When people find out that I am an ultra runner they often ask about what races I have run, and about what races I am interested in running.
I talk about the 100-mile races I have completed at Leadville and Western States, and also about the two 100-mile races that I would like to run at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) and Hardrock.
I have been asked a number of times about my interest in the numerous desert races held around the world, such as the infamous Marathon de Sables (a 6-day, 250-km race through the Sahara Desert in Morocco), or the 4 Deserts series offering races across the Sahara, Gobi and Atacama Deserts, as well as Antartica. My answer has always been that those surrounds don’t interest me for running. Passing through forests and climbing mountains has always been my preferred type of running. But recently I have started to reconsider that position.
For one thing I have realised that outside of my running I seem to often be drawn into barren and stark landscapes. Whether it is the moors of England, the lava flows of Iceland or the sand dunes of Namibia, I frequently arrange travel to such areas even if not for the purpose of running, and I am always enthralled by such landscapes.
Secondly, I have increasingly become a stronger runner on sand. As a strong climber I found out during my recent race at the Wildcoast Wildrun (which featured many kilometres of sand) that I was able to adapt my running stride to make use of the same power required for climbing to propel myself along protracted stretches of sand.
I have mentioned to a number of other trail runners over the past few months that I think a large portion of trail runners could achieve a better improvement in their race times by focussing on their hiking speed rather than their running speed. In any tough, mountainous trail race all runners will be forced to walk sections. I am often amazed by how slowly many people hike these sections, and during any race I always pass many people while power hiking tough hills, with my hands on my knees as I walk as fast as possible. Therefore I consider any serious hike as training for my running.
While travelling through Namibia my tour group headed out to the sand dunes in the Namib Desert near Sesriem. We were dropped off near Deadvlei, an area that formerly filled with water during the rainy season but no longer receives any water due to shifts in the sand dunes. The result is a white clay pan, with dead camel thorn trees in its centre, and sand dunes on three sides. We were given two hours of hiking time, with options for a fairly flat hike out to the clay pan, to climb up the nearest dune for a view down over the pan, or to climb up the more distant dune named “Big Daddy” or “Crazy Dune” that towered above the pan, and is one of the highest dunes in the world. I think that it is possibly unnecessary for me to state which option I decided upon.
Deciding to directly attack the Big Daddy Dune I navigated my way around the closest dune. I then started my climb by following some existing foot steps to reach the ridge of the dune, but those footsteps continued by descending straight down the other side. I was now on the spine of the dune and I would be making my own tracks all the way to the top.
While travelling through Namibia my tour group stopped for a couple of nights at a private game reserve in the desert. With our planned activities taking place in the early morning and evening to avoid the heat of the daytime we had plenty of spare time. Therefore the obvious question to ask my tour guide was whether it was safe to go for a run. Luckily the answer was yes.
Needing to return for an early dinner prior to an evening game drive I set out as late as possible in the afternoon but the temperature was still in the high 30’s. I soaked my shirt and buff before setting off and then headed into the arid landscape. The predominantly flat desert landscape was punctuated by hills formed of piles of large boulders, and I had decided to circumnavigate one of those hills.
I set off along a jeep track headed back towards the entrance of the reserve before taking a turn off that seemed to run parallel to my target hill, although about a kilometre distant. The track start to veer away from my intended destination but I stuck with it since it was easier than the off-trail running that would soon follow. Even following the sandy track was tiring work as it was quite soft in many places. Eventually I decided it was time to leave the track and to make my own path. The ground was sandy with clumps of grass as well as holes created by ground squirrels and field mice.
I arrived in Cape Town for my third visit feeling guilty that on my two prior trips I had not made it to the top of Table Mountain on foot. Heading up to the mountain top in 2011, just two days prior to the 56 km Two Ocean’s Marathon I had opted to let the cable car do the work for me. It was time to add a climb of Table Mountain to my running log.
I was in Cape Town on a tour and the day would start by taking the group up to Table Mountain before heading south along the coast. The tour group would be bussed up to the bottom of the cable car, but would also be given the opportunity to hike to the top. I felt it would have been cheating to miss out on the first 300 metres of climbing to the base of the cable car, so instead I handed a change of clothes to the tour leader in the morning and set off running from our accommodation in Sea Point.
My run from Sea Point took me towards Camps Bay before I commenced the climb up Kloof Drive towards the cable car. I reached the cable car just as our tour group arrived, greeted the tour leader, and then continued on to Platteklip Gorge. I commenced my climb up the gorge, which was suggested to be a hike of 2.5 hours with quick hikers completing it in 1.5 hours. Running on the easier sections and power hiking the steep steps I exited the gorge onto the top of the mountain after 40 minutes.
It was cloudy, windy and cold at the top, so I hiked to the cable car building and its associated cafe where I enjoyed a hot coffee. Then I returned to the top of Platteklip Gorge. I avoid out-and-back routes wherever possible, so instead of returning down Platteklip I turned in the other direction and headed towards the west side of the mountain. As I made my way along the top of the mountain on a route that varied from flat trails to stairs to ladders the clouds began to clear and the sun made an appearance.
The Otter Trail is an immensely popular 42 km hiking trail along the southern coast of South Africa through the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park. Once a year trail runners are gifted the opportunity to run the trail in a race dubbed the “Grail of Trail”. Last year I completed the race, which had been renamed the Retto (Otter in reverse) since for the first time it followed the course in the reverse direction to normal. This year I returned to run the course in its normal direction. You can check out my race report from last year here.
I will start this year’s race report by restating a comment that ended my race report last year. Krissy Moehl had just won the women’s event and then stated that the course was, kilometre for kilometre the most difficult she has raced. Last year I finished with my legs sorer than I can ever recall, and I entirely concurred with that statement. But this year I returned in better form than I have ever been.
Last year the event assembled the strongest field of trail runners to race on South African soil. This year the field was even stronger.
All runners complete a 3.8 km prologue the day before the race, which is used to seed the competitors into batches. The 24 fastest males form the first batch, named the Abangeni (the Challengers), and the podium positions can only originate from this group. Behind the males the 8 fastest women set off in the female Abangeni. The remaining competitors take off in batches of four runners every 30 seconds, with final positions based on net times.
My legs were far from fresh after my runs at Mont-aux-Sources and the Wildcoast Wildrun during the prior two weekends, but I was hoping to run a strong race. After finishing in 28th position last year I felt that I could move into the top 24 this year despite the stronger field. However I did not expect to run fast enough to qualify for the Abangeni due to the short distance involved, which doesn’t play to my strengths. I attacked the prologue with a relatively fast pace but my time was clearly behind the leaders, placing me just inside the top 50. But most worryingly my quads were feeling extremely sore after the prologue so I was very concerned about how they would hold up during the race.