Choosing to race the Ultra Trail Cape Town 100k was probably a foolish idea from a performance standpoint.
But choosing to NOT go back to Cape Town would have been a great loss.
Cape Town stole my heart many years ago and I’ve always dreamed of returning.
So I seized the rare opportunity; prayed for my body to endure once more; and went back.
I arrived with an immeasurable enthusiasm; and a tired body.
Over the years, I’ve grown to understand the physical side of what makes up “Sally Jean McRae” and I can confidently say, that if my enthusiasm is high(regardless of how physically beat down I might feel) I can do anything.
No matter how grueling the process; no matter the level of discomfort; if I fasten my heart to the journey, I can overcome.
11 weeks before the UTCT, I pulled an unusual stunt: I raced Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 160km in France; then 13 days later raced Desert Ridge 70km in China’s Gobi Desert; and then 14 days after that, I raced the Ultra Race of Champions 100km in Northern California. Roughly,those races covered almost 200 miles and 50,000 feet of climbing.
You won’t find reports on those races: I sincerely didn’t have time to put even one together because I was onto the next race; but a short summary of those races:
Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc 160km- I arrived in Chamonix just 8 weeks after a heartbreaking Western States 100. I was restless, fit, and ready to race. Deep inside, I longed for a better performance than I had at Western States. I had been battling a parasite of some sort for about a week before the race, but I mostly felt fine running and didn’t have any debilitating symptoms; except that NOTHING would stay in my belly. I took a gamble and popped several Immodium right before the Start of the race, hoping to “trick” the illness. The Immodium worked; well, it turned my belly into a brick and I moved uncomfortably for the first 40 miles until it wore off; then it was 45 miles of cursing the dirt, sky and every step beneath me. I struggled to move; completely depleted and dehydrated, I finally called it a day after 31 hours, 85 miles and in the middle of a lightning storm. I cringed at my weaknesses; shivering and faint. My good friend and filmmaker Billy Yang(who had been filming my race) drove me back to Chamonix. I chose to stop simply because I wanted to take care of myself. Looking back, I could have crawled to the Finish line; I know how to suffer quite well, but I had already done that at Western States; and I didn’t want that again. For whatever reason, I needed to show myself grace; I needed to remedy my heartbreak not by further beating myself up, but by simply resting. It felt unnatural, as I typically am very hard on myself, but one of my goals for the year was to be better; and this day I had learned that my mind needed to be more healthy. “Let go of what anyone thinks; let go of the disappointments; take care of yourself Sally…be better.” It’s taken me awhile to verbalize this, but it’s propelled me to greater confidence. I dream; I execute: I rise; I fall: I grow…and then I do it all over again.
Desert Ridge 70km- Just 13 days after UTMB; and a long two days of travel to arrive at my final destination: The Gobi Desert in Mongolia, China. It was an opportunity of a lifetime and despite the continual battle with the same stomach parasite, I was simply thrilled to see this rarely touched part of the world. To say I was tired is an understatement, and so I chose to let my excitement drive me. I relished in every part of the trip and the many wonderful people I met along the way; most notably: runner Lucy Bartholomew, and race directors: Witold Smieszek and Etienne Rodriguez who invited me on this magical adventure. The race was in the middle of the Gobi Desert, a cold desert with mountain ranges reaching over 9000 feet. I didn’t put any pressure on myself to race; I craved to have a full and memorable experience and it truly was like nothing I had ever done and seen before. Several times throughout the race I paused and just looked around me, “Wow…I GET to be here…I GET to see this…thank you, thank you.” I finished a slow second; after getting terribly lost two times; and arguing with a body that constantly screamed, “Seriously SALLY?!! What are you doing?!!!” But I crossed the finish line with a huge smile and a rare exuberance felt only after checking a box off my bucket list.
Ultra Race of Champions 100k- The third and final race of my insane month; and less than two weeks after arriving home from China. Why did I do this race? For a few reasons; but the main reason: it was on the Western States trails; the trails that I fell in love with over the past few years, and especially in the six months leading up to the race. I had spent many weekends training in those beautiful mountains; and my hope was to simply enjoy the day. And that I did. I smiled the entire day; through a tired body- heavy, cramping legs and getting lost. But I felt alive, childlike. One of my best friends and rockstar runner Leslie VandenAkker and her daughter Allie crewed me; it was such a gift and made the day even more memorable. I ran alone the entire day except for a few miles at the beginning. The fall season was in full bloom and the trees swayed their red and yellow leaves peacefully for miles and miles. I loved it. There was something deeply personal about racing that day; something I needed to communicate to myself. I finished a slow second again, but I didn’t care; my heart was at peace and I haven’t been on those trails since; nor do I plan to anytime soon.
Begging my Body- Upon arriving home from Ultra Race of Champions, I made a pact with myself to focus more on recovering than training. I knew it would put my final race of the year at a gamble because my training schedule lacked much volume or intensity; but I was hard pressed at staying injury free and keeping my mind from burning out and I knew this was how to do it. I knew I could run 62 miles; that didn’t concern me, but the idea of racing to my potential was questionable; and I secretly hated that. I abhor mediocracy and the idea of lining up at a START line with anything less than a solid cycle of training made me uneasy. It was during this time that I took a couple weeks to reflect on my 2016 year and where I was headed. I asked myself a few questions, “Who am I as an athlete?” “Why do I do what I do?” “Where am I going?” These questions shed light on my year as a whole; and brought peace to my journey to Ultra Trail Cape Town. I focused on a few things I desired from the race: to do my best; and savor the experience.
My Secret Love for South Africa- in 2001, I boarded a plane heading for Cape Town. I was a soccer player at the time and had the opportunity to play on a traveling team with Ambassadors in Sport. The organization focused on impacting communities worldwide through football (soccer) Their tagline, “Bringing hope through football”. The team was made up of college, semi-pro, and professional soccer players from all over the world; and we would travel around competing; putting on soccer camps, and visiting prisons, homeless shelters; and some of the most impoverished areas in South Africa. I loved everything about the opportunity from the competitive aspect to the human connection and hope we could potentially bring. It wasn’t until I arrived that I learned I was the only female on the team. The constant attention this factor brought me was sometimes overwhelming, “Who was this white girl from America playing on the men’s team?!” I wasn’t always warmly accepted by the opposing team, but it didn’t bother me; I knew I was supposed to be there for some unique reason; and it was quickly revealed to me each time we played. It was a stressful time in South Africa and the political unrest was felt everywhere we went. It was also made known to me that women had just begun to play soccer locally; a few province teams had newly formed- the idea of it all still fresh; so for many of these women, the sight of me playing with men was both astonishing and enlivening. I was often greeted by crowds of women after games; and the attention followed wherever we went. Part of our role on the team was to be ready to speak at any given time; basically, if the coach called upon you to speak in front of a crowd of 50 or 500, you needed to be ready. Our message was simple- to spread hope; and the soccer ball was just one way we connected people to our message. “In soccer you keep your eyes on the ball….in life, you keep your eyes on Hope…” I loved any opportunity I had to share with people and I was called upon often to share my personal story. Over the course of the five weeks I spent in South Africa, I learned an invaluable life lesson that I still hold onto today: “Use the gifts that have been given to you, not for your glory, but to shine upon others…to encourage; to love; to spread hope.” I had been given the gift of athleticism and I had big dreams for my soccer career; all of which revolved around me, but this trip changed that; it changed my focus and my overall outlook on sports. It’s so easy to become selfish in doing our own sport, but if we take the time to see; that just like any gift we are given- we have the ability to use it for a purpose far greater than ourselves; and there’s nothing more fulfilling than that.
That trip, in the summer of 2001 will forever be one of the most impacting times in my life; a pivotal point in my growth as a woman. And for that, South Africa will always hold a precious place in my life; so when Race Director Nic Bornman invited me to race Ultra Trail Cape Town 100k, without hesitation I said, “YES!!”
The Return to Cape Town- December 4th, Sunday at 7pm I hopped on the first of 2 flights heading to Cape Town. I was scheduled to arrive on Tuesday morning at 6am; so yes; if you’re planning to go to South Africa; know that it’s one of the longest flights you’ll ever take; but thankfully for me, both flights had lots of open seating and I was able to sleep. The going is always more exciting anyway and my excitement to return to Cape Town made the traveling digestible.
I awoke an hour before landing and was greeted with a spectacular view of Table Mountain and the sparkling coast of Cape Town; my heart fluttered and a flood of memories began to play in my mind, “I can’t believe I’m back…thank YOU.”
I was greeted at the airport by a smiling Nic Bornman- one of the race directors for UTCT. He handed me a hot coffee (PERFECT!!) and we headed to the car for a short drive to the hotel. I stared at the mountains as we chatted about the race; events; and whatever life question came to mind…sorry Nic! ha ha!
The next three days, I focused on simply resting; the first day I slept for 16 hours straight…clearly jet lagged! I had a couple opportunities to get on the trails and explore the beauty of Table Mountain, but I declined simply because I needed to save any strength and energy I might have left in me for race day; and knowing myself, I would have wanted to stay out there all day. I LOVE exploring new trails, and I couldn’t wait to see where the race course would take me on Saturday. I settled for a couple specific workouts in the hotel gym and short, flat runs along the coast.
The Buzz- Friday, the day before the race, UTCT put on an exciting pre-race event. It was held at the Gardens Tech- Rugby Club, the site of the Race Start/Finish. The day included race registration; Q&A with a panel of runners (myself included), race briefing, vendors, food trucks, a bar, and it all ended with a film festival brought by Trails in Motion. I had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful runners; including three incredibly talented South African runners: Meg Mackenzie, Landie Greyling, and Kerry-Ann Marshall. I was again reminded why I love South Africans, they’re friendly, upbeat, and very engaging. It was a wonderful way to kick off the race weekend and I left the event even more excited to get onto that big beautiful mountain.
Race Day: 3:41am, Saturday December 10th. I snuck away from the buzz of the race tent and found a spot in a dark corner. I stared up at the massive rock before me and scanned the millions of stars overhead. It was already a glorious morning and I needed a moment to regroup my thoughts, “Take it all in Sally…do your best…enjoy the journey…stay gritty.” I finished the final exercises in my usual pre-race warmup and made my way to the Start line.
And we were off.
The Race: I settled behind Landie (eventual women’s winner) for the first 2.5 miles. I ran quietly as everyone around me chatted. The course weaved through lit streets, leading us to the base of the first climb to Lion’s Head. We kept a relaxed 6:40-7:00min pace those first few miles, but as soon as we hit the first climb, I backed off, “Dammit!” Bricks immediately fastened to my feet and every step lacked power. “Where’s my power?” I immediately let go of my fretting…”Just warm-up Sally…you got this.” I took the first climb with a mix of power hiking and jogging and focused on the incredible views which were just starting to reveal themselves. I let out an audible, “Whew!!!!” It was beautiful!
The 65km race had started with us and I noted the couple women who passed me up the first climb, “I’m pretty sure they are running 65km…I’m in second…don’t lose second Sally…go get first…c’mon legs….c’mon Sally!” I had this conversation over and over for the first 10 miles; it was comical; and NOT helpful. I was slow going up every climb and started to turn negative, “Cmon Sally! You climbed over 300,000 feet this year…step it up girl!”
Then, like a lightbulb, the thought came to me, “You struggled through almost every race this year Sally…you gotta let go…just enjoy the journey today…let go.”
And so I did.
And for the rest of the day, I focused on the jaw-dropping 360 views around me; I made new friends and shared wonderful conversation; I smiled in spite of my sluggish body; and even giggled when I realized I had to use chains and ropes to climb up and over rocks. I relished every section of the race; it was diverse in every way imaginable. Twice we ran on white sandy beaches; through vineyards; neighborhoods; through rarely touched, technical single track; up several stupid steep 1000+foot climbs; over loads of massive boulders; over fences; up and over and around Table Mountain and into the most ripping powerful wind I’ve ever raced in…it was absolutely amazing!
I gave my best that day; regardless of how slow going I went; it was what I had left in me and I enjoyed the journey…every step. I ran those final 100 meters with great joy and relief in my heart; somehow I had pulled off staying in second place all day and I wearily jumped over the Finish line for the final time in 2016.
My Top 10 Favorite Things About Ultra Trail Cape Town-
1.The Rad UTCT Team- There are many who make up this hardworking team, but most notably race directors Nic Bornman and Stu McConnachie; they truly know how to put on a high class event and I’m not being biased; they thought of EVERYTHING from fun social events surrounding the race to making sure the 3000+ race markers assured no one would be lost. Runners themselves, these guys worked tirelessly to assure every runner’s experience was memorable. And the proof is in the results; in the 3 short years this race has been around it’s grown from 200 to over 1000 runners and has been added to the Ultra Trail World Tour! Congratulations Team!
2. The 4am Start- I know that sounds crazy, but I love, LOVE starting early the morning and watching the sky change to light; it’s enlivening and I was at the most magnificent spot when the sun was rising; I wanted to stop and take a picture but instead I savored it in my mind. What a gift. A sunrise on the other side of the world; on top of Table Mountain with hundreds of runners from over 40 different countries…priceless.
3. Ryan Sandes- Most people know this rockstar professional trail runner and he’s known as king of Table Mountain so when he offered to crew me for the race I was absolutely thrilled. Every time I came into an aid station he gave me updates on what was going on ahead of me and gave me the rundown of what kind of terrain I’d be running in the coming miles. He was quick, calm and always smiling. Thank you so much Ryan for giving your day to crew me and many thanks to your wonderful wife and sweet new baby for allowing you to be away; I’m very grateful.
4. It’s Summer!- Yep, I left the winter wet weather and enjoyed a week of sunny beach weather! South Africa is in the opposite season! However I made the mistake of forgoing my hat and badly blistered my head during the race; burned my face shoulders and arms pretty bad…NOT good; so a heads up to those of you racing it next year…REAPPLY sunscreen!
5. A Porcupine and a Massive Snake- On the first descent a massive porcupine was hanging out on the side of the trail; I squealed and jumped at least 18 feet in the air. I had never seen one up close…so cool! Toward the end of the race I huge, thick snake slithered across my path, but I was like, “Meh, we have a ton of those on my home trails.” Just kidding, I was like “Crap that’s huge!!”
6. Aid Stations- Every aid station was like a party; and if there’s one thing you need to know about South Africans it’s that they’re very lively people! It was such a treat coming into every single aid station. Music and cheering and laughter; and the volunteers were very cheery and helpful. Huge points here!
7. The Secret Lakes and Waterfalls- Yep, I had no idea what to expect on top of that mountain and I squealed and yelled in delight when I came upon a massive, powerful waterfall and a beautiful lake; I felt like I was a million miles away; it was so remote and beautiful up there…I really wanted to stay there.
8. Chains and Ropes- Oh yes! Some sections of climbing were so steep and full of boulders that you had to grab onto the chains that were bolted into the side of rocks to pull yourself up; and then there was one spot where you had to use a rope to rappel down a boulder and get back on the trail…seriously so fun!
9. My Belly- I tried my new nutrition Spring Energy Gel and it worked wonderfully. No drops in energy; no sour belly; no dark, black hole. Ha! Real food, Real happy body.
10. The Post Race Party- The most fun I have had post race ever! Again, UTCT knows how to put on a fun event. The day after the race was the awards ceremony and then everyone stayed and mingled with a live DJ, bar, food trucks, and story telling. It was fun to share war stories and relive some of the miles I ran with many new friends; and special thanks to stellar event MC and founder of Trails in Motion James Hallett introducing me to your incredible trail community; you guys are so blessed!
Special Thanks to:
Nic Bornman and Stu McConnachie for giving me the opportunity to race on your beautiful mountain; you guys did an incredible job with the race; hats off to you!
Spring Energy Gel, Liquid IV and UCANN for fueling me to the Finish line.
Addaday and MarcPro for helping me recover immediately after the race!
Coach Steve Newman for keeping me injury free this entire year despite my ridiculous race schedule. So grateful for you!
Nike Trail- For gearing me up with everything I need to race prepared and strong!
Eddie, Makenzie, and Isaiah- my heart, my roots, my everything….thank you for loving me and supporting me when I’m near and far. I love you guys so much.