Chronicles of life’s marathons, relying on grit and camaraderie
‘These runs did more than just challenge our stamina; they nourished our spirits, reinforced our bond, and created unforgettable memories,’ explains Sulette Ferreira, as she reflects on gruelling trail running marathons with her son.
In the world of trail running, certain rituals hold a sacred significance known only to those who lace up and hit the dirt roads. Among these, we’ve always cherished one in particular: wearing the official race T-shirt is reserved for after the race. It’s more than just wearing something new or adhering to superstition. Wearing the shirt to the starting line shows that you believe you already have the race wrapped up, but all runners eventually learn that sometimes race day just isn’t your day.
As my son and I approached our fourth Otter African Trail Run, I felt that we needed a tangible reminder of the race’s importance in our lives. I decided to design a T-shirt to capture our experience of our Otter and other running challenges, and the valuable lessons we had learnt.
Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard aptly observed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
As I contemplated this, designing a T-shirt for our upcoming fourth Otter trail run became more than just a creative endeavour. It wouldn’t simply be apparel; it would be a silent testament to running events we have experienced, portraying the grit, memories and camaraderie we’d built together throughout our runs, signifying that we have successfully participated and completed.
Inspiration to perspiration
Seven years ago, my son and I were having a glass of red wine and musing about a challenge that would test our physical limits. The answer was not difficult: we could attempt a marathon. We decided to take on the Otter African Trail marathon. Of course, I was overjoyed that my son had chosen me as his running partner. More than companionship, his decision was a testament to our shared commitment.
But while the answer might have been simple, the journey was anything but. Little did I know what lessons we would share along the way.
The T-shirt had to mirror our commitment: black with yellow writing, the official colours of the Otter Trail race. No ordinary marathon, the Otter African Trail Run is renowned as one of Africa’s most gruelling trail challenges, drawing runners from across the world. A distance of 42km with four river crossings, including the treacherous swim across the Bloukrans River, an ascent of more than 2,400m, and 11 significant climbs, has earned the Otter the title “Grail of Trail”.
Runners can choose between the Otter Race, with an extreme cut-off time of nin11e hours, or the Otter Challenge, at a slightly longer eleven hours, but of course, hardly a walk in the park! Being enthusiasts rather than pro athletes, we opted for the Otter Challenge.
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Our first Otter was unlike anything I have ever done. It felt as if I were running on top of the world, looking down at the sea far beneath us. The environment was breathtaking. Although the race was both mentally and physically challenging, we finished in time, and we were hooked.
Ohana, philosophy of unity
The logo that I designed for the T-shirt has a deep symbolic meaning: It depicts two athletes, with the front athlete glancing back to ensure the other is keeping up. This action of looking back, epitomises the unspoken bond between them. The image embodies the Hawaiian philosophy of ohana – a concept where family isn’t just about blood ties but about shared experiences and mutual respect.
Each marathon and race we’ve run holds cherished memories. Yet, a singular, poignant image stands out to me: my son, regardless of our competitive pace, never fails to cast a reassuring glance backward. This gesture, transcending mere sportive camaraderie, evokes a philosophy deeper than the race itself. It’s not just about crossing the finish line; it’s about ensuring that we both do, side by side. The message is clear: real triumphs aren’t just in individual accolades but in shared experiences and the connections fostered en route.
Drawing inspiration from the spirit of ohana, one realises that the essence of family isn’t limited to genealogy. It’s moulded from shared moments, mutual respect and the experiences that connect us. On the Otter trail, each participant, through shared sweat and determination, becomes a part of this extended ohana.
As my son embarks on the threshold of his thirties, I witness an evolution – not just as an athlete, but as a person shaped by experiences and time. The marathons, particularly our Otter trail runs, were more than mere athletic endeavours. They served as metaphoric journeys, mirroring the unpredictable terrain of life itself. I realise that these races were foundational experiences offering lessons and metaphors for confronting life’s challenges.
Our Otter trail runs weren’t just tests of endurance. They were emblematic of the ripple effects our decisions can have. What began as a straightforward decision to participate in a marathon evolved into shared adventures replete with trials, tribulations and moments of joy. These runs did more than just challenge our stamina; they nourished our spirits, reinforced our bond, and created unforgettable memories.
Our initial decision to run the Otter had seemed so simple, but it cascaded into a series of events that tested our resilience, determination and camaraderie. With every uphill battle and every twist in the trail, we learnt that it’s not the big moments – like crossing the finish line – but the small, consistent choices that we make along the way that shape our lives.
One such decision stands out. This year, during our fourth and maybe final time running the Otter trail, my hope of crossing the finish line was unexpectedly dashed.
Four kilometres into the race, as I jumped off a rock face, I heard a sound like a twig breaking. I tried to walk, but my foot refused to cooperate. I fractured my ankle. The immediate consequence was clear – my race had come to a premature end.
The weight of this moment wasn’t solely on my shoulders, though. My son was met with a dilemma: to race forward, fuelled by months of training, or halt, in light of my misfortune. He chose to stop. This choice embodied the ultramarathon runner David Goggins’s philosophy: sometimes, the hardest choices demand the greatest maturity.
A wave of disappointment washed over me when I realised that I wouldn’t be able to finish this race – this challenge that had come to mean so much to us. Yet, this unexpected pause also gave me a chance to introspect and reminisce about our shared milestones. I was reminded of Goggins’s poignant words, “Our true character isn’t shaped in moments of ease, but rather during adversities.”
Over the years, our trail runs had evolved into more than just races; they became narratives of our intertwined journey. And this is the thing, running is never just about finishing a race – it is about the journey, the choices we make along the way and the growth they signify. DM