Back in 2015, my wife and I quit our jobs and traveled abroad for the entire year, visiting seventeen countries and six of the seven continents. That year was one of the best years of my life, not only because of the adventures we had, but because of the life it paved for us after we returned (which ultimately led us to Tahoe), and perhaps most importantly, the many lessons that such an epic journey taught me. One such lesson was understanding that travel, particularly international travel, can bring about some challenging and sometimes even seemingly hopeless situations. Now, full disclosure, the first few months of that 2015 trip included us flying our chocolate lab (Sofi) to South America. As you can imagine, that made things MUCH more difficult and stressful. That said, we still had our fair share of obstacles to overcome even after Sofi returned to the States and we were traveling as a twosome for the remainder of the year. So, when I decided to accept an invitation to run an ultramarathon in South Africa during a pandemic, I acknowledged up front that there would certainly be some additional trials along my path to the start line of the race. Admittedly, however, I underestimated the process and ended up with a pretty wild journey to the Ultra-Trail Drakensberg races. What started out as a plan to run 100 miles, became a plan to run 100k, and ultimately resulted in me running the 62k race, which was a journey I will not soon forget.
Nearly every day leading into the Saturday when I was to take my first flight out of Reno, I was receiving emails about the COVID-19 protocols for each of the airlines I was flying on. I quickly learned that Germany was one of the strictest countries in the world to enter, even if you were just transiting through like I was. I needed to take a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of arriving in Germany, so I took the test on Friday and sent it in for results to arrive before I entered Germany. Upon arrival at the airport on Saturday, I found out that not only did I need to take the test within 48 hours, but I also needed my results in hand before I boarded my first flight to Denver! So, I called my wife and told her “I don’t have any more tricks up my sleeve, so turn around and come back to the airport to get me, please!” She did exactly that, and the airline transferred my tickets to the next available flight, leaving Tuesday morning. Suddenly, a relaxing handful of days before the race turned into five flights (over the course of two full days) to arrive at my destination a mere 12 hours before the 100-mile race began on Friday! Given the concerns around so much travel, jet lag, and lack of a crew to assist me at the race, I knew that the 100k (which started on Saturday) would be the best choice for me. So, I downgraded to the 100k and was all set for Saturday.
At that point, I could finally allow some calm to set in and get mentally prepared for the 100k…or so I thought. Our group got a ride up to beautiful Sani Pass so that we could see our friends begin the 100-miler on Friday in Lesotho (the landlocked “Mountain Kingdom” country inside South Africa). After seeing them off (and wishing I was running with them), I went back to the race finish to complete the check-in for the 100k race. Then spent the remainder of my time packing my vest and getting my gear ready for the next day, before an early dinner and bedtime.
On Saturday morning, I awoke at 2am to eat breakfast and get the body moving before the race began at 5am. The race start was about a 45-minute drive from the host hotel, which meant that there were race shuttles leaving the hotel at 3:45am to give the runners plenty of time to get settled at the start line. My hotel was 10 minutes away, so I planned to leave at 3:30am to get there a few minutes before the buses began loading. Unbeknownst to me, however, my hotel had a locked gate, and I didn’t have the code to get out! Given that it was so early in the morning, there were no staff around, so I got in contact with our group and found two of them leaving to support one of the 100-miler runners about 15 minutes later. Thankfully, they had the code and were able to open up the gate for me at 3:50am. I figured that I would be late to the shuttles but hopefully still be able to catch the last one before it left. Upon arrival at the host hotel, there was not a single runner or race staff member at the hotel. Every single person was gone! Not knowing what to do, I called my wife in the US and she suggested I see if there was another way to get to the start line. I began asking around and looking for vehicles that could help me, but ultimately, I had no way of getting there before the race began. My last option was to drive my rental car and see if I could make it up the rutted-out Jeep roads that led to the start. Feeling as if this was my final play, I began driving towards the start. The drive was actually pleasant until about 10km from the start line, when I ran into a sign that read “4×4 vehicles only.” The roads were still fine at that point, so I ignored the sign as long as I could until finally, there was no more faking it and my little compact vehicle rental couldn’t make it through the tumultuous terrain. The 100k wasn’t happening.
Feeling a bit dejected, I drove back down to the hotel wondering what I would do next. “Surely I have to run some race today,” I thought. So, I parked around 5:10am and went walking towards the hotel to find someone from the race staff to see if I could now join the 62k race that was starting at 7am. Seeing as it was almost two hours before the race, I presumed I would have plenty of time to make that happen. As I walked towards the hotel, finally something happened in my favor. In serendipitous fashion, a random gentleman asked me if I was okay. He wasn’t part of the staff and I didn’t approach him, so in hindsight I realized he was a “trail angel” sent to save my day! I responded to him by filling him in on the morning I had, and then mentioning that I was hoping to run the 62k. His eyes immediately lit up and he said “the shuttles for the 62k are leaving RIGHT now, bro! You better run and go catch them!” I immediately turned around, ran out to the road and tried to get on the shuttles. There were two incredibly helpful guys there who didn’t know if I could join the race, but they got me on the last shuttle and sent me on my way, hopeful that I could once and for all start one of these races!
After the hour-plus bus ride to the start of the 62k, I got sorted out by the race staff (who were so understanding and patient) and was finally ready to start a race! Suddenly, minutes before the start of the race, all of the anxiety, excitement, and adrenaline hit me all at once and I was suddenly shivering because my body temperature had dropped so much. It was very odd, because although it was a little bit chilly at the start, I had a jacket on and felt totally comfortable just minutes earlier. It dawned on me that between all of the travel, missteps, and emotional distress, I was running on an empty tank. Not a good feeling minutes before a race is about to start, but I had reached that start line and I wasn’t going to let that stop me!
Just three miles into the race, there was a big climb, and I was leading the front of the field. Climbing is one of my strengths in trail running, so I was feeling strong, but there was an underlying lack of energy that was noticeable right away. Everything didn’t feel as effortless as it should have, and I wondered to myself if I was heading into a train wreck of a race. A couple of hours later, my energy had still not returned, and I was feeling a bit hopeless. I thought to myself “why did I even start this race?” as I ran through some of the most beautiful countryside in the Drakensberg mountains. I contemplated throwing in the towel, as it was clear that I was not in good shape physically or mentally and the whole experience felt like a battle I couldn’t win. However, I continued plodding along and telling myself that things would get better if I fueled my body properly and maintained a positive attitude. Sure enough, after I hit the marathon mark and had about 13 miles left in the race, a switch flipped, and I felt myself come back to life. From that point forward, I ran an amazingly strong race and was able to catch several runners in the final miles of the race to cross the finish line in 7th place overall. I always hope to win every race I enter, but a 7th place finish in a very fast field of runners on a day when I was far from my normal self, felt like a tremendous win to me!
In speaking with family and friends after the race, it became clear to me: this wasn’t the race I wanted, it was the race I needed. I managed to salvage a race that seemed unsalvageable, and while I didn’t perform even close to my best, I was so satisfied in overcoming the many obstacles that were thrown my way. While it sounds strange, if I had the opportunity to go back in time and change how things played out, I wouldn’t. Sometimes the most challenging and difficult circumstances in life are the ones that teach us the most. And we may not want them, but to grow and become the best version of ourselves, sometimes we need them.