My feet ache as if I have been standing in the Cape Town ocean for the past five days, I’m sleeping more than a hibernating possum, my sleep is plagued with dreams of chasing water points (WPs) and getting through race villages (RVs) and every time I do something that requires some effort or concentration I just start crying – how on earth did I get here? 1 May 2017
To say that the Munga Trail was the greatest challenge I have taken on yet is a massive understatement. This past week of recovery has made me realise the extent of the trauma that one’s mind and body can experience in such an event. Most people start the conversation with: “What made you want to enter something like the Munga Trail?” In hindsight I could offer many explanations, but the truth is all I had to hear was that SA would be hosting its first 400km non-stop foot race and I was in – no questions asked. Some call it insane, others call it an addiction, I’m not sure what to call it yet. All I know is that events like the Munga Trail create a sense of deep desperation in me that I cannot shake until I endure the full measure of suffering that I know it will dish out.
The midday start of Munga felt quite different to any other ultra I have attempted in the past. It may have been a severe case of denial but I felt completely at peace with starting my journey and it felt like nothing more than a simple club run with friends – especially considering there were only 24 of us heading out. Running at what for me was a recovery pace, I soon found myself behind the two leaders Bennie Roux and Naomi Brand. Sorted! Well so I thought… As the Nav World Brand Ambassadors they seemed like the perfect people to follow until we got to the first T-junction on the route and I quickly learnt one of the most important Munga lessons (one that I would continue to learn a few times along the way) – Do not follow anyone!
They turned right, my gps and I went left and before I knew it I was in the lead – woohoo! After they passed me, this scenario played out another two times until about the 10km mark where I soon found myself on my own for a good while.
The day felt so good and I ran comfortably expecting to see some others soon catch up, but darkness set in and I was still alone. A quick stop to refuel at WP2 gave me some good motivation and I soon found myself head down and running well to the awesome tunes playing through my earphones when out of nowhere all I saw were spikes! I had almost run straight into a porcupine and the poor oke got the fright of its life, leapt a few meters and landed facing me in a seemingly endless staring competition. I froze, but as soon as my heart rate seemed moderately under control, I knew I needed to turn my headlamp off if I wanted the startled porcupine to move off. However those few moments in complete darkness hoping that it was walking away from me and not towards me may have been my scariest moment on the whole race. With eyes on stalks and a surge of adrenalin – I continued to run.
Into RV1 I felt good and was excited to be greeted by a friendly team of people. Bennie was just leaving and Naomi had only stopped for a few minutes and then continued. Nicky and Carsten were in just after me and we got to sit down to some good food together. Knowing that one should conserve themselves I tried to get some sleep but my excitement was still too intense and after 15 minutes of lying there wide awake, I headed off on my own.
For most of the night I felt really great – although there were times when the gps track became tricky to follow – like when it took us straight through a very high, locked, electrified game gate – it was one of those moments where you question how strict the organiser’s are when they say “you HAVE to stick to the route.” My highlight was navigating through grass taller than me in a valley that seemed to have no one else in it, singing Meghan Trainor’s “Me Too” at the top of my lungs (really hoping it was just me in that valley). There’s nothing like a self-obsessed song to make you feel like you can do anything and it soon became my most played song on the race – along with Sia’s “Greatest” – shouting out: “I’m free to be the greatest man alive” has a similar effect. I came alive – feeling completely free and thought about all those people who would be waking up to stressful jobs or the weight of debt in the morning and couldn’t help but continue to sing: “If I were you, I’d wanna be me too”.
During a seemingly endless jeep track on the top of a ridge, my problems began. A burning pain in the outer side of my lower leg – something I have never had before, but that quickly stopped me from being able to run and my periods of walking started to increase. I headed down the mountain on a pretty clear jeep track and then suddenly the gps route took me off onto a grueling series of ruts in grass up to my shoulders and inconveniently sized rocks all strategically placed to trip me up. The descent was hard on the feet and I was so grateful to reach the bottom. Not far from the next WP, the sun rose and I took my dew soaked shoes off and put on my slops – yes slops! Going into Munga I knew wet feet would be one of my worst enemies so I carried a pair of yoga slops so that I could dry my feet out at times. They are very comfortable and easy to run in and an hour later my feet and shoes were dry and I could put my shoes back on – my strategy was serving me well.
My final 6km to the WP sucked. I was on the most lovely undulating little gravel road, feeling desperate to run and then another first happened. I got a stitch in my side that for 6km forced me to walk – slowly. Each time I thought it was gone, I tried to run and it would hit me as hard as it could, until a few 100m from the WP where I finally got my ability to run back. Arriving into WP3 I felt like I had had a rough night. Little did I know that this would be one of my good nights by the end of Munga.
After a short refuel I headed off and was pleasantly surprised that what looked like a very boring few km on the map turned out to be very pretty trail that made running feel easy. Then we had to climb out of the valley. This climb had been sold to us as one that is tough and steep where for a section of the hiking trail we would climb 600m in just 3km – unlike most people that excited me more than anything we had run up to that point. I couldn’t wait to get onto proper forest track and the up hills made me hurt less than the downs at that point. What a stunning trail and a view to rival all others at the top. Soon after reaching the top I was joined by Tatum, Hanno and Andy and was so grateful for some company all the way to WP4.
I left the WP alone, but was soon joined by Tatum and Hanno again and time seemed to fly over the next 20km or so. Until the route took us onto an energy sapping railway track that lasted longer than I ever want to spend on a railway track again. One big climb and one big descent was all that was left between us an RV2. Tatum and Hanno went ahead and I was soon joined by Andy as the sun began to set. Some night-time company was wonderful and we walk/ran on until the extremely treacherous descent that sent us bum sliding and hanging onto every piece of foliage possible all the way to RV2 at Coramandel. The extra bonus was that my husband Dylan was manning the RV and it would be the first time that I would get to see him on the route.
Some good chatter, some amazing food and then a 4 hour sleep is what we got. Andy headed off and I would soon catch up, but first needed to get my feet taped by the medic. I honestly cannot remember why I got my feet taped – I assume that I must have had a reason, but I cannot recall what the reason was and I am afraid this may have been the initial mistake that would break me later on. I got going – slowly – that awful pain when one gets back onto tired feet after 160km is a feeling I do not need to remember. However after a few 100m once my blood got pumping again, that pain subsided and I was able to run and catch up to Andy who was having some difficulty understanding why the gps was trying to take us through another electric fence. After finding the track that we were supposed to take, we started to climb. Ahead of Andy I climbed really well, and thoroughly enjoyed the route off the mountain in what seemed like a perfect evening. We rejoined on a gravel road that decided to flatten out as the grave yard shift began. Those 2 hours before sunrise are where the sleep monsters dwell and they made their appearance a few times. We couldn’t stop for 2 minutes without one of us falling asleep yet still retaining our seated position.
All that lay between us and WP5 was a left turn onto a tar road, shortly followed by a right turn back onto gravel. I could see this clearly on my gps, yet for some reason my perceptual state led me right. Andy blindly followed for a few minutes, before checking his gps and realising what I had done. I think this was the first time my brain stopped working and the sleep deprivation started getting to me. There had only been one other incident just before RV2 where I had not been thinking clearly. For some reason my track on my gps ended before RV2 and if I hadn’t been with Andy I would have found myself very stuck – yet if I had been thinking clearly I would have just looked at the file with the full route (as the one I was looking at was for RV1 to RV2 only). I would hate to know how long I would have sat there if I didn’t have Andy to follow at the time.
We made it to WP5 and were welcomed by a very friendly face and some good food. We soon got going again. The sun was up along with that new motivation for a day ahead and my slops were on again. Unfortunately some of the tape on my one foot had caused a mild blister between my big toe and the next one, so I removed the culprit and carried on. After a long section of jeep track, Andy had more run in him and went ahead while I walked on steadily and made my way up another big climb. Reaching the top was a good milestone and another opportunity for my lack of sleep to make me careless. I decided to pee and put my GPS down to get the job done. I got up and started walking towards the fence that I needed to climb over. Suddenly I realised what had happened and I looked back at a very large area of long cut grass – what looked like a hay stack that had been flattened – and began my search, trying to remember where that very important pee took place. It could quite easily have been the end of me. No one in sight. Just me on a private and essential treasure hunt that seemed to last forever. Yet I think it was only 5 – 10 minutes before I found it and was scaling the fence. Not long after, I was celebrating the 200km mark. A big milestone when I had never gone more than 170km.
That afternoon I hit a forestry section that started feeling quite monotonous after a while and the sleep monsters were back. Aware of their affect on my pace, I chose to lie down in some pine needles for 20 minutes. My alarm had just gone off and I woke up to Nicky and Carsten come up some track that wasn’t on the route. They had gone wrong somewhere and had just found their way back to where they should have been. I thoroughly enjoyed continuing with them as it gave me the opportunity to meet the famous Nicky Booyens who I have looked up to for many years and get to know Carsten who had been only a chatty facebook friend until then.
After a refuel at WP6 and some encouragement from Sven Musica the photographer (also only a facebook friend until then), it was not long before starting the journey down into the valley heading towards Sabie. Nicky and Carsten had new legs and ran on, I’m not sure if you could call what I was doing running. Nicky didn’t believe I was running and seemed to giggle at the site of what I was able to muster up. I will settle on saying that I was doing my Madiba Shuffle – you know – that style of running that looks more like Madiba trying to dance than anything else. I fiddled a bit with my pack, putting on some arm warmers I think, as the sun was setting on yet another day out. And oh, what do you know, my GPS was gone again. Nothing like having to turn around and start running up the pass you’ve been coming down after covering 230km. Luckily I only needed to run about 1km when I found my GPS lying in the middle of the road waiting for me.
I had run past Andy on my way up and was now headed down the pass on my own having no idea what torment lay ahead. All seemed to be on track. The sun had set, I was enjoying moving forward with the assistance of my friend called Gravity and according to my race booklet I only had a few kms to go before reaching RV3 at Sabie. However I had been on this road before when Dylan and I cycled the Dragon’s Spine in 2013 and something seemed a bit off. I cannot really recall what happened in between or what my body felt like at the time, but I found myself absolutely bawling my eyes out (as if someone had died). It all just came out. I cried my hardest while still walking forward and the only reason I can recall for all the crying was that I was not there yet and all I could see was more gravel road in the dim light of my fading headlamp. I knew that there was still the tar section before getting to Sabie and I had already covered the distance that the race booklet said we had to do to get there. Why on earth was I not there yet?
I started having to dig really deep and in my sleep deprived state all I could do was put one foot in front of the other as my pace steadily dropped to something I did not know was possible. We all think that we have a minimum pace, a pace that we could not move slower than even when tired. But Munga taught me that there is no such thing as a minimum pace. If you have the grit to keep moving forward when everything says you shouldn’t be, you will find a pace way slower than your minimum. Just before the tar Dylan had driven out to keep an eye on me as there was a rally taking place in Sabie and the athletes ahead had expressed their concerns for a female doing that section on her own. However with not being able to assist me in any way, I imagine the sad state I was in was just as gruelling for Dylan to experience.
Watching the car moving forward just 200m ahead of me, I continued to sob as I put one foot in front of the other. “Come on feet. Come on feet.” I said over and over in the most pathetic voice imaginable. Then my personality split and I found me shouting at myself to stop crying like a baby and suck it up. I must say I have never seen this take place before apart from in the odd comedy I have watched. But to be that person that shouts at themselves as if they are another person, is a whole new level of self-talk that I have never experienced and looking back I must have looked like I had escaped from an institution of some sort. I sucked it up and put on a brave face but that was short lived I’m afraid. Just as I had dried my tears, Dylan made the devastating mistake of saying “only about 3km to go”. Even though I knew his intentions were good, I began bawling like an absolute baby again.
I don’t think my mind has ever broken as much as it did those last 3km into Sabie. I think it took me almost 2 hours (if not more) to get my body to cover those 3km and I feel utterly embarrassed when I replay that experience in my head. I usually have a pretty decent pain threshold, so why couldn’t I just switch off to the pain and run? Was I actually in any pain? I honestly can’t remember. Was it just the case of a sleep deprived brain? Can sleep deprivation and too much time alone really look that bad? It still baffles me and I have no logical explanation for what I became that night. I can only describe my experience as this: I feel like I met a new version of me that I hope I never meet again and it required the bravest version of me to cope in her presence.
Into RV3 – I wasn’t interested in food, drink, medical help or conversation – I just needed a bed. Oh to be horizontal! A four hour sleep was at my disposal.
Many people have asked me: why didn’t you sleep more? They ask this because they think that when one does sleep on a race like Munga it’s a comfortable one. Yes we are in beds when at a RV or WP, but I found sleeping incredibly painful. Within a few minutes my body would start to ache and my well deserved sleep would be disrupted by a pain too intense to ignore and a frequent change of position that prevented me from ever entering a decent state of sleep.
I woke up and hobbled my way to the hall to find my good friend Kerry had just come in. A short chat over some food and Kerry was off to bed while Johan (a Godsend of a medic) worked some serious magic on my feet. He taped them up beautifully but alerted me to the fact that I had an infection in the one that developed a blister from the previous strapping. It didn’t seem too bad and I slowly got going as the sun was rising. Onto day three with 8hours and 20 minutes sleep in the bag.
After a good few hours on beautiful jeep track and then a long session of forestry roads, the sleep monsters were already hounding me and so a ten minute snooze in the forest is what I did. Riaan and Attie, the “Afrikaans Guys” as they had become fondly known amongst all of us running and watching the race, caught up to me and we shared some trail together. However, as soon as we hit the single track in the forest, I was off. Motivated by the terrain I love running most, my mind was strong enough to override anything my body felt. The climb was tough and it certainly went on forever, but I was on a high listening to some worship and praising God all the way up. Not too long after the sun set, I headed into WP7.
Feeling strong, I had no desire to sleep but quickly refuelled and got on my way to climb to the highest point of the race – Mount Moodie (If I am not mistaken). And that I am afraid is when the wheels began to fall off – properly! Starting the descent, I could feel something wasn’t quite right in my foot and so I stopped to see what was going on. To my horror, my feet had swelled a lot from the infection which then caused the strapping to pull tight. The result: a dark purple crazy ass bubble of fluid bulging from my big toe. I had to employ some disaster management there and then but my exposed position on that mountain caused my body temperature to drop quite significantly. I put on ALL my gear which included a waterproof, almost bullet proof body warmer built for an arctic storm. Yet still the pain in my feet and my cold body slowed my pace down terribly. After a little while I was passed by Kerry and the Afrikaans guys and continued to step one foot at a time as I watched their headlamps travel further and further away, until I was on my own again.
That mountainous single track seemed to go on forever, and my slow pace begged the sleep monsters to attack again. I always thought it would be quite difficult to fall asleep on your feet while on technical single track, especially when there is a considerable drop next to you. Yet there I was falling asleep and then waking up to find that I hadn’t fallen off the mountain and was still in fact walking along the trail – just very slowly. I knew that I had to sleep, as if I continued my body temperature would continue to drop until I would be stuck on a very exposed section of trail unable to move forward. However, I was conscious that my already low body temperature may drop even more if I stopped to sleep in such conditions. Just as I became completely desperate, I caught site of a rocky outcrop a little way off the trail. I found a spot between some rocks to shelter me a bit from the wind where I completely buried myself under my space blanket to try and get some sleep. About 30 minutes later I was up and awake enough to move at a pace that made my body feel a little warmer. More hours on my own….
I found myself constantly looking back in the hope that someone had caught up to me, but each look into the darkness with no headlamp in sight left me feeling quite disheartened. Hours later, one more 10 minute snooze gave me what I needed to get off the mountain back into forestry. With wet feet and a cold body I pressed on – my space blanket was still tightly wrapped around me – and then the best surprise ever! – a hiking hut that was open! I entered, lay down on a mattress, and even though still wet and cold, I chose to sleep for 1hr30 and wait for that next surge of motivation that was guaranteed to accompany the sun. That sunrise was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. From inside the hut it looked as though I was surrounded by a forest fire, but it was just the unique glow created by the light hitting the rising mist. I couldn’t have asked for more motivation and ran my way to WP8 – the first WP to serve chocolate and a small fan club of Dylan, Neil (Kerry’s husband) and Matt (Kerry’s son).
A quick refuel and a much needed foot treatment gave me the umph that I needed. After being off my feet for a few minutes, I hobbled my way out of there while trying to ignore the pain that I knew would subside in a little while. A video of this hobble can be found on the 100Days2Munga Facebook page. It may seem ridiculous but from there all the way into the Mac Mac Forest, I’m sure I ran better than I did the entire race.
On route I encountered Sven again and was joined for a few 100m of paparazzi action. That Mac Mac area is stunning and motivation was not difficult to find. Later I found myself dropping down the steep terrain to cross through the Mac Mac Gorge, when suddenly I heard a familiar voice – it was Kerry. She kept on asking where I was, which was strange as she was obviously ahead of me and I was just coming along the trail like everyone else had. Yet she still kept on saying: “Mist, where are you?” with a distressed sound in her voice.
Eventually we found each other. Kerry was cut to shreds and explained how the trail had just stopped and that she had been running all over for the previous 2 hours trying to find the track. Doubtful, I continued along the track with her, when sure enough the track led us straight into a wall of bramble significantly taller than us. We scuttled around for a while in some of the most awful terrain I have ever encountered. We were surrounded by bramble and were stepping along the tops of rocks and fallen down trees, only we could not see where we were putting our feet through all that bramble. This meant constantly stepping where there was no rock or tree and falling through, having the bramble rip us to shreds on the way down and then having to climb out again – over and over. Until that is exactly what we did. We pushed through that awful bramble in a direction perpendicular to the trail until we finally intersected a path and got going up the steep climb out of the gorge.
Once we reached Graskop town, we began finding our way to RV4. About 500m before the RV, Kerry was met by Neil who broke the news to me that Dylan had been called to assist at RV5 and would not be seeing me at RV4. My devastation however was quickly lessoned when Johan the miracle medic suddenly ran out of nowhere to run alongside me. His words were: “I heard that your husband had to go to RV5, so I thought I would come out and support you”. It was the kindest act ever and we chatted up a storm through those last 100m into RV4. After some good chow, Kerry and I decided to sleep for 2 hours. Johan, my guardian angel proceeded to create another work of art on my feet while I tried to sleep through the pain that I felt everywhere. Sometime in our sleepy state Rieghard came through, choosing not to sleep. He had been ill for most of the race and had decided to give his all and get to the finish line.
Once our alarms had gone off Kerry and I got going – the start of our fifth night. A few kms into the next stretch we saw a headlamp coming up behind us – it was Stephan (from Sweden) who had accidentally missed RV4. The three of us continued as we headed along a very straight stretch of road and I soon realised that my GPS had a different route to Kerry and Stephan and so I had to follow them. Kerry has a phenomenal walk that I cannot keep up with and she walked ahead disappearing into the darkness. After a while I ask Stephan if we were still meant to be on the road and not have turned – and he seemed quite sure. When I became even more worried and asked again, I saw that we had in fact passed the turnoff by a great distance and had to backtrack. Once off the tar we wasted a lot of time confused. My GPS said one way, his said the other and after phoning Kerry, it sounded like she was on a different track all together. This was one of those key moments that I look back at and realise just how much my brain was not working at the time. Through phoning Dyl, I worked out that somehow (even though we take routes so seriously), we had managed to load the old route onto my GPS and so I did not have the correct one.
The next point where we came out near a road, Dylan had driven out to reload the correct route on my GPS. In the meantime I had a 15 minute snooze in a comfy bush. And suddenly Stephan and I were off again in the rain that had decided to join us. All our kit was on and we soon found ourselves following a newly formed stream flowing down a jeep track. That jeep track seemed to go one for ever and as I became more and more tired, I kept on scanning my surroundings looking for anything that could provide us shelter for a few minutes. I found this night so so difficult. As time went on, I was becoming more physically tired and sleepy tired, but it was too cold and wet to stop – so we had no choice but to continue. At one stage we became so desperate to stop, we found ourselves huddled in the branches of a fallen tree – that was the best shelter we could find.
I was so cold that entire night. My space blanket was wrapped tightly around me with all my other kit underneath and I have flashbacks of walking in that rain constantly falling in and out of sleep (while still walking) and watching Stephan do the same. I would love to know what we looked like to someone looking from the outside, as each time one of us fell asleep we would at some stage start crab walking or would trip over something in the path. It doesn’t seem so bad now – I think there are parts of Munga that I have made an active effort to forget, but I do remember a lot of begging God to make the rain stop – once again in a very pathetic and sad voice.
The rain did stop – after about 6-7 hours of the longest night of my life. And the sun did come up. At that stage Stephan left me as he was ready to run again, but I honestly could not do more than my hobble. I was headed alone a road following a real river this time and the chill coming off of it pierced through me. I realised that what I had suspected during the night was true – I was completely wet. Somehow all the layers of my clothing that become wet and that was why I had been and still was so cold. As the sun began to warm things up, I started removing layers so that I could try to dry out without giving myself hyperthermia. The last section of trail to WP9 was absolutely stunning and I found my attitude positive and ready to tackle the rest of the day. I knew that I would not make the cut-off but I planned to still continue until I had completed the route.
Dylan was at WP9 and I was treated to some coffee and koeksisters (and some healthier food), while I tried to get my feet to dry out. It had been a long night of wet taped feet and I feared the worst when I took my shoes off.
Then I made a terrible mistake. When the medic taped up my feet, he did not use elastoplast (like what had been used the rest of the race), but rather crepe bandage. It felt very nice while I was sitting with my feet up, but as soon as I got back on my feet and headed out, it felt like every nerve that existed in my feet was firing as intensely as it could. The fact that I had developed an absess in the foot that wasn’t infected didn’t help much at all. I cried. And I continued to cry with each step as I headed up the gravel road. This was a cry that was purely the result of pain past my threshold. There was no other reason for it. Once again another moment where I look back and think: “Misty, why on earth did you not just stop and tape up your feet properly” – and then I realise how out of it I actually was and the level of deterioration my mind and body had reached baffles me. I continued in that pain – hardly able to take a normal sized step. As I walked my pathetic walk, each step would increase the pain I felt until I’d have to stop, cry, get it together and start walking again, only to continue going through that process over and over. The next 7km took me about 5hrs and will go down as the slowest pace I have ever completed a distance in. On a good day I rate I could move faster on all fours.
Dylan had come to see how I was going when the path came near to the tar road. I had missed the cut-off at that stage, and even though I had covered more than 400km it would have taken me the whole of the next night to reach the finish at the pace I was moving. So I decided to stop there and make my way to the car and arrived at Blyde River Canyon just in time to catch the end of prize giving.
It had been 5 full days of racing with a total of 11hrs sleep. I was sufficiently shattered. I got what I came for. There were times where I honestly felt like God had left me yet I know he didn’t. His grace was sufficient for me and allowed me to achieve the 400km I had set out to do. A massive thank you to EVERYONE who supported me through this grueling challenge and my 100Days2Munga Campaig. We raised R50 000 in the end and are empowering a significant number of parents of children with CP as a result.