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Carrying Mountains

written by Tracey Randle 

17th October 2021

 

The speakers are pumping some sort of high octane music you can’t hear the words of and the race commentator is enthusiastically blasting out: “Congratulations on what you have undertaken to get here, over the last year, the last two years, 18 months…the Grail of Trail 2021”. Chantal Daniel is confidently crossing the last submerged walkway across the lagoon mouth and her family and friends are screaming at her from the finish line, “COME ON CHANS!”. She looks up apprehensively for a second and then leaps into the water and pulls herself out. A whisper away from the Otter Challenge finish line, does the commentator really know what she has undertaken to get to this point? I’m not just talking about the 42kms which is known to be one of the most beautiful but gruelling trail marathons in South Africa, but personally what it has taken her to get to this point. It is part miracle that she has made it this far. Is she the women’s winner of the Otter Challenge? Yes, perhaps she is.

 

Only five months previously on Freedom Day she had been offered her entry to the race, at the emotional memorial service of her beloved husband Werner. Under strict covid protocols the venue was filled to its maximum capacity for its size. Covered with delicate indigenous flowers everywhere the ballroom held his shocked and devastated community of fellow trail runners, surfers, friends, work colleagues, and family. His wife Chantal and their 6 year old twins are being held upright by a small circle of close relatives. With the massive outpouring of grief and dedications to the type of man Werner was, it is abundantly clear he was someone special. This is not how it is meant to be, surely least of all to such an example of a true friend, a devoted husband, a dedicated father. The healthiest and happiest guy we all knew. He was 39 years old. Anyone who had spent even just a small amount of time in his company got a sense of who he was – incredibly interested in listening to what you had to say, enthusiastic about the simple things in life, open to different perspectives and passionate about everything he did.

 

Many of us attending the service had met him on trail, in fact despite being an ultra-marathon runner with impressive achievements, he somehow made a “newbie” runner struggling up a pretty basic trail feel like they themselves were ultra-runners. He was that type of guy. In the outpouring of grief and support at the memorial Chantal was offered his Otter sponsorship for the race that year. He had run the Retto version of the Otter (the reverse route) the year before and come in with an incredible time of 6hrs28mins taking it “super chilled” and sailing through on light feet like he always did. How could she possibly decide in that moment when she is trying not break down with twins burying themselves back into her body for safety. Their whole world has been turned upside down.

 

An inkling of the strength Chantal is capable of is witnessed on that day by everyone present as she walks up to the podium in a flowing dress and beyond knowing manages to speak her love and testament to him. She reads it directly with her eyes on her children. She holds it together through entire hurricanes of emotion that threaten to spill out of her. Her strength alone has all the mourners weeping into their hands. One of his closest friends who gives a dedication before her doesn’t fare as well, it is all too much him.

 

Darkness descends as the initial days and weeks after the memorial pass and the reality and sheer horror of Wern’s loss barely touches sides. Chantal and the kids are blanketed away to Greyton with her family one weekend at the start of May to try to sleep and rest. She goes out into the mountains on her own where they always walked and ran together, even when the twins were toddlers. Sitting on a bench overlooking all their memories, finding him in the spider webs and the sunbirds he loved, she decides to do the Otter. She has just 5 months to train for a race that many people take two years preparing for. She has been a widow for less than a month.

 

Unlike Wern, Chantal is not an ultra-marathon runner. The most she has ever run was over a two day Trail Girl weekend held in Wilderness that March. She barely made it through the 19km first day of scorching humidity if it wasn’t for her fellow teammates all pulling each other on, almost all of them new to trail. Generally though, 10-13kms was what they had all run/walked as their “long runs”. The Otter was going to be a monumental push. How on earth was she going to do it? Not many believed she could, or perhaps even that she should. She was emotionally compromised, maybe not thinking straight in all her grief and holding onto her life by a thin thread for the sake of her children feeling that the floor had fallen out beneath her.

 

So how is she going to get to the finish line, or even to the start for that matter? Her rookie trail crew of midlife mothers puts together a programme of short runs during the week and long runs over the weekend. In all honesty, they have no idea what they are doing. It was towards the end of 2019 that Chantal and a few other friends decided to start up a “newbie” trail group, spurred on a great deal by Werner’s love for trail running. Seen as a hardcore sport for hardcore athletes, these newbies were in it for the fun, the scenery, the snacks and the photos. Hardly competitive material. We laughed and snacked more on mountains than we ran. That group would become ‘Forest Friends’ a start-up collective of runners that now has over 130 people on its whatsapp group of daily runs and over 200 people following on Instagram and growing. It turns out that there are many newbies out there who have been too intimidated to try trail. The pandemic became the tipping point as Capetonians especially sought hiking and running the mountains as a place of refuge in the worst of times.

 

Which is perhaps what Chantal has chosen too: to run in the absolute worst time of her life. Her body and mind feel like they have been hit by a bus, whatever running strength she had built up has almost been washed away by grief. She starts by walking and running parts of our Forest Friends ‘usual loop’ in Newlands Forest after she drops the kids off at school. It takes almost an hour and a half to do less than 7kms. She does it almost every second day in-between some strength training and walks with the kids in the forest.

 

June:

4 months to go and she has barely run further than 10kms. She needs to kick her training into gear. She has to step up the elevation and the distance if she has any hope of coming near being able to do the 42kms and 2600m of elevation in the one day event that is the beast of Otter. Her core trail crew, knowing almost nothing about trail marathons believe implicitly that she can do it. We never let her run alone.

 

On the 4rd of June she hits Nursery Ravine walking up to the top to watch the late winter sunrise and gets through around 550m of elevation in under 5kms. It is brutal but invigorating. She keeps running her usual weekday runs and strength classes. Two days after Nursery she does another 500m of elevation across a blisteringly windy Table Mountain overlooking Camps Bay. It is terrifying, she wants to give up. She doesn’t. She is running her usual Newlands loop, and above Kirstenbosch and hitting Nursery every Friday morning before work. One of the longest runs she does is 13kms which takes her to the top of Table Mountain passing “Camel Rock” and heading into 700m of elevation. But it’s going to take something major to start to break through her comfort zone of usual loops and short runs.

 

On the 19th June she tackles 19.46km from Constantia Nek to Vlakkenberg and up Blackburn and to the Mast and back with almost 1,300m of elevation. It takes over 5 hours and she and her crew are beyond broken, but elated. We drink champagne in the carpark to celebrate this huge milestone. It is her longest run on Strava. It is beyond what she ever thought she could do, or in all honesty even wanted to do. Half way through the run one of our crew falls and hits her cheek hard with immediate swelling and bruising – we decide that she should head back and not continue running. We don’t want to take any chances with a head injury. We are constantly reminded that one of us could be hurt at any stage on our runs: rolling ankles, cutting open cheekbones, tripping over rocks, hitting our heads on low branches, slipping and slamming our knees into wet boardwalks. We do all of this, but somehow keep going. Chantal chooses to keep going.

 

Two days after Vlakkenberg she is back to daily training during the week now followed by another huge milestone: her first 20kms on trail from Newlands Contour to Constantia Nek and back. She does it in record speed with less “picnic stops”, but the same number of photoshoots and snacks, just trying to keep moving.

 

July:

3 months to go and this month consists of Friday Nursery adventures, weekday short runs and longer runs of around 15-20km almost every weekend with 800- 1000m of elevation at a time. She is starting to feel confident, comfortable and strong. Disaster strikes, half our core crew get struck by covid. We are all beyond grateful that Chantal is spared.

 

August:

While she settles into her 20km groove she finds it hard to imagine that the Otter is over double what she is currently doing with nearly triple the elevation. Chantal needs help, we have no idea how to go up to bigger distances from here. On the 14th August she attends the Otter training camp held on Muratie wine estate organised through AlpasFit the coaching academy run by trail superstars Landie and Christiaan Greyling, both former Otter winners. Chantal is put through her paces doing simulated runs, getting race specific nutrition advice and sessions by the Greylings on the route, elevation and race strategy. It is an eye opening experience. Her strength training and weekly mileage has stood her in good stead: they predict she might be able to complete the Otter around the 9 hour mark. But she is going to have to up her mileage and elevation soon and crucially look at run nutrition. She walks out of the camp with the belief in herself that she can do it.

 

Part of the Greyling’s advice is that she should be getting good sleep. She is not. If her training outline for the past 3 months makes you think she is coping remarkably well in the early stages of grief, don’t be fooled by the smiles in Strava photos and continued record breaking. She is shattered from days pulling her life together for the sake of her kids, and from night’s where she drips in sweat with stress, worry and nightmares. Loss comes down to the simple things: Wern isn’t there to wake her up with a cup of coffee. They cannot sit on the stoep over a glass of wine at sunset as they did most nights. She can’t start and finish the day with him by her side. There are a million moments like this every day. It would have been Wern’s 40th birthday but he is not here to celebrate. Countless times she breaks down uncontrollably in her car parked in her driveway while the twins are inside the house playing. She doesn’t want them to see her cracking, sobbing and nearly screaming at how hard everything is. How is she going to get through this? She calms down and breathes deeply, trying to still her trembling body, so she can walk back into the house to be both parents. They miss their dad terribly every day, she must carry the weight of three people’s grief. She is so incredibly tired and sad, and devasted into the very bones that are getting her up mountains. She moves her coffee machine next to her bed. It is the best she can do. It shows how much she is willing to fight to keep on going.

 

Sleep remains elusive but she can control her nutrition. With an Honour’s degree in clinical psychology with a speciality in nutritional therapy, and being a health coach in healthy living and eating, Chantal has always eaten very clean, healthy food. The problem comes down to how to eat for long runs. She needs to wake up earlier to eat in order to have the energy to get through the later stages of a long run. Her alarm goes off before 6am and she throws down a coffee and with half closed eyes tries to eat as much as she can of an oat pot. Just before she starts a 26km route, she gags down a banana. Up the mountain she goes, throwing back electrolytes, protein, nut butters, and bars every hour for the first couple of hours. She feels strong and her pace is good. A third of the way in to the run the sun and heat start to blister through the winter clouds and her body stops wanting her to eat. She keeps throwing back water and electrolytes and shoving small pieces of food into her cheeks to slowly let it absorb, a trail tip she learnt from Landie Greyling. She finishes 26km with almost 1000m of elevation strong and with a moving time of less than 4 hours, breaking all her personal records for 15km and 20km time. Maybe she really can do this.

 

September:

Her first 30kms with 1213m of elevation! The conditions are freezing cold, raining and very wet. She gets lost on the mountain and does not want to run a step further. Not all runs are equal, this one is horrible. Maybe she can’t do this. Two days later she is back on the mountain with her weekly training.

 

One week after her first 30km she completes her longest training run of 34km with 1305m of elevation. It is another miserable Cape winter Sunday with the heavens pouring down with rain non-stop and a day that began before 6am to eat. She must be mad to do this to herself but doesn’t give it a second thought and throws back her oats and banana. Her pack is filled with food and electrolyte tablets and sachets. She crosses storming mountain waterwalls repeatedly that day, her crew is so wet there is nothing dry on them – soaked to the bone for almost 7 hours on the mountain. She has her first caracal sighting at around 25kms in – it feels like a good sign. A sign from Wern that she has got this and must keep going. Chantal often sees sunbirds on her run, Wern’s favourite bird, a sight they delighted in seeing on their runs together. She finishes the 34kms strong in the worst conditions, with members of her crew bursting into tears on the pavement at the end, overwhelmed at what they have managed to achieve. 

 

Chantal can finally and carefully taper now up to race day. Keeping up the weekly training but slowly going back down to 21kms, and 15km weekend runs. She is completely and utterly exhausted. She messages Landie who tells her to start to take it easy. There is almost nothing left in her tank after months of constant training and deep grief, keeping her kids’ lives running smoothly. She needs sleep and rest, two things in short supply. She awaits for mythical tapering to weave its magic – in the end she can only have faith in the process and everything she has put in. It might not be two years, or even one year, of preparation but she has given it her all and it has to be enough.

 

October:

The race is here and Wern has been gone for just 5 months. She drives with her children, family and an entourage of running supporters up to Nature’s Valley. It is hard to believe she has made it this far. In fact it is part miracle that she has arrived uninjured from her training and without having caught a cold or covid these last couple of months. Even elite runners have to pull out just before race day due to injury or illness. She completes a very hot and quite tough 3km prologue on the 6th of October. She has her gear checked and gets her start time. The compulsory gear is extensive. She has to come prepared for all levels of weather conditions including emergency food, space blanket and strapping. She must carry all food for her entire expected 9-10 hours on trail and will have to top up with water at hut points as it is not recommended to drink the water on the trail. She can also expect little race food to be left at the only “munchie point” at Oakhurst Hut situated 20kms into the race.

 

The emergency warnings are stringent for Otter, reading them would almost put anyone off participating: nothing short of snakes, serious injury, dehydration and possibly death. There is almost no cell reception on route. Unlike all her training runs for the last 4 months, Chantal will be running this race without any of her running crew. She has 11 hours to complete the course before a cut off time. Her friends and family must not expect to hear from her for most of that time. There are various compulsory cut off and exit points where she could be taken of the trail if she falls behind the safety schedule. In every sense, she will be completely on her own in the wilderness. She writes down the cut-off point times and places the day before the race, fearful she will have to fight the clock to finish.

 

The mental game starts to set in. She knows the Otter trail well, having hiked it 4 times in her adult life. Hiking it over 5 days is nothing like running it less than 11 hours. Day 3 is a really tough day in the hike: that will equate to halfway through her run. This is a gargantuan task.

 

7 October: Otter Challenge Race Day

 

She is awake at 4am to start the process of getting her coffee and oats down. She is driven by her dedicated running crew to Storms River for the start of the race. She watches the front runners go off, feeling nervous but excited and ready.

 

At 6:45am she sets off in a batch group of four other runners and immediately finds herself in spectacularly beautiful scenery. It is quite rocky and technical requiring her to scramble slowly across getting to the first hut Ngubu at 4.8kms and starts to eat her snacks after passing a spectacular waterfall.

Immediately afterwards some intense forest climbing begins up and down for about another 8kms. She feels safe and secure in the forest, very similar to deep in Newlands  Forest where she has spent much of her training time – it had really helped prepare her for this section. Never the less, the climbs are relentless.

 

She crosses through Scott hut and some beautiful rivers then the hill climbing starts to take a toll and time seems to be slowing down. She starts to worry about the cut off times she wrote down and panic starts to set in whether she is going to make it. She gets to the only munchie point at Oakhurst hut and it seems Wern is somehow there to meet her: a favourite song of his, ‘Bennie and the Jets’ by Elton John, is playing at the hut. She reboots herself and throws back another banana and nut butter sachet. She sends a voicenote to her brother so he can tell everyone where she is. She is now 20kms in and crosses another river just after Oakhurst. More climbing and her mind is now focussed on getting to the big Bloukrans crossing. She arrives there just before 2pm and unlike the front runners of the race who skip over ankle deep water, Chantal must swim neck deep in high tide with a swell. She pulls herself along a rope with a strong current trying to pull her back. This feels like everything she has been fighting for the last five months. She uses her upper body strength to pull herself across, heading straight onto a technical pebble beach.

 

Throwing back some easy to drink fruit and veg sachets, something has shifted when she passed the Bloukrans section she had been fearing for weeks. She ascends the next two climbs with increasing strength and arrives at the last hut on route. She continues to the final flat section of the route and is now able to jog at a strong steady pace, starting to pass people who are faltering and their bodies shaking.

 

Peace sets in with the flow of her body and her mind focuses on Wern and the finish line. She starts to think about what he would think about what she is doing and what he would want for her and the kids in life – how he would want them all to live life. She starts to think that it is possible, that she can find a way to move forward while always carrying him in her heart. She suddenly sees an orange breasted sunbird and tears fall with a release and bittersweet mix of sadness and joy that this is the journey she was meant to do for him. He has been with her all along. She is going to make it, she knows it now. She arrives at the top of an escarpment with the beach below, the exact spot Wern had taken a photo at the year before. She takes out his race number and a photo of their family she has been carefully carrying with her the whole way and asks someone to take a photo at this spot as testament to them and everything she has done. She sends it to her brother who shows it to Werner’s parents, it is a special moment for everyone to witness how she has honoured him.

 

She is now about 5kms from the end. She descends towards the beach at a strong pace; running in the soft sand is tricky but she sees friends along the way who shout and jump for her. It gives her the final boost she needs to do the last stretch up towards the Nature’s Valley rest camp towards the lagoon mouth. She feels stronger and stronger and passes people walking the last stretch. She knows everyone is waiting for her and she is still clutching Wern’s race number and her family photo. A route marshal rings a bell to say she is coming through and it feels like all the bells are ringing to heaven to announce she is here.

 

She arrives at the tricky floating bridge and hears everyone cheering for her on the other side. Landie Greyling is at the finish line waiting for Chantal to come in. She crosses the finish line at 9hrs54mins, well below the 11hour cut off, with utter joy to see her twins standing there waiting for her with her family and everyone else behind them. Eyes are streaming, everyone’s voices are cracking with emotion. She did it and finished so strong.

 

To everyone around her she is undeniably the winner of the Otter Challenge. What she has undertaken to get here is purely remarkable. She showed up for every hard kilometre these past 5 months with her leg muscles and heart screaming in agony at the mountains below, while carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Every single day she has chosen to get up and move through the pain, to still find and see joy and beauty in the world around her, and to try to put herself back together one tiny step at a time.

 

On the 17th April 2021 Werner Daniel’s heart stopped beating on the mountainside while he was running through Newlands Forest. The friend he was running with, who is a doctor and a team of paramedics tried for two hours without break to resuscitate him. His heart never beat again. Chantal runs through the devastation of that moment in all of her training runs, through the very place he passed away. She walks there with her children and family to place flowers at the peaceful bend in the trees.

 

While it may be true that this is the place where Werner died, it was the place he truly lived. Chantal holds onto that lesson he taught her, and knows she can always find him there in the moss, the cobwebs, the sunbirds he so loved. One would be tempted to think she is super human, but what she has done is perhaps the most human thing: to experience love and loss and to fight her way back by throwing her arms out into the wilderness. Of herself. Wern would be so incredibly proud. What a gift and legacy for their children. 

 


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