Sunday, 22 October 2017

Golden Gate Challenge Day 3

The third and final stage of the Golden Gate Challenge got underway before birds had a chance to start cheeping. At 04h30 the first batch was off with the other three batches leaving only minutes apart. With only 17 kilometres for this stage - the first six on road - most runners would be in by 08h30 - in time for the buffet breakfast and prize giving.

Saturday night's pre-race briefing was a festive affair with another slideshow of photographs from the day and a stunning short video. Uplifting and fun, these screenings send you off to bed with a bounce in your step and an eagerness for the next day - stiff quads aside.

It was early to bed for the early start. As we were on road headlamps were present but actually not necessary. It wasn't long before the sky began to lighten and runners ahead of me were silhouetted against the early morning sky with the Drakensberg mountains clearly visible in the layered distance.

I was thankful for the ascent to the mountain retreat (the only waterpoint for the stage) to loosen up my legs. I do next to no downhill running and the steep descents over Day 1 and Day 2 had done their work on my quads. With every kilometre I felt my legs easing into the trekking and running.

Photographer Kirsten Oliver
Much of the stage felt like we were moving upwards with one climb after another - the reward being an open vista. I didn't take as many photos because of the long cloud and mountain shadows over the landscape. Striking and interesting to the eye but diminished in impact on my camera.

From the high ridge we could hear sounds from the camp where faster runners were already at the finish line - remarkable and inspiring.

'The stairs' were in today's lineup - in the last three kilometres - but they were significantly easier going as a result of not only prior experience (from Day 1) but also ascended on legs with less distance in them for the stage.

Once up the stairs and over the ridge, the camp was visible. Like a horse bolting for home, I enjoyed running the final section and the warm welcome there.

By 08h30 I was showered, packed and loaded and present at the buffet breakfast. I'll comment below on catering but suffice to say that they didn't hold back on the breakfast offering.

I thoroughly enjoyed the prize giving and the opportunity to cheer for the Honourary Rangers who manned the waterpoints, the Golden Gate National Park rangers who were scattered throughout the route at remote points, the sponsors, the team of people involved in the organisation of this event and, especially, the podium runners - what exceptional athletes they are!

(Read this release from the event that highlights the wining results. Consider that Eric Ngubane's accumulated time for the three days - 6:23:23 - is only an hour over my Day 1 time!!! Women's winner Marie-Zanne De Kock clocked the three days in a total of 08:33:22)

With hugs to friends old and new, I was on the road and headed back to my home in Parys - fortunately missing the storms that travelled ahead of me.

What an event! This is the first WildSeries event that I have done and I can only highly commend the presentation of this event. I have no doubt that their other events are as well conducted. I'll highlight below a number of features that stood out for me.

Route markings
Pink fabric strips were used to mark the route and I can say without hesitation that you could not get lost. There were so many markers out there - including dozens of 'verification' markers on trails where there was no where else to go. At any turning points, park rangers were positioned - in addition to candy tape blocking off no-go paths and pink tags marking the route.

Reusable plastic cups
Triple cheer for Old Mutual for sponsoring each runner with a Hydrapak Speedcup, a soft, squishable re-usable cup that can be tucked into a backpack or clipped onto a strap for a quick drink any time. These cups retail for over R100 each (probably more like R160) so this is a prized gift indeed. Items like this pave the way for the abolishment of sachets and disposable cups at ALL sporting events. Thank you Old Mutual.

DJ - wake up and music vibe
DJ Shaun (I think this is his name) seemed to head up the audio aspect of the event. From our wake up call, an hour before the start of each stage to a wonderful sound vibe throughout the day, he kept the music fresh and interesting. I was especially charmed by the wake up call (you can discover this for yourself when you do the race) and his morning mix of tunes. It was clear that he had especially chosen each piece. Day 3's selection was my favourite.

He was also positioned at the finish line and he kept the energy and vibe there. What most appealed to me is that he played 'real' music and not doof-doof music. Thank you for this.

Any trail in Golden Gate National Park will be good; the place is spectacular. The route for each stage was challenging with a lot of ascent and descent and we experienced a variety in terrain and views. The routes left me feeling that I have experienced the area but also showed me how much more there is to be experienced there as a visitor to the park on other occasions.

The catering was exceptional. Other runners told me that Wild Series uses the same caterers for all of their events. I did not take full advantage of the catering provided, which was really quite overwhelming. With cereal, yoghurt, fruit, different porridge each morning, boiled eggs, toast, jams... I think tea, coffee, juices, muffins, rusks were also laid out - probably throughout the day.

For lunch we had rolls with beef or chicken patties, salads and desserts. I think there were other goodies around too.

Dinners came with beef or chicken with rice or pap or rolls or baby potatoes and veg and salads and desserts. Vegetarian dishes were also provided.

As for this morning's buffet breakfast - I'll leave you to discover this delight for yourself. I pretty much stuck with the eggy main but there were lots of other treats and eats to be had. What I can add is that my egg was done to absolute perfection - something you don't often get at a restaurant, much less bulk catering for athletes.

Tented camp
I stayed in the athletes camp where each person had their own tent in the campsite. Each tent had a mattress too. I had plenty of space and was very comfortable. I chose to go down the far end, away from the main event area and was very happy down there. Ablutions were kept clean by the park staff and were well stocked with toilet paper. By the time I came in I was in for a cold shower, which in the warmth of the day was refreshing and cooling.

There were also massage therapists, sponsored by TimeFreight, as well as physios on site. I'm in the habit of rubbing down my legs myself so I didn't take advantage of this - but this was there and available.

Value for money
I've organised a lot of events over the years and I am quite certain that entry fees do not half cover the costs of the event, especially as 50% of the event fee goes towards Wildlands' conservation projects. This is a special setup that involves a lot of people and equipment and logistics. This is where sponsors like Old Mutual come in - their involvement creates the opportunity for runners to have a really exceptional experience.

This event truly is value for money. The event fleece jacket sponsored by event sponsor Jonsson Workwear, waterbottle and hand towel from TimeFreight and the incredible conservation initiatives supported by this event sweeten the deal.

Visit the Golden Gate Challenge website. The 8th edition of the event takes place on 18-21 October 2018. Entries open on 11 April 2018. R3,800 gets you all of this. Diarise now.

My thanks to RunRideDive for allowing me the opportunity to run and write for them and to Golden Gate Challenge for a very special experience.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Golden Gate Challenge Day 2

When Day 2 is even better than Day 1, you're onto a good thing. At 29km in distance, this second day route is only two kilometres further than that of the first day. It still packs an accumulative elevation punch with two big climbs. What made this day so magical for me was the in between section through valleys.

At last night's race briefing we were treated to a presentation on the endangered bearded vulture. The conservation of these birds is a Wildlands project. There are currently only 350 to 400 individuals and they live only in the Lesotho and Drakensberg area - their distribution has been significantly reduced in the past 100 years - primarily affected by human activities. Half of the entry fee from this event goes to Wildlands and it is put into projects like this.

We were also shown a magnificent short video from the first day (spectacular drone footage) as well as photographs from the event photographers which so beautifully capture the spirit of the participants and the beauty of this National Park.

And then the route. After such good climbing on Day 1, I was unfazed by the prospect of the two climbs. It is the descents that nail my quads...

We had seven or eight starting batches - decided according to your Day 1 performance. I was slap-bang in the middle in Batch D. Comfortable.

The route fortunately began with a one kay downhill tar run which was just was I needed to warm up. The first trail section climbed steadily upwards and contoured into the hills. Then, ahead, we could see the coloured dots of runners on 'the climb'. I found myself in a friendly bunch moving at a good pace. Over the top and a valley view.

This gave us the first 'runnable' stretch through to the first water point.

The aid stations here are manned by honourary rangers who dedicate their time to the park and to being present at this event. They are friendly and helpful and encouraging. The stations are all well stocked and leaving there I need to walk for a bit to let the drinks and munchies work their way down.

I usually suck my hydration reservoir dry but with these regular aid stations I've been drinking less than usual from my pack and enjoying drinks at the aid station - dispensed into my fabulous reusable plastic cup (it is probably a silicone more than straight 'plastic').

I have especially enjoyed today's scenery through valleys. The rock features and bare rock slabs of surrounding hills, fresh green grass cropped by grazing antelope and the openess of the terrain. A lot of this was pleasantly runnable so I trotted merrily along.

A strong, cool wind blew for most of the day - quite pleasant when you're running. Eric Ngubane was again today's winner in 2:30. He was a minute off the stage record that he set. He felt that he would have been able to beat his time were it not for the wind. At my pace, the wind has little effect...

From the second waterpoint we had a pleasant stretch to the base of climb #2 which we'd been told at briefing was one with a second summit. So when you've slogged to the top you are not at the top - another ascent awaits.

Again I really did well on the climbs today and even though the first part of this climb was steep and wicked, I got up feeling really good. Up again and a photo at the top.

Heading to waterpoint 3 we passed the most lovely chalets overlooking a deep and spectacular valley. The chalets have grassed roofs! More drinks and a few snacks and it was time to get my stiff quads to run down the cement road.

Here I met Chris, a paediatric rheumatologist from Cape Town. We had the same comfortable pace so we ran together to the finish - chatting where the terrain allowed. The last couple of kilometres were runnable and mostly easy and friendly terrain where total concentration on every step was not required. I finished feeling almost 'refreshed' as the run to the end loosened up my legs.

My time is very similar to yesterday at around 5:20. I hope to have improved my age category ranking.

The photos that I took today show a bit of what we saw but really don't do justice to the terrain - you'll just have to come here to see for yourself.

There is a lovely vibe in our runner camp and every meal is an opportunity to meet and chat to other runners.

We have our last race briefing tonight ahead of tomorrow's final 17km stage. I look forward to seeing more of this magnificent area.

Until tomorrow.

How to blow your nose while you run

Today I picked up six used tissues and two wrappers (yesterday was four tissues and a wrapper). While I'm fairly certain that runners do not intentionally drop them, what concerns me is that the runner just behind the person is not saying, "Excuse me, you dropped a tissue" (if they see the drop happening) and also that there could be five, 15 or 50 runners going passed dropped tissues without picking them up. Tissues are revolting to pick up and they are so unnecessary. Out on trails, you do not need a tissue to blow your nose.

This is how to blow your nose without a tissue:

I find that I need a critical mass of snot to build up for a successful blow. When you're ready, block one nostril using the pointing finger of your dominant hand. Taking note of the wind direction (never blow into the wind), turn your head to the side of the open nostril and give it a good hard and sharp blow. You need to be assertive here. A too-soft blow will make a mess. Repeat with the other nostril - sometimes only one side is necessary.

Here and there you may hit your shoulder or thigh but this is usually due to inattention of wind direction or a mediocre blow.

This event has a superb waste - litter - environmental ethos; the runners need to come to the party too.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Golden Gate Challenge Day 1

Day 1's 27-kilometre distance involved a lot of ups, downs and a little of the inbetween. I'd heard that the first six to seven kilometres were all uphill and I was secretly delighted because it meant that I could walk and ease into the day. Early mornings have never been my forte.

At last night's welcome and race briefing we were shown the altitude profile for Day 1 and it echoed the snatches of conversations that I'd overheard. The first seven kays and later 'the stairs' came as warnings from those that had done this run before. There are many repeat participants and being out here I can see why. This is one of those events to come back to.

We were assigned starting batches to allieviate a bottleneck on the early part of the trail. Batch A went off at 6am, Batch B at 06h10 and my Batch C about five minutes later. I was happy to be in the last batch as much to settle in as to enjoy catching runners ahead of me.

The morning was cool and I must have kept my thermal top on for at least the first hour as defence against the cold wind. There's nothing like a long uphill to warm up. The patches of mist on the ridge and surrounding mountains did little to obscure our views - we were fortunate to have blue skies, decorative clouds and clear air as far as the eye could see.

The first well-stocked waterpoint came and went - I left with just a salted baby potato. Up, up, up we climbed. With a trekking pole in each hand I was comfortable and moving well. The chain of runners made such a colourful ribbon up the mountain side.

And then we were up and treated to a view of the northern Drakensberg in the distance with the shapely peaks of the Mont-aux-Sources area visible above a band of cloud.

True to physics, 'what goes up, must come down'. Downhills are a thigh-eating dragon and this is when I was thankful for my trusty trekking poles. They not only prevent slipping and sliding on loose ground, they also cushion impact and take some weight off knees and thighs on the descents. I played it easy and enjoyed greeting other runners along the way.

Almost completing the big loop of the route, we hit the next waterpoint. I pulled out my fabulous new Ultimate Direction reusable plastic cup and enjoyed some sugary Energade and water plus a triangle of a marmite and a peanut butter sandwich. And a salted baby potato. There were a bunch of other munchies like banana pieces, orange slices and crisps.

From here was the first 'flat' and open section on the route - actually a gentle down on a jeep track and an opportunity to stretch my legs out.

Across the tar road I'd heard we were in for two climbs on this section. The first one kicked in soon and led to another waterpoint (another good gulp of water) and then a goodly steep climb.

I have a simple hill strategy: don't work too hard, keep my steps small and my pace consistent. It works well and saw me comfortably to the top and over the other side.

It was around here that I settled into my own people-free bubble with no runners ahead and an widening distance behind. I really enjoyed the scenery on this side, especially the water-carved sandstone channel where a stream would run - barely a trickle with stagnant pools at the moment.

On the home stretch I caught up to another runner and bumped into Chris who was assisting an ill lady. Chris has run just about every Forest Run and I have had the pleasure of getting to know him and his wife Sunette over the years.

The clouds on this section were striking - you'll see a photo below.

My strategy with the infamous stairs was to imagine the worst setup and steepness possible so that when I got there it wouldn't seem so bad. And it wasn't. The stairs are made from large cement 'breeze blocks'. I was so focused on them that i forgot to take a photo but as we'll be back up there on Day 3 I'll have another opportunity. They weren't really that bad and my steady strategy saw me up to the top. I will add that the last section of stairs is the sting.

Up the hill and around the corner the end was in view. The sandstone overhang made for a visual delight before the descent to the finish.

The finish line is a big setup with flags and music and an announcer - great vibe. I downed more water and headed off to get my kit for a shower.

My time for this first stage was in the region of 5:20 (overall winning time was around 2:30!!!).

Lunch was a chicken or beef burger with coleslaw and potato salad. The burger was more than enough for me.

Stage events are a really good break - morning of running, afternoon of chilling and a long night of sleep.

I'm up for a nap once I have posted this and then I'll join Su-Yen's yoga and stretch at 4pm. We'll be treated to photos from the day and Day 2 briefing later this evening.

Until tomorrow.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Golden Gate Challenge pre-race day

It is with heartfelt thanks to Run Ride Dive and Golden Gate Challenge that I find myself sitting on my camp chair, looking at the tented runner camp, in the campsite at the Golden Gate National Park ahead of this three day trail run.

I'm feeling old. Not old in age but also like I've been around for a long time. I've also been out of events for almost two years. Time that has flown but also seems aeons ago. I think the last event i took part in (aside from last year's rogaine) was the Mount Moodie 80km in about Feb 2016... Around about now marks 18 years since I did my first trail run - Skyrun.

I don't recognise any runners. Back in the day when events were few and trail running was fringe, events were an occasion to get together with friends from all over. I may see people here that I know (two past Forest Runners recognised me) but for the most it will be an opportunity to make new friends.

This area is magnificent. I have driven through Golden Gate twice but have yet to set foot on the trails.

I am very impressed with the setup. Andrew Booth is the organiser and his event has been going for around seven years. It has a good reputation and it is easy to see why.

I have a pretty blue two-man tent (one person per tent) on the far side from the main event area and tent. Quiet. The tents have mattresses. I brough along a sheet, my sleeping bag and a pillow. Nice and easy. All meals, from dinner tonight to Sunday morning breakfast, are provided.

At registratiin we received a fleece top, a goodie bag with a Wildlands magazine and a water bottle and handtowel from TimeFrieght. Coincidentally I'm in the process of signing up with them for long-distance deliveries of my YOLO Compost Tumblers. Their rates look good.

I have a new prized possession. This soft, light, reusable plastic cup made by Ultimate Direction. It is called a speed cup. May it give me speed! Well done Golden Gate Challenge.

I packed my kit yesterday. That made me feel old too. My favourite trail backpack is 15 years old. I've had or tried others but this old one remains my favourite. I use it most days when I run with Rusty as i cip her on to the waist belt. It has seen a lot of action.

My favourite running tops - tried and tested - have at least five years in them. My socks and shoes are probably the newest items at 18 months to a year old. Safe, comfortable and proven.

I have no aspirations for this race. Three days of running at 27km, 29km and 17km respectively. And after each day, I get to write. Two of my favourite things combined.

Have I done enough training for the distances and mountain climbing that this event entails? Hahaha - how much is enough? I'm fit, healthy and so totally keen. I haven't got much distance in my legs but this is certainly not a deviation from the norm. I just hope my body loves and laps up the distances like it always has. Day after day of running has always suited me.

I'm very excited to be here and to be taking part. I've needed this and the opportunity to be here is very welcome. I feel like I used to so many years ago before events were dime-a-dozen. The anticipation of what lies ahead, scenery, terrain, comraderie and a day spent on my feet.

Tonight I look forward to a good, long sleep. More hours in a stretch than I've been getting. And tomorrow: day 1 of the Golden Gate Challenge. My camera is ready and my backpack is set. Until then.