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!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

new year = new goals?

It’s a strange phenomenon, New Year. In Western culture we’re socialised to see the first day of the year as a new start, a time to reflect, look ahead and to set goals for the next 12 months.

And yet January 1st is really no different from any other of the 364.2422 days in our calendar. Logically, there’s no reason why we should suddenly start doing things differently, turning over new leaves or, in some dire cases, uproot entire trees (figuratively speaking of course) in our need to make change in our lives. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for us to rather use the start of each day to reassess how we’re progressing towards our goals?

But hey, most of us like to see Jan 1st as a bit special anyway. And by the end of January all the unrealistic resolutions have been shifted out and the achievable challenges remain intact, there to keep us on our toes for the rest of the year.

Interestingly, The Guardian UK published an article at the end of 2015, presenting the results of a survey conducted by UK private health insurance company Bupa, looking at how long people tend to keep their New Year’s Resolutions. The most common resolutions were, not surprisingly, to lose weight, to get fitter, and to eat more healthily.

And the study found that of the 63% of UK adults who failed to keep their New Year’s resolution,
- 43% didn’t even last a month,
- 66% lasted one month or less,
- 80% lasted less than three months, and
- 86% maintained their resolution for less than a year.

I think it’s important to set goals, of course. And whether you want to set them at the start of a new year, or on your birthday, or on an arbitrary Tuesday morning whenever in the year, is not important – what is important is that you DO set them, and that you be determined to achieve them. Without a change in mindset, there’s no chance you’ll achieve a change in behaviour.

I believe there are five essentials of setting goals:
1.  make your goals measurable;
2.  be sure your goals are attainable;
3.  ensure your goals are relevant to you;
4.  give your goals a timeline and a deadline by which to achieve them; and
5.  make your goals action-oriented.

As important as working hard to achieve your goals is, it’s vital to ensure the joy remains.
If we don’t feel joy from the things we do, the enthusiasm in our effort turns to drudgery.
Just as positivity encourages growth, so effort without enjoyment becomes tedious and negative. Enjoying what we do keeps the spring in our step, the energy in our efforts, the excitement in our hard work.

So, set yourself challenges and DARE to achieve them. Believe in yourself, trust in your own potential, and allow yourself the freedom and space to start something new.
Unless you try, you’ll never know.

So, welcome 2017, and may you bring to us all a healthy dose of positive challenges; a generous measure of achievements, big and small; and bags of fulfilment in every aspect of our lives.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rockhoppin' Trail interview with Robyn Owen

It has been ages since I profiled anyone on Rockhoppin’ Trail. Back in 2013 it had been my plan to write regular profiles, but somehow life, time and training got in the way and instead I stuck to the loose, unscheduled kind of style that is more appropriate for Rockhoppin’ Trail.
Well, ok, for me.
There’re no rules for who gets to be profiled on Rockhoppin’ Trail – I decide! The person can be South African or international, man or woman, short or tall, young or old, carb crazy or paleo…  There’re only two criteria:
- they must have achieved something incredible on trail; and
- they can’t simply be amazing people we've heard or read about – I must have met them personally.

Because of time constraints and trail distractions, I’ve only profiled a handful, but they’ve all been impressive. Check on each to read their interviews:

And now I reckon it’s about jolly time I profiled another great achiever. This time it’s the young South African dynamo, Robyn Owen (nee Kime).

                                                                                                                                     (photo by Terence Vrugtman)

Robyn wasn’t widely known in trail running circles until recently, when she stormed this year’s Retto version of the Otter Trail Run (the Otter route in reverse). She not only smashed an incredible 22 minutes off the women’s Retto record, and became the first women to achieve a sub-5 for that direction (by a massive margin of over 10 minutes), but achieved the fastest women’s time for either direction!

Suddenly the name Robyn Owen was on everyone’s lips in the trail running community – who was this kid, where’d she come from? But young Robyn is no dark horse – she is an athlete extraordinaire who has been excelling in pretty much every adventure sport she’s taken up. She’s enormously talented, she’s not afraid to face the most gruelling of endurance challenges, she’s strong and she’s fast. But what makes Robyn extra special is that she’s one of the most humble athletes out there. That puts her permanently on the top o’the podium in my books!

                                                                 (photo by Terence Vrugtman)

I first met Robyn in 2013, running the 37km Matroosberg Skymarathon. She amazed everyone that day – seemingly coming from nowhere, she not only scooped a clear win in the ladies by a massive margin, but kept the lead men on their toes. She finished 5th overall, just 20 mins behind race winner AJ Calitz, and just seconds behind speedsters Ake Fagareng and Noel Ernstzen, who both panicked they were about to get chicked!

Age:  26
Profession:   civil engineer
Achievements:   Apart from whipping the Retto, Robyn has…
  • smashed the Dusi Canoe Marathon five times – three wins in a K2 (pair) and two wins in a K1 (solo);
  • represented SA at the World Long Distance Mountain Running champs 2013 in Poland, finishing 24th as the highest SA finisher;
  • raced with Team Merrell Adventure Addicts in adventure races in Swaziland, Australia, Brazil and Chile;
  • raced with Team Sanlam Painted Wolf in the 2016 World AR Champs in Australia. Out of 99 teams they finished 4th, overtaking a team just 3km before the end in an impressive sprint finish.
Passions: (apart from Mike) Loves wild, beautiful spaces, seeing new places, meeting interesting people and creatures, being active, challenges, competing…
Goal in life:    Still to be determined. In the meantime she’s having as much fun and accumulating as many rich experiences as possible.
                                                            Robyn and Mike doing what they love best                       (photo by Mike Owen)

LD:  Your Retto win must’ve rocked your world – it certainly rocked the entire trail community! Looking back, what are your thoughts on that day?
RO:  The strong ladies field was a major topic of the Otter in the days leading up to the race. My name made the long list of favourites but only near the bottom. Being in the enviable position of having nothing to lose, I could afford to run a bold race.
To my pleasant surprise nobody sprinted off the start line; the front ladies pack ran the first 2 km across the Nature's Valley beach together at a fairly civilised pace. As we got to the end of the beach Stevie (Ed: Kremer) pulled slightly ahead to enter the trail first and I tucked in behind her for the first hands-on-knees climb. I then stayed on her heels for the first half of the race – on an absolute high the whole time. At Bloukrans I couldn't believe how well my day was going – to be sharing the lead of "The Grail of Trail" with the super-star of trail running after 10 km was already more than a dream come true. If I'd blown and limped in last, or even if I'd pulled out later on, I still would've classified it as a good day.
Robyn hot on the heels of Stevie Kremer during the Retto

This year there was a slide into the Bloukrans river and we decided to go down it together (there was a prize for the best slide photo of the day). Unfortunately the water at the bottom was less than knee-deep and Stevie hurt her ankle as I landed on top of her. She ran on as if nothing had happened and never mentioned a word about it in the post-race interviews, but later that afternoon it was very swollen and she walked with a definite limp. I still feel pretty guilty and think the result might have been different if that hadn't happened.
Just after the halfway point I started battling to match Stevie's pace on the climbs, and knew that I'd have to make up for it on the descents if I was to keep in contention. On a particularly long technical descent I passed her and got a lead which I managed to hold for a few kilometres, but then she came jogging past as I heaved up a climb I would never have thought runnable and disappeared out of sight. The game of cat and mouse continued a few times before we were back together at the waterfall with 3 km to go. Two of these last 3km are very technical: giant boulder-hopping along a rugged shore rather than trail running. This is my favourite type of running and I gave everything I had left in me to pull a gap. 

LD:  Were you clock-watching? Also, when did you start to realise that you had the win in the bag?
RO:  Once we got to the waterfall together I knew that I should be able take it, but I could feel myself being reeled in again on the final few hundred meters. It was only on the final corner when I could see the finish line about 50m away that I was confident. 
I don't run with a watch (I actually had planned on wearing one just for this race but I forgot it in my tent). Just after halfway I asked Stevie the time and knew we were on pace for around 5 hours. Then Mark Collins ran the final 2km with me and told me along the way that I was under the ladies record for both directions and lying 5th overall. The finish still felt a very long way away but I did have a few goose-bumps from then on. 

LD:  Let’s talk Dusi. Having seconded the Dusi a few times, I’ve seen what you guys go through, and I know how the heat in that Dusi valley can ramp up – it’s gruelling out there. Would you say that the challenge is what attracted you the most, and that realising what you could achieve drove you to push even harder?
RO:  That sounds about right. I grew up in Pietermaritzburg, watching a thousand canoes crash over the first couple of weirs in the Dusi Canoe Marathon every year. It's a big event for the little city and one that everybody knows about. It was one of the obvious challenges that as a kid I dreamed of doing one day, and I was fortunate to get that opportunity quite early on. (Yes, the Comrades is another one but I'm shelving that for one day when I'm really big!)

LD:  Strong at canoeing, strong in trail running, strong in rock climbing… the natural progression then was towards adventure racing, right? Tell me about your time with Team Merrell Adventure Addicts, and the races you guys did in Swaziland, Australia, Brazil, and the one in Patagonia – 3rd team to finish out of 26 starters!
RO:  (I'm actually a very novice rock climber, I just pose in precarious-looking places for Instagram photos!)
Amongst the outdoor sporting community I’d heard a lot about adventure racing – that impossible sport where crazy people race for days through wild terrain with hardly any sleep. I wasn't sure why anyone would want to do that, but the fact that there were people who could and did always intrigued me. The invitation to join the Merrell Adventure Addicts came many years before I expected to be attempting something so crazy, but it caught me in a yes-mood. (Who could say no to all-expenses paid trips to Swaziland, the Australian Tropics, the Brazilian Pantanal, and Mystical Patagonia anyway?) 
Those races were all absolutely fantastic experiences. It was rewarding to discover that there is life after "the wall" (the one that you hit when you "blow" or "bonk" as frequently happens towards the end of races that last a few hours), and that you can actually feel ok after two or three or four days of almost non-stop forward motion. The sleep deprivation hallucinations were interesting. The places we visited were absolutely incredible. I raced with and against amazing and interesting people and learnt a huge amount from them (technical skills, soft-skills and inspiration for future adventures).
                                                    Team Sanlam Painted Wolf in training action                   (photo by Terence Vrugtman)

LD:  Then you joined Team Sanlam Painted Wolf to compete in the AR World Champs in Australia in November. The Collins brothers + Andre Gie + you = that’s a winning combination if ever I saw one! And that week you had us all on the edge of our desk chairs as we e-watched you push on. You finished 4th out of 99 teams, and did a sprint finish to pass an Aussie team just before the finish! Chat a bit about the race from your perspective. 
RO:  The ARWC 2016 in the Shoalhaven in Australia was relatively easy from a survival point of view, but it attracted the biggest and most competitive field that an adventure race has ever seen. The racing was fierce. We made a few navigation mistakes and lost motivation quite early on, dropping back to 25th about a day into the race. But after a regroup we pulled our way back to finish 4th three days later (of course a huge amount happened during that time but it would make too long a story for here). Of the races I have done this was the one where I had the least sleep and the sorest feet, but it was also the one I enjoyed the most. Mark, John and Andre were amazing teammates –  apart from being brilliant racers, they looked after me and made me feel like a valuable part of the team. We had a far from flawless race but the setbacks never dampened the spirit of the team for long, and when we did go well we were pretty speedy! The crazy sprint finish for the final two of more than 600km is something I will never forget.

LD:  You and Mike have started a trail guiding business, called For the Love of Adventure. Tell me about that.
RO:  We are both happiest when we are outside in wild natural spaces, and are passionate about travel and exploration as well as the amazing places on our back doorstep. We launched For the Love of Adventure to share these passions with others. We offer guided hiking and trail running around Stellenbosch and the Western Cape, as well as custom adventurous holidays both near and further afield. Our dream is ultimately to both have an outdoor lifestyle that is financially sustainable. (https://ftloadventure.com)

LD:  Next up on the racing front:  the Coast to Coast Challenge in New Zealand. Tell us about that one.
RO:  The Coast to Coast "Longest Day" is a single day individual multisport event involving 33km of steep technical mountain running, 70km of river kayaking and 140km of road cycling from the west coast to the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. It is tagged "the World Multisport Championships" and is a major event in New Zealand. I don't know exactly who I will be up against, but the competition is likely to be very strong. Local knowledge apparently plays a big role, especially on the run and paddle sections, and I plan to go over a couple of weeks beforehand to familiarise myself with the trickier bits.

LD:  Who’re you sponsored by?
RO:  I am an ambassador for Best4Sports, the makers of CrampNOT: the world's first neuromuscular complex for exercise induced muscle cramps (the world's first preventative and cure for cramps that actually works), as well as a few other revolutionary nutrition products which will be launched soon.
As Team Sanlam Painted Wolf, we’re sponsored by Sanlam as well as a host of other great people and brands.
                                                                                                                                                 (photo by Cherie Vale)

LD:  And on the cards for next year is surely Otter 2017. Tellme tellme!
RO:  Yes, I hope to be there. 4h30 is an alluring target for the women that I'm confident will be broken at some stage. I doubt that I will be the one to do it but I would like to at least help to put the pressure on!

LD:  What would you say are your strengths that pull you through the tough moments?
RO:  I don't think that I'm any better than anyone else at pulling through tough moments. Generally, once you're in a tough situation you don't have much choice but to pull yourself through it. I probably do voluntarily throw myself into unpleasant situations more often than most. Is that a strength or stupidity?

LD:  Finally, your most amusing thought during a particularly tough racing moment?
RO:  No way, those thoughts shouldn't be put into writing!!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Ultra-Trail Cape Town's ultra-spectacular playground

Tomorrow will be staged the third running of Ultra-Trail Cape Town (UTCT), when 1 000 extremely privileged trail runners from 40 countries will experience the exhilaration of running up, over, down, around and across South Africa’s most photographed landmark, Table Mountain.

Depending on whether they’re running the 35km, the 65km or the full 100km, some will be slogging further and for longer than others. Many will have already recced their race route in sections or in its entirety, while others will be seeing this special mountain up close and personal for the first time.

But one thing’s for certain: all will feel the grace and power of that great mountain – the mountain that Nelson Mandela once proclaimed “a gift to the Earth”.

This is not a blog about UTCT and what a fantastically organised event it is, nor will it be raving about the event’s achievement of having been announced part of the 2017 Ultra-Trail World Tour. In just two years, the race has put the beautiful city of Cape Town on the global stage of ultra-distance trail running, and it certainly doesn’t need a pre-race blog to reinforce that.

No, this blog post is about the mountain that lies at the heart of this, and several other great Cape Town trail races. It’s a mountain like no other – not for its height, for surely it cannot compare to the giants that loom elsewhere in the world; nor for its hardness of rock, its upper layer consisting of highly erodible sandstone.

                                                                                                                                           photo by Andrew King
Table Mountain is in a league of its own for so many reasons, and it’s no surprise that in 2012 it was proclaimed one of the world’s New 7 Wonders of Nature.

Tomorrow Table Mountain will be the focus for 1 000 trail runners and their friends and family around the world, so this blog post pays tribute to the mountain, in all her glory.

Facts (and some fun fiction) about Table Mountain

FACT:  Table Mountain is far more than just the magnificent flat-topped square-cut monolith it appears to be from Cape Town city centre. Instead the 6-10km table forms the front face of a spine of mountains that winds its way some 50km directly south along the Cape peninsula to the Cape of Good Hope. The Twelve Apostles make up its immediate backbone, with 17 buttresses leering gracefully across the Atlantic Ocean above Camps Bay and Llandudno.

FACT:  More than 500 million years old, Table Mountain is older than the Alps, the Andes, the Rockies and the Himalayas.

FACT:  Table Mountain is the only natural site on the planet to have a constellation named after it. In 1754, French Astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lecaille named the southern constellation Mons Mensae (Latin for “the table mountain”) after the iconic landmark. The name has since been shortened to Mensa.

FICTION:  The famed “tablecloth” that settles on the table top during the south-easterly wind common to the summer months is not a cloud at all, but rather the effect of a smoking duel that’s been raging since the 1600s between a Dutch pirate Van Hunks and the devil.

FACT:  Table Mountain National Park hosts the richest floral kingdom on earth, with more than 1 240 floral species, 60% of which are endemic (they exist nowhere else in the world). The area is recognised globally for its biodiversity and its unique flora and fauna.

FACT:  The original San name for the Table Mountain range is Hoerikwaggo, meaning “mountains of the sea”.

FACT:  Table Mountain National Park has more than 800 000 visitors a year. Since it opened in 1929, the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway has taken more than 22 million people up the mountain.

FACT:  Table Mountain is visible from as far out to sea as 150km. And yet the Cape Peninsula has more than 600 shipwrecks along its shores.

FACT… or fiction?  Table Mountain is getting higher. The mountain is syncline, which means it was once the bottom of a valley. Part of the great Cape Fold Belt, it was gradually pushed up (and is still being pushed up?) to form the parallel ranges of mountains that run for 800km along the southern and south-western Cape coastline.

And the most obvious fact of all is that Table Mountain forms a majestic one kilometre high backdrop to the most beautiful city on the African continent.

So, to all those readers who’re running Ultra-Trail Cape Town tomorrow – and those of you who will run on our mountain any other time, remember to touch her lightly, she's very old and very special.

And always, take only memories, leave only footprints.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Thailand Power of Ten Challenge

Running an ultra is no doddle. Anything over 42km is gruelling on the body, and the further you push, the tougher it gets. Add to that the conditions you’re running in and the terrain you’re running on, and things can get rather interesting…

Imagine running 50km a day for 20 consecutive days, in heat and humidity that saps every smidgeon of bounce from your legs, across all terrain from tar to dirt road to sodden rice paddy. And then, on the 20th day, adding the toughest stretch of all, a formal 100km trail ultra marathon, just for good measure.

And now, imagine if every slogging step of that journey could be worth so much more than merely the feeling of achieving the completion of the distance. Imagine if for every ultra you run, you can give a child a gift that will change his or her life forever. Imagine that.

Forget imagination – that’s what David Grier and Andy Stuart are making reality with their Thailand Power of 10 challenge: they’re clocking up 1 100km up Thailand in 20 extremely hot and sweaty days, culminating in the Thailand Ultra 100km race. And each of those 20 days will enable a child to smile for the first time.

The thin black line is their route from Bangkok up to Ban Tham village near the Burmese border

It’s simple: David and Andy are running their miles to earn smiles for at least 20 kids in need of corrective cleft palate surgery. Those smiles will be first-time smiles, and lifetime smiles. Their run will have the power to change the lives of those kids forever. All this through the Cipla Miles for Smiles Foundation.

Operation Smile South Africa provides free surgeries to repair cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities for children in southern Africa. Each surgery costs, of course, and through the work of dedicated, philanthropist medical specialists and the Cipla Foundation, the fee is reduced to just R5 500 – free to the patient but the funds still need to be paid. That’s where the fundraising efforts of Miles for Smiles come in.

Why the Power of 10?
Ten is symbolic on many counts: this is the 10th of David’s fundraising endurance challenges; it’s been 10 years since the first of those 10 was achieved (the first full length completion of the Great Wall of China, 4 200km ), and close on R10 million is the amount that has been raised through the 10 feats.

As David says “The power of 10 is the beginning of a celebration of the past 10 year, a journey of a life-fulfilling adventure of passion, zest for life and the internal yearning to make a difference in some way.”

And the 10 years has seen nearly 2 000 children receive corrective surgery funded by David’s runs for the Cipla Miles for Smiles Foundation for Operation Smile South Africa.

Over the past nine years David has clocked up around 26 000km in endurance feats for charity: 
  • The Great Wall Challenge – in 2006, he and Braam Malherbe were the first people in recorded history to run the full length of the Great Wall of China (4 200km in 98 days)
  • SA Coastal Challenge – in 2008 he and Braam ran the entire coastline of South Africa, from Namibia to Mozambique (3 300km in 80 days)
  • Madagascar Challenge – in 2010 he paddled solo from Africa to Madagascar (500km in 11 days) and then ran across Madagascar (2 000km in 66 days)
  • India Challenge – in 2011 David and Andy ran across India, north to south (4 008km in 93 days)
  • UK Challenge – in 2012 David and Andy ran the length of the UK from John O’Groats to Lands End
  • Cuba Challenge – in 2014 David and Andy achieved another first, running from Guantanamo Bay near San Antanio  in the south east to Punte Messi in the north-west of Cuba (1 800km in 28 days)
  • And now it’s the Thailand Challenge: 1 100km, from Bangkok to Ban Tham village in the north of the country near the Burmese border. Once there, they’ll run the 100km Thailand Ultra Marathon, rated by Red Bull as the fifth toughest ultra in Asia.
I was privileged to be invited by the two crazies to run that final 100km race with them. Sadly, I had other commitments and had to turn them down L 
So, yesterday they sent me this quick video clip to say hi: 

Today the guys have less than 350km to go before they reach the start line of their final 100km. It’s been hellishly hard, not so much for the daily distance they’re pushing, but for the climate they’re running in – Thailand’s humidity is soporific, and trying to exercise in those conditions feels impossible.

There are two ways you can help David and Andy reach their target of R110,000 towards #MilesForSmiles for Operation Smile South Africa
  • sms SMILES to 39051 and you will be contributing R25
  • click on the Cipla Foundation donation page and donate an amount of your choice: CLICK HERE TO DONATE

Just a quick and simple click will help David and Andy raise funds to help as many kids with cleft lip or palate as possible receive corrective surgery, and let them be able to smile!

Follow David Grier's blog during the Thailand Power of 10 on this link: David Grier's blog

* all photos credited to Peter Kirk Media

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A black tale of the Tor des Géants 2016

This is not a race report on the Tor des Géants 2016. It is instead a colourful, or rather dark, description of my short experience of that fantastic race.

(Warning: this post is not for readers whose stomachs are of a sensitive disposition...)

There’s a first time for everything. This first was one I’d been salivating over since my brother convinced me a year ago it was a must-do race. The Tor des Géants (TDG - directly translated means Tour of Giants) is renowned for its ruthless character, and it has the stats to prove it. It involves running (well, fast-trekking) 339km over 20 mountain passes in the Italian Alps, clocking up +29,000m of vertical gain and descent. It would be 30% further than I’d ever covered in a non-stop effort, and by far the most vert I’d ever done at any one time.

The TDG is extremely well organised, it’s run in the most exquisite region of the Alps, and in every way it’s a landmark event. It’s double the distance of toughies like UTMB and Grand Raid of Reunion, and close to three times their vertical gain. For those ultra-runners who’re looking for a crazy adventure of toughest and furthest, this one’s it.

I knew that in taking on this challenge the ask of my body would be immense, and I did all I could think of to prepare – I trained repeats on my local mountains, practised power walking, strengthened legs and core, planned my nutrition, and visualised the endeavour as best one could, being a good 10,000km away from the Alps and at sea level.
I turned down opportunities to do other events in the months before the race for fear of overtraining.

I cut a deal with my brother, Graham, known by many in Australian and UK ultra-running circles as singlehandedly the best crew there is (meditation teacher, massage therapist and all round invigorating person all in one), that I would take his bait to do this race on condition he crewed for me. (He’d crewed twice before on this race, so he knew the ropes.)
The deal was struck, my entry accepted and I was in. Suddenly it was real!

Fast forward to September 11, the small northern Italian town of Courmayeur and the start line of the Tor des Géants 2016. The nervous energy of 770 “trailers” from 70 countries was electric. I was herded with 30 other “VIPs” into the elite pen at the front of the crowd, feeling decidedly inadequate amidst the likes of previous years’ winners and this year’s race favourites.
The music blared, the countdown (in Italian) was started, and bam! the race began.

                                                          The start of the Tor des Géants 2016       (photo credit: Giorgio Augusto Neyroz)

Any ultra-distance runner will attest to the fact that recounting details from a race becomes increasingly difficult the longer and more testing the distance covered, save for specific landmarks or memorable moments. Everything else blurs into a continuum of general scenery, sounds, the legs/shoes/kit of runners in front of you, the terrain, weather conditions, awareness of altitude and mileage, self-reminders to eat and drink, frequent mumblings of self-encouragement and, inevitably, occasional/frequent cursing at all of the above, often out loud.

Experienced ultra runners will also know to expect varying degrees of physical discomfort that increase as the race progresses, including pain (this might be in any random area of the body, and may come and go at whim and for no apparent reason) and nausea. Sometimes the latter can manifest into full blown vomiting, and usually in a rather impressively projectile fashion, particularly during longer races. While this happening tends to alarm spectators, it is quite normal and nothing to be concerned about, it’s merely one of the many quirky, not-so-dainty phenomena of ultra-running that we know to expect at some stage during an endurance race, the remedy for which seems to the unseasoned to make little sense: to simply force food in as a matter of urgency, despite the body’s absolute determination to throw it back up.

My nausea hit me about 28 hours into my Tor des Géants, somewhere around the 98km mark, after 8,073m vert and 7,800m descent. Having summited Col Loson (3 299m), the highest point of the race, I was making my way down to the checkpoint at Rifugio Sella (2 585m) when the nausea smacked me. I held out til the refuge and ate what I could – some salty broth, a piece of orange and a dried apricot – then continued down the mountain. The food stayed in for all of 10 minutes. By the time I’d reached the forested switchbacks before the valley, I’d thrown up three times. No problem, I thought, this is quite normal during ultras. Embrace it.
                                                                                                                  (photo credit: Stefano Jeantet)

But what happened over the next 6km to the Cogne lifebase was not at all embraceable. The projectile turned from a perfectly normal colour to dark brown, and then to black.

Retching one’s guts out is meant be a figure of speech, but during that section of gentle downhill into Cogne, I turned the figurative into the literal – I was spewing volumes of ink-like liquid. Even more disturbing was that the ink was liberally adorned with little black raisin-like lumps. This was a mystery, I hadn’t eaten raisins for days – nor had I sampled the prunes provided at the checkpoints. (Yes, prunes, on a running race, that’s another mystery!)

By the time I staggered into the lifebase, I was utterly sapped and, according to my now very concerned brother, who’d expected me hours earlier, I looked like death. He fed, watered and quizzed me on my condition, then sent me into the lifebase to sleep for a 4-hour “reboot”.
Two hours later I woke in a panic that I was losing time and had to get going. I was scrambling into my warmer gear when my brother appeared, surprised to find me awake. A crew’s job is to ensure effective refuelling and rehydration, to massage if needed, to offer much reassurance and encouragement, and to chivvy the runner not to dawdle at the lifebases. But perhaps most importantly, the crew is there to be of sound judgement for the runner. Graham calmly asked how I was feeling, and whether I thought I should sleep for another two hours. Essentially, he asked me my plan.

If anyone knows the importance of a second / crew being firm on their runner, it’s Graham – he’s probably crewed as many times as I’ve raced. He knows to be strict with timing, to not be swayed by pleading, and to take no nonsense from his runner. He sees to what they need, and then boots them out to continue with their race, no bother or fuss. This brother of mine has crewed for the best o’them, including the entire British women’s team at the Commonwealth 24 Hour World Championships in 2011 (in which they won gold), and for Lizzy Hawker during her record-setting 155 mile Spartathlon in 2012). The man knows his stuff.
So when he took me by the shoulders and asked me the question “Do you honestly think you’re in any condition to head back out there?”, I knew he was very serious.
                                                                                                                     (photo credit: Stefano Jeantet)

There was much thinking done on my part, much to’ing and fro’ing in my mind. It was an arduous process, and Graham didn’t try to convince me either way – he knew the answer, but he also knew the decision had to be entirely mine to make.
My Cape Town trail buddies know I’m a bit of a preacher when it comes to listening to the body – about discerning the difference between the woesie whingeing so common during exertion, and the real thing. This was the real thing, and I knew it. My body was stamping its foot loud and clear. And I heard it.

Sure, I could’ve prolonged the agony by resting a few hours longer, recharging the batteries and heading out again. But in my heart I knew I’d be a fool – those next 230km and 20,000m of vert would damage me in the state I was in. Whatever was happening to my gut was more than just the usual Ultra Vomit (a lovely phrase to coin, no?), this was something more, and it certainly didn’t look or feel very friendly.

So I did the responsible thing and withdrew from the race.
It felt horrid.
Two weeks later it still feels horrid.
My first proper race bail in more than 20 years of running ultras, and it happened on the biggest race I’d ever hoped to run. And as much as I know it was the only sensible choice, it gnaws me still.
Graham and I followed the race for another 24 hours, helping support my buddies Armand du Plessis and Ake Fagereng as they soldiered onward like the stars they are. Later, we waited on the race’s back fielders way into the night as they trudged in the pouring rain, desperately trying to keep ahead of the cut-offs.

So yes, there’s a first time for everything. For my mates Ake, Armand and Luc Steens, theirs was their first 200 miler – they battled through fatigue and foul weather to achieve their goal.
My Tor des Géants was a bail, and while I know I made the responsible decision, it’ll haunt me forever. Dramatic, perhaps, but I now see that’s what bailing something you’re hungry for does. Whether this one will remain unfinished business, who knows. But hey, as my doctor told me when I saw her last week, at least I live to tell the (sorry) tale.

Rereading this post, I realise anyone would think mine was the first bail in the history of ultra running, the way I’ve rabbited on. But it was big to me, as no doubt withdrawals are to everyone who’s had the misfortune of having to do so.
What I take away from my Tor des Géants, shortlived as it was, is enduring memories of exquisite mountain landscapes that only the Alps can deliver, and I was lucky enough to enjoy those views in perfectly clear weather. The rain moved in after I pulled out, and the blue skies were replaced by icy cold rain and, at times, hail.

The cut-off for the 339km Tor des Géants was 150 hours (six days and six hours).
Of the race’s 770 starters, 446 people finished.
The race was won by Italian ultra champ Oliviero Bosatelli (47) in 75:10.
The winning woman was also Italian, Lisa Borzani (37) in 91:09, placing her 7th overall.

Below is a selection of images taken by photographers during the 6 days of the race:
                                                                 TDG 2016 winner Oliviero Bositelli           (photo credit: Stefano Jeantet)

                                                   Race winner Oliviero Bositelli       (photo credit: Stefano Jeantet)

                                                            TDG 2016 women's winner Lisa Borzani              (photo credit: Stefano Jeantet)
                                                    One of the smaller checkpoints along the route                (photo credit: Roberto Roux)
                                                       The scenery in the Italian Alps is mindblowing           (photo credit: Stefano Jeantet)

                              Two of the front runners during Day 2, still looking fresh and spritely    (photo credit: Roberto Roux)

                    A runner using all he had to keep warm and dry on Day 5, around 265km    (photo credit: Stefano Jeantet)

                                                             The finishers of Tor des Géants 2016             (photo credit: Stefano Jeantet)

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.

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.

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