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!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

new year = new goals?

It’s a strange phenomenon, New Year. In Western culture we’re socialised to see the first day of the year as a new start, a time to reflect, look ahead and to set goals for the next 12 months.

And yet January 1st is really no different from any other of the 364.2422 days in our calendar. Logically, there’s no reason why we should suddenly start doing things differently, turning over new leaves or, in some dire cases, uproot entire trees (figuratively speaking of course) in our need to make change in our lives. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for us to rather use the start of each day to reassess how we’re progressing towards our goals?

But hey, most of us like to see Jan 1st as a bit special anyway. And by the end of January all the unrealistic resolutions have been shifted out and the achievable challenges remain intact, there to keep us on our toes for the rest of the year.

Interestingly, The Guardian UK published an article at the end of 2015, presenting the results of a survey conducted by UK private health insurance company Bupa, looking at how long people tend to keep their New Year’s Resolutions. The most common resolutions were, not surprisingly, to lose weight, to get fitter, and to eat more healthily.

And the study found that of the 63% of UK adults who failed to keep their New Year’s resolution,
- 43% didn’t even last a month,
- 66% lasted one month or less,
- 80% lasted less than three months, and
- 86% maintained their resolution for less than a year.

I think it’s important to set goals, of course. And whether you want to set them at the start of a new year, or on your birthday, or on an arbitrary Tuesday morning whenever in the year, is not important – what is important is that you DO set them, and that you be determined to achieve them. Without a change in mindset, there’s no chance you’ll achieve a change in behaviour.

I believe there are five essentials of setting goals:
1.  make your goals measurable;
2.  be sure your goals are attainable;
3.  ensure your goals are relevant to you;
4.  give your goals a timeline and a deadline by which to achieve them; and
5.  make your goals action-oriented.

As important as working hard to achieve your goals is, it’s vital to ensure the joy remains.
If we don’t feel joy from the things we do, the enthusiasm in our effort turns to drudgery.
Just as positivity encourages growth, so effort without enjoyment becomes tedious and negative. Enjoying what we do keeps the spring in our step, the energy in our efforts, the excitement in our hard work.

So, set yourself challenges and DARE to achieve them. Believe in yourself, trust in your own potential, and allow yourself the freedom and space to start something new.
Unless you try, you’ll never know.

So, welcome 2017, and may you bring to us all a healthy dose of positive challenges; a generous measure of achievements, big and small; and bags of fulfilment in every aspect of our lives.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rockhoppin' Trail interview with Robyn Owen

It has been ages since I profiled anyone on Rockhoppin’ Trail. Back in 2013 it had been my plan to write regular profiles, but somehow life, time and training got in the way and instead I stuck to the loose, unscheduled kind of style that is more appropriate for Rockhoppin’ Trail.
Well, ok, for me.
There’re no rules for who gets to be profiled on Rockhoppin’ Trail – I decide! The person can be South African or international, man or woman, short or tall, young or old, carb crazy or paleo…  There’re only two criteria:
- they must have achieved something incredible on trail; and
- they can’t simply be amazing people we've heard or read about – I must have met them personally.

Because of time constraints and trail distractions, I’ve only profiled a handful, but they’ve all been impressive. Check on each to read their interviews:

And now I reckon it’s about jolly time I profiled another great achiever. This time it’s the young South African dynamo, Robyn Owen (nee Kime).

                                                                                                                                     (photo by Terence Vrugtman)

Robyn wasn’t widely known in trail running circles until recently, when she stormed this year’s Retto version of the Otter Trail Run (the Otter route in reverse). She not only smashed an incredible 22 minutes off the women’s Retto record, and became the first women to achieve a sub-5 for that direction (by a massive margin of over 10 minutes), but achieved the fastest women’s time for either direction!

Suddenly the name Robyn Owen was on everyone’s lips in the trail running community – who was this kid, where’d she come from? But young Robyn is no dark horse – she is an athlete extraordinaire who has been excelling in pretty much every adventure sport she’s taken up. She’s enormously talented, she’s not afraid to face the most gruelling of endurance challenges, she’s strong and she’s fast. But what makes Robyn extra special is that she’s one of the most humble athletes out there. That puts her permanently on the top o’the podium in my books!

                                                                 (photo by Terence Vrugtman)

I first met Robyn in 2013, running the 37km Matroosberg Skymarathon. She amazed everyone that day – seemingly coming from nowhere, she not only scooped a clear win in the ladies by a massive margin, but kept the lead men on their toes. She finished 5th overall, just 20 mins behind race winner AJ Calitz, and just seconds behind speedsters Ake Fagareng and Noel Ernstzen, who both panicked they were about to get chicked!

Age:  26
Profession:   civil engineer
Achievements:   Apart from whipping the Retto, Robyn has…
  • smashed the Dusi Canoe Marathon five times – three wins in a K2 (pair) and two wins in a K1 (solo);
  • represented SA at the World Long Distance Mountain Running champs 2013 in Poland, finishing 24th as the highest SA finisher;
  • raced with Team Merrell Adventure Addicts in adventure races in Swaziland, Australia, Brazil and Chile;
  • raced with Team Sanlam Painted Wolf in the 2016 World AR Champs in Australia. Out of 99 teams they finished 4th, overtaking a team just 3km before the end in an impressive sprint finish.
Passions: (apart from Mike) Loves wild, beautiful spaces, seeing new places, meeting interesting people and creatures, being active, challenges, competing…
Goal in life:    Still to be determined. In the meantime she’s having as much fun and accumulating as many rich experiences as possible.
                                                            Robyn and Mike doing what they love best                       (photo by Mike Owen)

LD:  Your Retto win must’ve rocked your world – it certainly rocked the entire trail community! Looking back, what are your thoughts on that day?
RO:  The strong ladies field was a major topic of the Otter in the days leading up to the race. My name made the long list of favourites but only near the bottom. Being in the enviable position of having nothing to lose, I could afford to run a bold race.
To my pleasant surprise nobody sprinted off the start line; the front ladies pack ran the first 2 km across the Nature's Valley beach together at a fairly civilised pace. As we got to the end of the beach Stevie (Ed: Kremer) pulled slightly ahead to enter the trail first and I tucked in behind her for the first hands-on-knees climb. I then stayed on her heels for the first half of the race – on an absolute high the whole time. At Bloukrans I couldn't believe how well my day was going – to be sharing the lead of "The Grail of Trail" with the super-star of trail running after 10 km was already more than a dream come true. If I'd blown and limped in last, or even if I'd pulled out later on, I still would've classified it as a good day.
Robyn hot on the heels of Stevie Kremer during the Retto

This year there was a slide into the Bloukrans river and we decided to go down it together (there was a prize for the best slide photo of the day). Unfortunately the water at the bottom was less than knee-deep and Stevie hurt her ankle as I landed on top of her. She ran on as if nothing had happened and never mentioned a word about it in the post-race interviews, but later that afternoon it was very swollen and she walked with a definite limp. I still feel pretty guilty and think the result might have been different if that hadn't happened.
Just after the halfway point I started battling to match Stevie's pace on the climbs, and knew that I'd have to make up for it on the descents if I was to keep in contention. On a particularly long technical descent I passed her and got a lead which I managed to hold for a few kilometres, but then she came jogging past as I heaved up a climb I would never have thought runnable and disappeared out of sight. The game of cat and mouse continued a few times before we were back together at the waterfall with 3 km to go. Two of these last 3km are very technical: giant boulder-hopping along a rugged shore rather than trail running. This is my favourite type of running and I gave everything I had left in me to pull a gap. 

LD:  Were you clock-watching? Also, when did you start to realise that you had the win in the bag?
RO:  Once we got to the waterfall together I knew that I should be able take it, but I could feel myself being reeled in again on the final few hundred meters. It was only on the final corner when I could see the finish line about 50m away that I was confident. 
I don't run with a watch (I actually had planned on wearing one just for this race but I forgot it in my tent). Just after halfway I asked Stevie the time and knew we were on pace for around 5 hours. Then Mark Collins ran the final 2km with me and told me along the way that I was under the ladies record for both directions and lying 5th overall. The finish still felt a very long way away but I did have a few goose-bumps from then on. 

LD:  Let’s talk Dusi. Having seconded the Dusi a few times, I’ve seen what you guys go through, and I know how the heat in that Dusi valley can ramp up – it’s gruelling out there. Would you say that the challenge is what attracted you the most, and that realising what you could achieve drove you to push even harder?
RO:  That sounds about right. I grew up in Pietermaritzburg, watching a thousand canoes crash over the first couple of weirs in the Dusi Canoe Marathon every year. It's a big event for the little city and one that everybody knows about. It was one of the obvious challenges that as a kid I dreamed of doing one day, and I was fortunate to get that opportunity quite early on. (Yes, the Comrades is another one but I'm shelving that for one day when I'm really big!)

LD:  Strong at canoeing, strong in trail running, strong in rock climbing… the natural progression then was towards adventure racing, right? Tell me about your time with Team Merrell Adventure Addicts, and the races you guys did in Swaziland, Australia, Brazil, and the one in Patagonia – 3rd team to finish out of 26 starters!
RO:  (I'm actually a very novice rock climber, I just pose in precarious-looking places for Instagram photos!)
Amongst the outdoor sporting community I’d heard a lot about adventure racing – that impossible sport where crazy people race for days through wild terrain with hardly any sleep. I wasn't sure why anyone would want to do that, but the fact that there were people who could and did always intrigued me. The invitation to join the Merrell Adventure Addicts came many years before I expected to be attempting something so crazy, but it caught me in a yes-mood. (Who could say no to all-expenses paid trips to Swaziland, the Australian Tropics, the Brazilian Pantanal, and Mystical Patagonia anyway?) 
Those races were all absolutely fantastic experiences. It was rewarding to discover that there is life after "the wall" (the one that you hit when you "blow" or "bonk" as frequently happens towards the end of races that last a few hours), and that you can actually feel ok after two or three or four days of almost non-stop forward motion. The sleep deprivation hallucinations were interesting. The places we visited were absolutely incredible. I raced with and against amazing and interesting people and learnt a huge amount from them (technical skills, soft-skills and inspiration for future adventures).
                                                    Team Sanlam Painted Wolf in training action                   (photo by Terence Vrugtman)

LD:  Then you joined Team Sanlam Painted Wolf to compete in the AR World Champs in Australia in November. The Collins brothers + Andre Gie + you = that’s a winning combination if ever I saw one! And that week you had us all on the edge of our desk chairs as we e-watched you push on. You finished 4th out of 99 teams, and did a sprint finish to pass an Aussie team just before the finish! Chat a bit about the race from your perspective. 
RO:  The ARWC 2016 in the Shoalhaven in Australia was relatively easy from a survival point of view, but it attracted the biggest and most competitive field that an adventure race has ever seen. The racing was fierce. We made a few navigation mistakes and lost motivation quite early on, dropping back to 25th about a day into the race. But after a regroup we pulled our way back to finish 4th three days later (of course a huge amount happened during that time but it would make too long a story for here). Of the races I have done this was the one where I had the least sleep and the sorest feet, but it was also the one I enjoyed the most. Mark, John and Andre were amazing teammates –  apart from being brilliant racers, they looked after me and made me feel like a valuable part of the team. We had a far from flawless race but the setbacks never dampened the spirit of the team for long, and when we did go well we were pretty speedy! The crazy sprint finish for the final two of more than 600km is something I will never forget.

LD:  You and Mike have started a trail guiding business, called For the Love of Adventure. Tell me about that.
RO:  We are both happiest when we are outside in wild natural spaces, and are passionate about travel and exploration as well as the amazing places on our back doorstep. We launched For the Love of Adventure to share these passions with others. We offer guided hiking and trail running around Stellenbosch and the Western Cape, as well as custom adventurous holidays both near and further afield. Our dream is ultimately to both have an outdoor lifestyle that is financially sustainable. (https://ftloadventure.com)

LD:  Next up on the racing front:  the Coast to Coast Challenge in New Zealand. Tell us about that one.
RO:  The Coast to Coast "Longest Day" is a single day individual multisport event involving 33km of steep technical mountain running, 70km of river kayaking and 140km of road cycling from the west coast to the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. It is tagged "the World Multisport Championships" and is a major event in New Zealand. I don't know exactly who I will be up against, but the competition is likely to be very strong. Local knowledge apparently plays a big role, especially on the run and paddle sections, and I plan to go over a couple of weeks beforehand to familiarise myself with the trickier bits.

LD:  Who’re you sponsored by?
RO:  I am an ambassador for Best4Sports, the makers of CrampNOT: the world's first neuromuscular complex for exercise induced muscle cramps (the world's first preventative and cure for cramps that actually works), as well as a few other revolutionary nutrition products which will be launched soon.
As Team Sanlam Painted Wolf, we’re sponsored by Sanlam as well as a host of other great people and brands.
                                                                                                                                                 (photo by Cherie Vale)

LD:  And on the cards for next year is surely Otter 2017. Tellme tellme!
RO:  Yes, I hope to be there. 4h30 is an alluring target for the women that I'm confident will be broken at some stage. I doubt that I will be the one to do it but I would like to at least help to put the pressure on!

LD:  What would you say are your strengths that pull you through the tough moments?
RO:  I don't think that I'm any better than anyone else at pulling through tough moments. Generally, once you're in a tough situation you don't have much choice but to pull yourself through it. I probably do voluntarily throw myself into unpleasant situations more often than most. Is that a strength or stupidity?

LD:  Finally, your most amusing thought during a particularly tough racing moment?
RO:  No way, those thoughts shouldn't be put into writing!!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Ultra-Trail Cape Town's ultra-spectacular playground

Tomorrow will be staged the third running of Ultra-Trail Cape Town (UTCT), when 1 000 extremely privileged trail runners from 40 countries will experience the exhilaration of running up, over, down, around and across South Africa’s most photographed landmark, Table Mountain.

Depending on whether they’re running the 35km, the 65km or the full 100km, some will be slogging further and for longer than others. Many will have already recced their race route in sections or in its entirety, while others will be seeing this special mountain up close and personal for the first time.

But one thing’s for certain: all will feel the grace and power of that great mountain – the mountain that Nelson Mandela once proclaimed “a gift to the Earth”.

This is not a blog about UTCT and what a fantastically organised event it is, nor will it be raving about the event’s achievement of having been announced part of the 2017 Ultra-Trail World Tour. In just two years, the race has put the beautiful city of Cape Town on the global stage of ultra-distance trail running, and it certainly doesn’t need a pre-race blog to reinforce that.

No, this blog post is about the mountain that lies at the heart of this, and several other great Cape Town trail races. It’s a mountain like no other – not for its height, for surely it cannot compare to the giants that loom elsewhere in the world; nor for its hardness of rock, its upper layer consisting of highly erodible sandstone.

                                                                                                                                           photo by Andrew King
Table Mountain is in a league of its own for so many reasons, and it’s no surprise that in 2012 it was proclaimed one of the world’s New 7 Wonders of Nature.

Tomorrow Table Mountain will be the focus for 1 000 trail runners and their friends and family around the world, so this blog post pays tribute to the mountain, in all her glory.

Facts (and some fun fiction) about Table Mountain

FACT:  Table Mountain is far more than just the magnificent flat-topped square-cut monolith it appears to be from Cape Town city centre. Instead the 6-10km table forms the front face of a spine of mountains that winds its way some 50km directly south along the Cape peninsula to the Cape of Good Hope. The Twelve Apostles make up its immediate backbone, with 17 buttresses leering gracefully across the Atlantic Ocean above Camps Bay and Llandudno.

FACT:  More than 500 million years old, Table Mountain is older than the Alps, the Andes, the Rockies and the Himalayas.

FACT:  Table Mountain is the only natural site on the planet to have a constellation named after it. In 1754, French Astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lecaille named the southern constellation Mons Mensae (Latin for “the table mountain”) after the iconic landmark. The name has since been shortened to Mensa.

FICTION:  The famed “tablecloth” that settles on the table top during the south-easterly wind common to the summer months is not a cloud at all, but rather the effect of a smoking duel that’s been raging since the 1600s between a Dutch pirate Van Hunks and the devil.

FACT:  Table Mountain National Park hosts the richest floral kingdom on earth, with more than 1 240 floral species, 60% of which are endemic (they exist nowhere else in the world). The area is recognised globally for its biodiversity and its unique flora and fauna.

FACT:  The original San name for the Table Mountain range is Hoerikwaggo, meaning “mountains of the sea”.

FACT:  Table Mountain National Park has more than 800 000 visitors a year. Since it opened in 1929, the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway has taken more than 22 million people up the mountain.

FACT:  Table Mountain is visible from as far out to sea as 150km. And yet the Cape Peninsula has more than 600 shipwrecks along its shores.

FACT… or fiction?  Table Mountain is getting higher. The mountain is syncline, which means it was once the bottom of a valley. Part of the great Cape Fold Belt, it was gradually pushed up (and is still being pushed up?) to form the parallel ranges of mountains that run for 800km along the southern and south-western Cape coastline.

And the most obvious fact of all is that Table Mountain forms a majestic one kilometre high backdrop to the most beautiful city on the African continent.

So, to all those readers who’re running Ultra-Trail Cape Town tomorrow – and those of you who will run on our mountain any other time, remember to touch her lightly, she's very old and very special.

And always, take only memories, leave only footprints.