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.
For the past few years the Bronkhorstspruit 32 km has been Campbell’s birthday run. Falling within the week of his birthday, it is a social event where we go down to run the 32 km race, and then stay around at the sports ground where the race finishes to enjoy some drinks and a braai (barbecue for the non-South Africans). This year was no exception.
After arriving at Campbell’s so that we could drive to the race together, when Kirsten (who is very punctual) hadn’t arrived a few minutes after the agreed time I called him up only to wake him. He had set his alarm with more than enough time to get ready, and had therefore decided that he could hit the snooze button. The next thing he knew I was calling him to find out where he was. We decided to travel in two cars and would meet at the start. Campbell and I travelled down together, drove onto the field and set up our gazebo on the corner of the finishing straight.
When Kirsten arrived we headed down to the start line, and very shortly after that the race started. Kirsten, Campbell and I started from the middle of the pack and slowly made our way through the crowd. A couple of times Kirsten looked back at me and Campbell as if we were dawdling, but my watch was showing respectable paces just over 4:30 min/km. The early kilometres took us out of town and went past quickly. Around 6 km into the race I noticed my watch automatically lap for the kilometre when we were still a few hundred metres from the kilometre marker. We all checked our watches at the marker and all watches agreed that the marker was approximately 300-400 metres far. It is not uncommon for individual markers in a race to be put down in the wrong, or even for a series of markers to be incorrect before correcting later so we weren’t too fussed.
We continued along maintaining a pace between 4:30-4:40 min/km, and on one of the climbs I noticed that Campbell was breathing quite heavily beside me. I jokingly asked Kirsten whether we should get Campbell to tell us a joke. The early part of the route featured some gentle but relatively long climbs followed by gentle descents rather than featuring any steep hills. At around 12 km as we climbed a hill Campbell suggested that if we took it easy to the top he would join us for the descent, and then let us go ahead at the next climb.
The very first race I completed in South Africa was the Tough One in 2010. I had flown out for three weeks in November to meet people and see the place before moving out in January. I had already signed up for Two Oceans and Comrades, and had run the Portland 3 Bays Marathon in Australia at the end of October. The route was meant to be tough but I had always been quite good at hills. It seemed like a great way to start my running in South Africa. I had under-estimated the effect that Johannesburg’s mile-high elevation would have on my running, despite the fact that the weekend prior to the race I had gone out for a solo long run and had ended up walking part of the way home. I went out at a decent pace, felt good early, but really struggled for the last 10 km to cross the line in 2:55.
In 2011 the race had a new route but I was unable to run as I was tapering for the Port Elizabeth City Marathon the following week. However a couple of weeks prior to the race Kirsten and I had set out to run the route as a training run, and had run a comfortable 2:40 with a couple of petrol station stops for hydration. A year living at altitude with some very good training had certainly made a difference. On race day I helped at the water table run by the Morningside running club, handing out water sachets to the thousands of runners that went past.
This year I was again running the PE City Marathon but since I was not targeting a fast time I was not tapering and was able to officially attempt Tough One for my second time. The race would once again use the new route as run in 2011. It had been a good training year and we had started including a training route named the Mini Tough One into our training program. Featuring some of the main climbs from the old Tough One route the Mini Tough One had started out as a 25 km route, but with a few variations and additions over its numerous iterations it had reached as far as 31 km, almost negating the “Mini”. The Tough One race awards a silver medal for completing a sub-2:30, making it a particularly easy silver, but it sounded like a good target for me so I decided to target a time just under 2:30. Similar to City2City (read my race report here) Campbell was not in shape to join me for the entire way but decided to start off with me and then slow down.