Sometimes I wonder if Chris is trying to kill me. Every Tuesday I’ll do intervals on the assault bike, and on Thursdays I’ll spend time on the rowing machine, and in between those gym sessions I’ll run 10km on the roads around my house, dark and cold and early. And all the time I’ll be sweating and suffering and half ready to die, and he’ll say, welcome to the pain cave.

But it’s the weekends that hurt the most. For the past few weeks I’ve spent my Saturdays mornings going as fast as I can, then slow, then fast again. These are called tempo runs, where you alternate your splits to condition the body to bursts of pace. And every Sunday since what seems like forever, I’ve been running up mountains, covering 10 or 15km a time through rivers and rocks and a lot of mud.

My feet are a regular mess of cuts, scrapes, blisters and plasters. I get two off days a week, and they are like gold; I get to sleep an hour later in the morning and watch a movie in the evening, and I still have to wear two pairs of socks just so my toes don’t hurt when I walk.

On Saturday I ran along the promenade in Sea Point. On my hand I’d written the split times I was aiming for: 5min/km, 4.15, 4.15, 5.30 and 4.15. One slow, two quick, one super slow and one quick again. Two kilometres in I realised I had my GPS tracking watch set to average pace, not real time, so it was way out of sync, and so were my legs, and so was my speed, and I almost bust a lung.

And on Sunday I ran 15km up a hill in Stellenbosch, on a wine farm called Warwick. The race was organised by Dirtopia, and it was called the Wine Adventure, and it consisted of everything from narrow single tracks, tight steep corners and long, ascending gravel tracks that stretched all the way to the horizon. The website predicted 450m of elevation and it felt like four thousand.

For two days I lived in the pain cave. By the end I’d stopped wondering and felt pretty certain: Chris was trying to kill me.

The Spur Winter Trail Series starts in two weeks. Four races in four weekends, in Grabouw, and Elgin, and Paarl and the Kogelberg. I’ll be doing the long course championship, which means nothing under 12km, and that last one is a brutal 24. Early mountain mornings, during the coldest time of the year, and you only get a medal if you run all of them.

Those four mountains, if you’re not ready for them, will kill you. The website promises a lot of technical terrain, or busy trail, like a rocky hiking path or 4×4 route, and sIngle track, or game trail, which is as narrow as it sounds, just wide enough for one runner at a time. And then there’s off-trail: trail runner’s code for where the fuck am I?

Horrible climbs, vicious descents. Mud, and rocks, in zero degrees, the thinnest air, the dark. All alone. This is the pain cave: when you can’t feel your legs and you don’t know where you are and there isn’t, anywhere around you, any way out.

This is why Chris has me on the assault bike each week: to rev my heart rate, right through the roof, and hold it there until it feels like my wheels are spinning off. This is why he has me rowing so hard every Thursday, to teach my lungs to work when it feels like there’s no air in the world. And this is why I’m doing a lot of tempo runs, to get faster, and stronger, and better, while putting my body under the stress of feeling like I can’t carry on, can’t breathe, can’t move.

My main goal of this year’s Men’s Health Staff Challenge: to survive. To go up those four mountains and come down again in one piece I’m going to have to get used to living in the pain cave. Because if Chris can’t kill me, those mountains won’t either.

Race Fit is an endurance-sports performance focused gym in Claremont, Cape Town. Chris Lippstreu, with a master’s in Sports Science, aims to to improve performance through strength training with the use of kettle bells, Olympic lifting and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Find out more at www.race-fit.co.za

Dirtopia is an outdoor, off-road event and trail construction company. Their HQ is based at Dirtopia Trail Centre on Delvera farm, 10km from Stellenbosch. Dirtopia’s main focus is mountain bike events, though they also organise fun trail races and hiking events. Find out more atdirtopia.co.za

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