Monday 31 March 2008

Trail and ultrarunning

Trail running has been in my mind - more than usual - this past week.

It started when I separated the listings of trail running events from the adventure racing calendar. This weekend I built a mini-site to represent trail running in South Africa and I started reading "Running through the wall: Personal encounters with the ultramarathon" by Neal Jamison. It is a collection of short stories by ultra runners of their experiences at US events - and ultrarunning in general. My friends Michael and Heather Graz lent the book to me so that I could read the two stories on the Barkley Marathon in Tennesse, which they ran a part of this past weekend. In this book I found a piece by AR guru, Ian Adamson on his ultra experiences and the relationship of off-road ultra running to adventure racing.

I've always believed that strength on foot (and navigation) correlates to adventure racing success. Distance races - and Ironman too - are won and lost on the run. Pace, endurance and foot condition being major determinants of success or failure.

In his piece, "Adventures in ultrarunning", Ian Adamson says, "Ultrarunning is without question the most feared aspect of adventure racing. Athletes learn quickly that their feet are susceptible to being ravaged when hiking and running, and television coverage inevitably includes scenes of blistered, battered and bloody feet". He then discusses his introduction to ultradistance events; first a 70-mile overnight kayak race, then a 24hr Rogaine, then an adventure race and then an ultradistance run.

He makes a good point about people's understanding of ultrarunning vs adventure racing: "Most people can relate more to adventure racing than to ultrarunning. It seems that the team element and exotic locations are easier for the viewing public to understand. Little do most people realise that adventure racing is ultrarunning on steroids with a few interesting embellishments."

In the foreword to the book, Don Allison, Editor of Ultrarunning Magazine, says "behind every participant in every race there is a story. Behind every runner, there is a history that leads them to the starting line of an ultramarathon".

At school I was a 100m and 200m sprinter. In Standard 9 I started running road races, encouraged by an athletics teammate and his road running dad. 10km and 15km events were my game. 7-years would pass before I'd run my first 21km and even a few years later running an ultra had never crossed my mind.

In 2001 I started doing some odd freelance writing for the short-lived Adventure Zone magazine. I'd just returned from Camel White Water on the Zambezi when I got a call from the editor, Nicola, to ask whether I was going to Augrabies and whether I'd do a review for them on a new bivvy bag. There was an AR happening near Cape Aughulas so I figured this is what she was talking about. She referred me to the bivvy bag guy. He referred me to the event organiser.

The event turned out to be the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, a 250km, 7-day self-sufficient staged foot race in the sweltering Upington/Augrabies area. The race was starting 7-days later. I said "Yes" and a week later found myself at the starting line of an event that would change my competitive focus.

This event remains the toughest event I have ever run; the heat, the miggies and the sand made it difficult. The same race in winter months would be considerably easier. It was here that I discovered it is possible for a human to consume 15-litres of water a day and that painful feet can be run on - for hours - with no long-term repercussions.

* Photo: On a most-welcomed massage bed at Kalahari Augrabies Extreme. Photo from KAEM

I spent the first few days walking mostly, chatting to other runners and even tagging along at the back helping the sweep to pick up the route markers. Day 5/6 was the ultradistance stage - around 80km - and we began the stage on the afternoon on Day 5. This means that you take advantage of the cooler night-time temperatures on this longest stage.

I started out with some guys at the back; the one fellow was suffering terribly from ITB inflammation. It took us a painful 2-hours to reach the 10km aid station. My feet were already swollen and in agony and I knew that I did not want to spend another 14-16 hours on them.

I said my farewells to the guys and started running. With only one day's food rations, some snacks and little clothing in my backpack, it was light - perfect for running.

My early strategy was to walk the hills and run the flats and downs but after an hour I was running everything, checking in at the aid stations every 1h10; a very easy, comfortable and sustainable 7min/km pace. The most difficult part was stopping at the aid stations to refill my hydration pack; starting again brought on "Little Mermaid syndrome", where every step feels like you are walking on glass.

I reached the end of the stage at about 05h30 on the morning of Day 6. I was totally hyped after running continuously for about 7-hours, straight through the night. I'd never thought that I wouldn't be able to run 70km in one go... I'd just never considered doing it.

This run completely altered my frame of reference and that night was liberating. It gave me a love for ultrarunning and specifically for running on my own, at night and over many days.

I have since run a number of staged ultras and off-road ultras in SA and abroad. I've even run a 12hr circuit race - through the night - on a 1km loop. I logged 98km and loved every minute. Rogaines are also a favourite and I'm so looking forward to the 24hr World Rogaine Champs in Estonia in Sept08, which I'm running with my friend, Heather. Understandably, my favourite AR discipline is trekking.

Ultrarunning may not be for everyone but I can suggest that you give at least one event a shot. If you like it, you'll know and there are many events for you to enter. If you don't, then you'll also know that it isn't your thing.

I'm glad I accepted that first invitation because it changed my perspective on distance, taught me that I can run any distance I want to and it revealed the rewarding World of off-road ultrarunning to me.

Thursday 27 March 2008

Gee whiz, it's G4

I had an absolutely delightful day in Cape Town today for the launch of the 2009 Land Rover G4 Challenge. The event will be held in 2009 in Asia but of greater importance is our local Provincial and National selection process, which has begun. Entries are now open.

Land Rover G4 Challenge is not quite a well known as its predecessor, Camel Trophy. G4 has been around since 2003 when Chester Foster, one of our adventure racers at the time, represented South Africa at the international competition. In 2006 Martin Dreyer was our South African representative. The event passed through Thailand, Laos, Brazil and Bolivia and Martin won the event overall to take the honours as the Land Rover G4 Challenge champion. South Africa has established itself as a competitive nation.

I had the fortune to attend the International Selections in the UK in Feb '06, as media for Land Rover SA. Three candidates from each participating country were assessed by the G4 selectors over a week of activities and tasks. One candidate from each country went through to the actual Challenge a few months later. Even just the selection process was awesome; and even those who didn't make it walked away with a sense of achievement and a life-altering experience.

G4 in 2009 is going to be quite different. FOUR representatives will be presented by each of the 18 participating countries for International selections in early 2009. These candidates will be chosed from our local Provincial and National selection process. Of these four, TWO will go through to the actual event.

More importantly, the team composition is mixed gender. That's right folks... ONE MAN and ONE WOMAN will be selected to represent South Africa.

This is especially exciting because, for the first time, women will compete against women for the place on the team in an event that has traditionally been male-dominated. I commend Land Rover for taking this progressive step; women can run, bike, paddle, drive, navigate and problem solve just as well as men, especially during endurance and multiday events.

I wouldn't be able to out-sprint an equally fit and active guy and I certainly couldn't benchpress more than the same individual. But that doesn't make me - or any other woman - less competent or able. And, as with adventure racing teams, women will bring a good balance to the event.

John and Mark Collins, and their Magnetic South team, are behind the selection process. They're planning the tasks and activities, which will thoroughly assess applicants. We can expect to be challenged.

Land Rover G4 Challenge is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Do not discount your ability to make it through as you may just have what they're looking for. You're an adventure racer - believe in your abilities. And you don't have to be an expert in anything and everything - just give it a shot and start with the application form.

Compare this application process to purchasing a Lotto ticket; if you don't enter, you don't stand a chance of winning. Submit the form and take it from there. I'm submitting mine. You'd be crazy to miss this. Get the scoop and form at

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Separate AR & Trail running calendars

My event calendar on is meant to be about adventure races; but I've always hosted listings for aligned disciplines like trail running and Rogaine (not MTB as these events have a home on Spinman). With the growing popularity of off-road running events and the explosion of short city trail running series', spotting adventure races on the AR calendar, between all the trail listings, has been like looking for a CP in a forest without a map.

The near domination of trail listings has bothered me for a while - afterall, is an ADVENTURE RACING website - but it wasn't until I received Fred's email yesterday that I got the kick to put AR and trail running on separate calendars. As Fred put it, "I never thought I’d say this because I absolutely love trail running. But isn’t it time to move the trail run events into a separate space? I can’t see the adventure races on the AR calendar any more." He was quite right.

So, you'll now find adventure races on the primary event calendar and a link,at the top of the AR calendar, to a trail running calendar.

I spent much of last night looking for the 2008 dates and details for the many trail running events in SA. If you know of any others, please drop me a note so I can add them.

Thanks for the nudge Fred.

Wednesday 19 March 2008

Are you aware?

This commercial, posted on YouTube, should make you - and all drivers - think twice about how aware you are of things happening on the road. As mountain bikers and cyclists, we're probably a little more aware than most. This ad hits the nail on the head.

Take 1-minute to watch this clip.

We're likely to see more cyclists, motorbikers and scooter drivers on the roads as the petrol price, interest rates and other economic evils climb. Personally, I'm terrified 'cos being zapped by a taxi while I'm on my bike is not the way I want to go. Would be nice to see some campaigns, like this, on telly here.

* I got the link from Seth Godin's Blog

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Cross the finish line together

Adventure racing is a team sport. Yes? Whether racing as a pair, 3 or 4 the essential AR element is that the entire team completes every stage together. They have to visit every check point together and they are expected to cross the finish line together. Why then do participants desert their friends?

De-sert, verb - to leave (a person, place, etc.) without intending to return, esp. in violation of a duty, promise, or the like.

At the recent SPUR Adventure in Joburg I caught a number of participants at the finish line, without their team-mates. When I asked where they were I received answers like, "they're behind me" and "they're coming down the hill". I made them wait for their buddies and chastised them about the team element of the event and also the safety element. What if their team mate had wiped out on the long steep downhill to the finish? And, why would they not wait for the person who had done the whole race with them to cross the finish line as a team?

This is by no means specific to the SPUR event; we see this all over at sprints and distance races.

But, one of the saddest situations of the day involved a young girl, Amber.

One of my marshals was driving down the hill when he saw this little girl pushing her bike. He had our event photographer and a tv cameraman with him. He pulled over and asked her whether she was ok. Amber burst into tears saying that she'd crashed and her mom had left her. She was reluctant to speak to my marshal, which is quite right; she shouldn't be in the position where she has to talk to strangers.

He said that they could load her bike into the bakkie and that they could give her a lift to the finish. She quite rightly didn't want to get into this strange man's car. With the reassurance of the photographer, cameraman and event stuff, they loaded her bike, got her into the bakkie and took her down to the finish.

My marshal was walking with Amber to look for her mom, who came up to them. My marshal, not one to mince his words, said to her, "What kind of mother are you?". She was startled and in the course of the brief conversation said, "I just couldn't go that slow".

When you're an adult racing with a child, you should expect that they would be a bit slower than you. I'm glad I didn't see this woman 'cos she would have had it from me too. It was just a 15km sprint! The chance of this sweet little girl doing another race is probably close to zero.

That said, the moral of this tale is that the whole point of racing as a team is to stay as a team, whether you're faster or slower than your team-mates. The satisfaction of completing a race is when you cross the finish line together. If this team element is not your thing, do triathlon.

Lobola - the cost is high

This past weekend I gave a lift to two Natal Parks Board gentlemen from the NPB office to a nearby settlement, which was on my route. In the passage of our conversation, about the city vs country life, the younger man mentioned that he wanted a job in the city, to earn more money, because he wanted to get married.

This is where the whole lobola issue comes in. Lobola is "a southern African dowry custom whereby the man pays the family of his fiancée for her hand in marriage. The custom is aimed at bringing the two families together, fostering mutual respect, and indicating that the man is capable of supporting his wife financially and emotionally".

Cows now cost R4,000 each and the young man has to give 11 of them (a standard lobola amount) to his prospective bride's family. That's R44,000! How do you save this amount of money when you're earning minimum wage of around R1,500?

Laughing I suggested: "Don't get married". But marriage and lobola is a strong tradition and is very important to this young man.

This is probably quite a strong force driving young men from the rural areas (homes, family, rivers, crops, cattle and traditions) to the cities where they still earn minimum wage (if they get jobs). In the city they're likely to end up in poor living conditions with no family support, no means to grow food and in an environment where the cost of living is higher and what they have is likely to be stolen from them. And, once they're married they'll probably end up staying in the cities to work, away from their wife and children, who they'll only see for a few weeks a year.

I find this quite sad.

Monday 10 March 2008

Silly shoes and strappy tops

My feet are my life; so I take care of them, especially where shoes are concerned. While I'm no fashionista, I do have kitten heels (for fancy dos) and sandals for appropriate occasions - although my number of trail shoes and running shoes dominates.

I call them silly shoes because they really are not made for walking. At shopping malls you'll spot women teetering, slopping feet and walking funny. It isn't because they can't walk properly - though I guarantee habitual wearing of silly shoes has ingrained bad habits - it is because the shoes they wear a) don't fit properly and b) upset their biomechanics.

This is something I've thought of countless times, but was reminded of this weekend when I watched a woman slopping along in sandals on a paved path. She was accompanied by a number of men and other women in more appropriate footwear. The difference in walking style was marked.

A few months ago I decided to try a pair of those stupid "Mary Janes" - you know those ballet-shoe type of casual shoes. I've run 100km (a few times) without one blister but within 30-minutes I had a blister on the back of my heel from these stupid shoes. They offer no support and I would be better off walking barefoot, where at least my feet muscles are free to work as they're meant to. While they look good with jeans, they're definitely not even worth wearing to walk around a mall. At least, I wouldn't go walking around in them. Many do.

Sandals, kitten heels and other shoes in this category are... silly. They're suitable for getting out of your car, walking into the restaurant and sitting down. They look pretty but they're impractical.

The next female fashion "sin" is strappy tops. Like silly shoes, they're pretty and look nice in a tea garden. What I do find shocking are the number of women who go out walking in strappy tops. Many entrants of the Nature Trail (6km walk) at my SPUR event on 2 March at Pelindaba were wearing strappy tops. I stopped a few and suggested that they put on a t-shirt so that their shoulders would be protected. It was over 30°C, the sun was beaming down and they replied, "We've put on sunblock". I also saw this recently in the Drakensberg on day trails, where fair-skinned Europeans (and locals) were wearing strappy tops.

Girls, girls, girls... sunblock is not a substitute for protective clothing. This is AFRICA and the sun shines strong. Even if you put on SPF30 sunblock you will get roasted. As for those not wearing hats... I saw a good number of pink necks and shoulders. Aged, wrinkly, turkey skin, here we come!

Suitable attire - shoes and clothing - is common sense. Silly shoes are not suitable for walking and strappy tops are not suitable outdoors under the blazing African sun. For some reason, these two things really push my irritated button (like children in the front seat of cars without seatbelts), so I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not the one getting roasted or blisters.

Wednesday 5 March 2008

AR for kids by kids

The Alverinos children have been regular AR Sprint participants for some time now. They also get involved in longer events as support crew for dad Alec. And now young David (12), and his friend Roelf (13), are presenting a children's adventure race; it is an event "organised by kids, supported by adults".

Alec, David's dad, gave me a call about 2 weeks ago to say that David had said to him that he wanted to present an event for children. He had already found a location and he had called Life Med 911 to get them onboard as medical support. The details have now been wrapped up and the first RAD Racing event will be presented on Saturday, 29 March in Olifantsfontein. They even have an event website at

This past Sunday at the Joburg SPUR Adventure I was surprised to see so many entrants under the age of 16 taking part - with parents or with like-aged friends. There was even a good handful of 9-year olds. At only 15km in total with non-technical terrain, this event was child friendly. But some of the 25-35km events may be just a tad too difficult.

What is really neat about Roelf and David's event is that they are offering different distance courses for each of the three age groups; 5km for 8-10 yr, 9km for 11-12 yr and 11km for 13-14 yr. The event incorporates three disciplines: trail running, mtb and tubing.

If you're a parent, get your children signed up and let other parents and your child's school know about this event. I have little doubt that each participant will thoroughly enjoy this race as it has been created by one of their own.

David and Roelf, good luck! You are both commended for having the courage and enthusiasm to put this event together.