Wild Coast Ultra


What an incredible journey. As I sit down to put my experience on paper I struggle to find the words to describe the 6 day journey.

A journey, that’s exactly what it is. The WCU is a 250km race which started at the Umgazi river mouth and finished on Nahoon beach in East London.

I stood on Nahoon beach on the Saturday two days before the start of this epic adventure and as I looked out across the white beach I tweeted, “Standing at the finish point for the @WildCoastUltra Come the 16th feb I’ll be very pleased to see it.”
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The truth is I was nervous as hell. The furthest I had ever run in a week was 160km’s and that was primarily on tar. Now, I was planning on running 250km’s on terrain that in Joburg you simply cannot train for. In preparation for this race I had taken part in the 3 day Umgeni trail race in August 2012, not only my first trail race but my first multi-day trail race at that, winning the event overall. I also ran a 21km trail race in Buffelspoort in December finishing in 3rd place despite being diagnosed as anemic with my iron levels at 4 (they should be between 100 and 300). Apart from that I had tried to do all my weekend runs on trail.

As I stood here on the beach wondering what the next 6 days would hold I felt a little under trained. In the back of my mind I hoped that I could be competitive and perhaps even challenge for first place which I figured was probably a little ambitious given my anemia in the peak of my training and the fact that I most certainly could not call myself a “trail runner”. My training had not exactly gone to plan and my longest training run was a 43k in early Jan. I did one week of 157km’s in mid-December when a group of us ran 25km’s every day for a week. But that was about it. Since Comrades 2012 I had only done 3 weeks of just over 100km’s per week (one in August, one in December and one in January.) I could only assume that at the end of 6 days I would come crawling across this beach very happy to be done and to reach the finish. But nothing could be further from the truth….

Sunday morning; the day before the start of the race. We met outside The Reef, a block of holiday flats where most of us taking part had spent the night. We introduced ourselves and chatted about the week ahead. The group was a mix of those who had done it before and newbies like myself. As we chatted I found myself among those who had taken on and completed some serious challenges like running around South Africa, Marathon de Sables and many others. My greatest achievement? Finishing Comrades which in the light of what we were facing and what the others had done in the past seemed somewhat insignificant.

Eventually everyone had arrived and at 11:00 we climbed into a mini-bus and started the long drive up to Umgazi River Bungalows in Port St johns. The trip took what felt like an eternity, but roughly 5 hours later we arrived in a very humid and hot Port St Johns.

I quickly got my bags to my room and before doing anything else set off for a short 6km warm up run to get the legs ready for the next morning. Paul, who had flown out from the UK specifically for this event joined me for about 20mins. He’s undertaken a 365 day running challenge where he has to run for a minimum of 20mins for 365 days with no rest days. Like I said, I was feeling a little small.

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The view from our room in Umgazi River Bungalows

Day 1 – Monday 11th February – 55km’s.

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After waiting to do this event for 3 years, after all the planning and all the dreaming it was finally here. It had taken forever to arrive. It had arrived far too quickly. I was excited, so were all the runners. The air had a mix of excitement, nerves and fear. Fear of the unknown. We were about to run along one of the most beautiful coast lines in the world, no check points, no water tables, no marked route. Some had a GPS, some had maps that they had printed from the last time they did it. I had nothing and I’m not the best navigator at the best of times.

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All aboard the boats for a start on the other side of the river. A stunning morning.

Once across the river a gong of the cattle bell on the beach sounded the start of the Wild Coast Ultra! We were off. We started with an immediate climb up the back of a sand dune along some grass track. Filippo, running the event for the third year in a row, a strong trail runner and a clear favourite to take the event shot out of the blocks. I went with him. He had a GPS and I would try and stay with him to gauge his pace and to find my way. Before supper each evening we would be shown a google earth flyover of the route which seemed helpful at the time but I simply struggled to convert a 5 minute google earth video into real life distances and landmarks. So I was happy to stay with Filippo… for now. The appeal of this race for me was the adventure of being out there on your own figuring out your way to the day’s finish.

For a large part of day 1 we seemed to be running quite far inland as we weaved and meandered between rural houses and locals going about their daily routines. The terrain changed continually. We run through thick white beach sand, over narrow grass single track, down steep rocky forest areas, through thick grass paths and along rocky dirt roads.

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Not very far into the run, I would guess about 10 or 12km’s or so Filippo walked along fuelling up for the km’s that lay ahead. I decided to push on leaving the comfort of his GPS behind and as I did so I remember praying, “Lord, let the adventure begin.” This was most exciting for me. Of course it didn’t take long before I turned into a maze of foot paths leading between the various houses and running myself in circles. Eventually I found a local who was able to point me in the right direction and down a path which led back to the beach.

I ran with a sense of freedom. I was out here in the middle of nowhere, I was running wild, I was running free and for the most part it was simply me and my creator. The feeling was exhilarating.

As I ran out on the beach and toward the sea in search of the harder wet sand I saw Filippo some distance ahead of me. In getting a little lost I had expected him to come out ahead of me, what surprised me was how far ahead of me was. I quickly realised that navigation errors could be costly. This however would not be the last.

Day 1 felt like a game of cat and mouse. I would catch him and run ahead and the next thing he would pop out somewhere way ahead of me. It drove me insane and I had to keep refocusing my mind in order to prevent myself from becoming very frustrated and demotivated.

I recall running up this incredibly steep hill (ok, up this hill there wasn’t a hell of a lot of running going on), it was hot, my quads were tired from the steep down hills and I was ahead by a good 500 meters or so. Upon reaching the top I saw a soccer field to my left but I couldn’t see a path, even when I looked ahead I saw what seemed to be a fire break of sorts but no clear path. There happened to be an old man walking along the path as it veered off to the right. I asked him for directions to Coffee Bay and although he didn’t seem to quite know what I was asking he pointed ahead on the path he was following. And so off I raced along this path. After a good couple of minutes I felt like I was heading in the wrong direction. Asking a group of woman heading in the opposite direction confirmed it and so I turned and headed back from where I came with one of the woman running behind me to point me in the right direction. Back to the soccer field and Filippo way ahead me once again already at the bottom of the valley.

From there it was a sharp decent and into mud with these weird looking cockroaches crawling all over the place. Into the river and a long swim of about 100m’s to the other side where I found myself stepping knee high into mud as I stammered out the other side.

I had dogs growling at me and coming for me, a local assisting me to find the trail when I got lost by literally pushing me with his foot through a very narrow fence, a young local woman wanting to see the picture of herself on my camera, a baby crying as this Mlungu came running past, I guess this was the first time he had seem a white person.

Eventually I reached the Umtata river, a quick swim and up onto the gravel road, my quads ached and cramped as I walked the short hill from the river. I had to keep running, when I ran my quads felt fine. 7km’s along the gravel road saw me finish day 1 at the Ocean view hotel in second place by about 5mins after running 3km’s further then necessary from my little detours.

I was tired, my legs were sore. Had I gone out too hard? Had I slaughtered my quads on day 1? I had finished the day in 07h09 but I really feel a time closer to 06h00 would be more reasonable if you know where you’re going.

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Day 2 – Tuesday 12th February – 45km’s.

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After a good supper and a good sleep I woke up feeling a little tired but not too bad. I expected to feel a lot worse given the fact that I had run close to my Comrades time the day before. Day 1 had felt tougher than my last 2 Comrades runs but I was ready for more running and with a slight “old man” shuffle I was under way. It took about 5 minutes for the muscles to get going and then I started to feel strong.

We set out from The Ocean View hotel along the gravel road for about 2km’s and then took a left turn past White Clay and along the cliffs. This has to be some of the most amazing and stunning scenery I have ever seen. The running was hard on my toes as the paths were narrow and often at an angle but the weather was perfect, overcast and not a breathe of wind. It didn’t take long for the cat and mouse game to begin as I once again missed paths and took longer routes, but I was determined not to let it get to me and I continued to run at my own pace soaking up the scenery and loving the feeling of freedom.

As I ran along looking down at the ocean and the endless green grassy hills in front of me I wondered to myself how anyone could experience this and believe that it all happened by mistake. The sheer beauty sings out in praise to our creator.

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Along the cliffs, up and over the rolling grass lands and a sharp decent into Hole in the Wall. I have seen Hole in the Wall before but only from a distance and many times in books and photos. This time round I took a path though a small forest area which broke out onto a small stony beach meters from the landmark. It was beautiful.

From Hole in the Wall it was a steep climb up and many sharp descents and climbs to follow. This after been stung by a wasp on the climb out of Hole in the Wall.

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Eventually I ran down and onto the beach. It was low tide which meant the sand was hard and I could find a good rhythm. Despite a few rivers to cross and rocks to run over the rest of the way, roughly 20km’s was open beach running and I felt great. Running past a few locals scattered here and there, some tending cattle, some fishing, others seemingly doing nothing. I felt a sense of joy and an even greater sense of freedom and I wanted to run all day.

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After running for a long time on the beach without seeing any sign of our day’s finish point I saw a lighthouse on a hill in front of me. I could recall no mention of a lighthouse at the previous night’s briefing which I found strange as this was a pretty significant landmark. Had I gone too far? I must have missed it. Would I have to turn around and run back? I had seen nothing that could be our stop over which meant I could run around in circles for hours trying to find the place.

Eventually I saw a house a little inland and I hoped that was my destination, but as I approached everything seem abandoned and I knew this was not it. But all was not lost. I saw a local disappearing into his house and got his attention. He looked at me with this blank stare. I never really gave it any thought, but can you imagine what the locals must have thought? Here are these crazy looking people with packs on their back, running. “Why on earth were they running?” I quickly saw that he never had a clue as to what I was asking so eventually I asked for water, I figured I could be running for a long time still and I would need water. When my second question left him baffled he led me to a second person who could understand me, “How do I get to The Haven?” I asked. He pointed me in the direction of a gravel road and I set off for the days finish 1.7km’s away almost certain that this delay and detour would have left me in second place once again.

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It was hot now, the cloud cover from the early morning had long lifted and the sign “Welcome to the Haven Hotel” was a welcomed site. I ran down past the rooms looking for reception (I felt like I was on an episode of The Amazing Race.) I ran through reception, no one there, down around the pool, no one there, back up toward the rooms, no one there. I was looking for Filippo sure that he has passed me on one of my detours.

He hadn’t. I relaxed, took off my gear, bought two ice cold cokes and settled into the pool to cool down the legs. I had put half an hour on him finishing in 05h24.

Before I knew it, Liam, the race organiser, lent me a pair of shorts and a vest and whiped me off through some rough dirt roads to a point about 7km’s from the end to watch and support the other competitors as they came through. We waited for some time and while we did we ate fresh oysters caught by Kevin (one of the other support work horses) and opened by his dad (an amazingly fit 83 year old) as we sat on the rocks. This was the way to live, I could seriously get used to this.

Day 3 –Wednesday 13th February – 42km’s.

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I woke up feeling like I had been dragged through a bush backwards. I felt broken. All I wanted to do was crawl back into bed and sleep.

“Sometimes you just do things” a quote by Scott Jurrek’s dad came to mind. Today was one of those “things”, with 100km’s over the first 2 days my body was shouting. I tried not to think about it, I simply got ready, filled my pack, ate some breakfast and headed to the starting point. I would set off easy and slowly.

6am sharp and we were off at 4:42p/km, so much for slow and easy. Down to the river and our first river crossing with two paddlers waiting for us in their canoes to take us across two at a time. I jumped into the first canoe as the paddler rowed me to the other end, losing balance and tipping the both of us into the water just meters from the bank.

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I wasted no time, out of the water and onto thick sand. The going was tough. It was high tide which meant we were forced higher up and onto softer sand. It felt like one of those dreams where you’re trying to run but no matter how hard or fast you try and move you seem to go nowhere.

Despite the hard work I managed to open a descent lead which was a good thing as once again I made some bad navigation errors. Translating a google earth flyover into actual terrain was proving harder than I thought. The first error came when I was supposed to take a path leading slightly inland, I missed it and before I knew it I was faced with a huge rock face. There was no going around it and there was no way I was turning back, I’d lose too much time. My only option was up.

A very steep climb up the side of the cliff with no path and thick grass. Eventually I got to the top and I figured it would be smooth sailing over the back and down to the beach, I figured wrong. I ended up bundu-bashing through the middle of some thick reeds which I figured would open up to long open stretches of grass land. I figured wrong. Directly in front of me was thick, dense bush. There was no going through it. I headed back into the reeds and kept crawling inland. About 100 meters to my right I saw Filippo but there was no way I could get to the path he was on quickly enough. I kept moving, suddenly a path, not the correct one but a path none the less and given what I was bundu-bashing through this was like a walk in the garden. It took me back toward the cliffs over-looking the ocean and weaved me in and out of the small ravines and eventually down onto the beach.

I looked for shoe prints. None. Somehow I was still ahead, unless he had come out further ahead. I pushed on running hard along the sand now. Again I missed the path leaving the beach and ended up having to run over rocks for about 3-4km’s. The going was slower but not that bad as the rocks were fairly stable and then it was back onto the beach.

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The clouds had disappeared. It was humid. It was hot, by far the hottest day of the week so far. I was now on the beach, the tide was moving out which meant hard sand. Long white stretches of beach that went on as far as I could see.

The next 2 to 2.5 hours were the most incredible experience. I ran along the beach for 20 to 30km’s and never saw a single human being that entire time. There were no other foot prints in the sand, mine alone. I saw dolphin and within the space of 20 minutes I saw three Fish Eagles all down along the beach. There were no fisherman, no herdsman, no holiday makers. Nothing, just me, my creator and the most beautiful unspoilt landscape imaginable.

This is what I had come to experience, this is why I had entered this race, nothing but the sounds of my back pack as it chaffed my hips and the rhythmic crash of the waves rolling up onto the beach. I was free.

Suddenly, out of the blue, the strangest thing happened. I began to miss people. I longed to simply see a local up on a hill or even just a foot print in the sand but when I looked ahead all I could see was a white, empty coastline meandering in the distance. I had been taking people for granted and for the first time in my life I began to realise that we have been created to be part of community.

It was hot. The forecast said it would be 31 degrees with a feel of 39 degrees. It felt like 39 degrees and not a breath of wind. With about 8km’s to go I ran passed a holiday home just off the beach with people! I ran up to the gate and asked for a glass of coke. At first I got these blank stares and I guess I must have looked like someone who had fallen off a ship. Eventually they figured out I must be dying and so they welcomed me in and presented me with a huge glass of ice cold coke. After running for 35km’s or so in high humidity and hot temperatures there’s nothing quite like an ice cold coke. It never touched sides but went down incredibly smoothly.

I was off with a renewed spring in my step. According to these generous folk my destination, Mazepa Bay Hotel awaited me only 7km’s away. Down the embankment, through the river and up the rocks to Kobb Inn. I stopped briefly here to cool off under their pool side shower before running the final stretch to the hotel.

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I arrived at the hotel in 4h47 and found…no one. Not even the support crew. After double checking with the receptionist that I was in fact at the right place I bought an ice cold coke and cream soda from the bar and then made my way to the pool where I soaked my legs for about 20mins before welcoming the crew to our stop over.

During the first two days I found my pack chaffing me on my sides so I decided to put a plaster on the chaffed spots and to cover them with elasto-plast. When I eventually got into my room for a shower I was horrified at what I found…

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I figured the plaster had rubbed on the skin and created a huge blood blister, I had visions of pulling this off and having to run for another 3 days with my pack rubbing against raw skin! I immediately went to find Alan, our doctor for the trip and a really great guy. He took one look at this and I could see from his face that he shared my thoughts. Without any option he started to pull off the plaster which burst just like a normal blister and revealed…nothing. Thank goodness, the skin was chaffed and broken in places but other than that no blister. He had a medical explanation which in laymen’s terms as far as I could understand basically meant that the plaster together with a bit of blood from the broken skin and the perspiration had in effect formed a man-made blister. In hindsight this had actually protected the area and with a bit of strapping over the next couple of days I had gotten off scott free.

Day 4 – Thursday 14th February –342km’s.

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On the Wednesday afternoon the wind had started to blow and for a minute I thought I was in Port Elizabeth. It howled. We awoke to a rather gentle breeze but unfortunately this would not be the case for long. The wind got stronger and stronger as the day unfolded.

The start for this day was staged with runners heading out from 6am. Filippo and myself left at 7:15. I felt surprisingly good today and I was eager to get underway. But it was tough going into a strong head wind.

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This was a short predominantly beach run with lots of thick sand and rocks but on the hard flat sand sections I was able to get into a fairly decent rhythm. I ran hard from Mazepa Bay through to Wavecrest, approximately 19km’s where a ferry was waiting to row me to the other side of the river.

From there, Liam, the main event organiser joined me as we ran together at a much easier pace chatting along the way.

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The Jacaranda. Ship wrecked 18th September 1971.

I finished day 4 in 3h21, it felt far too short and the sad realisation that we only had 2 days left struck.

Day 5 – Friday 15th February – 29km’s.

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Rain. The wind had turned the hot 30 degree temperatures into a cool rainy 18 degrees. I love running in the rain and I couldn’t have felt more blessed to be running this stunning coast line with God pouring out His blessings upon me. I felt a lightness in spirit I hadn’t felt in a long time. This was going to be a great day.

The start was staggered once again and Filippo and myself set off 15min after the last group went off. The section from the hotel to the Pont at the Kei river mouth allowed me to stretch the legs a little and run comfortably to the Pont. There we waited for the rest of the field to join us before boarding the Pont and crossing the Kei river mouth. Rumour has it that a competitor some years back did not realise this was the Kei river mouth and promptly swam across the river. (The Kei river mouth is known for shark.)

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Once across the river it was onto dirt road for about 600m’s before turning left on the tar road and heading through town. At the golf course we were supposed to turn left and follow the path down onto the rugged coast line. Turns out I was the only competitor who ended up running the correct way (quite the irony given my navigation skills over the past few days) and the others most certainly missed out. This was a stunning run along the rocks and cattle tracks passed the light house, old block house and a rather aggressive crab.

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After successfully warding off the crab I ran down onto the start of the Morgan Bay beach. The last time I was in Morgan Bay I must have been about 13 years old. There was a scene of nostalgia in the air as I got closer and closer to the old Morgan Bay hotel. Things have changed quite a bit since I last saw this place and there’s a lot more development that has taken place.

Through Morgan Bay and a climb up and onto the Morgan Bay cliffs where we’d run passed Craig; our race photographer.

The Morgan Bay cliffs were amazing! There really are no words to describe them. I’m not even sure photos capture the beauty.

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Once around the cliffs it was a hop, skip and a jump to Haga Haga and our final sleep over at a holiday house in Haga Haga.

I finished the day in 3h09 and although it once again felt far too short it was nice to get warm, get the legs up and sip on a warm cup of coffee as we waited for the rest of the finishers.

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Day 6 – Saturday 16th February – 45km’s.

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The final day and a beautiful one at that. Where had this week gone? I was reluctant to get going, I didn’t want this adventure to end. The rest of the runners started heading out from about 6am, with the last group heading out a 7:30.

After watching a large school of dolphin swim playfully into the bay I eventually set off at 8am on my own. Today’s run was broken into two sections. The first was a run from Haga Haga to the start of the Surfers Challenge, approximately 27km’s and the second was Surfers Challenge, an 18km race.

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The first 27km’s flew by starting off with approximately 3-4km’s along rock and stop-start terrain. But thereafter it was beach all the way and I found a peaceful, comfortable rhythm.

The longer I ran the more people I began to see, I was definitely reaching the end. Holiday makers, houses and towns began to pop up more and more the closer I got to East London. Before I knew it I was at the starting point of the Surfers Challenge. With 3 hours to wait for the start of this 18km race the area was pretty quite but as the minutes ticked by the small grass area in which we found ourselves was flooded with 3000 runners, camera’s, helicopters, music and PA announcements. A rude awakening.

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Above photos about 2hours before the start of Surfers Challenge

Surprisingly I looked forward this 18km race. The idea of hammering a tough 18km after having already run 232km’s was an intriguing challenge. I was interested to see how my legs would handle this.

After waiting for 3 hours my legs had stiffened up and so with about 20mins to the start I set out for an easy warm up jog. The rest of the WCU competitors all started 15 minutes ahead of the start of Surfers Challenge. This had been arranged by the organisers in order to single out those “nutters” who had taken on the journey. I remained behind in order to start with the main race.

Surfers Challenge is a tough race starting on a narrow gravel road which leads down onto the beach after about 600 meters. Once on the beach you run through thick beach sand and over loose rocks. At times it feels like you’re running in cement. There are two river crossings which require some swimming. Once through the first river it’s onto tar road and through the residential area for about 5km’s before heading back down onto the beach with more rock and sand before the final swim across the last river and 300 meters to the finish line.

The start was manic. A 14h30 start meant that it was hot. The earlier cloud cover had disappeared and a lot of the guys ran without shirts, a tempting prospect but I figured my lilly-white skin would get burnt to a crisp, besides at least I could pour water over myself and have my compression top retain it between water points.

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The gun sounded and it was a wild stampede as runners bolted for the road like men possessed. I’ve never experienced anything like it. With 230km’s already in my legs I set off at a blazing pace of 3:15p/km in order to claim my stake of the gravel road. Within 200 meters or so I was able to reduce the pace to a far more comfortable 3:45p/km.

Once I hit the beach it was tough going over the thick sand and loose rocks but I held nothing back and ran as quickly as I possibly could. At one section I lost my footing on a rock and fortunately managed to prevent what could have been a disastrous fall by putting a hand out in front of me. I came away from that with a slightly bruised wrist and as quickly as I had hit the turf I was up and back into the crazed frenzy.

As the race progressed I caught up to and passed the other WCU runners. It was good to see them all doing so well on this race and they gave me incredible support as I continued to push my body beyond anywhere it had ever gone before.

The first water crossing was a welcomed relief from the heat and I could have spent all afternoon in that water. Up onto the tar and I found a great rhythm running between 3:40-3:45 p/km. Between the start and this tar section I had gradually caught up with and passed the three leading ladies but as the heat and the accumulated millage began to take its toll the first last came passed me just before the end of the tar section with one of the female spectators shouting out, “Come on, run! You’re been passed by a woman.” Any form of classic chirps or come backs failed me, my body was screaming for the finish line and at this point I’d simply have to settle with being “chicked.”

Onto the final stretch of beach and about 5km’s to the finish I hit the wall. My legs just could not go anymore and my pace slowed dramatically but I kept moving forward. Into the final river and through the thick white sand before crossing the finish line in a time of 1h20 for what has to be the toughest 18km’s I have ever run.

I was finished. I had won the Wild Coast Ultra in a combined time of 27h54:08, 250.50km’s. A quick interview, a shower, prize giving and it was all over.

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I woke up the next morning and felt like I could run back to the start over the next week. My mind struggled to process the last 6 days. It had been a blessing, a gift, a wonderful experience and a journey. I had realised from early on in day 1 that you don’t race the Wild Coast, you experience it!

What more can I say about this incredible adventure? The organisation was superb. The goodie bags were the best I’ve ever received; a toolbox full of stuff you can actually use. The accommodation was top class. The food was fantastic. The competitors were all a great bunch and everyone seemed to get on extremely well. Above all, our creator had kept us all safe, provided us with superb weather and poured out His blessings on us each and every day.

There is just something about running for km’s completely on your own. I don’t believe humans were created to live in the chaos and noise of our busy day to day lives in which most of us find ourselves. There’s something about the “noise” of nature that calls deep to our very beings and makes us alive. Running in this type of environment feels right, it feels natural. It’s basic, some running clothes, a pair of shoes, a few litres of water on your back and the feeling that you were born to run.

Something between 20-30 river crossings, some required you to swim, some where chest and waist high and some up to your knees and ankles. Gravel road, thick grass track, narrow cattle track, steep climbs, sharp decents, stumbling over loose rocks, reaching over big boulders and struggling through thick beach sand.

Words simply cannot describe this event. Make sure you put this one on your bucket list!

– Ray Orchison

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