Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Wartrail wow!

I was asked a few times this weekend how I would compare Garmin Wartrail to adventure races and other multiday staged events. In short, I can't, because Wartrail is quite unlike any other event. Each of the three days is, essentially, a stand-alone event; one day of mountain running/trekking at 60-odd kilometres; one day of mountain biking at 135 kilometres; one day of river paddling at 60 kilometres. Wartrail is not an adventure race and it isn't the usual single discipline staged race. It's Wartrail. Simple.

In winter 2007 I took part in a girls' team, where I did the run and the girls, Lauren and Dalene, did the bike and paddle. This time I was in for the full experience; a wonderful experience.

The mountain run/trek day

With my travel and event companions Adri and Tommy. Adri, with her uncle and cousin, was our support crew; Tommy paddled with me on Day 3.

We set off from Lady Grey at 04h00; yes, way too early for me. I took the first section - uphill - very easy, warming up and settling in. With the sky begining to lighten just after the first checkpoint at the tower above Lady Grey, it was clear that we were in for a beautiful day. Not far from the tower I hooked up with Lara and Matthew, a mother and son (18) pair from Bloem. They did Skyrun last year and were making good pace on foot.

Coming around one of the outcroppings ('hills' on the mountain ridge), which we took to the left, we were caught by Roger and Kylie (photo on right) from Cape Town. They'd gone right. Roger was third last year on the run and he knows the route really well. I decided to stick with them as I've been up in the mountains before and I've taken slightly different routes on the various sections; and I knew of some better options - I just wasn't sure exactly where. Now I do. I also had one of the Garmin eTrex units, which were handed out pre-loaded with Adrian's route. It was interesting to compare with Roger's route, which differed slightly on some sections. 

Roger and Kylie were good company and they set a really superb trekking pace.

View to my left...

At Avoca, the fourth, of five, checkpoints, we picked up Tim and Piet. They'd missed filling up with water just past Snowden (third checkpoint). Minutes later a hailstorm hit. We pulled out jackets and walked through it - the hail falling, the wind howling and the rain lashing. Absolutely awesome. Just as the storm started to ease, I spotted a guy in a red jacket to my right, coming out from a rocky shelter. It was Tommy; he joined our little group too.

Winter Wartrail, June 2007 & 'Summer' Wartrail, March 2010

In 2007 I lost a chunk of time on the final approach to the Skiddaw trig beacon. This time, guided by Roger, I took the route to the right - on trail the whole time - and it was quick. Much better than my previous route! - now I know.

Group photo. Tommy and Piet at the back. Roger, Kylie, me and Tim in the front. We're at the start of the Balloch valley, now down from the mountains.

We reached Balloch with a total stage time of around 12h40. I had thought before the start that I'd 'try' to run more this time around (I've been on this sections three times before, since my first Skyrun in 1999 - I've hiked each time with very little running). I ran only a little, settling instead into a comfortable and quick trekking pace. There's only one section where I probably would have run if I hadn't been tagging with Roger and Kylie, but for the rest... I find this to be more trek-able terrain than runnable - for me.

Of interest, in chatting to John-Michael Tawse - founder of both Wartrail and Skyrun - about the first Skyrun I did in 1999, I mentioned that I couldn't remember any trails and that I thought we moved along the ridge a lot more, climbing up and down the peaks. He confirmed that my memory wasn't going wonky with age but that 10 years ago the trails were not all there and that the original route did go mostly along the ridgeline, up and over the peaks. The current route, which has been in use for at least the last six ofrseven years, is the one mostly pioneered by Bruce Arnett. It uses flatter ground below the peaks and is on trails most of the way.

At Balloch we had hot showers and a comfy campsite. I was in my tent by 8pm and asleep within 20 minutes. I woke up just before my six o'clock alarm for the second day's bike ride.

The mountain bike day
I had been semi-dreading this stage because a) I don't ride much (like maybe 300km a year... in races); b) I'm hard-pressed to remember whether I've ever ridden 135km in one chunk and c) my dear old bike is getting on (ten-and-a-half years old now!).

Looking back, down the 'softer' side of Lundean's Nek. This is where we go up. Over the top, the descent is delicious - steep, with loads of switchbacks... wonderful for going down; it would be a challenging climb if the route was ridden in reverse.

I had the most AWESOME day! I felt fan-tastic on the climbs, I whipped the downhills and after the second checkpoint, about 75km in, I started to enjoy the flats, which I generally find to be dull and hard work.

The route is very pretty, especially the first half, and going through the settlements is entertaining. Many children ask for sweets and chocolates, which is fairly standard, and then later, they run alongside shouting "Push", even trying to push my bike!

I finished in 09h03, very pleased with my day's ride. I awoke only with a sore bottom, which I'd expected. Yeeehhhaaaa!

The river paddle day
I'd been looking forward to this stage for weeks! I was initially planning to paddle a single kayak but as I wasn't feeling entirely comfortable in the single, I opted for a double. Two weeks before Wartrail my paddle buddy was unable to make it, so I hooked up with Tommy, who'd also lost his paddle buddy. This would be Tommy's first time on a river.

When we drove across the bridge into Aliwal North on Friday morning, I took one look at the Orange River and commented, "Geesh, that looks low!". I could see sandbanks. This was confirmed by Adrian, who said in the race briefing - with a snicker, "It's low, but it is pumping". He was right only about the first part.

There are a few small rapids on the first third of the 60km route. Tommy and I took them beautifully, especially the last and biggest of them all. We cruised down the tongue, hit straight into the stopper wave and bounced down the wave train. Tommy did brilliantly, keeping to my pre-paddle instructions of "When we go through the rapids, keep your paddle in the water". New paddlers instinctively lift their paddles out of the water yet you have greater stability with the blade in the water. This rapid greeted a number of swimmers.

The river was loaded with sandbanks and we almost had a clean run with the exception of a shallow bank now far from the end. Tommy climbed out and in two, three steps we were clear. Many others had less luck, having to drag their boats over the muddy obstructions.

This was my first time on the river and it really is pretty. The water was very low so we hardly benefitted from being pushed downstream by the current. We really had to paddle hard to progress swiftly.

I was a bit hard on Tommy during the paddle. We'd stop every hour to munch some food, drifting with the current. I don't think that I let us stop for even two minutes. And considering that Tommy had never paddled for this long (max probably an hour or so) and that he's fairly new to this, I was probably a bit rough. After the paddle Tommy mentioned this saying that he was glad I'd pushed him because it meant that we were done sooner. He really passed this long and hard paddle with flying colours. We finished in just over six hours, placed midfield and were the first double in.

We were totally thrilled with this and had a big suprise at the finish when Adrian presented us with a cheque. What a treat!

After three days of action and adventure is to good to be home and to look back on this really superb event. Wartrail is an event that cannot be compared to any other. You can do one, two or all three days; you can enter as a 'relay' team; you can paddle on your own or in a double. And, each day is really a whole event in itself but then after day one you change disciplines and do another full race... and then another.

To Adrian and your volunteers and sponsors - well done and thank you. Excellent organisation and logistics and overnight setup. These things really make this race special.

As a final comment... Wartrail has a very special tradition. My dear friend Paul Mitchell passed away in October 2004. That year he did Wartrail. He found Donovan and Garth is a state of 'disrepair' up on the mountain and offered them some of his chocolate cake. He got them on their feet again and off to the finish. After his passing, Donovan would bring chocolate cupcakes to the race for each of the competitors. I received one at Balloch at the end of the Winter Wartrail in 2007 and I was greatly touched by this gesture. Don wasn't here this year so instead we received marshmallow easter eggs at the Snowdon checkpoint, in memory of Paul and the spirit of assisting and guiding each other. It is incredibly touching that Adrian has established this tradition, which I, and Paul's friends appreciate more than my words can say or my tears of happiness - released unrestrained from fond memories - can show. Thank you.

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