On this day, the Loskop 50km ultramarathon running race had one hill too many, Faraday’s Hill. It was to be my nemesis.
A Bridge Too Far is a 1977 War film based on the 1974 “A Bridge Too Far” book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan and directed by Richard Attenborough, brother of David Attenborough.
The film tells the story of the failure of Operation Market Garden during World War II, the Allied attempt to break through German lines and seize several bridges in the occupied Netherlands, including one at Arnhem, with the main objective of outflanking German defences.
The name for the film comes from an unconfirmed comment attributed to British Lieutenant-General Frederick Browning, deputy commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, who told Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the operation’s architect, before the operation: “I think we may be going a bridge too far.”
A Personal Hill too Far
Up till 2003 my best time on the Loskop 50km race, had been 5:30 which was on my first attempt many years previously. Before I would never be able to beat that time again, I would attempt it one more time.
This race commencing in Middelburg & finishing at the Loskop Dam had always been one of my favourites. It pressed all the right buttons. The only negative was that like all point to point races, transport arrangements could be a complication, an annoyance & problematical. However the positives far outweighed these negatives as the race was well organised with the typical out-of-town race flavour.
The first 21km was a gentle but constant climb up to the radio mast & then it was mostly downhill until the 32km mark where the first of the two monstrous hills was situated. Bugger’s Hill was steep but fortunately it was short being only 350 metres long. Then came a mine-shaft of a decline which continued for 3 kms. At the culmination of that downhill, one’s calves were shattered. In addition to that, the heat of the Lowveld suddenly hit one like an oven door being opened.
A steady downhill took one all the way to the 45km mark. This marked the start of a monster of hill#2, Faraday’s. Instead of calling it Faraday’s which sounds benign, this hill or more accurately Mountain, should have been called Bugger’s Mountain or Oh Sh*t Hill. Once one had negotiated its 2.5km climb, the finish was a gentle downhill to the dam.
The 6am start was cool but not cold. Nice running weather. My pace was 6 minutes per km & I aimed to keep it that way until 21kms which marked the start of the downhill. Even the Fordyce bus that year seemed to be maintaining 6 minutes per km so I was in good company. By 17kms, ones calves are in full moaning mode as they now crave a downhill but the radio mast could be seen ahead on the ridge; still an inexorable climb, no time for complaining muscles. Finally in 2:12, I cross the 21km mark. Not bad for such a relentless climb.
At 21kms, the pace steadily increases as the road slopes downward all the way to Bugger’s Hill at 32kms with many splits being sub 5:30 per km. The kms literally fly by but by now the bright yellow sun is beating down relentlessly on the runners. Being treeless, there is no shade. The whole run is in the full glare of the sun with no respite.
I feel the sweat literally gushing out & expect the worst eventually but for now I am happily motoring on. The water table at the foot of Bugger’s Hill marks the start of an almost vertical climb. Fortunately one can walk the whole way & not lose too much time.
At the crest, reality strikes, the insidious effects of too much uphill & then too much downhill has shattered the calf muscles. The 350 metre walk has now set the muscles & they are in a spasm.
I assess my situation. There are only two obstacles ahead viz the mine shaft down for 3 kms & then exiting the mine shaft via Faraday’s Hill.
Within 500 metres, the downhill commences. My calves shriek in pain. All measures that I take are palliative as I zigzag down the hill. Geoff Gilfillan overtakes me at a gallop. Eventually the cramping muscles force me to a walk. I force myself to run. How can I walk on a downhill? Eventually the water table at the bottom of the hill marks the spot where the road levels out. I drench myself at every water table.
“Just hang in until Faraday’s Hill”, I reassure myself, “Then it is a short walk up Faraday’s”.
Then comes the right hand bend, the bridge over the stream & finally the climb itself starts.
Violent cramps wrack my legs. Impulsively I stop moving. Stiff legged I attempt to hobble a slow-march up the hill but nothing moves. I force myself, inching forward. I move a centimetre at most. I bend to massage my legs. I scream in agony.
I have one hour until the 6 hour cut-off. I can still make it if I can move. But I cannot. My legs are frozen stiff, immoveable. Finally in desperation, I concede defeat. If I just sit on a rock for a few minutes, I will be alright. Then I will run all the way & finish in time.
As I attempt to sit down, my whole body goes into spasm & I hit the ground. Groaning as waves of spasms envelope my body.
All I hear are inane words of encouragement from delusional runners, “Almost finished”
“You can easily make it”
Nobody walks across to assist as they are all fighting their own demons.
I attempt to stand up.
I fall down
Eventually a fellow runner helps me up.
I double over in cramp & fall down again.
By now I am delirious as well.
A runner flags down a Land Rover.
I cannot climb in because I cannot bend my legs.
They are ramrod stiff
I lie on the ground again
An ambulance is summoned.
I am taken to the Medical Tent at the finish.
My glucose level is off the scale but other chemical readings are too low
I need to contact my running friends.
I send a message through to George the Announcer.
I hear the announcement boom “Will XXXX go to the Medical Tent & contact Deon McLaughlin”
I attempt to send another message but nobody will assist me.
By now I am on a drip with concerned doctors & nurses swarming around me.
The doctor forbids me to drive.
I lie to him.
Somebody will pick me up at the Middelburg Community Centre
They assist me to the bus.
I cannot sit but must stand otherwise my legs will cramp.
I stumble across to my car.
I phone Janine & tell her my predicament.
She is unmoved
“If you could drive there, you can drive back”
With my interests at heart, she offers some advice, “Just switch on the air conditioner to ice cold”
As an afterthought, she concludes with, “And don’t drive fast like you normally do”
“Why?” I query to myself. “Just in case I should be killed outright”
With the legs liable to cramp at any moment, I push the seat right back. This will allow me to straighten my legs while I drive.
On the day of the race, for me Faraday’s Hill was definitely a hill too far. If the race had finished at the foot of the hill, I would have finished in a good time & would have received a medal.
Instead like the Allied Forces during Operation Market Garden, for me it was a Hill too Far so the ultimate achievement was naught.
Nothing to show for all the effort expended.
Other Articles on Running:
My Comrades Marathon: An Abiding Memory
My Comrades Debut and Swansong, all in one Race
My Running Redux
The Journey from Searing Back-Pain in late 2013 to Running Races again in Respectable Times
Poisoned Chalice or Fool’s Errand?
Report back the Dawn to Dusk 80km Running Race in August 2013
My Mid-Life Crisis: How did I attempt to regain my lost youth?
What did it take me to get over my mid-life crisis in my early forties?
Ashley Wood – In Memoriam
IoT: What impact will it have on Road Running?
The possibilities of the latest technology – the Internet of Things – are ruminated upon
A Drab and Unremarkable Race with Pretensions: Gauteng Sports Challenge
Gauteng requires a big city marathon on the scale of the London Marathon but the Gauteng Sports Challenge doesn’t fit the bill
A Running Experience: A Hill too Far
On this day, the Loskop 50km ultra marathon running race had one hill too many, Faraday’s Hill. It was to be my nemesis.
The First Time
Andre Hydenryck – In Memoriam