Monday, 30 June 2008

Orienteering with a [almost] blank map

On Sunday the guys going to the Orienteering World Champs in Czech Republic in mid-July presented a special kind of orienteering event. Garry, Eugene, Nicholas and Paul designed a course at Albert's Farm (mapped by Witsoc) where most of information on the map had been removed. This exercise was designed to hone basic compass skills where you take a bearing from A to B; and you have to walk on it. All too often we rely purely on features when we should be using our compasses a little more.

I've included images below of: (you should be able to click on them to get the pics bigger)
a) The map we received (NOTE: mostly white - and it isn't forest*)
b) A close-up of controls 1, 2, 3 and 12 to show the detail around the control
c) My tracks (GPS in my backpack), overlaid on Google Earth. The evidence is there - I didn't run as the crow flies.
* Forest is indicated in blank white on O maps

I have run at Albert's Farm a number of times so I do know the basic layout of the area. I did try not to use my local knowledge of paths and to trust my compass and sightings of attack points.

Start to 1
Not a great start. I bashed through bushes and long grass. Hit the path and started running up towards the road/gate/paths at the top of the map. That would give me an attack on the rocky outcrop. I first hit the wrong rocky outcrop and spotted the next - and then the control

1 to 2
Easy. Short distance and straight line. Visible too once I was over the outcrop.

2 to 3
I'd seen it on the way to 1 and I assumed it would be it. But, there was also a short course out there so I had to be careful incase it wasn't my control. Hit it spot on.

3 to 4
Bearing from 3 pointed down a path. I just followed it as it was going in the right direction.

4 to 5
I took a bearing from 4 and spotted a mini forest. Bearing went to the left of the forest. There was long grass (taller tham me) all around. I chose the path until the forest, re-aligned my bearing and could see a signboard. I weaved through the grass towards the signboard. Control was at a tree stump a few meters from the board.

5 to 6
I know there is a main path running from near the house straight down towards the river and I assumed that it may be the path visible next to the control. But, I wanted to pretend I didn't know about the path. I took a bearing from 5. It pointed to the right of a big thicket. I headed in that direction and tried what looked like a path going in. It was terrible and the grss was way over my head so I couldn't see a thing. I turned around and continued along the vegetation boundary until I found a recently pressed jeep track. I ran down a way, turning to take a back bearning on my thicket. Once I'd gotten in line with the thicket I bashed through the grass, landed on the mowed main path and saw the big stand-alone willow tree (control was on a significant tree).

6 to 7
Took a bearing. Spotted a bunch of trees in the right direction. Sighting looked a little to the right of centre. Took the main path and then into the trees closer to the side of the dam (indicated on the map). Easy one.

7 to 8
Made a bloops. Took a sighting from my bearing from 7. Spotted two young trees on the other side of the dam. Location of control looked to be to the left of them. I took the path over the dam and started heading for the trees. I ignored my own decision about the control being to the left and got confused with the side roads off the park. I thought I'd popped out lower than what I had. I started running up the pavement and then realised what a moron I was. I ran back, headed for the left of the trees and grabbed the control. Doh!

8 to 9
Took a bearing to a clump of trees in line with the control. I didn't want to go along the cliff top so I dropped down and crossed the stream. I tried to get in line with the trees but was below them. Although I knew I was close to the control I was out of the line. I climbed back up (meters from the control!), went back to the trees, checked my bearing and ended up above the control Had to scramble down to get it.

9 to 10
Another bloops. I didn't get a certain fix on an object in the direction of where the control was and I also thought I hadn't done enough distance. I had to run around the house and then made for the closest forest I could see. Bad move. I realised I'd come too far down and also hadn't read the vegetation properly on the map. I turned around and headed up. Just before I got to the control I saw another guy leaving it. Confirmation of my stupidity!

10 to 11
11 was on bar rock, just off the main tar road, near the entrance gate (entrance gate visible on the map). Road running was easiest and when a suitable distance from the gate I turned into the grass. Nice easy one.

11 to 12
Took a sighting on a tree/bush on the hill. Control should be to the left of the bush. I took paths heading in the right direction. Control just off the path. Nice and easy too.

12 to 13
Decided to follow the fence line all the way around to 13. Path indicated on the map looks like it goes all around, which it did. Enough detail around 13.

13 to finish
Straight running. Nice and easy finish within sight.
This was a super training exercise and I hope that we'll play these O training games every few months. They really make you focus and to think about your map and compass in a totally different way because you can't rely on your regular habits.

Thanks guys. Great event. And GOOD LUCK in Czech.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Tour de France 2008

It is almost Tour de France time and again I'm excited about the race, especially when the riders hit the Pyrenees (stage 9, 10, 11) and the Alps (stages 15, 16 and 17 - including Alpe d'Huez this year). There's only one problem... I don't know who to cheer for.

As I'm not a roadie and TdF is the only race I follow I have established an annual pre-Tour ritual; I buy a copy of the TdF edition of Bicycling magazine ( and spend an hour or three reading through the information on the stages, teams and riders. I like to see which stages have the big category climbs, what the team jerseys look like (so I can recognise them on the telly) and who the big contenders in each team are. I also like to check out the altitude profiles and to be told by those in the know which stages I must not miss. I'm disappointed by Bicycling's offering this year.

The TdF section starts with nice colourful region maps (Brittany, Massif Central, Pyrenees, Mediterranean, The Alps and To Paris). They do say which stages are must-see and which riders to watch. But, they don't give a summary of each stage and there are no (absolutely zero) altitude profiles.

The TdF section continues with an interview with Robbie Hunter (my fingers are crossed that he wins another stage this year - his win last year was so exciting that I almost fell off the treadmill at gym!) and an interesting piece (2-pages) on the Barloworld team logistics - what they have in their team bus, the team vehicles (what's inside, how many bikes on the roof). Very interesting. Then there are another two features (Team Astana's exclusion from this year's Tour and Team Slipstream.

I'm missing their usual display of team jerseys, brief on riders in the team and who to look for in each team and a prediction on the overall race favourites, and why. Yes, I know I can scout for this online but I like to get this in the magazine. I'm also not sufficiently dedicated to cycling to track down each team's website to read about the team; I want this information handed to me by this specialist cycling publication. I don't feel any more informed about this year's event than before I'd bought the magazine.

What this actually makes me think about is why magazines are still around, when we can get all the content we desire from the internet and online magazines. It's simple: people like to turn pages; flip backwards and forwards; laze on a couch reading a bit here and a dash more there; and they revel in content on a specific theme. That's why online books are not as successful than paper and ink printed books...

I'm now grouchy because I haven't yet had my pre-Tour fill and especially that I'm forced to turn to the internet when I had an indulgent magazine (non-computer) afternoon planned. Bicycling SA will be hosting a TdF section but it currently has 2007 content (Arrrrggggghhh!). They'll probably be updating during the week as the Tour starts.

Of course there is the Tour de France website ( and they have the route descriptions and profiles stage by stage.

I can also recommend following Chris Carmichael's daily TdF postings through his website at - they're addictive reading. These will start when the Tour starts.

About the riders... two of my favourites last year, Vino and Rasmusen, were out because of doping and missed testing respectively. I'm a big Robbie McEwan fan and George Hincapie, but neither are overall contenders. So, I'll wait for the race to start before choosing other favourites.
And I only hope they my selections will not be busted as naughty doping boys this year...
Le Tour starts on Saturday, 5 July.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Gauteng O Champs '08

This weekend we celebrated the winter solstice with the Gauteng Orienteering Championships. Saturday's short course was run in the Hennops River valley; Sunday's classic distance event was run at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria*. I've been skipping events - of all disciplines - for the past few weeks so these were my first O runs since early April. Although I took second place on both days to Tania Wimberley, I did achieve my primary goal; to navigate accurately.

We've all had the experience of [thinking] we're in the right area and then hunting in the bushes and behind tree for controls. Chunks of time is wasted; you get frustrated and you doubt your decisions. These past two days I hit the controls spot-on and didn't have to do the owl-like head swivel when approaching the target area, hoping to catch sight of the control; I walked right on to them.
This break from events has been good for me because going into GOC Champs all I wanted to achieve were clear runs. I only messed up the second-last control (13 to 14) on Saturday when I misread a jumble of lines indicating roads; a silly bloops that cost me the run (I was down 20-odd seconds on Tania at this stage; I finished about 3-minutes behind her). Until this point I'd hit each control spot-on and my route choices had been reasonable (with allowances for slight improvements).

My run today at the Voortrekker Monuments was great. I did take some longer routes than Tania, preferring to run on better terrain than trip over rocks, which I was likely to do. My running is going well and I've been feeling great so I was prepared to sacrifice distance for better terrain. Over some of the splits Tania was faster; over others I was faster. We often hit chckpoints within seconds of each other (we start at different times so race time is not real time; we only saw each other when Tania was going to 8 and I was almost at 13). The leg that cost me the run and set me back 2-minutes from Tania was undoubtedly the leg from 5 to 6; an easy section where I should have run as straight as an arrow, instead of trip-trapping like a ballerina on the tracks...

This was a lovely weekend with excellent maps, fabulous courses and good competition from my friend Tania.

My thanks to the many, many people involved in the events on Saturday and Sunday. It takes a load of work and preparation to plan the routes, update maps, print maps, put out controls and all the other elements involved in making these events possible.

If you're in the Joburg area, come through to Albert's Farm (southern-ish slope of Northcliff) on Sunday (29 June) for an event organised by our mens SA Orienteering team. This is a fundraising event; they're travelling to Czech Republic the following week. More information on this event can be found on the AR Club website ( >> News & Events).

* Of interest... I ran with a GPS unit on Saturday and Sunday. The routes are drawn on the map as-the-crow-flys. We obviously don't always run straight line as this is dependant on the terrain and obstacles. At Hennops the shortest route was a bit under 4km. I ran 5.7km. On Sunday, the shortest route was measured at 7.8km. I ran 10.8km.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Race with me in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge is an exotic 6-day, 400km staged adventure race hosted by Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates. The most exciting news is that will be represented by a team selected through an application process. Yes, three South Africans will be chosen to join me for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, where the entry fee and flights have been generously provided by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA).

ADTA's Awards programme aims to encourage and develop the sport of adventure racing by helping teams to pursue their racing careers internationally; thus this incredible opportunity to compete in the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge. There's only one entry exclusion; team members may not have competed in an overseas adventure race before.

I have posted an APPLICATION FORM on Complete the form and return to me by Monday, 21 July 2008.

Visit the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge website at

This adventure would not be possible without the generosity and consideration of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge and Saga Events. Our South African team will proudly participate in this exciting event. Thank you.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Hunky Leonid cruises Comrades

Comrades Marathon is a South African running institution; if you're not one of the 11,000 running this road ultra marathon, then chances are good that you're watching the all-day coverage on television. Today, Russian Leonid Shvetsov won the "up run" from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. It's not enough that he's a two-time back-to-back Comrades record breaker, Leonid is the epitomy of running elegance; I'm besotted.

Last year I went down to Comrades for the first time, spending the day driving between spectator points, so I didn't follow the leaders or even know who'd won until much later on; and because I hadn't watched the race I really was quite out of the front race. I was happy to be back to television watching this morning; as I've done since I was a child in the late 80's - captivated by Bruce Fordyce's incredible performances that gave him the well-deserved title of "King of Comrades".

Let's talk up run records
Bruce was the first to break the five-and-a-half hour barrier when he set a time of 5:27:42 in 1988. Ten years later, in 1998, Dimitri Grishin broke Bruce's record by 1-minute and 17-seconds to notch a 5:26:25 record. Only two years later (2000) Dimitri's record fell with Vladimir Kotov's awesome run of 5:25:33 (he was 42 years of age; that made headlines). That's a shaving of less than 1-minute (52-seconds to be precise).

And today, 8-years later, Shvetsov broke the 5:25 barrier to log a new record of 5:24:47.

For those who missed the whole Comrades party bus last year... Shvetsov not only won the down run to Durban, he also broke Bruce Fordyce's record (5:24:07) by 5:20:41; a record which had stood for 21-years!

That means that this guy has not only won consecutive up and down runs, the first man to do so since Bruce Fordyce in the 80's, he set course records too.

Shvetsov took the lead just after three hours into the race and he gained ground with each kilometer to finish 14-minutes ahead of second placed Jaroslaw Janicki, an old hand at this race(12 finishes). That's a sizeable gap. While Shvetsov's result is superb, he clearly did not have much competition. Competition helps to push the pace and perhaps Shvetsov could have clocked an even faster time.

And the South Africans?
The first South African man was Harmans Mokgadi, in 6th place with 5:47:11. I was really hoping that our talented South African runners would have a better showing. The questions I ask is: where are they? and why are our runners not doing better? This could be due to inadequate training; too much racing during the year (very likely) with not enough focus on Comrades; and insufficient planning, pacing and mental preparation. I am sure we have athletes with the potential to win and set records. The calibre of South African athletes has not improved, it has declined.

Back to hunky Shvetsov
The commentators said that he probably weighs about 73 or 74kg, which is "heavy" for a Comrades winner. He runs very, very smoothly and evenly; measured steps, big stride and an even 85-90 cadence. No cocked head, limp or lope, shoulders remain relaxed, breathing is steady and he is focused.

Emotional wreck
I get goosebumps watching runners like Shvetsov and I always get tearful watching the winners (not only Comrades, other marathons broadcast on telly too) over the last few kilometres.

Wrapped in a a blanket and perched on the couch I cheer, "Run Leonid, you can do it", with lots of sighs and applause inbetween for good measure. I also sit with my fingers and toes crossed when we get to the final kilometres and the time predictions are flying; especially during races, like today's, when the leader is chasing a record time.

To me their result is not just another race won. I admire their natural talent; the work, dedication and committment to training that has put them at the front; and I'm just over-awed at the spectacular demonstration of the human body's capabilities. All this combined leaves me a bit chocked up.

What about the women?
In the women's race, Elena Nurgalieva won... again. She didn't beat the record she set in 2006 (6:09:24) but she did run a consistent race to finish just ahead of her twin sister in 6:14:38. The women's race is quite dull; the Nurgalieva twins (and other Russians) have dominated for years.

Cut-off times
There were just over 11,000 entrants this year. By 11-hours, which was the old final cut-off time (now the bronze medal cut-off), not quite 6,000 runners had crossed the finish line. I don't know what the count was at 12-hours - the new final cut-off. Yes, we know that the majority of the field come through in the final hour but are they now an hour slower because the goal post has shifted? What I watched today said to me that half of the field running today would not have completed the race in the traditional 11-hour period (8min/km pace). I don't know what the stats are for the number of runners finishing each other this year compared to previous years but it seems that a 50% finishing rate (according to the traditional 11-hour cut-off) isn't very good?

New rule?
I heard something about a new rule implemented at Comrades this year where runners are not allowed to carry each other across the finish line. You can offer and hand or shoulder but you cannot lift, fire-man carry or haul another runner. I was there, on the field, last year when a man was carried around the track by four well meaning runners. He had collapsed one kilometre from the finish. I was standing shocked because I could see the man was unconscious; and I had a feeling he was dead. No medics ran out and they only began dealing with the man once the runners had carried him to the line, face down, one at each limb. It took minutes for them to advance less than 300m around the track. This year I did not watch the final hour; I was out running and happy to avoid the agony of watching people crawling to the finish.

I wrote a blog on this last year (Comrades, walk across the line!) and I still maintain that if you cannot get across the line on your own two legs, then count your losses and try again another year.

* Image from SuperSport's website. Leonid in the middle, Janicki on his left and Zimbabwean Stephen Muzhingi (3rd) on his right.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

What they don't teach you at the bike store

My mom's friend popped over for tea on Saturday. He'd just been to the shops to buy a new cycling top. He's in his 50's, does Tai Chi and walks a lot. A car sideswiped his vehicle a few weeks ago, so he has been riding 5.6km each way to work and back daily, on his mountain bike. I noticed a limp and asked what was wrong with his right leg. "Arthritis," he replied. And he added that it had flared up in his knee when he started bicycle commuting, probably as a result of doing an activity (cycling) that he is not yet used to.

How many times over weekends have you passed a social biker on the road (with no helmet!) riding with their knees around their ears? I feel a compulsion to stop them and adjust their bikes (and tell them they're morons to be riding without helmets). You should not be able to put your feet on the ground while sitting on the saddle. Saddle height, my friends, is all important.

I talked Earl through the basics of a) setting his saddle height and b) seat position.

At Tai Chi last night my mom overheard Earl telling other participants about "Dr Lisa" and how his knee is improving after only two days; he commuted pain-free on Monday.

While I think the title is neat, this is not rocket science and bicycle shops should be taking each and every new bicycle owner step-by-step through setting up their iron steeds for their comfort (this would count as good customer service).

Unless you're taught this stuff by a more experience cycling friend you just wouldn't know that two centimetres can make a big difference to your biomechanics and riding comfort.

Saddle height
I find it easier to recruit a friend to hold your bike while you're sitting on the saddle; alternatively sit on your bike close to a wall, with one hand against the wall to keep you upright.
Place your mid-foot (widest part of your foot over the pedal axle) on the pedals with the heel pressed down.* Lower one leg so that the pedals are at 12 o'clock and 6 o'clock. There should be a a slight bend in the knee when the pedal is at 6 o'clock; the leg must not be completely straight with the knee locked. A slight bend is what you want. If your current position is not correct, get off, adjust the seat post and test again.

* When you pedal you should force your heel down on every down stroke. This will offer you more propulsion and power from your pedaling. Toes, pointed, on the pedals is for ballet dancers.

Ride up and down the road a few times to see what feels best; make small adjustments each time. If the leg is too straight or you feel like your bottom is shifting from side to side when you pedal, then the seat needs to be lowered.

When you've achieved the right setting, mark the seatpost with a permanent marker. There are situations on a mountain bike that you should have a lower seat position for safety as well as improved agility. This can also be marked on the seat post so that your seat can be adjusted quickly according to the conditions, like flat-out peddaling vs technical downhills.

Seat position/distance
Most saddles can be adjusted forward and backwards as well as tilt. Again get a friend to assist. Position your feet on the pedals at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock (horizontal, crank arms parallel to the ground). The forward knee should be directly over the ankle (your shin perpendicular to the foot). I gauge my seat distance to be right when I look over the forward knee and can just see a bit of my toes.

If your knee is too far forward (can't see your toes), the seat needs to be moved back. If the knee is too far back (you can see too much of your foot) the seat needs to be moved forward.

Loosen the bolts under the saddle just enough to slide the seat into the correct position. Retighten when you've found the correct position.

A fancy alternative involves getting a friend to hold a weighted string from the front of your forward knee-cap. The string should fall in line with the pedal axle. Move the saddle forwards or backwards until you get the saddle position right.

As for tilt... a slightly nose-down saddle can help to reduce the incidence of back-pain and relieve pressure (useful if you experience numbness where your body meets the saddle). But, this downward tilt can make you feel like you're being pushed forwards (sliding down the nose). The saddle should be at least horizontal and never nose-up as this can lead to problems with circulation and nerve damage.

Handlebar height, brake and gear lever position can also be tweaked; but by far the biggest problems come from saddle height.

While you're helping friends to adjust their bikes, I'm going to contemplate whether it is my social responsibility to halt weekend warriors (those who can put their feet on the ground while sitting on the saddle) in their tracks to adjust their saddle height. Mmmmmm...

Monday, 2 June 2008

A jewel in Joburg's crown

Three-and-a-half years ago, after my friend Paul Mitchell passed away suddenly, I decided to plan an ultra distance off road foot race. As an adventure racer, Paul loved trails (and no trails) and abhorred any event that featured road sections. The race I had in mind would be something that Paul would have loved to enter. It would need to be challenging with variety in terrain, striking scenery, interesting features and, of course, not even a meter of tar.

In December 2005 I discovered a potential location for this race, better than the first one I'd had in mind a year earlier. I plotted a possible location on a topographical map and flew across the landscape on Google Earth. And, although this race is seldom far from my mind, until this weekend that was as far as I'd gotten.

On Sunday, accompanied by fellow trail enthusiast friend Deon, we scouted the first third of the route. The weather was perfect and the scenery and terrain was even better than I had imagined. We discovered delightful features that we've named "Duiker Valley", "The Fort", "The Wall" and "Ripple Rock". I can't wait to get out there again.

As for the race... until we've been through the entire route the total distance remains unconfirmed (approx 45km perhaps). It will be a running/trekking event. I'll only confirm a date after I've finalised the route and permissions; I can say that it would only be next year as season is a big determining factor.

What really surprised me - and why I wrote this post - is that this area exceeded my expectations. It truly is a jewel in Joburg's crown that deserves every effort to be preserved and conserved from destruction by development.

Standing on The Fort Deon sitting on Ripple Rock The Wall

A HUGE thank you to my mom, Liz, for dropping us off and then finding us again hours later, on an obscure farm road; and to Deon for being a willing scout.