Written by Ryan Pike
Photo credit: Stuart Bellamy
A lively white-and-tan rescue mutt named Mila and a lifelong love of animals were the inspiration behind Ryan “Choppy” Pike’s incredible 207km run across one of South Africa’s most desolate regions, the Tankwa Karoo.
The Tankwa Crossing Ultra Marathon, which takes place in the peak of summer, is run from Calvinia to Ceres through incredibly harsh terrain. This single-stage race (running the entire course in one go) is an intense test of endurance, both mental and physical, and has a cut-off time of 50 hours. Those who take on the Tankwa Crossing will push themselves to the very limit.
Although he’d never tackled such a challenge before, Choppy was determined to take it on in order to raise funds and awareness for animals in need. Not only did he surpass his fundraising goal, he was the overall winner of this infamously gruelling race. This is his story…
Inspired to run
I grew up with many different cats and dogs around in the house and they’ve always been a huge part of my life. I feel like animals are capable of turning a house into a home; they’re furry best friends who are always excited to see you. That’s why I can’t stand the thought of animals suffering and not receiving the care they need. That’s why I’m doing this, for them. For the animals that can’t speak for themselves, I want to be their voice.
We adopted Mila from Helderberg Animal Welfare Society just before lockdown. She’s the most playful ball of curiosity I have ever loved. She was the reason I wanted to run for an animal clinic. Because the thought of a dog like her not being able to live a life fully was heartbreaking for me. After working on yachts for 15 months, I was heading home and needed a focus – and there’s no better way for me to stay focused than to have a physical goal to work towards. February will also be two years since I ran my first ultra-marathon in Feb 2021, with the same coach who’s prepping me for the Tankwa Crossing, Kyle Evans.
I wanted to support a small animal clinic in need of help, and my friend Jamie recommended
Mdzananda Animal Clinic. I knew from the first visit and conversation with Marcelle du Plessis that this was the animal clinic I’d love to get involved with.
The goal was to raise R100,000 with a specific aim of contributing towards a sorely-needed inverter so that the organisation could get off the grid to continue their work during SA’s increasing power cuts and protect pivotal equipment such as their x-ray machine from the associated power surges. I’d never raced before but was determined to succeed for them. (Watch the challenge’s promo video and see some of Mdzananda’s pooches here.)
Spanners in the works
After weeks of training, the days leading up to the race were the trickiest. Two weeks before the Tankwa Crossing, the Mindset Movement crew had a training camp in the Karoo to run on and get used to the conditions for the race. I ran 120km over that whole weekend, but when I returned home on the Monday, I had a severe pain in my left glute. I couldn’t run more than 10 metres without extreme pain shooting through me.
It was painful enough to get me to seriously reconsider whether I’d be able to run the Tankwa or not.
Luckily, I was able to get an appointment with James Geyer, myoskeletal therapist – two sessions with him, paired with not running for two weeks, and my glute was able to heal up to the point where I could run with no pain. I had my last session with him on the Monday before the race and he set my body right for me. I was ready to go.
It’s a five-hour drive into the Northern Cape to be at the start of the race, so the plan was to head up to Calvinia on Wednesday, the day before the race.
As with everything in life, especially ultra-running, the plan doesn’t always run smoothly. Come Tuesday, I was already having to slip punches. For safety reasons, you need more than one person following you in a car. At the last minute, two out of the three people who were going to second me for the race couldn’t make it, so Tuesday evening was a mad scramble to message mates and see who could come up on such short notice to spend the rest of their week driving behind me in a car on the Tankwa gravel road. Thankfully, my friend Stu was able to do it and was up for the challenge.
Raring to go
We finished packing and left at midday on Wednesday for Calvinia (Google taking us down a diverted gravel road to get to there). We finally pulled up to the hotel, got assigned our room and started unpacking and organising how we’d have the car set up for the race: two fridges and a cooler box filled with ice. I went for my final 4km shake-out run to make sure the legs weren’t totally asleep for the next day and then we went to bed.
Race briefing the next morning was something I’d never experienced before, including scouting the competition as they walk in to have their coffee and breakfast. Because I’d never raced before, my internal voice wasn’t reassuring me as to how fit I was; instead, it was scanning for every impressive detail in every other runner in the room and complimenting it. This is a brilliant strategy if you want to psych yourself out, but I guess nerves are a good thing in the end.
About an hour before the race was due to start, we got back to the car to finish packing, and that’s when we noticed we had a flat tyre. Tom immediately got on the job and used the pump to inflate the tyre before plugging the puncture. Unfortunately, the pump ended up short-circuiting the plug that we were going to use to keep the fridge cold. So now we had to troubleshoot the “no fridge” problem. Tom eventually spliced a plug fitting onto the fridge’s cable so that we would indeed have a fridge and some power. All that and the race hadn’t even started yet!
When the donkey brays
We made it to the start line with 11 minutes to spare. I hopped out of the car, jammed on my shoes and started the warm up. Hugging Stu and Tom (two of my best mates, and my support team; they drove behind for the entire race), I walked to the line-up at the start of the race next to the other competitors in the 100km, 163km and 207km races.
The race would start at 15h00 in the afternoon when we heard the donkey braying (over the speaker). Time stood still. Then, all of a sudden, that donkey started chatting and we were off on the course.
I noticed Jono, one of the 163km athletes, shoot off at about 6 minutes/km and remembered the chat we’d had earlier that day when he’d said his goal for the 163km was to run it in 24 hours. I still held back and ran just behind the leader at about 6:45 min/km for the first 4km of the race.
I’ve never raced an even against other competitors, and so my strategy was to sit just behind the leader and then gas him in the last 30km. However, after I ran past Kyle about 4km into the race he politely said: “What the heck are you doing? Stop hanging with everyone else and run your own race!”
Sure enough, I took his advice and started running.
One quarter down…
I took the lead in the 207km event around 5km into the race. At around 23km, I spotted Jono in the distance as I was gaining on him. At around 38km we started to play leap frog with the lead – he’d pull over every 5km for his break and I’d pass him, then I’d pull over for my break and he’d pass me. Around 40km into the race was when the sun started to set and I began to think of Lucy (my girlfriend) and how I was upset she couldn’t be in the desert with me.
Punting out the next 15km became a real slog with the headwind climbing to a consistent 45km/hour, gusting up to 65km/hour. I remember getting to the 52km marker and thinking: “This was supposed to be the ‘easy’ 52km part of the race?!”
I’d broken the race up into quarters, four 52km laps along a straight gravel road, because mentally that seemed more manageable than one straight hit of 207km. Leaving that aid station to start the next 52km was an incredibly tough break.
The pain cave
I pushed on into the relentless headwind and started to enter a proper “pain cave” at 60km. It was the usual signs: distended stomach struggling to digest food due to the digestive system getting little to no blood because my muscles are being prioritised to enable movement. It was frustrating hitting that pain cave – I felt I’d hit it too early on in my race. Negative thoughts ran through my head saying “you can’t do this”. The 50km/hour winds whizzing by my ears made it impossible to quiet the internal voice because of the external noise. My brain began hoping that I’d fail the medical assessment we had coming up at 75km. That would be the easy way out, to be told I wasn’t fit to run anymore but also not be responsible for not finishing. Amazing what excuses the brain can come up with…
At around 67km we stopped for a little break. It had been eight hours of running into that non-stop headwind at that point. Eight hours of hearing only water splashing around in my bottle and wind violently blasting past my ears. I had enough. I jumped into the driver’s seat to get out of the wind and started swearing at everything and anything that was in front of me.
The noise of the wind drove me crazy to the point where I wanted to claw my eyes out. That’s when I put my head phones in, without music, to try and block the wind from driving me mad. It helped, and shortly after I started running I felt a bit more sane and a bit more in control of the voices in my head.
Back on the trail
I quickly caught up to Jono and sat comfortably about 10 metres behind him. He glanced over his shoulder to see my headlamp and started to push the pace. I enjoyed that energy and we played cat-and-mouse for the next 8 or 9km, running harder than we would have been on our own. He’d pull away and I’d gain, then I’d gain and he’d pull away. It was a silent unspoken dance between us, but we both knew what we were doing and what parts we had to play in pushing each other.
We ran like this until the 75km point, expecting to find the medical tent, then 76km, and eventually we stopped at the 77km mark, both confused as to why there wasn’t a medical tent anywhere to be seen. It simply hadn’t arrived yet.
Jono and I decided we’d push on and not waste time waiting for the medical station to catch us. We also agreed to run and push each other until the halfway house at 107km. We set off and this time stayed on each other’s shoulders instead of playing cat-and-mouse.
After 4 or 5km, I noticed that he’d left my side for the first time – about a minute later I looked back to see him just behind me before he was back by my shoulder. About 10 minutes later he dropped off again and I thought it was to tie his shoe. I carried on running, expecting him to pop up any minute, but after about 10 minutes I decided to turn around and see where he was, but there was no sign of him.
A second wind and a slow grind
I caught a second wind shortly after noticing Jono wasn’t with me anymore. At roughly around 83km into the race, my body felt phenomenal. I just let rip and started jetting down the hill, occasionally looking over at my watch to see paces like 4:45/k and 4:30/k. I was having so much fun but knew that it wasn’t sustainable.
Sure enough, “the tax man came to collect” shortly afterwards; I started cramping massively in my quads and hip flexors. Fortunately, the car was close behind me and I could chow some Rennies and electrolytes to keep the cramps at bay.
The next 18 or so kilometres were a very slow grind into the height of the headwind. As we got closer to the halfway house, my momentum slackened until I was walking equally as long as I was running. I became increasingly frustrated as I couldn’t find the turn-off towards the halfway house with my head torch and the wind was still howling into my face. I grew more and more annoyed as the turn-off never seemed to arrive. Finally, I tried to run again and then stopped dead in my tracks while my right hip went into severe cramp. I turned and hobbled over to the Landy, opened the boot, crawled into the back and just broke down crying. The boys came over to hold space for me and let all the emotions drain. Finally, they gave me some words of encouragement and sent me on my way. It turned out the halfway house was just another 200m down the road.
From half way to hallucinations
Pulling into the halfway house, I saw Kyle and happily realised that I was the first runner besides the 200-mile competitors to get to the halfway mark. After a quick “re-fuel” of boerie (sausage) and mushrooms and my tummy was happy. I quickly got on the Wi-Fi to update everyone over Instagram on how far along I was in the race. I was sitting down gaining strength until eventually Kyle looked at me and quipped, “Are you waiting for Father Christmas?”
That was his way of telling me to get moving.
The next target after the 107km mark was 136km. I slogged back into the howling wind with two hours to go before sunrise and a desire to get as many kilometres out of the way before the hot Karoo sun popped over the horizon. It was a very slow grind, with equal parts of running and walking. I don’t remember much from that stretch, other than the hallucinations starting. I knew I had a pretty significant lead on the guy coming second in the 207km, but every time I slowed down to a walk or to have some water, I’d look behind me and see the guy running about 300–400 metres behind me. Seeing him would make me panic and I’d keep running instead of taking a much-needed break.
The only thing was: there was no one there. It was either sign posts or trees that I was seeing, but my exhausted mind convinced me it was the guy coming second in my race so I had to keep running. At the same time, the guy in front of me who was winning the 200-miler race thought that I was his competitor. So, he also lit the afterburners and tried his best to stay ahead of me.
Eventually Tom instructed me to have a power nap when we got to the 136km mark to help stave off the hallucinations. I gladly obliged and went down for a 10-minute nap, waking up feeling fresh and ready to get going. Fellow Mindset Movement members Henry and Maranda pulled up and gave some extra support before we headed off on the next leg of the race.
The push to the Padstal
I eventually caught Marius (the 200-miler winner) and we walked for a decent section together. He gave me tips on this being my race and how I needed to be smart and walk and just get my calories in. This was my race to win and the guy coming second was the one who had to hunt me down.
This was all good and well until my coach drove past me and demanded, “What are you doing? Run!” That put an end to the relaxing part of my race and got me to push myself until the Tankwa Padstal at 163km.
Those last 4km before the Tankwa Padstal’s flying saucer came into view were almost unbearable. A very slow walk and grind with walking poles. It must have taken me about 45 minutes just to do that last little section. But I came in and went straight to the medical tent for my assessment. The medic was such a lovely lady, telling me that all my vitals were solid and that I was in great shape for the race – definitely an uplifting thing to hear. Also getting a visit from Bob Bolus (who’d previously taken part in “Miles for Smiles” in support of Operation Smile South Africa) was a beautiful motivator.
I had a swim and ate as much food as I could muster. While in the pool I was able to assess what the previous 163km had done to my body. I peeled off my socks off to see three blue toenails, one bleeding a lot more than expected, and my left baby toe was 90% blister (which came off with the sock). All-in-all not a lot of damage considering I’d run through what felt like a hurricane without changing my socks, clothes or shoes. Tom cleverly recommended that I rub some anti-chafe cream together with Grand-Pa powder and apply that to my baby toe to numb it. To my surprise, within 30 minutes the pain of my socks rubbing on fresh skin subsided.
Some Mila motivation
Just before I left for the final 47km of the journey my parents pulled up with Mila and I got to give them a big hug and get some motivation from them for the last leg.
I ran the next 17km in a frustratingly inconsistent manner. I would run too hard for 6–7km and then burn out and have to walk a little. Then get the energy back up to run only to burn out all over again. I remember running up over a small rise in the road only to be greeted with the view of 10km of straight gravel road, and it absolutely broke me. Luckily, my coach was parked nearby and I walked over to him and dropped my head onto his shoulder to cry. He hugged me and reassured me that it would all be okay. Once I stopped shedding my tears I opened my eyes and saw he had his running shoes on. Shocked, I looked him in the eyes and he just said, “Let’s take it home, boy!”
He led the pace at around 6:30/km and kept telling me that “Slow is Pro” and that this is just two best mates going for a run through the Tanka. All I needed to focus on was putting one foot in front of the other, and that made all the difference.
We let the dogs trot along with us for a short section as well – it was so cute to have them join us for that little bit.
About 20km from the finish, friends Noodles and Jess arrived to come offer support, closely followed by my other close friends, Luda, Tats and Sib. Eventually I turned around to see seven cars following Kyle and me, all in support of the race and willing me to finish strong.
My body was feeling surprisingly good… until we started to climb, which felt like it went on forever.
The other part that got to my head was that my watch wasn’t telling the correct distances. At 205km on the watch I thought that I was in the money and proceeded to push the pace, thinking that the finish was only two kilometres away. Burning everything I had and more I kept going, staying on my coach’s tail as he set the pace.
Eventually I looked down at my watch and, although it said 207.5km, there was no finish line in sight. That’s when the wheels came off.
Mentally, that broke me. To push so hard and get to (what I thought was) the 207km mark without it being the actual finish line was tough. I had to stop and lie on the ground to stretch and have some sugar, calories and a pep talk from coach. Finally, I managed to picked myself up off the floor – I was going to finish this race. By this stage my right hip flexor had completely given up on me. I was reduced to trying to swing my right leg instead of driving it in a straight path in what would be called a natural running style, making me look rather like a penguin. But I kept going.
All’s well that ends well
Eventually, I crossed the finish line with Mila, Tom and Stu. I thought I’d be more emotional, but my body was done with any form of processing. It was incredible to have everyone there at the finish line and I was so grateful for all their support. A quick few hugs and kisses and we decided to head to our accommodation for the evening in Ceres.
That 35-minute drive was just enough for my body to come back to myself and start to realise what I’d done… and it wasn’t happy. We arrived at the guesthouse and I had to head for the bushes to throw up. My body started shaking violently with cold and then burning hot. Apparently this meant that my body was going through shock.
It’s an uncomfortable position to be in with your body being so unhappy and acting out. But, at the same time, I’ve never been more proud of myself – seeing my body react like that was a bona fide show of pushing myself beyond my limits. There was so much happiness in that suffering.
Choppy not only finished the race, he surpassed his initial goal, managing to raise R103,250 for Mdzananda Animal Clinic.
A team effort
There are so many people to thank as this was a proper team effort. I need to say a massive thank you to my sister, Xandi Pike, as she took it upon herself in the final weeks leading up to the race to promote the BackaBuddy campaign, which allowed me to focus solely on winning the race.