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!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Indlela yoBunthu - the Pilgrim Trail

A couple of months ago, Craig and I took part in a few days of something very special. It blended our love for trail, for South Africa, and for feeling in touch with the natural beauty around us, with the special pleasure of sharing a wonderful experience with like-minded people.

It was unique.
It was small in scale, big in dream, and huge in reality.
It was a pilgrimage – a South African experience that had a start line, a finish line, and involved a special journey in between. That journey was not about speed or style, form or fashion. Rather, it was all about immersing ourselves in the moment, feeling and seeing and hearing everything around us all at once, and being one with ourselves, each other and our environment.

It was Indlela yoBuntu, affectionately known as the Pilgrim Trail – a no-stress, no-pressure 582km trail run on dirt roads, farm tracks and mountain paths, over 13 days, from Grahamstown to Knysna.
The Indlela uBuntu pilgrims
Back, left to right: Gwenda, George, Laura, Filippo, Neville, Brian
Front, left to right: Kim, Kylie, Roger
The concept was the dream of George Euvrard, a Rhodes University professor who I met several years ago at the Midnight Hell Run. George is a special man – he’s humble yet wise, gentle yet strong, and by his own admission, he has a knack of seeing the positive in everything. He’s one of those wonderful people who dream big, and have the faith, energy and determination to turn their dreams into reality.

George’s dream for Indlela yoBunthu is that of an African pilgrimage of hope, symbolising the way of Ubuntu. He dreamed of the idea of a pilgrimage from Grahamstown to Cape Town, taking more than 20 days, and covering over 1 000km. The idea would be similar to the world renowned pilgrimage the Camino de Santiago in Spain, just without the religious history attached to it.

Instead, this pilgrimage would be seeped in cultural relevance, enabling those who cover it to experience and explore some of the big questions of life in an African context – the experience of the wilderness of Africa, the huge blue skies and deep nights, being in harmony with that around us, hearing and seeing the life stories of the people and environment en route.

Logistically, however, this would not be easy to make reality. Much of South Africa’s land is privately owned as farms and game reserves, without the “right to roam” enjoyed by hikers in much of Europe. Crossing private farmland and reserves in our country requires permits and permissions, and is notoriously difficult.

Tackling this challenge one step at a time (‘scuse the pun), George split the route in half, and in 2011 he walked from Grahamstown to Knysna by himself, following a carefully researched route that he’d envisaged. The success of his recce showed such a pilgrimage was indeed possible, and he set about planning the inaugural Pilgrim Trail for 2013.

He invited a small group of like-minded runner friends he’d met at various endurance events over recent years, and set a date of 1-13 September. In George’s words, this would not be a race, but rather a training run… for life. Between 30km and 60km a day for almost two weeks – in your own time. Run when you want, walk when you feel like it, swim when you’re hot, take the time to enjoy the views, smell the fynbos, be a part of the life around you.
Kylie, Filippo, Roger and Kim in the Baviaanskloof

Craig and I were only able to join for the final three days – from Vaalwater in the Klein Karoo through to Knysna via the magnificent Prince Alfred Pass – and that time, short though it was, had us hungering for more. The full contingent – Laura and Brian Bannatyne, Roger Steel and Kylie Hatton, Kim van Kets, Filippo Faralla, Neville Keevy, and George and Gwenda Euvrard (Gwenda cycling) – set off from the monastery outside Grahamstown on Sunday 1st Sept, eventually arriving in Knysna on a sunny, blue-skied Friday 13th.

And what an incredible experience it was. No attempt to describe it can do the pilgrimage justice, suffice to say that there’s nothing quite like sharing with like-minded friends the richness of being surrounded by the simple, uncomplicated beauty of the Africa we love so dearly.

The Pilgrim Trail may have covered +580km on foot, but everyone crossed the finished line on the final day with their souls energised, recharged and rejuvenated. A pilgrimage is an intensely personal experience, and different people take different things from it. But guaranteed is the growth sparked by such a special time, and every soul is the wealthier for the experience.

It was the pilgrims themselves who put it so beautifully in their musings about the Pilgrim Trail.
Laura Bannatyne on the concept of IndlelayoBuntu:
"We are a band of travellers, and this is envisioned as a spiritual as well as physical journey, an opportunity for contemplation, reflection, fellowship, and pilgrimage learning. This is also the guinea-pig run: we're the trail-blazers of what will one day become an established route, continuing beyond Knysna all the way to Robben Island. One day the Red Girl will mark the way for pilgrims to follow on the rocks, walls and gateposts along the route. But for now she can travel with us, swinging from our packs."
The Red Girl wooden tokens made for each pilgrim

Kim van Kets on the incredible scenery...
"Of course, the itinerary doesn't even begin to describe the thrill of an early morning leopard and honey badger in a Baviaanskloof valley, the adrenalin rush from a massive puff adder, the hospitality of the communities who fed us and allowed us to sleep in their NG Kerksaals and on their farms. It doesn't do any justice to the camaraderie that develops between the runners over 13 days, and it cannot convey the heartbreaking beauty of the landscape."

... and on the camaraderie of trail running:
"Is it possible that running together makes us better people or brings out the best in us? Is running the magic ingredient for instant and genuine ubuntu, and if so can we force the whole world to go on multi-day trail runs as a matter of extreme urgency? Shall we start a running revolution?"

And I say YES! let’s go forth into 2014 and start that (trail) running revolution!
Here’s to ubuntu, to the joys of discovery, and to sharing them with like-minded nutters!

All done and dusted - the pilgrims' last supper

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Slogging becomes soul-running at the LUT

So there I was, on the start line of the Lesotho Ultra Trail (LUT), Africa’s first Ultra Skymarathon, 50km of gruelling, lung-busting technical trail in the Maloti mountains of Lesotho. This would be skyrunning at its best, throwing at us everything a skyrunning event should, and in so doing, this event would firmly place itself on the international calendar of International Skyrunning Federation (ISF)-certified must-do races.

What I didn’t know at the time was that for me the LUT would be far more than “just” a race, it would become a lesson in perspective. And I only realised that about 20km into the race (thanks to man-out-the-mist Deon C). Perspective, really, is something we all need reminding about every now and then – it grounds us, shakes us out of our self-focused bubbles, brings us back to reality, and helps us appreciate our blessings.

Perspective tapped me firmly on the shoulder during the LUT, high up on a +3100m ridgeline in the magnificent Ts’ehlanyane National Park, when the views had been replaced by thick mist and the way ahead was barely visible. I had come to this race knowing that the chances my legs would be up to racing were slim – I’d put them through a big year, and they were crying out for rest. But I was asking them for just one more race for the year, followed by a well-earned rest. This type of course with its tough terrain and high mountains is what I love best, and races like this are when I come into my own. I was hoping my legs could be able to churn out some steady running and, hopefully, secure a respectable top 4 position in the ladies.

But my legs had other plans. For the first 20km or so they refused to heed what my head told them – this, they said, was one challenge too many for the year, and they were not buying into my plan. Mind and legs argued for seemingly ever, while my body plodded on. I was not in a good space, and to top it all, the going was getting tougher as the air was thinning the higher I climbed.

Then it dawned on me – the realisation that if I wasn’t careful, my only memories of this fantastic mountain running experience would be negative, all because of an inability to look outside of my self-obsessed inner battle and see what was really important. There I was, high on a mountain ridge surrounded by miles and miles of awe-inspiring scenery, privileged beyond belief to be so, and all I was thinking about was me and my desire to be competitive. Shake it off girl, I told myself, look outside of yourself and get some damn perspective!

If it sounds corny as hell, I apologise, but the moment I made peace with the fact that my race wasn’t working out quite as I’d hoped, and that it was ok to just run and enjoy rather than compete, an enormous weight lifted off my soul and everything changed. The mist thickened, but my day brightened – it was all about gaining perspective. It was time for some soul running of the very best kind, and I was now free to enjoy it to the max. Trail running makes my soul sing!
AJ Calitz in front of race winner Andrew Hagen (middle)

Meantime, while I’d been fighting my demons, there were battles of a different kind going on way ahead. In the thickening mist on the top of the ridge, the front guys Lucky Mia and race favourites AJ Calitz and Iain don Wauchope, were waging war between trying to spot the tags that marked the route, and trying to maintain a decent race pace. The marker tags were strips of yellow cloth tied to rocks placed every 15-20m along the route, and despite their bright colour, they were difficult to spot in the misty conditions. The mist was so dense that it was tricky to see anything beyond a 10-15m range. Missing a tag was easy, and trying to find your line once having lost a tag was hopeless as the markers didn’t map a straight line – instead they zig-zagged a course that followed the ridgeline…  which, because of the bad visibility, we couldn’t see!

In such conditions, leading the race at race pace without getting lost was virtually impossible, and when AJ and Iain found themselves on a tagless route, they knew they were heading for problems. But with Lucky just ahead, the guys did what they thought best – they powered on at pace, keeping Lucky in sight, in the hope they’d soon come across a tag. Strength in numbers, the pressure of competition, the determination to hold the lead, the risk of progressing forward weighed up against the risk of losing time by turning back on your steps – all the reasons were there.

It must be an awful quandary to be in – do you backtrack and retrace your steps to hunt for the last marker you passed, risking valuable racing time and potentially your lead, or do you press on at race pace, hoping the markers are just metres from you in the mist and you’ll stumble upon them any minute. But there remains the golden rule – as race organiser Andrew Booth had reiterated at the start line that morning: the minute you can’t see the next route marker, retrace your steps to find where you left the trail. Don’t let even 50m go by without seeing a marker. Tricky at race pace in thick mist, for sure, but the principle is the same for every runner, whether leading the race, mid-pack or at the back of the field.
Robyn Kime in front of ladies winner Tracy Zunckel

It was a damn hard lesson for Iain and AJ, and it cost them dearly. They’d gone a long way before they eventually retraced their steps and found the markers, by which time the chase group and lead ladies Robyn Kime and Tracy Zunckel had caught them. Andrew Hagen had meantime sped ahead and established a lead that he would widen by taking full advantage of the incredibly nimble technical downhill running ability he’s so well known for. [Andrew holds the record for the fastest descent of Table Mountain’s Platteklip Gorge (11:43) and of Nursery Ravine (7mins something…). Frightening!]

Andrew won the LUT in 6:07, followed by Spaniard Diez Raobago (6:22) and Quinton Honey (6:23). Lucky Mia finished in 4th position (6:31), with Iain don Wauchope and AJ Calitz in joint 5th place (6:53).

In the ladies race, Tracy Zunkel and Robyn Kime had made their way across the ridge in the thick mist with Michael Owen, the trio working together as a team to maximise their tag-spotting ability. Robyn and Tracy reached CP6 together, and then the race was on – Tracy took off like the gazelle she is, and 14km later crossed the finish line in a storming 6:56. Robyn secured 2nd place just 11 mins later (7:07), followed by Canadian speedster Stacie Carrigan (7:23). Gina Trealeaven secured 4th place (7:56) and Julia Hackland 5th (8:44).

What a brilliant event! Staging an inaugural ultra in another country is an unenviable logistical challenge, and Andrew Booth and his KZN Trail Running team took it on with smooth professionalism – the race was as slick as if it had been staged for years. And Maliba Lodge made the perfect host venue, despite its main infrastructure having been razed to the ground just three months ago.

The Lesotho Ultra Trail did skyrunning in southern Africa proud. With about 90% technical trail and/or single track, and mountains that surely even scare sheep, it was tough and challenging, it was real trail. Together with the first event sanctioned by the South African Skyrunning Association (SASA), the Matroosberg Skymarathon, the LUT will see the start of many exciting skyrunning events to come in southern Africa.

Keep a close eye on the SASA space!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Three Peaks Challenge 2013

Having a national park set in a city is not unique, there’re many such urban escapes around the world. But here’s the thing: how many cities can boast not only THE most beautiful national park (please allow for the writer’s completely unbiased opinion), but one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature? And if that doesn’t elevate its status sufficiently, then how about being the only natural site on the planet to have a constellation of stars named after it? (Mensa, meaning “the table”, is named after Cape Town’s Table Mountain.) Just how cool is that!

Table Mountain, by far the most recognised site in South Africa, has withstood six million years of weathering and erosion, and hosts the richest, yet smallest floral kingdom on earth, with over 1 470 floral species, many of which are rare and endangered.

Capetonians are extremely proud of their magnificent mountain, and they’re happy to celebrate it in all sorts of ways. And so it was that in March 1897, 25 year old Carl Wilhelm Schneeberger undertook the challenge of ascending Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, starting from, and returning each time to, the old Johannesburg Hotel in Long Street. His goal was to complete the task in a single day, between 6am and 6pm. He achieved the challenge in 10hrs50, and was duly presented with a gold medal for his effort.

Then, 100 years later, experienced mountain climber and twice Two Oceans Marathon winner Don Hartley initiated a centennial commemoration of Schneeberger’s achievement by organising the inaugural Three Peaks Challenge. Thirteen runners took part, and the race was won, very appropriately, by Hartley.
a rough sketch of the route
And so began a tradition that has entrenched itself as one of Cape Town’s greatest challenges. The Three Peaks Challenge is always staged on the first Saturday of November, and sees 120 participants slogging their way up from Greenmarket Square (the site of the old Johannesburg Hotel) onto Tafelberg Road, up to the beacon on Devil’s Peak (964m), down to Greenmarket Square, then up through town again, up Platteklip Gorge and across to Maclears Beacon, the highest point on Table Mountain (1 081m), back down all the way to Greenmarket Square and then, tackling the final haul up Kloof Nek Road and to the beacon at the top of Lion’s Head (558m), before staggering back down to – you guessed it – Greenmarket Square.

Platteklip Gorge - or more appropriately, Plattekill Gorge
The gruelling physical challenge of the 2 830m of elevation gain during this +/-50km race is exceeded only by the heart-breaking, mind-mashing, brain-burning psychological strain of having to descend all the way back down to 30m above sea level between each ascent. Thankfully, I was warned by a seasoned Three Peaker (or should I say, Pikker J) that even glancing up at the top of Table Mountain when leaving Greenmarket Square for the start of Leg 2 would be at my peril.

This was my first Three Peaks Challenge, and the 17th staging of the event. It seems crazy that it took me so many years before entering this race, but there was always something else it clashed with – in 2012 I had just run the Grand Raid de la Reunion, in 2009, 2010 and 2011 I ran the Skyrun, and in the years before that there were Tuffer Puffers to recover from, and other lame excuses… 

Now having done the race, I’m smitten – what a fantastic way to celebrate the beauty of Cape Town than to tackle its three most famous peaks all in one go!

Men                                              Women
1st  -   Charl Souma (5:46:57)          1st  -  Katya Soggot (6:15:02 - new record - 3rd overall)
2nd  -  Nic de Beer (6:05:20)             2nd  -  Linda Doke (6:36:10 - 5th overall)
3rd  -  Mark Pikker (6:33:02)            3rd  -  Caroline Balkwill (7:20:20)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Matroosberg Trail Challenge, SA's first Skymarathon®

Matroosberg Trail Challenge trophies, sculptured by Red Earth's Eric Tollner
Skyrunning in its official form has arrived in SA!

Saturday saw an exciting milestone for trail running in SA with the staging of the country’s first South African Skyrunning Association (SASA)-sanctioned skyrunning event, the Matroosberg Trail Challenge Skymarathon®. There’s no doubt the skyrunning bug has bitten the trail running community – the race was a huge success, and has set the tone for many more exciting skyrunning events in the pipeline for 2014 and beyond.

Skyrunning requires serious mountains, a good dose of altitude, and bags of attitude. And by attitude, I mean the positive stuff – a happy soul that recognises the privilege of being able, and the determination and grit to ensure that your mind can still spur you on when your legs and lungs feel like they just can’t take any more punishment.

AJ Calitz descending through the mist
Often it’s not only the runners taking on the challenge of skyrunning who have the attitude, it can be the weather too. And Saturday saw just that – from a few km’s into the race, the cloud above the Matroosberg dropped so low that we couldn’t see fellow runners just 20m ahead or behind for the mist and rain. It meant we didn’t score the incredible views we knew to be there, but it added another dimension to the already punishing race. This event was every bit as challenging as a Skymarathon® should be: it was gutwrenching, lungbusting, legburning, adrenalin-pumping, sphincter-clenching stuff. The course was technnical and unforgiving. And as with all skyrunning, with vertical gain comes much pain, but each gruelling minute is worth every grimace.

Queen of the Mountain Robyn Kime
As predicted, the race was won by AJ Calitz (3:43), who also claimed King of the Mountain at the highest point of the route (2215m) in 1:19.

But the most phenomenal performance by far was by ladies' winner Robyn Kime. The North Face SA athlete scooped Queen of the Mountain in 1:29 and finished the race in 4:03, just 20 min after AJ, securing 5th position overall.

Another impressive show was that of Anele Mnukwa, an Elgin Grabouw Athletic Club road runner with a 2:36 marathon best and a rather tidy 3:34 Two Oceans Ultra time. The MTC was Anele’s first long distance trail race! (His only other trail running race was the New Balance Trail Run 10km in Feb, in which he placed 2nd). Looks like this is a man to watch.

Running trail in road shoes didn't phase Anele Mnukwa
Huge congrats to MTC organiser Ghaleed Nortje, and to his team of medics, marshals and volunteers who made this race great. And a massive thank-you to the Matroosberg Nature Reserve – what a brilliant adventure playground you have!

Click on Matroosberg Trail Challenge pics copyright Andrew King/Nikon to check out more pics from the day, courtesy of photo maestro Andrew King.

1st man   -  AJ Calitz  3:43                  1st lady  -  Robyn Kime  4:03
2nd man  -  Anele Mnukwa  3:59            2nd lady -  Annemien Ganzevoort  4:32
3rd man  -  Ake Fagereng  4:02             3rd lady  -  Linda Doke  5:04

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

It all happens where sky and earth meet

Pic taken by moi of Talk Ultra's Ian Corless running in the Alps above Zinal 
With just two days to go before South Africa’s first Skymarathon®, the Matroosberg Trail Challenge, and five weeks before Africa’s first Ultra Skymarathon®, the Lesotho Ultra Trail, I thought I’d add to the hype and excitement around skyrunning in SA by showing a clip that some trail heads will have already watched about 10 times over. It’s a 20 min video showing highlights from the Limone Extreme Skyrace®, run 10 days ago above the shores of Lake Garda in northern Italy.

The clip is incredible – not only does the aerial footage give us a chance to watch many of the world’s fastest and nimblest trail runners doing what they do best, but it also shows the incredible pace at which they’re able to descend technical single track.

Many of you will recognise three familiar faces who have visited South Africa, including Kilian Jornet (who needs no introduction anyway), Stevie Kremer (who smashed the women’s record at this year’s Hout Bay Trail Challenge and was recently crowned the Skyrunning Sky Series World Champ 2013), and Salomon International team manager (and speedster) Greg Vollet.

Check out around the 12 min mark to watch how Kilian makes a sharp steep descent look like he’s tapdancing along a flat road.
Limone Extreme Skyrace clip

This weekend, after months of waiting, and much anticipation, South Africa will have its own South African Skyrunning Association (SASA) sanctioned event, the Matroosberg Trail Challenge.

see the Nov issue of Runner's World for more on skyrunning hitting SA
The second will be the much-awaited Lesotho Ultra Trail, Africa’s first Ultra Skymarathon®, which will cover 55km in the Maluti Mountains in the Kingdom of Lesotho on 30 November.

And 2014 promises more skyrunning excitement, with the announcement of more skyrunning events, a skyrunning circuit, and – wait for it – SA’s first Vertical Kilometre®

So flex your legs and lungs, trailers, the sky’s the limit!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Snowrunning recce for SA’s first Skymarathon®

Saturday was play day on the Matroosberg for the recce run of South Africa’s first ever Skyrunning® event, the Matroosberg Trail Challenge.

Nine of us braved the chilly weather and ice-clad puddles, and were rewarded with the most incredible views of snow-capped peaks and crisp snow.

True to Skyrunning form, the Matroosberg Trail Challenge on 26 October certainly won’t be a doddle – the 36km route will put runners to the test, with rough 4x4 track, technical single track, 1 341m of vertical ascent, and in some places a 43% gradient. The route of the MTC will take runners just short of the 2 249m Matroosberg Peak, the second highest peak in the Western Cape. The views from up there are incredible, over the Bokkeveld, Ceres, Droë Hoek, Koue Bokkeveld, and the Ceres Karoo, with the Witzenberg, Cedarberg and Du Toitskloof Mountains in the distance.

The Matroosberg Trail Challenge makes the perfect race to be southern Africa’s first Skymarathon®.
Organised by Running The Cape, the race is set in the Matroosberg Private Nature reserve, two and half hours from Cape Town, near Ceres in the Western Cape.

It’s not too late to enter – hop onto http://www.entrytickets.co.za/eventview/matroosberg2013 .

You’ve got just less than 4 weeks to get your legs and lungs ready for a real workout!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Recipe for a cool adventure in Iceland

Take 300 well-seasoned runners from +50 countries, equip them with packs weighing between 7 and 13kg, each containing -5ºC sleeping bags, sleeping mats, medical kit, mandatory gear, and enough freeze-dried food, powders, bars and gels to live off for one very hungry week.

Spice with generous scoops of enthusiasm, determination, guts, perseverance and adventurous spirit.
Drive to western centre of Iceland, and place in freezer at extremely cold temperatures varying between -2ºC and 14ºC.

Turn up wind to maximum strength, and sprinkle liberally with icy rain at regular intervals.
Geothermal pools at 80-100ºC
Langjokull glacier with glacial lake & flag
Freeze in 6 phases over 250km for 7 days, watching carefully and adjusting placement in freezer when temperature and moisture conditions drop too low.

Sprinkle with generous handfuls of glaciers and geysers, lava fields and lakes, volcanic craters, dust clouds, shifting land plates, faults and fissures.

Stir regularly to reduce strains, twists and tears, treating and strapping whenever necessary to avoid swelling or seepage. Take out runners who fall off freezer tray.

Warm temporarily on 6th day by removing from wet freezer, then return on 7th day for short final blast of icy wind and rain.

Once fully refrozen, immerse in world famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, smear with deep cleansing silica paste and hydrate generously with cool Icelandic lager.

Laugh at fat feet, forget all pain of past week, and enjoy lavish buffet at awards banquet, while planning next self-sufficient 7-day stage race in remote region.
John & Caryn Kennedy, Andrew Espin, me

The South African contingent was strong!

at the top of a long lava field climb on Day 4

food + kit for a week

Our tent clearly had good taste in trail shoes

finishing the final stage with Lia Farley and Andrew Espin

Winner: Mo Foustok 23:04:08                                  Ladies winner:  Lia Farley 27:12:26
2nd place:  Justus Meyer 23:26:56                             2nd place:  Linda Doke 30:07:23
3rd place:  Tom Flummerfelt 25:31:20                         3rd place:  Virginie Goethals 31:38:25
4th place:  Ville Tuominen 25:35:57                            4th place:  Caryn Kennedy 31:39:13
5th place:  Ralph Crowley 25:40:19                            5th place:  Donna Nice 34:57:41

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Iceland D-Day

Well, after months of dreaming, planning and preparation, it’s finally here – Racing The Planet Iceland starts tomorrow. The finalising of the formal admin begins this morning with competitor briefing at 8am followed by check-in, where our kit will be (checked) and packs weighed.

Cramming what’s needed for seven days of running in cold and wet conditions is no easy feat – I think the time it has taken to plan and prepare the kit, mostly made up of mandatory requirements, and then do Houdini to squeeze it all into my 25L pack will be longer than the 30 plus hours it’s likely to take me to run this race.

Right now I’m feeling excited, afraid, filled with anticipation, and more than a tad daunted by the enormity of the challenge ahead. As if the 250km distance with a 9kg pack on my back is scary enough, rumour has it that the RTP course director Carlos is quite a sadist when it comes to route setting – if there’s a geological obstacle of any sort to be gone up/over/across rather than around, it’ll be guaranteed the route will be via the roughest section, even creating the top of said obstacle rather than the saddle.

my food & kit for the next 7 days
Add to that the prediction of bad weather forecast for Wednesday onwards, and we have the ingredients for an even spicier challenge.

I’m enormously privileged to be here, running this race. Iceland is a place that has always fascinated me, but one to which I knew I was never likely to travel to. But life often happens as you don’t quite expect it to, and for me a strange combination of circumstances unfolded in the first half of this year saw me able to sign up for this incredible race.

One of the reasons I’ll be giving RTP Iceland my absolute all is to raise funds for Solomon’s Haven, a wonderful place of safety for abused and/or abandoned children in Mitchell’s Plain in Cape Town. I’m trying to raise as much as I can for this special haven, and I really need your help!
some of the kids at Solomon's Haven saying hi!
Here’s the deal: you click on the DONATE NOW link at the top of my BackaBuddy page, and you leave the tough slog across tundra to me! My donation page is called http://www.backabuddy.co.za/champion/project/islandic250kmrace

Please remember folks, every donation – big or small – counts for a lot. Let's do it, together!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Venit, vidit, vicit HBTC 2013

Stevie's finish sprint on Hout Bay beach
For those of you who aren’t Latin boffs: she came, she (very briefly) saw, she conquered the Hout Bay Trail Challenge 2013 – in style and with a smile!

That’s Stevie Kremer through and through – an incredibly talented trail runner who makes dashing up mountains look easy, and does so barely breaking a sweat.

When I met this crazy American girl at Sierre-Zinal SkyMarathon in Switzerland last year, I told her about our great range of trail races here in South Africa. So it didn’t take much convincing to get her to squeeze a gap in her year of teaching in Italy to come to the world’s most beautiful city (my unbiased opinion) to run one of South Africa’s most favourite and most challenging 37km trail races, the Hout Bay Trail Challenge.

With wins at the Jung Frau Marathon (earning her the title of World Long Distance Mountain Running Champion 2012) and the Hermannslauf 31km in Germany, a third place at the Zegama-Aigorre in Spain, and a win and new course record at the Mont Blanc Marathon in France, Stevie is fast gathering pedigree. Snapped up by Salomon International in 2012, she is one of their most promising athletes.

Stevie landed in Cape Town on Thursday after four days of flying (New York to Munich, to Milan, to Rome, to Cairo, to Johannesburg, to Cape Town). I whisked her straight home to drop off her bags, she threw on her running kit, and we whipped her up the mountains to recce Legs 1 and 2 of the course. Any hint of jet lag was left in the mist and wind up there – conditions were foul and it was an into-the-deep-end introduction for what to expect on race day!

Anyone who’s run the Hout Bay Trail Challenge has utmost respect for this race – don’t be fooled by its “easy” distance (37.5km), the route is tough. Kilometre for kilometre, it’s the most challenging on SA’s trail calendar – not only is it technical, but the course is unmarked. And to boot, the scenery is exquisite – the route covers the mountains surrounding the valley of Hout Bay.

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, over about seven of the Twelve Apostles, 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 across Hout Bay beach for the final 1.5km stretch to the finish at the yacht club in the harbour.
(whew, I’m out of breath just describing all that)

The Cape winter weather strutted its stuff with all its might – from stinging downpours, sideways slamming hail and blustering winds, the runners had it all. And yet records ricocheted – AJ Calitz won the race in 4:00:21 (beating Will Robinson’s record by almost 6 mins); the mixed team winners Salomon (Christiaan Greyling, Noel Ernstzen, Landie Greyling) in 4:00:21; and Stevie had a stormer. She whipped the course into submission, smashing the women’s course record (which, importantly, was set on a 1.5km shorter course) by over 6 mins with a 4:34:55.
HBTC's trophies by Red Earth

the two race winners, Stevie and AJ 

Congrats to the 209 finishers of the HBTC 2013 – you’re all the richer for the wonderful experience. No doubt you’ll be back in 2014 to run your personal battles with the world’s most special mountains!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Racing The Planet: Iceland - for Solomon's Haven

Next up on my bucket list, the land of fire and ice: Iceland, for a 7-day, 250km self-sufficient stage race, starting in the highlands between Iceland's largest glacier Vatnajokull and Langjokull, from 4-10 August (click here for details).
Apart from the challenge of running that distance carrying a +/-10kg pack, the temperatures may well be extreme. While still officially late summer in early August, Iceland’s weather this time of year is unpredictable, with the likelihood of strong, icy winds and temperatures dropping below 0 deg C. 

As always, I'll be doing this for the cause that's close to my heart: Solomon's Haven. This is an emergency shelter in Mitchell's Plain, Cape Town that is home to +/-16 children, all of whom have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their own families and referred for safety to Solomon's Haven by 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, medical costs, and transport. These government grants are supplemented by Alec’s small income as a builder and, importantly, by donations.
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.

To raise funds for Solomon’s Haven, I’ve registered with BackaBuddy, 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. You don’t have to be in South Africa – anywhere in the world works just as well!
Please help me to raise as much as I can for Solomon’s Haven. Here’s the deal: I’ll do the tough stuff and slog across tundra, and you click on the DONATE NOW link at the top of my BackaBuddy page! My donation page is called http://www.backabuddy.co.za/champion/project/icelandic-250km-race 

Please remember, every donation – big or small – counts for a lot. Let's do it, together!

Friday, July 12, 2013

World Ultra Trail Champs 2013 – the Saffa perspective

On Saturday 6 July, the South African ultra distance team of seven trail runners took on reputedly the world’s best in the World Ultra Trail Championships in Wales. More than 150 runners from 20 countries started the 78km race, a course of five 15km laps set in the Gwydyr Forest near the picturesque town of Llanryst, north Wales.
Soaring UK temperatures and extreme conditions saw a high dropout rate amongst runners, with SA finishing as one of the few full teams to complete the race.
British athlete Ricky Lightfoot dominated the entire race and swept across the finish line in 1st position in a time of 5:36, almost 10 minutes ahead of German Florian Neuschwander.
French Nathalie Mauclair was equally impressive, demolishing a world-class women’s field in 6:38.

        bla bla bla …  ….  …

Ok, you’ll have read the numerous press releases all week. Those facts are a bit ho hum now…  but what about the juicy stuff? What was the race really like, you're wondering.
So, here’s the low down from a Saffa perspective, juicies included.
The SA team – Tracy Zunckel, Landie and Christiaan Greyling, Dirk Cloete, Chantel Nienaber, Charl Soumer and myself – cut fine form on the start line in their striking green-and-gold kit. (Read: the guys felt relaxed in their shorts and vests, while the girls felt somewhat naked in their skimpy hotpants and tiny crop tops. It was purely for speed, we’d resorted to telling ourselves – less drag… )
a scary sight...
Countdown to 9am and we were off, cracking quite a pace as we covered the 1km tar section before hitting the forest and starting the five 15km laps.

Landie Greyling
The course was a mix of single track and wide jeep track, some steep inclines through dense forest, and a few short sections of fairly technical bits (tree roots at worst). The lap style wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d expected – 15km was far enough and the terrain sufficiently varied for it to not feel repetitive or monotonous. The course was scenic, and generally not tough underfoot.

The day was long…   and even longer for some of us than others. Landie, as you know by now, was our star of the day – she ran an absolute stormer, finishing as 9th woman and achieving her goal of coming in the top 10. Keeping it in the family, Christiaan ran a blistering 6:58, coming in 32nd and the first Saffa over the line.
Charl Soumer
Charl powered a fantastic time of 7:16, considering he ran much of the race battling a hip issue and had several massages during the race to temporarily correct his alignment. (Reliable inside sources have disclosed that Charl had to pull out all the stops in the final 3km, when he realised he was close to being “chicked” by Landie. Adrenalin and panic kicked in and he finished with 28 secs to spare before Landie crossed the line.)
Dirk Cloete

Dirk too ran a stormer, finishing in 7:21, an amazing achievement considering just a year ago he underwent major surgery on his right knee and was warned it was unlikely he would run competitively again. During the race Dirk fell on his left knee, which bruised, swelled and made his last lap extra tough.

Tracy Zunckel
Tracy, our dark horse speedster from the roaring metropolis of Bergville, struggled with a glute issue days before the race. In an attempt to awaken her “dead legs”, she threw back a couple of Cataflam, soon learning that anti-inflams during an ultra are definitely not kidney-friendly. By the final lap she was throwing up evil-looking black stuff. Our speedster pushed through and finished in 7:51, a tidy 28th position in the women.

Chantel started strong and proceeded to scare everyone back home by disappearing off the radar – her timing chip malfunctioned after the first lap and kept her progress under wraps. She ran a great race, keeping up a constant pace and finishing in 8:18.
Chantel Nienaber

Mine was a rather gritty affair. I’d wanted to score a good day – my legs were far from over-trained and I was coming into the race with a less-is-more approach: if I had a good day, I could do well. But, that was not to be…
The day before the race I woke with a sore throat. Knowing that would mean girl-down on race day, I desperately consumed copious amounts of vitamin C in an effort to stave off the lurgy before it could take hold. The +5000mg I devoured had two effects: on the positive side it bought me a day’s grace, and I was able to wake up on race day with the throat feeling no worse; on the negative side, it gave me gastro-intestinal upset enough to move an entire Russian army. Or even two. Make that three. My stomach had more trots than my legs had runs, and during the first three laps of the race, I dashed into the bushes FIVE times.
Enough Immodium later to clog a carthorse in Calcutta, I was fixed – and feeling remarkably light – so that in laps 4 and 5 I was able to pick up the pace and run as I should’ve been able to run. Lap 5 turned out to be my second fastest, and I finished the race strong, relieved that I’d managed to recover at least a couple of places and cross the line in a fairly decent time, considering.

the girls - fully clothed
It was a great day for us, and we all fought our battles in one way or another. We had amazing support along the route – our team manager Altus Schreuder with Marcus Nienaber stationed at the 9km table; my brother Graham, sister-in-law Marie, and Marinda Cloete manning the table at the start/end of each lap; and Tracy’s mum Pauline and friend Christa on the course, cheering us on. The vibe was fantastic and the energy amongst the team extremely positive. South African trail running was represented in full force, and on every count we held our heads high and did our country proud.

A huge heartfelt thanks must go to Altus Schreuder for his unfailing determination and incredible patience in the face of the barrage of political challenges he faced as team manager in the months, weeks and days leading up to these champs – and those he still faces for the upcoming World Mountain Running champs in Poland.
Altus, without your efforts and perseverance, South African trail running would not be getting these fantastic opportunities to compete on the world stage.