Big 5 Sport Challenge

Smashing Dirt in My Face

2011-07-06 09:06
Thamar Houliston
Thamar Houliston on the The Featherbed Trail Run

It’s 6am, again ... My face is plastered to the pillow. Another early start and of course it’s drizzling outside. It’s the third event in the Big5 – the Salomon Featherbed Trail Run organized by the legendary team at Magnetic South. 

We head to the Cruise Café and boarded the ferry, waiting to take us over to the Western Head in Knysna. There are two routes on this run – the shorter 11-kilometre Seahorse and the 15-kilometre Coelacanth. Naturally, being part of the Big5, I had to do the latter.

Despite the blistering cold outside I had a quiet confidence that this event was going to be ok. And even when the announcer warned us repeatedly that the conditions were going to be treacherous out there, I kept my cool. 

Having not done any trail races since I broke my wrist a year ago I should have been more nervous, but after throwing myself down muddy slopes on the 75-kilometre mountain bike race and clinging to the handlebars for dear life on the 100km road event, this trail run didn’t seem all that bad. At least I would be on my own two feet.

Arriving on the Western Head and disembarking the ferry I looked back at the magic scenery. Knysna really is a beauty. 

The Fighting Spirit

On the start line I wondered if my competitive spirit would kick in or if I would back off from the challenge like the wimp I’ve been in the last two events.

“10, 9, 8, 7…. And we were off, up an 80-metre incline that could put even the toughest and fittest runner to shame. The adrenaline took over and soon I was bashing past people elbowing my way to the top. I was the second woman to reach the crest of the hill, lungs burning and quads on fire.

As soon as the sharp descent came everyone started to fly past me as they usually do and then I realized the ground was as soft as a baby’s bottom. I kicked into fifth gear and hurled myself down the rest of the hill. I was back.

My instincts took over and suddenly I was motoring over rocky puddles and bounding up the sandy stairs. I knew there was still a lot of climbing to do and the steep undulating hills towards to highest point were brutal. But the force was strong and I knew that if I just kept running uphill I’d kick some butt before the flat sections where I always get overtaken. I realized that my strength lies in the hills and the more technical bits which is rather surprising since I’ve been so fearful for so long. But once you’ve run trail it naturally becomes embedded in your muscle fibres and you know exactly when and how to react.
The terrain here is unlike any other trail I’ve been on; the sand is soft but compressed just enough that it’s still easy to run on. The path almost reminds me of those winding paths down to the beach in KwaZulu-Natal where small trees arch over the path and their roots grow under it.

I finally reached the highest point with sweeping views across to the sheer cliffs of the Eastern Head and out over the Indian Ocean towards Buffalo Bay. But no time to stay and marvel I heard the marshal loudly egging us on from around the corner and put my head down.

Burn Baby Burn

I was pushing at full steam, panting so loudly that it must have been audible to the runner in front of me. But today was my day, there was no giving in, I was going to push till the end. 

Concrete and gravel jeep track made for a speedy descent back down towards the lake and lead to the most awesome single track – not a rock in sight. It was aptly named ‘The Roller Coaster’ and it was definitely endorphin-inducing.  I flung myself up and down without a care in the world. And then I remembered why I was doing this. Besides the challenge, it’s the love of the game. The way you feel in that pure moment when it’s just you, your body and the earth. And if you smash your face in it, well that’s just life. If not, then it’s a splendid day out.

Hitting the railway tracks at the bottom of the hill I knew the rest of the race was flat. The problem is, I was bound to get overtaken here. Bonus? Once you reach the slippery Outeniqua Choo Choo railway bridge you’re not allowed to overtake anyone, so I tried to pick up the pace so nobody overtook me before then and managed to exhaust myself in no time.

The last three kilometres of every race is always the hardest. It’s short enough to smell the finish line but you still have no idea what the race organizers might throw in before you reach the end. It’s the ultimate dilemma – do you push yourself now and die on the finish line or hold out and sprint for the finish.

I had no choice I had to back off and toned down the pace a little, looking back over my shoulder where the next Big5 contestant was on my tail. There were just two wooden bridges to cross before the finish but falling now would be tragic. I managed to be cautious and speedy at the same time and crossed the finished line just ahead of the guy behind me. Yes I wasn’t winning but every place counts and since I’m not only competing with girls in the Big5 I’d have to kick some male ass or face finishing in 80th place. Let’s hope that I move up in the ranks a bit after this one…

Thamar is currently in Knysna participating in the Nedgroup Big5 Challenge presented by Sport24 … She is the online editor for You can follow her on her Knysna Big5 adventure here


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