Many people have climbed Cape Town's iconic landmark but there's probably only one who can lay claim to having summited it more than 20 times in two days. That's the equivalent of almost twice the height of Everest.
Endurance athlete Jamie Marais explains how he pushed himself to pull off this amazing feat in 2016.
It’s a crisp morning in Cape Town and there’s a freshness in the air after the recent cold front. The golden sun rises warmly into the clear blue sky, it’s radiant heat warm on my face, as the smell of fynbos fills the air.
I’m standing on Signal Hill road, looking across at Table Mountain. I’ve looked at this mountain every day for more than twenty years, and more recently throughout my training and preparation, it’s foreboding presence always silently defiant as the backdrop to my daily training on the smaller Lions Head. But now the giant has taken on a whole new persona. It seems bigger, taller and more menacing than ever before.
The gladiator giant is taunting me, mocking and laughing at this human who thinks he can scale its heights 24 times in 24 hours. “What makes you so special? No one else has ever attempted this before. You’re doomed to fail. You have already failed. You will make a fool of yourself and the whole city will laugh at you.”
The dark mist of doubt swirls around me like a Great White shark circling a seal. I’m fighting hard to resist but it’s a powerful force that wants to penetrate the hard outer shell of my confidence and self-belief.
“I can do this. I will do this. I can do this... I can... I can...”
Only days earlier I had been diagnosed with a labral tear in my right hip socket. This was brought about from running up and down Lions Head so much and the impact on my joints eventually took its toll. I had been to a string of professionals for medical advice including our family doctor, two Physiotherapists, the Sports Science Institute, and finally Dr Hennie Bosch, a highly regarded surgeon specialising in hip replacements.
Dr Bosch had examined me and looked at the results of my MRI scan. Confirming that there was a labral tear, he also confirmed that as long as the pain was bearable, I should be fine to attempt the record attempt. Since I would be descending in the cable car after every summit, there would be less pressure on my hip and a chance for my physio and massage therapist to release the tension in my ITB on the way down before attempting the next summit.
The next morning at 05:15 am, I arrived at the designated meeting point at the parking area below Platteklip Gorge. Shane Powell, my long-time friend who had volunteered to be part of my support crew, offered his hand in a sincere and empathetic handshake, a silent gesture that said a thousand words and conveyed his own awareness of my nervousness in anticipation of the task ahead of me.
I handed him a permanent marker and asked him to write the passage of scripture I had read earlier on the inside of my forearm. On the other arm he wrote “I can, I will.”
Parked a few metres away, were the Paramedics from ER24. I greeted each of my support crew, briefed the paramedics on what SANParks required in terms of checking my vitals after each summit and then focused my attention on putting on my running shoes, the final piece of armour needed for the brutal day ahead of me.
I gathered everyone in a circle and prayed for the safety of every person on my support crew. “God, I want to pray for the safety of every single one of these people today.”
“Jamie, we need to move, time is ticking”, shouted Patrick Cromwell [from Awesome South Africans, who was covering Jamie's record attempt]. “Three minutes to go. No pressure.”
I set my Suunto watch to trail running mode, jumped around a few times to try and warm up my legs and placed my finger on the watch, ready to push the start button.
“Five, four, three, two, one, GO JAMIE!”, they all shouted in unison. A loud beep from my watch served as the starting gun and confirmed that the challenge was finally underway.
I launched myself up the large step-like boulders and began the steep climb of Platteklip Gorge, totally alone with the mountain, not a soul in sight, the rocks and pre-dawn singing of the waking birds my only company.
I climbed hard and fast, pushing all the way up to the summit in 36 minutes flat. I ran across the top of Table Mountain to the waiting cable car and clambered in, breathing hard. “One down.” I said.
My legs were swollen with blood and I was overheating from the effort. After the five-minute shuttle back to the base of the mountain, I jumped into the waiting car and we sped away back to Platteklip Gorge to commence my second summit.
I felt really good on my first three summits, and before I knew it, I had done five summits. This was an important marker for me to reach as it was the achievement of what the doubting coach had told me to go and do before attempting 24 summits. I felt great, and ready to smash the next five summits.
Arriving at the top of summit number five, I noticed a dull ache in my right hip, a deep ache and a definite sensation of warmth in the hip area. It was starting. My biggest fear was that the ITB pain l had been struggling with for the last month or two would return.
ITB pain is excruciating and crippling to say the least. The intensity of the pain literally reduces you to a limping walk, and running hard and fast, is just not physically possible. After descending and commencing summit number six, I arrived back at the top to face my nemesis, the short but flat run across the top of Table Mountain to the cable car.
Strangely enough, the pain in my leg was more manageable when I was climbing, and it was only when I reached the flat part of the mountain at the top that the pain really became unbearable. As I reached the cable station after summit number six, I remembered seeing my wife, who had just arrived and limping down the final few steps over towards the entrance to the cable way. My hip and entire right side of my leg was hurting badly, and I was really worried about how long I would still be able to continue with that pain.
“Babes, phone Caitlin and tell her I’m taking strain. Phone Reinhardas well and tell him we need him here."
Caitlin was my massage therapist and Reinhard my physio. Both of them knew my muscles, aches and ailments well and I had briefed them to be on standby for me.
Caitlin arrived soon afterwards, and immediately went to work on releasing the muscles in my leg and hip in the cable car on the descent of summit number seven. The next few summits were really tough, and it was a case of climbing up as hard as I could and then having Caitlin work on me on the way down.
Reinhard was only able to join me the following day, but Caitlin did a great job of keeping the muscles supple and releasing the tightness in my ITB and hip flexors. After twelve hours I had completed eleven summits and was just commencing my twelfth as the sun was setting.
Ruan Brits, a longtime family friend and trail runner accompanied my up both eleven and twelve and was welcome company. I arrived back at the cable way about 45 minutes later, absolutely exhausted.
Climbing Table Mountain twelve times in one day with no injuries is tough but doing so with a torn membrane in your hip socket and all the resulting tightness elsewhere in the body, is just brutal. I remember just lying on the ground with a large circle of support crew, friends and family surrounding me, initially clapping and cheering but then becoming concernedly silent as I lay sprawled on the ground, wondering how on the face of the planet I was going to put myself through another fourteen hours of climbing Table Mountain over and over again.
My cousin Paul came over and helped me to my feet and supported my limp body with his powerful arms. I could hardly walk. My hip had totally seized up and my ITB was basically frozen. Each time I took a step, it felt as though someone was jamming a blunt, rusty screwdriver into the side of my knee and twisting it around.
As per my permission from SANParks, I was not allowed to continue running through the night and respectfully went home to try and get some sleep and recovery in for the massive day ahead. Doing another ten or more summits on tired, fatigued legs full of lactic acid and a chronic injury in my hip socket, was going to be a serious challenge.
Caitlin arrived to give me a recovery massage and I managed to fall asleep and get in a couple of hours of sleep.
I awoke the next morning at four am. As I stood up, my legs caved in under me. I could literally hardly walk. How on earth was I going to climb Table Mountain another twelve times on such painful legs? I limped through to the kitchen, and once again forced myself to eat.
Patrick arrived at five am to fetch me. He insisted on driving me through. We drove through in silence, respectful of the task ahead.
“Today you face your giant Jamie,” he said. “You can do this.”
We arrived back at the starting point at the base of Platteklip Gorge, the white, orange, blue and red city lights of Cape Town sparkling in the early morning pre-dawn below. The team counted me down once again and off I went into the darkness of the waiting climb, once again alone on the mountain with only my fears and doubts for company.
The first summit was agony. I remember climbing the first few metres, disappearing into the darkness and then bending over just fifty meters up the climb, sweating and breathing heavily with tears of frustration and emotional fatigue streaming down my face, asking myself what the hell I was doing. I could still hear the cheers and hooting of the team only metres below me, but here I was, seizing up just metres into the climb.
My body was in a state of absolute fatigue and was in no condition to drag it up a mountain again. I slowly managed to get going again and nursed myself to the top. Summit number thirteen done. Descending in the cable car, I climbed into the Toyota Hilux vehicle again and was driven across by one of the team. Halfway up summit number fourteen, my body started giving in.
I gave it everything I had and eventually made it to the summit. Down again. Back to the bottom. Across to Platteklip Gorge. Less than halfway up summit number fourteen, the lights started going out for me. I started becoming dizzy and disorientated, and lost the will to fight.
I paused for long moments, staring up at the seemingly insurmountable heights above me and the many hundreds of oversized rocky stepping stones that needed to be climbed before reaching the summit again.
“I can do this; I will do this. I can do this; I will do this.”
All I could find the will power to do, was to put one foot in front of the next. I took small steps, focusing only on the next single step. One step at a time, I eventually made it to the summit and slowly jogged across the top of the mountain once again to the waiting cable car. It was then that I realised a simple yet profound truth - it’s the little steps that get you to the top. It really doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you just keep moving.
I descended in silence, Reinhard Bester my physio working on my hip and right leg, Nigel with his hands on my legs and praying for me, and cousin Paul massaging my calves, shoulders and back which were in agony from climbing in a hunched over position with my hands on the top of my knees. I stepped out the cable car and walked down the stairs on shaky legs, my legs wobbling with each step as I tenderly made my way to the base camp.
After a quick stretch, some physio from Reinhard, and some food from Tony Lubner (he specially drove to a restaurant to find bacon for me which l was craving), I prepared myself mentally to push myself to carry on.
As I started summit number fifteen, I pushed through my desire to quit and past the invisible barrier of the unknown. No one had ever done fifteen summits of Table Mountain, and here I was doing it with just a torn hip to keep me company. Reaching the summit of number fifteen, my total elapsed time was seventeen hours and 35 minutes.
Back at base camp, a group of influential people were gathered and waiting for my arrival including Alderman Eddie Andrews the deputy Mayor of Cape Town, Saskia Marlowe head of events and hospitality for SANParks, Deon Huysamer from Francois Pienaar’s MAD Foundation, Mike Williams and Collette Van Aswegan from TMAC as well as additional staff from Sabrina Love Foundation.
Extreme adventurer and wildlife conservationist Braam Malherbe also came up to support me, which really meant a lot.
After every summit, Reinhard my physio would stretch me out on the floor on a mat and even did some dry needling in my shin muscles. Ultra-trail running specialist Chantel Nienaber, also a Sabrina Ambassador, arrived as I was about to commence summit number seventeen.
Chantel is a super positive and extremely enthusiastic person and has a huge heart and kind soul. Her enthusiastic approach and positive energy were exactly what I needed at that point in the challenge, and she set to work in pumping up my deflated energy levels with encouraging words that reminded me of how far I had come and how close I was getting to summit number twenty. Twenty times up Table Mountain.
“Jamie, that’s absolutely crazy! You’re doing this man!
”Chantel accompanied me for moral and nutritional support as I commenced summit number seventeen. About ten minutes up the first part of the climb, I heard footsteps behind me. “Hey hey hey, what’s all this talking...” It was AJ Calitz, one of the toughest trail runners in South Africa who had represented the country at the World Champs and won every trail running race worth mentioning in the country.
AJ was the undisputed champion of the RedBull Lion Heart race up Lions Head and also held the record for the most summits of Table Mountain in twelve hours, achieving fourteen and a half summits from sunrise to sunset. He decided to do a summit with me as part of his training run and quickly set to pacing me and showing me the fastest lines up.
Amazingly, summit number seventeen was my fastest summit of all 22 I would eventually end up making.
The next two summits were a blur and before I knew it, I had reached summit number twenty.
I was limping badly, and my back, right hip and entire right side of my leg were in excruciating pain. In addition to this, the left side of my body, which had been compensating for the injury on the opposite side, was now also starting to give in and my ankle was starting to lock and seize.
The TMAC staff had held the cable car for me each time as I was approaching. Arriving into a jam-packed cable car after completing summit number twenty, the entire crowd inside erupted into applause and cheering as the operator announced what I had done. This was incredibly encouraging for me and gave me the energy I needed and the will to go on to summit number twenty.
Dozens of friends, family and colleagues were arriving as news of what I was doing was spreading on social media.“Jamie, someone who heard about what you are doing just made a huge donation to Sabrina Love Foundation”, said one of the Sabrina team. I was elated. So it wasn’t all in vain.
And here I was, about to start summit number 22, my final summit for the challenge. I had chosen to respect and honor the strict conditions set out for my record attempt by SANParks and so had to commence my final ascent no later than sunset set in accordance with the regulations.
I was whisked away amidst a loud cheer from the support crew to start my final summit. I had Blake Dyson and another runner with me to guide me up in the fading light, and to stabilize me as I staggered around on wobbly legs.
On the final summit, the wind really started blowing and it was freezing higher up on the mountain. I eventually made it to the summit for the last time and ran the final kilometre over the top of Table Mountain to where my support crew, friends and family were patiently waiting, braving the cold wind and cheering me as I approached.
I ran down the final few steps to the upper cable station and the crew went crazy, clapping, patting me on the back and shouting congratulations. Twenty-two summits in 28 hours with more than sixteen thousand vertical meters of ascent over two crazy days.
Although my initial goal was 24 summits, I was ecstatic at what I had accomplished, given the challenging circumstances and injury I had been nursing for 28 hours.
We made the final trip back down in the cable car and Patrick rounded everyone up and shared a couple of words. “We’ve just witnessed history folks. No one else has ever done this.”
My experience of climbing Table Mountain 22 times in 28 hours over two days, completely transformed my life. I was a different person to who I was before doing the attempt. I learnt some incredible truths and had moments of deep understanding, realisation and self-actualisation during some of my darkest moments on the mountain. I had a new outlook on life and realised that nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself.
I learnt that the only limits in life we face are the limits we place on ourselves. I realised that you don’t need people to believe in you in order to succeed, and all that matters, is that you believe in yourself and that this in itself will attract the right people across your path who will support you in what you are attempting.
I learnt that it’s the little steps that get you to the top, and that there are many moving parts in a machine. I also learnt that life is full of doubters, so you need to surround yourself with people who believe in your dream.
I learnt the importance of going where you are celebrated and not tolerated, and to never offer an apology for the person you are and the things that make you come alive.
I learnt that overcoming pain and resisting the urge to quit, is the secret to accessing superhuman strength, and I found consolation in a tiny purple flower hidden among the bushes after 22 hours of dragging myself up the mountain.
I learnt to sense an almost undetectable coolness in the air during the hottest part of the day, and I observed that superhuman strength only kicks in when you reach the end of yourself. There are often dark tunnels of physical exhaustion and mental fatigue you have to push through to get to the other side and break through into the realm of superhuman strength.
I learnt that unity is more important than being right and that nothing is impossible for a team of like-minded people who are gathered around a common goal.
The most important lesson I learnt during this world record attempt is that no giant is too big to face.
This is an extract from Determination by Jamie Marais, R299, available at book stores or from Jamie's website.