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, December 21, 2012

Not an end, rather a new beginning

Today’s a good day. In fact, it’s a great day! Not only is it the start of the festive season and, for many, holiday time, but it’s also NOT the end of the world. The Mayans were only kidding. What really happened is they ran out of space on their calendar.

So, instead of today being the end of time, we can see it as a time for a new beginning, a reboot, a fresh start.

And, being holiday time, it’s all the more reason (I prefer that word to excuse – we don’t need an excuse) to hit the trails. Hot trails they may be, but they’re special in any temperature, time, be they technical or not.

Speaking of all things trail, it’s time for an update on what’s afoot with the future of our sport in South Africa. Most of you will remember the much-debated debacle in 2011, when ASA selected and sent a team at very short notice to the IAU World Trail Champs in Ireland (too lengthy and complicated to go into in this post, so click on To regulate or not to regulate - that is the trail running question to read up, including its 31 comments).

Since then, there’ve been loads of positive developments shaping the future of trail running and, again in a very positive way, the formalisation of our sport. While many of you have been following this progress, others haven’t – not for lack of interest, but rather because they’ve been spending their time outdoors, enjoying the trails. A sort of feet-on-the-ground rather than ear-to-the-ground kinda preference.

So, I thought it’s about time I did a follow-up on the post I wrote in 2011, to bring Rockhoppin’ Trail readers up to speed with the good stuff that’s shaping trail running in South Africa.

To ensure accurate info, I went directly to the info source himself: appointed by ASA as convener, Altus Schreuder is the official driver of the process, and is working closely with Allan Ryninks (runner), Bruce Arnett (runner) and Juan Botes (race organiser) in a temporary sub-committee to steer progress until, in time, a formal committee takes over.

And the best news is, as a trail running community we ALL play a role, we ALL get to choose the destiny of our sport.

So, here’s the low-down of where we are (note, it’s in Q&A format for easy reading so you can get back out there quicker). All comments are welcome – and encouraged, so please air your thoughts and get discussing.

LD:  Why is Athletics South Africa (ASA) interested in trail running (TR)?
AS:  I thought it is best that ASA answers this question, so I posted it to James Evans (President) and this was his reply: “Trail running is, and always has been, a part of the sport of athletics. This is true on the international level, where there are international championships, and also locally where a large percentage of trail runners are also members of athletics clubs. So much so, that in the Western Province two clubs were formed to cater for trail runners.”

LD:  What is ASA's intention with TR in South Africa?
AS:  Once again the reply from James: “ASA has no specific intentions for TR in particular. As with all parts of the sport, we want the participants (be it athletes, coaches, etc.) to contribute to creating the vision of what they want. The current exercise being done by the trail committee is to determine exactly that. If people want to contribute to the growth of the sport, their input is welcomed and will be taken into account together with all other inputs. Ultimately we want a safe, fair and enjoyable sport.”

LD:  What will be the role of ASA in TR going forward?
AS:  This depends entirely on what we as the TR community decides how we want the sport to be structured and governed. On the one end of the scale full allegiance to ASA will result in TR becoming an official commission within ASA with separate but equal standing to other commissions like Road Running, Track & Field, etc. On the other hand, if we decide to handle our own affairs, ASA will be only be involved in choosing events as national championships, and then selecting and sending teams to international championships.

LD:  What will be the role of the current sub-committee for Trail Running?
AS:  We must investigate, consult and draft proposals for the formalisation of TR in South Africa. These proposals will be based on the feedback received from the TR community and will not be formulated to meet certain preconceived ideas. The committee may also facilitate processes and get the ball rolling, where necessary.
We will focus on three concepts: a national structure for TR in South Africa; essential rules to protect the safety of runners and the environment; and the drafting a national fixtures list, identifying national championships and selecting national teams.
Once its current mandate has been fulfilled, the sub-committee will basically cease to exist. In the event that TR becomes part of ASA, a Trail Running Commission will be established with properly elected members who will then take over the governing of the sport. However, iowever, f we decide to manage the sport ourselves, a committee that forms part of one of the commissions in ASA (probably cross-country) will be formed and will only look at the selection and management of national teams.

LD:  Where do you fit in and what is your mandate?
AS:  As is the case with sub-committees, the members were not elected but appointed: Allan Ryninks (vice chair of Trail WP); Bruce Arnett (runner); Juan Botes (race organiser), and I as convener.
I have a full mandate to do everything necessary to form a comprehensive and balanced picture of what the TR community needs and wants for the sport. ASA is not involved with the committee and it is up to me to ensure that the decisions we make are not in conflict with ASA.

LD:  What is the time frame for what the committee wants to achieve?
AS:  I’m reluctant to put rigid timelines to the concepts of a national structure and the drafting of rules because it is critical to get as much input and participation as possible. I will be quite satisfied if we could finalise these by the end of 2013.
The national calendar, championships and team selection are more urgent and should already be operational in 2013.

LD:  How will TR benefit from the formalisation of the sport?
AS:  This question goes to the heart of what we are doing because it forces us to ask what kind of structures we should have in TR and how we should govern our sport. My reply, like everybody else’s at this stage, is a matter of opinion because we are deliberating something that doesn’t yet exist.
For me, as it seems for most people, TR is primarily about running, freedom and nature. A national body should guard over these principles and in the process concentrate their rules and regulations primarily on two aspects: safety of runners and nature conservation. Of course this is all very philosophical and the question remains: how we are going to do it.
Right now TR in South Africa is developing smoothly and some people have indeed asked: why fix something that isn’t broken. But just like any contract, measures should be put in place when all is going well for when things could go wrong.  Now is the best time to get our sport organised because we are growing very fast.
Let me give an example:  In 2013 we will see many new events from organisers that are inexperienced in TR, like road running clubs, mountain bike events, local festival organisers, etc. With the current unregulated approach, any numberof organisers (even from other regions) can stage events in the same region on the same day as an existing event. It could also see inexperienced organisers or those with one eye on the money to compromise on safety or neglect the environment.
Another point to consider is to whom nature conservation bodies, regional authorities or even race organisers and runners should talk when problems arise. There are also other possible issues such as levies, race numbers, insurance, etc. that may need discussion.
As you can see, I’m not giving any answers on these issues because I believe my responsibility is to let us as TR community decide collectively on them, but I do firmly believe that we must come together to formally address them.

LD:  How has the feedback been so far?
AS:  It has been better than I expected. The bruising encounters of 2011 are still fresh in many minds and I was concerned that people would be downright dismissive of this new attempt to get something on the table. However, criticism has been mostly constructive and it is especially heart-warming to see the open-mindedness of people. It is, nevertheless, clear that the process will have to be managed very carefully.
Some race organisers are understandably cautious, particularly those who have worked hard over the years to develop successful and popular events without the interference of governing bodies. The two aspects that have raised the most concern have been the involvement of ASA, and the extent to which rules and regulations will impact negatively on events and runners.
Our top runners, on the other hand, are excited, especially about the prospect of respresenting South Africa. For them the most important aspects are well organised races and the opportunity to fulfill their potential.
Having said all of the above, I believe that many people are still waiting to see where this process is heading before they will fully commit. This is fully understandable and once again emphasises the importance for us as a committee to do a proper job.

LD:  How has your call for bids to stage the SA Long Distance Champs so far been received?
AS:  So far five race organisers have showed interest, one of whom has already sent full documentation. I think once organisers see what it is all about, there could be much more interest. The most important aspects to understand when you stage a national championship are:
  • It doesn’t add a cent more to your existing budget;
  • You organise the event exactly as you want to without any interference from ASA;
  • It must be rotated between regions and events every year; and
  • It attracts top runners and increases media coverage (TV included).

LD:  How do you see the short and long term plan for TR in South Africa?
AS:  The short term is all about fulfilling the mandate of the committee: compile the national fixtures list, decide on national championships, select and send national teams to the world stage. Also to get the TR community to decide on the essential rules and regulations for our sport, and finally to decide on a national structure for TR in South Africa. I believe this phase will end in the election of our first national committee.
In the long term I foresee a well-balanced calendar aided by a system where we sanction races that fully adhere to the rules we have decided on. For me safety and the environment are of the utmost concern and since we have only so many mountains and so many trails, we simply cannot have a free-for-all where our environment is harmed or runners are disadvantaged.
Another prospect is the establishment of mountain running in South Africa. This currently doesn’t exist here and it will be interesting to see how successful it will be.
Finally, we will definitely bid for the staging of an international championship. I think it would be wonderful to bring the mountain goats of the world to South Africa and show them what we have and what we can do.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Grand Raid de la Réunion 2012 - race report

It looked just like a night carnival – masses of excited, colourfully dressed people crowding the street, loud vibey music pounding to the beat at maxi volume, bright lights everywhere, photographers and TV crew rushing around eagerly.
Only, this wasn’t a carnival at all – the colourful dress was body-hugging, sure, but it was lycra running kit, the lights were headlamps, and the hoards of media were interested only in one person: “trail god” Kilian Jornet. This was 10 mins to the 10pm start of the Grand Raid de la Réunion 2012, the 20th running of this grand daddy of international trail 100 milers, the Diagonale de Fous (Diagonal of Madmen).

The +2800 competitors had been gathering for the past three hours at the start, in this tiny village at the southernmost tip of Réunion called Cap Méchant. With only one major road around the island, traffic congestion is a major problem, so each year fleets of buses are laid on to help transport competitors from the capital, St Denis in the north to the race start.

We’d come in two cars, arrived just 15 mins before the start and, once through the compulsory kit check, had snuck along a side alley directly to the front of the mass of people. Why so? Because we were with that “trail god” Kilian Jornet, and he wanted to avoid the media frenzy until the last possible few minutes.
Who were these special “we”? They were five Salomon International runners, some of the best trail runners in the world – one of whom would win this race in a mere 26hrs33; one who would run 134km of the way alongside that champ but have to pull out due to injury; another who would have to be airlifted out as a result of dehydration; and two who would finish in 2nd and 3rd place in the women.

I was the sixth, and felt like the real pleb tagger-on’er to this lot, but still very proudly Salomon and very privileged to be there, daunted by the prospect of taking on a race that had the reputation of being the toughest trail 100 miler on the planet. I had a pretty good idea what I was in for, but no clue how I would fare. I’d done two almost-100-milers before (the Tuffer Puffer, which at 150km in distance, falls some 16km short of the full distance), but not only was this race slightly longer than 100 miles (170km in total), its course was considerably more technical than Tuffer Puffer.

I knew the vast majority of competitors in this race were French (either from France or from Réunion) and that the French are renowned for being hard core – distance and difficulty don’t scare them. The average finishing time for this race would be 57 hours – the cut-off time was 65 hours (extended to 66hrs30min to allow for the last finisher), and there would be a 52% drop-out rate. That all spoke volumes about this race.

I’m not sure which was louder – the starting horn or the roar of the runners as they took off, but all I knew was that I was pushed, elbowed, bashed and shoved in their frenzy to get going. The pace at which they sprinted off would’ve impressed even Usain Bolt. I was shocked – this was a 100 miler, not a 5km time trail, what was the panic? But for fear of being mown down, I hooked on and joined the frenzy.

The first 5km were on flat tar, with crowds of spectators lining the street, cheering us on. Then we turned off left and the climb into the hinterland began, gently at first, winding us through fields of sugar cane, inland and upward, the dirt road eventually becoming steeper and narrowing into a rough single track gnarled with roots and rocks.

The start of the race also saw the arrival of the rain, which would continue in varying degrees of intensity through the night and well into the following day. It was warm rain at first, but the higher we climbed, the colder it felt, so that at around 2000m (25km into the race), I donned thermal layer, rain jacket and gloves.

I can’t really remember the details of that night. Once at the top of that first long climb (sea level to 2400m in 30km), I knew from the Google Earth map I’d burned to memory (click here for Google Earth view of GRR route) that I was running alongside a massive volcanic caldera, at the centre of which sits the Piton de la Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace), one of the most active volcanoes in the world. But that night, everything around me was black – I saw no trace of anything impressive, save for the calves of the speedsters in front of me lit in a narrow shaft of light from my headlamp.

The hours ticked away, the km’s clocked up and before long it was dawn and I was running through thick mist, being gazed at by cud-chomping cows in alpine meadows. Already the numbers of runners had thinned out – I had no idea how I was doing but I reckoned from the few runners around, it couldn’t be too badly.

At that point I hadn’t chatted with anyone in 8 hours. Up there it seemed no one on this planet understood English. Everything to do with this race is in French – from the website and the pre-race info, to the runners themselves: up there it seems history unfolded differently – Napoleon must’ve won the Battle of Waterloo and now English just doesn’t exist. So you can imagine my joy when I bumped into fellow Cape Town runner Andrew Stuart – we ran along nattering for some km’s, both relieved to have someone to chat with at last. Then I ran on, through the steady stream of Frenchies, in silence.

Before long I was climbing again – by now I’d long realised that in this race if you weren’t descending, you were ascending, there was never much respite for the quads. Sadly though, the incredible views I’d been told to expect of this volcanic island were hidden for much of that first 18 hours of the race, shrouded in a blanket of heavy mist or soft rain.

Mud played a large and rather inelegant role in my life that day – thick, cloying, slippery stuff that saw me sliding into extremely uncomfortable semi-splits mid stride on innumerable occasions, until I was splattered and smeared from butt to toe with the stuff. Mud – and by that I mean the real stuff – is not something we really experience here in southern Africa. And I’m glad, as it’s not fun.

The hours passed, day became night and one mountain became the next, and the next. The strange thing about loooong races is that they require such single-minded focus for such a length of time that soon nothing else matters – you forget about everything else in your life, and the path ahead becomes your world. Eating, drinking, time and distance covered/still to cover occupy the brain, and the body tags along. Where I was placed in the field became my obsession – by this time I’d heard I was within the top 10 women, and my life became centred around ensuring that no other women passed me.
Somewhere around 10pm that night I could feel my mind drifting. Physical fatigue is difficult enough to deal with, but when you add sleep deprivation to the mix, things go pear-shaped fast. By this stage I was 24hrs into the race, so about 40hrs since I’d last slept. Endurance running requires a strong mind, and if the mind goes, the body follows: weak mind equals weak body. I knew then that if I didn’t get some sleep, I’d be history.

So at the next refreshment table, I had a 20min power nap. The race organisers had the runners’ needs sussed: 10 stretchers laid in a row, each with a blanket, and a roster recording runner’s name and desired duration of sleep. The runner turnover was efficient – as soon as you’d been woken up, you needed to vacate your stretcher for the next in the queue. It was like a sausage machine, but with sweaty zombies instead.

My power nap worked wonders – 20mins recharged my batteries and I felt (almost) as good as new, able to tackle the next string of mountains with renewed energy. I learned I’d been pipped by a woman while I’d slept, but I chewed her up and spat her out in the first 30mins back on the trail J

Dawn of day 2 came while I was running downhill through what felt like a neverending forest, so when I eventually popped out into the light, the sun was shining and life was good. That was the longest downhill imaginable – over a 21km distance we dropped 2000m in altitude (with a cumulative gain of 9500m already under the belt), and my quads were screaming. I wasn’t sure which I dreaded more: the ascents or the descents… everything was punishment.

The final 20km of the race were for me the least enjoyable – we were in civilisation again, and every km felt a heavy slog. Somehow we still squeezed in another 1300m of climbing, and dropped some 1500m, just for quad punishment. And two quads = double punishment.

I crossed the finish line just after 6:30pm, 44hrs35min after having started in the south of the island. I saw my man, and I burst into tears of relief and exhaustion. I’d made it, and in one piece. I’d finished 9th woman, and 4th in my category (Vet 1), an unexpected podium place.

The Grand Raid de la Réunion has long been an itch I needed to scratch. It was an incredible experience, and one I feel well the richer for. It’s now ticked, and there’re others on my bucket list that need attention. But right now, it’s time for some fun playtime on our Cape mountains.

A huge thanks to Salomon International for making my dream a reality; to my sponsor Salomon South Africa for four years of fantastic support; and to PeptoSport for supplying me with great fuel to keep body strong and joints healthy.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Grand Raid for Solomon's Haven

On Thursday night, I’ll be lining up at the start of what will undoubtedly be the most difficult race I’ve ever done. It’s the Grand Raid de la Réunion (also known as La Diagonale des Fous – the Diagonal of Madmen), a classic trail 100 miler that’s notorious for its degree of difficulty.  http://www.grandraid-reunion.com/  

Not only does the route cover 165km of extremely rough terrain (crossing the island of Réunion via four volcano craters, high mountains, deep valleys, rivers, shale and apparently a LOT of mud), but the equatorial conditions will make it hot, humid and very testing. The cumulative ascent over the route will be more than 9 600m – almost 1km higher than Everest. The race takes substantially longer than other equally well known international 100 milers, and in fact has a cut-off of 63 hours.

I know you’ll momentarily wonder why on earth I would want to put myself through such mental and physical anguish. But then, I also know you’ll think again and realise it’s me involved here, and this sort of race is exactly what appeals to me! But I really want the effort to achieve a lot more than simply my personal goal of taking on a daunting challenge; I want to put this effort to good use. So, I’m doing the race to raise funds for Solomon’s Haven, an extremely needy cause that many friends know is close to my heart.

Solomon’s Haven is an emergency shelter in Mitchell's Plain, Cape Town, that is home to +/-16 children, all of whom have either been abused, neglected or abandoned by their own families and were referred to the Haven by the Dept of Social Welfare. The organisation seeks to 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 provides a place of safety for children of all ages, from small babies to teenagers, many for a few years, some for just a night or a few days.

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 it can get. Without outside assistance, Maria and Alec Solomon are unable to give these children the love and care they so desperately crave.

So I'm doing my Grand Raid de la Reunion to raise funds for Solomon's Haven. I'm using Back-a-Buddy to do so - it provides a quick, simple and secure way of donating, regardless of where you are in the world.

Please support this extremely worthy cause by clicking on this link and simply clicking on the "donate" button: www.backabuddy.co.za/grand-raid-de-la-reunion     Every donation, big or small, makes a huge difference.
Please help me raise as much as we can to help change the lives of these kids.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A sterling world in miniature

The best thing about having my own blog is that I can write about anything I want. Ninety-nine percent of the time that’s running, but every now and then, something else sneaks in, and this is one of those.

Everyone with a zest for life knows that harnessing that energy and putting it into action is a wonderful thing. Whatever that action is, whether sport, pastime or hobby, it enables exploration, discovery and adventure, liberating growth, joy and progress along a personal journey.

Living the zest for life and making it real is one thing, but capturing the beauty of that zest in dynamic/static movement and form is by no means easy. Many artists think they can, but fall dismally short. They try too hard, and they miss the point – too much shape, colour, noise, fuss. They blow it completely.

But I have a running friend, and a crazy speedster one at that, who is able to capture the beauty and passion of life to the full. He’s a master craftsman known to many in Cape Town and across South Africa for his incredible work, and his professional touch is the beauty and elegance of simplicity.

This blog post is not an advert, but rather my way of sharing what I, and so many others, love about Eric Tollner’s work – each one of his unique creations has a character of its own, and highlights the very essence of living life to the full, and all the ways in which we can!

Every handcrafted piece Eric produces is special – from the rock on which it’s secured, to its meticulous design and careful form. His sculptures are so loved that they’re on trophies, office desks, mantelpieces, bedside-tables, given as awards, gifts or just because their buyers fell head-over-heels in love with the little guys. Every one of the characters are all busy doing what they love to do, and they epitomise Living Life to the Full

There's no way my words can do them justice – here’re some of my favourites, check them out for yourselves:

Gymnasts, paddlers, guitarists, businesspeople, thinkers, swimmers, sharks, divers, pilots, penguins, planes, helicopters...  the list is endless, and Red Earth captures them all. Hop onto Red Earth and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

next up: Grand Raid de la Réunion

In 15 days’ time I'll be lined up on the start line of my toughest challenge yet - the 20th running of the Grand Raid de la Réunion. 

Nicknamed La Diagonale des Fous (the diagonal of madmen), this 100 miler cuts a diagonal course from south to north across the Indian Ocean island of Réunion. The extremely technical 162km route boasts it all, from volcanoes and volcanic craters (calderas), to dense forest, mud, rivers, waterfalls, altitude, heat and humidity, this race is about distance, difficulty and digging deep. 

It's said to be one of the toughest 100 milers on the planet. Results of previous years provide a stark comparison with equally well established but far more runnable 100 milers on the international calendar, like Western States and Leadville, and put this one into perspective: in 2011 Kilian Jornet won the WS100 in 15:34, and yet it took him more than seven hours longer to win the Grand Raid the previous year (23:17). That really says it all!

It’s a scary prospect, and I’m frighteningly excited – this promises to be trail running at its extreme.

Click on this link to check out the geography of Réunion: Google Earth view of Réunion

Friday, September 21, 2012

Tenzing, king o' the mountains

When I was a newbie blogger, I wrote this post about my little buddy Tenzing. As my blog now has a far wider audience, and my little guy is so loved by everyone who meets him, I think it's time to re-introduce him - according to him his territory is every mountaintop around Hout Bay, plus a few beyond. He's the boss, he knows!

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, August 31, 2012

PUFfeR 2012

What do you get if you cross a windswept, soggy but enthusiastic trail runner with 78km of running from Cape Point to the V&A Waterfront? A PUFfeR 2012 competitor, of course!

Last Saturday was the 18th running of the Peninsula Ultra Fun Run, better known as the PUFfeR (or, for those not wanting to get their fingers and eyes in a tangle, we just call it the Puffer).

The weather was as predicted by the long range forecast: foul – a strong, gusty headwind blasted us from the northwest, bringing with it intermittent sheets of icy rain throughout the day and making progress damn tough for us all. This was my 5th traverse from Cape Point to the Waterfront (two of which were admittedly doubles – the Tuffer Puffer in ’06 and ’07) and until this time, I’d always scored perfect weather. I’d always known it would only be a matter of time before I paid for that…

Nic de Beer (left), Andre Calitz (centre) and Will Robinson (right)
The heavens opened as our starting gun at 5:30am, and 129 of us sloshed our way through the darkness of the Cape Point Nature Reserve and into the dawn light, counting down the 23km of t@r til the top of Red Hill when we could at last hit trail. The front bunch had bolted off at the start as though their lives depended on it, with record holder Will Robinson, 2011 winner Nic de Beer, and Puffer novice and veritable speedster Andre Calitz disappearing into the darkness, not to be seen again by the rest of us til prizegiving that night at Ferryman's.

I had my own battle to fight on the t@r section – between the relentless headwind and a slightly dodgy tummy that required two high speed bush visits, I had to keep a close watch on Melany Porter, who I had known would give the road section a good push. She had a comfortable lead, and I needed to keep her in view for peace of mind. I’d have to catch her once we hit the trail…

The rain lifted, the wind continued. I caught Melany on the t@r section in Sun Valley, just before the Woodcutters path. By the time I reached the Old Wagon Trail, I had enough of a lead to know that if I kept a steady pace, I’d be safe. Thankfully my legs didn’t have their usual Old Wagon Trail rebellion, and I ran strong, winding my way through the magnificence of Silvermine Nature Reserve at its floral best.
me on the Old Wagon Trail

Once past Elephants Eye and onto the far section of Level Five, I finally had a clear view of the back of Table Mountain, and my heart sank – it was shrouded in thick, dark cloud. I knew there was little chance we’d be “going over”, and that instead, we’d be sent “around”. No real Puffer runner wants to be sent around the mountain – it’s not The Real Thing, it’s a bow-out, a sap’s safe alternative. But with some 60 novices doing this year’s race, the organisers would be wise to make the responsible decision and re-route the race from Constantia Nek.

And that’s exactly what happened. The front three speedsters Andre, Will and Nic reached the Nek way ahead of everyone, and because their race was tight, they were cleared to head on up the mountain to Maclears Beacon and down Platteklip Gorge. The rest of us went around, following the (not-so) contour path above Kirstenbosch, around the far corner at the base of Devil’s Peak and ultimately onto Tafelberg Road, along the front of Table Mountain to Kloof Nek, to then join the standard route along Signal Hill Rd to the Waterfront, finishing at Ferryman’s.

Selfishly, I was disappointed. My strength is technical running, it’s what I love and what I’m best at. But it was the right call – conditions up there were very bad and sending 120+ runners up into swirling mist would be asking for trouble.

Andre negotiating his way along lower Signal Hill
The rest, as they say, is history – Andre, who had been closely followed by Will on reaching Constantia Nek, revved up a gear going up the mountain, turbo-boosted his way along Smuts Track to Maclears, flew down Platteklip, onto Signal Hill and sped to Ferryman’s to finish in 6:59:36, smashing the race record by 14 mins. Incredible in those conditions!

Still as lead woman but feeling sapped by that blasted headwind on Tafelberg Rd, I felt far from fleet-of-foot, so stubbornly plodded at pace, finishing in first spot for the ladies, 8:29:54.

Puffer’s a fantastic race. With the full length of the Cape peninsula as its stage, running what’s officially a five day hike (the Hoerikwaggo Trail) in a single stage is always a special experience. And every couple of years the mountain’s weather struts its stuff, showing us who’s boss. This year it did just that, and we all listened…  apart from Andre "AJ" Calitz, aka "GingerNinja", who strut his in defiance, and came out tops!

*photos courtesy of Jacques Marais

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Get set for Skyrunning in SA

Me soaking up the exquisite view of the Valais Alps above the village of Zinal, Switzerland

It’s time to spice up South African trail running a tad. It’s time for some Skyrunning – that’s where earth and sky meet.

We’ve got it all in this beautiful country of ours – open veld, savannah, desert, rolling hills, beaches, gorges, cliffs and canyons, rugged mountains, deep valleys and high peaks, extreme conditions of temperature and terrain. We have short races, long races, stage races and ultras. And each year, there’s more on offer. (Soon, with any luck, we’ll barely have time to squeeze work in!)

That’s all good, but what we’re missing is a national championship series – one that presents a challenge for all distances.
And so enters Skyrunning. The trail is soon to be trodden – the Skyrunning Association of South Africa (SASA), affiliated with the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF), will soon be setting the stage for much trail excitement across the country. Watch your nearest trail space!

The Europeans have got trail sussed. Skyrunning is well established there, and I was fortunate to see it in action two weeks ago, during the Sierre-Zinal in Switzerland. The vibe, the fervour, the challenge, the action – it’s all a-go, and it’s brilliant. It adds another dimension to trail running, one that I know many SA trail runners yearn for.

Well, yearn not for much longer, folks, because Skyrunning in SA is not far away...

Ian Corless of Talk Ultra trots his stuff

Here’s a quick overview of the Skyrunning concept:

Definition of Skyrunning:   The discipline of mountain running up to or exceeding 2 000m where the incline exceeds 30% and the climbing difficulty does not exceed 11º grade.
Skyrunning, is a discipline conceived by Italian mountaineer Marino Giacometti who, with a handful of fellow climbers during the early 1990s, pioneered records and races on Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa in the Italian Alps. In 1993, skyrunning took off across the world’s mountain ranges with a circuit of challenging races spread from the Himalayas to the Rockies, from Mount Kenya to the Mexican volcanoes. Today Marino Giacometti (ISF president) and Lauri van Houten (ISF vice-president) continue to grow the sport of Skyrunning through more than 200 races across the world, spanning the following disciplines:

Main disciplines of Skyrunning: 
  1. SkyMarathon® – races with a min of 2 000m total elevation gain, and between 30-42km long. The course may be over paths, trail, rock or snow (must be less than 15% tar) and reach or exceed 4 000m altitude.
  2. SkyRace® - races between  2 000m and 4 000m, min 20km, max 30km (or 5% either way). In parts of the country where the altitude does not reach a 2 000m summit, races that exceed 1 300m vertical climb may be considered a Skyrace®.
  3. Vertical Kilometre® - races with 1 000m vertical climb over variable terrain with a substantial incline; not exceeding 5km in length. 
  4. SkySpeed® - races with 100m or more of vertical climb and more than 33% incline.
  5. SkyTrail® races over paths and trail (must be less than 10% tar) that do not fall within the parameters of other Skyrunning disciplines over 2 000m. Min distance 15km.

me slogging up an alp at 2900m

SASA aims to grow a Skyrunning series in South Africa. The concept will be an annual series, using races from the trail calendar (ie. Skyrunning associations around the world don’t organise their own races, they use already-established races to make up the series). Runners competing in the series clock up points per race, and champion titles are awarded to competitors based on the sum of their five best results (which must include any two races in the SkyRace®, SkyTrail®, SkyMarathon®, SkySpeed® and Vertical Kilometre® categories). 

So, get those lungs and legs pumped for some exciting action come 2013, for the introduction of a Skyrunning national circuit to SA’s shores (well, peaks really!)

         * photos by Ian Corless, www.talkultra.com

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sierre-Zinal 2012 - a South African perspective

The 39th running of the iconic Sierre-Zinal yesterday was a fantastic experience, and it was an exciting privilege to be a part of it. And, crazy as it sounds, to be the first South African ever to do the race!

As I'd been warned, the route was a real leg and lung tester – from an altitude gain more than a technical perspective (Sierre-Zinal is said to be the least technical on the Skyrunning calendar). I had heard this race affectionately referred to as a “slog fest” and now, having experienced it first hand, I’d agree but rather opt for “scenic Swiss sweat fest” – the first half of the course is hard work but the alpine views, particularly at the highest point (2 425m), make the slog worth every bead of sweat.

Also known as La Course des Cinq 4000 (The Course of the Five 4 000), the route offers dramatic views of five of the highest peaks in the Valais Alps: Weisshorn (4 506m), Zinalrothorn (4 221m), Ober Gabelhorn (4 073m), Cervin (4 478m) and Dent Blanche (4 357m).

The race started in Sierre (600m) at 9am. The elites (about 80 of us) were batched at the front for a clear start, but from the second the race began, the surge from the other 1 800 runners was incredible – here in Europe it seems there’s no polite waiting your turn to get moving like we do in SA; here the runners make sure they ALL start immediately by pushing and shoving!

After about 800m on tar, we hopped on a wide trail that gradually narrowed to single track. And so began our long slog up, up and up a seemingly never ending path that wound its way higher and higher through the forest.

I’d taken the decision not to race this event but rather enjoy it and take everything in – the course, the views, the ambience, the whole rich experience. So I found myself in mid-field, and was happy to be there.

I hadn’t been slogging up that mountainside for long before I noticed something distinctly different from what we’re used to back in SA. The slog was happening in complete silence. Not a French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, English word was being uttered. Sure, there was much huffing and puffing, grunting, snotting and spogging (actually, a frightening amount of the latter), but not a single word. Not a chirp, not an tease, not even an expletive. Maybe it’s a cultural difference between South Africans and Europeans, or maybe SA trail and road runners just enjoy hurling abuse at anything along the route that makes their legs burn, but the eerie silence yesterday had me most confused. I found myself thinking I’d be able to slog that mountain faster if I expressed a bunch of expletives, but knew that if I did so I’d surely alarm the silent army around me. So I sweated through the pain without a word.

One of the other striking differences I noticed between this event and our trail races in SA was the generous amount of route-marking (the Sierre-Zinal has for decades been a popular hiking trail, after all), and the refreshment stations every 3-5km. The runners in this race are pampered, just as if in a road race – wet sponges, water, iced tea, Isotonic, bananas, quartered oranges, chocolate, even sugar cubes! This meant I ran the race carrying absolutely nothing – no pack and no waistbelt. Great but not something I must let myself get used to.

The crowd support along the way was superb, with spectators, hikers and picnickers cheering, ringing cow bells and urging us on with “bravo” and “allez allez” (go! go!).

On the topic of go!, it’s a scary fact that when sea level athletes run at altitudes above 1 800m, their legs no longer understand their brain. The legs start speaking a different language. Or worse, they speak no language at all. They comprehend only one thing: S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N. And by 2 400m, no amount of chiding or cajoling by the brain can convince them to speed up pace. Any higher and the rebelliousness becomes exponential. All this is a sad and most inconvenient fact when one is trying to run a race at altitude…

The final 7km of Sierre Zinal are sheer pleasure for downhill trail runners – with the path dropping 800m to the finish, the single track winds its way, at times gently, other times sharply, through alpine forest, down grassy banks, past hiking huts, across streams, eventually through a short tunnel and into Zinal for a fast, sharp downhill 700m stretch of tar to the finish.

With its magnificent scenery, excellent organisation and exquisite trail running, it’s easy to see why Sierre-Zinal is such a highly regarded event on the European trail calendar.

Associated with elite trail names like Jonathan Wyatt (who set the 2:24 course record in 2003), Kilian Jornet, Angela Mudge, Anna Pichrtova and many others, Sierre-Zinal is rated as one THE middle distance trail races to win. And since being included as a Skyrunning event a few years ago, the prestige of the race escalated even higher.
1st De Gasperi (right) and 2nd Cesar (left)

1st Camboulive (centre), 2nd Kremer (right), 3rd Mathys (left)

This year’s champs raced to trail running glory in superb style, with Marco de Gasperi crossing the line a full 6 mins clear of Costa Cesar. The women’s winner was Aline Camboulive, just 90 secs ahead of Stevie Kremer in a close clash of the speedsters.

1st        Marco de Gasperi (Italy)                      2:31:36
2nd       Costa Cesar (Switzerland)                 2:37:39
3rd        David Jose Cardona (Colombia)        2:38:06

1st        Aline Camboulive (France)                 3:02:58
2nd       Stevie Kremer (USA)                          3:04:33
3rd        Maude Mathys (Switzerland)              3:08:01

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hobnobbing with alpine elite on the eve of Sierre-Zinal

I'm in the village of Zinal in the heart of the Valais Alps, Switzerland. It's quintessential Swiss style and scenery here - traditional wooden chalets adorned by red geranium window boxes, the tinkling of cow bells from the mountainsides, cool crisp alpine air, and mountain peaks towering above. And it's these mountains that are the reason 1280 runners are here this weekend, for the 39th running of the Sierre-Zinal.

I'm so happy to be here - I was selected by the newly formed Skyrunning Association of South Africa (SASA) and sponsored by the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) and Velocity Sports Lab to participate in this famous race. And the double privilege is that, although hard to believe, I'm the first South African to ever do this race!

I had known Sierre-Zinal was an important race on the European trail running circuit, but only now, being here, have I realised the enormity of this event, and just how much prestige it carries. This is where the alpine elite really strut their stuff. Says US master speedster Pablo Vigil, four times winner of the race in the early '80s, the winners of this race are rated the best - it's the true test of trail running.

Sierre-Zinal is one of the main races of the ISF's Skyrunning World Series, and is reputedly to trail running what the New York Marathon is to road running. And it's tough, really tough. In true Skyrunning style, it boasts a 2200m elevation gain. According to Pablo, this race takes no prisoners - there's nowhere to hide, and it reduces every runner to absolute humility.

The race starts at 9am tomorrow in the town of Sierre at 585m, and we'll climb constantly for 24km to 2425m, dropping 800m over the last 7km down to Zinal at 1680m.

Thankfully I'm here to participate, rather than to race. Trying to push the pace at altitudes like that when training at sea level is likely to pop a lung!
Spaniard Marco de Gasperi will be defending his title

The field this year is exceptional. Apart from trail god Kilian Jornet (who's preparing for Pikes Peak next week in the US), everyone who's anyone in alpine running is here.

Hot contenders in the men's category include Marco de Gasperi (Italy), who'll be defending his title (his time last year was 2:30:18, just 1m06s off the course record, set by New Zealander Jonathan Wyatt in 2003); Cesar Costa (Portugal), who placed 2nd last year; Luis Alberto Hernando (Spain) who is the Skyrunning World Series champ 2011, winner of the recent Sky Games 2012, and is currently leading the ranking of this year's World Series); and Tofol Castanyer (Spain), who was winner of the 32km Giir di Mont in Italy two weeks ago. Tom Owens (UK), who came 2nd in Giir di Mont, is also tipped for a top 10 spot, although with his preference for longer distance and more descent, this race might not play to his strengths.

Sierre-Zinal 2011 winner Oihana Cortazar with Pablo Vigil
The women's field is equally intimidating and has a very strong Spanish contingent: Oihana Cortazar (Spain) won the Sierre-Zinal ladies title in 2011 (3:11:25) and says she's feeling even stronger this year; Blanca Serrano (Spain) came 2nd in the Pyranees Skyrunning Marathon in June, and is currently in 2nd place in the Skyrunning World Cup rankings; Sylvia Serafini (Italy) is from a track and road-running background and although fairly new to trail running, has been storming the Skyrunning calendar with a 2nd place at the Mont Blanc Marathon (beating the previous record), 2nd spot at Kilian's Classik in Font Romeu, and 2nd place at Giir di Mont (perhaps tomorrow will be her day for a 1st?).

Other strong contenders in the ladies are sky mountaineer world champ Mireia Miro (Spain), who placed 3rd in the Dolomites Skyrace in Italy three weeks ago; current Sky Games champ Nuria Picas (Spain); and Stevie Kremer (US), who's new to the European trail curcuit but hails from Colorado, so is altitude prepped and well used to high mountains.
Pablo Vigil with Colorado speedster Stevie Kremer
But it'll be interesting to see whether the women's field is strong enough to break the record of 2:54:26 (set by Anna Pichrtova of the Czech Republic in 2008), as no one has come close.

It'll be a fantastic race! Watch this space for a post-race report once I've got my breath back tomorrow!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

HBTC 2012

Race winner William Robinson making the Karbonkelberg descent look easy

Last Saturday was the 11th running of my favourite local race, the Hout Bay Trail Challenge. What makes it my favourite? That’s easy – it’s special: not only because it’s another reason (if I ever need another reason) to play on the beautiful mountains surrounding the valley of Hout Bay, but because it’s tough, really tough.

Just as running a fast Two Oceans is said to be more punishing than Comrades even though it’s 34km shorter, so the HBTC can be deceiving in its degree of difficulty. After all, it’s only 36km, so what’s the problem..?

Hah! If you ever hear those words said about the HBTC, you know the speaker knows less than nothing about it! Those who’ve tackled the race know that kilometre for kilometre, it’s one of the toughest races on the trail calendar. It’s not called a “challenge” for nothing! Plus this year, as with 2011, race organiser Claire Ashworth decided to spice up the route somewhat…  Thankfully though, she chickened out of putting in both additional sections of last year’s race and just opted for one, adding 2.3km to the original route and making it a tidy 38.3km in all.

click on this map for a closer peak at the route
The route:  Starting and finishing in the Hout Bay harbour, the route covers 2 224m of ascent and, of course, the same again in descent. It has runners slogging up Karbonkelberg, around the front of Klein Leeukoppie, up Llandudno Ravine, across the top section of Separation Buttress, Needle Ravine and Grootkop, past Frustration Buttress, Hawk Ridge and Woody Ravine, taking a right turn before the Valley of Isolation, running past Woodhead Dam, along the base of the Hely Hutchinson Dam wall, and traversing across onto the Smuts Track at Nursery Ravine. Popping onto the jeep track near the Bailiff’s hut and De Villiers dam, runners charge down to Constantia Nek, ready for the final slog – up Vlakkenberg (on race day only the polite leave the “l” in the name), onto the side of Constantiaberg (this stretch of single track makes the Vlakkenberg section worth all the effort – it’s one of the prettiest paths on the peninsula), down past the Manganese Mine to lower East Fort (nasty final click-point), and onto Hout Bay beach for the final stretch to the finish at the yacht club in the harbour.

Race winner William Robinson powered over the finish line in 4:06, smashing the race record (despite the course being 2.3km longer) by 5mins. Landie Visser also finished strong, winning the ladies category in 5:09.
1st Landie Visser (centre), 2nd, me, and 3rd Melanie Porter (right)
* photos courtesy of Jacques Marais and Steve Granger

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Aussenkehr Desert Extreme 2012

Place 35 eager runners in the desert. Add much enthusiasm, comfortable accommodation, a hearty spread of good food, and an open bar. Leave to brew. Stir in medium distances, liberally laced with looming canyons, generous technical trail, stark landscapes, and vistas so vast they make the distant Namib mountains shimmer. Heat for three days on maximum daily temperatures of 25ºC for between 9 and 18hrs for 100km, and you complete the Aussenkehr Desert Extreme.

Aussenkehr (German for outer bend, referring to the bend on which it’s located on the Orange River) is an extremely large farm in the southernmost region of Namibia, close to the South African border. A comparatively small section of the property is used for farming grapes and dates (the largest table-grape vineyards in the southern hemisphere), but the remainder of the property forms the Aussenkehr Nature Reserve, more than 150 000 hectares of sprawling, untouched and unspoilt desert wilderness. Everything about this massive expanse is extreme, from the harsh winds that rip across it and the 50ºC+ temperatures that bake it during summer, to the rugged starkness of its rock formations, canyons and endless plains. The 100km three-stage Aussenkehr Desert Extreme makes the most of all the scenic beauty of the reserve, and has at its heart the peaceful Norotshama River Resort.

Day 1 (38km):  Technical trail dominated the first half of today’s route, starting with a speedy pace through Camp Canyon, along the rough and rocky Pebble Bed and into Pothole Canyon, where we gradually ascended up to the highest point of the day for King / Queen of the Mountain. Then, down a brilliant section of slippery smooth rock into and along King Kong Canyon, which eventually popped us out at the Orange River for the second half of the day’s route – open running along a 4x4 track, much of it adjacent to the river. The final 7km of the day turned us inland, away from the coolness of the water’s edge, and called for some serious digging-deep to maintain pace. (At this point my legs suddenly remembered they’d done Comrades three weeks previously, and rather than attempting an Ellie Greenwood, they rebelled…  The only thing that kept me trying to run was the panic every time I checked Angelique on my tail, steadily gaining on me. I managed to cross the day’s finish line 1 min before Angelique, who looked fresh and spritely.)
Day 2 (38km):  After breakfast we boarded Betsy, an old Namib bus that boasts an impressive vintage with a suspension to match, and were dropped in the middle of nowhere. We set off into the open expanse of the reserve, gradually climbing to reach the first water table at 16km. The next 10km were beautiful, running along a contour line above the seemingly endless plains of Aussenkehr. A few km’s later, our route went rather pear-shaped – Floris and I had climbed up onto Meteorite Ridge, but managed to miss turning into a narrow canyon that cut through the mountain. We’d wasted valuable minutes trying to spot the marker we’d obviously missed, and by that time Angelique had caught us, also lost. Together we tracked around the mountain, joining up with the correct route once on the far side, and running hell-for-leather for the final 4km into camp, me pipping Angelique again by just a minute.
We camped out that night in a boma under one of those enormous African skies so clear and studded with stars that make the heart sing.

Day 3 (24km):  A quick porridge brekkie around the roaring campfire before our dawn start, and we were off, dashing through Quiver Tree Valley and along the gradual ascent towards Hiker’s Canyon. With the lead group of Noel, Peter, Ludwig and Cornel soon out of sight, our chase group managed to miss a route marker and, instead of heading into Hiker’s Canyon, we ran straight onto an open plain, following a 4x4 track on a rather creative loop that eventually headed us back onto the correct route to the checkpoint at 7km. This unwittingly saw Floris and I heading the day’s field, with the lead guys now way behind us. Ouch! Unfortunately the large majority of the field followed our route, which although not shorter in distance turned out to be quicker.
Noel Ernstzen speeds through Kings Throne Canyon

The remaining 15km were fantastic running – we raced through Skull Canyon, wound our way along the incredible Kings Throne Canyon, slogged up to the second water table on Sunset Hill, crossed the open plains down to the Aussenkehr village, and juggled our way through the vineyards before crossing the very welcome finish line at Norotshama River Lodge.

We paid the price with a time penalty for our unintentional route variation, but thankfully it didn’t affect anyone’s final race position. New course records were set for both men and women, only one runner had to withdraw as a result of injury, and 34 runners completed the Aussenkehr Desert Extreme all the richer for the experience.

So, back to the winning recipe: sign up for the Aussenkehr Desert Extreme 2013 and enjoy!

1st Noel Ernstzen (centre), 2nd Peter Erastus (left), 3rd Ludwig Lillie (right)

1st me, 2nd Angelique Tostee (centre), 3rd Esna Roux (right)

Top 3 overall results

Men                               Women
Noel Ernstzen 9:48:12      Linda Doke 11:07:51
Peter Erastus 9:57:49       Angelique Tostee 11:14:43
Ludwig Lillie 10:14:20      Esna Roux 12:01:38

* photos courtesy of Jean du Plessis (www.jeanduplessis.co.za) 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Farewell The TAR-k Side, hello Trail

That's 89.3km done and dusted, and I’ve completed my long run to freedom – it’s g’bye T*R for me, ahead lies the running I want to do, that I love to do.

Trail’s like that, it gets into your blood, it makes you look at rocks, waterfalls, mountains and vistas through new eyes, and you dream of running every path you’ve ever trodden.

Road just doesn’t excite me anymore. It did for more than a decade, but then I found trail and it was a breath of fresh air. I dropped T*R like a baby would a soggy biscuit, and swopped it for trail. I traded 5k time trials, 21’s and 42’s for hours on the mountains, water bottle for pack, road shoes for trail treads. Life was good!

But I had a little nag… a smidgeon of unfinished business with road: I’d clocked up nine Comrades and I needed my 10th. To not achieve my Green Number would be a shame – almost disrespectful to the nine runs I had in the bag. I knew it had to be done, but kept finding reasons to put it off – Trans-Alps, desert races, even injuries.

But this year I was out of reasons – I had to get it done. So, I dusted off the T*R trainers and diligently hit the black stuff for five months solid (sneaking in just one delicious day of trail as a treat halfway through to keep my sanity [see my post on Addo Elephant Trail Run]).

Then, on June 3rd I pounded the final 89.3km to my Green Number. It was a long haul – that race always is, particularly if interrupted by 2-3 emergency pitstops like mine was. I didn’t have the perfect race I hoped for – my wheels fell off just before the halfway mark and I spent the next 20km trying to gather them up and stick them back on. But I managed to clock up my 10th in a PB of 8:01 and come in 35th woman, as my little swansong to T*R. So I was happy.

(And for all those who’ve teased me that I now may need to 1) run Comrades for an 11th time in respect of my Green Number, or 2) run it once more to shave off that extra 1min 09secs to get a sub-8hrs, FORGET IT!)

My second half of 2012 will be as exciting as my Jan-June of The TAR-k Side were dull: 
  • end of June - Aussenkehr (3-day stage race in Namibia)
  • Aug - Sierre-Zinal (Switzerland)
  • Aug - Puffer (Cape Town)
  • Oct - Grand Raid de Reunion (Reunion Island)
plus a few other goodies sprinkled in here and there…

So long T*R, I’m comin’ home to trail!