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!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Mapungubwe Transfrontier Wildrun 2017

photo credit Mark Sampson
I’m torn. And I mean, really torn.
My head wants to write about the wonderful experience I had last week, telling the world how fantastic it was to run in the African bush with wild game and to see, feel, taste and smell true southern African bush veld. But my heart wants selfishly to keep it secret, sharing it only with those closest to me for fear of word spreading and hundreds of humans flocking to spoil a corner of beautiful, unspoilt Africa.

I’m going with my head this time, trusting that the folk who’ll be reading this blog aren’t like the average tourist out there who has little respect for nature. Trail runners are different, thankfully – most of us hold the environment close to our heart, and protect it in every way we can. So let this post be a secret shared amongst ourselves, protected from the world out there and closely guarded amongst those who respect and treasure the natural world.

I love the African bush. I love everything about it – from the twitter of the first bird before the dawn dances its gentle morning light across the horizon, to the deep golden hue of the after-glow in the evening sky; from the deep-throated hollow roar of a distant lion, to the thundering hooves of a herd of wildebeest as they charge across the open veld; from the lonely cry of the fish eagle circling overhead, to the gentle scraping sound of a black mamba as it stealthily slithers between two rocks and out of view.
I love the vastness of the horizon, the hugeness of the moon, the blanket of stars brilliant against the night sky, the ancient trees that have seen generations pass beneath them. I love the smell of the rain on the baked earth, and the way the air is alive with energy before an African storm. All this is what real, unspoilt Africa is about.
photo credit Mark Sampson

Imagine blending all of this with trail running. Imagine running with elephants, kudu, wildebeest, eland, impala, klipspringer and giraffe, being woken up in the night by the grunts of a hippo in the river near your tent, and standing under a gigantic baobab tree that’s more than 2 000 years old. Imagine.

All this was part of what I experienced last week, shared with 75 other lovers of trail running, on the Mapungubwe Transfrontier Wildrun. And I’ve spent the whole of this week barely able to concentrate, my mind constantly drifting back to the banks of the great, grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees (so perfectly described by Rudyard Kipling in one of my favourite childhood stories, The Elephant’s Child), wishing I was back there.

Some background
The Mapungubwe Transfrontier Wildrun, brainchild of Wildrunner, and facilitated by Boundless Southern Africa, marries untamed Africa with trail running, in a three-day stage event that covers 93km through the Limpopo-Shashe basin in the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area that connects Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.

So many factors make this event special, but for me three stand out:
  • It’s not a race, but a run. There are no placings, no positions, no podiums – this is not about speed, but about the experience. Let’s face it, in Africa no one can just go racing into the wild bush yonder, it would be irresponsible, if not suicidal, so staging a race there would be impossible. In the Mapungubwe Transfrontier Wildrun, runners choose the group they’d be comfortable in – faster pace, medium or slower. Each group is led by a (very fit) qualified game ranger, and safety is the highest priority.

  • It crosses the borders of three countries, requiring all the relevant documentation, visas and passport-stamping by customs officials – everything specially organised for the runners on the banks of the rivers that border each country. It takes one hell of a lot of planning, paperwork and preparation to coordinate the diplomatic and logistical permissions for undesignated border crossings on foot in deepest darkest Africa, and it shows just how much needs to be prepared in advance behind the scenes before an event like this can happen.
    photo credit Mark Sampson
  • You’re in the best hands. Like all of Wildrunner’s events, everything is carefully thought through to the finest detail. Participants enjoy five-star bush treatment, from several delicious refreshment stops along each day’s route (tea, coffee, hot chocolate, biscuits, biltong, potatoes, jelly babies and more…  not forgetting the peanut butter-stuffed mini pitas, champers and freshly-made wraps on the wooden deck overlooking the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers), to hot showers and even a gin bar, set on a koppie above camp and overlooking the setting sun. All this, yet more than 160km away from even the nearest spaza shop. It’s impressive stuff!

Highlights from the three days:
A 210 million year old dinosaur fossil
  • Standing next to the mineralised fossil of a dinosaur, Massospondylus carinatus owen, which roamed the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana some 210 million years ago during the early Jurassic period. That's a whole 65 million years before brachiosaurus stomped the earth!
  • Seeing the Limpopo River, which is usually nothing more than a wide sandy river bed dotted with a few stagnant puddles, now full and flowing from the abundant rains. Wading across the river was not nerve-wracking at all...  I was assured crocs aren't so keen on shins, they prefer whole bodies. Hah, right!
  • Climbing the Mapungubwe Hill onto the citadel of an ancient African kingdom that dates back to the 13th century, preceding that of Great Zimbabwe. Mapungubwe is a World Heritage Site, home to the famous gold-coated rhino that was a symbol of the power of the king of the Mapungubwe people. We then ran along the valley below the citadel, where more age-old baobabs than I was able to count stood guard, silent in their stature, ever-watching as they’ve done for more than a thousand years. Those baobabs have witnessed a civilisation rise and fall, they’ve shared every season for millenia, endured droughts and floods, watched millions of animals pass by, and still they stand guard, sentinels of that valley.
  • Watching from a koppie as about 15 elephants gradually made their way along their trail – one that's probably been trodden by ancestors of those same elephants for hundreds of generations.
  • Running along the edge of the riverine forest as a huge herd of wildebeest galloped across the open veld to our right.
  • Enjoying the bountiful meals cooked over open fires by the wonderful women from the local Maramani community under the guidance of the ever-energetic Marion. Steaming stews, freshly baked bread, pesto, cheeses, locally-grown salads and herbs – our food was hearty and delicious, perfect for post-run refuelling.
  • Sunset from the gin bar on the koppie above camp was something special. Somehow an African sunset has a majesty like no other, and every evening I quietly held my breath to hear the tiny 'pop' sound that giant orange-red makes as it gently drops below the horizon. (It does, you know, you just have to listen carefully...)
  • The non-competition: we ran an average of 30km a day, each group at its own comfortable pace, stopwatches and pace-markers the furthest things from our minds. It was about being out there, together, immersed in untouched Africa, running on tracks that might well have been trodden for eons by the ancestors of those living there today.
I can write on for hours about the Mapungubwe Transfrontier Wildrun experience, but I fear I’ve already overstepped the so-called ideal word count that a blog post should be. This run is exceptional for so many reasons, and while my heart is still hesitant to shout out about it, my head knows that special experiences like these should be shared, particularly amongst those who’ll best appreciate them.

photo credit Mark Sampson

Monday, May 1, 2017

There is no Map in Hell - blog tour day 1

Imagine covering 515km with 36,000m of ascent – under the pressure of a ticking clock and a specific number of peaks to be bagged…

The Wainwrights are the 214 fells in England’s Lake District, and visiting all of them is a popular challenge for peak-baggers. There’s even a register kept of those who have completed the Wainwrights.

Bagging those 214 peaks within a specific time, however, is quite another level of challenge. The first continuous round of all 214 Wainwrights was completed in 1985, in 9 days and 16 hours. The following year a new record of 7 days 1 hour was set by the legendary fell runner Joss Naylor. This record was said to be impossible to beat – it was, after all, the ultimate British ultramarathon.

Nineteen years later, hardcore ultra runner Steve Birkinshaw made an attempt at breaking that record. With a background of nearly 40 years of running elite orienteering races and extreme-distance fell running over the toughest terrain, if he couldn’t do it, surely no one could…

He smashed the record in 6 days and 13 hours – that’s over 515km and with 36,000m of ascent.

Steve has now written a book, There is no Map in Hell, accounting his extraordinary achievement, and it will be hitting the shelves in the UK this week.

Rockhoppin’ Trail has been invited by the publisher to take part in Steve’s blog tour – a nine-day innovative online strategy to market There is no Map in Hell during the week of its launch. Each day a unique blog post written by Steve will be hosted on a different award-winning international blog site.
And excitingly, Rockhoppin’ Trail has the privilege of hosting the first blog of the tour!

Today is that day – Day 1 of the There is no Map in Hell  blog tour, and here is the post Steve has written for Rockhoppin’ Trail:

The persistent need to push harder, faster, further
by Steve Birkinshaw

During most races I take part in there are times when I think, “This is really painful, why am I doing this? I want to stop”. This happens on short races when my lungs feel like they are going to explode. It happens on long races when I get an energy dip and on every step up a climb my quads are screaming at me to stop. It happens in an ultra when all my muscles and joints are agony and I am shuffling along like an old man.
Day 6 - Leaving the campervan at Dodds Wood in a lot of pain to start the final section

However, almost as soon as I finish I will be thinking about the next race. If it went badly, I will immediately be thinking of doing it again but doing it better. If it went well I will be happy and want to do another race – but push myself harder or further. There have, however, been a couple of occasions when a run has been so hard and it hurt so much that I have needed to take it easy for a month or so while the mental scars vanish to be replaced by the positive memories. In particular I can think of the Lakeland 100 in 2009 where I suffered badly over the last thirty miles. I even sat down on a wall for five minutes at one point and decided to give up before I started moving again.
Day 5 - Mel Culleton-Wright and Emma putting on my socks over the blisters at Patterdale Post Office

For me, worse than the pain of running is the mental anguish of not running. When I have been injured or ill I have found sitting watching a race exceptionally hard. The excitement of the preparation and the emotional high that everyone has when they come back exhausted is very hard for me to watch. I want to be out there and experience that high. I want to know I have pushed myself to the limit and achieved a good time. It is really nice to win races but I get the most pleasure from knowing I have given it my all. I think I crave that high from the endorphins released during running. When I have finished the stresses in my life have completely disappeared and I am happy and relaxed.

But then there is the need to push it further next time to see how far I can go, how far I can push my body. I am never going to be the fastest runner – I am too big and weigh too much – but I seem to have an ability to run for long distances and the mental attitude to push myself and keep going when many others might give up.
Day 7 - Jim Davies treating my tendonitis at Whinlatter Hobcarton car park

Some of this explains my progression from orienteering through to fell races, long fell races, mountain marathons, adventure races and then ultras. The longer the race the more satisfaction and emotional highs I get from running hard and pushing myself to my limit. The longer the race, the better I also seem to do, which also increases my satisfaction. Running round all the Wainwright was for me the pinnacle of forty years of running. Over time I have gradually increased the distance I have run and pushed it further and harder than before. Finally I had the experience and stamina to push it hard for six and a half days round all the Wainwright fells in the Lake District.    Steve Birkinshaw