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FISH RIVER100km ULTRA – Dave Weber

News Index Since deciding to focus on Endurance Running in 2015...as Genevieve Weber Michel took on Cape Epic...I committed to the Fish River Ultra 100km...Patrick de Goede and Ingram van Heerden raving about the tenacity required to take it on...and so 5 months of preparation started...with coach Natalie Tissinkramping up the running to 80-100 Kms/week...

Amazing how your body is able to stretch to the next mileage..if you get your recovery and nutrition right...I started savouring my long runs around Avis dam..up to Heja Lodge/Finkenstein...usually in the dark..being able to listen to a podcast or Worship recording..or just the sound of Nature waking up from the winter slumber...and as I returned home from a marathon-distance trail run I felt fulfilled and spiritually sound....the injuries stayed away..more due to the weekly lyno sessions at Dominic Petherbridge...as well as the plyometric/ core exercises I was forced to include...
Running with a race pack added a new dimension..as well as getting my equipment and apparel right..seeing as temperatures in the Fish can go from 35 degrees Celsius down to a plummeting minus 4! So each week I added different gear options..looking at all angles...medical school having taught me that 'protocol provides for protection'...and so the 4th of July beckoned!

Final preparations included getting competent on GPS orienteering but this only happened in the last week..getting coached by 
Andy Chase on what to expect and look out for...running was the easiest part of this brutal race...getting to the finish line was the goal...
We booked the family in at Ais Ais camp site and hit the road on Friday early morning...my last 2 weeks of tapering were less than ideal..as my practice needed some crisis management..and saw me sitting in office till after 22h00 most nights! But the work for the Fish was done..now it was time to savour the experience...I had a calm sense of confidence knowing that I looked forward to the pain..the emotions..the overwhelming scenery..and after setting up camp for the kids and Kyle Michel...I said an emotional goodbye and Genevieve Weber Michel drove me 60 Kms to the Race Village..the air cooling but becoming tense the closer we approached the Canyon entrance..!

Genevieve Weber Michel and I are awestruck by the vastness of the Canyon and the beauty of the campsite/race village on the edge of the abyss...I register quickly and nervously..and say my goodbyes cos Gen has a long way back to Ais Ais to the kids...I open my race pack and absorb it all..the race number 100-33...the route map...it makes this event look so pain free..so convenient..but I know this lull..I've felt it before..before Ironman..before Desert Dash...before Enduroman..and as I check and recheck my race pack,I hear them call us for race briefing..I listen intently..make mental notes..remind myself that 'shortcuts are allowed enroute ' and then go back to the solitude of my tent to wolf down my special meal that Gen has made me...I recheck my light..my GPS..my watch..my meds..all things that can mean life or disaster in this hostile Canyon! And so I go to sleep...waiting for 04h00...I smile as I hear the other athletes discuss tactics and strategies...there's no more I can do to prep but rest my body..for tomorrow..we battle against our bodies!

It seems everyone has set their iPhones for 04h00...and so I get up and feel around for my light..I lather myself in my Bepanthan cream...having learnt this the hard way deep into previous races..ALWAYS apply lubricant everywhere..I dress and choke down 2-3 hot cross buns with 2 cups of tea..the breakfast served is great but NOTHING NEW on Race Day is my steadfast ruling! The queue at the toilet tells me race nerves have set in..and so I join it..and head straight to the start line after...it's overcast...the expected moonlight is nowhere to be seen behind the clouds..
Despite the music..the crowd...the 'good luck' sentiments..I'm screaming inside to get the race started..my muscles are stiff from the previous day's 7-8 hours of driving..and I wanna stretch..over the next day!
The hooter goes off..our race chips register as we cross the line..and we're off for the first 10 Kms to the Hikers Descent Point...I'm running sub 5 min/km...way too fast..but I'm feeling stiff and mentally numb..I must slow down but when?! The first lady runs next to me..with Superman just ahead of me...as well as Tobie Verwey...he's got local knowledge..it'll be good to stick with him..but the pace is cracking..we reach the Descent point in the first 50 mins..sign in and descend like maniacs...the boulder hopping is awesome but straining on the knees/quads and not sustainable...but I follow Tobie and Superman all the way into the canyon floor..then it hits me..the fine dusty dune sand that caresses the sides of the canyon..that'll be my companion for the next 90 Kms of terrain...only alternated by boulders and slippery rocks that invite you to the enticing rivers edge,.this is where ankles twist and knees get bloodied..the pace doesn't slow and although I realise it's madness, I continue in the early morning frenzy of boulder hopping and 'best line' searching...the gaps widen between athletes but no greets goodbyes cos soon we'll see each other again..as positions change as different lines are chosen into the first 30 Kms....

There are about 8-10 of us all descending towards Sulphur Springs..the descent point for the 65 km runners...and now we're 3-4 hours into our traverse...I'm feeling ok but slightly overextended since the pace of these other guys is high...I slow down but misjudge my footing and slam my right foot into a rock..the pain is like lightning up my leg..my toe burns and I feel the blood collecting under the nail...I can't land on my forefoot on the right side..and so have to change my stride to use my less dominant left leg as the leading limb..my right foot throbs and heel striking doesn't make my pace any faster..it goes numb..I dare not take off my shoe..and so that familiar feeling sets in..this day will be long..this race will be painful..this body will have to submit to its mind..today David Weber you'll learn something new and profound about yourself yet again..deep within the darkness of a pain cave somewhere...but one thing you WILL do ....is finish...!FISH RIVER ULTRA #6

At Sulphur Springs we have a check point..nothing fancy..only 2 people who greet and check on us..I'm in 10th place with Superman racing a few meters ahead of me...I've drunk most of the 3 liters I'm carrying and start thinking about collecting water in the Canyon River...but I'm too scared to stop..then I see numerous of the athletes stopping to take off shoes..to fill up with water..to even take pics..and I'm reminded that my goal is to finish..that regardless of my time we are here to experience what may only occur once or twice in our lifetimes..being able to do this awesome event far away 'from the madding crowd' and so I too start focusing on my nutrition..I change my headgear for a sun visor as my GPS tells me it's over 30 degrees Celsius and we're only 40 Kms in...now the Canyon starts widening and significantly different paths make the route longer or shorter...I choose the lines set out by Andy Chase from T4A...and coach myself on all the shortcut buttons on the GPS that I'll need later tonight..the realization that I'll be running into the darkness brings back the searing pain in my right foot..and I look for the first shade I can find and collapse in despair..why do I do these events!? Why don't I just do a team sport that ends with a whistle..why! Cos I'm built for pain..forged from years of struggling to keep up with talent and realizing that I come alive 'at the place where talents ends and the bleeding starts'! Without realizing it..I've also stubbed 2 of my left foot toes and gasp when I take off my socks! The swelling and blood under the nails are disappointing..and tears well up..when a chirpy group of 3 runners..2 girls and a guy run up and join me in the shade..I'm gutted! Maybe team work is the answer but they look strong and intimidating..they've paced it perfectly..they've even got jokes and anecdotes..I'll never be able to sustain their pace..so I smile and leave quietly...until I can't hear them anymore and then walk slowly over the dune sands around yet another bend!FISH RIVER ULTRA #7
I take the Canyon turn..and follow the track of the runners in front of me..but my GPS says 90 degrees right...mmmm...which way..I follow the GPS and discover a beautiful trail that leads up the mountain and cuts out 4-5 Kms of riverside running..something hopeful wells up inside me..but as I stop at the top to catch my breath, the chirpy group run past below oblivious of me..when one of them spots my white Compressport shirt..man! Why'd I wear white?!?! Oh yes..so they could spot my remains should I collapse and die...that's why!
I motion to them this is a shortcut but keep my voice quiet strategically...I'm a good 20 mins ahead which they make up and overtake me with frustrating ease...Ulf the Legend(having done this event every year!) also overtakes me with a quiet smile...I'm resigned to JUST finish..and trudge along with my quads and hamstrings alternating in their lament of cramps..probably one of the only things reminding me I'm alive...I'm now in my deep dark place..my body negotiating it's terms of surrender..enticing me with every spot of shade as an oasis..but I sing...I pray..I focus..but I dare not cry cos that'll make me lose resolve...every shortcut I get..I celebrate with some Lobello on my lips..and a PowerBar shot..and so the miles go slowly but steadily..the water gets murkier and more unsafe..and at 2 river crossings I can't muster drinking the stagnant water so I lay in the shallow pools..and at least bring down my body temperature..the fact that I've only pee'd once makes a concerning niggle in the back of my mind...that means no painkillers for me..cos my kidneys are shutting down...
When I eventually get to what I think is the 50km mark, I'm greeted by the sight of Ulf...and Superman..so they've also slowed...then I'm not the ONLY one suffering..this brings relief..until the 'cheery 3' greet me from a pool to the right...where they've been swimming and frolicking for over 30 mins..just to get their spirits up..which has the opposite effect on my spirits..I smile and fill my bottles with clean water and add Rehidrat sachets all round...my feet are a burning mess so I strip off my shoes and socks to get down the swelling in the cool water..this relief is alternated by the relentless sun beating down on my upper body...my strategy has changed...walk all dunes..run all hard surfaces...even if it hurts more! I study my maps and GPS to figure where I am...I've got 60 Kms left on the maps but only 40 Kms if I get all the shortcuts...


The realization dawns on me that finishing in the dark is definitely going to happen...and the overwhelming panic and anxiety that wells up is deafened only by the thundering silence of this ancient river...regardless of my speed from here out...outrunning the sun will be pointless...I'm alone again.and that brings me comfort..no one to measure myself against...just the sun and sand and threatening solace..this road of self doubt digs deeper into my feet..and burns up my swollen legs...I measure my progress in distance to the next river crossing...everyone is now surely way ahead of me....so just break each section into manageable bite size chunks...and get there! I study my GPS and my maps as I walk and stumble along a horse path..willing the DISTANCE TO DESTINATION screen to drop with every step...seeing wild horses here is surreal to me! The trees become dense to the southern side of the river and I blindly follow despite my GPS saying my path should be 500 meters to the north...when I look up and see a near vertical climb/track with the obscure words 'cut' sprayed onto a rock near the top! I smile..even chuckle hoarsely...as I climb carefully up and over...the sight of yet another wide canyon greets me..but I see Ulf sitting near the water...and a few of the 65 km athletes..this lightens my load mentally but still weighs heavily on my lower body as I descend to the water..I greet Ulf grumpily and his response tells me he's hurting or broken or both..I carry on...and overtake the two 65 km stragglers...and head along a dune sand ridge and am confronted by a big solitary male baboon..I take out my knife and approach him loudly...,not to intimidate him but make him aware of my presence in the blistering afternoon sun! I pass cautiously but have to keep focussed on the rocks and sand as well as the possibility of a sneak attack..oh how I'd hate to have to be injured by an animal so deep in the Fish...the miles start to blur..as I walk-run-stumble along..religiously following the little white arrow of salvation on a thick blue line of destiny on my GPS...I also angrily remind myself to eat..you can't run if you can't burn calories and so I chew on my hot cross buns and German bread cakes...at least this will lighten my backpack...the late afternoon sun burns my neck as it reminds me its day is soon ending....

I'm starting to feel better..not stronger..just more focussed.after what seems like too many bends..I see a flashing light in the distance..it's probably 3-4 Kms away but stands out on this sparse landscape...it's the checkpoint....I decide to head straight for it...this is an unwise move since it involves a lot of rock hopping and mud and water crossings..so I rethink my eagerness...reprimand myself for losing concentration/resolve..stick to efficiency and GPS routing....I cut back to my route and follow it to where I cross the river towards the beacon..here for the first time I see other 65 km runners..4-6 of them walking in pairs..their conversation seems loud/inappropriate /jovial...but I soon realise that it's me who have become sensitive to the sounds of the Canyon...i sign in and gulp down the Coke that I'm offered..I start to hear tales and stories but quickly ask for a refill and ask directions to the next check point that's apparently 3 Kms ahead..AJ Calitz has been past here at just before 12h00..and I'm still here at 17h00...I retreat into my head and leave rejuvenated..3kms till drinks..I speed up and pass 4 more 65 km runners/walkers...i pass a 4X4 bakkie just before 3 Kms on a hill top with another flashing light..and am surprised to find it unmanned..just a cooler box and some other camping stuff..so I push on...I would later find out that THIS was my refreshment stop..that the cooler box was for US....but at the time I pushed on..expecting to find refreshments around every next bend..and after 6 Kms I'm panicking..I've got no water or coke..and I'm parched...I stand over a military grave and purvey the massive valley in front of me..not a sign of a beacon or vehicle or human hand anywhere..I carry on but am anxious...I'd hate to be disqualified cos I missed a check point I couldn't find...the dune in front of me seems untouched even though my GPS instructs straight up..forlorn and out of options, I climb...and intersect a path...giving affirmation..at the top I take of my back pack for only the 4th time today and swop my peak cap for my Compressport bandana and headlamp...tears well up as I realise the darkness will soon engulf me and I'm agonizingly close to 'empty' up here on the dune of missed checkpoints...don't waste the last light, I think and scurry down the powdery descent and into the river valley below..the rocks are harsh and hard..and what sounds like feet stomping behind me turns out to be my pulse resounding in my ears...this carries on for 2-3 Kms before I hit a concrete weir..which 500 meters later leads to the last checkpoint...a camera with an interrogation style light is thrust into my face and I calmly respond..still numb from anxiety for fear of a DQ for missing this checkpoint...everyone claps and informs me the last athletes through were between 1-2 hours before...I gulped down coke and water and salted potatoes...and fill my bottles again..20kms left on my GPS...a half marathon to freedom..a 2 Oceans Half to accomplishment..I can do that..and I greet them and head into the last rays of dusk greeting me...

The night running brings new dimensions..and I zoom my GPS down to 20 meters..just a few meters off on either side and the track is missed completely involving backtracking and haunching down to see for footprints in my Petzl light...this causes my progress to slow despite massive strides in 20 meter increments on my GPS...my perception of distance is now utterly disturbed and I'm grateful that I don't get flustered..having done most of my coach 
Natalie Tissink runs at 03h00 or 04h00 in the morning...every path I find I celebrate...like Columbus discovering America...! The air has cooled and so my pace picks up..my only challenging directional quandary is following the GPS into a tree or river bed that now has water in it...I have to find a route around these obstacles and then try to rediscover the road ahead..looking for tell tale signs of mud or a footprint on the rocks that line the river banks...I'm hurting all over now..but at least I've started to pee..which calms my medically oriented mind...I start to fantasize about taking off my shoes and having a shower and lying down at the finish line...but that'll have to wait...12 Kms left to paradise for me...every approaching river bed is signaled by mosquitoes in my headlight..i thank the Lord now that He made even these little biting signposts of 'water ahead' cos they give me a sense of awareness...I think of how Ciske Smith is going to read this and cry..and that I've got to remember to mention every painful thought so I savour the discomfort..I remember how Patrick de Goede told me that I'm made for endurance..cos I learn something new from EVERY training session I do...I start to see headlights about 500 meters to my left and hear screaming/yelping..could it be hikers in trouble..I'm in no shape to carry,let alone help anyone in the cramping shape I'm in..I beckon for them to come to me..I'm NOT leaving the route..and I cannot stop or my body will seize up...cramps threaten with every stride..eventually I see the wearers of the 3 headlights..it's the chirpy crowd..they've been lost for 1h45mins...and are grateful beyond belief..their GPS not zooming down beyond 500 meters which makes it useless! But now well rested they're keen to run..I show them the route and tell them I'm racing on fumes...they say they'll stay with me even if it means carrying me..the sense of achievement in being able to navigate amuses me..cos all the fitness in the world will not supersede directional advantage in this crucial moment...they chat..I grunt..I force out a sentence to seem amicable..which is met with a barrage of energetic questions and conjectures! The Kms creep by slowly..and our walk/run is cruelly met by signposts for Ais Ais and water pipes crisscrossing the river beds and the smell of braai vleis..but still the faithful GPS says 4 Kms to go..these agonizing last 4000 meters are felt over every footstep...like a hurdler lunging over every hurdle in an Olympic record attempt! We cross the dam wall that also promises civilization but only rewards us with more sand and rocks..it is only on the last 800 meters that we see that glorious..that stupendous..that symbol of finality..the finish line..we cross hand in hand..all 4 of us..3 fit smiling friends..and the broken, forlorn, choked up navigator...Anna-Michel and Genevieve Weber Michel hug me..and I can't hold back the tears..I've done it..I've conquered the second oldest Canyon in the world..she may have beaten and bruised me but only so that I could come out stronger..deeper...having learnt that even stagnant water..even vertical shortcuts..even cold and wind..even tear filled eyes...even rocks forgotten...can be a blessing when all else fails!

Fish River Ultra is a completely unsupported race, so the athlete needs to carry everything from the start.Magnificent but a very rocky and tough terrain to run throughO n one of the training sessions just before the big day.
Annah Watkinson - Race Report IM Brazil 2017

After a great first year racing in the professional category in 2016, I was amped for the 2017 season. Feeling stronger and fitter and more in the "right head space" - I had done some great training over December spending many many many (and many more) hours on the bike - I loved it. My swim was starting to click, I was starting to understand the phrase "feel the water", and my running was strong

READ ONAnnah Watkinson - Race Report IM Brazil 2017
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