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, March 15, 2013

Earth and sky to meet at the Lesotho Ultra Trail

In August 2012 I posted a blog warning you trail junkies out there to get ready for the arrival of Skyrunning in South Africa (read that blog post here). Well, that time has come! The news is out. It's official. 30th November, northern Lesotho. Carve the date in your diaries, and get training - this one's a must!

A new ultra-distance race has hit southern Africa’s trail running calendar with the announcement of the Lesotho Ultra Trail, to take place in northern Lesotho on 30 November.

Created by well-known KZN race organiser Andrew Booth, the 68km race will traverse mountainous, rocky trails combining steep ascents, descents, some contour running and loads of single track, will be hosted by Maliba Mountain Lodge, just one hour south from the Free State town of Clarens.

Sanctioned by the South African Skyrunning Association (SASA), the event will be recognised by the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) as Africa’s first Ultra Skymarathon®, earning it the potential of being placed in the global circuit of ultras on the international trail calendar.

Defined as mountain running up to or exceeding 2 000m, where the incline exceeds 30% and where the climbing difficulty is not more than 11˚ gradient, the sport of skyrunning has taken the trail running world by storm in Europe, America and Asia over the past 20 years.
raw, real single track trail running is what the Lesotho Ultra Trail is all about

Skyrunning, a term coined by the ISF, is a discipline conceived by Italian mountaineer Marino Giacometti who, with a handful of fellow climbers during the early1990s, pioneered records and races on Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa in the Italian Alps. In 1993, sponsored by Fila, 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.
Giacometti’s term skyrunning is, as the name suggests, where earth and sky meet.

Today, skyrunning has grown to span some 200 races worldwide, with about 30 000 participants from 54 countries.

Formed in 2011, SASA is an associate member of the ISF, and aims to promote and facilitate the growth of skyrunning in South Africa.

Maliba Mountain Lodge, host to the Lesotho Ultra Trail
“The Lesotho Ultra Trail is the ideal event to pioneer the way forward for skyrunning in southern Africa,” said SASA chairman James Hallett. “Not only does the location and route of the race represent the philosophy of skyrunning, but we have no doubt that it will the race be of a world class calibre. Offering spectacular terrain, incredible high altitude vistas and a 5-star host venue, we are extremely excited about the prospects of the Lesotho Ultra Trail.”

Hallett is confident that the Lesotho Ultra Trail will be incorporated into the ISF World Ultra Series, a new addition to the Federation’s global series offering.
“Following the inaugural running of the race in November, we will submit our recommendation and application to the ISF for possible consideration into the 2014 series. If successful, this will put South Africa into the world skyrunning arena, further exposing our country to top international athletes.

Booth said he believed there to be a great synergy between the race, its location and the development of skyrunning in South Africa.
the Hlomo Pass, 3100m
“The Maluti Mountains offer some of the best terrain for high altitude running in the world. To be able to stage what is sure to become a world class event in this region is very special, and we look forward to playing a role in the pioneering of skyrunning in southern Africa.”
He added that the event’s partnership with Maliba Mountain Lodge as host for the race added an extra angle of quality to the event.

Hallett added that as the first official skyrunning event in southern Africa, the Lesotho Ultra Trail will also help facilitate the creation of a national circuit of skyrunning events.
“The Lesotho highlands and the regions of South Africa surrounding Lesotho are prime skyrunning regions, and we will be working with other race organisers in this area and around South Africa to develop the opportunities that present themselves there,” concluded Hallett.

Keep a watch on the SASA website or follow SASA on Twitter @skyrunningza for more Skyrunning info!

* photos credited to Maliba Mountain Lodge and Andrew Booth

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Much Ad(d)o about Running

There’s nothing quite like tight competition to introduce a twist to a race, churn things up and add a whole lot of spice to the mix. This year’s Addo 76km did exactly that, and the results reflected it.

This was the ninth running of the Addo 50 Miler. Two factors made this year different from the other eight: firstly, it wasn’t 82km in distance, it was 76km (rather than starting on the far side of Kirkwood, the race started at the Kabouga Gate of the Addo National Park); and secondly, it was used as the event from which a team of three men and three women would be selected to represent South Africa at the World Ultra Trail Champs 2013 in Wales, 6/7 July.

So, the race was to be slightly shorter in distance but, inevitably, one helluva lot sharper in tone and tempo than previous years.

And, that was obvious from the starting line-up. In the men’s mix there was a host of speedsters, all fidgeting nervously but trying their damnedest to look cool, calm and utterly unfazed by the tension. Of the women, there were a couple of much publicised favourites, and a sprinkling of lesser known but equally potent whippets. The rest of the line-up comprised the majority – there not as selection hopefuls but simply for the challenge of achieving their first ultra, and others to take part in what they knew from previous experience to be a fantastically organised, challenging day on the trails.

This year’s Addo 76km dished up surprises thick and fast, and none more so than in the women’s race. As is always the case in trail races in SA, the women’s field was small, making up just 25% of the entrants, and the competitive end was thin.
Landie Greyling, who’d had a spectacular 2012 with 14 wins out of 17 trail races, was the favourite, tipped to win the women’s race. This would be her second ultra – her first being Sky Run 2012, which she not only won but smashed the record by just over two hours.
Chantel “Hotpants” Nienaber was also in the line-up. With an array of podium finishes for middle to long-distance races to her name, including the Wild Run and the Lesotho Wild Run, she was likely to be in the top handful of finishers, but as she said herself, the furthest she had ever raced was 42km, so an ultra was quite the unknown for her.
I was another race favourite – 2012 had been a huge year for me, with four ultras (including my 10th Comrades, 16th Two Oceans, a Puffer win, and a podium finish in the 174km Grand Raid de la Réunion, reputedly the toughest trail race in the world), wins at the Aussenkehr Desert Extreme and the Triple Trouble, and top two finishes (behind Landie) at the Hout Bay Trail Challenge and the Bastille Day Trail Run.
Then there was the new kid on the block, Tracy Zunckel. With a rather intimidating trail pedigree to her name, including five wins of the Mont-aux-Sources, two of the Mutter and two of the Rhodes Trail Run, she was clearly one to watch – she was only “new to the block” in so much as she’d never raced outside of KZN. No one, including Tracy herself, knew how she would measure up.

The men’s mix was, as always, a rich array of stellar speedsters including William Robinson, Nic de Beer, Dreyer van Huyssteen, Dirk Cloete, Ryno Griesel, Bennie Roux, Christiaan Greyling and a host of others. Certainly rated amongst the four top ultra-distance trail runners in SA, William and Nic had raced each other in a gripping Puffer last year, pipped by Andre Calitz, who was unfortunately not on the Addo start line.
Nic’s running pedigree is formidable – 14 Comrades (9 silvers and a 6:12 PB), 8 Two Oceans (5 silvers and a 3:35 PB), over 100 standard marathons and 75 ultras.
William’s pedigree radiates the same: six Two Oceans (5 silvers and a 3:44 PB), a silver Comrades, five Puffers (3 wins), an Addo 100 Miler, and wins at the Addo 50 Miler in 2010 and 2011 (setting the record).

The route was fast, the stakes were high, and with national selection as the goal, the ante was considerably upped. The race started and the speed was on!
Nic de Beer led from the start of the race
Running through the Addo National Park is special. The route is varied – sometimes on single track, other times on jeep track, we sloshed through streams, slogged up switchbacks, and ran along the top of escarpments with the world at our feet. The final 20km of the route is quite the opposite – it’s a gut-wrenchingly awful stretch of dirt road that hurts the body and burns the mind, testing the spirit to the nth degree. It’s not an ideal final section to such a beautiful route, and it’s a slog, but hey, it’s the only way to get from Zuurberg to Addo Rest Camp, where the race finishes.

Nic took charge of the men’s race immediately and dominated for the entire duration of the route, blasting a blistering pace to scoop top honours in an unbelievable finish time of 6:29. William came in just 8 min later, having narrowed what had become a 15 min gap by the 56km mark. Surprise 3rd position was Charl Souma in 6:51 – an outstanding race, particularly for a relative newcomer to the sport, running his first ultra.

The women’s race was far more interesting (an unbiased perspective, of course). Landie and I ran the first 22km together, maintaining a comfortable pace but always aware of the presence of Tracy, who kept a constant 100m or so behind us. Landie pulled ahead at the multiple stream crossings around the 22km mark, and Tracy joined me for the next couple of km’s.
At the start of the notorious monster-climb at 25km, I realised my climbing legs weren’t with me – I felt like I was towing a 10-ton trailer. Tracy trotted on up the climb, leaving me to slog and swear my way up what she was making look like a mediocre meander up a slight slope. Within minutes she was out of sight.
Tracy Zunckel powered her way to a winning finish

My battles began there. With Landie and Tracy in front, I was now in 3rd place and I knew I had to hold on to that position, no matter what. The kilometres ticked slowly by and the legs plodded on, still not feeling their usual spritely selves. It never occurred to me that my 3rd position was steadily being gained upon – I’d looked behind at various vantage points and seen no one. I thought I just had to keep pushing on and my position would be secure.

And then, *bam*, everything changed! I was busy refuelling at checkpoint 6 when Chantel appeared out of nowhere, grabbed a quick drink and scampered on up the trail, looking fresh and spritely. 
Just like that. 
I was now in 4th spot, chewing Chantel’s dust and wondering how to find the legs to chase her.

I dug and dug, pushed hard up the switchbacks into Zuurberg and checkpoint 7, learning I was 4 mins behind. I know I’d have to dig even deeper on the remaining 20km to make up time, close the gap and retrieve my 3rd position.

But it was not to be. I grappled a monster stitch on the 5km downhill section before the long flat stretch, and by then, as deep as I dug, Chantel was way out of sight. I crossed the line a good few minutes behind, well and truly in 4th position.

Meanwhile, the battle had been waging for the ladies 1st place. Not very long after she’d passed me, Tracy had gained on Landie and overtaken her at around the 33km mark. She raced on, pushing a pace that no other could match, and crossed the finish line in an incredible 7:29.
Landie finished not long after, in 7:44 – these two women in 8th and 9th position overall.

Nic de Beer, William Robinson, Charl Souma, Tracy Zunckel, Landie Greyling and Chantel Nienaber all ran their socks off at Addo and had outstanding races. A HUGE hats-off to them all – South African trail runners can be proud that they’re well represented at the World Ultra Champs in July 2013!
Nic de Beer (centre), William Robinson (L), Charl Souma (R)
Tracy Zunckel (centre), Landie Greyling (L), Chantel Nienaber (R)
Some interesting pace stats on the race (remembering this year’s race was 6km shorter than the Addo 50 Miler):
William Robinson set the record for the Addo 50 Miler in 2011, with a time of 7:41. To achieve that, he ran an average pace of 5:37/km.
Similarly, the ladies record for the Addo 50 Miler was set by me in 2012, with a time of 9:10. For this, my average pace was 6:42/km.
This year, being the competitive field it was, both of these average paces were smashed, good and proper. Nic de Beer ran a frightening average pace of 5:07/km to scoop his win, and Tracy Zunckel an amazing 5:54/km – making mine last year rather a joke J
And to show just how the ante was upped on previous years, William ran an incredible 24 secs per minute faster pace than he did when he set the Addo 50 Miler record in 2011.

*photos credited to Hermien Webb Photography