This piece was published in TrailRun Magazine Issue 15 – You can download this article & many lovely pieces here.
We are 15 days into our 32-day run across South Africa and I can tell I am fixating on little things. With just under 1000kms completed, it is these little, insignificant things are becoming utterly consuming to my brain. I can’t seem to let them go which makes me more frustrated.
This morning I made my lunch – an avocado and cheese sandwich, cut in half and wrapped in glad wrap. With pride I give it to my boyfriend Mathieu, aka ‘expedition leader’, to pack in the car. Making my own lunch may not seem like a big deal, but with the large volume of running Mimi and I need to cover everyday we don’t have much brainpower to do anything else. We are blessed to have an incredible crew that does so much for us and allow us to focus on moving forward for up to 13 hours everyday.
Although I love and definitely need it, this single-minded focus that is required to undertake this expedition is something I am not used to. Ashamedly I am far more programed to work on one task, whilst dreaming of something else and reflecting on what has already passed. I don’t applaud myself for this, in fact I know it is the cause of some anxiety and for sure it can’t be productive. When I first started running my mind was so consumed on survival that there was little space for any other thoughts. This time round I am finding my mind is far more open. Whilst I am staying focused on one day at a time I am also thinking about developing a veggie patch, chatting to Mimi about her decorating plans for her house and we are constantly talking about how we are going to continue our fundraising when we return home.
Now back to my sandwich and why I am fixating on it…two things happened last night. Firstly, crewmember Max asked what treat we wanted from the supermarket. This was the first time into the trip that we were passing one and without hesitation Mimi said sparkling water and I asked for avocados. When they handed these treats over to us we were like kids on Christmas morning. After I made my lunch, I placed the avocados in my own bag as I didn’t want them to get squashed and I guess I was being a tad protective over them.
The second thing that happened is Mathieu told us we need to consume more calories. 14 days in, I weigh 43.3kgs and both of us are looking like death as we finish each night. Mentally we feel fine because we are so committed to our purpose in running across South Africa, but physically I knew I wasn’t in good shape to last the distance. This announcement was challenging for Mimi as it would mean we would need to take a lunch break to get the calories in. I gently try to remind her that this isn’t a world record run and a 30-minute stop wouldn’t kill her – actually it would do the opposite for us both.
A long story short and we are 16kms into day 15 and Mat tells me he has left my sandwich behind, but will make me a new one. I am uncontrollably furious, disappointed and consumed with the idea that my avocado supply will be unnecessarily smaller by the end of the day. It takes me over 8kms to move past this. What can I say? This is certainly not a normal response but it felt completely normal in that moment.
Upon reflection, when it came to dealing with big things, both Mimi and I were able to manage them pretty calmly. Big things for us included – running on average 61kms every day, coping with immensely challenging terrain, navigating a trail where no trail exists, being evicted from a part of the trail by a parks security officer and having to find an alternate route, the boys telling us we had an additional 4kms after we thought we finished for the day, getting to 2kms to the finish line and being blocked by a high electrical fence, having wildebeest, rhino’s and buffalo as running companions, having 9 people sleep in one room as our accommodation was booked for the wrong night, being carried across a high water pass in the shovel of a tractor and spending all day and night with someone who is the opposite to me in most ways. These elements were part of the journey that Mimi and I had created and signed up for – we could manage this.
Mimi and I had spent close to two years planning the Freedom Runners project. At the time Mimi told me about the Freedom Trail, which is a mountain bike route through some of the most remote areas in South Africa, we had never met. Our similarities extended to be coached by the incredible Ray Zahab from Canada, and to being female ultra runners.
When Mimi described the isolation and technicality of the route I was immediately intrigued. However, the distance for the Freedom Trail on Wikipedia is marked at 2300kms, which meant the time commitment and logistical preparation, would be huge.
The project became a reality in my mind when I realised the length of the expedition could be used for an awareness and fundraising campaign that could support young South African women. Specifically, the issue that Mimi and I wanted to address was the unaffordability of feminine hygiene products for women in rural South Africa and how that impacts girls going to school. We soon learnt the benefit of time, as many people needed it to comfortably digest an issue that related to menstruation. I never thought I would say the words ‘menstruation’ and ‘period’ so much in a public setting. This project definitely got me outside my comfort zone in more ways than one.
Throughout the two years of planning, Mimi and I skyped over a hundred times and emailed most days. This was a complicated and multifaceted project, beginning from the charity through to the funding, navigation and logistics – we made more than our fair share of mistakes along the way. We liaised heavily with the organisers of the annual Freedom Challenge mountain bike race. They assisted us to secure the permits, approvals and accommodation throughout our run. This was crucial, as our run would have us enter (often via climbing up ladders over fences) game reserves, nature reserves and private farms.
When the run began on 25 September 2014, the anxiety levels of both Mimi and I were pretty high. Just the night before we were told we couldn’t do the first 20kms of our planned route. It was determined too unsafe as it was on a highway with little to no shoulder. All we wanted to do was start running and prove to ourselves that we could manage large volumes of running for just over a month. Mimi was much more familiar with this, so I had no doubts in her capabilities, but after day 6 I was in very new territory.
Time often passed by far quicker than I would have imagined. Mimi and I had lots to chat about as we discovered how to run with each other and about each other’s personalities. We had different strengths and weaknesses that ultimately benefited the expedition. We each had the opportunity to be the informal leader and follower and I think that is an invaluable component to a partnership – whether in expedition or in life.
What was probably the biggest struggle for me as the days past and kilometers were clocked up, was my dependency on the crew. A byproduct of being the ‘runner’ is that you are always ‘taking’ and have very rare moments of being able to ‘give’ to your crew. I didn’t consider this situation beforehand but bizarrely it made me feel a little useless, vulnerable and out of control at times.
It didn’t take long into the expedition to have some physical vulnerability. From day 3 to day 10 I had to endure constant sharp pains to my gut. Perhaps as a consequence to changing water sources, not being accustomed to having my body shaken up like a washing machine for so many hours or because I was nervous about my own abilities… who knows!! Yet a swollen and painful stomach led to a muscle breakdown all over the body (shins, quads, VMO). My body had shut down on the final 12kms of day 10 and I was subjected to walking to our accommodation – this would become our longest walking stretch outside of two very technical sections.
Mathieu and I have always said that if something isn’t working and you can’t get yourself out of a rut, you need to make a change. After hobbling into our accommodation, my turnaround point came through a call with Ross Kinsella. After a remote assessment of my pain, Ross said I needed to focus on resting and getting the good stuff in. Easier said than done, but I consciously make the choice to stop judging myself for being in pain and keep my mind still and silent. It was time for positive action – I drank several bottles of my Infinit mix, turbo superfood boost powder and dosed up on my juice plus+ capsules. After a long sleep, I woke at 3:45am and began a routine of getting down the same liquids, stretching out the bod and eating a hearty breakfast. As I began to run I couldn’t believe it… my body was cooperating and with each 10kms getting knocked off I felt relieved, grateful and stronger. From then onwards I became religious on my pre-run and post-run routine and it served me well as I finished the expedition injury free.
Finishing the run seems like a blur. I do remember feeling very ready to stop running whilst not wishing the time to rush by any quicker, as I knew this was such a special and unique experience.
It has now been over 5 weeks since we finished our run and I am still digesting everything that happened. I can’t believe we slept in 30 different places across South Africa, often with families who taught us so much about the people and areas we were running across. The change we saw in the terrain and landscape was immense – from the colours, the expansiveness and the formation of the hills and mountains. South Africa will be forever etched in my heart.
NB: In early December 2014, Mimi and I exceeded our fundraising goal by raising over $55K for an initiative in two communities of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa. The funds wil go to support young women in these commnities who have problems associated to their menstruation, which is largely in part due to the unaffordability of feminine hygiene products. This has consequences to poor attendance at school, the likelihood of school dropout and low self esteem. We are proud to support Save the Children in South Africa to create and enact a program that focuses on these issues.