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.
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.
Every Wednesday morning my training group currently runs the route known as the Four Peaks Challenge and previously we ran our former route, the Bryanston Half. Both of these routes share the last 8 km section in common.
As we run this last section we almost always pass a woman running the opposite direction to us. She is possibly aged in her 50’s, with long blonde hair, and she is always wearing a pair of shorts and a casual singlet that would fit in very well on the outdoor deck at a pub during summer. Despite looking very little like a runner, every time we pass this particular woman she is running down the same hill as we run up. In over a year of running the two routes we have seen her out there almost every time we are there.
Last week as I climbed up the hill I looked ahead to see her walking down the hill. She had her left arm in a cast from upper arm to wrist, and was obviously unable to run. Therefore she was out for a walk instead. As we passed each other, I greeted her with a “Good Morning” and she responded with a few words to communicate that her arm had been broken when she was hit by a car. But importantly she was still out and exercising.
This morning we ran the Four Peaks Challenge, and once again I past her walking down the hill. A broken arm hasn’t stopped her from training. What is your excuse?
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.
In my last Training Route post I covered the Bryanston Half in the first part of what I will name the Wednesday trilogy. Now for the sequel.
At the end of the last post I discussed the original and “easy” versions of the Bryanston Half, a challenging 21 km training route. The obvious progression for a group of runners that were (and still are) continuing to push new boundaries was to create a “hard” Bryanston Half. After Kirsten had planned and plotted the easy route I decided to make my mark on the hard route and straight away went to work mapping out a proposal.
I already had in mind a key feature for the new route and it involved the removal of the relatively flat run along the river once we reached the low point of the course, and swapped Heartbreak Hill with a replacement climb that was worthy of being called “hard”. Heartbreak Hill had one major flaw as a short and steep hill, and that was the fact that it is short. The replacement was achieved by reaching the river, crossing it, and then running straight up the other side in a continuous climb of over 4 km.
I replaced the gradual and winding descent that marked the first phase of the original Bryanston Half route with the most direct option down to the river, and that allowed for those flat and downhill kilometres to be replaced by climbs. It was obvious that the 2 km climbing finish of the original route needed to be maintained so the start and end of the route were finalised. I had wanted to include the tough climb from the easy Bryanston Half route but could not find a way to fit it in within a 21 km route. Therefore I left it out and sent a proposed route through to Kirsten for review.
Kirsten promptly responded with his feedback. The left-out hill must be included, and there was no need to feel limited by a distance of 21 km. The unlocking of the distance opened up some great possibilities and the route started to take shape. I added in the left-out hill but replaced an out-and-back section at the top with a new loop that had the benefit of adding in yet another climb. Kirsten and I ended up agreeing on a route with all of the climbs we wanted to include within a training route of 24 km. It was Kirsten that gave the route its name, the Four Peaks Challenge, after its four notable climbs. The route now featured only a single water stop at the halfway mark.
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.
Since training for my first Comrades in 2011 Wednesday has been used as my long weekday run. During the training for that first Comrades I would complete an 18 km run during many of the weeks between February and April.
It was only after Comrades that I started training with my current training partners: Kirsten, Lindsey and Campbell. It was in September 2011 that I was introduced to the “Bryanston Half”, a training run starting and ending at Kirsten’s house. The Bryanston Half is a 21 km training route that includes 360 metres of ascent (and equivalent descent), and is considered as containing three phases separated by water stops. The first phase is almost exclusively flat or downhill, finishing at our first water stop. The second phase starts with a short, steep climb nicknamed Heartbreak Hill, is followed by a variation of ups and downs, and finishes with the longest climb of the phase to the second water stop. The third phase includes a tough early climb, followed by a long and fast gradual descent, and finishes with a very steep and tough climb of over 2 km.