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!

Monday, November 17, 2014

KAEM 2014 - the most beautiful desert race

(all images by Hermien Burger Webb, unless otherwise noted)

Looking to do a 7-day self-sufficient stage race in a desert? Look no further than the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM), long reputed to be the best organised self-sufficient stage race on the international trail running calendar.

KAEM had been on my bucket list for years, and two weeks ago I had the privilege of running my first. Of all races I’ve done in my 20 years of running, this one pips the lot hands down – the organisation, the route, the roll out, the efficiency, the crew, the support, the camaraderie, the friendliness, the generosity of spirit…  everything about this event epitomises for me what self-sufficient desert trail running should be about.

My 20L pack (5.8kg) and trusty Salomon Mantras
Designed in Marathon des Sables format (7 days, 6 stages, with the long stage, 70km, on days 4/5) but with a far more personal approach (KAEM allows a maximum of 100 runners, versus the +1 000 that do MDS), KAEM is staged in the Kalahari Augrabies region of the Northern Cape province of South Africa, close to the Namibian border.

Self-sufficient means just that – you carry your food, running gear, sleeping gear and a small medical kit for seven days. All that’s provided is water at frequent checkpoints along the way, and a communal tarpaulin to sleep under. As long as you carry the mandatory gear, how generous you are with what you take is up to you, and pack weights vary from as light as 5.8kg to as hefty as 14kg.

The stages are designed to test even the strongest runners, starting with a fairly easy 25km, a 35km, a 40km, then the 70km long stage, followed by a 45km, and finally 21km, making up a total of 236km – all in gruelling conditions.

The race always takes place during the full moon, early in November. At that time of year, the summer heat is already extreme, and maximum daily temperatures range from 38˚C to about 46˚C.

Did you know, it never rains in the Kalahari.
Hang on, that’s not true at all. It was Estienne Arndt, who is Race Organiser, Evil Route Planner and Big Boss of All Things KAEM, who once stated with absolute authority that it NEVER rains in the Kalahari…  and it’s rained every year during the race ever since.

Rain in a hot, dry desert means humidity. Anyone who’s hiked or run in a desert knows that hot, dry conditions are easier to cope with than hot humid conditions.
To add to the challenge, runners are subject to a staggered start each day – seeded according to their cumulative time. That means that on the long day, for example, the slowest person starts at 6am while the race leader has to wait until 1pm before he sets off on the 70km stage. The temperature by that time is easily a tidy 37˚C.

An insider's view of tent life    (pic by Altie Clark)
The terrain underfoot varies from stony shale to jeep track to dry, sandy riverbed, and the views from rocky gorges and rivers to endless grassy savannah speckled with stunted camelthorn, blackthorn and other acacias.

The Kalahari Augrabies region is rich in wildlife, and runners had frequent sightings of springbok, eland, gemsbok, ostrich, giraffe, and birds of prey.

The racing part of KAEM 2014
The start of KAEM 2014
This year there were 70 participants from 18 countries. It was the 15th running of the event, and many of the participants were return KAEM’ers.
Race winner Mahmut Yavuz

Competition in the front of the field was tough, with three times winner Dirk Cloete (SA) up against last year’s 2nd placed Mahmut Yavuz (Turkey), Dion Leonard (Australia), who placed 6th last year, Stephan Vernay (France) and local novice Martin Kalwenya.

Vying for top spot in the women I had stiff competition – Lucja Leonard (Australia) came 2nd last year and had since completed MDS 2014 and featured well in several ultras in the UK, while hard core ultra queen Bakiye Duran (Turkey) was back for a third time, having claimed 1st woman in 2012 and 3rd place last year. It was clear I’d have to work damn hard to win this one!
me in one of the many dry river beds

Apart from Stage 1 when Stephan crossed the line in 1st spot, Mahmut dominated the entire race, every day increasing his lead to make his final time a convincing 1hr45 lead over 2nd place Dion, who fought hard against Stephan (3rd) and Martin (4th).

The women’s race was nail-biting – Lucja certainly gave me a run for my money! I ran a cautious Day 1, securing a 6 min lead, which I increased to 31 min on Day 2. Then things went pear-shaped for me when stomach cramps got the better of me during Day 3, and I finished 5 min behind Lucja. Then on the long stage, Lucja had an absolute stormer, finishing a comfortable 18 min ahead of me, and shrinking my lead to just 8 min.
Lucja and I ran the final stage together

Thankfully on Day 5 (45km), I pulled the proverbial rabbit out the hat – I had one of those runs where everything feels right, and I cruised across the line 27 min ahead of Lucja, stretching my lead to a healthy 35 min. With just a 21km stage set for the final day, the margin between us was big enough for me to have the win secured, and Lucja and I ran the final leg of KAEM 2014 together.
Competing in a self-sufficient race in a remote part of the world is an experience unlike any other. You’re one of a small group of people (ok, unless you’re doing MDS, in which case you’re one of more than 1 000 people) in a bubble for a week, and that week is packed with daily goals, challenges, pains, joys, disappointments, achievements – a smorgasbord of highs and lows, a microcosm of real life. And wherever you are in the field, you feel that week is a life truly lived.
Mahmut Yavuz, Dion Leonard (R) and Stephan Vernay (L)
me, Lucja Leonard (L) and Bakiye Duran (R)

It’s often said that perseverance is not one long race, but rather many short races one after the other. That’s what multi-stage events are all about. For everyone, whether fleet of foot or out there for the long haul every day, each stage is tough, challenging, and calls for a carefully measured approach – and one hell of a lot of positive thinking.

Camp manager Willem Basson with MediClinic doctors Caroline Murray (L) and Jann Killops (R)
When the 65 finishers and more than 50 crew of KAEM 2014 bid their farewells and headed home to after their week in the desert, they went so much the richer for their experience in the Kalahari. Many will return another year for another round; the others will just relive the memories.
The finishers of KAEM 2014
The fantastic crew behind KAEM 2014
In short, if you’re looking to do a self-sufficient stage race in an extremely beautiful and special part of the world, then KAEM is the one to do. Put it on your bucket list immediately.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Freedom Run - just 3 days til the finish line

Yesterday I had the privilege of joining Freedom Runners Mimi Anderson and Samantha Gash on the 29th day of their incredible 32-day, +2 000km run from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl, in South Africa.

I last saw Mimi and Samantha when they were in Cape Town, three days before they began their feat. They were bursting with excitement, laced with a hint of apprehension over what the challenge might throw at them. Being experienced with ultra distances and multi-day running in all sorts of conditions, they took on this challenge well aware that ahead of them lay the unknown, the only certainties being the basics of their route (rather than what that route entailed), the mileage they had to cover, and their shared determination to complete the challenge.
The mission of their run was clear: to raise as much as they possibly could to set up a social enterprise that will empower women in a rural community in the Free State to make reusable sanitary pads, enabling young girls to be free to continue their schooling without the interruption of their monthly periods.
The crew, aka "Cafe Boys Boys Boys" in action

The Freedom Run had been two years in the planning - from identifying their mission and carefully selecting the rural community for the pilot project, plotting the route and scheming the logistics with the help of the team behind the Freedom Challenge, to sourcing their wonderful crew who would give more than a month of their lives to slog, sweat over and serve Mimi and Sam for the duration of the Freedom Run.
The training these two wonder women had to do was the easy part of their preparation - it was organising everything that was the difficult part.

Stepping into Mimi and Samantha's world for a day almost a month after they'd started was in some ways like peeking 10 chapters on in a novel when you've only read the preface. In the preface to this book, the girls had looked fresh and bouncy, eager to face the unknown of the weeks ahead. Now, seeing them 10 chapters on, they looked so different - both very thin, drawn and somewhat weathered from running for 29 continuous days in the harsh African sun.
Sam and Mimi near Montagu, Western Cape

But as tired as they seemed on the outside, these two incredible women were still bursting with vigour and vitality within, more determined than ever to keep to their strict schedule, with the end goal being to help enable communities of young girls - girls that they will most likely never meet - to attend school for the education they need to have a decent future.

On Saturday Mimi and Sam will complete the Freedom Run, having covered more than 47 back-to-back marathons in 32 days, over 2 000km without even a single rest day. They've endured their fair share of icy starts and minus temperatures, of blasting sun through blistering days, of high winds and slamming rain; they've slogged on mountain trails 2 750m above sea level, waded across rivers, and whacked their way through reed beds. Together they've laughed, cried, winced and sweated their way across a vast chunk of our beautiful country, two non-South Africans with a determined dream to change the lives of those they can.

Here's a quick synopsis of why the Freedom Run is critical:
  • In South Africa, one in 10 girls between the ages of 11 and 17 miss out on 4-5 days of school a month due to their periods. This shouldn't have to be!
  • Commercially produced disposable sanitary pads are too expensive for most schoolgirls in Africa.
  • A girl missing 4 days of school every 28 days due to her period loses the equivalent of 8 weeks of school per year. Falling behind in lessons inevitably means they end up dropping out of school.
  • 60% of girls and women in South Africa don’t have access to feminine hygiene products. Instead, they make a plan, often using rags, cloth or bits of newspaper.
The Freedom Run is not only a mission to raise awareness and confront the problem, but to find a solution. The funds raised through the challenge will enable Save The Children International to establish a social enterprise in an identified community in the Free State as a pilot project. The business will employ women to make and sell reusable sanitary pads within their community.
The project will also provide ongoing education on health and hygiene for girls and women, as well as life skills training workshops for parents.

Show your support for the Freedom Run and what it stands for by becoming a part of the solution: click on the donate tab on this link: Save The Children Freedom Run

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Freedom Run – 24 Sept to 25 Oct 2014

Today was Day 1 of what will no doubt be the toughest run yet done on South African soil. Following the route of the 2 350km Freedom Trail, a gruelling event much hallowed by even the bravest mountain bikers, the Freedom Run is a challenge being tackled by two women – yes guys, two women – who will be running an average of 80km a day, over 32 days.

They’ll run from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl. Sixty-four back-to-back marathons…   on some of the toughest terrain in the country.

Click here to see the route:  Freedom Run route (and follow the little pink dot as it progresses - that's them!)

They’re tackling this feat as a challenge, and yes, they’ll achieve a great sense of personal achievement when they accomplish their goal, but far, far more importantly, they’re doing this for something very much greater than themselves – they’re raising funds to set up a social enterprise that will empower women in the community to make reusable sanitary pads, enabling young girls to be free to continue their schooling without the interruption of their monthly periods.

The next amazing fact is that neither of these women are South African – and yet they care enough to change the lives of young women in the rural areas of our country.

Mimi Anderson (UK) and Samantha Gash (Australia) are both hard core ultra-runners supreme, each with mileage under their belts that would scare most runners the world over.

Mimi (52) has two Guiness World Records to her name – one as the fastest woman to run from John O’Groats in northern Scotland to Land’s End in southern England (12 days 15 hours 46 min), and the other for the furthest distance covered on a treadmill in seven days by a female (649.86km).
She has won ultras in the Sahara, Kalahari and Namib Deserts, she was the first British woman to run the double Badwater Ultra Marathon (470km in 108hr 10min), which is in Death Valley, the hottest place on earth.
She was the overall winner of the 6633 Extreme Ultra Marathon in 2007, a 352 mile non-stop self-sufficiency race in the Arctic, setting a course record that is yet to be beaten: 143hrs 23min. She remains the only woman to have finished the race.

Well on her way to matching Mimi’s crazy achievements, Samantha (29) was the first woman and youngest person to have completed the Four Deserts Grand Slam, she has a 379km non-stop run across the Simpson Desert in Australia, and a 222km non-stop run across the Himalayas to her name.

What will the Freedom Run achieve? It’ll set young girls free.

Here’s the reality:
  • In South Africa, one in 10 girls between the ages of 11 and 17 miss out on 4-5 days of school a month due to their periods. WHY?
  • Commercially produced disposable sanitary pads are too expensive for most schoolgirls in Africa.
  • A girl missing 4 days of school every 28 days due to her period loses the equivalent of 8 weeks of school per year. Falling behind in lessons inevitably means they end up dropping out of school.
  • There is a distinct lack of education in the rural areas about the changes that happen to a girl’s body during puberty.
  • Menstruation is a taboo subject in most rural areas, and is not discussed openly.
  • 60% of girls and women in South Africa don’t have access to feminine hygiene products. Instead, they make a plan, often using rags, cloth or bits of newspaper.

Scary? The problem is real, it’s widespread, and it’s simply not acknowledged. And yes, it’s uncomfortable to talk about.

Mimi and Samantha’s Freedom Run is not only a mission to raise awareness and confront the problem, but to work a solution. The funds they raise through the challenge will enable Save The Children International to establish a social enterprise in an identified community in the Free State. The business will employ 12 women to make and sell reusable sanitary pads within their community.
“The project will also provide ongoing education on health and hygiene for girls and women, as well as life skills training workshops for parents. It’s a simple way of making a massive difference for thousands of girls in South Africa,” says Samantha.

Check out this quick clip, filmed over the days leading up to the start today: Freedom Runners' preparation and their crew

And yes…  today was Day 1. They ran 80.98km, with more than 2 000m of vertical gain, and still looked fresh at their finish line!

Follow their progress by clicking on the tracker on www.freedomrunners.org

Help Mimi and Sam raise funds by clicking on the donate link on the Freedomrunners website how to donate

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Miles for Smiles Mad Run 2014

There’re so many reasons to run. We run for pleasure, for adventure, for challenge, for fun, for friendship, for competition. The sheer joy that running brings is pure in its simplicity, and it’s very real. Running makes our hearts smile, it makes us happy.

Imagine then the sheer joy of being able to smile, swallow and chew properly when all your life you’ve not been physically able to. Imagine looking in the mirror, and for the first time ever not seeing your face disfigured. Imagine always feeling conspicuous in public with everyone staring at your face and whispering about how you look, and now the joy of being able to free of that burden, free to look the world in the eye without being laughed at and teased.

That intense joy is something most of us can only imagine, and it’s visible on the face of every child, teenager and young adult whose lives have been forever changed by Operation Smile. For them that joy will last a lifetime.

Last week a bunch of mad runners here in Cape Town took part in the Mad Run – the Table Mountain Challenge route (now 40km long, thanks to the wickedness of race organiser Trevor Ball) run every day for 7 days, with the final day being race day, which happened to be the TMC’s 10th anniversary. That meant more than 270km of running around, up and over Table Mountain, raising funds for Cipla Miles for Smiles, a campaign founded by adventurer and chef David Grier in support of Operation Smile.
Jean van Lierop and William van Dugteren
Andrew Stuart and David Grier

The Mad Run was the crazy brainchild of Hout Bay dentist and trail runner Jean van Lierop, who put the plan to David some months ago. David, with several world firsts under his belt, including the full length of the Great Wall of China (4 200km in 98 days), the entire coast of South Africa (3 300km in 80 days), running across Madagascar (2 700km in 64 days), running across India (4 008km in 93 days), and across Cuba (1 500km in 30 days), never being one to turn away a great running opportunity, took up the challenge and the plan took shape.

Seated: India Baird, William van Dugteren. Standing, L to R: Brett Wood, David Grier, Andy Stuart, Rob Graham,
Chris Allan, me, Jean van Lierop, Ant Rush       (photo credit: Stephen Granger)
There were many of us – most ran the whole route every day, and others ran most of the days. The week was as tough as it was fun, and the best part of all was that the effort raised more than R100 000 for Miles For Smiles. Real money = real operations = real life changes for more than 20 kids! While we were running, the operations were happening – the kilometres run were literally enabling future smiles!

Here’re some facts about the occurrence of cleft palate:
  • Every 3 minutes, a child somewhere in the world is born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, and are often unable to eat, speak, socialise or smile.
  • One in 10 of children born with a cleft will die before their 1st birthday.
  • One in every 750 babies in Africa is born with a cleft lip or cleft palate.
  • Children with facial deformities who don’t receive reconstructive surgery often have difficulty breathing, drinking, eating and speaking. As a result, many suffer from malnutrition, medical and psychological problems.
  • Many children with untreated cleft lips and cleft palates develop permanent and significant hearing loss.
  • In just 45 minutes, one cleft lip surgery can change a child's life forever.

And here’re some random facts I either learned or was reminded about during the week…

ü   Llandudno Ravine never gets easier, not matter how fit you may be.
ü   A thick smeer of peanut butter, cheese and Bovril tastes mighty good in a sarmie (thanks William van Dugteren).
ü   Chocolate steri stumpies FIZZzzzz when vrot. And they taste utterly disgusting in that state.
ü   Tuffer Puffer legs really enjoy a rest day in the middle of TMC x 7 (sorry about that, guys).
ü   Apparently balls can have blisters too - ??  (no comment allowed from either David or Alex).
ü   Kasteelspoort has undoubtedly THE best plunge pool on the entire Table Mountain range.
ü   Men will always be boys.
ü   Polite boys tailor their jokes when running with girls.
ü   It only takes 10km, or a quarter of the way around one TMC, for boys to no longer tailor their jokes in politeness.
ü   The quality of jokes deteriorates in direct correlation with the number of times around a mountain.
ü   The level of laughter at even the lamest joke increases with the number of times around a mountain.
ü   The dubious white mould on a banting chef’s cabanossi salami grows impressively more furry with each day it lurks in said banting chef’s pack.
ü   Dentists are a lot funnier when running then when drilling teeth.
ü   Puff adders and Cape cobras believe it’s summer already here in the Cape – they’re awake from their winter snooze and rearing to go…

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tuffer Puffer 2014

Never again, I had said, never again. That was back in 2007, after my second Tuffer Puffer. Somehow, over the seven years since, I had forgotten I’d said that. I guess I can blame my short memory partly on time’s ability to morph naivety into reality, and partly on having since run something far worse, on many levels, than Tuffer – the Grand Raid de la Réunion (Diagonale des Fous), which in 2012, being that race’s 20th anniversary, was its longest distance, a very nasty 175km (with 10 500m of vertical gain).

And so it was a blend of naivety and poor memory that saw me signing up to run Tuffer Puffer 2014. Or perhaps it was a TBI (Temporary Bout of Insanity). Either way, all ye reading this, please do not, under any circumstances, either suggest or allow me to suggest that I do so a fourth time. 
Never. Non. Nein. Nyet. Not ever.

The Tuffer Puffer is, by way of definition, the Peninsula Ultra Fun Run (PUFfeR) run “there and back”. For those not in the know, that means double the route of the Puffer, which is an 80km race from Cape Point over the mountains to the Waterfront at Cape Town Harbour. Traditionally, the route of the Tuffer followed that of the PUFfeR, starting in reverse, at 8am on the Friday morning, running to Cape Point, turning around and running back the same way. About 4 years ago, the Cape Point Nature Reserve no longer allowed people into the reserve after dark, so the race had to be rerouted via Scarborough and Misty Cliffs, then back past the Cape Point gate, past Smitswinkel, through Simonstown, and up the nasty 4km Red Hill zigzags to Pine Haven, where it rejoins the original route and continues all the way through to the Waterfront. The distance remained unchanged, as did the ratio of trail to tar.

Marc de Rooy and I on fresh legs on Signal Hill just 5km into the race                 (pic credit Eric Tollner)
The race begins at 8am the day before the PUFfeR, so that the runners are well on their return journey (some even close to completion) by the time the PUFfeR runners start their challenge at 5:30am on the Saturday. Over the years the 80km route of the PUFfeR has enjoyed a few shortcuts here and there which, being all legal, have shrunk the distance of that race to around 74km. So, although referred to as a 100-miler (164km), Tuffer Puffer is not, it’s more like 145km.

But do not be fooled by that absence of 20km, it’s still bloody far.

A maximum of 20 entrants are permitted to take on the Tuffer each year – this limit being set by the fact that for safety reasons Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) does not allow people onto the mountain after dark.

So that sketches the race history, now onto the day itself…

I wasn’t sure how my legs would welcome this event. Having raced the Fish River Canyon Ultra (82km) last month, the Outeniqua Quest (108km) a month before that, and the Whale of Trail (54km) in May, they’d been put through their paces and the chances of them welcoming a fourth ultra in four months were slim. But come the day, they felt surprisingly perky and, like the unexpected good weather, that was most welcome!

Karl and I on the road section near Misty Cliffs, 60km under the belt                     (pic credit Eric Tollner)
The tough thing about Tuffer is not so much the distance as the fact that the middle third of the route involves 46km of tar. Any trail runner knows that 50km of trail is easier on the body than less that distance on the road – tar is about monotonous hammering of same-stride form, and it does nothing to boost body or brain. In the Tuffer, the tar section begins at about the 52km mark, and you don’t touch trail again until around 98km.

As the great Dean Karnazes said in UltraMarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, “sometimes you have to go through hell to get to heaven”. With Tuffer, heaven comes first – with +50km of exquisite trail (interspersed with short bouts of road that go almost unnoticed). Then comes the hell: +45km of tar, culminating in a 4km slog up the nasty switchbacks of Red Hill from the Simonstown side. By the time you’re back on trail again, the legs are well worn. In fact, they’re bitching relentlessly and wish to do nothing faster than walk.

Descending Platteklip with the city lights below
On the return leg of Tuffer, it’s compulsory for runners to have seconds. My crew were the best I could’ve wished for – they cheered me up, they entertained me, they nagged me to eat, they very patiently walked whenever I required. Together we stargazed, inhaled the night fragrances of the fynbos, fantasised about food, dreamed about coffee, plotted and planned future races. Karl kept me chugging along over the marathon section of tar from Scarborough to Simonstown; Gerard helped me run up (most of) the Red Hill switchbacks and all the way to the start of the Wagon Trail; Kylie and Roger took me across the long section from Wagon Trail to Constantia Nek; and Chris and Rob had the (to many, unenviable) task of doing the final section: Constantia Nek, up to Maclears, across the top, down Platteklip, along Signal Hill, and down to the finish. My main-man Craig was the driver – for 24 long hours he was the crew’s pivot, the fetch-and-taker, the stocktaker, the feeder, the clockwatcher. Craig is my rock.

For me it’s the night section that makes all the pain of Tuffer worthwhile. There’s something very special about running through Cape mountain fynbos on a cold, clear night. The rich fragrances on the Black Hill section could only be matched by the star-studded sky of that night, and the only sound for miles was the crunching of our footfall on the sandy path. On my previous Tuffers I’d watched the sunrise from the top of Table Mountain; this time we were running along Signal Hill while the sky was lightening, and that wonderful feeling of knowing I was way ahead of my previous times helped make that sunrise even more special than it looked.

Crossing the finish line
Race organiser Kim, Chris and Rob as dancing girls, and Craig as cheerleader made up the roaring crowd to welcome me over the finish line in 23:54. Never was the tarmac more comfortable to sit on than that moment, cushioned by the knowledge that I’d completed my third Tuffer, improved my time, was the 1st overall finisher, and had set a new women’s record.

A huge thanks to my Tuffer crew – Craig, Karl, Gerard, Kylie, Roger, Chris and Rob; to friends Andrew, Eric, Caryn, John, Karoline, Filippo, Chippy, Wally and Ghaleed for their encouragement during the race; and as always to my sponsors Salomon South Africa, PeptoSport, and RUSH Bars. Without you all, I wouldn’t be able to complete these wonderful events.

Photo credits to Eric Tollner and Chris Allan

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Fish River Canyon Ultra 2014

First, some history about running the Fish River Canyon…

The Fish River Canyon is the second largest canyon in the world, surpassed only by the Grand Canyon in Colorado, USA. Located in the south of Namibia, the canyon is stark, rugged, magnificently desolate and harshly unforgiving. In July 1990, two South African Bruce Matthews and Ronnie Muhl set out to run the Fish River Canyon hiking trail (a five-day hike) in under a day. They achieved their goal in 11:42. In August 2003, Namibians Russell Paschke, Charlie du Toit, Coenraad Pool and Tommy van Wyk took on the record, finishing in 10:54.

Then, in August 2012, world-renowned ultra-trail runner Ryan Sandes smashed this record in a time of 6:57, shedding a crazy four hours off the previous time.

FRCU – what it’s about
This race is rough, tough, and tests even the canniest runners. It doesn’t have a scary profile like most races – instead it’s all about the terrain, the conditions, and a geography of a zillion S-bends that follow the river bed of a canyon more than half a kilometre high. It’s about fine, deep, dry sand that saps your leg strength; it’s about small rounded boulders that riddle the river’s edge; it’s about gigantic rocks of megalith proportions, worn smooth by eons of erosion by water and wind; it’s about an unforgiving sun beating down relentlessly; it’s about a river that doesn’t flow continuously but rather lurks sullenly in a murky mass, drinkable in some areas but definitely not in others. This race is about physical and mental endurance, much patience, and a hell of a lot of trust.

This was the third running of the full distance. The event started in 2011 with only the 65km distance on offer, then the 100km option kicked in the following year.

Organising this event can’t be easy – because of the nature of the canyon, the course is inaccessible but for three points, and two of those are difficult to get supplies to. The canyon itself is really miles from anywhere, and takes hours to get to, whichever direction you’re coming from. And yet the race organisers, Tinus Hansen and his team at African Extreme Promotions, outshone themselves. 
Aerial shot of the race village, showing tents on the lip of the canyon
From the organisation of the race village (tents positioned at the very lip of the canyon, making for what must surely be THE most dramatic location ever for any event in the southern hemisphere!) and the manning of the checkpoints in less than comfortable surroundings, to the great vibe and slick pre- and post-race presentations, they were great.

The FRCU follows the route of the Fish River Canyon hiking trail, with a 10km run added on at the start to get you from the race village (where the race starts) to the descent into the canyon (where the official hike begins). Although the length of the full distance of the canyon route is 100km, the total distance of the route provided to runners via GPS is 79.8km, as this incorporates a number of official shortcuts along the route – if, of course, you can find them.

The race started at 5:30am. The 10km run along the top of the canyon was on a dirt road and in the dark, lit only by the light of our headlamps. I ran at an easy pace, about 4:35/km, and my legs felt good. I could see about 7 guys ahead of me, and a long train of single headlamp spots of the many behind me. The temperature was chilly to start, about 5 degs, but made for good cool running. Before long the sky was lightening, 10km was behind me and I was at the start of the descent. I was excited – now the real event would begin! I stripped off my Salomon windjacket, headlamp and buff, tucked them into my Skin pack, and headed down… and down… and down the very technical and loose descent into the canyon.
Me heading down the start of the descent into the canyon
I’d been warned about the fine sand in the canyon, and having experienced the “joys” of sand in numerous desert races, I had taken the decision to wear full gaiters. Many runners had decided on mini-gaiters (ankle), and others had gone with no gaiters at all. Wearing full gaiters turned out to be the best kit decision I made – not once during the entire 80km did I feel a single grain of sand in my shoes. It’s the first time in years I’ve finished an ultra with my feet looking as clean as when I started! Most of the participants battled with sand, and had to stop frequently to empty the dunes from their shoes.

Shoe-wise, I wore my Sense Mantras – another good decision. They gripped the rocks well, they were lightweight yet supportive, and importantly my feet were comfortable for the entire distance.
For my pack I decided on my Salomon Advanced Skin 5L pack, rather than my 12L one, and it was the right choice. While there’s very little difference, if any, in the feel between the two sizes once on, I wanted to go as minimal and lightweight as I could, and the 5L fitted all my mandatory kit and food without any problem.

Running over zillions of smooth rounded rocks is testing! 
We’d all been sent the GPS track of the route, as well as provided with a pocketsize laminated booklet of satellite images of the route taken from Google Earth, so theoretically the going should’ve been fine. But the nature of the canyon is such that it tempts us runners to question technology and to opt instead for logic. Only, logic doesn’t necessarily get us to the finish line quicker…    Many runners made wrong route decisions during the race, and ended up adding exhausting hours to their slog.

The river water wasn't always this clear...
Fortunately for me, everything went according to plan, apart from a small error I made very early on in the canyon, when I made the wrong decision to cross onto the opposite bank of the river too soon. Deon Braun, Lyndon Nash and I found ourselves having to manoeuvre across a radically slanting and very smooth massive rock that sloped sharply into the river, and looking longingly at where we should’ve been on the opposite bank. We could’ve turned back and retraced our steps, but didn’t want to waste valuable minutes…   Of course the mistake ended up wasting about 15 minutes anyway, as we gingerly clung our way in spiderlike fashion across the slanting rock, desperately trying not to end up swimming. Thankfully we eventually managed to get onto firm ground and get running again!

I’d expected the temperature in the canyon to be uncomfortably hot, particularly between 11am and 3pm when the sun is overhead. But thankfully we were kept relatively cool by a gentle headwind, and regular cap-dousings of water from the river.

AJ Calitz set a blistering new FRCU record of 8:04
Because of the inaccessibility of the canyon, the race is self-sufficient. We knew to only expect provisions at the last of the three checkpoints (water, Coke, potatoes, bananas, etc.). River water was the way to go – although it didn’t look so great, it was drinkable…   a little murky but it was cold and tasted fine!

As the day went on, Lyndon and I gradually managed to overtake three of the runners who’d been in front of us. My goal had been to cover as much of the race distance as I could in the daylight, because trying to run in a rocky canyon and make route decisions in the dark is virtually impossible. My legs, however, felt really strong the entire way, and I was able to keep up a consistent pace. This meant that by the time I reached CP3, the Causeway, with about 15km to go, I realised that providing I kept up my pace, I would make the finish in the light. So, I pushed hard – and with legs and brain on the same team, I maintained a good strong pace to the finish. I crossed the line in 11:50, a good 10mins clear of 12 hours, as 1st lady and, more importantly, in 4th position overall. My time set a new women’s record by just 9 minutes shy of 6hrs (previous record 17:41).
Tinus Hansen presenting the ladies' trophy

The unexpected fuel bomb..!
While I always carry as little as I have to, on ultras I always take a lot more fuel with me than I consume. I prefer it that way – I obviously don’t want to run out of energy, and I take little bites / sips regularly to avoid blood sugar lows and to keep my energy level constant. (I don’t always get it right, but I have improved over the years!)  The only fluid I drink is water, supplemented every 3-4 hours by 500ml of PeptoSport (I carry a pre-portioned zip-lock bag of the powder and pour it into a clutch bottle as I run). My energy bars are RUSH Bars, which contain no sugar and are made of natural ingredients and only good things!
When I reached the Causeway (3rd CP), I was feeling good – my energy level was high and my legs felt strong. But as with many ultras, by the nth hour of consuming the same taste, the mouth (and the brain) are dying for the treat of something different. And that’s when I spotted the chocolate Steri-Stumpi staring at me longing from the table under the tent. “DRINK ME!!” it screamed. Sitting quietly next to it was a cup of Coke, pre-poured for us by the wonderful volunteers manning the CP. Damn, I wanted them both! So before I could think twice, I downed the Steri Stumpie, smashed the Coke, washed it all down with several sips of water, and dashed off to take on the final section of the race.

Now, it has to be said that throwing such a combo down one’s gullet is not normally recommended, and that over the next km or so I did allow my mind to linger to the horrors of what I’d just taken in, and the frightening effects such an amalgamation might have on my gut. But I can happily say that not only was that possibly THE most delicious combo I’ve achieved in my history of horrific combos, but dammit, this one worked like a bomb!

A fantastic day, a great race and an incredible adventure! Definitely one for the bucket list!

 Click on Fish River Canyon Ultra and Lite (65km) results for the full results of both events.

The race will be screened on SuperSport on these dates:
Schedule Date
Schedule Time
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport Select SA
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport Select SA
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8