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Push To the Limit - Canyon Trail

Push To the Limit - Canyon Trail

Mar 2017

Words AJ Calitz

A cold and rainy morning in Cape Town bid farewell to three Intrepid Explorers en route to the Fish River Canyon Ultra. Their mission: Run the second largest canyon in the world.

My two accomplices were the sweepers for the 65km race, thus their focus was on having fun and enjoying their time in the canyon to the max—very different to my objective! But their enthusiasm was contagious and I soon found myself enjoying the company of my two young fellow adventurers. 

Our first day was a whirlwind of driving, petrol stops and selfies—and finished magnificently with a braai under a canopy of trees and stars at the Amanzi campsite on the Namibian side of the Orange River banks. I tried my brand-new K-Way Kilimanjaro tent for the first time and it was a revelation, especially since temperatures were very close to zero. I settled in for a good, early night’s rest in my K-Way ThermaShift down sleeping bag—a must for camping in winter.

The next day, the smell of freshly brewed coffee (tea, in my case) from a Bialetti on an MSR Stove woke us with the early birds. After a quick pack-up, we left Amanzi to fetch two more South Africans and a local chap called Atanasius (it took the whole weekend for us to get his name right!). A slightly overloaded Isuzu bakkie carried us from the banks of the Orange River to the barren plains surrounding the canyon at Hobas. 

Still munching away on my brown couscous salad brought from home, we made our way on the very rocky road to the campsite on the edge (and I really do mean “on the edge”) of the canyon. Greeted by the now familiar and friendly faces of Tinus Hansen and his team as well as the legend of the canyon, Oom Roelf, it felt like I’d come home.

Cries of elation and piles of photographs later, we settled our canvas abodes. A word to future participants: There are no showers at the Hobas race village. A quick equipment check and registration were followed by a race briefing, with Hansen explaining the ins and outs of what we were to take part in. Luckily, this year had seen good preseason rain and loads of hikers, thus the trails would be defined but also very soft underfoot. The briefing was followed by a typical Namibian feast: steaks, wors, chicken, bread, salads—and for those not taking it too seriously, some Windhoek Light. After dinner I went over the minute details of my run with Oom Roelf, trying to find ways and paths to shave seconds off my previous best times.

Lights out by 21h00 and a pleasant, warm northerly breeze kept the cold at bay. An eye-watering 04h00 wake-up call over the PA system with some German trance music in the background made sure no one overslept. Breakfast was packaged in a brown-paper bag: some bananas, oranges, a couple of sandwiches, a hard-boiled egg and three Jungle Oats bars.

The 100km race got under way at 05h00 from the campsite and followed the rim of the canyon in the direction of the hikers’ descent. The 65km trail drops straight down from the campsite and enters the canyon immediately.

This year I decided not to take part in the actual race, but rather to put all my focus and energy into the FKT (fastest known time) which, since 2014, has been eluding me and had become somewhat of a monkey on my back. The 06:57 record held by Ryan Sandes, set in 2012, is an incredible achievement by South Africa’s greatest ever trail runner (a video titled “The Beauty of The Irrational” on YouTube and Vimeo documents this attempt). Having had my sights set on Sandes’s record, but failing twice by mere minutes, had bothered me more than I care to admit.

So, in 2016, my coach Christoff Smit (from Christoff Smit Physiotherapists in Stellenbosch) and I did ‘the whole scientific thing’ and matched our training programme to the conditions I’d encounter in the canyon: a lot of fast running on loose sand, boulder hopping and very long hours on the trails.

Armed with my K-Way racing kit, New Balance MT690s, Outdoor Research Gaiters, a Salomon 5L Skin Pack and a couple of Racefood bars, I started my attempt just after 07h00 as the first light of dawn touched the horizon. Almost immediately I realised it was not quite light enough—but it was too late by then.

Fifty metres from the start, I’d already twisted my right ankle—usually a sign of bad things to come. But it wasn’t too serious, so I just put it out of my mind and went about doing a slalom down the slopes of the canyon.

To break the record, I’d need to average 06:05min per kilometre for the duration of the event: over large boulders, through water, across more rocky riverbeds than I could count, loose rock scrambles and wide-open hiking trails. I reached the bottom of the descent in 14 minutes—about 3 minutes faster than previous years—and gained confidence.

The weather prediction was balmy for the canyon, and conditions at the start were perfect for fast running. The first hour flew by, and I recognised certain landmarks and areas where I’d made some route errors before. At the end of hour 1, I was at 05:52/km pace; I could scarcely believe it, as last year I’d been at 07:12/km for the first hour.

I settled into a rhythm and remembered the words of Oom Roelf: to stay on the right until I got to the boulder field, then cut across early and stay left. The advice paid off, as my average pace was dropping to 05:50/km. I’d packed very light and expected to have to refill my water bottles every hour—but at the end of hour 3, I was still on my first fill.

To be honest, I can’t remember a thing between the third and fourth hour, other than the wild horses I’d seen. (One actually charged at me, but then backed off—must be my red hair!)

Approaching 42km, I saw on my Suunto GPS watch that a sneak (shortcut) was approaching to the right; I took it and realised I was still well under record pace as I passed some of the 65km runners and hikers, all shouting words of encouragement at my back. In the past, I’d gone wrong at the second sneak at 50km, as the path splits three ways—lo and behold, I went wrong again this time and lost about five minutes. Determined to make up for this, I steamed across the flat plains to the causeway, which marks an aid point for the race; but as I wasn’t allowed to receive assistance, I sat down for two minutes and had a quick bite to eat and a drink from my pack, and set off for the final 18km to Ai-Ais.

This last stretch was gruelling, as the sand was very soft underfoot and there were numerous ‘little’ climbs to contend with. I knew, however, that there’d be a river crossing soon. Temperatures were in the high 20s and climbing. Having learnt from previous years, I ziplocked all my electronics, did a dive into the water of which Chad Le Clos would’ve been proud, and put my triathlon skills to work; a slight twitch in my left calf was a sign that fatigue and cramp were starting to settle in.

Where normally I’d attack a climb, I had to nurse my body up the hills and try to make up for lost time on the treacherous descents. By then, with the quick stop, soft sand and river crossing, my average pace had slowed dangerously and my record attempt was hanging in the balance. I put it out of my mind and focused on staying positive, said a few prayers, gritted my teeth and carried on.

Mercifully, the final five or six kilometres were much easier than I remembered from previous years, and I realised the record was in my grasp. The final bend of the canyon, affectionately known as Big Bend, winds to the left and shows the first signs of civilisation—a lining of trees. With 1km to go, I dropped down onto the ‘beach’ at Ai-Ais, which has some seriously soft sand—to add insult to serious fatigue—but by that stage I was beyond caring. My average pace was 05:59 and I knew I had it in the bag.

I ascended the stairs and finished in a time of 06:39:52.

Thinking back on the race, it was a bit of a blur, but certain aspects stand out:

My heart goes out to the hiker who passed away a day before we ran, on the steps into Ai-Ais; he finished the gruelling hike, raised his arms in the air as a victory salute—the last thing he would ever do.

The size, beauty, magnificence and difficulty of the canyon: I’ve heard that once you’ve done the canyon, you get canyon fever and just want to go back. Well, take me to a doctor because I’ve reached fever pitch!

The Namibian people—friendly, helpful, accommodating; no request was too much effort, no job was half done. What a group of individuals! We can learn so much from them.

Atanasius, the local lad who beat an international Salomon athlete for his fourth consecutive 65km win—a superstar athlete and all-round legend.

The road trip with mates and new friends made who share a passion for the mountains and living outdoors.

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer