Brett Simpson considers the grace and gifts that come with doing hard things.
Many people ask why I would even consider running a 100 mile trail race. In fact,
most don’t even pose it as a question, because the WHY behind something this big stays unspoken. But I do know the why.
I went through a phase in my 30s where I did 10 ultra races (ie, longer than 42km) in three years. It all started out as an exciting exploration of what my body was capable of doing, but
ended up being sugar for my ego and a block for facing certain truths about how I was living my life.
My brother (and closest mate) Dave, without intent or awareness, jokingly asked me after my eighth ultra what I was running away from. It stopped me dead in my tracks because he had
accidentally stepped right into a truth. I had ‘baggage’ I was deeply invested in carrying. After this bomb landed, I did two more races, then had my Forest Gump moment. One training run, I just stopped running. I found a therapist and decided to dedicate myself to doing some internal investigation. No more abusing my body because I couldn’t face something uncomfortable!
Fast forward seven years to 2021 when the worst of the pandemic restrictions had been lifted. I had a residual feeling of being trapped and a rising need to do something BIG to break that tension. I had my eyes on the 65km SkyRun and asked my mate Ryan Dix-Peek if he was keen to join me on my journey back into trail running. His response was: “Pal, if we are going to do something, we are going to find the biggest distance in the biggest mountains and do this thing properly. How about the Ultra Trail Drakensberg 100 miler?”
I took a month to agree. I needed time to figure out if I had a good enough WHY. In my work I support and guide people to initiate change for a more fulfilled and healthier life. One of the truths I know is that when someone makes a change physically, the mind and the emotions shift and adjust in very interesting ways. The body-mind connection is a pretty
amazing thing to experiment with!
In the end, I decided to do it in order to break the stories in my mind that keep my expectations of myself smaller than they should be. I wanted to live to my potential and not my fears. If I could do what I deemed near impossible with my body at UTD100, then what could I do in other aspects of my life. I had found a damn fine why!
Exhilaration and despair: In preparation for the race, Ryan and I read as many 100 miler experiences as we could find on the web. These testimonies both deeply intrigued us
and scared us silly. No matter whether they were from an elite or a first-timer, the stories followed a similar thread. There were moments that had you closer to god than you’d ever likely experienced, and others that were unfathomably, insanely hard. We found both extremes to be profoundly true – and so much more in-between than we ever could have imagined.
About 22km in, we ran a flat stretch along animal tracks towards our second checkpoint. The sun was on our faces but there were menacingly dark clouds ahead. It is these moments, where all memory of comfort and security are eclipsed and it’s just you (and a bunch of half-sane humans) about to experience whatever nature at her most raw decides to throw at you,
that are both terrifying and absolutely exhilarating. This is the gift and the challenge of UTD. This is the why.
At 75km, at 1am in the morning, I had to face not being able to finish what I had spent seven months training for. I hadn’t realised that my electrolytes contained caffeine – a rookie error
using something on race day that I hadn’t tested – which led to diarrhoea and the slow burn of a growing fever. It was at Sani Backpackers that it all caught up with me. I felt broken in body and spirit. I was cold, had no energy and was trying desperately to hide a shaking fever when I told the race doctor that I needed some medication. He instructed me to sleep for an hour and if I then felt okay, I could continue. If I didn’t, that was my race done!
I knew he was looking out for me, but my emotions couldn’t digest such a confronting reality check. I now realised that I might fail. No words can describe the despair of this moment, shivering on a floor surrounded by other sleeping runners who had decided to withdraw
or been pulled out of the race.
The physical, mental and emotional darkness of this low was beautifully contrasted by a moment (just four hours later) of absolute awe. It had taken all of my will to leave the comfort
of the backpackers. I was taking just one step at a time to get my mind and body back into the race. Then I watched the sun rise above the 12 Apostles, alone except for a male baboon roaring at me for passing through his land.
My hope rose in perfect harmony with the sunrise. Every step felt easier. I felt stronger and the isolation felt comforting – I could go at my own pace.
These juxtaposed moments of despair and exhilaration, along with the raw connection to nature, are why UTD is so magical and alluring. I could not have chosen a more appropriate canvas to explore my first dip into the 100 mile distance.
Gifts and growth: The gifts from completing this race far exceeded my expectations. As a selfconfessed personal growth addict, I struggled to make sense of all the mindset and emotional changes.
The greatest gift is the realisation of what feeds my life, my resolve, my inspiration, my courage, my perseverance, my determination, my adventuring spirit.
Ryan created a WhatsApp group the night before our run to keep our family and friends informed on our progress. When I finally got to my support crew after 24 hours and 100km, I was blown away by the number of people tracking us and the messages of support on the
group. As a result, the eight-hour stretch to the 144km mark was the easiest running that I did over the whole race. I was being loved and supported so damn hard that I felt my body actually surge with energy when I hugged my wife, Marissa at the support station. Ian, who
seconded me, ran those 44km with me, reading messages to me, feeding me, kicking my ass to move consistently but not push too hard. That support and the messages were tangible fuel to me – and they energised me far beyond anything I could have imagined.
At about 135km Ian read out two messages which penetrated my tenacious armour. To complete these races I lock into a level of determination that is very masculine and fiercely
single-minded. It’s stubborn, determined and somewhat aggressive. I believed that all the other emotions (happy, sad, fearful, hopeless) had no place in these sort of races. Well, that
was bullshit. After leaving my support team for the last time I cried for 3km.
This is where deep magic unravelled and the WHY behind this race locked into focus. I looked at my life with the clearest view of what I was grateful for, the tears of gratitude just poured down my face in an ugly and sacred cry. For 20 minutes I felt and saw the beauty in my life in a way that very few people will ever get to experience.
It took seven months of hard training, sacrifices and exhaustion, plus 144km of hard running and climbing for me to see and feel what I did in those 20 minutes. An experience that has changed the way I fundamentally view my life – from agnostic to deeply grateful.
The people in my life are the source of joy, of inspiration – and the only reason I have got this far, this well, and have a life this fulfilling.
I understand uBuntu experientially now, and everything I now look at is different because my belief in myself is not limited by who I am as an individual, but rather by who I am inextricably tied to within my circle of family, friends and beyond. My limits are far further into the distance because I know I am a part of a tribe.
Chasing hard things for the right reason is pure joy.