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!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sky Run 2011, the long story

Unfinished business isn't healthy. It's heavy baggage to drag around, and if left unattended, it can cause blisters on your psyche and eat into your soul.
There're only two ways of dealing with unfinished business: you either come to terms with the job not done and put it to rest (risky though, for fear of it waking up years down the line when it's too late to act on it), or you keep trying until you can tick the box that it's finished.

Until last weekend I had unfinished business with Sky Run, undoubtedly the toughest endurance challenge on South Africa's trail running calendar. I had raced Sky Run twice and both times finished 2nd lady. My first one, in 2009, had given me the heaviest baggage: I'd been the leading woman from the start and about 75km in my GPS battery had died and found myself stumbling around a mountainside under the night sky without a clue where to go. Then, in 2010, my navigational skills were still a bit wonky, and I was beaten fair and square by the far better runner on the day (thanks, Hobbit!). (see my race report of last year at Sky Run 2010 )

This year I was more determined than ever to get my race right - I wanted this badly and I needed to toss my unfinished business, it was getting heavy! I did my homework - I knew my weak point was navigation and I made sure I researched the route, albeit from 1000km away via Google Earth! As always with any endurance race, nutrition and hydration would be fundamental and I planned what I would eat and drink, when. The unknown for me would be whether I still had endurance in my legs after my four-month layoff  earlier in the year from the stress fracture in my femur. My main competition in this race was also a concern: Su don Wauchope is fast, strong and, importantly, her coach is husband Iain don Wauchope, one of SA's top endurance athletes and the Sky Run record holder for this longer course.

Sky Run is special. It’s tough, run on an unmarked course (self-navigational between checkpoints) of rugged terrain, on an average altitude of around 2 400m above sea level, kicks in a full 5 316m of leg-burning ascent, and a nasty 5 158m of quad-trembling descent. This one's not for the faint-hearted.

The 4am pre-dawn start to Sky Run is always exciting - everyone's hyped up and nerves are running high. The route starts with a 300m dash to a hikers' path that begins a 700m climb up the side of a mountain to the first check point 11km away, high above the tiny, dusty town of Lady Grey. That climb sets the tone for the rest of the day... and night!

My strategy for this race was no different from other endurance runs I've done: to go steady, gradually picking up the pace into the day to maximise the daylight (every hour run in the light is time saved; running in the night by the light of a headlamp is considerably slower). I watched Su bound off with gusto into the dawn at the top of the first climb, and I forced myself to hold back and stick to my plan - there'd be plenty of time to pull her in. And it happened that way - I caught Su just after Snowden (CP3), at about 33km. We ran together, with a small group of guys, for the next 20km or so, and once we dropped down into the Balloch valley, I pulled ahead and picked up the pace. I ran the 7km along the valley on my own and reached Balloch, the "halfway" point (65km), in 9hr30 as 1st lady and, more importantly, feeling strong.

Every Skyrunner knows the real challenge begins after Balloch. It starts with The Wall, a 500m climb over about a 900m distance, with a mirror image descent down the other side. A 13km flat section is then rudely interrupted by a river-crossing-and-hill-shunt (together known as Wildfell), and a seemingly endless slog up the Bridal Pass to reach 2 700m. At this point, the lungs of coastal runners (ahem...) are working so damn hard that brain and legs politely take second skivvy - everything's moaning all at once, and there's still more than 25km to go!

All was going according to plan, and by the time I'd got onto the Bridal Pass, I'd managed to pass Isaac Mazibuko, who'd been in third position. When I checked in at CP7 halfway up the Bridal Pass, which was manned by a handful of jovial students huddled in a tent, passing the time singing pub songs and suiping lager, there was much excitement. The first guy stuck his head out the tent and yelled "Hey, it's the third runner! No wa-a-a-ay, she's a CHICK, she's a CHICK!"

Distance does strange things to the mind. And to the taste buds. Strange, unexplainable things happen with +60km under the belt. There in front me was a bunch of excited students, all yodelling in delight that a  "chick" could be in third spot...   and all I could focus on was the brown bottle of beer that the guy closest to me was clutching.
Now, let me explain... I don't drink beer. I don't like the taste. Simple.
But I eyed that beer so longingly that before I could say Charles Glass I was swigging it back, first one big sip... and then another, for good measure. It was cold, it was bitter, and it went down like liquid gold.
And I can still hear the guys' cheers ringing in my ears - this beer-swiggin' chick was their HERO!

Now, back to the race. Isaac, adrenalin probably pumping overtime at the shock of having been passed by a woman, overtook me near the top of the Bridal Pass and sped into the distance, not to be seen again. As I reached the top, Lance Chapman caught me and we chatted - he'd very gallantly given his GPS to his wife, Sue Chapman, who was also running, and he was navigationless. I had the route on my trusty Foretrex 401, so we agreed to run the rest of the distance together.

We pushed to cover as much distance as we could before dusk, and we donned our headlamps just as it was getting dark, about 4km before the Turn (CP 7). There was an icey wind blowing and by the time we reached the Turn, we were damn cold. I downed two mugs of hot, sweet tea made by those brilliant marshals, and we set off - not before learning the news that I had widened the gap between me and Su to a solid 70 mins, which was great to hear.

It was soon after that that things started going pear-shaped for me. I guess in our pre-occupation to maximise distance in the light, I'd forgotten to eat. And now I was feeling it. The idea of food held no appeal, and as I munched a baby potato, it fought hard to not be swallowed.

And then suddenly, out the darkness, we saw a headlamp moving towards us. Much to our surprise it was Nico Schoeman - he'd been in 2nd place some 10 mins behind Bruce Arnett at Balloch and running well, but as he'd reached the top of the Bridal Pass, the batteries in his GPS had died and he had no spares. He'd been directionless since nightfall - he'd not only lost his way but his second place (to Isaac, who'd long since passed him in the dark), and he was really annoyed with himself.

So now we were three: two strong guys sans navigation, and one beer swigging "chick" who was running on empty and feeling nauseous at the thought of consuming anything. A sad looking trio!

The haul up to the final CP, Halstone Peak, was gruelling, and the descent just as bad. Those final 4km took forever, and I was pathetically slow. Lance and Nico were brilliant - their patience could've lit up the nightsky!

Lance Chapman, me, Nico Schoeman crossing the finish line

And then, at last, the finish - the Salomon banners, the lights, the cameras, the cheers. It was all a blur of relief and exhaustion. At last I'd done it - 1st lady, tie 3rd overall finisher. 20hrs58min. No more unfinished business. I'd more than Touched the Sky :-)

Thank you to Adrian Saffy, the strongest gladiator of all, not only for organising this wonderful, gutsy endurance challenge, but then for completing the entire event as race sweep. Every year Adrian is out there longer than anyone, +30hrs of long, hard slog, bringing up the rear in the essence that truly reflects this great race: human spirit.

Happy daze :-)
(All photos courtesy of Kolesky/Nikon/Lexar)

Friday, November 11, 2011

T minus 1 and counting down...

Just one more sleep til we touch the Sky. Not that most people's pre-race night involves much sleep - it's more like toss and turn.

If the image above isn't enough to get the butterflies a'fluttering, the adrenalin pumping and the stomach churning, add to it 100km of endless mountains, thin air, dry heat, unmarked route, self-navigation, night running, potential thunderstorms, and +20 hours of hard slog.

And then spice it up with the best parts: running along a Dragon's Back, climbing a Wall, lapping up views across Lesotho, the old Transkei, the eastern Free State and the Eastern Cape all at once, catching a glimpse of the forlorn and neglected ski slopes of Tiffendel, before skidding down Halstone Peak on your butt to the final 4km stretch to the finish.

Welcome to the Sky Run - the best and toughest trail ultra in South Africa!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

can you feel it?

Every runner comes across them – the Run Naysayers: usually couch potatoes with an insatiable curiosity about what it is that makes us “need” to run.

They’re filled with suspicion, determined to uncover some sort of deep-seated psychological disturbance we’re hiding, and convinced that our running is a means of fleeing from some sort of horror from our past.

Why do you run, they ask. Do you need to run? When will you stop running? 
And then the classic, what are you running from?

Only runners know the real answer to those questions:
       We run because we can. 
       We run because we love it.
We can run practically anywhere, anytime - just pull on the shoes and we're out there.
       It’s as simple as that.
Running gives us joy, it energises us, it gives us perspective.
Best of all, it makes us feel alive!

We know the truth:  life’s too short to not run. (But then if you’re reading this blog, you already know that!)

Running is about so much. How about the exhilaration of conquering a tough uphill; the natural high we feel after a long run; the buzz of feeling fit; the joy of sharing a trot with a group of friends; the buzz of getting to work feeling 100% alive after an early morning run (and knowing that the others in the office aren’t likely to understand – they’re still half asleep at the coffee machine); the satisfaction of seeing improvement and achieving time/distance goals; and the knowledge that every hour spent enjoying a run is 60 minutes lived more enriched.

I reckon there’s only one answer to the naysayer’s question: it’s not what we’re running FROM... it’s what we’re running TO that counts!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Table Mountain Challenge 2011

Saturday 17th September – sunny, 23 deg, not a breath of wind: a perfect day for running around, up and over the most picturesque mountain in Africa. What’s more, a designer day to showcase Cape Town to visiting world class international trail runners as the most beautiful city on the continent.

Kilian Jornet rockhoppin' down Kasteelspoort
The Crazy Store Table Mountain Challenge 2011 did exactly that: it displayed Table Mountain at its best. For those not in the know, the TMC takes trail runners in front, along the side, across the back, up the furthest corner, over about 10 of the Twelve Apostles (well, Seventeen actually*) on the top, and down the far side of the mountain back to the starting point at Kloof Nek.

This year the route held an extra nasty in mid-course with the addition of the 3km Rooikat Trail on leg 2 above Kirstenbosch, stretching the original 35km route to a gut-wrenching 38km.
Ryan Sandes making cliffs look easy
And who knows how he does it, but every year race organiser Trevor Ball somehow manages to wangle a deal with the weather gods for the sun to shine on race day – and pelt down with rain the day after.

Will Robinson hauling up Llandudno Corner
As if that was not enough, this 6th running of the TMC was graced by the current kings and queen of international trail running, two of whom travelled thousands of miles to race on our iconic Table Mountain.

Salomon athletes Kilian Jornet from Spain, Anna Frost of New Zealand, and our very own international champ-of-trail Ryan Sandes had the rest of us chewing dust as they burned up the course in mind-boggling times, barely breaking a sweat.

Records were smashed, legs were stretched, hearts were pounded, and knees were given a monster workout. It was CRAZY trailing!
Anna Frost about to leap off a ledge
(photos courtesy of Eric Tollner/Red Earth, Jacques Marais and Chris Hitchcock)

Top 5 Men                                  Top 5 Women
Kilian Jornet    3:41                      Anna Frost         4:11
Greg Vallet      3:46                      Susan Sloan       4:27
Allan Benn       3:49                      Su don Wauchope  4:38
William Robinson    3:56               Hanlie Booyens    4:57
Bruce Arnett    4:02                      Linda Doke         5:07

Top two teams
Nicholas Rupanga, Greg Goodall, Ryan Sandes       3:27
Ryan Scott, Andre Gie, Mark Collins             3:41

* the 17 Apostles – from the Llandudno (southern) end: Grove, Victoria, Grootkop, Kleinkop, Corridor, Slangolie, Spring, Wood, Postern, Kasteels, Valken, Barrier, Jubilee, Porcupine, Grotto, Fountain, and Cairn buttresses.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Get ready for a Salomon showdown in September

Exciting news hot off the trail running press: some of the world’s most successful trail runners will be coming to South Africa in September.

Kilian Jornet and Anna Frost will join South African Salomon team mates Ryan Sandes, Cas Van Aardenne, Linda Doke and Hanlie Booyens as well as key international and local Salomon staff for a mountain-running seminar tour of SA.

Seminars are scheduled to take place in Gauteng (11 Sept), Durban (13 Sept) and Cape Town (15 Sept).

Salomon sees itself as ‘the mountain sport company’ and is dedicated to the global growth and improvement of trail running. “If the rapid growth in participation; and the wide variety of events on the calendar is any indication, trail running is poised to explode in South Africa. This trip is an opportunity for the international team to share their incredible talent, experience and expertise with the local trail running community,” said Salomon South Africa’s brand manager Lee Besnard.

Topics will include:
  • Technical insights into the use of compression and other performance garments (by one of Salomon’s international R&D experts).
  • The company’s sports marketing strategy (by Greg Vollet, Salomon’s Global Outdoor Sports & Community marketing manager).
  • Talks by the athletes on their racing and training experiences, notably Kilian Jornet, Anna Frost and Ryan Sandes.
  • Talks by experts on topics ranging from podiatry to physiotherapy and recovery.

The latest designs in Salomon trail footwear will also be on show, and guests will be able to test and provide feedback on new models. Salomon values all feedback and uses input from a broad spectrum of athletes, from elite racers to trail newbies, to continuously evolve their products and help drive the progression of the sport.
See the Salomon SA Facebook page for details on how to secure your spot at the seminar. Seats are limited!

The International Salomon team’s South African tour will culminate in them competing in the Crazy Store Table Mountain Challenge on 18 September. One of the highlights at this 35km trail race around and over  Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain will be the Sandes/Jornet dual.
“Kilian only races one way and that’s to win,” said Sandes. “He’s had an awesome year and won just about everything he has entered. But I also love winning and this is my home mountain...”
“I may need some help from some of my Cape cobra and puffadder friends though,” he joked. “Kilian’s often told me how he hates snakes. My advice: if he runs slowly the snakes won't be a problem.”
 Compiled and issued by Jazz Kuschke Media on behalf of Salomon Sports.


New Zealander Anna Frost has enjoyed a spectacular 2011, with wins at the Motatapu Off Road Marathon, the gruelling 6-Foot Track Marathon in Australia’s Blue Mountains and the prestigious Salomon 4Trails race in Germany. Frosty has clinched numerous short and middle distance trail running wins over the past four years, including the 2008 World Mountain Running Grand Prix, the 2009 Commonwealth Trail Championships and, most notably, the Everest Marathon in 2009 (4hrs 35min), in which she not only broke the women’s record by 27mins, but was also the first non-Nepalese finisher, male or female.
Frosty made her debut in ultra distance trail with her win at the The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships in 2010 (7hrs 45min), beating renowned ultra-distance athlete Lizzy Hawker by 13 mins.

Ryan Sandes, the winner of all four of the Four Deserts Marathon series, has shifted his focus from stage-racing to the big mileage one-day events. He will chat about his meteoric rise in the trail-running world, but specifically about his experiences at the Leadville 100 Miler (taking place this weekend, 20 August, in "the two mile high city" in Colorado).
“I’m hoping local runners will be inspired by the International team being here and that the seminars will help grow the sport,” Sandes said from Colorado where he’s been training and acclimatising for the past three weeks. “It’s not every day you get to run with the likes of Kilian Jornet.”

Killian Jornet is arguably the most prolific and successful trail runner in the world. The 23 year old Spaniard has twice won the 166km North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (informally recognised as the world champs of ultra trail running), was three time champion of the Skyrunner Series (2007-2009), holds more course records than can be counted on one hand, including the 100 mile Grand Raid du Reunion, this year’s Western States 100 miler and the North Face 100km in Australia.
Most noted for his Kilian’s Quest achievements, which include running across Corsica in 2009 (188 miles in 32hrs 54mins, world record), setting a new course record for the 165km Tahoe Rim Trail (circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe) in 38hrs 32min, running the 849km length of the Pyrenees in just 8 days 3hrs (world record), and scaling Kilimanjaro (world record for the ascent [5hrs 23min) and the round trip [7hrs 14min], Kilian has proven that even the impossible can be achievable... 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

To regulate, or not to regulate - that is the trail running question

SA team at IAU World Trail Championships 2011

From left to right: Jeannie Bomford, Katya Soggot, Bruce Arnett, Su Don-Wauchope, 
William Robinson, Iain Don-Wauchope

Now that the IAU World Trail Championships is long done and dusted, it’s time to digest, dissect and then encourage discussion as to how to from here for trail running in South Africa.

Most trail runners out there have heard mutterings about the event and its build-up (or lack thereof), but few know the details – and many, being the carefree trail runners they are, don’t really care either way.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are 1) you’re a trail runner, 2) you live in SA or have some link to or passion for running in SA. Whether 1, 2 or both, you’re a valuable spoke in the wheel of SA trail running, and you need to read on.

Without going into unnecessary detail, here’s some background:

-       on June 5, ASA announces that SA will be competing in the IAU Trail World Championships 2011 in Connemara, Ireland on July 9, and announces the team of 3 men and 3 women.
-       The trail community is taken by surprise by 1) the short notice; 2) the team selection (all the men in the team were ultra runners, but at least 2 of the 3 women selected had never run an ultra distance; and 3) why ASA is involved in a trail running event at all.

Less known, the facts:

-       Way back in Feb, the event was brought to the attention of ASA by one of SA’s top ultra runners. Any team participating in an IAU event needs to be represented by some sort of federation or governing body, and as trail running in SA is footloose and fancy-free, in order to send a team to the event, it would have to fall under ASA.
-       The months passed...    the event came closer...
-       Suddenly in May there was a flurry of emails from ASA to a small number of trail race organisers (mostly middle to long distance races, not ultras), requesting suggestions of team members to represent SA.
-       BAM! The SA ultra trail team is announced, all of FIVE weeks before the event.

The outcome:

With just five weeks to train, and don’t forget taper, for a 70km event, the six team members had limited time. All are as surprised by the announcement as everyone else in the trail running community, but of course are excited by the privilege of representing their country. They squeeze in a quick month’s worth of training, and off they jet to Ireland in early June.
As could be expected, the performance of the SA team was disappointing. This bears no reflection, it must be emphasised, on the runners themselves, for they are all superb athletes in their respective distances. Instead, it’s more a result of the reality that they were given insufficient time to prepare for the event. That’s hardly a fair deal, particularly as at least one of the athletes had never run further than 42km before, never mind raced an ultra.

The conclusion:

Big events, particularly international ones that involve national representation, require much time and planning – for organisers AND participants. Five weeks is simply selling SA trail running short.
Had team selection taken place several months in advance, as it should have, then
1)    more of SA’s ultra-distance trail runners would have been able to make themselves available for the event;
2)    team members would have had the appropriate time to prepare themselves for the race.

This rather unfortunate mess up has left many in the trail running community even more determined not to be governed by any form of association or federation, or body of any sort. After all, they say, (and I quote) “isn’t trail running about freedom, running free without limitations of rules and regulations, about not having to belong to a club, be licensed, be told what to wear, etc etc?" and "Isn’t the very essence of trail running a breath of fresh air from the regulation that is road running?" and then "Aren’t trail runners like wild animals, who don’t do authority and can’t stand cages?”

Perhaps, but without some form of governing body to represent us, SA trail runners can never qualify for opportunities like the World Trail Championships. Instead, we’ll all simply potter on, always loving our sport and the exhilaration it brings, but never stretching ourselves beyond that.

Personally I think SA trail running has reached a point of maturity where it needs to decide on its future. As the great bard surely would've said, "To regulate, or not to regulate, that is the question."

Do we need regulation? Do we want regulation?
My personal view is I don’t want it, but we might need it, if we’re to prevent poor organisation like that for the IAU event from happening again.

Perhaps regulation need not be a swear word, and maybe there’s a way of having a governing body that represents the trail running fraternity without subduing the vibrant energy we all love about our sport.

Let’s throw open the chat floor to discussion – let’s hear your thoughts and get the ball rolling on where-to-from-here for trail running in SA. 
Please comment with your thoughts and get the debate going.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

tick... tock... tick... tock...

...  BONG!

That’s 2 016 hours of stress fracture rehab in the bag, 12 weeks of no-running done and dusted. Today I went for my first proper run in three months – a very gentle but steady and continuous 10 whole kays, and I’m happy to report I can officially be called a runner again.

This 10k epic was by no means easy: my lungs complained continuously, but my legs loved it and my mind was in heaven.
I felt alive again!

So now it’s Operation FitSpeed – I’ve got 10 weeks to blow the cobwebs out these lungs, pack maxi fitness into these legs and load a good dose of speed into this body in time for a Salomon showdown in September. Watch this space!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Squeezing life’s lemons

(supposedly royalty-free clipart...)

What’s that one about what we’re supposed to do when life throws us a lemon? Something about adding a bucketload of sugar and turning it into a sickly sweet fizzy drink...    uuugh, sounds pretty icky to me.

I reckon rather just stick with the lemon the way it is. Juice every drop out of it and drink it straight. It’ll be sour beyond belief, and you’ll feel every cell in your body’s puckered for a while, but before you know it, the sourness is gone and life’s good again. And the bonus is that you’ll feel more awake than you ever thought possible!

I got handed my lemon the other day. One week I’m running through the desert, up and down dunes, having the time (and race) of my life, and the next I can’t even walk properly.
Physio + sports doc + bone scan = stress fracture of the femur.
Grade 3.
No weightbearing exercise for 6 weeks, and no running for 12.

A big, firm, juicy, bright yellow lemon.
Picked straight from the tree of life.

TWELVE weeks?? That’s three months!   I’m still not sure which sounds longer.
That’s a lot of arms-only swimming.

Rest, I’m told, is the fast – and only – way to heal bone. So rest I must. Dreaming of when I can feel awake again.

So for now my exercise is to walk as lightly as I can on my legs, and to make friends with a set of borrowed crutches for the 23 steps up to our house. Meantime, I’m told, I should MILK the crutches!

According to a crazy trail running mountain man I know (mentioning no names, hey Eric!), having crutches opens up a whole new world of sporting delights.
Some creative uses for crutches:
-       marshmallow toasting sticks
-       pool cue
-       fishing rod
-       jousting
-       pole vaulting
-       hooking a waiter when you need service
-       giant pair of tweezers for changing a light bulb on the ceiling
-       stoking the fire (although that one’s a bit dubious)
-       waving around vigorously to clear space if claustrophobic in crowds
-       flag pole
-       for tapping the shoulder of the person ahead of you in a queue (quickest way to get to the front of the queue!)

Any more ideas most welcome. They'll help me pass the time...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Namib Desert Challenge 2011 race report

The Namib Desert Challenge: five days and 220km of running across sections of the oldest desert on the planet. The race is tough (self-sufficient per day), long (average distance each day 44km), gruelling (the highest dune in the world was saved for Day 5) and unbelievably hot (we ran in temperatures hot enough to slow roast a leg of lamb).

Many wonder why do we do these things... and voluntarily?
Only runners know that answer: we run because we can.
And because we love it.
Simple as that.
Running gives us joy, it illuminates our lives, it gives us perspective.
Most of all, it makes us feel alive!

This year was the third staging of the NDC and the biggest field yet – 42 runners from 10 different countries: SA, Namibia, UK, Ireland, Germany, Italy, France, Australia, USA and Canada. There were some top names at the start line – several very experienced desert runners (Marathon des Sables, Sahara Desert, Atacama Crossing), a Jungle Marathon kid, and a handful of fearless adventure racing champs. It was obvious from the start this race was going to be a tough one.

The race covered an extensive area of Sesriem and the Namib Naukluft National Park, ending in the heart of the Sossusvlei – after summiting Big Daddy, one of the highest dunes in the world.

Day 1: 42km
Our race started in the Sesriem area, and took us over grassy gravel plains, through rocky outcrops (speckled with bushman paintings, which I missed and only heard about later) and over a couple of low mountain passes. Typically for the first day of a stage race, we went out at a fast pace. (It happens every time, but I’ve learned to just go with it – enjoy the fresh-leg feeling while it lasts!)

Inevitably, as is common for day 1, everyone was checking out their fellow runners, seeing who slotted in behind who, observing pace and style, and watching out for any strengths or weaknesses evident. Of course a race like this is long, much can change over 220km, but from the very first starting yell, the competition began.

And this year the winner ran clear within minutes of the start: Australian adventure racing demon Damon Goerke dashed off into the heat shimmer every day for five days, leaving Graham Booty (UK) and Wayde Kennedy (SA) waging battle for second and third positions.

I was never close to those speedsters, but I had my own battles to fight. I was well aware that Erica Terblanche, ladies winner of the 7-day Sahara Desert Marathon in 2008 (she beat the 2nd woman by a clear 12hrs), is a desert-running machine and would be hungry for first spot. I knew I’d have to keep my eye on Erica, but wasn’t sure who else. That’s always what Day 1’s for: gauging the field.

Distance running over fairly even terrain requires steady pace and consistency, and that’s pretty much what NDC is about. It calls for head-down-and-dig kind of running – with a good deal of multitasking thrown in to ensure you don’t miss the incredible landscapes and the occasional ostrich, oryx or springbok trotting by.

By the end of Day 1, I had a rough idea of who I was up against. Coming in 5th overall, I’d managed to glean a 22 min lead on Erica, which I was relieved about, although I was well aware it was very early days and anything could happen. Just two minutes behind me was last year’s men’s winner, Andrew Collier – I knew he’d be hungry for a win this year, having come second overall last year to ultramarathon desert queen Mimi Anderson (UK), who cleaned up the entire field in a very tidy 25:23.

Day 2: 46km
It took me all of the first five minutes of yesterday’s stage to realise that I’d brought WAY to much food for this race. Each day I had enough food on my back to feed half the field, dammit, and I was lugging this for 42km+ each day. The Italians had it right: after each day’s run, they’d munch their way through a pile of crackers and a fat wedge of parmesan cheese (36 month matured...). Bang for bucks calories in a single brick, and not a heavy brick, at that.

Today’s route gave us our first taste of sand – and a healthy dose of it, at that. The first 20km or so were easy underfoot, varying between narrow sandy track, dry riverbeds and wide open gravel plains. And then we hit Elim Dune, said to be the world’s longest dune. Now, don’t let the biblical name conjure up images of goodness and grace – there should be no such associations when trying to run along this damn dune. From afar Elim Dune looks completely innocuous - there’s nothing dramatic about it at all. In fact, right now with all the rain Namibia’s enjoyed, it barely looks like a dune at all for all the grass growing on it.

the end of Elim Dune

But be not fooled, this Elim is the devil in disguise. The jeep track we had to follow was of deep, dry, dark red sand that was thick underfoot, making it virtually impossible to run on. Every step was a slog that made the calf muscles scream and our swollen feet shift in our shoes.

Eventually the dune spat us out into a dry riverbed just a couple of kilometres from the finish line. What is it about the last couple of km’s of any race/stage that they’re far l-o-n-g-e-r than any other? They go on forever, particularly when they’re in a dry riverbed in a desert under the baking noonday sun...

That day I bagged another 28 mins on Erica, widening the gap to a more comfortable measure. I’d also managed to get a 27 min lead on Andrew. What sparked my interest was that only about four or so minutes ahead of me in the overall running was Italian Francesco Galanzino, winner of the 4 Deserts overall championship award in 2007. Maybe... perhaps... possibly there was a chance I could catch him over the next three days...

Today chewed up five runners and spat them out with feet so gruesomely blistered they could barely walk. Forget the speedster runners, the true superstar in the camp was our medic, Amy Lichtenstein – she treated every blistered toe, every loose toenail and every suppurating chafe as if our lives depended on it, and she saved the race for more the half the field.
(Not for sensitive viewers!) Amy working her wonders on some rotting toenails (not mine, please note!)

Day 3: 42km
Sandy riverbeds, rocky ground and long stretches of grassy gravel plains made up today’s route. It was my favourite day. I saw springbok pronging (such a perfect phrase that!), ostrich strutting their stuff, and a beautiful black-backed jackal dashing through the bushes just ahead of me as I run across a dry riverbed.

At around 25km I caught up with Francesco, who seemed to have slowed down. We chatted for a bit before I went ahead, and he seemed to be battling a bit. If I was to get ahead of him, now was my chance to make the break, so I put my head down, picked up the pace and dug. By the time I’d reached the finish, I’d established a gap of just under 10 min, putting me 6 mins ahead of him and in 4th position overall. Erica was now an hour or so behind, which was reassuring but knowing her endurance capability, I knew I’d have to run strong, not only to maintain my lead but, if at all possible, try my best to further establish it.

rain sodden dunes

Sleeping out in the bush is always a special experience. Of course where we were in the Namib, there were no predators to worry about, and at times out the darkness we’d hear the shrieks of jackals in the distance, the hoot of owls and the gentle cooing of a disturbed wood dove. Around midnight that night we had a terrific rain storm that had us all scurrying out our two-person tents to drop the flaps and keep the rain out. In true African storm style, the lightning, thunder and pelting rain was over in half an hour, and the night was peaceful again.

Day 4: 56km
We were all apprehensive about today – it was the big one, and probably the make or break of many people’s race. From the route description, the daunting factor of today’s route wasn’t the terrain so much as the distance, particularly considering we already had 128km in our legs. Not at all daunting, that is, apart from the #*% dune we had to slog up and down in the 56th kilometre before crossing the finish line!

Apart from that (place expletive of choice here) dune, today involved a lot, and I mean a LOT, of long, flat, endless running. We had a lot of ground to cover in order to get from where we started – the Sesriem Canyon (highlight #1 of today) – to halfway to Sossusvlei: Dune 45 (highlight #2, cruel though it was).

wading through the Sesriem Canyon
About 8km into the route, we hit the canyon. With all the rain of the past two months, the water was deeper than we expected, and shorties like me needed help... forget wading, I couldn’t even touch the bottom! Race organisers Terry and Gary had rolled the dice for which of them would be on canyon duty, and Gary had lost: he spent more than an hour wallowing in the (apparently snake-infested, we learned afterwards!) muddy water helping runners keep their packs raised above their heads as they swam across.

Many hours, and a lot of running later, came Dune 45. As we’d been warned by last year’s runners, the enormous red New Balance branded finish line was placed at the base of the dune, and could be seen by the runners from miles away through the heat haze. In a cruel twist of sick humour (sorry guys!), the organisers required the runners to pass the banner and head on up the dune, slogging all the way to its summit to touch the New Balance flag. After 55km of running, it’s a BIG ask – the mind protests madly and the muscles agree. But the feeling of reaching the summit, turning around and charging down the dune is as exhilarating as the slog up is punishing. All the pain and effort is forgotten and momentum takes over!
me heading up Dune 45
But it was the heat that was the toughest challenge of day 4. Being the longest stage, we were all out there for far longer than on the other days, and by afternoon the sun had heated the earth to scorching point. The heat was grilling down and baking upward. I felt like I was running in a furnace. My every instinct screamed for me to slow down and walk, but walking was worse:

Note to self: three reasons to run rather than walk when in the desert:
• Flies LOVE walkers (what the hell are flies doing in the middle of the desert anyway??)
• When you walk, you lose the breeze you create when running (Proof that running’s cool)
• My favourite mantra in the heat: the more you run, the sooner you’re done.

By the end of Day 4, I’d established a 31 min gap between me and Francesco, which I was happy about. Erica had had a strong day and I only managed to add two minutes to my lead, but it meant that I was 1:02 ahead, which was reassuring... providing tomorrow went well.

Day 5: 28km
For me today’s stage started with a scare: when I got up and out my tent, I was limping – I wasn’t able to put weight on my right leg! I’d had a slight niggle in my hammy for a couple of weeks (caused during a 100km week of road running I did a month back after I’d twisted my ankle – blame it on tar) but it had eased and felt ok. Seems instead it had saved itself til now, the final day of a five-day stage race. Nice.

At the starting yell, I hobbled off like an amputee late for a bus. Everyone ran past me and away into the distance. Great, I thought, so this is how my first ever desert race is going to end – for four days I work hard against top male runners to establish 4th position overall, and on the final day with just 28km to go, I can’t even walk properly. That’s cruel.

I shuffled my way along for the next few km’s, determined to shed the damn hammy issue – or be able to just ignore it if I had to. Ever so gradually it eased, and by the 5th km I was running evenly, had picked up pace and was able to make my way one by one through the field. Such relief!

the pan we sloshed through, with Big Daddy in the background
Today we had two dunes to conquer: one at 14km (a baby in comparison with yesterday’s Dune 45) and one at 23km (appropriately named “Big Daddy”, known as the highest dune in the world). To waste words on the first half of today’s stage would be a shame – the magnificence of this stage began in the last 14km. I’ve never touched such contrasts: one minute we were crunching our way across a parched, cracked clay pan that felt like bone china underfoot, and the next sloshing through shin-deep muddy water across a 400m wide pan, surrounded by age old burnt red dunes.

Then, the NDC’s piece de resistance: Big Daddy. OMG, what a whopper this daddy was. He towered above us, stretching his spine up and up like a winding staircase. Only this staircase wound very s-l-o-w-l-y and had no stairs, just thick, loose sand of 45 degree incline, that wound its way into the heavens for 345m. This daddy was a monster with a sick sense of humour.
view looking back from a third of the way up Big Daddy
It took 1.5km of slog to mount the highest dune in the world, and it took me 27 min. I just put my head down and ploughed. Eventually I reached the peak. Then ooooover the side I shot, down an almost sheer drop that was bliss to run on. It took a couple of seconds and a not-so-tidy head-over-heels to learn that deep heel placement was the way to go, then I let gravity do its thing. Damn, I haven’t had that much fun in sand since I was a kid!

Running across Dead Vlei, the starkest “dead pan” imaginable, was eerie – it was the very epitome of desert. But then the final couple of km’s to the finish line was brilliant – knowing the race was over and I had my win (women’s) in the bag. I crossed the line in 2:58, bagging 4th place overall (22:55) and the breaking the women’s record by 2hrs 28min.

NDC, what a race! And the Namib Desert, what a place to run a race!

A huge thanks to Terry & Gary and the whole Kinetic Events team for staging this brilliant run, and for going the extra mile in so many ways to make the race so memorable for all of us. NDC is a must on the international ultra running calendar!

From me personally, a huge thank-you to Velocity Sports Lab for backing me for NDC and enabling me to do this race – it was a privilege to represent Velocity Sports Lab again!

Thanks too to PeptoSport and PeptoPro for powering me through the desert at pace! I did the entire five-day race fuelled only by PeptoSport. It’s The Bomb!

And to my long-term sponsor, Salomon, for always providing the best kit I ever need. I’m proud to be a Salomon kid and be able to fly the Salmon flag high!

* photos credited to David Montgomery

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Namibia, horizons of green desert

Time to sneak in a non-running-related blog post. Just because I can :)

Back home after two fantastic weeks – the first spent running an average of a marathon a day for five days, and the second doing so little that I’d have made a sloth look energetic.

Cape Town and Namibia are contrasting worlds in so many ways, and coming home after even just two weeks there, takes some adjusting. During our week of exploring, we clocked up about 3 000km of driving, and I’ve never seen so few people. There was just no one about for miles and miles. I guess that’s understandable when you think that Namibia, with its surface area of 824 268km2, has just 2.2 people per km2. It’s three-quarters the size of South Africa and yet its population is about half a million less than Cape Town’s. Gets you thinking.

And when I say there was nobody about, I mean really nobody. Driving through Namibia is not like driving in other African countries. There’re no settlements to be seen, no kraals, no little roadside stores, vendors or fruit sellers, no village kids running around, no herders, no huts. Instead there’re just miles and miles of bush.

I’ve travelled in many countries, developed and developing, but I’ve never experienced one that felt so remote, so isolated, so empty. To me Namibia was endless space personified.

It’s also a land of contrasts. From the burning red dunes of Sossusvlei and the bleached white crustiness of Dead Vlei, to the lush green thorny bush around Etosha and the knee-high grass that coats the country from north to south since the heavy summer rains, Namibia is filled with visual contradiction. In the past two months there’s been flooding in various regions of the country, with roads and bridges washed away from the heaviest rains experienced there in 120 years. And yet Walvis Bay remains one of the driest established cities in the world, with an annual rainfall of only 10mm.

Travelling around Namibia is an eye-opener. It’s one of the last untouched, unspoilt landscapes on the continent, giving us a window into how it’s always been, but sadly, the way we're messing up our world, probably won’t always be.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Catching my breath after NDC

What a special week: running 220km through the Namib Desert in the land of big skies, vast horizons, towering dunes, canyons, and mile upon mile of now grassland bursting with life, and sleeping each night under star-studded skies illuminated by electric storms.

That’s the Namib Desert Challenge – a gruelling five-day stage race with a touch of class, self-sufficient with style, where the runners are sweaty but not stinking for long, the desert water is not only plentiful but cool, and the finish line is followed by a bush banquet beyond expectation.

It was a tough race and competition was stiff. The sun grilled us mercilessly and the dunes were higher than I’d ever imagined. But the most memorable aspect of the NDC has got to be its brilliant organisation.

Gary and Terry, hats off to you and the whole of the Kinetic Team for putting together this fantastic event in the middle of the desert where there’s virtually no infrastructure – the logistics alone must’ve been the REAL Namib Desert Challenge! The entire team behind this race went out of their way to make the event really special.

And to Amy and the medical team, you guys shone your socks off (no pun intended) – without you most of us wouldn’t have completed this race.

Very importantly, thank-you to Velocity Sports Lab for believing in me and making this race happen; to my sponsor Salomon for always ensuring I have the best kit in the world (come stone or sand, mountain or plain, S-Labs ROCK!); and to my fuel sponsor, PeptoSport, which fuelled me the entire race and gave me the vooma to run as well as I did. PeptoSport is the BOMB!

Thanks to everyone for all the messages during, before and after the race – you gave me strength! And to all the wonderful people who donated to Solomon's Haven - together we've raised R40 000! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I’m still in the Namib for another week to catch my breath. There’s not much in the way of technology in the desert, and I’ve sniffed out the only Internet Cafe within a 300km radius to post this quick blog. For those keen to hear a bit more about this brilliant race, I’ll be posting a more detailed report when I’m back in civilisation in a week’s time.

Til then, happy trailing!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

tick tock... tick tock...

Just 23 hours and counting before we hit the desert start line.

I’m sitting in Cape Town International with a while til I board the plane, so keeping the Vida guys busy as I load up with enough quality latte’s to see me through the next five days. Anyone keen to set up a Vida franchise in Namibia?

My bag’s been packed, unpacked, re-packed and then emptied out and packed again for good measure. It weighs a ton – I’ll be sweating bricks that the sniffer dogs at Windhoek International are only trained to find cocaine rather than vacuum-packed biltong...
my menu for the next 5 days

The past few days have come with the usual agitation of taper time – smashing in the food while not clocking on the mileage is never good for the psyche, but I was warned that one should get to the start line of a self-sufficient race with a bellyful of kg’s to spare. So I’ve tried my best, and have to admit, I’ve eaten for the week ahead. I think I might have to be helped across the start line.

How am I feeling? Excited, nervous, filled with anticipation, and impatient now to get started. It feels like this race has taken forever to come. Funny to think how time will slow down once the sand’s under the feet, no doubt.

And most of all, I’m thrilled to see the Solomon’s Haven barometer rising so rapidly on the BackaBuddy site – it’s about to hit the R30k mark! Thank-you to everyone who’s donated – I’ve tried to thank each of you personally but yesterday I couldn’t quite keep up, they were coming in thick and fast!

Please spread the word and keep those donations streaming in! http://www.backabuddy.co.za/champion/project/backabuddynamiblinda

Thanks everyone for all the good luck messages! I’ll be clocking out of connectivity now for the next five days, but will update once I’ve survived the desert :-)

Now I'm off to find me some sand...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

taper time

Today began the 7-day countdown to the Namib Desert Challenge. That’s certainly frightening enough to shake off my blogger’s block and get me posting again. (It’s all the running I’ve been doing, y’see, that’s kept me away from my screen. Well, at least that’s my story, I’m sticking to it.)

With less than a week to go now, the training’s over, it’s too late to squeeze in any more. I have a love/hate relationship with tapering. I hate the waiting part, as my mind always plays tricks – either it tells me I’ve not done nearly enough training, or I’m sure I can sense a sniffle coming, or teeny little tweaks or niggles suddenly appear in inexplicable places. But I do love the eating part – carboloading’s always good. I’m the most eating-fit person I know!

I wonder what percentage of athletes get to a start line feeling confident that they’re properly prepared and fully trained? I never do – there always seem to be curveballs thrown in somewhere in the build-up, whether it be a bout of flu, a twisted ankle or simply that I feel I could’ve/should’ve done more hillwork, speedwork or, in this case, sandwork!

And then I wonder, when it comes to the crunch, how much all that actually matters. Prof Noakes has always maintained that providing you’ve done the training and preparation, performance in a race is 10% physical, 90% mental.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it. But it’s tapping into that 90% that’s the tricky part!

So I should get back to my preparation now – seeing to all the final fidgety stuff of what to squeeze into one’s pack for a self-sufficient multi-day desert event. The learning curve has been steep: what sunblock, what kit, which pack, what style of gaiters, and how best to be minimal. This week I’ve learnt about counting calories, and have been on the search for which foods provide bang-for-bucks in the sustained energy department while weighing as little as possible in the pack. Needless to say, I’m still searching.

Best I get back to it...

PS  Huge thanks to those wonderful people who've supported my fundraising effort so far. Thanks to you I'm halfway to the goal of R50k! Anyone still keen to donate, please hop onto  www.backabuddy.co.za/champion/project/backabuddynamiblinda  and click on the "donate" button - it's that easy!   Please support Solomon's Haven - every rand counts!

Monday, February 21, 2011

slogging the desert for Solomon's Haven

I've run many miles over massive mountains, next to picturesque lakes, across glacial moraines, through forests and grasslands, along stretches of exquisite coastline, through day and night. Now it's time to put my endurance to the real test by taking on a desert run.

On the 27th March 2011 I'll be taking on the Namib Desert Challenge, a 5-day 220km self-sufficient race in the Namib Desert (http://www.namibdesertchallenge.com/). Temperatures will be extreme, averaging in the mid-40 degrees, and distances each day will be 40-50km. Runners will be required to carry their own food and fuel each day, and will only be provided with water.

I'm an experienced trail runner, sure, but this will be my first time in a desert, and the first race I'll have ever run in real heat... I'm no fan of the heat, so desert temperatures are likely to be my nemesis. I find the thought of five days of them quite terrifying!

This will be a massive personal challenge - it'll undoubtedly be the hardest feat I've ever taken on. But I want to make the slog worthwhile. And I'd love all the help I can get to do so. I've chosen a very special cause that's close to my heart - it's called Solomon's Haven.

Solomon's Haven is an emergency shelter in Mitchell's Plain, Cape Town that is home to +/-16 children, all of whom have been either abused, neglected or abandoned by their own families and referred to Solomon's Haven by the Magistrate’s Court or the Department of Social Welfare. Maria and Alec Solomon provide a secure and loving environment that focuses on building self-esteem in preparation for the children’s eventual healthy integration into society.
Solomon’s Haven is a registered non-profit organisation and receives a government grant of less than R200 per month for each child in its care. This has to cover school fees, food, clothing and transport. Often transport expenses alone amount to R250 per month for children temporarily in the care of the Haven if their school is situated further afield. These government grants are supplemented by Alec’s small income as a builder, and by donations.

In addition to her role as mother and counsellor, Maria represents many of the children in court, providing testimony and dealing with the legalities regarding stewardship of the children. The Haven provides a place of safety for children of all ages, from small babies to teenagers, many for a few years, some for just for a night or a few days. Often Maria receives children in the middle of the night needing immediate attention, care and refuge. As tribute to her enduring work for the community, Maria was runner-up in the V&A Woman of Worth 2003 and very proudly won the full award in 2004.

Solomon's Haven is a street miracle, plain and simple. It heals souls and changes lives. It's an inspiration to society. And it needs all the help you and I can give it. But without outside assistance, Maria and Alec are unable to give these children the love and care they so desperately crave. Please help me to raise as much as we possibly can to help change the lives of those in need.

To raise funds for Solomon’s Haven, I’ve registered with www.backabuddy.co.za, an online donation site through which donating is simple, fast and totally secure. It's also the most efficient way to donate directly to where funds are needed.

Please support me in raising as much as I can for Solomon’s Haven. Here’s the deal: I’ll do the sweaty work and slog across the desert, and you click on the DONATE NOW link at the top of my backabuddy page!

My donation page is http://www.backabuddy.co.za/champion/project/backabuddynamiblinda

Please contribute to this very worthy cause. Remember, every donation big or small counts for a lot.

And please, spread the word far and wide!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bruce hits the Peak

No runner ever needs an excuse to run Chapman's Peak Drive – it’s there, that’s reason enough.

Runners from the Republic of Hout Bay (Noordhoek too, of course, but I’m biased) have one of the most scenic roads in the world on their doorstep – it’s just minutes away from anywhere in our valley and it beckons us at all times of day... and night.

Recipe for an unbeatable start to a week

Take a handful of runners, mostly from Hout Bay, and mix evenly in the beach carpark in front of Chapman’s Peak hotel at 4:50am on a Monday morning.

Add running legend Bruce Fordyce, who’s down from Jhb for the day and keen to enjoy the oxygen advantage of running at sea level.

At Hout Bay Time 5am (or 5:05 SA Time), start running up Chappies.

Ensure pace is comfortable, temperature cool and the air crisp.

Ignore when Fordyce complains that the wind’s blowing – it might be by Jozi standards, but the ocean below looks like glass. Jozies don’t know what real wind is.

Be smug when cyclists ride past and have to move over – it’s not often we runners outnumber cyclists on Chappies, especially during the pre-Argus training panic. This morning the road is ours!

Don’t stop at the viewpoint – run on another 2km to the sharkspotter’s corner and watch the mist rolling in across the 4km stretch of beach from Kommetjie towards Noordhoek.

As you take a gentle trot back towards the viewpoint, feel the majesty of Chapman’s Peak towering above, the power of the waves smashing into the cliff way below, and the first rays of sunlight fingering the mist that’s caressing the Sentinel as it guards the entrance to Hout Bay.

Keep temperature moderate. Enjoy the 5km downhill from the viewpoint to the beach – for once it really IS “downhill all the way to the finish”!

Ok, so it wasn’t trail, but it’s hard to beat such an experience: running on such a stunning route, in perfect conditions, with a world champion running legend.

Wally & Chippy Steel with Bruce - 74 Two Oceans Ultras between them!