Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Race report: Rhodes Run - 6 July 2013

It feels highly appropriate that my first race report on this blog is on the race that got me interested in running in the first place. Back in about 2002 I read an article in Men's Health on this race involving running in blizzards, wading through icey water and drinking OBS at the water stations. Back then trail running hadn't grown to the level it is at now and so, compared to road races, it sounded extreme (extremely extreme) and was something I immediately added to my bucket list. It stayed on that list however until earlier this year when, whilst training for my first 2 Oceans Ultra, I felt confident and added my name to the waiting list. I entered the first Wild Card draw and started dreaming about doing this extraordinary race. A painful Peninsula Marathon in February gave my confidence a massive knock and I was quite happy to see that I did not win the Wild Card as I thought, if I hit a wall after 30km on a flat road, 'how am I going to do 52km on trail, at altitude, at around freezing point temperatures?'

A = Rhodes Village
The Rhodes Trail Run (www.rhodesrun.za.net) hails itself as "South Africa's iconic Trail Race" and started in 1989 when a group of crazy Eastern Capians (the best type of Capian) decided to run from the tiny village of Rhodes up to the Lesotho Border road involving portions of single-track, trekking and jeep track running. Again, this was before trail running was "cool" so this was basically just a group of guys going for a run through the wilderness...in the winter...at one of the highest points in the province. The race continued to grow year after year as every July a group of about 300 runners gather from all over to battle the elements in this Ultra Marathon. Usually run on either the first or second weekend in July, the race takes place in the peak of winter with past events involving some snow at the higher parts of the race and frozen river crossings and in some years the extreme weather has resulted in route alterations due to parts of the route being inaccessible. The standard route is approximately 52km with a climb of about 1,350m and starts at an altitude of 1,800m and a high point of 2,680m (the air is thin up there).

So considering all this I was happy enough sitting on the waiting list for a few years as the race seemed a bit hectic for a new runner. Then on 30 April I got a call from Darrell Raubenheimer saying one of the Wild Card winners had pulled out and the re-draw meant I had an entry option. I hadn't done any training since 2 Oceans so my immediate response was "sheez Darrell I don't know if I will be ready for it" to which Darrell replied "well tomorrow is a public holiday, you've got all day to train." I decided to go for it and after spending a solid few weekends exploring the trails of Table Mountain (my attempt at altitude training) I arrived on the starting line fully kitted in my winter gear and carrying about a ton of food (this was going to be my longest run ever so I was extremely worried about getting hungry). My goal was to finish within the 9 hour cut-off.

The first 14km are along a pretty standard gravel road through the rural and farm areas around Rhodes. There are a few uphills on this section and I made a concerted effort to take it slow and walk whenever the gradient put strain on my legs in order to save my strength for whatever may come later. I felt like I was taking it easy and so was quite surprised to hear one of the people at the Mavis Bank Farm check point remark to one of my co-runners that he was doing quite well. I figured if he is doing well, and I am running next to him, I must also be doing well (logic). The highlight of this part of the run was chatting to one of the guys who showed up to the start (where the temperature was about 4deg) wearing a pair of T-Savs. He told me not to worry though as he was wearing 4 layers up top.

Next there is about a 6km section of single track with a steady incline. I was expecting to pass some of the other runners here as I noticed from chatting along the way that a lot of the runners were roadies and I had been doing most of my training on trail. I found the single track a lot different to that found in Cape Town however as the long grass brings in a new dimension of not being able to see where to place your foot and my natural sloppy style of trail stumbling as opposed to running meant quite a few toe kicks and trips. I made it out on the other side however feeling good and ready to tackle Mavis Bank.

Starting to climb
Mavis Bank is the main talking point among competitors and it involves a pretty relentless, near vertical climb where you move up about 500m in altitude over about 1.5km. My strategy going in was to count my steps and take planned breaks in order to split it up into bite size chunks. I started in 200 step portions with about a 1 min rest in between and it really helped. By the end I was only doing 100 sets but arrived at the top with a smile as I checked my watch for the first time and saw I had got to this point in 3h15 which meant I was 1h15 ahead of the cut-off and feeling strong.

The next 8km were probably the toughest for me. It is run a long the Lesotho Boarder Road which is closer to Jeep Track than gravel road and I really felt the effects of the high altitude here. Never having run at this height before, the result was interesting to me. I was expecting to just be more out of breath however it really sapped me of any strength. I was moving along at a very slow pace but, although I wasn't struggling to breathe, I knew I could not go any faster. My perception of what constituted an incline in the road changed drastically and I walked every slight uphill. I was very happy to see the (what I though was half way) check point and thiswas the point when I was wandering if this was all a stupid idea and whether I would make it to the end. A major motivation was to see my mate El Hoborino who had driven me all the way down from JHB for the race as he was helping out at this check point, it showed me how much a bit of support can do for your mental state. He also told me that I had planned the race completely wrong and I was already 3km past halfway and the thought of only 23km left gave me a major boost.

Follow the flags to glory
The next 9km was a completely off road section through long grass (no trail). This was really tough to get going as the footing was uneven. Most people were walking and so I walked for really long patches to recover and prepare myself for what I thought would be a rapid single trail decent. Apparently this patch is much easier when it is snowing as stepping on the snow makes the footing easier however this year was the hottest ever and so we were not fortunate enough to have white path. After a while I started getting momentum and started bounding through the veld whilst enjoying the incredible views of Southern Drakensberg. I ran into a friend of a friend from Varsity days (let's call him The Goat) so enjoyed a good catch-up session which took us to the second to last check point. The Goat stopped for some Prairie Oysters and I was feeling strong and psyched to see that the remainder of the race was back on gravel road and not single track as I initially thought (I spent almost every day of the last 2 months researching this race so don't know how I misunderstood the route).

From there it was a fast, knee-jarring, toe-pinching downhill section of about 6km and then a flat section of about 8km. Just before the last check point The Goat caught up to me again and we cruised the last section walking and running in patches. The finish line was a welcome site and we were once again showered with awesome goodie bags and a complimentary koeksuster (is this Paleo?). I was happy to finish in 7h17 well ahead of my goal whilst taking it relatively easy. Now that I know what to expect I will definitely go for a faster time next year (because there is no chance in hell I am missing this race next year).

A welcome sight

The Rhodes Run is an exceptionally well organised race. It is a race that is about the enjoyment and camaraderie involved in taking part in a mass event rather than about times, records and prizes (although records did tumble and the sponsors spoilt us with all sorts of goodies). It is an event where you feel country hospitality in every aspect of it and you are made to believe you are guests as opposed to customers. A lot of this can be attributed to the race organisers Evie and Darrell Raubenheimer whose pure enthusiasm and positive vibes make the whole weekend enjoyable for everyone involved.

Race summary

As a benchmark I usually look to get inside the top 33% of the field and for interest sake look at where I placed amongst the other categories. My goal in the future is to consistently place in the top 25%.

Distance:    52km
Time:          7:18:25 (3h02 behind winner)
Position:      86/271 (31.7%) - I needed to be 15 min faster to be top 25%
Open men:   25th

Where I would have placed in:
Open Ladies: 20th
Vet and Masters Men: 43rd
Vet and Masters Ladies: 10th

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