4:30 a.m. Dark. Spitting rain. Cold. At least colder than I feel like it ought to be in South Africa’s summertime. We are barreling down the coast road from Llandudno, a seaside suburb of Cape Town, to the central market square, in my ex-pat friend’s pick-up truck. We’re cutting it fine to get to the 5 a.m. starting line for the Three Peaks Challenge, a race that defines the South African running sensibility—grueling fun in a gorgeous setting…oh, and if you’re not from here, well you better get familiar with the terrain, because there’s no course map, no actual “course” per se, only checkpoints.
In 1897, so the story goes, with nothing better to do that day, Carl Wilhelm Schneeberger decided to hike up all three peaks, which preside over Cape Town: Devil’s Peak, pointed as a wizard’s hat; Table Mountain, flat and fit for a banquet of the gods; Lion’s Head, the curl of the creature’s mane flowing down its back. In between each peak, he returned to the Old Johannesburg Hotel in Long Street to rest. A friend assisted at the occasion, timing the event for posterity. Possibly more posterity than CWS imagined. In 1927 and again in 1977, two others improved on CWS’s time and in 1997, Don Hartley, who had had an itch to take up the challenge for some 35 years, decided to scratch the itch in an official manner. So was born the Three Peaks Challenge, still run by Don Hartley, now assisted by Gavin Snell.
The challenge is to make our way, via whatever we think is the fastest route, up to the top of each of the three peaks. The object is to scale each peak and return to the Greenmarket Square in between each ascent; a task which sounds benign, until I see the steepness of the roads, and the roads are supposed to be the easy part. For each leg of the race there are checkpoints at the market square, near the base of the main trail up the peak (which may lead to many other possible trails) and on the peak. As we pass through each of the waypoints, our bibs are marked with rune-like scratchings, confirming the integrity of our race.
I am clueless about Cape Town geography. Luckily I have my friend, India as a guide and companion. A devout runner (are there non-devout runners in SA? If so, I haven’t met them), she lives in Cape Town, and did the race the year before, not to mention that the peaks are her running backyard.
At the starting line we’re bundled up against the chill and misting rain. I have on a tank top, a long sleeve shirt and a jacket, not to mention my peaked cap against the hoped-for sunshine. My bare legs would be happier in tights, a clothing choice others have made, but I’m banking on daylight bringing some warmth.
Only 120 runners get into the race each year, 60 new and 60 veterans. Not all veterans are created equal either. Pale blue bibs indicate runners who have earned a permanent number, by completing the challenge 5 times. Orange bibs are the runners at 4 complete, going for the blue.
At 5 a.m. we aren’t the only people on the street. The clubbing crowd is winding down and they stand on the sidewalk, swaying gently, smoking cigarettes and staring at us. The start is collegial, in the way trail races are, at least in my experience, runners happy to be together, simultaneously relaxed and fired, chatting, with the added panache (to my Canadian ears) of the purring South African intonations.
The race starts without hoo-ha, and off we go. Within only a few blocks runners have branched off in different directions, following whatever theory they subscribe to: longer distance and shallower climbs, or shorter distance and steeper climbs. The latter is India’s philosophy, so in no time we’re headed straight up. I can’t tell you exactly what route we followed. I know it involved some trail-stairs past someone’s meticulous, newly planted vegetable garden and barking dog, and then up a steep, gravelly, dirt road to Tafelberg Road, which snakes around the base of the peaks. We can see the blinking headlamps of other runners far off to our left, taking a different route up to the mountain trails.
Light seeps in around us, grey and misty. After the first checkpoint, we start up the official trail, or more accurately, trails, which zigzag up Devil’s Peak. Dashes of red, blue, electric yellow and green spread across the mountainside, as runners fan out to their favoured routes. The mountain curves around us, like a giant coliseum, then nudges up against Table Mountain. Grey-green scrub bushes create the illusion of a soft blanket, pulled up to the mountain’s chin, above which the rock is dark and scrape-y and sharp looking. About three-quarters of the way up, the leaders come flying down the trails around us, with that gaspingly, sure-footed agility the best of the trail runners have. Not I.
The peak is cold and windy. We miscue and end up on a different trail on our way down, the low shrubs scraping along our legs like five o’clock shadow. The damp trails are slick and treacherous. Back through the checkpoint, and down to the market square.
Some people say that down is worse than up. To each her own. Without taking a position on that particular issue, I can say that there is no respite on this course, save the few moments of relative flat along the mountain road, which last less time than it takes to recover from an ascent or descent.
There is really only one trail up Table Mountain, unless you elect to do some serious scrambling. We don’t. The thigh high steps up are challenge enough. The addition of chicken wire covering some of the rock, misted with rain, adds an extra zing to the experience. If you don’t catch your foot on a rock, you can always get it tangled in some chicken wire. There are regular hikers on the trail, too. Girls in thin white sneakers and tight jeans. Mascara and eyeliner. Boys in jeans held up by belts midway down their boxers. Children who look to be 6 years old follow older siblings. Young couples stop for hand-holding breaks, making way for our flow of scientifically clad participants in numbered bibs.
I can’t decide if I’m impressed by the apparent unpreparedness of so many of the hikers, or if it makes me feel diminished somehow. After all, if they can climb up Table Mountain, what’s the big deal in me doing it? Except, I suppose, that I’m going at speed (well, perhaps not speed, but moving determinedly), without breaks; and Table Mountain is number two and three is coming. And in any case, why can’t I own the sturdiness of my accomplishment and the hikers’? What they do and I do are not mutually exclusive. Nor is it even a competition, except inside my mind, which likes to insert itself into the wide-open expanse of a long, long race. But I have India to talk to, and we haven’t seen each other in a while, so my mind doesn’t get as much of an opportunity as it would like to mess with me.
The top of Table Mountain is blowing like crazy. If it were raining, it would be raining sideways. Luckily it’s not. Though not for lack of trying. The air is dense with chill humidity. From below we had seen that there was a tablecloth today—what CapeTownians call the swath of clouds that often hovers atop Table Mountain, draping over the edges like fine linen. Any view is completely obscured by the mist. I put on my gloves and re-don my jacket, which I’d been happy to shed at the bottom of Devil’s Peak. The checkpoint is friendly, despite the less than ideal conditions they’re waiting in for us.
India is crazy for the potatoes with salt and butter they’re serving. I stick to my peanut butter and jam sandwich, cut up into tiny pieces—and yes, I’m that obsessive that I brought my own from New York, from my favourite PB, right down to the particular kind of multigrain bread I like.
The bad weather seems to lift as we head back down Table Mountain. Cape Town is spread out below us, grids of buildings and roads, cozying up right up to the edge of the sea. And by the time we’re heading back up, for a third time, out of the market square, I’ve stripped down to my tank top.
An aside, one lovely benefit of passing through the start/finish twice, is that it’s located at an Inn, with, yes, clean bathrooms. A special treat I avail myself of both times through. Not to mention that I can refill my camelback with water in my gear bag, and load up on more food, if I’m running short. India uses passing through the market square to do a complete change of all her layers of shirts.
The route we take to Lion’s Head passes by the German School, where they are having a huge fair the day of the race. Cars backed up trying to get into the parking lot and double-parked along the streets. Did I mention that the roads are not closed to traffic? One of the many extra little challenges is navigating the ever-increasing traffic as the day blooms into a full-fledged downtown Saturday. There’s nothing quite like trying to sprint through traffic seven hours into a run. And, in my case, deal with the fact that cars aren’t coming from the expected directions—a task that overtaxes my brain late in the race, so that I look like a chicken at every intersection, turning my head back and forth, back and forth, back and forth to verify I’m clear to cross.
Since we are still operating on the shortest, steepest philosophy, the top of Lion’s Head involves chains and ladders. I don’t have a fear of heights. Luckily. And though India tells me a long story about a teenage girl she brought up here on a hike, who fell down the side of the mountain about 30 feet and fractured her arm, I manage to perform the contortionistic mental feat of believing that kind of thing will only happen to other people. Instead, I wonder if the runner behind me has ever had the opportunity to look up another runner’s skirt in an ultra marathon before, even if it’s all very modest and there’s nothing to see. I’m the only woman wearing a skirt (and none of the men are either, which is worth adding, because you never know with the trail racing crowd, I suppose). For me, there’s something about a skirt that creates the right balance between the rugged trails and my maxed out body and psyche. Maybe it’s the reminder than I’m not doing this race to be “one of the boys.” I’m doing it, in some small part, as a statement of what I think femininity looks like.
The peak affords us 360-degree eyeful of views. I wonder if I’m disoriented, because it seems like the ocean is on every side of us. Looking at a map later, I realize that Cape Town juts out into the ocean, like a mini boot of Italy (without the toe), so in fact, the ocean is on three sides. On our way down the chains and ladders, more heart stopping than the up, we encounter a runner whose leg is cramping and shaking so much, India needs to pull him over the top of the ladder he’s trying to climb. It’s my good fortune that the rest of the trail down Lion’s Head is more benign than Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain (something I failed to notice on the way up, when the end seemed impossibly far), dusty, single track, with some rocks and steps, and sooner than I’m expecting we’re back on the road again, passing the cars jockeying for parking, through the city streets, which are, with each return, growing vaguely more familiar.
As seems to be my penchant, I want to cry when I cross the finish line. And, in this case, I breathe an enormous sigh of relief, too. Unharmed. By grace of the universe. The feeling of finishing, of actually finishing such an effort overwhelms me for just a moment. And I get that Proustian feeling, that feeling that I am a different person in some tiny, indefinable way now, sitting on the front porch of the Inn with my friend, than I was when I sat beside her in the truck at 4:30 a.m. racing toward the starting line on the coast road. So that when someone’s three-year old son starts dancing around our table, I join him for a minute, shimmying on my wobbly-stiff legs, my bare feet dusty and wizened from a glorious, long day in running shoes.
This post will appear in UltraRunning Magazine's April 2012 Adventure issue with photos.