I'm not a natural blogger and I'm no techie. I'm an ultra trail runner by passion, and a journalist by profession - in that order of priority.
In this blog I use the one to talk about the other - my trail thoughts, musings and meanderings about running mountains and trails.
I call it rockhoppin', just because... well... that's what we trail runners love to do!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tuffer Puffer 2014

Never again, I had said, never again. That was back in 2007, after my second Tuffer Puffer. Somehow, over the seven years since, I had forgotten I’d said that. I guess I can blame my short memory partly on time’s ability to morph naivety into reality, and partly on having since run something far worse, on many levels, than Tuffer – the Grand Raid de la RĂ©union (Diagonale des Fous), which in 2012, being that race’s 20th anniversary, was its longest distance, a very nasty 175km (with 10 500m of vertical gain).

And so it was a blend of naivety and poor memory that saw me signing up to run Tuffer Puffer 2014. Or perhaps it was a TBI (Temporary Bout of Insanity). Either way, all ye reading this, please do not, under any circumstances, either suggest or allow me to suggest that I do so a fourth time. 
Never. Non. Nein. Nyet. Not ever.

The Tuffer Puffer is, by way of definition, the Peninsula Ultra Fun Run (PUFfeR) run “there and back”. For those not in the know, that means double the route of the Puffer, which is an 80km race from Cape Point over the mountains to the Waterfront at Cape Town Harbour. Traditionally, the route of the Tuffer followed that of the PUFfeR, starting in reverse, at 8am on the Friday morning, running to Cape Point, turning around and running back the same way. About 4 years ago, the Cape Point Nature Reserve no longer allowed people into the reserve after dark, so the race had to be rerouted via Scarborough and Misty Cliffs, then back past the Cape Point gate, past Smitswinkel, through Simonstown, and up the nasty 4km Red Hill zigzags to Pine Haven, where it rejoins the original route and continues all the way through to the Waterfront. The distance remained unchanged, as did the ratio of trail to tar.

Marc de Rooy and I on fresh legs on Signal Hill just 5km into the race                 (pic credit Eric Tollner)
The race begins at 8am the day before the PUFfeR, so that the runners are well on their return journey (some even close to completion) by the time the PUFfeR runners start their challenge at 5:30am on the Saturday. Over the years the 80km route of the PUFfeR has enjoyed a few shortcuts here and there which, being all legal, have shrunk the distance of that race to around 74km. So, although referred to as a 100-miler (164km), Tuffer Puffer is not, it’s more like 145km.

But do not be fooled by that absence of 20km, it’s still bloody far.

A maximum of 20 entrants are permitted to take on the Tuffer each year – this limit being set by the fact that for safety reasons Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) does not allow people onto the mountain after dark.

So that sketches the race history, now onto the day itself…

I wasn’t sure how my legs would welcome this event. Having raced the Fish River Canyon Ultra (82km) last month, the Outeniqua Quest (108km) a month before that, and the Whale of Trail (54km) in May, they’d been put through their paces and the chances of them welcoming a fourth ultra in four months were slim. But come the day, they felt surprisingly perky and, like the unexpected good weather, that was most welcome!

Karl and I on the road section near Misty Cliffs, 60km under the belt                     (pic credit Eric Tollner)
The tough thing about Tuffer is not so much the distance as the fact that the middle third of the route involves 46km of tar. Any trail runner knows that 50km of trail is easier on the body than less that distance on the road – tar is about monotonous hammering of same-stride form, and it does nothing to boost body or brain. In the Tuffer, the tar section begins at about the 52km mark, and you don’t touch trail again until around 98km.

As the great Dean Karnazes said in UltraMarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, “sometimes you have to go through hell to get to heaven”. With Tuffer, heaven comes first – with +50km of exquisite trail (interspersed with short bouts of road that go almost unnoticed). Then comes the hell: +45km of tar, culminating in a 4km slog up the nasty switchbacks of Red Hill from the Simonstown side. By the time you’re back on trail again, the legs are well worn. In fact, they’re bitching relentlessly and wish to do nothing faster than walk.

Descending Platteklip with the city lights below
On the return leg of Tuffer, it’s compulsory for runners to have seconds. My crew were the best I could’ve wished for – they cheered me up, they entertained me, they nagged me to eat, they very patiently walked whenever I required. Together we stargazed, inhaled the night fragrances of the fynbos, fantasised about food, dreamed about coffee, plotted and planned future races. Karl kept me chugging along over the marathon section of tar from Scarborough to Simonstown; Gerard helped me run up (most of) the Red Hill switchbacks and all the way to the start of the Wagon Trail; Kylie and Roger took me across the long section from Wagon Trail to Constantia Nek; and Chris and Rob had the (to many, unenviable) task of doing the final section: Constantia Nek, up to Maclears, across the top, down Platteklip, along Signal Hill, and down to the finish. My main-man Craig was the driver – for 24 long hours he was the crew’s pivot, the fetch-and-taker, the stocktaker, the feeder, the clockwatcher. Craig is my rock.

For me it’s the night section that makes all the pain of Tuffer worthwhile. There’s something very special about running through Cape mountain fynbos on a cold, clear night. The rich fragrances on the Black Hill section could only be matched by the star-studded sky of that night, and the only sound for miles was the crunching of our footfall on the sandy path. On my previous Tuffers I’d watched the sunrise from the top of Table Mountain; this time we were running along Signal Hill while the sky was lightening, and that wonderful feeling of knowing I was way ahead of my previous times helped make that sunrise even more special than it looked.

Crossing the finish line
Race organiser Kim, Chris and Rob as dancing girls, and Craig as cheerleader made up the roaring crowd to welcome me over the finish line in 23:54. Never was the tarmac more comfortable to sit on than that moment, cushioned by the knowledge that I’d completed my third Tuffer, improved my time, was the 1st overall finisher, and had set a new women’s record.

A huge thanks to my Tuffer crew – Craig, Karl, Gerard, Kylie, Roger, Chris and Rob; to friends Andrew, Eric, Caryn, John, Karoline, Filippo, Chippy, Wally and Ghaleed for their encouragement during the race; and as always to my sponsors Salomon South Africa, PeptoSport, and RUSH Bars. Without you all, I wouldn’t be able to complete these wonderful events.

Photo credits to Eric Tollner and Chris Allan

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Fish River Canyon Ultra 2014

First, some history about running the Fish River Canyon…

The Fish River Canyon is the second largest canyon in the world, surpassed only by the Grand Canyon in Colorado, USA. Located in the south of Namibia, the canyon is stark, rugged, magnificently desolate and harshly unforgiving. In July 1990, two South African Bruce Matthews and Ronnie Muhl set out to run the Fish River Canyon hiking trail (a five-day hike) in under a day. They achieved their goal in 11:42. In August 2003, Namibians Russell Paschke, Charlie du Toit, Coenraad Pool and Tommy van Wyk took on the record, finishing in 10:54.

Then, in August 2012, world-renowned ultra-trail runner Ryan Sandes smashed this record in a time of 6:57, shedding a crazy four hours off the previous time.

FRCU – what it’s about
This race is rough, tough, and tests even the canniest runners. It doesn’t have a scary profile like most races – instead it’s all about the terrain, the conditions, and a geography of a zillion S-bends that follow the river bed of a canyon more than half a kilometre high. It’s about fine, deep, dry sand that saps your leg strength; it’s about small rounded boulders that riddle the river’s edge; it’s about gigantic rocks of megalith proportions, worn smooth by eons of erosion by water and wind; it’s about an unforgiving sun beating down relentlessly; it’s about a river that doesn’t flow continuously but rather lurks sullenly in a murky mass, drinkable in some areas but definitely not in others. This race is about physical and mental endurance, much patience, and a hell of a lot of trust.

This was the third running of the full distance. The event started in 2011 with only the 65km distance on offer, then the 100km option kicked in the following year.

Organising this event can’t be easy – because of the nature of the canyon, the course is inaccessible but for three points, and two of those are difficult to get supplies to. The canyon itself is really miles from anywhere, and takes hours to get to, whichever direction you’re coming from. And yet the race organisers, Tinus Hansen and his team at African Extreme Promotions, outshone themselves. 
Aerial shot of the race village, showing tents on the lip of the canyon
From the organisation of the race village (tents positioned at the very lip of the canyon, making for what must surely be THE most dramatic location ever for any event in the southern hemisphere!) and the manning of the checkpoints in less than comfortable surroundings, to the great vibe and slick pre- and post-race presentations, they were great.

The FRCU follows the route of the Fish River Canyon hiking trail, with a 10km run added on at the start to get you from the race village (where the race starts) to the descent into the canyon (where the official hike begins). Although the length of the full distance of the canyon route is 100km, the total distance of the route provided to runners via GPS is 79.8km, as this incorporates a number of official shortcuts along the route – if, of course, you can find them.

The race started at 5:30am. The 10km run along the top of the canyon was on a dirt road and in the dark, lit only by the light of our headlamps. I ran at an easy pace, about 4:35/km, and my legs felt good. I could see about 7 guys ahead of me, and a long train of single headlamp spots of the many behind me. The temperature was chilly to start, about 5 degs, but made for good cool running. Before long the sky was lightening, 10km was behind me and I was at the start of the descent. I was excited – now the real event would begin! I stripped off my Salomon windjacket, headlamp and buff, tucked them into my Skin pack, and headed down… and down… and down the very technical and loose descent into the canyon.
Me heading down the start of the descent into the canyon
I’d been warned about the fine sand in the canyon, and having experienced the “joys” of sand in numerous desert races, I had taken the decision to wear full gaiters. Many runners had decided on mini-gaiters (ankle), and others had gone with no gaiters at all. Wearing full gaiters turned out to be the best kit decision I made – not once during the entire 80km did I feel a single grain of sand in my shoes. It’s the first time in years I’ve finished an ultra with my feet looking as clean as when I started! Most of the participants battled with sand, and had to stop frequently to empty the dunes from their shoes.

Shoe-wise, I wore my Sense Mantras – another good decision. They gripped the rocks well, they were lightweight yet supportive, and importantly my feet were comfortable for the entire distance.
For my pack I decided on my Salomon Advanced Skin 5L pack, rather than my 12L one, and it was the right choice. While there’s very little difference, if any, in the feel between the two sizes once on, I wanted to go as minimal and lightweight as I could, and the 5L fitted all my mandatory kit and food without any problem.

Running over zillions of smooth rounded rocks is testing! 
We’d all been sent the GPS track of the route, as well as provided with a pocketsize laminated booklet of satellite images of the route taken from Google Earth, so theoretically the going should’ve been fine. But the nature of the canyon is such that it tempts us runners to question technology and to opt instead for logic. Only, logic doesn’t necessarily get us to the finish line quicker…    Many runners made wrong route decisions during the race, and ended up adding exhausting hours to their slog.

The river water wasn't always this clear...
Fortunately for me, everything went according to plan, apart from a small error I made very early on in the canyon, when I made the wrong decision to cross onto the opposite bank of the river too soon. Deon Braun, Lyndon Nash and I found ourselves having to manoeuvre across a radically slanting and very smooth massive rock that sloped sharply into the river, and looking longingly at where we should’ve been on the opposite bank. We could’ve turned back and retraced our steps, but didn’t want to waste valuable minutes…   Of course the mistake ended up wasting about 15 minutes anyway, as we gingerly clung our way in spiderlike fashion across the slanting rock, desperately trying not to end up swimming. Thankfully we eventually managed to get onto firm ground and get running again!

I’d expected the temperature in the canyon to be uncomfortably hot, particularly between 11am and 3pm when the sun is overhead. But thankfully we were kept relatively cool by a gentle headwind, and regular cap-dousings of water from the river.

AJ Calitz set a blistering new FRCU record of 8:04
Because of the inaccessibility of the canyon, the race is self-sufficient. We knew to only expect provisions at the last of the three checkpoints (water, Coke, potatoes, bananas, etc.). River water was the way to go – although it didn’t look so great, it was drinkable…   a little murky but it was cold and tasted fine!

As the day went on, Lyndon and I gradually managed to overtake three of the runners who’d been in front of us. My goal had been to cover as much of the race distance as I could in the daylight, because trying to run in a rocky canyon and make route decisions in the dark is virtually impossible. My legs, however, felt really strong the entire way, and I was able to keep up a consistent pace. This meant that by the time I reached CP3, the Causeway, with about 15km to go, I realised that providing I kept up my pace, I would make the finish in the light. So, I pushed hard – and with legs and brain on the same team, I maintained a good strong pace to the finish. I crossed the line in 11:50, a good 10mins clear of 12 hours, as 1st lady and, more importantly, in 4th position overall. My time set a new women’s record by just 9 minutes shy of 6hrs (previous record 17:41).
Tinus Hansen presenting the ladies' trophy

The unexpected fuel bomb..!
While I always carry as little as I have to, on ultras I always take a lot more fuel with me than I consume. I prefer it that way – I obviously don’t want to run out of energy, and I take little bites / sips regularly to avoid blood sugar lows and to keep my energy level constant. (I don’t always get it right, but I have improved over the years!)  The only fluid I drink is water, supplemented every 3-4 hours by 500ml of PeptoSport (I carry a pre-portioned zip-lock bag of the powder and pour it into a clutch bottle as I run). My energy bars are RUSH Bars, which contain no sugar and are made of natural ingredients and only good things!
When I reached the Causeway (3rd CP), I was feeling good – my energy level was high and my legs felt strong. But as with many ultras, by the nth hour of consuming the same taste, the mouth (and the brain) are dying for the treat of something different. And that’s when I spotted the chocolate Steri-Stumpi staring at me longing from the table under the tent. “DRINK ME!!” it screamed. Sitting quietly next to it was a cup of Coke, pre-poured for us by the wonderful volunteers manning the CP. Damn, I wanted them both! So before I could think twice, I downed the Steri Stumpie, smashed the Coke, washed it all down with several sips of water, and dashed off to take on the final section of the race.

Now, it has to be said that throwing such a combo down one’s gullet is not normally recommended, and that over the next km or so I did allow my mind to linger to the horrors of what I’d just taken in, and the frightening effects such an amalgamation might have on my gut. But I can happily say that not only was that possibly THE most delicious combo I’ve achieved in my history of horrific combos, but dammit, this one worked like a bomb!

A fantastic day, a great race and an incredible adventure! Definitely one for the bucket list!

 Click on Fish River Canyon Ultra and Lite (65km) results for the full results of both events.

The race will be screened on SuperSport on these dates:
Schedule Date
Schedule Time
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport Select SA
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport Select SA
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8
Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon
SuperSport 8