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!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Trans-Alps: 99 days and counting

Today is the start of my 99-day countdown to the biggest challenge I’ve ever taken on. From Sept 4 – 11 I’ll be competing in the Trans-Alpine Run, a 296km 8-day stage race through the German, Austrian and Italian Alps.

The race will be extreme – not so much because of the terrain it’ll cover, the altitude it’ll be run at, or the 18 000m in altitude I’ll have to haul myself up over the duration of the race, but because of its toughest test: my partner in this two-person team event will be world champ ultra-distance trail running champion Ryan Sandes.

They call him the Sandman, for his astonishing ability to run at speed through extreme desert conditions. But he’s also sloshed his way at high pace for 7 days through the Amazon Jungle and won. And I’ve seen him run up a rocky path that’s barely visible and make it look easy. Forget Sandman – this man’s a Speed Machine!

For eight days I’ll be chasing a time machine up alpine mountains, over glaciers and snow-covered shale slides, across rock faces and down valleys, competing against 62 other mixed teams in the hope of a podium finish. We’ll be running at an average altitude of 2 600m, which will be tough for us both as we live at sea level. The scenery will be incredible... although I doubt I’ll get to see much of that!

Ryan and l will be competing as Team Salomon / Velocity Sports Lab, named after our two amazing sponsors without whom we’d still only be dreaming of doing the race. This is an opportunity few people come by, and it’ll be a tremendous experience.

So I’m in boot camp for the next three months. And if I have any hope of keeping up with the Speed Machine, best I sign off right now and get running up mountains!

Check out the race info by clicking on Trans-Alpine Run 2010 flyer

Happy weekend running!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tribute to Tenzing

Meet my informal running partner, Tenzing.

And yes, he takes after his sherpa namesake – not that he carries anything, of course, but he hungers for heights. When I got him as a six-week pup in 2004, I promised him a lifetime of adventure, and he snatched up the offer as he would a juicy chunk of biltong.
He’s the most enthusiastic running partner imaginable, game for a trot any time of day or night, and even more so if there’re puddles on the route. He’s a sharp little guy – not only is he able to distinguish between normal clothes and running kit, but road running shoes and trail shoes. Give him the option, and he’ll head for the mountains faster than even I can turn from tar.
Those of you who’ve not formally met him might be wondering what type of dog my Tenzing is. Well, that’s a tricky one... Officially, he’s a purebred Staffie. But someone forgot to tell him that, and he focused all his growth on length rather than breadth. The result was a rather unique blend of Staffie Wannabe with a-bit-of-beagle and a-dash-of-something-else.
Who cares – he’s my purebred Happy Dog, and he's the best running partner on four legs!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Catch Ryan Sandes on Carte Blanche this Sunday

Ever dreamed of being able to catch speedster Ryan Sandes, South Africa's very own world champ ultra-distance off-road endurance runner? Now's your chance - and from the comfort of your couch! Tune in to Carte Blanche on Sunday night - Ryan will be speaking about his last two wins, the Jungle Marathon and the Atacama Crossing, and his next challenge in the 4Deserts Series, Antarctica.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Running the World - east to west, north to south

Published in Runner's World, May issue

On March 15th I had the privilege of running 58km with a Nutter. And a world famous Nutter, to boot.

Definition of a Nutter: Someone who is completely and utterly beyond any chance of return to normality, and who is this way voluntarily. The achievement of Nutter status is the ultimate quest, the Holy Grail, for an ultra-distance runner – after all, who wants normality anyway?

The honourable Nutter was none other than Danish ultra-marathon legend Jesper Olsen, who that day was completing the African leg of his challenge to run around the world – not for the first but the second time. (Let’s face it, once you’ve been the first person to run 26 000km across the world east to west, isn’t it the obvious challenge to run another 46 000km, conquering it north to south?)

Jesper’s incredible achievement will be the world’s longest fully GPS-documented run by a long shot (he already holds the record from his World Run I, 2004 - 2005). On top of that, when we reached the Cape of Good Hope that day, Jesper became the first person to run from the northernmost point of Europe to the southwest tip of Africa, and the first to run the length of the African continent.

World Run II began on 1 July 2008 in Nordkapp, Norway, 500km within the Arctic Circle. In 20 months Jesper ran through Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa, reaching his halfway mark of 21 450km at the Cape of Good Hope.

He has crossed tundra and deserts, passed through cities and rural villages, run on highways and jungle paths, and slogged through extreme temperatures from -10˚C to 55˚C. And so far he’s gone through 28 pairs of running shoes.

Every step of the way has been covered live via the cellphone GPS Jesper carries, and thousands of people around the globe have watched his progress via his regular uploads of photos, video clips and daily blogs on his website.

Now halfway on his journey, Jesper has returned to Denmark for a few months to recharge his batteries and undergo a thorough health check before tackling the remaining 21 000km, which will take him from the southernmost tip of Chile, through Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, USA, to the northernmost tip of Canada.

Running at a steady 5:30 - 6min/km pace, Jesper covers between 32 and 50km a day, depending on climatic and road conditions. So far, rest days have been rare – usually about once a month and even then, only due to unforeseen circumstances: like in March 2009 during riots in Khartoum, Sudan, or on the day before his final leg in Africa, because he’d have been mown down en route to Cape Point by 25 000 cyclists riding the Argus Cycle Tour!

Apart from the first 9 000km of World Run II, which girlfriend Australian fellow ultra-marathoner Sarah Barnett ran with him, Jesper has tackled much of the feat by running alone. A support vehicle – either driven by volunteer helpers along the way or, in more remote areas like the Sudan, by a paid driver – provides him with snacks and drinks every 5km. Alternatively, Jesper pushes a robust baby stroller carrying his provisions, which when fully laden weighs a hefty 40kg. As Jesper says, it’s great on the downhills but murder on the ups!

Depending where he finds himself at the end of each day, Jesper either sleeps in his small lightweight tent on the roadside or, if he’s lucky, in the home of a friendly local family. (South African running clubs did us proud – Jesper told me our country has the most hospitable, enthusiastic runners in the world, and every night he was hosted in a runner’s home or B&B, enjoyed a hot meal and a comfortable sleep!)

What motivates someone to push himself so incredibly hard? For Jesper there are several drivers: besides the competitive urge to be the first to achieve a seemingly impossible goal, there’s the fascination for experiencing different cultures and seeing how other people live – not through the eyes of a tourist, interestingly, but as a person on foot, passing through villages, living simply and interacting directly with the local, “real” people in each country.

With a political science background, Jesper is constantly aware of what he refers to as the “top down” approach, and how it influences our attitudes and expectations of a country. He says that in reality, this theoretical view is completely out of touch.

In his blog he writes: “As a world runner you see the world from the bottom up – the true perspective of everyday life as the people experience it. I’ve learned that my heroes are not the politicians or media celebrities, but the everyday people I see and meet across the world.”

Planning a feat of this magnitude took two full years of focused logistical and mental preparation. Starting with an idea of how to tackle the route, Jesper researched the political, climatic and topographic conditions of every country. He also analysed previous attempts at world runs, and why they failed.

As for the physical preparation needed, Jesper has more than 23 years of competitive running in his legs. Jesper’s running pedigree is amongst the finest: he ran his first marathon aged 15, and has a marathon PB of a tidy 2:27.

After some years of elite marathon racing, he moved onto the 24-hour track race, before finding his favourite: the 6-day track race. He has run, and won, three 6-day races, including the George Archer 6-day race in Johannesburg in 2008. His 6-day track PB was in France: 780km.

“Only years of running can prepare the body for a feat like a world run, pounding day after day, month after month, constantly for more than two years. But it’s not only about physical fitness, it’s about one’s mental approach too. Contrary to what people think, you have to be good at not pushing your body to the limit. It’s about listening to your body and respecting the signals it gives back,” says Jesper.

Jesper obviously gets it right: in more than 47 000km of almost daily running, Jesper has not had a single running-related injury.

Ironically, the only injury he has suffered has been to his right arm. As a result of complications after tripping on volcanic rocks in northern Kenya and cutting open his elbow, Jesper has endured three bouts of septicaemia and blood poisoning. He even underwent emergency surgery to his arm in Dar es Salaam, after a passing expedition doctor warned that he was likely to lose his arm to gangrene if not operated on urgently.

Other health hindrances along the journey have been malaria and dysentery.

“I had dysentery every couple of weeks through East Africa. I’d get fever and throw up a lot, but after two or three days I was always fine. I didn’t let it stop me running each day – I just made sure I drank more fluids.”

Simplicity is key for Jesper. He does not rely on sports gels, fancy supplements or smart gadgets to help him run the world. Instead he snacks constantly – health food’s out, junk food’s in: Snickers Bars, M&M’s, pizza and choccie biscuits are amongst his favourites, washed down by a wide assortment of fizzy drinks.

I asked Jesper the inevitable question: what’s next after he’s run the world twice over? Ah, he chuckled, there’s always something bigger to achieve next!
I wonder. Maybe a third time... diagonally?

Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa (halfway), followed by Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, USA and Canada.

• International shoe manufacturer ECCO (main financial sponsor)
• Mobile technology company LifePilot (covers all his GPS and cellular communications)
• Themcom (handle the live updates for the website www.worldrun.org)
• ABC Kids (provide the stroller)
• Oase Outdoors (provided tent)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

African not-so Xtreme

It’s taken a lot of convincing on the part of Trail&Techno James, architect of GoTrail., to get me blogging. I’ve resisted for ages – after all, who ever reads these things, I asked him, who has time to read someone’s waffles about their day, their traffic moans, who they think will win the soccer, and so on. But James can nag well. And here I am, writing my first blog. A scary thought, at first, but then, by my own protestations, no one reads these things anyway so I shouldn’t worry.

In my blog I won’t be whingeing about traffic, politics, economics or how sweet little Johnny’s first day at nursery school was. I’m here to talk about trail running – my thoughts, muses, and really anything about everything to do with trail running. Like so many of us, trail running is my passion – I love it, I want to run trails forever. Right, enough rambling, I promised not to waffle. That’s the only rule.

I’ve just come back from competing in AfricanX, the three-day trail run set in the mountains around Kleinmond. Today should be Day 3 of the race. Today was the day that my partner, Tatum Prins, and I had planned to put the finishing touches to our strategy and win the Open Ladies category. But alas, Day 3 didn’t happen. Instead the weather gods moved in and took charge. In the early hours of this morning, a predicted storm lashed the Western Cape and convinced the race organisers that, for safety’s sake, the race should be called off. At 6am everyone was up and getting ready, pulling on their warmest technical gear and preparing for what we trail runners do, when the SMS came through: the final day was cancelled, the race was over, and prizegiving will take place in CT in two weeks time. It must have been a difficult call for the organisers to make. After all, they’d put so much time and effort into the planning and execution of the race, they had doubled last year’s field, and all had gone well so far. And then this, something quite out of their control. They’d made the call, the race was off. But nature plays nasty tricks: within the hour, the rain softened, the wind eased off and the sky cleared to overcast. The race, which at been due to start at 8am, could’ve actually gone ahead as planned.

There’re many disappointed trail runners in the Western Cape today. So many have unfinished business with the race. Some were contending for top spots in the categories, and needed today to pull out all the stops and clinch their positions. Many were excited to be completing their first stage race. Others had demons lurking from last year’s race that they needed to conquer. Many had been holding back, waiting to give the final day horns. For all of us, whether relieved or restless, there is disappointment – we didn’t finish our race... our African not-so “Xtreme”.

I suppose I have to say it: isn’t running in all conditions exactly what trail running is about? Battling the elements is a large part of our sport, and hey, if we’re not tough enough to handle rain and wind, we shouldn’t be calling ourselves trail runners.

And so the event is over, but the race is unfinished. Tatum & I feel we won our category without crossing the finish line. We can't help but wonder if we'd still have won if we'd run today's leg, or might we have been pipped at the post by yesterday’s chasers? I guess that's something we’ll never know.

Ryan & Cas had just 60 secs to make up to put them just ahead of their rivals, which would've placed them 2nd overall. Again, unfinished business.

All those runners with demons from last year's race will have to keep them in check for another 12 months. And let’s hope that in 2011 we can come back and all achieve our goals, come rain, sleet or snow.

That’s me for now. Happy trailing!