Trail Running

Debbie O’ Mahoney fights off blackjacks and getting lost to finish 3rd overall at 100km Recce Mission trail race

Recce Mission Trail Race 2021

Where to begin … in the midst of the Covid pandemic and having no road races to work towards, I started focusing more on trail runs and enjoying nature. Looking for a race to challenge myself, I searched and came across the Recce Mission Trail race with multiple distances as options. I initially entered the 62km and started on my training programme, but then five weeks before the race I received an email stating that all 100km entries were closing that day,  and as one crazy runner does, I upgraded to the 100km. Now I had to tell Coach Neville! Hahaha, he took it in his stride, upped my training for the last few weeks and on the Friday of race weekend, I was on my way to Dullstroom.

I get asked a lot as to why I changed my entry. In all honesty, I had completed the 65km SkyRun in November and needed something that was a challenge, something that was a big achievement to have in this time of no road races. And it had to be something that scared me so that I could face it head-on. And, yup, I was scared! It would mean a sleepless night with extra mileage on the legs, but all worth every minute of it!

What was the most daunting for me? Arriving at registration at 8am on the morning of the race, locating the race flags, approaching the registration table and seeing all the participants’ Spot Devices to be handed out just before the start, all nine of them! Plus, trying to find another female, but nope, it was just eight guys and myself.

My folks were amazing, getting me to the start, chatting to me to get my mind off what was ahead of me, and making me steaming hot coffee to warm up. 

8:55am – Spot devices handed out, quick chat about safety and 9am we were on our way.

The first 5kms of the race we all ran together chatting about our history with running and what got us all entering this race. Then we split up and from that moment on I was alone. I will admit I got lost twice in the first 8kms and started doubting whether this was actually for me. But after running through the peaceful pine forests, navigating through some ankle-deep mud in the brushes, reaching 25kms and seeing my parents, I was enjoying it.

My goal was to get to the first checkpoint at Fort Verloren (50kms in) feeling good, and that I did. The first half was my type of game with jeep tracks, sand roads weaving through the pine forests, gravel passes, a few (many) daunting climbs, runs through forests on hiking trails and district roads  where I could get my legs turning over  nicely. I arrived at Verloren in first place and I was owning it (while I could) as I knew the second half would be a battle. From 51km it was going to be an adventure for me … and that it was, plus more! My parents brought me fresh socks, juice to refill my hydration pack, extra batteries for my headlamp and a power bank for my phone/watch as I didn’t want to lose power on any device until I crossed the finish line. (I even had two Spot devices on me for safety as I sometimes even get lost on the Joburg roads, in my car, using Google maps hahaha). The next 12kms to the start of the Waterfall climb involved a lot of grass-tuft running and another district road.

I started the climb just before sunset, as I was hoping to tackle this while there was still light, which worked out perfectly, as one wrong turn on this section and you could be stranded on a cliff edge where you would need to be helivaced off.  As I got to the top (1.5kms of climbing in a whopping 58mins!!!!) it was time to bring out the headlamp and winter kit as the cold was setting in quickly. 

The best thing about my winter gear was the lightweight Salomon windproof running jacket which was ideal with their running  gloves, and I was warm as ever! I quickly dropped my parents a message to let them know I was “at the top” safely, and then from this point on – for about 23kms – I was isolated. No one could access this area, so I focused on the next checkpoint at 85km as that was where I would be seeing my folks again. And boy, did those 23kms take forever!

It was night, I was alone and had to try to navigate my way, and by 8pm my GPS decided to go crazy. I was between the edge of the mountain and a large river crossing that was flowing strongly. I was going in circles, over rocks, through long grass, no GPS on my watch and the GPS was going crazy on the Komoot app on my phone, so I had no idea where I needed to go. Panic set in and I didn’t know what to do. After a few minutes I glanced up and saw a runner’s headlamp a few kays ahead of me (he had climbed the waterfall just ahead of me), and then the light disappeared. I never saw it again for the rest of the race and I truly believe I was meant to see it at that moment to help get me out. I aimed for that direction, scrummaging over rocks and dead trees as there were no paths and suddenly I was back on route! Relief! I was up on the escarpment, no one in sight, just me and my headlamp. One section was alongside a small forest and that was eerie, and all I could think of was the horror movies I had watched when I was younger, hearing the little noises and just hoping it was the wind.

Then, 75kms in I climbed over a fence to enter the Highlands Golf Estate,  and this I thought would be manicured trails with an easy time ahead. But no, once again I was veered off into areas with no paths, loose rocks and shoulder height grass. This was where I twisted my already injured ankle and the pain was excruciating (not to mention the “snap” I heard). I sat down where I was and sobbed my heart out. I wanted this to end, I wanted to be home with a cup of coffee! I have never been pushed to this limit before and this is where you learn so much about yourself.  How I would give anything to be in the warmth of my home, on my couch curled up reading a good book. But here I was, alone, in pain, and I hadn’t been able to stomach any food the whole race (not ideal), so my energy levels were low and I was scared. But I stood up, dusted myself off and started again … literally one foot in front of the other (while kicking rocks and stumbling through rivers and BlackJack City!). 

This is where I have to mention another aspect that kept me going: I have a group of amazing friends on whatsapp that kept waiting for my next voice note for an update. I couldn’t let them down. They stayed awake until the very end, cheering me on from Joburg. And having Coach Neville and his group of runners on Whatsapp sending me messages through the night boosted me in my lows.

85km and the next checkpoint was Fort Gate at the bottom entrance of Highlands Golf Estate. Looking like a hedgehog covered in blackjacks (literally, even in my hair) I met up with my folks again. Tears were streaming, I felt done both physically and mentally. A little chat to my dad; my mom giving me a cup of coffee, refuelling juices, drinking a Futurelife porridge made with lots of water so I could swallow it, while changing kit and then the last section had begun and I had some new energy. This entailed 11kms climbing to the crest of the mountain where I could finally see the lights of Dullstroom in the distance. I was almost there! Just 10kms to go!!

Luckily the last 10kms were on single track paths, single lane concrete roads, through private properties and with every step I took I knew I was getting closer to the finish. 5kms to go … 4 … then I got lost again (in true blonde style), back on track, 3km … 2 … 1km, into the town and there was the finish!! As I crossed the line at 2:21am (and this will not sound like a glorified movie) I just burst into tears – literally sobbed – hugged my mom and my dad, was wrapped in a space blanket, hobbled a few spaces and the nausea hit as I realised then how tired, dehydrated, hungry and sore I was. Plus how mentally drained I was. 

17hours and 21mins / 106kms alone, going from happy to scared to near petrified, what a rollercoaster it was. 

I am so relieved I got through it okay, I tackled my fear and kept going. I got to see my out-of-this-world seconders (the best parents ever) about five times, cheering me on, checking on me if all was okay.

My Suunto 9 was ideal, finishing the race with over 50% battery life, navigating me along the route the organisers set. Very dependable. A saying I’ve heard: “Suunto devices will get you off the mountain”  So true!!!!

Would I recommend this race? To be honest, if you enjoy reaching limits within yourself, YES! This is one for the books! If you want a challenge that is completely different to other races, secluded, pushes you and where you get to see some amazing views and places (when the sun is up), then this is a race to do.

I enjoy smaller races.

I enjoy not having people lined out in front of me and behind me while out in the mountains. 

I enjoy the taste of the mountain water … so cold, so fresh. 

I enjoy the peace while out there. 

And most of all … I enjoy the challenge.

NOTE: Debbie’s next race will be the 100 miler Karkloof in September – Coach Neville

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