In January this year my name was drawn in the lottery for UTMB. That lottery draw set the focus for the entire 2014 running year. I filled out my calendar with other running events, but everything else was a sideshow, with UTMB the main event.
Bienvenue en France / Welcome to France
Prior to departing Chamonix at 17:30 on August 29th the furthest I had run was approximately 164 km and the longest I had run for was 23 hours 9 minutes. I would eclipse both of those figures during my circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif.
Just 10 or 15 minutes before the race started the intermittent showers that had sprinkled down for the previous half hour finally broke, but not into clear blue or even overcast skies; rather they broke into rain. Hence I shuffled amidst a throng of other runners across the start line wearing my waterproof jacket. The first kilometre involved a combination of jogging and walking as the 2,300 runners funnelled through a lively crowd encroaching on the roads of Chamonix.
We left the town and started along the trail towards Les Houches, a flat first 8 km following the valley, and my jacket came back off in the humidity caused by the rain. The first climb and descent (almost 900 metres up and 1,000 metres down) to reach Saint-Gervais managed to spread the field, although I almost expected to arrive at a finish line rather than an aid station based on the speed at which many people flew down the hill.
I am not a prolific racer, and 2013 has involved a huge amount of training all built towards one goal: racing the Western States Endurance Run. Therefore I hope everyone will excuse the indulgent length and breadth of this race report, and that some might even reach its end. It is possibly the longest piece I have written since year 12 English.
My training for Western States had been as near to ideal as I could ever have hoped or planned, as detailed very minutely in this blog. The running I had completed in California on the Western States trail as well as in parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon had provided a huge volume of quality trail running with both elevation and heat.
I have always been a strong climber so my worry had been the huge amount of descent that the race involved. My time on the course plus some very long descents into the Yosemite Valley had been very beneficial in strengthening my quads for those race-day descents and for boosting my confidence to handle those descents.
Prior to the race I had put a lot of thought and time into planning. I put together a pacing chart with planned timing through each aid station based on past results, as well as inputs from experienced runners. I prepared the nutrition and gear that I would require as I proceeded along the course, available either through drop bags or thanks to my crew, catering for any eventuality I could think of.
But most important to me was that I had planned a strategy, and I spent plenty of time in the final week prior to the race visualising that strategy in terms of how I would tackle each major ascent and descent. The course profile features the biggest ascents as well as the biggest descents in the first 62 miles through to Foresthill, and then features the most gentle and runnable sections from Foresthill through to the finish. Many runners trash their legs so thoroughly prior to Foresthill that they are unable to run the sections that should be the fastest.
My plan was to attack the ascents and defend the descents through to Foresthill, and then to defend the ascents and attack the descents from Foresthill to the finish. The common advice to a Western States novice is to take it easy through to Foresthill to ensure you are still running at the finish, but I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to make good time on the big climbs since they are my strength. My thought was that the long downhill sections would provide sufficient time between climbs that I would still be able to run all the way through to the finish. The plan did require a fine balance since obviously some muscles are used for both ascents and descents.
When the extended weather forecast started showing high temperatures for race day, the planning needed to be re-evaluated. Then as race day approached and it was clear that it would be one of the hottest races on record it was time to adjust the plan. I arranged to carry additional fluids for cooling down my body, and reconsidered my pacing chart. I also went for a few sessions in the sauna and steam room. I would sit in the heat with my eyes closed, sweating profusely, and picturing what it would feel like to climb out of the canyons with a temperature that was cool in comparison. While I had been expecting that a top 40 finish was likely in normal race conditions, I started to think that if I ran a smart race in extremely hot conditions then a top 20 finish was a realistic possibility.
The night before the race I shared a pre-race meal with my pacers and crew. I told them that I would stick to the pacing chart through to Robinson Flat (30 miles / 50 km into the race), but the race could proceed in many ways from there. We would all need to be ready to adapt as the day progressed since no planning could determine what would happen once the heat arrived.
Start to Emigrant Gap
Waking in the morning before my alarm I looked at my watch and decided it was late enough to get up, just before 3:00 AM. I downed an energy shake and banana, jumped online for a final update of email and social networks, showered, dressed into my neatly laid-out clothes and gear, and then headed for check-in. I picked up my bib number and timing chip, and was weighed in for the first of many times for the day.
I then headed to the start line area, where I met with Louis (my pacer from the river through to the finish) and his wife Linn. I handed them my wallet and phone, and we discussed how relaxed the start of trail ultras were. At a road race there would have been people of all levels pushing as close to the line as possible, yet when I headed over to line up with only five minutes remaining I could easily have moved forward beside the elites. I picked a spot about a quarter of the way back through the field and watched the start line clock tick down.
A shot gun blast … the race is away.
We set off at a run and the course very quickly commenced the 4-mile (6.4 km) ascent that starts the climb out of the ski village and over the pass. I walked plenty of the climb, but as per my strategy, continued to run whenever I decided the gradient was gentle enough. I passed, and was passed by, many people that I have met and run with over the preceding weeks, and we joyfully greeted each other. When I passed by Denise, last year’s 11th-placed female and a top-10 aspirant this year, I realised that I was now amongst the top females. Over the past year I have realised that I mix it up well with the leading ladies, so with their fewer numbers in relation to the men, I tend to gauge position and progress based on them.
I reached the top of the pass, turned around to walk the last few steps backwards while enjoying the view towards Lake Tahoe, and then set off forwards into the Granite Chief Wilderness area. As I crested I voiced in my head, “Auburn, here I come.” I looked at my watch for the first time since hitting the start button to see that I had reached the pass in 52 minutes, ahead of my conservative pacing for the climb, but with a long way still to go.
Emigrant Gap to Robinson Flat
I then settled in for the considerable descent down to Lyons Ridge. I ran and chatted for a while with Hendrik, who is Danish but currently residing in India. I pointed out some of the features I was familiar with from my training run along this section of the course, but Hendrik then pulled away on the descent, and then I reached the gate where I had turned around on my training run, and I would be on uncharted territory for the next 21 miles (33 km). Running in towards Lyons Ridge I had the first impression of the heat that we would face. It was before 7:00 AM at an elevation over 7,000 ft (2,100 m), and I was running in the shade, but the heat was palpable.
Just after the Lyons Ridge aid station I chatted with another runner for a while, who had apparently been told by one of the aid station crew that he was in the top 50. He mentioned that we were possibly on pace for a top 20 finish if we kept up the pace, and I discussed the fact that every runner was talking about the carnage that they expected in the heat, yet nobody thought that they would be part of that carnage. Obviously some of them will be wrong, and I hoped that would not include me.
I reached Red Star Ridge aid station, had my first sponge bath of the day, wet my buff, and continued for the descent into Duncan Canyon. Passing the aid station I dropped down to Duncan Creek, where I stopped briefly to cool myself down, and then commenced the long climb to Robinson Flat.
I fell in behind two strong females, with one of them setting a great pace and running plenty of sections so I sat on their tail. Eventually the stronger climber of the two pulled away from the second, so I stuck with her, and then eventually passed her and continued on my own through to Robinson Flat. I came out onto the road, spotted my crew for the first time of the day, and entered the aid station. I downed some energy shake, carried the rest with me, picked up an additional 8-oz (240-ml) flask of water (for keeping my body wet), and set out once again. I had reached Robinson Flat nine minutes ahead of my pacing chart, but now all bets were off. I would see my crew once again at Michigan Bluff, after two of the three canyons.
Rather than a detailed review of any particular piece of gear this post will cover the gear that will be joining me as I run 100 miles from Squaw Valley to Auburn as part of the Western States Endurance Run. One of my running mates Lindsey once quipped that I would be the perfect gear tester, since I have no brand loyalty and like to own nothing but the best. It was a fair comment since at the time I don’t believe a single brand was represented twice. I generally have favoured brands for specific items at any point in time, but if another company comes out with something better I will not hesitate to switch.
For my upcoming race there are a lot of different brands represented, although one has managed to sneak in three times. So here goes, working from head to toe.
Cap: Brooks HVAC Infiniti Mesh Hat
I do own a lot of running shoes from a lot of different brands, but when it comes to road running Brooks are my go-to shoe. Recently most of my road miles have been completed in the Brooks PureConnect, a shoe which I would confidently run a road ultramarathon in. In terms of this cap it is quite simply the best one I own. The one I will wear was recently purchased on this trip, but is simply a newer model of one that I have been using for the past couple of years. It is comfortable, light and quick drying.
Sunglasses: Rudy Project Rydon with Photochromic Clear Lenses
I had previously owned running glasses made by Nike and Smith Optics, but after buying these glasses it will take a very special product to remove this company. The quality of the lenses for these glasses are fantastic. The glasses allow interchangeable lenses and I have five different pairs (Transparent, Yellow, Laser Blue, Photochromic Red and Photochromic Clear). For the race I will use my Photochromic Clear lenses, which although they don’t go extremely dark in very bright sun, they do adjust very well in shaded areas so I will only need to remove them in particularly dark areas.
I am not sure whether any other companies make running buffs, but my buff is made by Buff. The idea to wear the buff actually comes from an ultrarunning friend, Tamyka, so I have to thank her for this one. It would have acted to help keep my neck warm at the start of the race (unlikely to be required with the weather forecast), I can pull it over my face in case the dust is extremely bad, and I can wet it to keep my neck cool during the hot stages of the race. This particular Buff I received from running the fantastic Otter Run (tagged as the “Grail of Trails”), a stunning race along the southern coast of South Africa.
Shirt: Salomon Exo S-LAB Zip Tee
I ran Leadville last year wearing this shirt. I like the tight fit of this top, which has meant that I don’t suffer any chafing on either the nipples or under my arms. There are a couple of other brands (2XU, The North Face) that were starting to challenge for this spot but Salomon still holds them off for the moment. There are two in the photo since I will have a second waiting for me after the Rucky Chucky river crossing in case I opt to change into a dry one.
Hydration: Ultimate Direction Anton Krupicka Race Vest
Up until only a few months ago Salomon would have had a sure thing in this space with their Advanced Skin S-LAB Set (I own both the 5 litre and 12 litre). I am not a fan of carrying water bottles in my hands (although I do own both an Amphipod hand bottle and the Salomon Sense Hydro S-LAB Set) and therefore opt towards a hydration pack in most circumstances. For this race my plan is to go as light as possible and minimise time at aid stations by using water bottles at the front of the pack, rather than a hydration bladder in the back. When Ultimate Direction released this pack, weighing less than the Salomon pack and costing less than half the price I decided to purchase it. I have used it a lot during my training runs (fitted with both bottles and a 1.5-litre bladder) and I can actually fit more in this pack than in the Salomon 5 litre.
The clear problem that I have found with the vest is the included water bottles. I carried along one of the included bottles for a 20-mile run on the Western States course, and found that no matter how it was adjusted, it was digging into my ribs. I felt it starting to bruise so I ended up running the final 12 miles carrying the bottle in my hand. My solution to that problem was…
Hydration: Salomon Soft Flasks
Salomon make these soft flasks in 5 oz (148 ml), 8 oz (237 ml) and 16 oz (500 ml). They are brilliantly soft (therefore not bruising rib cages), and since air does not replace the water that you drink they do not create a sloshing sound at all. It does mean that they collapse as you drink from them, so they drop into the front pockets of the pack. For me, these flasks with the Ultimate Direction vest are an absoluate winner in terms of hydration. I will carry one 8-oz and one 16-oz around for the day, and due to the extremely warm weather forecast for the weekend will also pick up a second 8-oz to carry through the hottest part of the day for wetting my buff and face.
Watch: Suunto Ambit
The Suunto Ambit is a great product and has improved consistently while I have owned it. It has been great to watch the firmware upgrades that have slowly shaped it into the brilliant device that it has become. I have just upgraded it yesterday to what will be the last firmware upgrade (almost as if they planned it in preparation for my race), and it is likely that I might end up with the Suunto Ambit2 (or Ambit3 or Ambit4) when I eventually upgrade. Suunto have also made some great improvements to their MovesCount.com website so that it is now a useful tool for evaluating runs.
Compression Shorts: Skins A400
As an Australian (the company originates from that great country) Skins were the first compression brand that I tried. I had previously used bicycle shorts when running since my large upper legs have always made chafing a problem. I used Skins for a while before switching to 2XU compression wear, but have once again returned to Skins.
Running Shorts: The North Face Better Than Naked Shorts
When I arrived in the US I had never owned any item produced by The North Face. I always knew of the company as a good brand, had looked at and tried on their products on numerous occasions, but no purchase had ever taken place.
I arrived with a pair of 2XU shorts that were intended as my race day shorts, but soon realised that “dying” was not the correct term to use in describing them since they were already “dead”. 2XU has been my go-to brand for both running shorts and shirts over the past couple of years. I still have many shirts remaining but I can’t see myself buying any more of their shorts. I have always disliked the lack of storage, with only a single zip pocket on the left-hand side of the shorts.
Shopping around I found a rack of The North Face running clothing, and was very interested that their Better Than Naked Shorts were extremely light but also featured a central zip pocket at the rear, as well as an elastic pocket to either side. I had found my new race shorts.
I have since bought a couple of Better Than Naked Shirts that I found on a clearance rack, which I have been impressed with, and it is likely that The North Face will start to occupy more space in my running wardrobe going forward.
Calf Sleeves: Salomon Exo Calf Sleeves
I only use calf sleeves during long trail runs. I am unconvinced whether the compression does provide any aid during the run but I definitely do not find them to hamper my running. On trails they provide the additional benefit of protecting the legs from scatches and scrapes, and in California they also protect from Poison Oak. I own calf sleeves by 2XU and Salomon, but the Salomon have received the nod for the race.
Socks: Falke Falkelite
Produced in South Africa I purchased 10 pairs of these socks before departing. They are a great light-weight running sock that wick well.
Shoes: Inov-8 Trailroc 245
A pair of Brooks Adrenaline ASR (the trail variant of the popular Brooks road running shoe) was the first pair of trail shoes that I purchased. Since then all of the trail shoes that I have purchased have been from Inov-8.
I started out with their Roclite 295, with a 9 mm offset, and then ran Leadville in a pair of Roclite 285, with a reduced 6 mm offset. But while I loved the feel of the 295 and wanted the lower offset of 285, I found the Roclite 285 too tight in the mid-sole. When the Trailroc series was announced last year they seemed like the answer. I opted for the Trailroc 245, which has a 3 mm offset, as I felt that I was ready to take it down a step from the 6 mm offset I had used at Leadville, but didn’t feel that I wanted a zero drop shoe for ultramarathon running up to 100 miles.
I recently retired my first pair of Trailroc 245 shoes after 340 miles (550 km) of use, with well-worn but still workable soles, although they do have a couple of extra holes in the uppers that weren’t there when I started. I will start off the race in the blue pair and will switch to the red pair if I decide to change shoes and socks after the river crossing.
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.
The Pick n Pay Marathon is one of the bigger marathons in Joburg. Falling the day after Campbell’s birthday run at the Bronkhorstspruit 32 km, I entered to run the half marathon. As the end to a big week of training, and a faster-than-planned race the previous day I agreed to run with Kirsten at an easy pace.
We set off with Lindsey and Justin, who were running the marathon together, but we split up early in the race as we negotiated the huge number of people in the early going and Kirsten stopped to adjust one of his shoes. After crossing the N3 highway we started the first climb of the race and the crowd opened up enough for us to start setting our own pace. We fell into a comfortable pace and at the early kilometre markers I noted that for the second time in two days the markers were incorrect. Checking with Kirsten our watches agreed that the kilometre markers were falling 700 metres too far. At an average pace of 6:00 min/km that many people will run that inaccuracy in the distance markers would equate to people without GPS watches thinking that they were around 3.5 minutes behind schedule.
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.