MARK ETHERIDGE: The good doctor bit by the ultramarathon bug
Anaesthetist Chris Ngaka ran 6km a day to school, now he runs 160km races
In his day job as an anaesthetist in Cape Town, Dr Chris Ngaka quite literally has the power of life and death at his fingertips.
Away from the operating theatre, though, and it was the power of heart and soul (and legs) that helped him hot-foot it onto the podium for third place at the RMB Ultra Trail Cape Town (UTCT) endurance event last weekend.
Turning 41 in the first month of 2024, Ngaka was born in the little village of Mount Fletcher in the far and mountainous reaches of the Eastern Cape. Perhaps the name of his home village was a sign to the sport he would gravitate towards?
“I spent most of my childhood with my gran and called her mom, because by necessity my mom and dad worked far away from home.”
As is the case with so many of the continent’s elite runners, from north to south, he ran to and from school. “It was 6km each direction every day. I also did a bit of running at school, although the predominant sport was obviously soccer. If you weren’t good enough for soccer, you ran,” he laughs.
Well, his running was clearly superior to your average athlete as he has now completed 13-15 ultras, ranging from 50km to 160km.
Surprisingly, none of those events was on the road. “The closest I’ve come to road running was my debut marathon, the Knysna Forest Marathon.”
All of this while devotedly supported by “my lovely wife Portia and our two kids, Trinity (16) and Will (12). Having them support me at the aid stations and finish off races has given me some of my most special moments.”
However, ultra running is my best form of disengagement where I am responsible just for me. I take responsibility for every decision I make and the impact of that decision is on me. I guess you could call it an escape.”
The ultramarathon bug bit him through a friend, Wim Esterhuizen. “He had an idea that we should do the 100km Sky Run in the Drakensberg and we’d do a few runs, a marathon and that would be that.
“But running the Knysna Marathon was, at the time, the hardest thing I’d done. So as Sky Run got closer we realised we weren’t ready for the 100km so downgraded to the 62km … but I still felt I wanted more.”
And more there was. He has since done the UTCT 100km version twice, the UT (Ultra Trail) Drakensberg twice and the UTCT 100 miler twice. “Last year I finished fifth male, which was quite exciting, and this year I was third.”
The hardest thing he’s ever done took him to another continent in September 2023 when he took on the UT Mont Blanc in Europe, running through France, Italy and Switzerland. “That was 171km with 10,000m gained elevation.”
So this year’s UTCT 100-miler wasn’t actually on his schedule. “I really couldn’t face another 100-miler but then I thought: what the hell, it’s on my doorstep, and away we went.”
His battle plan for most ultras is to break them up into two halves.
“At this year’s UTCT I felt good throughout the night. Coming up from Hout Bay side into Silvermine was mentally very challenging, but my darkest moment was going from Noordhoek to Chapman’s Peak — it was exposed, hot and steep and I took strain physically, a real case of two steps forward, and one back.”
But that’s where his experience kicked in. “I just kept grinding and I’ve done enough ultras to know it won’t last forever, the solution is to keep moving, take enough nutrition and suddenly that switch just flips… and that’s what happened on this occasion.”
In Ngaka’s case working and running go hand in hand. “To a certain extent, ultra running has similarities to my job. There is a huge intellectual aspect to it. You have to plan and plan more. Plan A alone will not get you to the finish line. There has to be plan B to Z.
“However, ultra running is my best form of disengagement where I am responsible just for me. I take responsibility for every decision I make and the impact of that decision is on me. I guess you could call it an escape.”
Talking of responsibility, Table Mountain has been rocked by a spate of muggings and the UTCT was not left unscathed — once just before the race when a top international runner was mugged, and there was the audacious robbing of three runners during the actual race.
But Ngaka says he’s dodged the bullet so far.
“Personally, I’ve not even once felt threatened while out on a training run or racing. I’m not oblivious of the challenges with crime on Table Mountain and I’m not careless. I’m aware of the hot spots and I try to avoid those, especially if I’m running alone.
“However, all my life, even as a child, I have never been fearful. You could call that dangerous, I guess. I’m vigilant but not scared. Fortunately I have never been threatened or felt threatened. I have met people who one might call ‘suspicious’ but I greet with a smile and get on with my mission. I genuinely hope we can get to a point where the mountain is a safe space for all.”
Off the trails and the good doctor is as diverse a character as the terrain he traverses. “I do occasional mountain biking and also enjoy stand-up paddle-boarding and now that the running season is over I’m definitely dusting off the paddle and wet-suit.”
He’s not fashion-conscious in the slightest but is exactly that when it comes to dietary habits. “I’m vegetarian and truly believe that the Italians and Indians have absolutely mastered the art of vegetarian cooking.”
Musically he’s inspired by music from the 70s and early 80s, “like the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Pearl Jam” and he’s at an intermediate level on the acoustic guitar. At times one can hear the strains of his Fender Paramount steel string acoustic ringing out in Rondebosch, his home suburb in the Mother City.
Of course, his bucket list involves both family and running. “One day I’d like to take Portia to Norway, hike and run the big mountains and see the northern lights.”
And let’s not forget the kids. “Trinity is a natural runner and I’m certain we’ll one day run an ultra together. Will, on the other hand, is more interested in rugby and water polo. He loves hiking and camping in the mountains but has no running ambitions — yet.”
And with that, Dr Ngaka was off to work, not to run, but to his day-job of preserving lives and souls.
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