When I fell in the cold mud for the umpteenth time, I questioned my very state of being. Why am I here? Why we do this to ourselves? Why do I even have legs? The African sun beat down on my dirty face as I stood up and tried to move forward, the mud almost sucking my once blue Salomon’s off my feet.
Event #5 of the Warrior Series took place at the scenic Holla Trails just outside Ballito on the 3rd of August 2013. The race featured 3 events on the same day. Warrior Brats was a chance for the young ones to get involved in the action over a 500m obstacle course. The immensely popular Warrior Rookie was a 9km run with 15 obstacles along the way. Finally, Warrior Black Ops, described as ‘the beast of all obstacle courses’, was 21 km of mud, cane trails and cargo nets with over 30 obstacles.
When I signed up for the Black Ops, it was advertised as an 18km run. Having completed a fairly demanding 16km trail run in stunning Shongweni Dam a couple weeks prior and having a regular gym routine, I felt fairly confident going into to the race. But after having seen some of the obstacles in the arena and heard that we’re running an extra 3kms for free, the butterflies in my stomach woke up.
The race briefing was led by a fired up American guy who loved yelling. He reminded us that while it was a race, we should all help each other out on the obstacles. Following that, there were a few war-cries to get the runners pumped up and then off into the chilled morning winter air we went.
The first few obstacles were quite tame. Then came the mud. There were four 8 foot mounds of earth with 6 metre stretches of muddy water in between. I hopped in and didn’t even touch the bottom. I’m sure there that’s where everyone lost their energy gels, water bottles, caps and really anything else that wasn’t attached to them. By the last bottomless trench, my supposed moisture wicking vest was more of a hindrance than anything, so I hung it on a post and bade it farewell.
There were many obstacles over the 21km. To take you through each of them would take almost as long as I took to complete the race. So, in the interest of time, I will take you through the memorable ones.
The first obstacle that had some fear factor was the barbed wire mud pit. It required one to leopard crawl through the mud under the barbed wire. All it needed was an M60 machine gun on full auto firing over the wire and I guess it would have been just like every World War Two film you have ever seen, except with less shouting. Soon after, the drainage of my shoes was tested again as we scaled a 20 metre tower and had to jump off the top into more water.
There was a climbing wall and some ropes before the next obstacle of interest. We had to choose a log and flip it end over end up a hill. Just as I was getting into a rhythm, my log flicked up and whacked me in the chin. I got quite a fright and there was some blood, but after a quick check everything seemed to be where it should be. I asked the marshal to check my teeth and while he wasn’t exactly a dentist, he said I had nothing to worry about.
After some pretty single track next to a little stream, we arrived at the tire drag. This was properly gruelling. You grabbed the rope around the tire and dragged it through the warm marsh. The endless switchbacks funnelled traffic which really churned up the surface and your tire would inevitably full with water making the going tough.
The sun was really pounding down now, and there was no breeze in this part of the trail. There was some respite with the river crossing. We simply had to pull ourselves across using a big rope. On the other side, there was a picturesque campsite overlooking a dam with a dead tree perched on a small grassy knoll in the middle. The cool down and the endless green scenery made this an enjoyable part of the race.
Some nice open running lead us to some tire flipping, after which we were told to carry these 20kg sandbags to a point and back. The problem was that point was about 250m away. No matter where you tried to carry the bag, if you lost your concentration, you started to tip and the bag would fall. The uneven ground made things tougher still.
Heading towards the end of the race, I was suffering big time. My stamina had left me and there was no company around to tag along with. The monotony of the dirt roads and the crunching of the gravel seemed to never end. There was an interesting route change when we turned right into the sugarcane where a metre wide channel had been cut through the tall cane for at least 500m. The trail jinked left and right and you could never see more than 3 metres in front of you. I felt truly away from it all.
After making it to the final water table, I found it bone dry. I learnt later that nearly 80% of the water and energy drinks had been stolen a day before the event and the race organisers had tried to get as much as they could in a short space of time. Either way, this didn’t help me as I my mouth was dry and I really needed a drink. My lack of liquids was showing as I began to cramp as well.
The final obstacles of the course were soul destroying. There were about 6 of them all within the final kilometre or so. The 20 metres of alternating height monkey bars was where I lost my sense of humour. I tried a couple times and ended up in the mud. If you can’t complete an obstacle you pay for it in burpees, anywhere from 25-50 depending on the severity of the obstacle. I got down and did my burpees.
One of the final obstacles was less of a challenge and more of a lesson in pain. Nicknamed “The Taser”, it required us to run over thick mud and through live hanging wires. There were too many to dodge, and too low to crawl under. You simply had to grit your teeth and sprint through. Whilst trying to psych myself up, watched people face-planting in front of the jeering crowd. The shocks were rendering their legs useless. I got zapped right near the end and my left leg went dead straight. I stumbled but mange to catch myself after a few profanities.
There were many chuffed people posing for photos at the end with their mud stained faces. I was not one of those people. After chilling out for a short while, I made my way to the car and checked my chin in the side mirror. It was still bleeding and very dirty so I thought its best to let the medical tent have a look. After successfully avoiding stitches, I recognised a few people from varsity days sitting in a forlorn circle with various joints strapped up. Apparently the cargo net had fallen down because there were too many people on it. “It was terrible. I was crawling through bodies” said one.
Overall, despite the water shortage and collapsing cargo net, it was a very successful event that made waves throughout the trail running community. To see people so broken at the end but already getting amped for the next one in the series means the creators are really onto something here.