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!

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

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Run The Rann 2015 (161km)

Some of the intrepid 161'ers the day before the race

“Trail running is a dangerous sport, and ultra trail running is the extreme version of it, because the nature of the playground is wild and sometimes, like here in the Rann, quite inhospitable.”

These are the words of Gaël Couturier, race director of Run The Rann, a set of a four events staged simultaneously last weekend on the “island” of Khadir Bet, in Gujurat province in western India, some 30km from the border with Pakistan. Known as the Thar Desert, the area forms a part of the Great Rann of Kutch, a 7,500km2 salt marsh, said to be the largest salt desert in the world. The region is desolate, sparsely populated and, in the northern section of the island, completely uninhabited.

I was privileged to be one of 12 people invited to participate in the 100 miler, hosted by the Gujurat Commission of Tourism to promote the race to the global trail running fraternity. (Unfortunately two of them didn’t make it – their visas couldn’t be processed in time.)  
(L to R) Josh, me, Mimi, Tarmo, Justin, Damian, Tom  (pic by Justin Bowyer)

My fellow runners were certainly a “well-heeled” bunch from a sporting perspective – collectively, their sporting achievements were enough to shake the dust out of any elite competitor’s socks.
  •  Dan Lawson, ultra distance athlete with a host of incredible achievements to his name, including the World Record for the furthest distance run on a treadmill (521 miles in 7 days). He has a host of race wins, including the 24 hour track race in Gloucestor in 2014, where he achieved 242km. (Read about Dan HERE)
  • Damian Stoy, coach, biomechanics specialist, nutritional consultant and professional ultra runner from Montana, USA (http://wholisticrunning.com)
  •  Mimi Anderson, queen of ultra-distance running, Mimi has two world records (previously three) to her name, and has won countless ultras around the world, many of them outright, including the 6633 Extreme Ultra Marathon, a 352 mile non-stop self-sufficient race in the Arctic, setting a course record that is yet to be beaten: 143hrs 23min. She remains the only woman to have completed the race. (Read my blog on Mimi HERE)
  •  Tom Caughlan, ultra runner from Colorado, USA, Tom is one of the gear reviewers on irunfar.com, specialising in minimalist models
  •  Justin Bowyer, ultra runner and contributor to Runner’s World UK. Author of Running: Motivation, Nutrition & Hydration. Editor of www.runningmonkey.co.uk
  •  Tarmo Vannas, a fruitarian/vegan ultra runner from Estonia, now living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
  •  Walter Batel, a French endurance athlete with 12 Ironman and an MDS to his name
  •   Francois-Xavier Gaudas, an ultra-runner from France

About 100 runners toed the start line for the four races of Run The Rann – 21km, 42km, 101km and the 161km. Most were from India, and many were from other countries around the world. Being the inaugural event, there were just 14 of us doing the 161km.

Having visited India on two previous occasions, I knew not to expect predictability. By its very nature, India is alive, vibrant, buzzing, quirky, chaotic. The words efficiency and India cannot share the same sentence. No matter where you are in the country or whatever you’re doing, India presents a smorgasbord of sights, tastes, fragrances and experiences; nothing in India is, or ever can be, predictable. In many ways that’s one of the charms of this fascinating country, but it’s important that people know to expect that, and to prepare for it. So, tackling an ultra in this part of the world should be no different – prepare for the unexpected!
The ridgeline above the salt flats  (pic by Tarmo Vannas fb.me/ultratarmo)

I went into this race with a healthy dose of that approach. I’d done what research I could on what weather and temperatures to expect, I had a rough idea how the route profile would pan out (described by the race director as a lot of up and down in certain sections, with about 60km or so of salt flats in the middle section).

As always, I planned my nutrition and hydration accordingly. Knowing from the race briefing that there’d be CPs roughly every 10km, I carried two 500ml soft flasks, which I would top up or refill with water at every CP, and add my PeptoSport every third or fourth CP. Not wanting to rely on food provided by the CPs (oranges, glucose powder, cereal bars and, every so often, portions of curry J), I carried my usual variety of RUSH Bars, nuts, apricots and my favourite recent discovery: pretzel squares injected with peanut butter. The bomb!

Never thinking I would need it, I poured about 200ml of water into the bladder of my Salomon 12L Skin pack as reserve.

So I was as prepared as I could be, garnished with a generous dose of open-mindedness for whatever might be thrown at me over the next +/-24 hours. That’s roughly how long I’d guessed this race would take me…  Little did I realise what was to come!

With the 7:30am start of the race began a 100 mile event that is best described as less of a running race and more an orienteering adventure – and a great one, at that. An exquisite route of harsh, desert terrain flecked with loose shale and high sandstone ridges and cliffs, overlooking hundreds of kilometres of shimmering “white desert” – coarsely crusted salt as far as the eye could see.
Thorns everywhere, just waiting to snag us  (pic by Tarmo Vannas)

And the sharper side of the scene: thorns, thorns and more thorns. Long straight ones, short hooked ones, thorns on trees, bushes and branches that were just waiting to snag skin and fabric at every turn. And if all those thorns weren’t enough of a spikey deal to contend with, thorny twigs lying in the sand stabbed the soles of our shoes and spiked our feet more times than I could count.

A missing CP5 threw the runners a curveball of 20km with no water in the heat of the day, testing stamina, endurance and mental strength. CP6 at 50km was a welcome sight for everyone, some runners needing a couple of hours in the tent to rehydrate and recover before pushing on.

Til that point I had run mostly on my own, with only Dan and Damian ahead. I’d been trailed by a determined local runner who was carrying nothing but a GPS – no pack, no food, no water. As the kilometres without water had ticked past, he’d dropped off the pace, and by the time he reached CP6, he was exhausted.

Damian and I - in perfect sync
Damian and I teamed up from CP6, and together we ran, walked, bushwhacked and winced our way over the next 120km to the finish line. (The total distance of the race was actually 172km.) Damian had run the first 52km with frontrunner Dan Lawson, who had paused briefly at CP6 to quickly refuel, before racing on.

                                                    (pic by Tarmo Vannas  fb.me/ultratarmo)
Running across the salt flats was the most incredible experience. The salt was a thin crusted layer and very crunchy underfoot – sometimes smooth, often rippled, and surprisingly easy to run on. In the moonlight it took on a misty white hue that made the experience seem surreal. It looked like an enormous sheet of ice, but was neither slippery nor cold – I had to keep reminding myself it was salt!

Twenty-four hours ticked by when we still had a good 30km to go. We pressed on, cursing our way through thickets of thorns, and eventually onto open tracks. Not having expected to be taking quite this long, my food stocks were running low and with 20km to go, I was down to one last portion of PeptoSport and a ziplock bag of nuts – which I somehow managed to spill as I pulled the bag from my pack, showering the sandy track with precious nuts… 

Dan is known as "Awesome Lawson" - not without reason!
Needless to say, with minimal fuel in the tank and nothing but water to be had at the final three CPs, those last 20km were extremely slow. Damian and I crossed the finish line in joint 2nd place (32:30), more than 8 hours after the winner, Dan Lawson (24:06). Dan ran a brilliant race, a true reflection of the incredible endurance athlete he is.

Not without its organisational hiccups, Run The Rann 161km was a fantastic experience and one I’ll always treasure. Staging a race in a remote area of a country that in itself is not geared up for endurance events, will always be a challenge. But this race has the potential to be big on the adventure running calendar – it’s perfect for trail runners who’re keen to travel and experience a whole lot more than just an ultra-distance run. It’s rough, raw and packed with adventure. Personally, this is my kind of race!

View the results of Run The Rann 2015 HERE