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

Monday, September 27, 2010

still R&R'ing, but a BIG thanks

After a couple of weeks of very welcome R&R in Italy, Germany and (still) the UK, it's time for one final Trans-Alpine post: a somewhat belated but very heartfelt thank-you to my sponsors.
Salomon and Velocity Sports Lab, you're the greatest - without you Ryan and I would not have had the fantastic experience of running, and racing, the Trans-Alpine Run.

Our Salomon S-Labs carried us safely up, over and down more alpine peaks than we can count, and our kit was as comfortable and light as always. (And one of the many great advantages of Salomon kit: even after hours and hours of running, it's never stinky!)

A big thanks to MULE for all my energy bars - always perfect for ultra distance nourishment (not to mention being completely natural and so delicious!)

Thanks to Oakley for my brilliant pair of Endure shades - the polarized lenses made them ideal for all conditions, from the glare of white snow to the dim light of forest paths. I love 'em!

And to GU for the gels that kept me fuelled through the miles of mountains we covered.

And then, very importantly, an enormous thanks to all the family, friends and followers from around the world who sent us messages of encouragement before and during the race. The bundles of good wishes gave us energy that helped keep us motivated and charging up those mountains at pace!

Thanks to you all - it was a fantastic experience.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Running with The Machine

“Fatigue is inevitable. Managing fatigue is a skill that may take years to learn, but it’s what makes the difference between a good runner and a great runner, whatever your speed.” Lindsay Weight

It’s a question I’ve often been asked – both in the preparation for and since completing the Trans-Alpine Run: what’s it like running with Ryan Sandes. So I thought I’d leave it until after our event to put the answer into a blog post.

Ryan (aka Sandman, as many like to call him, although clearly that name wasn’t appropriate for this race so I prefer to call him Mach1, as in with reference to speed and to Machine) was, every minute of every one of the eight days of the race, an incredible team partner.

As many of you will know, racing – whether running or cycling – in a two-person team requires tremendous buy-in by each partner. It calls for 100% commitment and constant communication, otherwise the partnership simply won’t work. If either team mate isn’t on the same page as the other at any time, things fall apart.

And, usually, both members of a two-person team are of similar running ability. Usually, that is...

Before the Trans-Alpine Run, I’d done four stage races, three of which were two-person team events: two Cape Odysseys (the first with Sylvie Mazurkiwitz [nee Harris] and the second with Karoline Hanks) and one African-X (with Tatum Prins). All three of those partners are not only great runners but were superb team partners, and the result for each of those races was a ladies category win. Each time we were well matched in all the essential ingredients for a good team – ability, temperament and goals.

With Ryan and I, there was no doubt we were well matched in terms of our hopes and goals for this race, and the same goes for temperament. We’re both consistent in temperament and know the importance of constant consideration for team work. But whoooa, when it comes to running capability, everyone knows that without a shadow of a doubt that no one matches Mach1. This man is a phenomenon. Now, I know that’s stating the obvious: his racing history shows that. But running this race with Ryan gave me a front row opportunity to watch this man in action. And sheeez, can he run!

But it wasn’t his running capability that startled me the most. It was his patience, his tolerance and his constant unselfish approach to us as a team that impressed me. Never once in the eight days of our race did Ryan show any sign of frustration or exasperation when I wasn’t able to maintain his pace or push harder than I was already. Instead, he gave me constant positivity and encouragement to keep me going, keep me digging deep.

And while it was obvious that I found the degree of difficulty of alpine running harder than Ryan did, this race was by no means easy for him. After all, as the far stronger partner, his role of packhorse and engine room put much physical pressure on him – I just had to put my head down and trot behind! I was responsible for gauging of pace (ie. telling the said engine room that we were going too fast) and, inevitably, the heavy breathing for both of us.

Not once did Ryan whinge – not even when he jolted his back on Day 2 jumping from a steep forest path over a ditch onto a tar road. I could tell he was sore, and every morning he would stretch it carefully before the start, but still he never hesitated to throw me the tow rope when the next huge hill came.

Running this race with The Machine has shown me a glimpse of the guts and determination that a winner has to have. To push through fatigue, face harsh conditions (like extreme heat or cold, as is often the case in Ryan’s races) and still have the determination to push the pace takes tremendous guts and determination.

It was a privilege to run with Mach1.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Trans-Alps, the final four days

Apologies everyone, I really wanted to be able to update my blog regularly and give you daily updates throughout our race, but alas, connectivity was almost as challenging as each of the 8 stages so I had to let it slip. Now here I am, two days after Ryan and I crossed the finish line, I've caught my breath and put my feet up, and am ready to tell you all about the final frontier: the second half of our mammoth challenge!

I know that by now you all know how the story ends... but with all the trememememendous support we received from everyone, I owe it to you to give you all those promised gory details. So, sit back and enjoy - and this time, with the long-promised photos!

DAY FIVE (34.5km from Prettau to Sand in Taufers, Italy) was meant to be the shortest stage of the TransAlpine Run but the organisers had a little sting in the tail for us at the start line - there'd been mudslides on the original route so they'd diverted the course slightly and added in another 5km. Nice...
The start was chilly - I donned my gloves thinking I'd shed them after a while, but the weather remained grim so I ended up wearing them for the whole run. The stage began with a sheer uphill, and both the Brits and the Swiss teams hit the hill hard to get ahead of us. The hill became steeper as we ascended what's known in winter as "The White Wall", which in summer was a zigzag of shale with snow on the top (2537m). It was pretty chilly up there and thankfully we didn't have to stick around long - the summit was sharp and almost straight away we started the radical descent.

Another haul up through some goregous forest trail, and then down again, this time towards the valley where we knew the finish was. But we also knew it involved an extra 5km - only far of course if you're aware that it shouldn't have been there in the first place! The extra distance was really beautiful though, winding us down past a massive waterfall before the final few km's of flat path into the gorgeous little town of Sand in Taufers.

I'd been able to run strong today, which was a huge relief after Day 4's gut problems. The other teams had flown though, and we finished in 4th place: Iona & Casey (Team TPC Freight Mgt) had stormed in 2nd, with the Swiss +Austrian duo of Gaby & Seppi (Team Salomon) close behind them. The gap between them and us was now 22 mins. Definitely too big for comfort.

DAY SIX (39.7km from Sand in Taufers to St Vigil) was going to be an interesting one. It started with 20km of tar road (uurgh) before lurching us up a massive ascent (from 900m to 2275m), and then down 1100m to the finish. Our motto for the day: "It's just a hill - get over it."

We knew that after the gruelling terrain everyone had been through the past five days, the tar would take its toll on many legs, but the number of dropouts on during that tar section was scary. It was cruel. And from a beauty perspective, this stage was the least picturesque. We were happy to see the finish line. Again, in 4th position, we knew that the next two days would be the make or break of the race.

DAY SEVEN (42.2km from St Vigil to Niederdorf) was for me the hardest of the entire race. Starting with a 400m climb over the first 12km, and then two steep ascents of 800m (to 2380m) and 600m (to 2194m) over the next 18km, the day's profile was by far the toughest of the race... particularly as we'd already done 235km by this time. But experience has taught us both that in stage racing, the final couple of days are the most critical. That's when everyone's legs, and minds, are fatigued and mistakes can happen. It's also when injuries are most likely. It's never something I'd wish on anyone, and after all, we were just as likely as anyone else to be the victims of "The Final Days"...

Day Seven was tough, really tough. And I can certainly say that racing downhill on scree is most definitely NOT one of my natural talents. I'd heard the secret to speeding down scree mountainsides is to surrender to gravity and let the momentum take you. Hah! That's all very well but when every smidgeon of your body is screaming "survive", you want to screech on the brakes... which of course is the very worst thing to do, and all hell breaks loose with balance and your knees get the jitters and you doubt your footing and your eyes can't keep pace with your feet and everything around you is one big blur of panic...

The final six km's of the stage were on jeep track and tar into the town of Niederdorf. And I'll never forget them. As I hit the tar I felt a jab of pain under my left knee cap. Uuurgh! It was debilitating - and worse, I'd never had this feeling there before. I stopped for a few moments to rub it, and then we pushed on. Dammit, I thought, I hope this wasn't going to be our undoing...     I ran on, gingerly, and thankfully it eased. I was worried.

Then, just minutes later we were pushing along at Ryan's usual comfortable pace (note: RYAN'S, not mine!) with my head down and my lungs burning, when Ryan blurted out "There they are, it's the Brits, just ahead!". Sure enough, there were Casey & Iona, just ahead, walking. Good grief! Ryan wasted no time - this was our chance. He threw me the tow rope, I hooked on and off we went - and not at Ryan's comfortable pace: his race pace. Oh my God, did we fly! My legs have never experienced such speed. In those next several minutes I witnessed firsthand what Ryan must've done to achieve his record sub-24hr Atacama Desert time. It was crazy!    And we made it across the finish line that day as happy kids - a podium place in 3rd position!

Those moments changed our race. This was the chance we'd been waiting for, this could be our break. Casey had injured his quad coming down the scree so hard. We were sad for them - they'd raced so brilliantly and were storming the run. This was to be their second year in a row of achieving 2nd position in the mixed - a huge achievement. But we didn't know the extent of Casey's injury - we had to presume it was just a niggle, and that he'd be patched up and anti-inflammatory'd, ready to race hard on the final day. What we'd have to do is go HARD, really give the 8th stage everything we'd got, and hopefully make up enough time to eat up the minutes that had accumulated between us and them.

DAY EIGHT - The Final Race (33.4km from Niederdorf to Sexten) was not tough in profile but if time depended on it, it would be a nasty one. It started with 15km of gradual uphill along a jeep track, and then a 1000m ascent over the next 7km, followed by 8km of downhill to the finish. Simple. And we lined up at the start knowing that this would be the big test - particularly for me, as let's face it, trying to run at Ryan's pace is a near physical impossibility for me!

Ryan and I ran those 33.4km as if our lives depended on it. We pushed a pace that, for me, was only just sustainable - and which, until then I'd thought I'd never be able to maintain. It's amazing what panic can achieve! We crossed the finish line in 2nd position in the mixed category, the happiest people on earth.
What we only then learned was that Casey had had to pull out after the first three km's, his injury was too severe. This automatically saw Gaby & Seppi into 2nd place, and us into 3rd overall. But what was most important for us is that we fought hard to that finish line - for us nothing had been automatic, and not for a moment did we ever consider that we'd not have to pull out all the stops to get there.

crossing the finish line on the final day in 3rd place overall - this pic said it all! 
There's a great quote I love by world marathon champ Paul Tergat:
"Ask yourself 'Can I give more?' The answer is usually 'Yes'."
Until running the Trans-Alpine Run, I thought I understood how to dig deep. I thought I'd often dug deep, and could even remember specific times when I'd called on myself to really push hard. But this race I took that to another level. During the 8 days of TAR, there were many times when I had to search so far within myself to give more, and every time I could - and did. This race taught me so very much about perseverence, endurance, digging deep, trusting and the strength to be had in believing in myself.

And it showed me just how incredibly strong my partner was. There was barely a moment over the 8 days when I didn't marvel at Ryan Sandes: not only his natural talent as a runner but his incredible determination mixed with a constantly even temperament of patience and quiet fortitude. Having the opportunity to partner Ryan in a race like Trans-Alps was for me the highlight - it was such a privilege. I have enormous respect.

Ryan, partner, you ROCK!

Hopefully I'll be able to supplement my next blog post with even more pics. Keep an eye out!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

TransAlpine Run - a gutsy day 4

Today was Day Four of the TransAlpine Run (43.9km, from Neukirchen, Austria to Prettau, Italy) and although 3km shorter than yesterday's stage, it took us just as long.

It wasn't so much the profile that was to blame for that, although it was indeed tough (we climbed from 850m to 2669m over a distance of 30km, with the final 800m in 2km, taking us well above the snow line). The best description for today's run was gutsy - in more ways than one. My stomach acted up from the time I awoke at 4:40am, I had to go to the loo twice before race start, and over the 5:19 it took us to complete today's stage, I had to take 5 pitstops. It was crazy. I swear I must've given the cows along the way serious poo'ing competition.

And even though I made sure every dash off the trail into the bushes was at top speed, we lost valuable time. And it was difficult to make up those minutes - my energy was drained, and I had to dig deeper than imaginable to press on. I was so annoyed with myself, even though there was absolutely nothing I could do about the problem, other than to make sure each pitstop was lightning fast!

Enough about those gories. The views today were spectacular. We ran up zigzags next to thundering waterfalls, along green valleys with snow capped rocky peaks towering above, and over a peak (at 2669m) where the wind was howling such a gale that the chill factor must've dropped to below zero. At that point the only way we could see the path ahead was using other runners' footprints, most of which were about 60cm deep. Add a steady drizzle to this, and the white-out you're picturing is about spot on. Fortunately that section only lasted about 10 mins.

Fortunately my energy levels picked up on that descent and we flew the last 10km (a 1000m drop) at pace, to the finish line in the hamlet of Prettau, to finish 20 minutes behind the 3rd placed mixed team. So we're now lying in 4th position in the mixed category, a radical drop from yesterday's 3rd placing.

The race is only halfway done - there're still another four days to go, and much can change. We're certainly going to do our best to make sure it does!  (And a good start will be the Immodium I've taken this afternoon!)

At 29.4km, tomorrow's stage is a lot shorter than the past two have been, and we're hoping to really make it a good one. It'll be tough (I learning that in this race, there're no "easy" days), starting with an 11km climb up to 2537m.

And I'll carry the Immodium with me this time...

Monday, September 6, 2010

first report on TransAlps

Three days done & dusted of the TransAlpine Run for Team Salomon / Velocity Sports Lab. Five days to go..! 116km km in the bag, and just 189.6km to go!   (ok, it's far too early to be looking at how many km's to go - bite size chunks, bite size chunks...)

Apologies for this being my first blog since race start - today's the first day we've had connectivity :-(

So, three days of TransAlps and I already have a new respect for mountains. With each day of this race the mountains we slog up get higher and more dramatic, and the scenery ever more beautiful.
By the way, I'm afraid I won't be posting any pics to accompany the next several blog posts - I won't have any. I'm relying completely on peripheral vision for appreciation of this incredible scenery, and only occasionally do I sneak a peek at what's around us. We're in waaay too much of a hurry to look around!

My second challenge of today (my first having run 47.3km at pace up and down some frightening mountains) is to try and squeeze three days of unbelievable trail running into a quick blog before I fall asleep into the keyboard.

Day One (36.3km from Ruhpolding, Germany to St Ulrich, Austria) went really well. The first 10km followed a jeep track on a gentle ascent alongside a river, and we set a cracking pace. The rest of the route was a mixture of non-technical single track, some nasty grass slopes (ever tried running UP a ski run?) and a lot of deep, slimy, squelchy mud. We finished in 2nd position in the mixed category in 3:20 - really happy with a podium finish!

Day Two (33.2 km from St Ulrich to Kitzbuhel, Austria) and involved a LOT of climbing. The profile was scary - or so I thought until I experienced today's profile. The route was more technical than Day 1, and involved two v-e-r-y nasty, long ascents that climbed for seemingly ever. We finished Day Two in 4th place in the mixed, and in 3rd position in the mixed overall, just by about 4 mins.

Day Three (47.3km from Kitzbuhel to Neukirchen, still in Austria) was nothing short of frightening. I knew from the profile to expect that, and it didn't disappoint. Today was the longest stage, but by just 3km. I had to dig deep today like I've never dug before. The ascents were long, and the descents sheer - my legs kept telling my brain they should hold back and save themselves for the next 5 days ahead, but my brain refused to listen - I knew we had to fly down those downs as fast as my legs could carry me, because the next mixed team was hot on our heels. The finish couldn't come quicker - another 5km and I think they would've caught us. We finished today's stage in 5:20, in 3rd position in the mixed, and still in 3rd place overall in our category. It's tight though, very tight - the next mixed team is just 40 secs behind us overall. And they're still looking strong...

So far I've learned that I'm pretty damn useless at running through snow, slushing through sludge, skipping over tree roots, and running down hills at sub-4min km's. Ryan is, of course, brilliant at all of the above. And very patient!

Ryan is a powerhouse - I have HUGE respect for this man we all know is a running phenomenon. We're working brilliantly as a team - he's permanently strong and pulls me along... literally. We're using a tow rope / bungy cord - whenever we come to a hill, he hooks me in and I'm pulled (gently) along behind. The idea of using a bungy cord was something I initially resisted - that's just not how things are done. But our adventure racing friends enlightened us - Tats & Cas, you,d be so impressed with us! This is team work like I've never experienced: towing slows Ryan down a bit, and speeds me up a bit, so that we as a team make faster progress. The ultimate in team work. (Our other mixed competitors are using a bungy too, while many other alpine runners prefer the advantage of ski poles. For us, the bungy works better!)

Tomorrow's stage (43.9km, from Neukirchen to Prettau, Italy) will be slightly shorter than today's but tough - we'll be slogging up to 2669m above sea level. Let's hope our time spent up the Sani Pass helped!

So that's my wrap up for today. I hope we have better luck with connectivity as the week progresses, so I can keep you in on the race gories!

Now it's feet-up-the-wall time!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Route description of Stage 1 - copied from website

2010 Stage 1: Ruhpolding (GER) – St. Ulrich im Pillerseetal (AUT)
Start:                                  11:00am
Vertical distance: 1223m ascent, 1034m descent
Horizontal distance: 36,30km
Estimated time: ca. 5,0 hours (10 km/hour horizontal, 600 Hm/hour vertical) 
Timelimits: V1 = 2,5 hours, V2 = 4,5 hours, V3 = 5,5 hours    (7 km/hour horizontal, 500 Hm/hour vertical)  

Opening the Gore-Tex® Transalpine-Run 2010, we have this ideally suited starting stage leading across the Chiemgau Alps via the mountain range Steinplatte from Ruhpolding to Waidring in Strub Valley. From there, beautiful hiking paths lead to the idyllically located stage finish in St. Ulrich at Lake Piller located to the west of the Lofer Steinberge. With more than 1200 meters to climb, this stage does not demand exceptional climbing skills, but with a distance of 36 kilometers it’s just short of the regular marathon distance.

counting down...

Finally Ruhpolding's busying up - the town's a-buzz with trail runners, most sporting Salomon kit from head to toe. (These Europeans know the best brand!)

And Team Salomon/Velocity Sports Lab has its very own fan club present: today the founder of GoTrail, James Hallett, and fiance Susanne Wirtz, arrived in Ruhpolding to cheer us on. It's great to have them here!

Ryan and I went for our final run this morning - an easy trot along the river to keep the legs ticking over and to do a final kit check, etc. We're feeling great. But we've had enough waiting now, we're itching to start the race! And we've just heard the start tomorrow's been shifted out from 10am to 11am - a bit of a bummer, that's half the day wasted.

The weather forecast for the next three days is looking good - let's hope it's reliable...  we don't want a repeat of last week's UTMB disaster.

We're off to the pasta party and race briefing shortly. Tomorrow dawns the TransAlpine Run 2010.
Bring it on!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

alpine meadows and Ferrero Rocher ice cream

From the cracking dry cold of the Sani Pass, Lesotho, to the sunny skies and lush alpine green of Ruhpolding, Germany, with a brief stopover in Cape Town to throw all our kit in the wash and say g'bye to loved ones, these past four days have been a whirlwind.

The 11 days at the top of Sani Pass was certainly a unique experience. One thing's for sure: from it I learned that bucket-washing's not my thing...  particularly in average daily temps of 5 deg Celcius. I'd have killed for a hot shower.

Once down from Sani Top, I took so long in my first shower that I almost dissolved.

We're now in the scenic town of Ruhpolding, where our race will start on Saturday. It's quiet and quaint, with every second shop a coffee shop or bakery, which suits us just fine.
(This evening's most valuable discovery: Ferrero Rocher icecream. OMG!)

Today we took the cable car up to the top of Rauschberg, Ruhpolding's local peak - not notably high (1645m) but with dramatic panoramic views of more than 600 alpine peaks in the region. It even boasts its own touch of modern art - an enormous metal sculpture of "Adam's Hand" leering from the highest point. A little strange perhaps, but the locals seem to like it. (I'm not sure how well Capetonians would take to the idea of Adam's hand - or Eve's for that matter - waving gayly at the world from the top of Table Mountain...)

My "countdown to TransAlps" widget is starting to give me the jitters - there're less than 36 hours to go before Ryan and I start our TransAlpine Run.

I think I need another cappuccino, quick...