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!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

MAN versus BEAST

Seems I’m on again about beasts - this my second blog in a few months about the topic (read my blog on The Beast 2015).

But this time it’s different. Rather than a bunch of runners trying to run up, over and down a beast of a mountain, this time it’s about two men pitted against three real live four-legged beasts, racing them over a long distance, to see who gets to the finish line first. And, importantly, to facilitate corrective surgery in animals and children with facial deformities that deprive them of a normal life.

The challenge:

Andy Stuart and David Grier during their 7 x TMC
  • 800km of mostly beach
  • 16 days
  • two 2-leggers versus three 4-leggers

It may seem so…  until you learn who the two-leggers are. Then you’ll see it’s more likely the four-leggers who should be nervous.

Check out this great clip for the low-down:

David Grier and Andy Stuart are no strangers to challenge. Over the past nine years David has clocked up close to 25 000km running endurance feats for charity:
  • in 2006, he and Braam Malherbe were the first to run the full length of the Great Wall of China (4 200km in 98 days)
  • in 2008 he and Braam ran the entire coastline of South Africa (3 300km in 80 days)
  • in 2010 he paddled solo from Africa to Madagascar (500km in 11 days)
  • in 2010/2011 he ran across Madagascar (2 700km in 64 days)

David during his run in India
Together David and Andy have run across India (4 008km in 93 days), the length of Cuba (1 500km in 28 days), and down the UK from John O’Groats to Lands End. They’ve managed to squeeze in a few other smaller, fun feats too, like running the length of Hadrian’s Wall in the UK, and doing the Table Mountain Challenge seven times in seven days.

They take on these challenges not for them, nor for the achievement, but for the difference their achievement can make to the lives of others. In nine years, David has raised over R8.7 million for Operation Smile, providing corrective cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries for more than 2 000 children in southern Africa.

Ok, so that’s the MAN team. They’re pretty confident. But then, so is the BEAST team.

Three Arabian horses with the strength, guts and stamina you’d expect of such lineage will challenge MAN, under the expert eye of world renowned competitive endurance rider and SA champ, Gillese de Villiers. If anyone can manage these studs over distance, Gillese can – she has conquered 30 equestrian one-day 100 milers, and has raced in endurance world championships around the globe.
Taryn Peters and Micah Antrobus make up the team, both highly competitive equestrian athletes with the will to win.

Why this challenge?

David has been raising funds for Operation Smile via the Cipla Miles For Smiles campaign for the past decade. The MAN versus BEAST concept was born when David learned that horses too can be born with cleft lips and cleft palates. Rhinos too can benefit from corrective surgery – Project SAVE THE SURVIVORS was started in 2012 to provide corrective surgery for rhinos that have survived having their horns hacked off. More than 80 rhinos a year benefit from corrective surgery after such trauma.
As Cipla is dedicated to providing healthcare for both animals and humans, the MAN versus BEAST fundraising challenge made perfect sense.

The logistics

Both MAN and BEAST teams plan to run early in the day to make the most of the cooler hours. David, however, is confident he and Andy will have the heat advantage over the horses, and will be able to press on irrespective of temperatures. The horses will need to break every two hours – that’s about five times a day – to consume about 15 litres of water, and a bale and a half of lucerne a day.

The three Arabian stallions are the engines of the BEASTS
“The horses will have speed, but Andy and I have continuous endurance – we’re fine in the heat and we’ll be able to push on in all conditions,” says David.

Another small advantage for MAN will be being able to hop over fences and run over rocky outcrops, both obstacles that BEAST will have cover distances to get around.

To achieve the challenge within the requisite 16 days, MAN and BEAST will need to average 50km a day – that’s a mighty big ask on sand.

The winner, be it MAN or BEAST, must finish with all its team members. Any dropouts = a team DNF.

The challenge starts on Monday…

We can all be a part of this fundraising challenge. Hop on to THIS LINK to contribute!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ultra Trail Cape Town 2015

Much has been said and loads already posted about Ultra Trail Cape Town 2015, but I couldn’t resist leaping onto the feedback bandwagon with a quick blog.

This is not a race report – it can’t be, I ran neither the 100km nor the 65km. A dodgy Achilles peppered with a healthy dose of sense made me opt instead for the 65km relay, partnering friend and speedster Nic de Beer.

So, having only run 34km of the full UTCT route, I write this more from the position of a participating observer. And even from that stance, I saw a lot.

UTCT 100km winner Christiaan Greyling
There’s not a single person who won’t agree that everything about UTCT, from the very time the seed of such a race germinated in Nic Bornman’s head and heart, right to everyone’s viewing of the 9 min video (click here) that brilliantly captures the essence of race day, just radiates success.

So, I won’t be covering how immaculately organised the preparation for UTCT was, how fantastic the vibe was on the day, how the route epitomised everything that an ultra on one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature (read about Table Mountain here) should, or how incredible the aid stations were with their energy and support through miserable weather conditions.

Notwithstanding the incredible determination and perseverance of the runners who took on either distance, there were four specific aspects that stood out for me last Saturday.

The first was that to stage two mountain ultras simultaneously without a glitch, despite adverse weather conditions, is beyond commendable. The forward planning, the logistics and safety precautions needed to accomplish this are monstrous. The trio of energy behind achieving this can be proud – Nic, Stuart and Kim, a massive shout-out, you make a superb sports team!
UTCT's energy trio - Nic Bornman, Kim Stephens and Stuart McConnachie
The second has to be said, and just as loudly: the women’s performance last Saturday was even more impressive than the men’s. In a field of about 45 starters, 10% were female, of which three finished in the top 11 overall.

Ladies winner Kerry-Ann Marshall ran a race that, I believe, outshone even the overall winner. (Christiaan, you ran a superb race, no doubt there, but Kerry-Ann was on fire!) 
Ladies' winner Kerry-Ann Marshall came 6th overall
Second-placed lady Chantel “Hotpants” Nienaber also had a phenomenal race, knocking more than an hour of her 2014 time. In the 65km race, ladies’ winner Landie Greyling crossed the line 8th overall, comfortably within the top 10 finishers.

My third observation is that nothing prepares you better for technical trail than practising on technical trail. Let off-road running be exactly that: it cannot and never will be the same as running on trail. Running on dirt roads may be fine for Comrades training, but it won’t prepare you for technical trail.

And finally, the fourth point I took away on Saturday was that rather than the concern some had that the Cape’s unpredictable temperatures and the technical difficulty of some sections of the UTCT route might scare off potential entrants in future years, I believe Saturday’s blustery weather and challenging running conditions will attract those who hunger for exactly that. After all, REAL trail running isn’t for sissies.

I think Cape Town and our beloved Table Mountain really set the stage well for trail runners this year, and cast Ultra Trail Cape Town in the perfect light the race needs to cement its reputation as a real, tough, international ultra.

UTCT 2015 did its namesake proud. On so many levels this race is set to go far.

Roll on UCTC 2016!

Monday, September 21, 2015

S is for summer... and for snakes

We’re now into summer and we’re not the only ones out there enjoying the trails – here in southern Africa there’re a few more “obstacles” to be hoppin’ over and around than just rocks…

Snakes are ectothermic (cold blooded). This doesn’t actually mean they have cold blood, but rather that they have no internal mechanism to control body temperature, so they have to depend on their immediate environment to warm themselves. That’s why we’re far more likely to come across snakes in summer than during the colder months.

In writing this blog, my intention is not to scare but simply to raise awareness around snakes so we can know what to do when we come across them out there when we’re in mid run.

Remember, it’s the same principle as applies to the ocean and sharks: snakes were out there long before we were, and the mountains, veldt and bush are more theirs than ours, so respect is key in our relationship with them. We’re in their territory, not them in ours.

This blog post is by no means anywhere near a comprehensive explanation on herpetology! That research would take me ages. Instead, it’s a quick overview of which snakes we need to be wary off when running or hiking in southern Africa. (Apologies to readers elsewhere in the world J )

There’re more than 150 species of snake in southern Africa. Only 16 are considered dangerous. Snakes have a bad reputation for being deadly. But the truth is they’re not really interested in us at all – in fact, they do their best to have as little to do with us as possible. Snakes only attack if they feel threatened.

Basically, there’re only four types of snake in South Africa that can be classified as dangerous to humans:


Description:  colour varies from green to brown to black. Boomslangs have a short stubby head and large eyes.
Size:  max length 2m
Where found:  throughout southern Africa in karoo scrub, fynbos, savannah and grassland. Not found in the central Highveld or Lesotho. Spends time in trees and shrubs.
Defence:  very shy but if provoked will puff up its neck and sometimes its entire body.
Venom:  haemotoxic (affects the body’s blood-clotting mechanism, causes severe bleeding internally and from the mucous membranes. The venom is slow acting and can take 24-48 hours to produce severe symptoms.

Description:  usually plain coloured, can be yellow, red, brown or black.
Size:  max length 1.6m
Where found:  fynbox, karoo scrub and arid savannah in the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape, Free State, Namibia and Botswana.
Defence:  stands its ground and spreads a hood when threatened.
Venom:  neurotoxic (nerve-destroying), resulting in difficulty in breathing, then dizziness, loss of consciousness and, if untreated, suffocation through respiratory collapse.


Description:  dark brown or black with one or two white rings around the throat.  
Size:  max length 1.5m
Where found:  grassland, fynbos and savannah in most regions of South Africa apart from Northern Province.
Defence:  disappears quickly when disturbed, unless cornered, in which case it rears up and puffs its head.
Venom:  neurotoxic (nerve-destroying), which affects breathing. As with the Cape Cobra, if untreated can cause respiratory failure and death.


Description:  stubby body; colour varies from yellow to browny with distinct chevron markings along its entire body.
Size:  max length 1.4m
Where found:  occurs throughout the whole of southern Africa, but not on mountain tops, in desert sand or thick jungle.
Defence:  relies on excellent camouflage; it freezes when disturbed so is often difficult to see, and can easily be stepped on or stumbled over. Hisses or puffs when disturbed.
Venom:  a potent cytotoxic (cell-destroying) venom that attacks tissues and blood cells. The venom is slow-acting, and the victim can take as long as 24 hours to die.

Preventing snake bites
  • If you come across a snake on the path, leave it alone – DO NOT TRY TO MOVE IT OR KILL IT.
  • If you’re very close to the snake, keep dead still. It’s likely to ignore you and just slither away.
  • If you’re not very close to the snake, simply walk away – there’s no need for dramatic fleeing, as snakes never give chase.

DO keep victim calm
DO immobilise victim and keep the wound below heart height if possible
DO apply a pressure bandage, taking the strapping from the site of the bite towards the body. Strap firmly but not so tight as to restrict circulation.
DO give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if victim is struggling to breathe
DO get victim to hospital ASAP.

DO NOT kill the snake
DO NOT apply a tourniquet or restrict circulation to the area
DO NOT suck the wound
DO NOT make any incisions in or near the wound
DO NOT inject snake bite serum unless the bite was from a Black Mamba or a Cape Cobra

One last point. If you happen to see a snake trying to cross a road, do try your best to usher it along (without endangering yourself) - the sooner it can cross, the sooner it can be out of danger from traffic. Take a couple of minutes to interrupt your run or your journey to stop the cars and give the snake the chance it needs to safely get to the other side. so many snakes end up as roadkill, and it's a tragedy.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

SA’s oldest and newest trail races

Trail running has taken the running world by storm over the past decade, and South Africa’s no different. The sport has burgeoned at such a pace across Europe, the US, the UK, Australia and Asia, just as it has in our country, and the international calendar is ripe with races popping up in practically every far flung region of the globe.

South Africa has its own rich heritage of iconic trail races on its calendar. The oldest by far (although admittedly, it’s not pure trail) is the Harrismith Mountain Race, a 15km race on the Platberg (‘flat mountain’) near Harrismith in the Free State (Harrismith Mountain Race). 
Platberg, near Harrismith

The first formal staging of the race was in 1922 and this October will celebrate its 93rd running. Tipped by the much-revered Wally Hayward as “the toughest obstacle race in the world”, the 15km race also hosts the world record for the most consecutive wins in a single race – achieved by South African Michael McDermott, who won it 16 times in a row, of the 30 times he competed.

Other races with deep roots in SA’s trail running history include the Rhodes Run (started in 1989, mainly dirt road) (Rhodes Run), Mont-aux-Sources Challenge (1993) (Mont-aux-Sources Challenge), the PUFfeR (1995, more than 30% on tar) (PUFfeR), Three Peaks Challenge (1997, about 50% tar) (Three Peaks Challenge), SkyRun (1998, pure trail) (SkyRun) and the 7-day self-sufficient desert race, the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (1999, no tar) (KAEM).

And for the adrenalin junkies amongst us, there’s skyrunning. the South African Skyrunning Association (SASA), affiliated to the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF), brought official skyrunning to the mountains of southern Africa in 2011, featuring categories like the SkyMarathon®, Ultra SkyMarathon®, SkyRace® and the Vertical Kilometre®, all forming part of the annual national Skyrunning Series.

These types of races focus on pure mountain running, with virtually no tar on route, and where elevation gain is the primary challenge.

So far this year there’ve been six races in the 2015 Skyrunner® Series – the Drakensberg Northern Trail SkyMarathon® (KZN, 42km, vertical gain 2 100m) (DNT); the Ingeli SkyMarathon® (KZN, 42km, vert gain 1 800m) (Ingeli Trail Run); Uitsoek Skymarathon® (Mpumalanga, 36km, vert gain 2 167m) (Uitsoek Skymarathon); Xtreme Dodo Trail (Ultra SkyMarathon®, Mauritius, 50km, vert gain 3 500m – this was the African Skyrunning Continental Championships) (XDT); the Ti Dodo Trail (SkyRace®, Mauritius, 25km, vert gain 1 500m) (TDT); and the Wolkberg SkyMarathon® (Limpopo, 34km, vert gain 1 781m) (Wolkberg Trail Run).

Next up in the series will be on September 26th with the Marloth Mountain Challenge (MMC), an Ultra SkyMarathon® in the Marloth Nature Reserve in the Langeberg mountains above Swellendam in the Western Cape. With more than 85% of the 55km route being on remote mountain hiking trail, and a vertical gain of more than 3 400m, this one will be tough, beautiful, and one to test the trail running stalwarts.

In October is the Matroosberg SkyMarathon® (MTC), near Ceres in the Western Cape, offering 2 100m of vertical gain over 37km.

The final race in the 2015 Skyrunner® Series will be on November 28th with the Lesotho Ultra Trail (LUT), a 50km Ultra SkyMarathon® with 3 200m of vertical gain in the fresh, lung-busting air of the Lesotho highlands. Now in its third year, the LUT starts and finishes at the beautiful Maliba Lodge in the heart of the Maluti mountains.

So, whatever your trail kick, keep those quads and lungs pumped and ready for action, because there’s lots of it happening – and even more to come!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Beast 2015

 “What is man without the beasts? 
For if all the beasts were gone, man would die of a great loneliness of the spirit.”
These wise words were uttered way back in the mid 1800s by a rather astute Native American chap named Chief Seattle. We must presume, of course, that he was referring not only to those of the male persuasion dying of loneliness if all beasts were gotten rid of, but us gals too.
Of course he did.
They did care about women too in those days…   well, every now and then.

But I digress. Back to the importance of beasts and the like. Here in Cape Town we now have our very own Beast. And he’s a real brute – he’s huge, he’s tough, he looms high above us all, he’s often grumpy – even savage at times, he demands and commands respect, and he throws his weight around like no other. Quite deviously, he appears at first to be less demanding than what he actually is, and he only bears his true monstrous character a couple of hours after you first meet him.

I refer to this Beast – all 49 growling, snarling, vicious kilometres of it – as male, but no one’s really sure, the verdict’s out. Some say The Beast has to be female – that every time you think things are calming down and getting easier, she bites even harder. Some even refer to her as a bitch of a beast – not only female but teenage, nagging constantly, slowly wearing you down. Just when you think you’ve got that teenager under some semblance of control, she comes back to bite you, sharper, nastier and more unpredictable than before.

Others believe The Beast is male, flexing his testosterone-pumped ego-fuelled muscles at every opportunity. One runner went as far as to say The Beast must be male because he has two balls: a curve ball and Trevor Ball.

Speaking of the Tee Ball himself, grand designer of this terrifying beastie akin only to Roald Dahl’s ghastly menagerie of dirty beasts, I asked Trevor what gender he considered The Beast. This is how he replied:  “It’s an inner Beast, so not gender specific. Release your Beast on the trails! It’s like the Abominable Snowman, big and hairy; it’s like Medusa, it has a head full of snakes that keep biting you and never let up; it’s like the Hulk, it grows huge with rage but is benign if you chill and flow with it.”


Appropriately described, The Beast is Cape Town’s newest trail race, and falls under the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon suite of events. Tipping in just short of 50km, the race is a true ultra, both in distance and difficulty. And, quite simply, this one’s a champ – the route is varied, starting comfortably and growing increasingly tougher as the course progresses.

The route

Starting at the Old Zoo, The Beast has runners following the upper contour path across the front face of Table Mountain, around Kloof Corner, and along the full length of the pipetrack. Then the hairiness begins: haul up Corridor Ravine, onto the spine path and northwards across 12 of the 17 Apostles via the Valley of the Red Gods (over Slangolie, Spring, Wood, Postern, Kasteels, Valken, Barrier, Jubilee, Porcupine, Grotto, Fountain, and Cairn buttresses). Then across the front top of the Table to Maclears Beacon, and diagonally to Hely Hutchinson dam via Echo Valley. After that, the legs face a couple of km’s on the concrete jeep track before hopping onto the Smuts Track to get to Nursery Ravine for the quads to be truly tested. Once on the (not-so) contour path below, the final eight or so km’s call for serious grit.

Trevor knows this one’s a winner: “The Beast route is the culmination of years of planning (dating back to early TMC days) and a lot of work convincing SANParks that we will be eco-friendly and safe. I believe trail running must be an adventure, and The Beast is exactly that!”

Results of The Beast 2015

MEN                                                     WOMEN
Bernard Rukadza      -    05:41:25                Landie Greyling     -   06:37:29
Christiaan Greyling   -   05:43:10                 Sylvie Scherzinger  -   07:06:53
Dion Middelkoop      -   05:54:08                 Linda Doke           -   07:15:45

Sunday, April 19, 2015

My musings on our Drakensberg Grand Traverse

the profile of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse

If you know the why, the how takes care of itself.
Well, that’s not altogether true – it omits to mention the tremendous amount of planning and preparation that goes into ensuring that the how happens. That ‘small point’ aside, I wholeheartedly believe that without passion and purpose, we lack the incentive to tackle and conquer enormous goals.

No passion + no purpose + no perseverance = no success.

us with the map of Lesotho in the background
Now, if mountains, rivers and vast vistas feed the soul, and gruelling challenge fuel the mind and body, then in a single weekend three weeks ago I was blessed with a feast to quench my hunger for wild, rugged mountains for a good while to come.

Firstly, and most importantly, we did it! We achieved our primary goal: to complete the Drakensberg Grand Traverse without mishap. And the enormous bonus was that we beat the mixed record by 15 hours 24 mins. We’re extremely grateful for that – so much can go wrong up there, it’s true mountain wilderness.

But to try and describe the experience is my next challenge. If ever one was stunted by writer’s block from an overwhelmingly humbling experience, that has been me since the enormity of our Drakensberg Grand Traverse. Writing is what I do for a living, but I’ve really struggled to put onto (virtual) paper words that can do justice to 63½ hours of pure mountain wilderness experience. It’s taken me three full weeks to digest, and to do it justice in print is almost just as testing as we found achieving our sub-64 hour challenge.

Through my haze of heavy breathing, lung-burning, quad-pounding effort, it was easy to see how the soaring basalt peaks, buttresses, rock walls and pinnacles of the massive lava barrier separating the foothills of Kwa-Zulu Natal from the Lesotho plateau was considered by the Voortrekkers back in 1800 to resemble a mighty dragon’s back, and why they named it the Drakensberge.  

And slogging for 63 hours along that escarpment felt as special as running along a real dragon’s back would. Looking back, it feels quite surreal.

But just as special was the privilege of traversing the escarpment with someone who knows those mountains so well. This was Ryno Griesel’s fourth complete Grand Traverse. His passion for those mountains is so deep that once he even slogged a 100km section of the traverse in the thick snow of mid-winter, just so he could experience it in all conditions. Taking on the challenge with Ryno was a daunting prospect. Not only is this man the current joint record holder, but his faith in my ability was absolute. I knew I would be the weak link in the partnership by a long way, and I knew that to achieve what we were aiming for, I would have to push my physical limits as I had never before.

One weekend in January we had recced the first 130km of the route, which had given me a taste of what to expect of the full quota of the traverse. The mistakes I made that weekend were invaluable and my learning curve severe – I saw what I needed to tweak food-wise, kit-wise and training-wise for a realistic chance of completing the full distance.

The start - Sentinel car park,  Friday 2:45am
It’s fascinating how fast time passes when there’s complete focus hour after relentless hour. Yet despite my concentration, it’s crazy how few details of the Traverse I can remember. Of the 214km we covered during those three days and two nights, there’re only a handful of moments that stand out in my mind. The rest is a gamut of exquisite green vistas, soaring peaks, dramatic valleys, crystal clear rivers, muddy bogs and marshes, countless saddles and summits, cliffs and cutbacks, all with buttresses, needles and pinnacles teetering in the distance to our left along the escarpment edge.

Ten of my most vivid conclusions from the DGT

  • Two hours sleep between 22-hour bouts of running/fast-trekking is possible only thanks to adrenalin and a suitable mixture of calm confidence (from Ryno) and moderate panic (from me).
  • Every mountain summit above 3 000m has at least two false summits, specifically put there to make your heart sink.
  • The difference between 3 000m and 3 482m is directly proportional not only to one’s lung capacity but one’s ability to block out 1) pain and 2) the rasping-gasping-spluttering sound of sea-level lungs trying their damndest to suck in more oxygen.
  • Nothing quite beats a spontaneous pre-dawn 15 minute power nap in a deserted kraal at 3 100m. And absolutely nothing beats the look of utter amazement on the face of the Basotho herdsman who arrives just as you emerge from his kraal…
  • Droëwors is as revolting as I’ve always thought it was. Droëwors is how butchers make use of gristle, fat, sinew and hoof once they’ve removed all the real meat. Yuuuuk.
  • Once you’ve ticked off the last of the six specific peaks of the Traverse (Thabana Ntleyana, the highest peak south of Kilimanjaro) at 152km, there’s still an entire day of mind-numbing effort ahead. The next 62km are riddled with saddles and summits that are almost as high as those that filled the two previous days of slog.
  • Finishing a 214km challenge with +/-20km of downhill can really hurt, but running it against the clock definitely helps to block out the pain.
  • Positivity is everything. There is no doubt that having a positive approach, even through pain and exhaustion, enables the mind to push the body. The trick with endurance sport, provided you’ve done the training, is to never let your blood sugar level drop. The first symptom of a drop in blood glucose, long before you hit the wall, is that negativity takes over – the voice in your head finds every reason why you should slow down… or stop! Keeping yourself properly fuelled by eating and drinking regularly enables your legs and brain to do what you need them to do.
  • There was no sweeter relief than reaching the finish, realising that everything went according to plan, we’d achieved what we’d hoped, and we’d broken the mixed record.
  • The finish - Bushman's Nek, Sunday 6:18pm
  • The Drakensberg escarpment is not for sissies. Once you’re up there, there’s little chance of turning back or pulling out – you’re committed. Any change of mind involves hours of hiking over harsh terrain to get to a pass that will (hopefully) get you down and back to civilisation in one piece. Never head up there unprepared, always carry more food than you hope to need, and never skimp on safety gear.

And as for me, I’m now enjoying feet-up-and-on-the-couch for a few weeks, the visual memories of the “dragon mountains” still fresh in my mind. At least for now…

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

counting down to the Drakensberg Grand Traverse

This is a blog I’ve looked forward to writing for more than two years – ever since I first mustered up the courage in January 2013 to ask Ryno Griesel whether he’d be interested in teaming up for a mixed record attempt of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse.

His response was immediate – not only was he keen, but he’d be honoured. Honoured? Good grief, what was he on about – he was the joint record holder, had years of adventure racing under his belt, and having climbed mountains around the world, had notched up way more real mountain experience than I could ever dream of. He was a true man o’ the mountains. I’ve got loads of trail running experience and have done heaps of ultras, sure, but that’s completely different from an endurance endeavour the likes of this. The DGT is in a completely different league from any piddly trail race, regardless the distance.

So in he was.
And nervous I became.

We stalled our mixed attempt plans for two years to each squeeze in a few additional ultra-distance challenges. In March 2014 Ryno did the DGT with Ryan Sandes, whipping a solid 18 hours 40 mins off the previous fastest known time, which had been set in 2010 by Ryno and fellow extreme adventurer Cobus van Zyl. At an astonishing 41 hours 49 mins, Ryno and Ryan’s record won’t be broken for a very long time.

And now the time for our mixed record attempt is here. At 4am on Friday 27th March, I’ll be setting off from Sentinel car park with the two most capable and highly experienced mountain men I could wish for – Ryno Griesel and Cobus van Zyl know the Drakensberg escarpment better than most, and together they set the previous DGT record of 60 hours 29 mins (April 2010).

The history of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse

The Drakensberg Trans-Frontier Challenge, renamed the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, was set by the Raubenheimer brothers, Gavin and Lawrie, in 1999. They achieved the DGT in 4 days, 9 hours 39 minutes (105 hours 39 mins). The brothers had drawn up the following criteria for the DGT:
  • Start at the Sentinel car park perimeter fence, and finish at the Bushman’s Nek border post perimeter fence
  • The challenge must be completed on foot
  • GPS is allowed
  • The following checkpoints must be visited along the route:
    - the Chain Ladders
    - Mont-aux-Sources summit (3 282m)
    - Cleft Peak summit (3 277m)
    - Champagne Castle summit (3 377m)
    - Mafadi summit (3 451m)
    - Giant’s Castle summit (3 314m)
    - Thabana Ntlenyana summit (3 482m)
  • Thomathu Pass must be used to descend to Bushman’s Nek
  • Rest wherever you want, for however long you want…
  • Importantly, the challenge must be completely self-supported – no seconding, no resupply or food caches along the way.

The DGT in numbers:

Total elevation gain:  between 9 500m and 10 000m
Horizontal distance:  205km
Full distance including ascent/descent:  215km
Climbs in excess of 200m:  more than 28
Number of unsuccessful attempts since 1999: way more than 30…

Current records  (thanks to Lisa de Speville for this info, www.ar.co.za)

Current record (men's group): Ryno Griesel and Ryan Sandes
Date: 24-25 March 2014
Distance: 209km
Duration: 41 hours 49 mins
Griesel and Sandes broke the previous record set by Ryno Griesel and Cobus van Zyl (set 9-11 April 2010) of 60 hours 29 mins

Solo male record: Andrew Porter
Date: December 2009
Duration: 61 hours 24 mins

Women's group record: Laura Forster and Fiona McIntosh (Team Water For Africa)
Date: November 2008
Duration: 157 hours 11 mins

Mixed group record: Team Merrell Adventure Addicts: Graham Bird, Hanno Smit, Robyn Kime* and Grant Ross
Date: 11-14 November 2014
Duration: 78 hours 57 mins
* Robyn is therefore the fastest woman across the DGT route.
Merrell Adventure Addicts bettered the previous mixed group time of 110 hours 57 mins established by Christine Harris and Carlos Gonzalez in January 2010.

Ryno Griesel and Cobus van Zyl

Three aspects I’m particularly nervous about:
  1. Weather:  As with every DGT, weather will play an enormous role in how we fair. We’ve specifically chosen this time of year as it’s said to be the most stable – the summer thunderstorms are more intermittent, and it’s theoretically before the cold months set in. Note the word theoretically. This is the Drakensberg, and at altitude the weather can be unpredictable. So, we can only hope it’s on our side!
  2. Feet:  Regardless of wet from above, we most definitely will be wet underfoot. And that’s pretty much for the entire 215km distance. The ground on the escarpment is marshy, even quite boggy in places, so I’m nervously anticipating all that’s entailed in having wet feet for +/-70 hours.
  3. Nutrition:  The longest endurance event I’ve ever done (Grand Raid of Reunion, 174km) took me 44 hours. That’s substantially less than I’ll be slogging for the DGT. I know all the gastric discomforts one goes through during ultras, and I’ve tried so many different combinations of foods over the years in the hope of hitting the one that works for me. And yet I can honestly say I’ve never mastered my nutrition for ultras. No event and no conditions are ever the same, and there’re so many factors to consider – the biggest of this one being the ask on the body: to be pushing the pace, virtually without rest, for 215km, through three days and two nights (hopefully not a third night…) will put a mammoth strain on the digestion, let alone the rest of the body. That’s adventure racing territory, and I’m not an adventure racer. This time, I’ve done more research than ever, and I’m hoping that the selection of foods I’m taking with me will see me strongly through the distance.

One thing is guaranteed: whatever next weekend brings, whatever happens, the experience will be incredible.

* all photos credited to Ryno Griesel

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Run The Rann 2015 (161km)

Some of the intrepid 161'ers the day before the race

“Trail running is a dangerous sport, and ultra trail running is the extreme version of it, because the nature of the playground is wild and sometimes, like here in the Rann, quite inhospitable.”

These are the words of Gaël Couturier, race director of Run The Rann, a set of a four events staged simultaneously last weekend on the “island” of Khadir Bet, in Gujurat province in western India, some 30km from the border with Pakistan. Known as the Thar Desert, the area forms a part of the Great Rann of Kutch, a 7,500km2 salt marsh, said to be the largest salt desert in the world. The region is desolate, sparsely populated and, in the northern section of the island, completely uninhabited.

I was privileged to be one of 12 people invited to participate in the 100 miler, hosted by the Gujurat Commission of Tourism to promote the race to the global trail running fraternity. (Unfortunately two of them didn’t make it – their visas couldn’t be processed in time.)  
(L to R) Josh, me, Mimi, Tarmo, Justin, Damian, Tom  (pic by Justin Bowyer)

My fellow runners were certainly a “well-heeled” bunch from a sporting perspective – collectively, their sporting achievements were enough to shake the dust out of any elite competitor’s socks.
  •  Dan Lawson, ultra distance athlete with a host of incredible achievements to his name, including the World Record for the furthest distance run on a treadmill (521 miles in 7 days). He has a host of race wins, including the 24 hour track race in Gloucestor in 2014, where he achieved 242km. (Read about Dan HERE)
  • Damian Stoy, coach, biomechanics specialist, nutritional consultant and professional ultra runner from Montana, USA (http://wholisticrunning.com)
  •  Mimi Anderson, queen of ultra-distance running, Mimi has two world records (previously three) to her name, and has won countless ultras around the world, many of them outright, including the 6633 Extreme Ultra Marathon, a 352 mile non-stop self-sufficient race in the Arctic, setting a course record that is yet to be beaten: 143hrs 23min. She remains the only woman to have completed the race. (Read my blog on Mimi HERE)
  •  Tom Caughlan, ultra runner from Colorado, USA, Tom is one of the gear reviewers on irunfar.com, specialising in minimalist models
  •  Justin Bowyer, ultra runner and contributor to Runner’s World UK. Author of Running: Motivation, Nutrition & Hydration. Editor of www.runningmonkey.co.uk
  •  Tarmo Vannas, a fruitarian/vegan ultra runner from Estonia, now living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
  •  Walter Batel, a French endurance athlete with 12 Ironman and an MDS to his name
  •   Francois-Xavier Gaudas, an ultra-runner from France

About 100 runners toed the start line for the four races of Run The Rann – 21km, 42km, 101km and the 161km. Most were from India, and many were from other countries around the world. Being the inaugural event, there were just 14 of us doing the 161km.

Having visited India on two previous occasions, I knew not to expect predictability. By its very nature, India is alive, vibrant, buzzing, quirky, chaotic. The words efficiency and India cannot share the same sentence. No matter where you are in the country or whatever you’re doing, India presents a smorgasbord of sights, tastes, fragrances and experiences; nothing in India is, or ever can be, predictable. In many ways that’s one of the charms of this fascinating country, but it’s important that people know to expect that, and to prepare for it. So, tackling an ultra in this part of the world should be no different – prepare for the unexpected!
The ridgeline above the salt flats  (pic by Tarmo Vannas fb.me/ultratarmo)

I went into this race with a healthy dose of that approach. I’d done what research I could on what weather and temperatures to expect, I had a rough idea how the route profile would pan out (described by the race director as a lot of up and down in certain sections, with about 60km or so of salt flats in the middle section).

As always, I planned my nutrition and hydration accordingly. Knowing from the race briefing that there’d be CPs roughly every 10km, I carried two 500ml soft flasks, which I would top up or refill with water at every CP, and add my PeptoSport every third or fourth CP. Not wanting to rely on food provided by the CPs (oranges, glucose powder, cereal bars and, every so often, portions of curry J), I carried my usual variety of RUSH Bars, nuts, apricots and my favourite recent discovery: pretzel squares injected with peanut butter. The bomb!

Never thinking I would need it, I poured about 200ml of water into the bladder of my Salomon 12L Skin pack as reserve.

So I was as prepared as I could be, garnished with a generous dose of open-mindedness for whatever might be thrown at me over the next +/-24 hours. That’s roughly how long I’d guessed this race would take me…  Little did I realise what was to come!

With the 7:30am start of the race began a 100 mile event that is best described as less of a running race and more an orienteering adventure – and a great one, at that. An exquisite route of harsh, desert terrain flecked with loose shale and high sandstone ridges and cliffs, overlooking hundreds of kilometres of shimmering “white desert” – coarsely crusted salt as far as the eye could see.
Thorns everywhere, just waiting to snag us  (pic by Tarmo Vannas)

And the sharper side of the scene: thorns, thorns and more thorns. Long straight ones, short hooked ones, thorns on trees, bushes and branches that were just waiting to snag skin and fabric at every turn. And if all those thorns weren’t enough of a spikey deal to contend with, thorny twigs lying in the sand stabbed the soles of our shoes and spiked our feet more times than I could count.

A missing CP5 threw the runners a curveball of 20km with no water in the heat of the day, testing stamina, endurance and mental strength. CP6 at 50km was a welcome sight for everyone, some runners needing a couple of hours in the tent to rehydrate and recover before pushing on.

Til that point I had run mostly on my own, with only Dan and Damian ahead. I’d been trailed by a determined local runner who was carrying nothing but a GPS – no pack, no food, no water. As the kilometres without water had ticked past, he’d dropped off the pace, and by the time he reached CP6, he was exhausted.

Damian and I - in perfect sync
Damian and I teamed up from CP6, and together we ran, walked, bushwhacked and winced our way over the next 120km to the finish line. (The total distance of the race was actually 172km.) Damian had run the first 52km with frontrunner Dan Lawson, who had paused briefly at CP6 to quickly refuel, before racing on.

                                                    (pic by Tarmo Vannas  fb.me/ultratarmo)
Running across the salt flats was the most incredible experience. The salt was a thin crusted layer and very crunchy underfoot – sometimes smooth, often rippled, and surprisingly easy to run on. In the moonlight it took on a misty white hue that made the experience seem surreal. It looked like an enormous sheet of ice, but was neither slippery nor cold – I had to keep reminding myself it was salt!

Twenty-four hours ticked by when we still had a good 30km to go. We pressed on, cursing our way through thickets of thorns, and eventually onto open tracks. Not having expected to be taking quite this long, my food stocks were running low and with 20km to go, I was down to one last portion of PeptoSport and a ziplock bag of nuts – which I somehow managed to spill as I pulled the bag from my pack, showering the sandy track with precious nuts… 

Dan is known as "Awesome Lawson" - not without reason!
Needless to say, with minimal fuel in the tank and nothing but water to be had at the final three CPs, those last 20km were extremely slow. Damian and I crossed the finish line in joint 2nd place (32:30), more than 8 hours after the winner, Dan Lawson (24:06). Dan ran a brilliant race, a true reflection of the incredible endurance athlete he is.

Not without its organisational hiccups, Run The Rann 161km was a fantastic experience and one I’ll always treasure. Staging a race in a remote area of a country that in itself is not geared up for endurance events, will always be a challenge. But this race has the potential to be big on the adventure running calendar – it’s perfect for trail runners who’re keen to travel and experience a whole lot more than just an ultra-distance run. It’s rough, raw and packed with adventure. Personally, this is my kind of race!

View the results of Run The Rann 2015 HERE

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

To Run The Rann of Kutch

2015: a new year, fresh legs, action-packed challenges!

First up, an ultra with a difference: instead of dramatic scenery with mountains, forests, streams, canyons or deserts as with my five ultras last year (Whale of Trail 52km, Outeniqua Quest 108km, Fish River Canyon Ultra 80km, Tuffer Puffer 160km, and the 70km day of KAEM), my first ultra of 2015 will cover remarkably different scenery…

On 7th February I’ll be taking part in Run The Rann, a 161km (100 miler) race in the Great Rann of Kutch, described as a sprawling 7,500km2 salt marsh located in the Thar Desert of north-western India on the Pakistani border. The area is said to be the largest salt desert in the world.

The route profile of Run The Rann will present an unusual challenge for me – instead of mountain ascents and loads of vertical gain, my mind and legs will need to focus on running a comparatively flat course… the highest point in the race is 243m above sea level, and for 90km or so in the middle section of the race, along the edge of the salt desert, the route has barely a bump or hiccup.

Running flat over long distances is not easy – there’s no relief for the legs, and it hurts. A lot.

Heat, isolation, stark landscape, and relentless white salt desert as far as the eye can see. Add to this the challenge of an unmarked course (GPS navigation compulsory), and you get the general idea. This one’s going to be tough!

This will be the second time I’ve been fortunate enough to race in India – in 2008 I ran the Himalayan 100 Miler, a 5-day stage race near the Himalayas. That race was about mountain views and thin air; this time I’ll get to see a very different corner of India – a region so remote that the island of Khadir Bet, over which the route is staged for the first and final thirds of the race, is virtually unexplored, apart from Border Security patrols and the race organisers.

Adventure is calling – bring it on!