This coming weekend I will complete my second race for 2015 just outside Auckland, New Zealand. The race runs through the Waitakere Ranges on the west coast, following the 75-km Hillary Trail for the most part. Despite a highest elevation of just over 350 metres above sea level, the race manages to squeeze in 3,700 metres of ascent.
The Hillary – Course Map
The Hillary – Route Profile
The race is part of the new Skyrunning Oceania series, which features 8 races across Australia and New Zealand. In just a month’s time I will race my second race of the series (and the fourth race overall) at the Buffalo Stampede, but that is something I would rather contemplate once this current challenge is behind me.
After being refused entry to Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve (read about that here) I needed a backup plan for my run. After a week in the Winelands region of South Africa I was booked to stay that night in Cape Town as I would fly to Johannesburg the following day. Therefore I immediately started to plan a run up its famous flat-topped mountain.
In the late afternoon I parked my car at Cecilia Forest, which provided me access to gravel roads that wound there way up to the top of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. I would use different routes for my ascent and descent, and I tried to remember my preferred direction from previous runs. I climbed up Nursery Ravine, and reached the “top” realising how much lower I still was than the peak. As I started on a circuit around the top some low cloud started to move in, and I decided that it would be wise not to waste any time.
As I headed towards one of the best viewpoints on my route I removed my phone from my pack for a photo as the cloud had cleared for the moment. Then when I was a scant few metres from stopping for a photo I was enveloped in cloud once more. I climbed up to the high point at Maclear’s Beacon, before making my way to the top of Skeleton Gorge for my descent. The descent was slippery at the top, but definitely preferable in my opinion to the loose rock at the top of Nursery Ravine.
After three days of running in Jonkershoek Nature Reserve I planned out a couple of runs in the adjoining Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve. Setting out from the town of Stellenbosch for my first run it would take me almost as long to drive to the reserve as it would have taken me to run there from Jonkershoek.
After driving the long circuitous route to the reserve entrance I arrived early, heading through open gates before they were manned for the day. When discussing my planned run in the reserve the previous week with one of my running mates he had suggested that I carry some warm gear with me, as it was in the same place that he had almost become hypothermic when a cold change had swept through on a run there. As I set out it was particularly grey and overcast, and his warning was clear in my mind, but I was well prepared for bad weather.
My route would take me from the main parking area at Nuweberg along a contour to the overnight Boesmanskloof Hut, before climbing up a valley to my high point for the route, with a downhill finish. The overcast weather was a pleasant change after some warm days, and the run to the hut was quite easy. It was a nice climb to the high point of the route, but just after passing it I heard what at first sounded like a dog’s bark. Looking around I sighted a baboon standing on top of a rock surrounded by its troop. I was unsure whether the sound was aimed at me as a way of warning me from their territory but I thought it best to continue running, and the “barks” continued until I was well away from their resting spot. After a couple of shorter climbs I reached a road that wound downhill back to my car.
After travelling to the Winelands of South Africa to celebrate the wedding of some great friends, I decided to stay in the area for another week to indulge in some wonderful running and delicious food.
Staying in the town of Stellenbosch for a few days it was only a short drive up through a valley to reach the entrance gate to Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, so I went out there three mornings in a row to check out some of the trails it offered. The valley ends with a steep ravine, hemming in the lowest part of the reserve on three sides.
For day one I climbed straight to the end of the valley, past three waterfalls before the steep climb to the top. From the top I could gaze back in the direction of Stellenbosch, or forward into the adjoining Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve that I would run later in the week. I had considered a point-to-point traverse between the reserves but skipped it due to the added complexity in transport. From the top I followed the contour above the valley towards the west, gaining a view of the ocean below and the Cape of Good Hope to the south-west, before descending back into the valley. It was a beautiful run, but tough in parts due to overgrown trails often featuring sharp plants that continually scratched my legs.
Day two started with a climb directly from the trailhead, following a much easier route than the previous day, so I was able to slowly run the entire climb. Upon reaching the contour trail above the valley floor I started by heading in the opposite direction to my eventual destination. I ran until I reached a ravine featuring a waterfall, plenty of shade and some comfortable rocks, where I sat down to enjoy a relaxing snack. Then I retraced my steps, climbed to reach a viewpoint into another valley to the east, and then climbed even more to the highest point I would reach in the reserve. Then I made my way to the top of the route I had followed up the previous day, and descended the loose and rocky ravine as the day continued to heat up.
There are many possible ways to celebrate Australia Day. Barbecues and a couple of drinks is very common, and that would follow, but I started the day with a run.
As part of a new series of night trail runs organised by TrailsPlus, the Australia Day Midnight Rambler offered running options from 5 km through to 6 hours. All of the events were based on a 5-km loop, providing a great way to practice trail running at night, which is a very important skill for long-distance races. Opting for the longest option I would set out on January 25th at 23:00 for an hour of running, and then would continue for the first five hours of our national day. The plan wasn’t to run flat out, but to get in a solid six hours of training to end a week that involved good mileage, as well as a new 5 km PB at my local Parkrun.
I set out on the first lap behind a few guys setting the pace up front. Since I wasn’t racing I had decided to run down the batteries already in my headlamp rather than starting with a fresh set, but immediately realised that they were already nearly flat. I pulled out my spare hand torch but generally ran using just the dim light from my headlamp. At the end of the first lap I stopped to replace the batteries before leaving the aid station, now gapped by the runners ahead. I would run almost entirely solo for the remaining 5.5 hours.
I had been hosting friend and fellow runner Tamyka since Friday evening, as she had flown in from Queensland for the long weekend. Our race preparation had involved a few nice runs plus plenty of eating, not all of it ideally suited as pre-race nutrition (including a spicy pizza at lunch). As I thought ahead to the nearing toilet block halfway around lap four I missed sighting a rock and the resulting fall involved some grazing on my right hand and knee. On the following lap I noted the exact rock that had caused my fall, and I glared at it on each subsequent lap.
Since returning to Australia last May I have conducted almost all of my training as solo runs. That has included weeks where every training run has lasted at least 2 hours. It provided plenty of time in my own headspace but had become challenging to stay motivated at times. Having run with a great training group for a couple of years while living in South Africa I have missed the camaraderie (and peer group pressure) that training partners can provide.
Therefore I have started looking for some people to run with in earnest. Last weekend I went out for my first run with the Dandenong Trail Runners, a group of runners who organise regular informal runs in the hilly Dandenong Ranges National Park. Since I generally run in the park at least once a week, and sometimes as often as three times a week, it seemed like a great fit.
A week after my race at Two Bays I joined the group for a “flattish” 20ish km run. A group of 19 people met up in the carpark at the Basin Theatre, and we all set out together. The group would separate on the climbs and then regroup at junctions along the course. A number of people were locals to the area, but there were also others like me who had travelled quite a distance (over 30 km in my case) to be there. At the highest point on the route we stopped for a group photo, which apparently involves a jump that I still need to master. I am easily spotted thanks to the very bright green shirt I was wearing.
Completing my first race of 2015 during the second weekend of the year was always part of my plan. However as mentioned in my pre-race post I had trained for a mountainous race that would play to my strengths. I knew that the largest single climb at Two Bays was less than 300 metres of ascent, and that the total ascent would be considerably less than Bogong to Hotham. The race would be 8 km (and around 3 hours) shorter.
Two Bays – Logo
Two Bays – Course Profile
Standing in the starting chute I learned that we had a few hundred metres before reaching single track, and the conga line that would follow. Therefore, unlike my normally controlled starting pace I took off quickly in order to secure a decent position on the single track, slotting in just within the top 30.
I settled into pace in a line of runners, initially striding along happily but noticing a gradual slowdown. After just over 4 km I made my way past a stream of runners with the repeated chant of “on your right” and found myself with open trail ahead of me. This allowed me to set my own pace without any concern for those runners ahead. Occasionally I would pass, or be passed, by other runners as I focussed on my own run.
My first race for 2015 will be tomorrow (January 11th) at the Two Bays 56 km trail run. I have been preparing for this race for … 1 day.
Bogong to Hotham – Logo
Bogong to Hotham – Course Profile
I was signed up to run Bogong to Hotham on that same day, an iconic mountain run that includes the highest and third highest peaks in Victoria. But earlier in the week weather forecasts started coming in predicting a huge storm that was expected to drop a month’s worth of rain over the state, all within the period of race weekend. On Thursday night we were informed by the race director that there was a risk of the race being cancelled, and it was officially cancelled yesterday. The reason was due to the risk in the crossing of Big River as well as the high likelihood of tree falls due to the combination of bushfire-damaged trees, soft soil and high winds.
Having been up to that area, and knowing the remote nature of many parts of the course I totally respect the decision that was reached by the race director in combination with Parks Victoria. But I had put a lot of effort into training to peak for the race and had already tapered for race day. But luckily there was another race taking part on the same day, in the same state (actually closer to home), and race entries were still open.
Two Bays – Logo
Two Bays – Course Profile
Two Bays follows an out-and-back course along the 28 km Two Bays trail between Cape Shanck and Dromana. Having had no intention of doing the race until a day ago I didn’t know all that much about the race (besides its distance) when I entered my credit card details.
The race website warns of a steep climb rising 1,000 feet over 3 km, but considering Bogong to Hotham starts with a 1,300 metre climb within the first 9 km I am not too worried about that. I can also pack away the mandatory gear (including thermals, map and compass) that I had pulled out, since Two Bays only mandatory gear is 500 ml of fluid-carrying capacity. I guess everything else I need to know I will learn on the day.
I spent a few days staying with a friend in Brisbane who has the envious position of living in a suburb that is surrounded on three sides by forest. Toohey Forest Conservation Park is comprised of eastern and western sections separated by a major road. Continuing through the eastern section of the park it is possible to cross under a highway to reach the Mount Gravatt campus of Griffith University, and then to climb to the top of the peak for views out over the city of Brisbane.
During my time in Brisbane I managed a number of runs in the area, covering many of the trails on offer, which vary from bitumen paths to gravel trails to beautiful single track. The trails wander around a couple of ridges, descend into gullies, and climb to the outlook at Mount Gravatt.
My stay in Brisbane certainly reinforced an idea that I would love to live somewhere with easy access to trails right from the door of my house.
In January I will run the 64 km Bogong to Hotham, which shares significant parts of the route followed by Australia’s toughest 100-mile race, the Alpine Challenge. I decided that the race weekend for the Alpine Challenge would provide me a great opportunity to head up to the area, hopefully perform a bit of a recce for Bogong to Hotham, and give back to the trail running community. I would join fellow sweeper Clare for a 60 km loop including Mt Hotham and Mt Feathertop. The section is known as Mortein Alley (after a brand of insecticide), since it generally constitutes a considerable portion of the drop-out rate within the race (i.e. people drop like flies).
I headed down to the starting line to watch the runners set out at 4:30 AM, but then was able to return to sleep as my leg of the race would only commence after the sun had risen and then set once again. In the afternoon I headed over to Pole 333, one of the old telegraph poles in the area where our loop would start and finish. I set out for a solo run to see a bit of the Bogong to Hotham course, heading back towards the oncoming runners. I encountered some confused runners as I went but made sure to comfort them that they were headed in the right direction, and it was in fact me that was heading the wrong way. I chatted with a few runners, some tourists out for a hike, and one of the aid station volunteers further along the course. The last section of my run as I returned was particularly challenging, as the dipping sun shone brightly in my eyes to cause sun spots while the trail was already in shade. When I returned to the aid station I put on some warm clothing to wait.
Just after 11 PM we set out for our loop, 2.5 hours after the last runner had departed. I was carrying VHF and UHF radios, while Clare carried first-aid, spare food and warm gear. We set out rugged up as the temperature and wind had been cold while waiting at the very exposed aid station, but by the time we reached the river below we started to shed layers before commencing the climb to Mt Hotham. We arrived at the aid station, located in a hut on the mountain, where we were updated on the status of the runners ahead of us, and were given a SPOT tracking device that would allow us to be followed by race headquarters. As we followed the road away from the aid station, Clare pointed out that we would be taking a turnoff following huts on both sides of the road, and marked by a large sign. There was “no way” we could miss the turnoff, but shortly after we turned around and tracked back almost a kilometre to the turnoff we had missed.