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, 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

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Trail Hero of the Month: June - Thabang Madiba

It's time for Rockhoppin' Trail's Trail Hero of the Month. No more appropriate a time for Thabang Madiba, this month crowned South African Trail Champion (long distance), for the second year running. He blitzed the 38km SA long distance champs course, the Outeniqua Traverse, beating his speedster buddy Lucky Miya by almost 3 mins, and securing his crown as champ for the second consecutive year.

I chatted across the miles with Thabang to find out what makes this champ tick.

Age:   30 years
Occupation:   Line Operator at Nissan SA main plant in Rosslyn, Pretoria

LD:  Where were you born, raised and schooled? 
TM:  I was born, raised and schooled in Ga-Rankuwa, north of Pretoria.

LD:   How many years have you been running? 
Thabang on his way to securing his 2nd title as SA trail champ
TM:   I started running in 1999 when I was in Std 6 (Grade 8). After winning my first bronze medal in the boys U17 1500m, I started taking my running seriously. I qualified for the South African cross country champs in 2001 and performed very well, placing 7th overall in the boys 4km. Cross country was always my favourite type of running - I was never a good road or track runner, and I think that’s why I enjoy trail running so much. 
In 2009 I did my first trail race, the New Balance Maxi Cross 15km in Groenkloof Nature Reserve. I won it with a 3 min gap, defeating one of SA’s best road runners. That afternoon I ran the 4km cross country race and came 3rd overall. That’s when I realised my potential. From then I started doing more trail races, with the Winter and Summer Trail Series in Gauteng.

LD:   How did your trail running progress from there? 
TM:   Winning my first trail series race really motivated me, and I started searching the Internet for other races to do. My first big trail race was in Cape Town, the Two Oceans Trail Run 2012, and I placed 3rd overall. I'm now a Salomon sponsored athlete and I love being part of the Salomon team. My love for trail running is growing every day. I enjoy being outdoors because I feel free and connected to nature.

LD:   What are your trail running hopes and dreams? 
TM:   My dream and wish is to run for Salomon International, win an international Skymarathon, and run as many mountains as possible, especially in Europe because most of the world class runners are in Europe and there are plenty of big mountains there. It also brings joy to my heart to think of racing against the world's best - I hope one day I will live my dream.

LD:  Who are your trail running heroes - local and international? 
TM:   Kilian Jornet, Marco De Gasperi, Ryan Sandes, Lucky Miya, and AJ Calitz.

LD:   What other races will you be running this year? 
TM:   The World Champs in Colorado, the Otter, and maybe the Oman 6-day desert race.

LD:   What's your motto in life?
TM:   Always live life to the full.

LD:   Who is your role model?
TM:   Kilian Jornet. He changed my views on trail running. After meeting him and the Salomon team (Ryan, Anna Frost and Greg Vollet) at the Salomon seminar in Groenkloof Nature Reserve in 2011,  I started to take trail running very seriously and dreaming big. I'd love to race against Kilian some day. Listening to him speak and watching him run really changed my life, and made me want to run up every mountain I see.

Photo credits to Hayley Hagen and to Peter Kirk Media.