Tuesday, 15 July 2008

These women are mad. Mad, I tell you!

My friend C was back last week to compete in the +-240km Berg River Canoe Marathon. At 52 she was the oldest woman ever to attempt the race, and (natch!) she came in first in her class.

In my time I have been something of a sports lover. As a kid, I was on the school tennis, swimming and squash squads. I used to be a very keen runner and thought nothing of taking a 10km jog before breakfast. When my hips and knees gave out, I took to swimming and cycling (I've done The Cape Argus four times. Really!). When my lungs could no longer take the punch, I became a Pilates nut.

These days, the most exercise I do is walking The Wobbly Dog around the local school rugby field or along the beach.

So watching my friend C prepare for and then actually take part in The Berg was fabulously daunting.

The night she and her second, S, arrived at my home (which happens to be usefully near the Berg River), the weather was in its seventh day of sheer filth. We’d been practically washed away by constant, heavy rain; that evening we were battered by a spectacular hailstorm that came down like bullets on my tin roof and sent all the animals into frenzies. It was nastily, damply cold.

The next morning C was up at dawn’s crack, doing amazingly complicated things with equipment that looked more fitting for a hospital’s ICU – mainly bags and tubes – and cheerfully eating a banana and other fortifying things. Then she and S set off into what can only be described as a deluge. And this woman was going down to the river to paddle! And not just a bit, either – 62 kilometres!

All day, while it bucketed down and an icy wind blew, I thought about C on the river. And when she came in that evening, shivering and short-tempered because she’d got side-tracked in a section of river so swollen by rain that she literally couldn’t see the banks on either side, and so lost precious time, I wondered that she was even still alive.

That evening she brought with her another canoeist, Sam. After the two women had hung out their wet things to dry and warmed up (hot baths, soup, etc), Sam sat in the living room and, with a needle and (this is for real, and not for the faint-hearted), pricked open the dozens of blisters she had on her hands and daubed the wounds with an antiseptic. ‘How are you going to cope tomorrow?’ I asked, agog at what I was watching. She shrugged. ‘I’ll be okay,’ she said.

C had injured her shoulder during the day and was plagued by fits of pins and needles in her right hand throughout the night so didn’t sleep well – yet the next morning they were up again at some godawful hour, eating breakfast, doing the bags-and-tubes things, and setting out into the filthy dawn.

By that afternoon the rain had stopped… but in its place was an icy, biting cold that brought snow to all the surrounding mountains and a lazy wind (the kind that doesn’t bother to go around you but just goes straight through you). And those women were still on the river – paddling, on this day, 46 kilometres.

That evening, an exhausted C said to me, as she prepared her equipment for the morning, ‘I wish tomorrow were the last day.’ It wasn’t though, and worse: it was the longest, 75 kilometres. Again, she didn’t sleep well, waking in the early hours with pins and needles in her hand, worried about how it would affect her performance in the morning.

But she was up the next day, again at dawn’s crack, and off … but this time C and S didn’t come back to my place, carrying on instead to a guesthouse farther down the river. I thought about her all day, and she SMSd me that evening: ‘It was long, it was hard, it was tough… too long and too hard…’ (and here she made an off-colour reference to an acquaintance’s delicate parts, which I shall not repeat here on this family blog, but did prove that exhausted as she was, her sense of humour remained intact). Clearly, this canoe outing isn’t called a marathon for nothing.

It wasn’t until a day later that I saw C again, when she returned, triumphant, her medal slung around her neck, having paddled the last day of 57 kilometres in style and come in first in her class. She burst through the door and yelled, ‘The Berg River is in sy moer!’ (a charming Afrikaans expression that means, roughly, ‘it’s done’).

Later that evening, when we’d broken out the wine and toasted C resoundingly for her amazing achievement, I asked her, ‘So, will you be doing it again next year?’

She grinned and said, ‘Weeeeellll… if they beg me.’

Yup, these women are truly crazy.

This pic was taken a month ago, when C came to do the Swartberg Canoe Marathon, a 'training run' for the Berg. By the time the Berg itself rolled around, the rain had fallen so determinedly and for so long that the causeway on which my friends A and C (and another unknown person who wandered into frame from the right) were standing when this pic was taken was completely under fast-flowing water.

A note to Isuzu, the sponsors of the Berg River Canoe Marathon: C (and others) were horrified by the lack of support - no emergency personnel (in a savagely flooding river situation), no soup kitchens or seconding spots during the course of the day, precious little protection from the elements for the time keepers, no proper signage for the seconds, etc. Get your act together, guys! The paddlers spend time and money taking part in your race, the least you can do is make them feel welcome (and safe!).

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Muriel said...

Incidentally, C's second,
S, and I have decided that C's inability to be at the dinner table when food is being served requires deep therapy. But I suppose if you're prepared to paddle 240km along a flood-swollen river in the middle of icy winter, you can't be considered entirely normal.

meggie said...

OMG. this account makes me so totally & everlastingly grateful that the sporting gene missed me entirely.