I'm not a natural blogger and I'm no techie. I'm an ultra trail runner by passion, and a journalist by profession - in that order of priority.
In this blog I use the one to talk about the other - my trail thoughts, musings and meanderings about running mountains and trails.
I call it rockhoppin', just because... well... that's what we trail runners love to do!

Monday, August 1, 2016

The North Face Zagori 80km 2016


Harsh, rugged dolomite peaks and mountainous landscapes ripped, cut and carved over millennia of geological shifts, this is Zagori – a 1 000km2 region in northwestern Greece near the Albanian border, far off the tourist path and majestic in its isolation.
Slavic for “beyond the mountain”, Zagori is Greece’s best kept tourism secret, a land of natural beauty quite beyond expectation, and home to what has become the country’s most popular trail running ultra, The North Face Zagori TeRA (Tymfi Endurance Race) 80km.


The brainchild of race organisers Mara and Vasilis Kalogirou of the Fifth Element running store in the Epirus region’s largest town Ioannina, the race is now in its sixth year, and I can say first hand that it quite easily matches, and in many ways improves upon, the best of European ultras.
And for those trailers who love an adventurous running experience in an exquisite part of the world, this one’s for you.
Modelled on the concept of incorporating sights and villages of an area into a route, the Zagori mountain run is circular, starting and finishing in historic Tsepelovo, the largest of Zagori’s 46 mountain-clinging villages.
Narrow stone road of Papigo, one of the villages on the route

I knew to expect great scenery, but I really hadn’t visualised the dramatic, jagged beauty I saw. Much like the Alps, the Vikos-Aoös National Park is a grizzly maze of towering dolomite and limestone peaks with steep shale fringes and forested valleys. It’s a UNESCO Geopark, recognised for its geological heritage, and exploring it is a privilege experienced by fewer than 80 000 tourists annually. That’s not many, considering South Africa’s Table Mountain scores well over 10 times that number. This place is special, and as far as tourism goes, relatively undiscovered.
That, of course, makes it a fantastic trail running playground! As much as 80% of the first 40km of the route are run on single track that was specially cut (read hacked, not mown) for the race. Until 10 years ago the area was used only by hunters, and paths through the thick vegetation were scarce.
I ran beneath towering cliffs and along the edge of precipitous drop-offs. I wound my way 12km along the gnarly meandering forest path of the Vikos Gorge, a 38km long canyon that, with its depth of 1 300m, makes it the deepest gorge, in proportion to its width, in the world.
I drank from the Spring of Voidomatis, source of the river renowned as the cleanest natural water in Europe.
Drakolimni or "Dragon Lake" of Tymfi
I circumnavigated the alpine lake Drakolimni or “Dragon Lake” of Tymfi at 2 050m where, according to local folklore, the lake was inhabited by dragons who fought each other using rocks and pine cones as weapons, resulting in the peculiar, bleak landscape around the 5m deep crystal clear lake.
I passed over cobbled stone bridges built in 1400. I ran through the village squares of seven of Zagori’s most picturesque stone villages, most of which are more than 500 years older than me, oozing with history, and all with populations of about 30 people.
Kalogeriko bridge near Kipoi village
With 219 other runners, I slogged up – and down – 5 100m of ascent and descent. Those 80km hurt, my legs whinged, my lungs burned. That’s what running ultras are about. And it was worth every single bead of sweat, every smidgeon of exhausted pain. This was the best of pure mountain running, and the exhilaration of the experience felt higher than the peaks that watched us from above.

Greek ultra champion Dimitris Theodorakakos
The race was won by Greece’s ultra-distance champion Dimitris Theodorakakos (Salomon athlete and Greek navy seal) in 9:24:22. First woman home was Katarzina Cekoska in 11:49:06. Both smashed the respective men’s and women’s records by 10 minutes.
Happy to have made the top 5 women finishers

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Richtersveld Transfrontier Wildrun 2016


There are races. Many races. Short, long, single or multi-day, self-sufficient…  they’re popping up everywhere and there’re loads to choose from.
Every one of them is challenging – some more than others – and they’re all fun in one way or another. For most of us, as long as it’s trail we’re running, we’re happy.

And then there’re the special ones, the unique events that take us to another place not only geographically and physically, but emotionally and spiritually, the races we find difficult to describe to friends and loved ones back home who haven’t experienced them. The events that for their duration, and for weeks afterwards, have us yearning to be back there, despite the blisters, the sore muscles, the pain, the gruelling dark moments we may have felt.

The Richtersveld Transfrontier Wildrun® is that race. The event is rare on so many levels: it allows a limited field (max 80 runners), it’s set in a remote wilderness that’s far from anywhere and only accessible by 4x4 or on foot, and it’s staged in two countries. It’s no ordinary race, far from it. And as such, it attracts the more intrepid runner, the one with an adventurous spirit, the one who wants to experience their passion for trail running on a deeper level – a level witnessed only by the vast, rugged, raw richness of an African rock desert and a night sky so studded with stars it makes the heart sore.

“Gruelling in comfort” is how one UK runner described it. The Richtersveld Transfrontier Wildrun® blends the right amount of trail challenge with the rustic luxuries of a fully-equipped outdoor camp.

But I think it does this event no justice to refer to it as a race. It’s far more than that. So for the purpose of this blog, I’ll separate the race from what I believe makes it far bigger than just that – what I’ll refer to as The Real Deal.

THE RACE in brief…

Mix a sprinkling of elites with a few dark horses and you have the ingredients for a pace-pushing race. First out the starting block on Day 1 was local Sendlingsdrif speedster Dawid Kaswarie, who blasted off like he was fleeing a Namib flash flood. Unfortunately for Dawid, his local knowledge of the area worked against him – his navigational strength didn’t match his running talent, and he took a straight line directly to the aid station, missing the compulsory checkpoint along the way. This cost him a 60 min penalty, which he spent the next four days desperately trying to claw back, but in vain.

Irish-born New Zealand adventure racer Jo Williams was consistently strong over every stage, and secured herself a convincing win of the overall race. Ultra-endurance athlete and ultra-journo-extraordinaire Tobias Mews (tobiasmews.com) won the men’s category, just 19 mins behind Jo. In the true spirit of trail sportsmanship, Tobias volunteered his winner’s trophy to Dawid, who he said ran a race that deserved the win. Huge thumbs up, Tobias!

overall winner Jo Williams in action on the final 500m descent to the finish
In the women’s race, with Jo clearly out of our league, the competition for 2nd place was between Swedish-born UK runner Elisabet Barnes (1st in Marathon des Sables 2015, 2nd in the Costa Rica Coastal Challenge 2016), and me. Torn between running the Richtersveld as an experience and treating it as a race, I opted to hedge my bets and try to do both – I ran the first day fairly hard to try to create sufficient gap to be able to take the remaining days easier so I could appreciate the scenery. Thankfully the plan worked! The terrain was more in my favour than in Elisabet’s – her strength is in running open, sandy stretches FAST while I’m better at more technical underfoot. Happily for me the route was riddled with stony river beds, rocky gorges and craggy descents – so typical of Richtersveld terrain. I was in my element. I finished 2nd lady, in 5th place overall, almost 90 mins ahead of Elisabet.
me ascending the Tatasberg, a mountain of gigantic granite slabs and boulders bigger than buildings

More importantly, THE REAL DEAL

Even the race winners felt more exhilarated by the richness of the Richtersveld experience than by the racing element of the event. Their success was hard-earned, sure, but in those five days the wealth earned by every participant, every Wildrunner crew member, helper and volunteer far exceeded the importance of anyone’s race position. Over five days in the raw, rugged wilderness that is the Richtersveld, 45 runners experienced a richness beyond all expectation.

RACE FACTS
ü  200km. 5 days. 2 countries.
ü  Start at Sendlingsdrif (South Africa), finish at Ai-Ais Hot Springs Resort (Namibia)
ü  Daily distances:  43km + 33km + 40km+ 49km +26km
ü  Route:  self-navigation (map / GPS + common sense)
ü  Terrain:  grit, sand, shale, rocks, boulders

At quick glance the /Ai-/Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier National Park looks barren, desolate and devoid of life. Water in the region is scarce, the heat relentless. But surely it's no coincidence the name begins with "Rich– beneath its stark appearance lies a botanically rich landscape that boasts the most abundant selection of desert flora on earth. Jointly managed by the local Nama people and South African National Parks, the Richtersveld is harsh, dry (some parts of the park can have no rainfall for up to 10 years) and virtually uninhabited. But it's also believed to be one of the world's richest succulent areas, with a host of its plants, reptiles and insects not found anywhere else on the planet.
Hartmann's mountain zebra are native to coastal Namibia and southern Angola
Roaming freely in its vast inner sanctum can be found porcupines, caracal, leopard, brown hyena, black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, genet, ostrich, Hartmann's mountain zebra, rhebok, klipspringer, springbok, duiker, steenbok, and the beautiful wild horses of the Fish River Canyon.

THE RAND REALITY
At R21,250 (2016 cost), the price tag for the Richtersveld Transfrontier Wildrun® may seem heavy. At face value, South African trail runners might well compare it to other local multi-stage races and baulk. But the reality is that there can be no comparison. Not only is there no other five-day stage trail running race in South Africa, but this event is less about the race and more about the experience: it’s set in an African desert wilderness that is accessible only via 4x4 and by foot. It deals with cross-border logistics into Namibia, and it teases the lower reaches of the great Fish River Canyon in a section where, until this event, only local Nama herdsmen and a handful of rangers had ever ventured.

loo with a view
All this, and yet the offering is seamlessly organised, tailored by bush luxury – three superb meals a day, individual sleeping tents complete with mattress and pillow, massage options, flush toilets and hot donkey-style showers every evening.

Through tired legs, aching muscles, twisted ankles and whingeing hamstrings, nothing quite matches the spirit between runners and crew on the final night of a fully-lived five days in a remote region. Somehow after that, returning to civilisation isn’t so easy.

So the price tag may appear hefty, but when you look at what you get for your money, it’s worth every cent. And of course, the reality is that for those runners on faraway shores who’re hungry for superbly organised trail runs with a different flavour, it’s even better value. The Richtersveld Transfrontier Wildrun® is a race, a challenge, and a rich African experience, all in one.
the joy of wild running in the Richtersveld
* photos credited to Ian Corless