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!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

My musings on our Drakensberg Grand Traverse

the profile of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse

If you know the why, the how takes care of itself.
Well, that’s not altogether true – it omits to mention the tremendous amount of planning and preparation that goes into ensuring that the how happens. That ‘small point’ aside, I wholeheartedly believe that without passion and purpose, we lack the incentive to tackle and conquer enormous goals.

No passion + no purpose + no perseverance = no success.

us with the map of Lesotho in the background
Now, if mountains, rivers and vast vistas feed the soul, and gruelling challenge fuel the mind and body, then in a single weekend three weeks ago I was blessed with a feast to quench my hunger for wild, rugged mountains for a good while to come.

Firstly, and most importantly, we did it! We achieved our primary goal: to complete the Drakensberg Grand Traverse without mishap. And the enormous bonus was that we beat the mixed record by 15 hours 24 mins. We’re extremely grateful for that – so much can go wrong up there, it’s true mountain wilderness.

But to try and describe the experience is my next challenge. If ever one was stunted by writer’s block from an overwhelmingly humbling experience, that has been me since the enormity of our Drakensberg Grand Traverse. Writing is what I do for a living, but I’ve really struggled to put onto (virtual) paper words that can do justice to 63½ hours of pure mountain wilderness experience. It’s taken me three full weeks to digest, and to do it justice in print is almost just as testing as we found achieving our sub-64 hour challenge.

Through my haze of heavy breathing, lung-burning, quad-pounding effort, it was easy to see how the soaring basalt peaks, buttresses, rock walls and pinnacles of the massive lava barrier separating the foothills of Kwa-Zulu Natal from the Lesotho plateau was considered by the Voortrekkers back in 1800 to resemble a mighty dragon’s back, and why they named it the Drakensberge.  

And slogging for 63 hours along that escarpment felt as special as running along a real dragon’s back would. Looking back, it feels quite surreal.

But just as special was the privilege of traversing the escarpment with someone who knows those mountains so well. This was Ryno Griesel’s fourth complete Grand Traverse. His passion for those mountains is so deep that once he even slogged a 100km section of the traverse in the thick snow of mid-winter, just so he could experience it in all conditions. Taking on the challenge with Ryno was a daunting prospect. Not only is this man the current joint record holder, but his faith in my ability was absolute. I knew I would be the weak link in the partnership by a long way, and I knew that to achieve what we were aiming for, I would have to push my physical limits as I had never before.

One weekend in January we had recced the first 130km of the route, which had given me a taste of what to expect of the full quota of the traverse. The mistakes I made that weekend were invaluable and my learning curve severe – I saw what I needed to tweak food-wise, kit-wise and training-wise for a realistic chance of completing the full distance.

The start - Sentinel car park,  Friday 2:45am
It’s fascinating how fast time passes when there’s complete focus hour after relentless hour. Yet despite my concentration, it’s crazy how few details of the Traverse I can remember. Of the 214km we covered during those three days and two nights, there’re only a handful of moments that stand out in my mind. The rest is a gamut of exquisite green vistas, soaring peaks, dramatic valleys, crystal clear rivers, muddy bogs and marshes, countless saddles and summits, cliffs and cutbacks, all with buttresses, needles and pinnacles teetering in the distance to our left along the escarpment edge.

Ten of my most vivid conclusions from the DGT

  • Two hours sleep between 22-hour bouts of running/fast-trekking is possible only thanks to adrenalin and a suitable mixture of calm confidence (from Ryno) and moderate panic (from me).
  • Every mountain summit above 3 000m has at least two false summits, specifically put there to make your heart sink.
  • The difference between 3 000m and 3 482m is directly proportional not only to one’s lung capacity but one’s ability to block out 1) pain and 2) the rasping-gasping-spluttering sound of sea-level lungs trying their damndest to suck in more oxygen.
  • Nothing quite beats a spontaneous pre-dawn 15 minute power nap in a deserted kraal at 3 100m. And absolutely nothing beats the look of utter amazement on the face of the Basotho herdsman who arrives just as you emerge from his kraal…
  • Droëwors is as revolting as I’ve always thought it was. Droëwors is how butchers make use of gristle, fat, sinew and hoof once they’ve removed all the real meat. Yuuuuk.
  • Once you’ve ticked off the last of the six specific peaks of the Traverse (Thabana Ntleyana, the highest peak south of Kilimanjaro) at 152km, there’s still an entire day of mind-numbing effort ahead. The next 62km are riddled with saddles and summits that are almost as high as those that filled the two previous days of slog.
  • Finishing a 214km challenge with +/-20km of downhill can really hurt, but running it against the clock definitely helps to block out the pain.
  • Positivity is everything. There is no doubt that having a positive approach, even through pain and exhaustion, enables the mind to push the body. The trick with endurance sport, provided you’ve done the training, is to never let your blood sugar level drop. The first symptom of a drop in blood glucose, long before you hit the wall, is that negativity takes over – the voice in your head finds every reason why you should slow down… or stop! Keeping yourself properly fuelled by eating and drinking regularly enables your legs and brain to do what you need them to do.
  • There was no sweeter relief than reaching the finish, realising that everything went according to plan, we’d achieved what we’d hoped, and we’d broken the mixed record.
  • The finish - Bushman's Nek, Sunday 6:18pm
  • The Drakensberg escarpment is not for sissies. Once you’re up there, there’s little chance of turning back or pulling out – you’re committed. Any change of mind involves hours of hiking over harsh terrain to get to a pass that will (hopefully) get you down and back to civilisation in one piece. Never head up there unprepared, always carry more food than you hope to need, and never skimp on safety gear.

And as for me, I’m now enjoying feet-up-and-on-the-couch for a few weeks, the visual memories of the “dragon mountains” still fresh in my mind. At least for now…

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

counting down to the Drakensberg Grand Traverse

This is a blog I’ve looked forward to writing for more than two years – ever since I first mustered up the courage in January 2013 to ask Ryno Griesel whether he’d be interested in teaming up for a mixed record attempt of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse.

His response was immediate – not only was he keen, but he’d be honoured. Honoured? Good grief, what was he on about – he was the joint record holder, had years of adventure racing under his belt, and having climbed mountains around the world, had notched up way more real mountain experience than I could ever dream of. He was a true man o’ the mountains. I’ve got loads of trail running experience and have done heaps of ultras, sure, but that’s completely different from an endurance endeavour the likes of this. The DGT is in a completely different league from any piddly trail race, regardless the distance.

So in he was.
And nervous I became.

We stalled our mixed attempt plans for two years to each squeeze in a few additional ultra-distance challenges. In March 2014 Ryno did the DGT with Ryan Sandes, whipping a solid 18 hours 40 mins off the previous fastest known time, which had been set in 2010 by Ryno and fellow extreme adventurer Cobus van Zyl. At an astonishing 41 hours 49 mins, Ryno and Ryan’s record won’t be broken for a very long time.

And now the time for our mixed record attempt is here. At 4am on Friday 27th March, I’ll be setting off from Sentinel car park with the two most capable and highly experienced mountain men I could wish for – Ryno Griesel and Cobus van Zyl know the Drakensberg escarpment better than most, and together they set the previous DGT record of 60 hours 29 mins (April 2010).

The history of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse

The Drakensberg Trans-Frontier Challenge, renamed the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, was set by the Raubenheimer brothers, Gavin and Lawrie, in 1999. They achieved the DGT in 4 days, 9 hours 39 minutes (105 hours 39 mins). The brothers had drawn up the following criteria for the DGT:
  • Start at the Sentinel car park perimeter fence, and finish at the Bushman’s Nek border post perimeter fence
  • The challenge must be completed on foot
  • GPS is allowed
  • The following checkpoints must be visited along the route:
    - the Chain Ladders
    - Mont-aux-Sources summit (3 282m)
    - Cleft Peak summit (3 277m)
    - Champagne Castle summit (3 377m)
    - Mafadi summit (3 451m)
    - Giant’s Castle summit (3 314m)
    - Thabana Ntlenyana summit (3 482m)
  • Thomathu Pass must be used to descend to Bushman’s Nek
  • Rest wherever you want, for however long you want…
  • Importantly, the challenge must be completely self-supported – no seconding, no resupply or food caches along the way.

The DGT in numbers:

Total elevation gain:  between 9 500m and 10 000m
Horizontal distance:  205km
Full distance including ascent/descent:  215km
Climbs in excess of 200m:  more than 28
Number of unsuccessful attempts since 1999: way more than 30…

Current records  (thanks to Lisa de Speville for this info, www.ar.co.za)

Current record (men's group): Ryno Griesel and Ryan Sandes
Date: 24-25 March 2014
Distance: 209km
Duration: 41 hours 49 mins
Griesel and Sandes broke the previous record set by Ryno Griesel and Cobus van Zyl (set 9-11 April 2010) of 60 hours 29 mins

Solo male record: Andrew Porter
Date: December 2009
Duration: 61 hours 24 mins

Women's group record: Laura Forster and Fiona McIntosh (Team Water For Africa)
Date: November 2008
Duration: 157 hours 11 mins

Mixed group record: Team Merrell Adventure Addicts: Graham Bird, Hanno Smit, Robyn Kime* and Grant Ross
Date: 11-14 November 2014
Duration: 78 hours 57 mins
* Robyn is therefore the fastest woman across the DGT route.
Merrell Adventure Addicts bettered the previous mixed group time of 110 hours 57 mins established by Christine Harris and Carlos Gonzalez in January 2010.

Ryno Griesel and Cobus van Zyl

Three aspects I’m particularly nervous about:
  1. Weather:  As with every DGT, weather will play an enormous role in how we fair. We’ve specifically chosen this time of year as it’s said to be the most stable – the summer thunderstorms are more intermittent, and it’s theoretically before the cold months set in. Note the word theoretically. This is the Drakensberg, and at altitude the weather can be unpredictable. So, we can only hope it’s on our side!
  2. Feet:  Regardless of wet from above, we most definitely will be wet underfoot. And that’s pretty much for the entire 215km distance. The ground on the escarpment is marshy, even quite boggy in places, so I’m nervously anticipating all that’s entailed in having wet feet for +/-70 hours.
  3. Nutrition:  The longest endurance event I’ve ever done (Grand Raid of Reunion, 174km) took me 44 hours. That’s substantially less than I’ll be slogging for the DGT. I know all the gastric discomforts one goes through during ultras, and I’ve tried so many different combinations of foods over the years in the hope of hitting the one that works for me. And yet I can honestly say I’ve never mastered my nutrition for ultras. No event and no conditions are ever the same, and there’re so many factors to consider – the biggest of this one being the ask on the body: to be pushing the pace, virtually without rest, for 215km, through three days and two nights (hopefully not a third night…) will put a mammoth strain on the digestion, let alone the rest of the body. That’s adventure racing territory, and I’m not an adventure racer. This time, I’ve done more research than ever, and I’m hoping that the selection of foods I’m taking with me will see me strongly through the distance.

One thing is guaranteed: whatever next weekend brings, whatever happens, the experience will be incredible.

* all photos credited to Ryno Griesel