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 continued to slowly ascend and traverse a narrow single trail along a grassy ridge, and I could see Matty’s light ahead of me as I gradually closed the gap. I caught up and fell into step behind him as the two of us continued to climb, and we soon caught sight of another light ahead of us. When we came within sight of the next runner I realised it was Eddie, and the three of us made our way up the hill in single file. At a point where the gradient of the ascent decreased slightly Eddie picked up the pace and pulled away. Matty and I soon made our way off the single track onto a level jeep track and fell into step side-by-side. We had not previously chatted during the weekend so we commenced a dialogue on life, running and even work. First light arrived and we turned off our headlamps once we could make our way unaided. In the misty conditions there was no view to be seen, but the rain had stopped and the running conditions were pleasant. With Graeme (as the main threat to my overall position) now sitting behind me I was starting to relax and felt that I would be able to enjoy a comfortable run to the finish line.
We had two climbs remaining and then would finish with the same 4 km technical descent as on day 2. On the first of those climbs I continued to run as we ascended a steeper section, but Matty started to walk. I pulled away from him and was surprised less than a minute later to hear him greet someone. I turned around to find another runner covering the distance between me and Matty. I had seen this runner on previous days but we had not chatted at all, and I was unaware of his name. That lasted until he caught up with me and then pulled slightly ahead. He was wearing a t-shirt from last year’s first Run Jozi event, where it had been possible to customise the shirt with your name, and his read “Frank the Tank”. This was obviously the Frank who was two positions and ten minutes behind me. It was very unlikely he would be able to close the gap between us with just over 10 km remaining for the day, but I decided to make sure he didn’t pull too far ahead.
I stayed just behind him as we ascended, but once we crested we started to descend a rough and uneven path with large rocks and plenty of obstacles to hurdle. It was tough going but Frank picked up to an impressive pace and rapidly started to pull away. I couldn’t match his pace on the uneven terrain so I just attempted to keep him within sight for as long as possible. He was no longer visible as I bottomed out of the descent and started to twist and turn my way up a jeep track for the final climb of the day. Part way up I glimpsed Frank ahead, and as I reeled him in I realised that we were both gaining on Dirk, who was not far ahead of us. The two of us caught up to Dirk quite rapidly and I thought we might quickly pull away from him, but he refused to let us go and the three of us continued on the climb together.
Frank, Dirk and I reached the final table together but while Dirk stopped to fill his water bottle Frank and I stopped only briefly and then took off again. We pulled away and started a relatively gentle descent before reaching the steep finishing section that would be identical to day 2. It was rough terrain again and Frank once again started to pull away, but I now knew that my position was secure due to the distance remaining. As we traversed a grassy section of path while remaining above the treeline I once again caught sight of a runner, but I realised that this time it was Eddie. I maintained my distance behind him and we soon reached a sharper descent and then entered the forest for the steep final downhill to the finish.
It was extremely muddy and slippery, with around 150 runners having churned up the ground since I had last run it the previous day. I was wearing my favoured pair of Inov-8 Trailroc 245 shoes, which were finding better grip than my shoes from day 2, and I decided to remain aggressive in tackling the challenging terrain. I maintained a good pace and soon caught and then passed Eddie. I continued on and soon spotted Frank ahead. He heard me coming up quickly behind him and moved out of the way to let me through. I was ahead of the competing runners behind me in the overall standings, as well as the two runners ahead of me, so it was now just a matter of time. Eddie was too far ahead in 4th place but there was still the possibility of catching Dirk. I maintained my aggression on the descent, occassionally slipping and sliding, grabbing out for branches and vines to remain upright on some of those occasions.
I reached a narrow chute that I remembered from the previous day as being very close to the top of the stairs that would lead me down to the campsite and the finish line. It was then that I spotted a Salomon shirt ahead of me and at first could not work out who it was. Suddenly Jock moved aside to let me through and I powered past him. I reached the top of the stairs, descended them, and as I reached the bottom of the stairs I relaxed as I knew all that remained was a gentle descent that would take me to the finish. Then my foot clipped a rock or a root and I went flying forward onto my hands and knees, opening a gash on my leg. I quickly jumped up, hoping that the mistake would not cost me my position, since I knew I could not out-sprint Jock. I took off again, and just as I returned to pace one of my legs slipped out from under me and I fell again. I got up once again and ran with a renewed focus.
I reached the edge of the campsite, ran around the dam, and glimpsed a view of the finish line. I looked around and was relieved to see a clear coast behind me. As I crossed the finish line the race announcer reported my final result as being 3rd place for the stage. Jock soon crossed the line, and then it was a wait to see how much time I had made on Dirk. He crossed the line, but I had not noted my finish time and was unsure whether I had caught him in the overall standings.
As people crossed the line we stood around and discussed the challenging day’s running that we had just completed. There were many stories of falls and spills, and nobody arriving at the end was clean. The ice baths that had been very popular after the first two stages, were barely used by the wet and muddy finishers. To clean off my clothing before heading for a shower I walked fully clothed into the dam.
We regrouped in the dining tent for breakfast and prize giving. The day’s results were shown first with my 3rd place, and when the final overall results for the three days of the Three Cranes Challenge were displayed I had claimed 5th place.