Part 2: Why I’ll never trust a man in a skirt again…

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A similarly bare-kneed fellow (without the pipes) offered some decidedly questionable directions on Day 3! (thanks to Jimmy Hyland for the pic)

With an event of this magnitude, where there are so many participants and where the sharp end of the field is fiercely competitive, the organisers need to lay down some rigid ground rules. All runners must be on a level playing field – no benefits may be gained from a) sneaking in a warm shower at a hotel along the way b) taking food from the mess tent to eat later out on the trail (!), c) skimping on mandatory kit, d) receiving any form of trail-side assistance from family, friends or even strangers etc.

Ultra-runners are naturally quite a single-minded, self-absorbed, belligerent bunch at the best of times. I know this. As such, you need some staunch systems in place. Failing that, you would quite likely have a riot on your hands.

As a SAffer, where we generally see most rules as mere suggestions, I found this quite a challenge, and, as luck would have it, fell foul of the system quite early on.

I only have praise for Shane Ohly and his team of Ourea Events. Their day-to-day management was impeccable, and their adherence to systems and consistency around rules was most admirable. It cannot be easy – being bad cop when you are simultaneously managing an event where encouragement and support really are the order of the day.

There was, and I kid you not, a “three strikes and you’re out” rule. Out, as in, out of the race, go home, bye-bye. This struck fear in many of our over-worked little hearts, and towards the end of the week, there was some trepidation (within the ranks of the more criminally-inclined) as we tried to navigate our way through a strike-free day, as well as across the bog-saturated landscape.

 

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Rules and news would be written up here daily….

 

I was struck down on the morning of Day 5. Yup! The shame of it! I had omitted to include gloves in my pack, you see. This being compulsory kit, I was given a strike. They were very sweet about it, and all that, but a strike was issued nonetheless. A stain against my name. Community service for me…??? No!…a 44k run instead!

One chap was issued a strike for “outside assistance”. The form of this assistance? He got a lift to the pub which was some distance away in a car by a mate for a beer! Yup….it was brutal out there.

The rules kicked in the morning of the race when we had to check our dry bags in. These were the bags Filippo and I had packed, unpacked, packed, unpacked several hundred times – both at home and in the UK. We had somehow managed to overlook the sub-text in rule 1 00 001 around dry bags. The one about weight allowance. We could only bring 20kg with us. Not a nanogram more. Our bags were being weighed by an officious fellow in a blue shirt with an electronic suspended weight machine thingy.

You can imagine the blind terror at being told that we each had to shed 5kg – before we had even started. But shed we did – all our meticulously packed clothing and food, all came out….into the car park of Fort William. Since all our other bags had been taken to Inverness the day before for retrieval at the end, we had nowhere to leave anything we did shed.

Food was the biggest casualty. Again, given the fact that we could not expect the organisers to feed us when “out on the hill”, we had to plan ahead and pack 8 days’ worth of nutrition. So the bananas, boiled potatoes, fruit squishies, energy bars were ditched. Filippo’s eye-wateringly massive quantity of nougat was ditched. It all ended up left on the front seat of the rental car – in the vague hope that the rental car people would enjoy the smorgasbord of trail running delights. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Given the weight restrictions, the take-no-food-from-meal-tent rule was a challenge for many I think. There was many a runner (in the latter stages of the race) who would stand in the queue, eagerly eyeing the tray of boiled eggs, slices of bread, bananas or sausages (no, not the sausages) and be dreaming up devious and cunning ways of smuggling items into pockets or under armpits…

We ate spectacularly well, and the catering was top draw, all served by the happiest, friendliest group of men and women. It was entirely meat-free – all week. We were told this would be the case upfront, and menus were listed upfront, so any serious carnivores had the opportunity to plan ahead and factor this into their 20kg allocation. I mean, how much can a leg of lamb really weigh?

And so we come to the bacon smuggler. He shall remain nameless, as I wish to protect his identity and future participation in all races in the UK, but, this incredibly generous soul took pity on us on the morning of Day 5. He had clearly seen our hollow, haunted looks and sagging shoulders 😉….He bought a few rashers of freshly fried up bacon at the nearby café and smuggled it into our tent! The air of subterfuge was palpable, as he entered our tent and hastily unpacked his stash, whispering loudly “eat this, quick!”.

Both F and I gobbled it up like ravenous street kids, making sure to wipe all evidence of bacon fat from our lips. The crazy thing is, I am pretty much a veggie – but THAT bacon. THAT bacon…..it filled some kind of crazy, calorie hole and our bodies were grateful.

[On a side note, the above activity was entirely legit. We could make use of local shops and pubs, if we wanted to, if access was there for everyone. So I am not sure why there was any guilt attached to the bacon fiasco, perhaps just because we were in a designated meat-free zone?!]

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The food tent queue in a quieter moment…

From bacon smugglers to budgie smugglers…or the lack thereof, in Filippo’s case. Given his extraordinary speed and technical skills out on the route each day, Filippo would be at camp long before me. This gave him ample time to unpack his 20kg bag, lay out his bedding and get himself washed. This involved getting oneself to the closest river, dancing over the slippery pebbles and doing as deft a body wash as possible. In the first three days, this was in very chilly weather and with wet, skanky towels. Deeply unpleasant. Added to that, there was no element of privacy. For someone like me, with all manner of hang-ups (as alluded to in Part 1), washing one’s naked body in full daylight, standing up in a river, in full view of a bunch of strange men – yar, well, it had its moments.

I was shy and anxious on Days 1-5 and would try and walk miles upriver to avoid detection…..by Day 6, I really didn’t give a rat’s arse about who saw what. Funny what a bit of shared pain and adventure does to inhibitions.

Filippo had no such qualms from Day 1. This man – who admittedly only had a small face towel to work with (bigger towel ditched to make the 20kg, you understand) – was unphased by any vague notions of self-consciousness. He was frequently spotted – completely kaalgat/starkers – walking casually from the river washing area back to his tent, past all the volunteers and any other runners who may have also come in.
Granted there were not many of those. Given his great speed.

Still, after a while, the volunteers came to speak of him as “the naked one”. Much to my intense embarrassment. That embarrassment was all mine, and mine alone.

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“The naked one” – seen fleetingly before dashing down the mountain to camp.

So why will I never trust a Scotsman again? Well, on Day 3, which was incredibly long and incredibly difficult, with more peaks and climbs and bog crossings than in all the days combined, I came across the kilted one having a late evening stroll down a road. I was spent. Done. Tickets. I had been running for well on 10 hours and I needed to know that home was in sight.

My watch had run out of juice earlier that day, so I had no idea how far I had run. As I staggered past him, he put his meaty hands together and clapped, congratulating me and telling me Porker #1 “Yer looking soooo strong, keep goin’, well done!”.

How much further?” I ask.

Ogh eye….yer jes hafta pop o’er that wee hill o’er there, and the campsite’ll be right there!”

Oh phew, thank you!” I pant….and continue.

Only then do I really engage with the direction in which our kilted friend has pointed. There are no real hills, to speak of. There’s a vague bump in the road in the horizon, granted. But not a hill. Beyond that I see a very ominous mountain – it’s peak smothered in rolling, grey cloud. So which is it, I wonder?

I spend the best part of the next hour pondering the Scottish definition of hills and mountains and then as I crest the “hill”, I look down into a valley – utterly bereft of any civilisation – and certainly no tent in sight.

Right about then, I had one of those all-fall-down moments, which I think all adventure racers/ultra-runners have. I wept a little and bellowed “Nooooooooo!”. Nobody heard me. Nobody cared. I was alone.

I then promptly stepped right into a deep bog. More tears and wailing and extraordinary expletives – even I didn’t know I was capable of uttering.

I remember breaking into a very earnest and loud conversation – it may well have been for Angus’s benefit – something along the lines of: “Ooooh look, what do we have HERE…..I do believe that’s another f*%ing bog!….Oh, and over there? Oooooh, goody….! that’ll be another f&%ing mountain!

Once I got over all that, there was nothing for it but to knuckle down and gather myself….and climb. Yet. Another. Effing. Mountain.
I staggered into camp at 7-30 that night. A solid day out really. One which started shortly after 8am!

That night I was a little gloomy, but all that melted away when one of the volunteers “knocked” on our tent door and announced “Ultra-mail for Tent 7!
This was the most wonderful feature of tent life. Supporters from far-flung corners of the globe could communicate with you via the tracking site. It was all sent to a central PC and printed out. These little pieces of paper with lovely words of encouragement from friends and family were little positive treasures – they quite literally saved the day.

 

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My stash of ultra-mail – oh the joy!

 

Any blog on this race would be incomplete without mention of Angus – my happy, hairy coo and my most loyal running buddy. He did the full 400k, he did, and didn’t complain ONCE. I take my hat off to him for that – stoic little bugger. On Day 8, as we neared the finish line and had the lighthouse in full, glorious view, I grabbed him out of his comfortable pozzi on the back of my pack and slotted him in between the straps across my chest so he could watch the finish and us carrying the SA flag.
I swear that his little grin got a whole lot broader right then. As did mine.

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Relief etched all over Angus’s face at finally finishing the 400 k CWU!

 

 

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Part 1: “Just over tha’ wee hill”, said the funny man in a skirt..

33768743_10156529854459048_7450161919316459520_nIt takes a while to digest something as challenging and tough as the Cape Wrath Ultra. I have spent hours going over the map, dissecting each day’s route and trying to grasp just how far we ran and the kind of terrain we ran through.

It’s a little crazy how one realises just how special, unique and life-affirming an experience is only once you are back home and dabbling in the mundane once more – packing lunch boxes, driving a monosyllabic teenager around, standing at the sink etc.

A CWU finisher who has written about the experience talks of a deep sense of calm she has been feeling since being home. I can attest to that. Whether this is thanks to the 8-day injection of endorphs or just sheer bloody exhaustion, I am not quite sure.

There is also a sense of not really wanting to talk about it all – it all just feels too surreal, foreign, dream-like, detached.

The challenge always with these things is capturing the right words, squeezing them onto the palette and then cobbling them together in a way that paints a picture for the reader – to somehow transport them into the world we inhabited for eight days and to help them relive it all with you.

I usually find the best way to deal with something difficult is to find the humour in it all. So far from a serious, technically accurate race report (which can bore most non-runners – and runners for that matter – to tears), I will attempt to bring the experience alive with a shot or two of humour and a focus on some of the quirkier aspects of a big expedition race such as this.

The whole bloody thing was Filippo’s idea.

Although this may sound disgustingly ungrateful, one needs to understand that I would NEVER, EVER seek out and sign up for an 8-day race – not here, not anywhere in the world. Aside from the obvious expense aspect (and the fact that I simply do not earn enough to justify the entry fee), I just wouldn’t see my way past the inevitable physical pain potential. That’s aside from the extensive air travel required (note, I have a pathological fear of heights and being in a metal tube with 200 plus people). Oh… and then there is the fact that I would have to be doing the whole communal living thing with the great unwashed. A challenge for any self-respecting misanthrope.
It all sounded quite hideous to be honest. But good girlfriend that I am, I went along with it with a smile. What a cracking idea. Yes, let’s go run an ultra-marathon every day for eight days. In the mud. With midges.

Lets!
So we did…

I was horrendously undercooked for this one. Filippo wasn’t. Filippo invested an inordinate amount of time in some serious back-to-back training, condition coaching, massage therapy and research, time on legs and then some. And it showed. The man ran a blistering race and popped out at the end in 6th overall. I ran at an infinitely less blistering pace, did a fair amount of bitching and complaining (to nobody in particular) and limped in 23rd overall and 3rd woman. This result may appear very impressive at first glance, but not when you see that I was well over an hour behind the second lady and a solid 7 hours behind Filippo! This latter detail is something that I shall never, ever get over. I shall be reminded daily, if not hourly, of this remarkable stat.
The competition between the two of us used to be quite robust. I have indeed been known to beat the bugger in one or two races. Comrades even. After this event, that has summarily died.

Apples and pears you understand. Apples and pears.

For something of this magnitude you really do need to get your shit together. You need to be preparing mentally and physically for at least 6 months. You need to be setting aside most things –family, love, work, play, pleasure, wine, chocolate, life….and just run. Run, run, run a bit more and then run again. A bit like those funny Ironman people I guess. The event must become your be all and end all. Otherwise you are quite likely to stare failure in the face and confront the very real possibility of Dee-enn-effing. (For the uninitiated, that means Did Not Finish. DNF is an acronym that strikes fear in the heart of many an athlete).

I stared the DNF monster in the face a few times in the first three days. And then I decided that – like all the other runners who were also in pain – it would just be better to toughen the f&*k up and get on with it. More of that a little later…

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One could write about the route, the terrain, the scenery and the distances forever. I could spend hours using whimsical prose and flogged-to-death superlatives such as gob-smacking, awesome, superb and magical. But I won’t. Because the views were all that and more and photos can only really do them some justice…

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Scotland is a magical, spiritual, ancient place. The fact that we ran through some insanely remote wilderness, where it would have taken 12 hours or more to access and bail out an injured runner made it special enough for me. I love remote. I crave being as far away as possible from humanity. And there were vast sections of this route where you simply did not see, smell or hear any sign of human life. That was intensely beautiful in its own right.

This next paragraph will only mean something to trail runners in SA, so apologies for this. It’s a useful exercise though, and has helped me to get a sense of this crazy CWU monster…

So on Day 1 we ran the equivalent distance and technicality of the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge. On Day 2 we awoke to the bone-shattering cold and rain and set off to run Marloth (in distance and elevation gain). The day after that, on tired legs, we carpe-diemed the crap out of Ultra Trail Cape Town’s 65k race. A day after that, we smashed the OTTER (oh grail of trail that it is). On Day 5, we charged out of the camp to take on Table Mountain Challenge and then some. On Day 6, we embarked on the PUFFER. Because we can! On Day 7, we dabbled in a little Sky Run Lite equivalent. And then on Day 8, we had a little breather, and did a longer version of the Fishermans Trail Challenge – just a little warm down.

So that takes care of route, distance and elevation gain details. No need to really go into much more on that front…

Onto communal living! The tents were all miraculously laid out and arranged upon finishing each day. The 70-strong volunteer/event team were brilliant in every way. I have never met such a delightfully, cheerful, helpful, funny, efficient bunch of humans ever. Every single day they came out in their blue T-shirts and had a cheery, positive chirp, a genuine helping hand and a big encouraging smile. Testament to Shane’s sterling leadership, I imagine.

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Sharing tents at the best of times can be a challenge for one who likes their space and who has a large – read, GINORMOUS – space bubble. And tolerance issues generally. Misophonia actually. Over sensitive hearing and oversensitive olfactory issues. All round baggage really.

So when I was asked to share a fairly small space with 8 other humans, 6 of them total strangers, it was a pretty big ask. But this adventure was all about toughening the f%#k up, remember, so I donned the silicone ear plugs when it was bed time, smiled and carried on. Thankfully for us (and most certainly not for them), we lost 4 of our tentmates after Day 2, so we ended up getting to know 2 wonderful Canadians, who turned out to be the kindest, loveliest people I have met in a long time.
Sleep was tricky for a host of reasons – not least of which was the Scottish sun, which just refuses to put itself to bed! The brain gets seriously confused when at 11pm it’s still light. Hard when an aching body is craving rest and sleep.

People in neighbouring tents also somehow felt that their canvas walls were impenetrable and sound-proof. So we got to hear all robust and lively conversations, very clearly, late into the night. And the snoring. And farting. The latter increased in pitch and cadence as the days went by. I will place the blame for this firmly at the door of the Great Veggie Sausage (GVS). The latter a regular feature of the buffet table. Particularly at breakfast. Those GVSs had a sneaky habit of breaking into the odd stew, lasagne and soup for dinners and lunches. Cunning beasts those sausages.

While on matters lavatorial, one cannot talk about any expedition race of this nature without making mention of the chemical porta-loos. Again, I had to put all sensitivities aside and embrace the concept of sharing 12 porta-loos with 250 or more folk over 8 days. This doesn’t need too much airtime, suffice to say that after about Day 4, a few runners clearly lost interest in the flushing routine. There were indeed one or two times that little confined space was just too dangerous to enter. As a child I developed a rather strange fear of public lavatories, and have never really managed to sit on a lavatory seat. I had to set much of this unhelpful, crippling OCD behaviour aside however. Though I drew the line at using my hand to man-handle the large pump stick mechanism thingy which drew the blue chemicals into the bowl. I used my foot for that. Depending on which day we had run, I had to use a different foot. The one that wasn’t strapped up and toe-nail-less and which was most up to the task.

The walk to the bank of toilets was always quite an amusing affair – placed as they were a fair distance from the main camp and feeding area. As the week progressed, the “porta-loo alley” would be a scene straight out of WW1 trenches – grown men leaning heavily on walking sticks, limping forlornly past, others hobbling zombie-like with midge nets over their heads muttering post-traumatic syndrome gibberish…

One lesson learnt on this one. While standing in the food, tap, washing up or toilet queue, one should never, ever, ever ask a fellow CWU runner this: “How did your day go?” Do that and you’re generally in for something along these lines: “Aaargh, my ankle’s stuffed…..Hmm, torn a ligament in my calf…..Not great, think I’m out…..Bit broken, everything sore …..” That sort of thing.

One rarely had: “Ooooohhh, I had a cracker of a day, jeepers, what a ride! I am super strong! Blitzed that boulder section I did! And, man alive, I cannot WAIT for sunrise tomorrow so we can get stuck into the 76k day!!!!!!!”

Nope, not a lot of that.

Part 2 will involve sordid and intimate details of a bacon smuggler, Filippo’s daily naked post-wash dash across camp, meeting a f(lying) Scotsman in a kilt (who told me a porker about the remaining distance to camp on Day 5), finding sympathy and compassion in a war zone, a brush with hypothermia, hugging strangers, ultra-mail and other tently delights, pain management, prize giving embarrassment and Angus my happy hairy coo companion pictured below in all his smiling glory.

PS: This was a BRILLIANT adventure and I loved (almost) every minute of it.

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Bilbo Baggins Returns

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

There really seems to be no limit to what can be run these days.  The Otter Trail (a five day hiking trail) can be run in under four hours ….the 50 km Whale Trail (another five day hiking trail) is clobbered by the racing snakes in just under 5 ½ hours.

So why not take on a six day hiking trail, but run it over two days? Why not indeed!

Meet the Merrell Hobbit 90 k Journey – a trail run that can be (and was) run in 13 hours by one particularly speedy chap this year.

They call it a journey, and that it most certainly is. It is one peppered with more twists and turns, ducks, dives, leaps, bum-slides and face plants than your average trail run.

The route is never dull. You cannot, and should not let your guard down for a second. If you do not keep your wits about you, you will trip on a mossy rock or tree stump and find yourself with a mouthful of worm ingested mud. If you lose sight of the faded yellow footprints (on trees or rocks), you will find yourself wondering into never-never land…feeling as though you had gobbled up the magic mushrooms you stumble over.

If a print appears upside down you are going the wrong way. (Hobbit Journey notes)

Day 1 starts with a rather rude 3-30 am alarm clock. A fleeting “why am I doing this?” and a pillow-over-head-moment is swiftly Carpe Diemed into submission.  The 1 ½ hour bus ride is a chance to take stock, eat a little, listen to the nervous chatter around you and consider the day ahead. We hit the early morning bustle of King William’s Town and then wound our way out of town on a pot-holed, roller-coaster dirt road to Maden Dam. The sun was just inching her way onto stage, the fish eagles welcomed us with a resoundingly hopeful cry, and all 33 of us huddled together for a quick pre-race photo.

The first 9.5 km leg is largely forested single track that snakes its way around the dam, into the forest and along the banks of the Buffalo River. The path winds its way precariously over mossy rocks, roots and logs, eventually popping out at Gwili Gwili Hut after crossing two forestry roads. The barbets, orioles, turacos, robins, thrushes and parrots usher us through the forest with an orchestra second to none. I mention to Filippo how much I would like to stop and ID a particularly strident bird call.

No time, I fear, no time. The competition is stiff, with a woman I have never met ahead of me and showing great tenacity and focus.

I have to catch her, the chase is on….

Bilbo’s Aunt – giving chase

We slip and slide our way on giant, slick mud-worm piles, cross rivers, pass freshly used porcupine holes and slice through sunbeams. We pass a gigantic, ancient Yellowood.. I silently wish I could sit and chat and hear her stories (of Redcoat/Xhosa bloodshed, elephants, leopards and early axe-wielding pioneers) ….no time. Only time for one quick embrace. I put my arms around her gnarled trunk and rest my damp cheek fleetingly against her, almost expecting to feel a pulse.

Filippo must think I am mad.

I am.

Barking.

The second 15 km leg is mostly through more damp, beautiful indigenous forests. We occasionally pop out into the hot sunlight and get a view of the surrounding countryside, but for the most part, it’s all just mossy, peaty, ferny, mushroomy, dappled brilliance.

The last 16 km winds up to the foot of a moss-encrusted waterfall. Here I spot my competition up ahead and I turn to F to click my fingers and exclaim “prey up ahead!” F is flagging, he silently indicates for me to carry on, catch her.

A final vicious ascent pops us out of the canopy and onto grassy flat stuff. We can see the sky and better still, I can see my competition up ahead. She is flagging. Walking, bending over.

I take the gap. She stands aside and says “well done”…..

Game on!

With screaming legs, there is yet another climb, this time in the hot, midday sun to the top of Doornkop. I accidentally lose sight of the wretched yellow feet and wonder off down into a vicious bramble forest that attacks my legs from all sides. I emerge with blood pouring, soaking my gaiters and socks…

A final steep relentless, fast descent on rocky, grassy, cambered paths sees you heading down towards another forested gorge. In this forest, I catch up with another running friend who is flagging. I pass him, we mutter and grumble at one another. Enough of the climbing already….enough of the f*&$#ing climbing already….

I am met by Lofty (Tatum’s hubby) – a wonderful, familier friendly face. He has come down to meet runners and warn them of a fat, angry Puffadder on the trail. We run (or rather clamber up) together for a bit and then I see Cata Hut, hear Tatum “whooooping and whoo-hooing” and I run the final stretch to the finish.

Cold beer, hot, meaty soup, a hot shower and soft mattrasses in the sun. Heaven.The evening is all about cosiness, warmth, recuperation, steaming pots of food, laughter, birthday candles, red wine and new friends. And sleep.

Dori: May I tempt you with a cup of chamomile? Gandalf: Oh, no, thank you, Dori. A little red wine for me, I think.

Day two starts with a rude, dark, steep 3 km climb. My torchlight is weak, I have my competition on my heels and I fear the day will be a long, pressurised one. We skirt around Geju Peak and then try and convince our shaky legs to work down a 1 km descent to the plateau, avoiding a massive scree slope.

Gollum: Is he lost? Bilbo Baggins: Yes, yes, and I want to get unlost… as soon as possible!

The forest embraces us once again, we stop to drink and fill bottles from the water that cascades off the black rocks, admire the scenery (briefly) and then charge on. UP, up and more up…..hills so steep it is almost impossible to get purchase.

We wind our way through yet more forested sections, finding the route infinitely more runnable than the previous day. We skip over great whirls of papery lemonwood bark that erodes into strange shapes as it rots on the forest floor, pass towering Streptocarpus that glues itself to tree trunks and competes with the orange, yellow and white fungi for space to grow. The harebells, watsonias and falling stars are in delicate bloom, and I try not tread on any of them as we whizz through.

The very final climb heads across the infamous and much talked about “Hog”. Words cannot really do justice to this not-so-little piggy…photos do that best.

Gandalf: Far to the east, over ranges and rivers lies a single solitary peak. Elrond: So this is your purpose, to enter the mountain? Thorin Oakenshield: What of it? Elrond: There are some who would not deem it wise.

The final 10 kays are a bit of a blur of down, down, down, forest track, conifers and zig-zagging switch backs, until the final slog to the finish line at the Arminal Hotel to run into the wonderfully welcoming arms of Tatum and her team.

Here the great curve of the Amatole Range holds in its embrace a valley of grace and beauty, equaled in few other places and excelled in none in South Africa…. Across the valley was the strange mountain the Xhosa called “Bhukazana”, with its three peaks of serrated ridges; and, between these and the Juanasberg, the Hogsback, but which the Xhosa called “Belekazana”, from its fancied resemblance, when seen from the Mnyameni valley, to a woman with a child on her back. Basil Holt

 

Dwarves: [singing] The pines were roaring on the height / The winds were moaning in the night / The fire was red, it flame spread / The trees like torches blazed with light…

This really was an unforgettable journey into Hobbit country.

The Mountain Runner team of organisers (Tatum, Graham, Sarah, Lofty et al) is quite simply exceptional. Their effortless professionalism – mixed with an array of delightful personal touches – and a degree of nurturing (that one does not get in other races) totally blew me away.

THANK YOU.

Thanks for Andrew King for his excellent images and to he legendary Mr Tolkien too of course for the inspirational Hobbit quotes!

 

 

Trail runner’s nirvana

[The unedited version of the article that featured in the M&G today….]

I am sitting in a damp camping chair under a canvas roof. The rain is coming down in sheets, the khaki seams above bulge and occasionally issue an icy waterfall down an unsuspecting recipient’s back below. Desert winds nip at our ankles, howling and snapping at tent pegs and guy ropes. The cold front froths and comes at us out of the gloom, gnashing rabidly, threatening to send our whole tented village tumble-weeding across the mountains, over the Orange River, into Namibia and northwards to Timbuktu.

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It feels like we are in the middle of nowhere and, well, I guess we are. We are sitting in a remote corner of the 6 000 km2 /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park – a park that encompasses one of the world’s oldest and perhaps most pristine mountain arid regions.

I am with 40 other trail running junkies. We have all completed the 35 kilometre Day 1 of the 4 Day Richtersveld WildrunTM. The sense of shared accomplishment is tangible as we wait eagerly for a hot dinner. The red wine and Arnica oil is flowing as liberally as the tales of extraordinary rock formations, crystal-strewn fields and some rather woeful navigational errors. Shin splints, scratches, sprains, bruises and shiny black toe blisters have been compared and oohed and aaahed over.

No matter how much kneading, pummelling and massaging we apply to both our bodies and the meteorological facts presented to us, the following day’s forecast remains bleak. We are all in for a cold, wet, windy and very long Day 2 in the desert. Yes, the desert.

But for now this seems not to matter as we listen to the mellifluous tones of Pieter van Wyk – a SANParks botanist who has lived in the region all his life. This is a man with enviable and utterly infectious passion. He’s waxing lyrical about the geological history and describing the succulent riches that he has come to know in his 24 years. Pieter has not seen rain this potent for years and is already anticipating the botanical jewels that will emerge from years of oblivion as soon as the sun tickles the grateful rain-drenched soil. Excitement is etched all over his face as he talks about seven-year old kids in the area who have scampered indoors when it rains as they’ve never seen water plummeting from the sky.

What makes the Richtersveld WildrunTM so unique and wild is that the trail is completely unmarked. Runners are given a GPS unit onto which waypoints are loaded and we are told to make our way from one waypoint to the next. Whether we clamber over a granite-clad ridge or shoot down a river valley, it is up to us to figure out the most runnable route.

My running partner’s navigational prowess came to the fore a mere two kays into the race on Day 1. While other runners scrambled up a steep ridgeline, he hung back and nodded quietly to me indicating rather that we cruise up a river valley in the opposite direction. Off we galloped, and about ten minutes later, I was surprised to see the leading male Thabang Madiba (who went on to win the race) bound up behind us.

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This was the first of many such route choices, and it wasn’t long before the leading lady tucked in behind Mr GPS, recognising the advantage. It added a certain degree of pressure to things for me, however, and it soon became clear that if I were to lose sight of his rather speedy GPS-programmed rear end, I would disappear into the wilderness and never be seen again.

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The geology of the area is utterly fascinating. Over 2 000 million years ago, the Richtersveld Earth Dragon awoke from her million year slumber. Her guts rumbled and she issued a colossal burp that buckled the ancient slab of continental rock above her. Red-hot granitic and basaltic magma bubbled out of the vast steaming fissures, and the Richtersveld Suite emerged to the surface. Eons later, the area was blanketed in the ancient Adamastor Ocean. A mere blip in geological time later, large rivers threw down sheets of sandy, calcareous sediment to the shores of the continent from the east. Continental plates butted heads again, the ocean receded and gave way to more buckling and tilting and the sedimentary layers shot up into gnarly mountain ridges. Our restless dragon awoke about    1 500 million years later, exhaled again, her fiery magma breath punching through the sloping sediments and crustal rocks to form the Tatasberg – a 1 000 metre high granite massif. We had the absolute privilege of running through this boulder strewn extravaganza on Day 3.

After a very wet and technical Day 2, we were all very relieved to see the clouds lift to reveal the rainbow drenched glory of our camp at Hakkiesdoring. We charged into and up the Gannakouriep river valley, then faced east to top out onto the vast and spectacular Springbokvlakte, a plateau upon which many thousands of Springbok used to graze. Just after this, we hit the much talked about Tatasberg. We found ourselves clambering and crawling our way through and between giant granite boulders the size of double-decker buses, to emerge at the top where the 360 degree views were utterly magnificent. I was quite literally speechless – and not from the physical exertion!

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As if the mountain vistas are not gargantuan enough, there are all the small things to marvel at. Everywhere you look, all sorts of succulents are squeezing their podgy little pink and purple fingers from underneath rocks or snuggling up to sparkling chunks of quartz.

“You have to be on your hands and knees to really see and understand this place”, explains the ever beaming Pieter. “There is so much to learn, to know. There is something under every rock, every sliver of crystal…I read this place like a book”. On our third night in camp, he addresses us all again. More stories, more wonder.

A self-taught botanist who reels off scientific names with consummate ease, Pieter goes on to tell us about the endemic succulents in these parts. He talks about the Lithops (or living stones) that often grow in close association with the micro-climate created by a sliver of quartz. He tells us about minute plants with a transparent “window”, beneath which lies a small crystal embedded within its flesh to reflect sunlight to less exposed parts of the plant where food is made…all in a bid to reduce surface area and minimise water loss. Pure evolutionary genius.

He reels off exotic and somewhat subversive plant names, translating from the Afrikaans as he does…. “perfume bottle”, “child’s penis”, “old granny’s tits”….

He enthuses about the extremely rare Pachypodium namaquanum, an 800 year old spike-studded succulent with an elephant-like foot and a quaint north-facing tilt to the rosette of leaves at its tip. It looks uncannily like a lone man standing facing north, which is why it is also called Half mens. He tells us we will be coming eye to eye with these very special plants on our last day. And that we did.

Pieter tells us about the creatures found here. We are all riveted. “We have about 30 species of Toktokkie here, and like most other desert beetles they have a waxy covering that controls water retention and body temperature”. Some insects, he tells us, even have the capacity to actually make their own water.

Pieter modestly lets slip how he discovered a new species of spider a few years back. There are, he explains, 18 species of scorpion in the park. One of these endemic whipper-snappers is almost as large as a dinner plate! He tells us about the Namaqua chameleon. Just short of the length of a Shatterproof ruler, this little guy packs some punch and has been known to hold his own against crows and Cape cobras. They breed them tough as nails in these parts!

The WildrunTM team really are the crème de la crème of trail race organisers. Great care is taken to provide just the right measure of luxury for weary trail runners. The tents are robust, yet comfortable, there are canvas toilet cubicles and showers every day with donkey-boiled piping hot water. This is all set up effortlessly in the middle of nowhere. Each day the entire camp is whipped up in a new spot and always in time for the front runners to run into camp and chill.

This was trail running at its wildest, most extreme, most luxurious and insanely enjoyable best.

[Photos taken by the immensely talented Nick Muzik and Ian Corless…]

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Riding the Sky Dragon

10620468_766714520043946_252352620298145692_oMy last blog was about a race in beautiful big-sky Drakensburg mountain country. This past week saw a return to the very same wilderness playground. Once again, I was blessed with a very well-priced entry offer and opportunity. Having committed months back to going upcountry to support anyway, it seemed a bit of a no-brainer to just enter and run it too.

This was a race I have heard so much about, had always revered (and considered a little bit out of my league), so it seemed too good to be true to pass up on the chance to partake.

Friend and partner Filippo – a seasoned Sky runner – has spent many hours scouting the route. He’s plotted and planned, gazed lovingly at the route profile, researched alternative paths and spoken to local landowners. He’s run the race three times and always done well. In the ill-fated 2013 event, he ran 75% of the route in some of the severest weather conditions – helping to guide fellow runners off the mountain when the organisers cut it short. In the 2013 race, two of the winning elite runners were taken off the mountain with serious hyperthermia.

This man eats, sleep, shits Sky Run.

I was in damn good hands, in other words. This was a massive comfort to me – given that I have never run an unmarked race before and (horror of horrors!) have never used a GPS.

As a fiercely independent person, I needed to know that all would be well if I were to end up alone on the mountain for 12 hours – convinced as I was that my self-appointed guide and race-day hero was going to get thoroughly fed up with my pace and want to bolt off into the distance to claim a podium spot. This was despite his endless assurances to the contrary.

I spent an hour or two the day before getting to know my borrowed GPS unit and tried to get my technologically- challenged brain used to the rather uncomfortable process of having to look down and check my wrist to ensure I was still on track and not about to run off a cliff. It definitely took some getting used to, and I’ll have to admit, my nerves were well shattered.

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Everyone talks about the remoteness of this run, the altitude, the potential to take a wrong turn, get hopelessly lost. A conversation with a local farmer in the car en route to the race start in Lady Grey did little to stitch my frayed nerves together. “These are serious mountains”, he says, “you can’t mess around….people can die….you have to know what you’re doing or you’re stuffed…. last year the conditions were so severe, that I got lost for hours trying to find two runners in distress….and I grew up here!”

Gulp.

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Race morning dawned and at 4am (!) and I found myself standing at the starting line alongside 72 other Sky Run Lite runners. We were only doing 65 kays. The other intrepid 134 guys and girls were bravely taking on the Big Daddy: Sky Run Proper – a thoroughly daunting 100 kays.

The first leg is steep and dark. Runners and their bobbing head torches jostle and vie for a spot along a nasty, endless and uncomfortable rock-strewn single track. The odd mutter and grumble and a few sharp words from one runner to the next as race morning frustrations blur all logic and there’s a crazy urge to overtake and charge up ahead.  After about an hour, the dawn light seeps through, torches are switched off and the mountain tips turn orange.

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After a fairly tough 7 kays we reach Check point 1 (the Tower). I catch a glimpse of Salomon ambassador and Sky record holder Ryan Sandes who has come out to support. We shout our race numbers out to a marshall with a clipboard and off we go.

A further 14 kays on we hit Check point 2 (Olympus). There was a bakkie with a large tank of water and a pipe and we took the opportunity to fill our already depleted water stocks and try and throw down some food.

Another 8 kays on we hit Snowdon – here we had to unpack our kit and show all our compulsory equipment and gear to a kit check guy. One or two runners were ‘man down’….having feet strapped, asking for headache pills or claiming they were vomiting and not feeling good. Heads down, carry on.

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And on we ran….again, our navigation GPS master at the helm, showing me (and a few hangers on) the quickest, safest route into increasingly remote countryside. At times I would question his choices as they seemed completely illogical – I even had the gall to dispute one call to leave a clump of runners and head in the opposite direction! At this point, a wonderful chap who had hooked in with us from very early on put me firmly in my place and humbled me into submission…. “That guy ahead of you Karoline…..that guy. Shoo, he’s an expert. I trust that guy man – you’re damn lucky to have him as your coach!” (Thanks Mazu!)

We then hit the infamous and much anticipated ‘Dragon’s Back’. What a glorious, glorious section of the mountain! This had to have been the highlight for me. I was so enamored with her I whipped out my cell phone and tried to capture it all on video. Tricky thing to do however – running to keep up and take a video, that is – particularly when the air is a little thinner than usual and the wind is tugging at your feet.

Turned out to be an epic fail, sadly – my footage mainly of my shoes and some gasping and panting in the background. I had pressed the record button thinking it was the ‘off’ button.

The name Dragon’s Back could not be more apt. It was exactly that. It feels as though one is sitting on her, legs clinging to her heaving flanks, dodging clouds, her massive tail swooshing behind. She’s a friendly dragon too. I really felt that. She wanted us there and was doing everything in her power to keep us astride. Not an easy mount, granted – sheer drop either side of her, and levels of exposure second to none.

But compared to the mountain we were set to meet a couple of hours later…… she was a delight!

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After this highlight, it was all down, down, down. Well, relatively speaking. A few ups between, but mostly down. Mr GPS still working his magic and along the way, many fellow athletes hooking in to make the most of his route knowledge. At one point I could have sworn I was running behind the Pied Piper .

Check point 6 is Balloch – a spot where most runners stop for a bit, refill, chill and enjoy a bit of pampering from loved ones and seconds. With 58 kays in the bag, one is grateful for the rest…

While we were heading down the fairly steep descent into Balloch the heavens had started to darken, growl and grumble. Ominous thunder and the snap, crackle and pop of electricity in the air made me nervous. We were about to make a vertical 500m ascent up ‘The Wall’ to find ourselves on a 2 400m ridge – perfect target for a well-placed lightning bolt!

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Balloch was a Bitch. No other words for her. Where the Dragon had been friendly and youthful in spirit, this snarky little cow was just grumpy. Her mood mirrored mine. She tore at my hands and my fingers bled… barbed wire strewn across her paths tripped me up, I picked it up and tried to toss it aside, but it clung to me snake-like and I wrested and swore at it to get off me.

She was the playground bully and I fought back like a child. I kicked and screamed even sat down and wept for a bit. I swore out loud like a fish wife….something foul along the lines of “You f*&king wanker mountain”. I was reminded of these words later that evening.

Not pretty. I even kicked at a few rocks. As one does…

And then we were through the hole in the wire at the top, over and out.

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By now my toes were on fire and blisters were blowing up, popping and rubbing – perhaps less as a result of the rock kicking episode, and more due to ill-fitting shoes and gritty, wet socks.

The descent was painful, but by now I could see and smell the finish at the Wartrail country club…

Not so Mr GPS. We parted at the 63 kay mark. He went on to run a further 37 kays – into the growing darkness. He had another 7 ½ hours of slogging it out alone! (Rumour has it …in true ‘Loneliness of Long Distance Runner’ style, the man later had a long conversation with a black sheep on his way up Bridle Pass! As one does…)

I was just grateful to see the Salomon flags and banners and my last 2 kays were comparatively fast on gloriously comfortable dust road. I came in second overall and first lady in a time of 11:03.

Remarkably, about an hour later after I finished my little jaunt, in trotted Ian Don-Wauchope who bagged a new course record for the full. What an absolute legend! My respect to him, to Landie Greyling (winner and new record holder) and ALL the runners who completed the full knows no bounds.

[With huge thanks to the pro photographers (Craig K et al) who took most of the excellent pics here!]

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The ice dragon

The ‘Rhodes Trail Run’ has always had a certain mythical air about her. People talk about her (in hushed tones) as though she’s a sleeping mountain dragon who may wake up and breathe her icy breath all over you – freezing you firmly in place should you mention the word ‘entry’.

Entries are like hen’s teeth, and many a runner’s conversation will be peppered with expletives over Rhodes and its entry process. One has to find the hen (running free and headless in a vast undulating mountain landscape), wrestle her on the ground ….and then get on a waiting list, only to realise she is indeed headless and thus toothless once you pop out at the top – of said list.

It’s complicated in other words.

So when I heard that a good friend had managed to wangle a wildcard entry for me a few weeks ago, I was beside myself with excitement. I knew next to nothing about the route, the distance, the terrain….all I knew was that it was very far away and very, very cold. There could even be snow.

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I kept it that way right up until race morning – the state of blissful ignorance that is. I have never approached a race with such a blind faith and so it felt a little surreal to be standing alongside the other 287 frozen runners at the starting line on the morning of the 12th July.

Rhodes is a charming little mountain hamlet in the southern Drakensburg – where the term ‘time stood still’ has never been more apt. Really. This here misanthrope would settle there in an flash – were it not for the biting cold. Our sleeping ice dragon had gripped the place the week before – all rivers and waterfalls solid, suspended, white.

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We set off at a fairly blistering pace. My legs and feet frozen, lungs sucking in the icy air. We left the village and ran for about 13 kilometres along the Bell River and into the Kloppershoek Valley, crossing the Bell a few times via frosty causeways and low-level bridges.

We then hit the offroad stuff – an 8 kilometre stretch of grassy, stony undulating terrain – criss-crossed with cattle and sheep tracks. The route is marked by the occasional orange flag – and bits of sheep wool stuck to thorny scrub. We eventually arrived at the bottom of the infamous ‘Mavis Bank’ – a very steep climb along a fence, which had many fellow runners cursing and heaving.

After this festive check-point, we hit the Lesotho border road, put our heads down and forged ahead into some icy headwinds, passing the ski slopes of Tiffendale at 3 000 metres to the right. It was quite uncanny to see the ski lifts (well, one) and little specks weaving down the patch of snow, while running. We pass the highest point at this point – Lesotho view at 2 680m.

The scenery was utterly breath-taking and I managed to whip out my phone to take a few squiff photos – difficult to capture the beauty of such a place on a cell camera. I have never run in such spectacular big sky, wild mountain country. I can see how this kind of running could become addictive.

The fourth stage took us off-road again from a check point in a quarry to Hooggenoeg Ridge via Hooggenoeg Point. I had a severe sense of humour loss at this point, knowing there was a female competitor behind me, chasing me down and putting my first place in jeopardy. My very calm, patient, tolerant running buddy/coach quietly put up with my howling and wailing and swearing and we got through the difficult terrain (full of hidden rocks and holes) with only a minor loss of dignity (on my part).

There were snow flurries at the next check point – remarkable considering we had set off with clear skies and sunshine.

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With sense of humour back intact and a clear view behind, I left the water tables with intent and bolted down the steep descent for about 8 kilometres. My legs felt strong and I knew this was the place to extend the distance between myself and the woman in lumo green who had been taunting me for so long. This stretch took us off the mountain plateau into the Carlisleshoek Valley. We dropped several hundred meters per kilometre. Those last 5 kays were long and hard – but by then I knew I had a win in the bag, and was feeling comfortable and happy.

I won the ladies race in 5-33 and was in the top 10. A long way off the winning ladies time last year, but no matter – I shall put it down to being in the ‘old bag’ category.

It was an absolutely fabulous run, and a great weekend adventure in totality, with wonderful company and some incredible icy scenery. What an extraordinary corner of this truly amazing country.

[With thanks to Filippo for the great pics].

For more excellent shots, go to: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.877050405657095.1073741891.169730133055796&type=1

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Soul food

This weekend I took part in a two day trail event in a very special part of the world. I have always loved the Grootvadersbos area and have spent many weekends up there over the past decade or more exploring it’s densely forested nooks and crannies. There is something special about this place – from its extraordinary sunsets over the rolling grassy hills and craggy mountains to the big skies and silence.

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Day 1 (34 kays) took us deep into the Boesmanskloof wilderness area, which was a first for me. I was completely blown away by the route – it was utterly spectacular from beginning to end. At one point the single track rolled along the top of a ridge, with views to the left and forever down to Barrydale and beyond to snowy peaks and to the right down to the sea over endless rolling farmland…

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We climbed and puffed and climbed some more and flew and danced and leapt and sloshed and skipped and whooped. Well I did anyway. Have never felt such a sense of complete freedom and sheer joy at the ability to move through such extraordinary countryside at pace – and loving every step of the way.

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Day 2 (roughly 23 kays) had a bit of mountain, plenty of grassy, muddy jeep track, some river bed and plenty of gnarly, indigenous forest. Giant redwoods, bracket fungus, roller coaster forest paths and plenty of steep hills at the end to keep the heart pounding….

A truly spectacular weekend in every way.