I was going to post a day by day report of the many events that transpired at #Alps2OceanUltra #A2O2019. But after seeing how much my mate Julie has been struggling since her epic finish at A2O, I decided to make this post about her. So this is a post about Julie. And Jan. And Helmut. And Bruce. And many other runners who found a way to get a tough job done under adverse conditions. And those who had the guts and sense of acceptance to call it a day when they knew temporary limits had been reached.
These stories need to be told somehow, and it seems unlikely that the heroes and heroines will tell them themselves. Hopefully they do not mind me bringing their stories to light.
As Michael Sandri, the RD of A2O said during our 500m walk backwards from the finish line to the sunrise vantage point where local high school boys and girls rendered a heart-stirring version of the haka, each runner had come to A2O with a story, whether they chose to tell them or not. I believe that by participating in this race, F or DNF, each runner had also left their own mark here with another story. And these stories will make the race what it is for years to come, over and above all the beautiful scenery and wonderful surprises that come with it.
Julie had been pulled out of Grand2Grand by medics late last year – I believe – due to altitude sickness. So we came into this race knowing that finishing A2O was ever more important for her. Over the first two days with a cumulative distance of about 100km, we paced together, trying to keep it to a conservative pace, aiming at maximum coverage of 7kms per hour. She was really feeling the cold brought about by the wind and hail condition on the first day. On the third day, with nearly 90km to cover over testing terrain, she started to experience severe heat stroke 8 hours into the race, after we had come down the treacherous hills at Clay Cliffs onto hot dusty gravel roads. Julie soon collapsed and vomitted. It seemed that she was not able to continue. But we both knew that she was not going to give up either. The only sensible option was to get her to sit down for some rest and seek medical assistance. After about an hour’s rest and some sugar drinks to replace depleted fluids, Julie was able to walk again. There would be no more running for the rest of the day. We still had 13-14 hours to go. The rests at checkpoints were getting longer and longer. The prospect of a very long night was becoming real. The ascent up Bog Roy was hard on her body. Our rhythm over the steep ascent was to walk for 100m then rest for a few seconds. After what seemed like hours, the final checkpoint CP5 was still nowhere in sight, despite the Garmin figures being well past the expected mileage. Even the sight of a cute little hedgehog trying to hide its head inside a sparse bush was not enough to lift her spirit. I knew then that Julie was in full survival mode. She was throwing everything she had at CP5. A few kilometres later saw us arriving at this elusive checkpoint. But the relief was short lived as CP5 turned out to be extremely windy. Losing body heat quickly, Julie was offered a spot in the crew car. I followed shortly afterwards to try to stay warm. Volunteers’ kindness at this checkpoint was on display in abundance, but it was clear that walkers who arrived soon after were in no better shape, and that they would need a spot in the car too. It would have been nice if Julie could sleep for a few hours before making the final 7km push down steep hills to the finish line. But it was only a matter of time before Julie needed to give up her seat in the car for others. We made a call to put on all our clothing and come down. Frank was with us then and assisted Julie with everything he had, despite struggling big time himself. Soon after descending, the hill shielded us from the wind, and it was no longer too cold. However, the downhill sections were very steep. Frank walked in front, Julie in the middle, then me. Watching her fumbling in the dark, trying to keep balance, I prayed that she not fall. It was a miracle that nobody actually fell and got hurt at that particular section that night. Witnessing such a strength of character in a fragile body mixing it with the elements was both troubling and inspiring. Those last 7kms took us about 2 hours. Julie instantly looked better as we arrived at the finish line. I am sure it was a big relief for her and a great confidence booster going into the last 3 days of the race. On the final day, Julie’s knees gave out, but knowing Julie, it was only a matter of time before she finished. She got it done! She was always going to get it done!
Jan had run so well over the first few days. Running with her and a small group for nearly 20kms on the long day, I could see how strong she was. Then injury struck. It was heart breaking to see her limping slowly, clearly in pain, at the back for the last 3 days. But it was emotional and inspiring to see her keep up a smile every morning knowing that she would still need to walk for over a hundred kilometres to get the job done.
In his best form, Helmut was always going to be podium material. But injury did not spare him this time. He put his head down, walked and walked and walked and got himself a medal, without a single utterance of self-pity. Seriously if you are after someone to get going when the going gets tough, there is no better candidate than Helmut.
Bruce was not as fast as Helmut, but not that far behind. Achilles problems started to plague him after the long day. It was amazing to still see the man run, sometimes at the respectable 5-5:30 pace, amidst bouts of long painful walks. He even pulled out enough reserves to urge and push me all the way on the last day. Past the beautiful Oamaru Public Gardens, we literally could smell the roses. After getting our feet wet for the last time, we entered the final 500m stretch. The pain was becoming unbearable for him. We jogged to the line, hand in hand.
My respect also went to Rick, who decided to pull out on Day 2 due to ITB hiccups. It is always a tough decision to settle on a DNF, but, in most situations, a DNF call that would ensure you live to fight another day was always going to be better than an F call that would leave you crippled for a long time. In my eyes, making these types of calls correctly time and time again is a hallmark of greatness.
I feel small amongst these people, without any need to feel bigger. It is inspiring to know that you are small. It is peaceful to know that small is enough.
Pretty much every other runner, leading or back of the pack, had their own story of struggle and triumph as well. And I hope those stories would be told somehow. That is one way we could all contribute to the living lore that is A2O!
I would like to end this post with a word of gratitude for the A2O organisers, volunteers, supporters, runners and the Oamaru community. You have created something truly unique and heart warming here, even on a global scale.
This video captures very well the mood of the race.