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Race Report: Western States Endurance Run

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.

Training

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.

Pre-Race

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.

Crossing Duncan Creek with Amy Sproston just behind
Crossing Duncan Creek with Amy Sproston just behind – photo courtesy of Facchino Photography

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.

Along the course
Along the course – courtesy of Michigan Bluff Photography

Continue reading Race Report: Western States Endurance Run

Race Report: Three Cranes Challenge (Day 3)

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.

Continue reading Race Report: Three Cranes Challenge (Day 3)

Race Report: Three Cranes Challenge (Day 2)

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).

Three Cranes Challenge (Day 2) - Pre-Race
Three Cranes Challenge (Day 2) – Pre-Race – photo courtesy of Caroline Lee

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.

Continue reading Race Report: Three Cranes Challenge (Day 2)

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

Continue reading Race Report: Three Cranes Challenge (Day 1)

Race Report: Pirate’s Half Marathon

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.

Pirate's Half Marathon - Route Profile
Pirate’s Half Marathon – Route Profile

Continue reading Race Report: Pirate’s Half Marathon

Race Report: Pick n Pay Half Marathon

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.

Continue reading Race Report: Pick n Pay Half Marathon

Race Report: Bronkhorstspruit 32 km

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.

Continue reading Race Report: Bronkhorstspruit 32 km

Race Report: McCarthy Half Marathon

After missing my target at Narrabeen (race report here) I decided that I needed another goal race in the early part of the year to have a nearby focus for my training. I decided to target a half marathon since it is a distance that requires minimal recovery time, and my existing PB was run at a pace only barely faster than my marathon PB. My PB of 1:28:11 dated back to November 2011, and was a firm (but not flat out) half marathon run as a confidence booster prior to the PE City Marathon where I set my marathon PB. The last time I had run a flat out half marathon was back in August 2009, when I had broken the 90-minute barrier for the first time. Simply improving on my PB was never going to be difficult so I decided to set myself a more challenging target: I wanted to complete the half marathon at a pace better than 4:00 min/km, requiring a finishing time inside 1:24:24.

Looking at my training plan I started by picking the weekend that could best fit a fast half marathon, deciding upon the first weekend of February. I then looked at the available options for that weekend, and had two choices: the McCarthy Half Marathon in Pretoria on the Saturday or the Alberton City Half Marathon to the south of Joburg on the Sunday. The Alberton area is known for its lack of hills, and the race was written up as being fast and flat. But in the end I decided to run McCarthy, which involves more climbing but has a big turnout and a good vibe at the finish. Last year we had run McCarthy and then hung around until 1PM before leaving the park where the race finished. I discussed my plans with Kirsten and he agreed to come onboard to run with me on race day.

Two weeks prior to the race I went out to run a sub-32 minute 8 km time trial to build some confidence and test out my racing flats, which had not been out of the cupboard since the first half of last year. I completed the time trial in 31:15, and although I had needed to push quite hard to complete it I had run it faster than the target pace for my half marathon. Deciding to take the attempt quite seriously I opted to taper for the 5 days prior to race day. I had however run over 140 km the previous week and my legs weren’t feeling as fresh as I had hoped leading up to race day. I was fairly confident that I could achieve my target but I knew I couldn’t take it for granted and I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

On race day I drove through to the race early with Kirsten, we picked up our race numbers and then set off for a warmup of around 2.5 kilometres. We edged our way close to the start line and ended up with only 3-4 rows of people in front of us when the gun went off. We set off and I started squeezing through gaps and running around people. Despite our proximity to the start line I encountered more people to overtake than made sense, and realised that a considerable number of people had obviously started off to the side of the course in front of the start line and were merging in front of us. But after a few hundred metres we had cleared the traffic and started to settle into pace. We completed the first kilometre in 3:59 and were perfectly on target.

McCarthy Half Marathon - Along the route
McCarthy Half Marathon – Along the route

Continue reading Race Report: McCarthy Half Marathon

Race Report: Mielie Marathon

The parents of Lindsey, one of my training mates, live in the city of Welkom in the Free State. Every year Lindsey heads out to visit his parents and run the local Mielie Marathon in mid-January. This year our training group all decided to travel out there with Lindsey to check out a new race and enjoy a weekend away. In addition to the four regular members of our training group we were also travelling with Justin, an American who also runs at our club, who has started joining us for some training runs and was targeting a sub-3:00 marathon to secure an A-seed for this year’s Comrades Marathon.

So on Friday 18th January three cars left Joburg for the 2.5 hour drive to Welkom. The first car to arrive in Welkom contained Campbell, his wife Jolene and their 2-month old son Daniel. The second car contained the three single men for the weekend: myself, Kirsten and Justin (whose wife and 2 children stayed in Joburg). The final car contained Lindsey, Hayley and their 6-month old daughter Ella. All nine visitors were staying together at the house of Lindsey’s parents, so the weekend was planned to be cosy but festive. Upon arriving in Welkom we divided and conquered, with one car heading to buy some alcohol for the weekend while my car went to arrange race entries. As a small city race only involving approximately 100 runners, we decided that the inclusion of an Australian and an American promoted it to an international event and promptly decided to rename the race to the Corn Marathon (since mielie is a local term for corn).

Continue reading Race Report: Mielie Marathon

Race Report: Dis-Chem Half Marathon

The Dis-Chem Half Marathon is the first half marathon in Johannesburg for the year, and it is a large event that easily reaches its 6000 entrant limit. With a 100-km race planned for the first weekend of the year I had marked off a 2-week rest period on my training plan for recovery, and therefore had not entered the race. However with my race at Narrabeen turning into a 50-km run (as per my race report here) I was back into training just 4 days later. I was interested in running at the Dis-Chem Half Marathon since it has a big field and a great vibe at the end but entries were well and truly sold out.

My initial thought was to drive to the race and run my own training run along a different course so that I could join in the festivities after the race. But on the Friday before the race I was able to arrange an entry from a friend at another running club as they knew someone who was unable to run. As part of the entry process you provide a target time that is used to seed all entrants. As a result I ended up standing behind the start line of the Dis-Chem Half Marathon with thousands of people in front of me from my position as an E-seeded entrant (with only F-seeded runners further back), and my race bib contained my race number and name in clear bold capital letters. My name for this particular race happened to be SUSAN.

The race started and we stood still for a while. Then eventually we started to walk. Then we started to run. Then we slowed to a walk. Then we started to run. Then we slowed to a walk. And then we finally managed to run all the way across the start line and only 21.1 km remained. I was unsure how my legs had recovered from the race the previous week so I planned to set out on pace to run a 1:40 and then speed up if my legs were feeling good.

Continue reading Race Report: Dis-Chem Half Marathon