To add to the challenge of starting day 3 of the Three Cranes Challenge (race reports for the first two days here and here) with 73 km and just under 7.5 hours of racing in my legs, it also had the distinction of starting 2 hours earlier. After 6AM starts on the first two days in the early morning light, day 3 started in the dark at 4AM with sunrise views expected as runners reached the top of the major climb for the day. As the campsite rose for the day we were greeted by the race announcer advising that rain jackets and whistles would be mandatory due to misty conditions. The race started in light, misty rain and the lead group set off at a blistering early pace.
I was sitting in sixth place overall. Eddie was two positions ahead of me in fourth place after a very fast day 2 took him from 11 minutes behind of me to 11 minutes ahead. Dirk was one place ahead of me with a buffer of just under 5 minutes. Graeme was less than 2 minutes behind me after catching up five minutes on day 2, and someone that I didn’t know named Frank was two positions behind me with a gap of just over ten minutes.
I noticed that Graeme went off with the lead group but I knew that I run best when I stick to my own pace so I decided not to stay with them. We took off on the relatively smooth road out of the campsite under the light of our headlights. The misty conditions were causing the light to bounce straight back into my eyes and I noticed that I quickly developed tunnel vision in the difficult conditions. The Golden Gate Challenge (organised by the same organisation and race director) had similarly featured a start in the dark, with all of the running on roads (some paved and some unpaved) until the sun had risen. I expected a similar route for this day until suddenly we were turned off the road and started a grassy trail descent.
I thought that I was running at a fairly good pace on the fairly smooth but still quite technical descent, but then I heard someone rapidly gaining on me and as I reached and splashed my way through a river crossing I was quickly passed by Matty, one of the runners a few places behind me. Matty quickly moved out of sight, but shortly after the river I started ascending and soon caught up with Graeme. We ascending up a forested single pass taking advantage of the power from our combined headlamps. As we eventually exited the forested section I started to run as the gradient slackened and noticed that Graeme continued to walk. At that point I realised that he was struggling and was unlikely to challenge again on the stage.
I started day 2 of the Three Cranes Challenge (day 1 race report here) in 5th place. I had not tapered for the race, having run 50 km during the week before arriving for a further 100 km over three days. I had ended day 1 feeling strong, and had enjoyed a post-run massage and ensured that I followed a good nutrition strategy to aid recovery. I went to bed early but had to wake up early for another day of racing.
I took in a good breakfast, put on my running kit and made my way down to the start line. My legs felt a little tired but not too much so. I lined up behind the lead runners and we soon started down the road. The route had initially been planned to start by reversing the end section of day 1 for the first few kilometres, but a route change had been announced the previous evening that we would instead head out down the road for the first 4-5 km. I suspected that the race director Heidi was trying to shorten the day by a few kilometres to make up for the bonus mileage from day 1 (you can read about that story, plus all of the characters that will take part in day 2, in my day 1 race report).
I noticed Eddie take off at a blistering pace with the leaders but set into my own pace, knowing that I always temd to improve my position as the day progresses. It was fairly flat running along the road until we turned off onto some single track and started the first big climb for the day. I caught and passed a couple of runners and then pulled alongside Graeme, who was sitting one position behind me in the standings with a seven minute gap. We climbed together, chatting way and were both happy for the company after we had both run most of day 1 solo. It turned out that we had run a few of the same races, and interestingly he had finished just a few minutes behind me in the Otter Run (race report here) last year. We climbed through a forested area before clearing the treeline, and I turned around to admire the stunning early morning view behind me. I pointed out the view to Graeme and then we continued to climb towards the peak before descending down the other side. I noticed that the first table was earlier than had been advised and realised that I was correct in my assumption that Heidi had shortened the course with the alternative starting route.
Day 2 would take us into Benvie Farm at around the 20 km mark, where the 2nd table would be positioned. The farm features trees from around the world that have been collected and planted by the owner over many years. As a special addition to this stage a time-out zone was arranged, where runners could check in upon arrival at the farm, spend some time to look around and enjoy some extra food that was being laid out, and then check out upon departure. Time spent in the time-out zone would be deducted from the overall time. Unfortunately there was a special exception to that rule, in that the time-out didn’t apply to runners that wanted to qualify for the top 10. Therefore I would be running straight through.
This year with my running focussed around my major goal of running Western States I put together a training plan to include as much time on the trails as possible, and tried to fit in plenty of weekend races as part of my training. Unfortunately the race calendar in South Africa is heavily biased towards road running between January and June due to Comrades, with most of the major trail races taking place in the second half of the year. One race that did appear on the radar was the 3-day Three Cranes Challenge. Last year at the Golden Gate Challenge (race report links below) I completed my first ever stage race, and with that being a great race and a brilliant workout Three Cranes was an easy decision for inclusion.
The Three Cranes Challenge takes place in the Midlands area of KwaZulu-Natal, and features three stages of roughly 30 km, 40 km and 30 km. On the Thursday morning I took off early from work for the 5-hour drive down to the Karkloof Reserve where the race was based. I travelled down with a friend, Caroline, and we eventually arrived after the race briefing had concluded and most people had already completed their dinner. After eating a quick dinner, we collected our race packets, found out tents, and headed in for an early night in preparation for a 32 km first stage.
I woke early in the morning, dressed and went to the dining tent for a nice breakfast of eggs and bread. After filling my hydration pack and kitting up to go, I stood on the hillside above the start line watching a beautiful sunrise over the green hills in the area. There were hills in front of me and hills behind me, so there was no doubt that we would face some climbing. A few minutes before the race started I headed close to the start line and tried to position myself close to the front while staying behind the serious competitors. My intention was to get in some good training, and racing flat out was not on my agenda, although I realised it was likely that once we were underway I would push harder than intended if I ended up in a competitive position. I recognised Salomon-sponsored athletes Jock Green and Graeme McCallum as well as former triathlete Claude Eksteen. There was another long-haired guy at the front that I didn’t recognise but who looked quite serious, and I eventually found out that it was a trail runner named Eddie Lambert who has won a few races. I also heard that there was a runner in the mix with a 5:50 Comrades time, placing him in the top 25 of that extremely competitive race.
Last year my running focussed around two main targets: the 89-km Comrades Marathon in June and the 100-mile Leadville Trail 100 (pre-race information here and race report here) in August. Despite improving on my Comrades 2011 time by over 35 minutes, my Comrades 2012 race was a bit disappointing as I missed out on my target of a silver medal (achieved for running a time under 7:30). Leadville more than made up for my disappointment.
Leadville was my first 100-mile race and I had no idea what to expect from the race or myself. I looked at target paces and they all seemed so slow due to the extreme distance and the extreme challenges (starting and finishing at 3,200 metres of elevation with a total ascent of over 4,800 metres and a single climb of 1,000 metres over a 3,800 metre pass). I set myself a target that appeared realistic but there was no way to really know how my body would feel after equalling my furthest run to date (89 km at Comrades) and still having over 70 km remaining. As it turned out I was so far ahead of my stretch target at the 60-mile mark that I was able to relax and enjoy the remainder of the race. I took extra time at aid stations and walked sections that I definitely could have run if I had been pushed for time. Already by the next day, rather than swearing I would never run 100 miles again, I was already contemplating what time I could run at Leadville if I went all out. I thought about the time I could cut out at aid stations, the sections I could run instead of walking, and the sections where I should lift my running pace. I had a better understanding of what my body could withstand, so it was obvious that for my next 100-mile race I would leave everything out on the course.
Despite the very small percentage of the population willing to consider running such a distance, there is also a limited number of events available, and only a few races that really capture the imagination of the runners wanting to participate. Therefore it is considerably more difficult to secure an entry for a major 100-mile race than it is to secure an entry for a major marathon such as New York or London. I went for a three-pronged strategy in my 100-mile race applications for 2013, with all races taking place in the US.
First up was the Western States Endurance Run, the world’s oldest (and generally considered the most prestigious) 100-mile trail race. As a point-to-point race between Squaw Valley and Auburn in California, the race has a net descent although it still features around 5,500 metres of ascent (but 7,000 metres of descent). The race runs through a protected wilderness designation that would normally forbid the race from taking place, but since the race pre-dates the protection of the area the organisers were given congressional permission to continue running the event with the proviso that they could only allow as many participants as ran in the year the protected designation was declared. As such the race is limited to 369 competitors per year based on a 5-year rolling average. Entry to the race is through a lottery process that is oversubscribed by a factor of around 10 each year. Entrants must have completed one of a select number of qualifying races before being allowed entry into the lottery.
The Pirate’s Half Marathon is one of the most difficult in Joburg. I had never completed the race prior to this year, and interestingly, despite being one of the most famous hills in Joburg I had never run up Northcliff Hill, the feature that earns the race its place.
I lined up at the start with Kirsten and after ducking and diving through people at the congested start we settled into a rhythm. We had an early discussion about the raw energy at the start line for a race, although I did mention that I was not particularly nervous for this half marathon since it would only be my fourth longest run of that week.
Although the serious work really begins after the 9-km mark the race throws out some climbs early on to soften the legs. Between 1.2 and 3.5 km the route featured two climbs with a short respite between them that already totalled to around 100 metres of ascent. Towards the top of the second climb we passed Lindsey and Campbell, who had arrived early to run 12 km before the race. We then descended for most of the next 3 km, except for the odd sharp ascent, loosing all the elevation we had gained in the early climbs. The climb from that point to the 9-km mark continued to sap the legs of strength, and then after 9 km we took a sharp left turn and the real work began.
The first section of the ascent was an extremely steep climb that was the steepest I have faced in Joburg. Early in the race Kirsten and I had discussed the fact that even at our pace there would be runners walking that climb, but I stated that walking would not be an option for us. We very slowly climbed to the top and then proceeded to wind our way around the hill, slowly loosing some of our elevation. A sharp turn, this time to the right, initiated the second phase of the climb. We climbed our way to the high point of the race at 13.5 km, and there we were greeted with a water table before commencing our descent.