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, 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