My first marathon for 2012 was in a small town named Ottosdal in the North West Province of South Africa at the end of January. We had already planned another travelling race in February when we would travel to Pietermaritzburg for the Maritzburg Marathon. On the way home from Ottosdal, as we sat down having breakfast after a wonderful race and nearing the end of a great weekend we started discussing other options for travelling races. We had a fairly full race calendar until Comrades Marathon in June so we started considering races towards the end of the year. One race that was mentioned and seemed extremely interesting was the Golden Gate Half Marathon, which runs out of the town of Clarens in the Free State during October.
As October drew nearer I started to look at planning and found that on the same weekend as the Golden Gate Half Marathon was the God’s Window Half Marathon, running from the town of Graskop in Mpumalanga towards the famous God’s Window lookout. That caused a bit of a quandary as both races seemed interesting, and more importantly both were in parts of the country that I was yet to visit. Luckily the answer to the problem turned out to be fairly simple when I found out that taking place just 3 weeks after the clashing half marathons was a 3-day trail race called the Golden Gate Challenge. Unlike the Golden Gate Half Marathon, which runs on the roads around Clarens and doesn’t enter the national park, the Golden Gate Challenge involves three days of trails within the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Therefore on the first weekend in October I travelled to the town of Graskop to run the God’s Window Half Marathon, as per my race report here.
On the fourth and final weekend of October I drove out to the Free State with Kirsten in order to camp and run within the national park. The weather forecast for the weekend indicated that we should expect to get very wet, with rain expected on all three days. After arriving and checking in to both the race and our tented accommodation we made our way to the large dining tent for the day 1 pre-race briefing and our dinner. As we sat there a very heavy rain fell outside and we negotiated the increasingly muddy floor of the tent in order to secure our food. However we were there to have a good weekend so Kirsten and I enjoyed a bottle of red wine with our meal before making our way back to our small dome tents, hoping that they would prove to be truly waterproof. Waking up a few times during the night I was able to confirm that the downpour did continue but fortunately the tent held up well.
It was a great surprise when I woke up in the morning to find that it wasn’t raining. After dressing and gearing up I went and grabbed a cooked breakfast before heading to the start line. I stood around chatting with Kirsten, and when the race started we fell into an easy pace. After crossing the road from the campsite we quickly made our way onto the Ribbok Trail, which would provide us with 27 km of single track. As we formed a single file a few people ended up between me and Kirsten and he pulled slightly ahead. There were two early river crossings, but as the remainder of the day was to prove keeping feet dry was always going to be impossible.
The route started out with the biggest climb of the day, an ascent of 600 metres to the top of Generaalkop. I made my way up the climb while occasionally stopping and turning around to enjoy some stunning views, and passed Kirsten on the way up. Upon reaching the top of the ridge there was some boulder hopping along the top before commencing the descent into the valley on the other side. From there the run changed from simply stunning to purely magical. With all of the rain that had fallen every rock ledge had become a waterfall, and water was streaming down into the valley. We followed the valley, on one side or the other of the river flowing along the valley floor, and we must have crossed the water at least twenty times. At some points we would cross calm sections of the river while at other sections it would be white water, and at some points we actually walked down along the river before regaining the path. It was trail running at its most enjoyable.
I eventually reached a section of jeep track and caught up with another runner as we reached the second checkpoint. We were around 16 km into the run and as we passed we were informed that we were in 7th and 8th places. I had been running along at a comfortable pace but then the competitive juices started to flow, and I considered whether I could improve a couple of positions if I picked up the pace a bit. Not long after the checkpoint we crossed the major road through the park and then commenced the second biggest climb of the day, which paled in comparison to the first with a bit over 200 metres of ascent. I pushed ahead into clear 7th place and soon overtook another runner into 6th place as I continued to run while they had slowed into a walk.
I soon reached the top and as I continued along I was eventually able to see another runner that I timed as being a couple of minutes ahead of me. I maintained a steady pace and soon overtook into 5th place on a flat section of the course. At the very end of the day’s run is a steep climb up a set of stairs, and as I made my way up this climb I overtook into 4th place. From there I followed a steep descent aided by a chain before following a nice downhill towards the campsite and finish line. As I neared the campsite I heard the announcement of 3rd place arriving, and I followed across the finish line 1.5 minutes later.
I completed my first ever post-race interview by SuperSport and it was even included in full in their race coverage. Kirsten, despite running very infrequently on trail, came across the line in 11th place. But more important than his position was talking to him about how stunning and enjoyable the run was. I might have commenced his slow conversion to a trail runner.
The below photos are official race photographs sent out by Wildlands.