Ultra Trail Running – Zero, to Half Hero
Mid-May 2016 and I was on a chilled 7 day central Drakensberg traverse with my good friend Sean Robertson enjoying the sights. I recall getting a message from my wife that she had booked me into a 10 km trail run. A what? I was 34 years old and had never run 10 km in my life. What was she thinking?! 29 May 2016 I ran that race and finished some 72 minutes later winding through the vineyards out near Stellenbosch on some Dirtopia race. I’ve never enjoyed competition of any sort and certainly the throngs of people around me left me feeling pretty cold but I did enjoy my day hikes on Table Mountain so maybe this running thing would be fun. It certainly was tougher than hiking.
My wife Lauren, had run Comrades twice, Otter twice, Whale of Trail once (the first one) and three full Two Oceans ultra marathons. There is certainly no competition between us but it was clear that I had a lot to learn by the sounds of things. I don’t even remember how it happened but I entered the 35 km Ultra-Trail Cape Town. Lauren was shocked. What was I thinking she said? I wasn’t phased, 18 years later I’m still plugging away at windsurfing, still loving, still being challenged, so I saw trail running as quite an opportunity to challenge myself. I was not wrong.
Training for UTCT went quite well I’d say. I’d usually go up Table Mountain and run around there. It started off with short distances and 11 October 2016 I ran my first ever half marathon distance on the trail, and alone. It had 1474 metres of ascent and it took me just short of 5 hours. I was stoked. On some of the runs Lauren joined me. She too had entered UTCT by then. Generally she did a lot of pilates and other training during the week so by the time the weekend came I was fresh and ready for a trail and she had the “disadvantage” from a busy training, although I didn’t see it at the time. Most runs I kept having to wait for her.
Enter race day. Lauren, my father in law Mike Brewis and I lined up. 07:00 the gun went off on a warm Saturday morning and away we charged, or so we thought. Within 2 kilometres Lauren was gone. We never saw her again. We also made the mistake of starting too far back and the congestion going up Kloof Corner was crazy. The pace was so slow we could easily chat. On Platteklip Mike pulled away from me. I did not see him until much later. But so far so good.
The whole UTCT event is extremely well organised. Really a world class team. The aid stations are brilliant, 10/10. I cannot say enough good things about this event. At the aid station at Woodhead Dam I found Mike. He seemed fine but I stopped briefly and left him behind. The 35 km chaps go left after this, and down Nursery Ravine. I plodded down and by now the heat was hitting me. Myself and two others jumped into the stream when we got to the bottom. I remember a little girl asking her mom, “What’s wrong with these people?” Thank goodness for the rain a day before as the streams had good water. Be aware, this may not be the case when you run. It may also be a raging SE wind in which case it will be ice cold at top. Certainly you cannot say what the weather will do until about 5 or 6 days before the event.
The “400 stairs” above the aloes of Kirstenbosch really hit me hard. I was taking serious strain. I sat down on a large rock at the top, feeling rather broken. I had windsurfed about 300 km the month before and my legs were not as fresh as they could have been. Also, I had never run 35 km before. But I recall doing a 30 or 31 km so close enough. As I sat there I saw Mike coming up the stairs. He was drooling and looked bad. Instantly I felt better just by looking at him. Mike was 69 years old at the time and had run Otter a few weeks prior to that so no wonder he was a bit tired. From there we continued and he seemed much better. Some company is always nice.
At UTC we found Lauren’s mom and she informed us that Lauren had passed more than half an hour ago. What?! Mike and I soldiered on, the hill up to the Blockhouse is a real monster. Not because it is long, but it is very steep, a little slippery and by then you may be taking strain, as we were. Cuss words were used, in abundance.
By now it was very warm. Mike was lagging but we ran together. I felt fairly tired but truth be told I didn’t mind taking it slower. It was brilliant finishing this race together and although not an ultra by distance, it certainly is a quality route that will humble those who are not familiar with the technicals trails that are Table Mountain. We finished in 7 hours 43 minutes and 10 seconds. Lauren on the other hand, ran a 6:50:59. She caned us! Job well done. Everyone was happy.
Fast forward 2017.
The Otter has always been “the race” my new adopted family had spoken about. Mike had run it several times and Lauren twice. Although I had no intention to really run any races for the sake of “racing”, and to date the number still stands well below 10, this is one I wanted to do. I secured an entry. Why the hell not? 2017 started off slowly as I had lost a lot of motivation after UTCT 35 km. My windsurfing was also taking a back seat which was a problem for me. But by March I was picking up the pace running wise. Things were going well, very well I’d say. In fact, by then I had already secured an entry for the UTCT 65 km with this new found confidence! Yes, I was going to really step it up and do it.
Then boom, as it does, injury strikes. On the 20th of August during a 27 km training run I kept feeling my left hamstring twinge. It was a Sunday. I got back and felt ok. Monday I rested but felt kind of fine, Tuesday morning I went for a run. I took a few steps and felt a lot of pain. I walked, then ran, then walked and soon returned home just over a kilometre later. This was bad. Long story short, including a useless bunch of physios and money wasted, I found Michael van Rheede at the Sports Injury Centre at UCT ( http://sic.org.za/ ) Two dry needling sessions and a very slow build up meant I could maybe do Otter. Michael is a brilliant physio. Andrew Wright recently used him and was blown away by his skill. Yes, the man is a healer.
At this stage I was desperate. I bought a cheap step machine and used it. I climbed on a bicycle a few times which I had not done for training before. I added more kayaking. My longest mission before Otter was a 27 km hike. The hamstring felt good, I thought I could survive Otter despite my lack of training. And, Mike (my father in law) had said this was his last Otter, so we would run it together. For the record, it was not his last Otter as this year he is running it again…
Otter made me fairly nervous. It had a big reputation. The prologue was also something new to me too which maybe added to it. After a very late start I finally ran the prologue in the heat of the day (thanks Mike) but I was ready. Very early the next morning we made our way to the start line. It was around 12 degrees and I wore a short sleeved top, but a very thick one Lauren’s brother had bought me from the UK. This was a big mistake. The start was uneventful. Somehow, I didn’t even feel like running, but I had to. Here I was at my big moment and I felt very little inside of me. I had run the first 3 or so km before with Mike when I visited him in Knysna so I knew what was coming. It is very technical with big boulders but little climbing. After the waterfall the real stairs start. I was feeling good and running well and enjoying myself. My aim, I aimed too high there is no doubt, was a sub 8 hour. This was fairly dumb because despite Mike being double my age he runs faster and better than me and he had never done a sub 8. Yet here I was, thinking I would. At the first hut I was a few minutes shy of a sub 8 pace. Not bad I thought. The second hut I was about 15 minutes off. About 3 hours into the race I backed off totally. I have no doubt that had I continued that pace I would have blown up. A wise decision. Also, the top I was wearing was making me sweat like a mother trucker and the added heat was not helping my heart rate. The sleeves were rolled up most of the way. I rarely make equipment choice errors. This will remain as one of the worst. Ok on a Mweni traverse this year I wore my hiking boots and consider this a mistake too – next time trail shoes.
The Otter was brilliant. The many small hills make it really tough. In training one really needs to emulate that. And stairs, man there are a lot of stairs! We had some wet weather with wind and what not. The kind of weather I like. It had made things slippery. At the halfway mark I thought how the hell would I finish this? I even thought of walking a few times on the flats. The stairs are steep and brutal. The beach at the munchie point is probably the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. My phone was tucked into a dry bag and not a single photo was taken. This year I vow to take photos.
Bloukrans we had to swim a bit but it was nothing. But just to mention that the section just before that was so extremely technical I would really like to see how the pros handle that. Down low near the water but on those knife like rocks it is slow going. At least for me. Anyway, after Bloukrans that sea water activated some chafe. My lower back had been rubbing and obviously between my legs too. It was reasonably bad. Not bleeding but nice and raw. At Andre hut I spoke to a guy who had run Comrades that year. He said this was tougher and I thought, what the hell am I doing here? After this there is a steep climb and then it becomes easier. You can run this quite nicely. However I was pretty shattered. At my best pace I could reach 7 min/km. Shocking. I ambled along and got to the end of the cliff, down a steep section and onto the final jeep track to the floating bridge. I even walked some of that path. The longest distance I had ever run was the UTCT 35 km. Because of the hamstring injury I never got to do a marathon distance in training. But in the end I finished. All 91 kg of me crossed the line in 8 hours, 54 minutes and one single second. I was pretty shattered, but stoked. I think my time was fairly decent for a newbie and I had accomplished what I had set out to do and finished without injury. But then, I had 37 days before the next big challenge.
Ultra-Trail Cape Town 65 km.
2 December 2017. After Otter I did a few short road runs and two 19 km trail runs. That was it. I windsurfed some 40 or 50 km but had learnt my lesson in 2016 already so I took it easy. 65 km is a long way to run . Remember, my longest run ever had been the 42 km Otter. The cut off had been 15 hours in 2016 for UTCT 65, but for 2017 they extended it to 16 hours. For 2018 it is 15 and a half hours.
We started at 04:00 (2018 has a 05:00 start time). It was dark. Real runners surrounded me. I felt that I would probably finish and felt as ready as I would ever be despite being amongst some fast looking folk. Off we went at a fairly quick pace into town. This soon slowed down on the paths on the lower part of Signal Hill and the air was thick with dust from the hundreds ahead of me. Soon I was wrapping around Lions Head and the sun was up. I had not run those trails before so it was new to me. I’ve hiked Lions a few times but the crowds really put me off so I avoid the place. My pace was fair and I felt good but there was no doubt that I was near the back. Shortly before Kloofnek I run into Sergi Davila. I had commented on his Instagram stuff many times and knew he was running. He knew who I was and we ran together, but briefly as he left me at Kloofnek.
Just short of 3 hours I made the Kloofnek aid station at 18.5 km in. I hiked up the steep hill through the blue gums and as I set foot onto Kloofnek the leader of the 35 km came flying past me. Uh oh. From here a mass of fast runners came thundering past us slackers. I went up slowly and did not feel good. Too much information but I’ll tell you anyway. That morning I woke up around 02:00. My morning ritual did not happen as I was not accustomed to such an early morning poo to be frank. This did not sit well with me the entire day. And trust me, it was a long day. I suggest you perhaps start waking up super early to adjust your body clock on this move. Moving swiftly along.
I walked much of the contour path as people just kept coming past. The day was heating up and my legs had just run a half marathon trail when all the fresh 35 km runners came past. Platteklip was bad. I did my slowest time ever. Here is a big tip: Most of my training runs would involved going up somewhere first, like Kasteelspoort or Platteklip which was followed by a long run. But none of my runs involved a 20 or 30 km run and then a big ascent. You need to do this. Or just simply be fitter than me. Anyway, Platteklip almost killed me. The cameraman really put an effort into coaxing a smile out of me. I made the top at 5 hours 20 minutes and was sitting in 299th position. Not fast I can assure you. Only 293 people finished.
The top part is flat and runnable. I walked the entire stretch to Maclears. A real shame. I also had chafe already. My balls and bum were hurting. All the sweat on Platteklip had removed my normally excellent chafe cream. I applied vaseline but it was a fruitless exercise as the damage had been done. From Maclears I continued and some cloud pulled up. I plodded along to the Table Mountain aid station and met Sergi again. He was with Nothemba Mfolozi and from that point the three of us ran together. Ok we also hiked together. My mood lifted considerably and we chatted a huge amount. It made such a difference that I wonder how the day would have gone without them. No doubt, a lot tougher!
We ran to Constantia Nek (the top part) then hiked down the entire set of stairs. Pain was becoming more evident then. Shortly after we left the aid station Robyn Owen came cruising past. A real hero of mine and what a pleasure to see someone with such passion out there. We continued. At Alphen Trail the time was 8 hours 58 minutes and 57 seconds in. And 42.9 km had been run. The longest I had ever run. Lauren and her sister was there and Ray Chaplin too. I think my mom too? I don’t even remember to be honest!
From here it was some running and too much hiking. We picked up another lady who joined us and by now the leading 100 km people were coming past, but infrequently. At UCT I spent 15 minutes lounging around, drinking a Red Bull. I knew I would finish but was in pain for sure. The Blockhouse hill wasn’t as bad as during the 35 km. Surely because it was much later in the day and the sun was attacking that hill at the same angle. On this hill Armand du Plessis came past us, smiling. He is also one of the runners I look up to.
Some time after Blockhouse I started to get a second wind, or what that a 26th wind? I decided I wanted to run under 15 hours, because that was the original cut off. I left Nothemba and Sergi behind and said I must run. Auto-pilot kicked in. The little tar section from the bottom of Devil’s Peak to Dead Man’s Tree really hurt. I ran down. The next thing Sergi came running down behind me. He had picked up incredible speed it seems. The two of us finished together. 14 hours 45 minutes and 36 seconds. My position was 272nd overall. I had beaten only 21 people. Proper back marker! BUT, I had finished, and below the original 15 hour cut off and I was stoked. I must also add that I was shattered. Really shattered. I changed to dry clothes and two fleeces and a beanie. I drank two beers and ate a packet of salami sticks yet I remained cold and started shaking. On the way home I was cold. Lauren went to get my favourite pizza whilst I showered to warm up. I took one single bite and left the pizza. I went to bed shortly after that without even eating. It had really hammered me.
I’m not a natural runner, I’m not a fast runner, and I’m probably too heavily built to ever be a great runner. But I achieved what I set out to achieve. I won’t stop here. Not because I want to run races or prove a point. Purely for myself. I still run alone on the mountain and this year I am running Otter again, because one can never run it at any other time. Being out in the mountains is almost as good as being on the water.
Today is Monday. I run Otter on Thursday. In brief: 2018 started off very well. I was running like a machine but I made one big mistake. Too much road running and too fast. It didn’t take long and in June I picked up patella tendonitis. In total I have run 137 km of trail this year. This may make your eyes pop out and think what the hell dude! I did run 758 km of road and because of my knee did some hiking which totalled 153 km. So yes, not a huge amount, but in the last 8 weeks I’ve done more distance (mostly hiking) than before Otter last year and double the elevation gain if you compare the build of of those 8 weeks between 2017 and this year. I don’t expect to run a sub 9 hour but I’m fairly certain I’ll finish. That is the way it goes. Running keeps challenging me and I keep learning.
I was 91 kg for Otter and UTCT 65 km. Now I am 88. I think my ideal weight is 85. Maybe 84. Getting there.
What I have learnt in my limited and sloth like career is the following:
– Build up slowly. Not only in terms of distance, but also speed. Otherwise you may (more than likely) get injured. Once you’re injured it takes time to get right. But if you take it easy and be methodical you will end up being far fitter and stronger than you could imagine. The second you’re injured you effectively are going backwards. Be smart.
– Learn to run slower than what you can run. Don’t go and run every road run at 85 or 90% of the pace you’re capable of. Learn to put your ego aside. This is the hard part for most people.
– Get the right shoes. I started off right by listening to my wife and also visiting Run store. As of late December 2017 I started with Altra. I transitioned slowly. Very slowly. I plan to run Otter now in my Zero Drop shoes – Altra Lone Peak. And have been running in them since June both on trail and the road with no problems. Further tip: Wear the shoes right for you. Don’t go by fashion or what others are wearing. Be careful of going to shoes that are “zero drop”. Know what you are getting into and possibly even expect injury in that 6 – 12 months of transition. Everybody is different.
– Then I guess there is eat correctly, rest correctly and STRETCH. All basic stuff. Yet how many of us do it?
– I rarely did strength training, I think this was a mistake.
– Cross train. My windsurfing is great cross training. Wave sessions really hammer the legs. Find what works for you. Many people cycle. I have little experience in that. I kayak too, but not often enough.
– Anybody can run. If you cannot run 100 metres that is fine. Run 50, walk 50. Or run 50 and walk a hundred. Build slowly. When I started I could not run 5 km without stopping. Not for a while. Run just for you. Not for Strava or anything, just because it is fun. Then you’re doing it right.