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, May 28, 2015

The Beast 2015

 “What is man without the beasts? 
For if all the beasts were gone, man would die of a great loneliness of the spirit.”
These wise words were uttered way back in the mid 1800s by a rather astute Native American chap named Chief Seattle. We must presume, of course, that he was referring not only to those of the male persuasion dying of loneliness if all beasts were gotten rid of, but us gals too.
Of course he did.
They did care about women too in those days…   well, every now and then.

But I digress. Back to the importance of beasts and the like. Here in Cape Town we now have our very own Beast. And he’s a real brute – he’s huge, he’s tough, he looms high above us all, he’s often grumpy – even savage at times, he demands and commands respect, and he throws his weight around like no other. Quite deviously, he appears at first to be less demanding than what he actually is, and he only bears his true monstrous character a couple of hours after you first meet him.

I refer to this Beast – all 49 growling, snarling, vicious kilometres of it – as male, but no one’s really sure, the verdict’s out. Some say The Beast has to be female – that every time you think things are calming down and getting easier, she bites even harder. Some even refer to her as a bitch of a beast – not only female but teenage, nagging constantly, slowly wearing you down. Just when you think you’ve got that teenager under some semblance of control, she comes back to bite you, sharper, nastier and more unpredictable than before.

Others believe The Beast is male, flexing his testosterone-pumped ego-fuelled muscles at every opportunity. One runner went as far as to say The Beast must be male because he has two balls: a curve ball and Trevor Ball.

Speaking of the Tee Ball himself, grand designer of this terrifying beastie akin only to Roald Dahl’s ghastly menagerie of dirty beasts, I asked Trevor what gender he considered The Beast. This is how he replied:  “It’s an inner Beast, so not gender specific. Release your Beast on the trails! It’s like the Abominable Snowman, big and hairy; it’s like Medusa, it has a head full of snakes that keep biting you and never let up; it’s like the Hulk, it grows huge with rage but is benign if you chill and flow with it.”

(shew!)

Appropriately described, The Beast is Cape Town’s newest trail race, and falls under the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon suite of events. Tipping in just short of 50km, the race is a true ultra, both in distance and difficulty. And, quite simply, this one’s a champ – the route is varied, starting comfortably and growing increasingly tougher as the course progresses.

The route

Starting at the Old Zoo, The Beast has runners following the upper contour path across the front face of Table Mountain, around Kloof Corner, and along the full length of the pipetrack. Then the hairiness begins: haul up Corridor Ravine, onto the spine path and northwards across 12 of the 17 Apostles via the Valley of the Red Gods (over Slangolie, Spring, Wood, Postern, Kasteels, Valken, Barrier, Jubilee, Porcupine, Grotto, Fountain, and Cairn buttresses). Then across the front top of the Table to Maclears Beacon, and diagonally to Hely Hutchinson dam via Echo Valley. After that, the legs face a couple of km’s on the concrete jeep track before hopping onto the Smuts Track to get to Nursery Ravine for the quads to be truly tested. Once on the (not-so) contour path below, the final eight or so km’s call for serious grit.

Trevor knows this one’s a winner: “The Beast route is the culmination of years of planning (dating back to early TMC days) and a lot of work convincing SANParks that we will be eco-friendly and safe. I believe trail running must be an adventure, and The Beast is exactly that!”

Results of The Beast 2015

MEN                                                     WOMEN
Bernard Rukadza      -    05:41:25                Landie Greyling     -   06:37:29
Christiaan Greyling   -   05:43:10                 Sylvie Scherzinger  -   07:06:53
Dion Middelkoop      -   05:54:08                 Linda Doke           -   07:15:45

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.
Guaranteed.

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…