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.

A Whale of a Time

Ultra trail race entries come with a hefty price tag these days – so much so that I tend to avoid them. As a freelancer, it’s difficult justifying a couple of thousand Rand on a day out on the trails. So when I got wind of a trail race entry with ‘free to a good home’ all over it, I grabbed the opportunity. The previous entrant had torn a hamstring and was unable to run. She seemed happy to just see it used. What an incredible gift!

The venue was De Hoop, and more specifically the Whale Trail – a 5-day hike which takes hikers through 53 kays of magical mountain and coastal fynbos from Potberg (home of one of the few healthy Cape vulture colonies) all the way to Koppie Alleen (where up to 50 whales have been spotted at one time). The trail winds its way through a glorious tapestry of limestone and sandstone fynbos, and the coastal stretch hugs one of the largest marine protected areas in SA.

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Glorious backdrop! One of Peter Kirk’s amazing photos

I was nervous about the distance – coming off a prolonged period of injury and with my longest training run standing at 30 kays a week before. One or two of SAs top trail ladies were in the mix, so I had resolved to just go out and enjoy the route, take the odd photo, maybe even sit on a rock for a picnic at some point…no hope of any glory with this one.

We set out from the De Hoop homestead (base camp) at 5-30 am sharp….a couple of buses winding their dusty, diesel chugging way through to the start….a solid 50 minute trip, with all the usual pre-race banter and steamy windows.

The air was chilly, but we had two wonderful big wood fires burning to huddle around, toasting fingers and toes and jiggling our legs nervously while the race organiser did her motivational thing over the mike.

It’s been a little over 2 and half years since I have found myself chest to chest with some of these elite runners in the starting block. There were nerves, granted…but also a rare sense of calm. I was more than comfortable with the fact that I could come home in the middle of the pack, or even the back-enders.

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Spectacular wide open spaces – coming off Potberg (Peter Kirk)

Then we were off. I felt comfortable and enjoyed the shouting and the encouragement from the sidelines. I could see my friend Linda ahead and slotted in behind a small group near her. We headed up the slopes of Potberg and the pace was perfect, with an easy run, walk, run, walk rhythm. Plenty of spare breath to chat and catch up along the way.  About 5 kays in I looked up and saw a handful of Cape Vultures floating above us, looking down at us – their wing tips curling in the light, buchu-scented morning breeze.

The views were spectacular – the sunlight touching the rocks and drenching the fynbos in a glorious orange light. The views either side of the Potberg ridge down into the valley were exceptional .

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Kiwi power – the leading lady (Peter Kirk)

Four of us started out together and stuck together for a solid and fairly speedy 20 odd kays. I would perhaps not have run so fast had I been alone. For some reason I was determined to stick with this group – even if it meant skipping the first refill (water) station!

This was trail running at its very best with undulating single track from start to finish. One minute we’d be rock hopping along protea-speckled mountain ridges, the next we’d be sloshing through boggy riverbeds, teetering over pole bridges, leaping over hardened limestone formations or wading through the thick treacle-like beach sand.

I was alone for the entire coastal stretch…left alone with the pain demons and voices in my head. The rest of our cozy little group bounded off into the horizon never to be seen again….

From this point on things got tricky with ankles not playing ball, sore feet and bad nutrition. The nausea kicked in with about ten kays to go. The beach stretches were hard and endless – thick, deep sand with a headwind is never fun. But I took my shoes off and played in the surf for a bit – nothing like the icy ocean to soothe aching muscles!

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Taking strain in the sand (Peter Kirk)

There was nothing sweeter than hitting the final steeply sloping boardwalk and coming into the finish.

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Magnificent coastline (Peter Kirk)

If there are any regrets it would be NOT stopping several times along the way to take photos, to fill my lungs with precious ozone, soak up the view and realise how completely blessed we are to live in such an extraordinary country.

I’m always left wondering about our need (as trail runners) to bolt out of the starting blocks and charge around such glorious places with barely a sideways glance. When your head is down and the focus is so intense – there really is so little time to take it all in and appreciate it. What is that all about?

There’s only one thing for it, really. I need to head back and do the route in 5 days not 7 ½ hours…

I loved this little cautionary snippet on the hiking trail map:

Extreme caution! Please do not leave the path or attempt to climb down any cliffs. The caves are not hiker-friendly. Bees and leopards have taken refuge in these caves over the years.

You cannot get much wilder and woolier than that!

Up, up and away!

The reason this blog started a few years ago was to share my experiences on the trails where I run. To take you with along the rugged, rocky pathways and give you all a sense of what I love so dearly.

A very stubborn Achilles injury has kept me away from my beloved mountains for FAR TOO LONG and it has been a pretty bleak year – having to settle for an indoor swimming pool and a mountain bike (though the latter really has been a reasonable substitute, I suppose).

Today I hit the trails again, Achilles tape firmly in place, brand new Salomon pack on my back and a very positive headspace.

I had no route planned, just went with where my feet took me. I ended up veering off the Chappies tarmac and up in to the mountain to the top of Chapman’s Peak proper. The more altitude I gained, the stronger I felt and the more I wanted to run/scramble to get to the top.

I stopped a few times to take some of these pics and then after a brief pause at the trig beacon, zoomed down the other side, skipping over rocks, dancing over roots and quite literally laughing out loud at the sheer joy of it all.

There is so much I love about it, it’s not easy to put it into words. The completely intoxicating solitude, the space, the speed (sometimes!), the outrageous beauty at every turn, the pleasure of feeling the strength coming back into my legs, the desire to just keep going and the knowledge that I can.

There has been a degree of denial with this injury of mine, and  it would be foolish to rush back in and set myself back yet again. So there’ll be no cork popping just yet…

BUT I am ‘cautiously optimistic’ that I can start to play in my mountains once again.