing and be tempted not to leave, I decided to only wet the legs at each point. I’d save my swim for the big pool before the last climb. Best decision ever. Goose bumps, that is all I can say about that last pool, goose bumps. For the first time in endless hours, I allowed myself the break my body was craving, took off the pack and carelessly bailed into the refreshing water, shoes and all. This time the giggles and shrieks were all mine. A quick float, head to toe soak, and just like that it was time for the final ascent.

The last climb, goodness me that last climb. It just went on and on and on and on. You give up looking for the top eventually, you just sort of live in the moment. Each step is one step closer to your goal. Stay focused, keep moving, almost there. Towards the top you wind across the side of a cliff, which if you have a healthy respect for heights can be somewhat daunting. In mountain biking a good tip is, “Look where you want to go, not where you don’t”. I thought that was pretty apt in this situation too. This was not the time to be falling down a cliff so close to achieving what I set out to do.

Then just like that, well I say just like that, but in reality, a long while later, I was at the top. A local farmer had a hose pipe ready for a quick cool off before the last km or 2. You could see the finish from here, the worst was over. The body had been through hell and hurt, but the soul was soaring. Endorphins were flooding the system, there is no greater joy than a hard-fought finish line. Not only was I about to conquer the challenge that had been set out for myself, but I had stuck to my plan and was going to finish strong.

On the way to the finish I met one last fellow traveller. Those who’ve done longer races know what I mean. These are people you meet along the road, who you share a brief moment with and you will never forget them, even if your paths never cross again. Motivating each other to a finish strong we started trotting towards the end of our journey. Hand in hand we crossed the finish line which at the start of the day had felt so very far away. Triumph!

As always, I do believe my first words over the finish line may have well been, ‘Never Again!’. They always are, even though deep down inside I know that I’ll be back someday. Maybe not the next year, but never is never really never in an endurance athlete’s life.

So, in closing, as I return to my little world of lockdown, I take with me the memories of all the great adventures I been on. I draw strength and joy from them when things seem overwhelming and bleak. I remind myself that there are far more adventures to come, places to go, travellers to meet and challenges to set for myself. While life may be temporally on hold for the moment, it is far from over. What’s next for me… well, you’ll all just have to wait and see. One thing I do know is it will be well worth the wait. In the meantime, it’s all about the base.

Stay safe, stay healthy and keep looking forward.
Feel free to check out my race day videos 🙂 Enjoy