Race Report: Three Cranes Challenge (Day 1)

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.

Race Report: Golden Gate Challenge (Day 1)
Race Report: Golden Gate Challenge (Day 2)
Race Report: Golden Gate Challenge (Day 3)

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.

Three Cranes Challenge (Day 1) - Pre-Race Preparation - photo courtesy of Caroline Lee
Three Cranes Challenge (Day 1) – Pre-Race Preparation – photo courtesy of Caroline Lee

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.

Three Cranes Challenge (Day 1) - In case I get lost - photo courtesy of Caroline Lee
Three Cranes Challenge (Day 1) – In case I get lost – photo courtesy of Caroline Lee

The race started and I fell in behind the lead pack, which took off at a relatively easy pace, as we made our way down the main road out of the campsite. We soon turned off onto a trail into a forested area, and after some gentle ups and downs the pace started to slowly build and I allowed the lead runners to pull ahead of me. We continued along sections of unpaved country roads and bumpy long grass fields. At around 4 km into the run I snagged my foot while running across a grassy field and tumbled to the ground. I raised myself up uninjured and continued running but reflected that I had made it through three days and 74 km at Golden Gate without falling once, yet I had succumbed after only 4 km at this race.

At around 5 km I had a good view of the course behind me. There was nobody visible within 500 metres, and there was nobody visible ahead of me. I had slipped into a void of runners between the lead pack and the main body of the field. We soon started to climb a steep and muddy forested hill through an area used by a canopy tour company. There were steps dug into the soft ground, but these were gradually fading away as each person attempted to find grip on the slippery climb. I was very grateful that I wasn’t runner 150 passing up the hill. Part way up the hill I passed a couple of other runners, and then almost at the top I caught up to and passed Eddie. It was the start of a game of leap-frog that would continue throughout the stage.

We exited the forest and ran along the top of the hill through farming fields. A lot of the time was spent running on either rough farm roads or mowed long grass fields, which were extremely uneven, uncomfortable and unenjoyable. Since I was just running at a comfortably firm pace I had allowed my pace to pick up during the enjoyable forested section, but then slowed down again on the unenjoyable rough fields. Eddie passed me on this section and pulled away out of sight.

We left the farming fields for some forestry roads that continuously climbed and descended. On one of the early climbs I passed Eddie again, but he overtook me once more on the descent. We continued to leap-frog each other a couple of more times, and I went past him as we climbed up towards the final aid station. I looked at my watch as I sighted the aid station, and I thought it strange for it to be positioned 28 km into a 32 km stage. With only 4 km remaining I didn’t even slow down as I cruised past the table, shouting out a friendly thank you. The course then started the descent that would take me to the finish, or so I thought.

Three Cranes Challenge (Day 1) - Official Route Profile
Three Cranes Challenge (Day 1) – Official Route Profile

I descended into a forested section and as I approached a river crossing I spotted a runner ahead of me. I caught up to and overtook Graeme, exchanging pleasantries as I went past. Then Graeme asked me what distance I had. I responded that I had just over 30 km, and he mentioned that the last aid station had told him there was 8 km remaining. If he was correct then I still had 6 km remaining for a total stage distance of 36 km. I had last taken in nutrition just after the 20 km mark based on the expected 32 km distance, and decided that 36 km would be pushing my nutrition plan just a bit too far. I immediately took another energy gel and continued to run. I wondered whether I had missed an important announcement at the race briefing the previous night.

I started traversing around a hill that descended from my right to my left, and the slippery trail did not provide a horizontal surface so I was making my way along with my left leg lower than my right. I ran and walked this difficult and unfriendly section, and watched the distance tick over 32 km. At around 34 km I spotted another runner ahead of me that I was slowly gaining on. I soon heard the race announcer at the finish line and realised that we were close. It was still only day 1 so I decided not to push any harder to overtake, as there were still 2 days remaining. The two of us exited the forest, and descended away from the finish in order to cross a gully that stood between us and the line.

We then crossed the gully, climbed the last few hundred metres to the finish line and I crossed in 5th place, 20 seconds behind Dirk Cloete. Dirk is an extremely experienced multi-day trail runner having won the Kalahari-Augrabies Extreme Marathon (250 km over 7 days) three times in a row between 2009 and 2011, and having won the Namib Desert Challenge (228 km over 5 days) in 2012. Graeme came across the line 7 minutes behind me. The top three positions had gone to Eric (the 5:50 Comrades runner), Claude, and then Jock.

The extra distance wasn’t due to any wrong turns, as the marked route had turned out to be 35 or 36 km in length (depending on whose watch you relied). The race director Heidi wasn’t sure how they had miscalculated the distance, but as a result that night’s briefing for day 2 informed us to expect a distance of “42 km … or something like that”.

You can check out the details of day 1 off my Suunto Ambit GPS watch on MovesCount.com. Click here.

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