In case the title didn’t give it away, this race report covers the 2nd day of the Golden Gate Challenge, a 3-day trail race through the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Check out my day 1 race report if you haven’t already.
I had arrived at the Golden Gate Challenge with the intention of viewing a part of the country I had not yet visited and just enjoying the running. But by the end of first day I found myself sitting in 4th position. That left me with a new intention of viewing a part of the country I had not yet visited, enjoying the running, and defending my position. That definitely changed my outlook for day 2.
This year was the second running of the Golden Gate Challenge, and similar to last year the second day would run through an area of the park called Little Serengeti where the public are not generally allowed. Last year the second day had required a 2-hour bus trip around to the far side of the park in order to complete a point-to-point run. This year the race organiser Heidi had put together a new route that allowed us to complete a loop that started and finished at the campsite, saving us the bus trip.
While standing at the start line the race announcer was warning of cold temperatures at the top of the climb so I decided to start off in my waterproof jacket. As we started I stuck to the front group and the first kilometre took us down the road before turning off onto trail. Heidi had promised us a tough start and had actually indicated that we would surely hate her for the first 6 km. Once we hit the trail we began to gradually ascend, and for a couple of kilometres we were running in the opposite direction along a section of trail that had featured towards the end of the first day. Then we turned off the hiking trail and started following a course put together specifically for the race. Rather than the well-worn and relatively smooth hiking trail we were now faced with tall grass that had been trimmed down to ankle-deep grass, and lots of orange markers to follow. After a couple of ups and downs we descended a steep hill over very uneven grass-covered ground that was extremely technical and treacherous for the ankles. We then crossed a stream and the real uphill began.
The reason why last year had involved a bus trip was mainly due to the fact that a mountain separated the campsite from the Little Serengeti area of the park. Therefore the only way to start from the campsite was to run over the mountain, and since the focus of the day was to run through Little Serengeti we couldn’t afford to waste too many kilometres winding around for an easy way over. Heidi had come up with a unique solution to that problem: run straight up the mountain. Rather than zig-zagging up the climb with switchbacks, the long grass had been cut back and orange route markers had been laid out to head directly up the very steep climb.
On the first day, last year’s race winner Wandisile had suffered with a stomach bug and had finished well back in the standings. On the second day he was back on form and was pushing the pace up front. I was climbing the hill with Wayne and Gerhard, who had claimed first and second positions for day 1. Hiking up with hands on knees there was not a lot of talk but we all agreed that we were glad not to be the person who had climbed up with a hedge trimmer to cut the grass. I quickly shed my jacket during the climb, as being cold was no longer a great worry. The steepness of the climb meant that the distance was short, and soon enough the ground levelled out enough for us to start running. We crested over the pass and started descending down the other side with views of what we had to look forward to. As opposed to the long valley of the first day, the second day featured a large plain.
Day 2 featured the longest distance of the race, but also included long sections of jeep track with the Little Serengeti section as well as some paved roads towards the end. After a steep and rocky technical descent We made our way onto the plain and the jeep tracks made for a fast pace. During this fast descent I fell behind the runners in front of me and then on the jeep tracks I was passed by Ben, the third place runner from day 1. His predominant focus is on road running and thanks to the smoother jeep track he went past me as if I was standing still. I was now in fifth place but the only runner in front of me who was behind in the overall standings was Wandisile, who was a long time margin behind due to his struggle on day 1. But there was still a long way to go in the stage.
Descending into the plain there was plenty of game on display with some large herds of wildebeest. The course started to become more difficult to follow as some of the yellow course markers had been removed or flattened by animals. I had to search for trail markers on a couple of occasions but didn’t loose much time, although it did allow the runner behind me to catch up just before we ran into the second checkpoint. After the flat running through the plain the route again began to climb, and soon I left the other runner behind. The climb back out of the plain was almost to the same altitude, but was long and drawn out with almost 6 km of nearly continuous ascent. Part way up the climb we again left the jeep tracks and started a scramble up some rough and rocky terrain. I could see the runners ahead of me further up the hill but the gap seemed to be remaining constant. I reached the top of the climb and started descending, soon reaching some hutted accommodation with nice views of the park where the final checkpoint was setup.
I passed through the checkpoint and then continued the descent on the paved road leading out of the accommodation. After a few fast kilometres on the paved road some marshalls turned me onto a really tough, uneven grassy section to cut across to the main road through the park. Having negotiated that grassy section and crossed the main road, the course then climbed slightly above the level of the road and then proceeded to run parallel to and slightly above the road on a long stretch of uneven grass. I remember thinking how Kirsten would surely be looking at the smooth tar below us and wishing we were running there. After a couple of kilometres alongside the road we descended and recrossed to climb up into the shadow of the rock escarpment above our campsite. We then ran towards the campsite from the opposite direction compared to day 1, and descended to the finish line.
I crossed the line in 5th place, and was still holding 4th place overall. The weather had been fantastic throughout the day, and we all sat down alongside the finish line and chatted while other runners came in. Kirsten crossed the line in 9th place to hold onto 11th place overall. Another stunning day of trail running was complete and only one more remained. We celebrated with a few beers during the afternoon and then a bottle of wine with dinner. At the end of the day this was still planned as an enjoyable race.