It's taken me a while to work up the courage to piece together the pain that was Sunday morning's race - the second out of four in the Cape Winter Trail Series. The day dawned crystal clear and standing a-top Tygerberg Nature Reserve was a treat since the view of Table Mountain, the city, Paarl, the Hottentot Mountains - you name it - was picture-perfect.
This race was to be a hilly 11.4km. I'd lost a toenail or two to the shorter route during the Summer Trail Series at the beginning of this year, so I knew it was going to be tough, but this time I was more prepared - better shoes, a whole lot fitter and some idea of what I was getting myself into. Or at least that's what I thought. It might've been five kilometres shorter than the previous week's gruelling race on Paul Cluver Wine Estate, but I'll swear it felt no easier.
To start off with, the route offers 400 metres of tarred uphill which organiser Owen Middleton helpfully suggested we walk up - advice I was happy to take since I knew I'd be facing some nasty uphills later in the race.
Once over the hill, the race takes a slow and winding downhill into single track and then the first uphill begins - a relentless zigzag back up to the start. I made it over this far better than I thought (I stopped for a breather only twice), but this is really just the beginning. Down the other side of the reserve we plunged downwards, levelling off to run along the contour of the hill. I may be a newbie to trail running, but I've learnt that downhills and flats are a good opportunity to keep on with a trot and find what rhythm you might have whilst enjoying the scenery.
What really threw me was the next step - another downhill which seemed to go on forever! This is the part I decided to give myself over to gravity - a decision my stiff knees would pay for later. Of course, the logic of races such as these is that what goes down, must come up - and so it was not long after that I found myself zigzagging up yet another steep hillside.
I'm beginning to discover that trail running is very different from road running. It's not only physically demanding - it requires you to be constantly mentally alert too. Of course, I love the challenge, but on occasion, when I'm really struggling with a particular section of the race - like a tough uphill - or whilst I'm hammering my knees down a steep hill, I vow that I'll take up more road races. They're just so much more predictable - less engaging in a way, I suppose. In some senses, that's a great thing. The endless plod on tar towards the finish line offers up the opportunity to get into a rhythm.
Trail running is far from this. Well, at least for the less fit among us, anyway. I find I have to keep talking myself through tough sections and stay focused - constantly focused - on pace, on technical downhills, on pumping my legs uphill, on believing that in spite of the screaming fire in my lungs and calves, I can and will make it up the rest of that hill. It's a serious challenge to take on but when I finally break it, when I turn the corner and see the finish line, there is nothing better than letting my legs hammer that dust - I always find more juice in them - to race my way to the end.
For more on the Trail Series, visit their website HERE