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Up For a Threesome

Up For a Threesome

 
     
Dec 2013

Words Matthew Holt
Pics Shawn Benjamin www.arkimages.co.za, Matthew Holt, Fiona McIntosh

It’s just before five a.m. on Saturday and Long Street is still busy with clubbers and barflies. Bouncers watch suspiciously as we move in a pack up the street, inspecting their buildings. To be fair, there are over 100 of us and we don’t look desirous clientele, in lurid wind tops, hydration packs and lycra leggings. We find our goal at number 108. Now a fashion boutique and Ethiopian Restaurant, this used to be the Johannesburg Hotel. A scruffy figure sidles to the front of our group who looks like a tramp, but is actually the event’s official starter, Don Hartley. Newcomers expecting an inspirational send-off are in for a disappointment. ‘Okay, let’s go,’ mumbles Don, and sidles back towards Greenmarket Square for a coffee. The rest of us head in the opposite direction towards the dark silhouettes of the mountains. We have a long day ahead.

While there are several worthy contenders for Cape Town’s iconic sporting event, for me this is it: a race up and down the three peaks defining the city’s skyline, Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head. According to the rules of the race, they must be done in that order, returning to Greenmarket Square in the city centre after each one. Some 50km in distance, the race’s main challenge is the 2700m of calf-burning ascent and knee-shattering descent.

An hour later, I’m panting up Devil’s Peak. On my second race, several years back, a friend passed me here on his way down, so I made an exaggerated lunge to trip him up. He laughed when I missed, thinking I was joking. Anyhow, it didn’t matter. A bit further down he tumbled and had to retire. Now, I’m older, my competitive instincts have dulled. Besides, there are too many competitors ahead of me to be tripping them all up.

I scramble up the boulders to the summit beacon. Marmalade orange light illuminates the peninsula all the way down to Cape Point. Another runner scrambles up to join me, declaring, ‘What a lekker way to start the day.’ Though I loathe early morning starts, I have to agree. 

Tackling Cape Town’s three peaks in a day might seem a foolish notion, but it’s not a new one. Indeed, much of this event’s charm lies in the tradition. On 13th March 1897, 25-year-old Carl Wilhelm Schneeberger decided to climb Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head between dawn and dusk, returning after each one for sustenance to the Johannesburg Hotel on Long Street. Rubbing whisky into his legs to stave off cramps, he completed his self-imposed task in just under 11 hours, despite being delayed when one of his attendants suffered a mishap on his bicycle. Schneeberger received a gold medal for his endeavour and the ‘Cape Register’ commended him for a ‘fine pedestrian effort’, noting at the end of the day he still looked ‘fresh as paint.’ 

In 1927, keen local climber Sandy Trimble wagered Schneeberger’s son that he could complete the same route in a quicker time and did so, taking seven hours and 17 minutes, to win himself a gold medal presented by Schneeberger senior. And in 1977, Cape Town university student, Geoff Pitter bunked off studies to train each day and shave a further half hour off the time. Though the local mountain club regarded such feats as ‘bad form and pure exhibitionism’, and the Cape Times ran an editorial titled ‘No example to follow,’ these wise sentiments were ignored.

I clatter down Burg Street into Greenmarket Square. While I’ve been up on the mountain, the city’s cast has changed, with revellers replaced by merchants erecting stalls. 

I weave my way through the bustling enterprise to the Inn on the Square’s terrace, where Don Hartley  is supervising the time-keeping and safety arrangements, slightly hampered by not knowing how many of the entrants actually pitched and started. Now in his sixties, Don does his best to disguise the fact he was once a formidable athlete, twice winning the Two Oceans ultra-marathon in the early 1970s. He was also one of Cape Town’s leading rock climbers opening the intimidating ‘Roulette’, where he survived a spectacular fall. A just-living legend, myths and half-truths have him residing in a Table Mountain cave or the Chapman’s Peak Hotel bar. It was Don who organised the inaugural Three Peaks Challenge in 1997, on the centenary of Schneeberger’s outing. Thirteen entrants took part and Don fittingly won, after the frontrunner got lost in mist on Table Mountain. Since then, the race has been held annually and, while Don no longer competes, the field has swelled to 120 and there’s even a sponsor in K-Way.

Four hours into the race, I’m suffering up Platteklip Gorge on the steep stone steps mischievously constructed for giants, not humans. The trail is clogged with the full spectrum of weekend hikers; wearing hiking boots, slops and snake skin shoes; carrying rucksacks, infants and boom-boxes. Under a scorching sun, the gorge is a furnace. Cheerfully plodding just above me is Gavin Snell, the only person to have completed all 16 Three Peaks Challenges to date. The co-organiser of the event along with Don, Gavin is reputedly the more bureaucratic and technologically-adept of the duo, although it appears to be quite a low bar. Just when my hamstrings and calves are about to snap, I reach the top of the gorge, from where it’s a refreshingly flat 15-minute jog over to Maclear’s Beacon.

When I leave Greenmarket Square for the third and final time, it’s after noon and the top runners are already lounging on the hotel terrace drinking beer. It’s best not to look too closely, but rather get back out and get this thing done. This is my seventh race and during each one I’ve sworn it’s my last. Initially, the entrants were predominantly enthusiastic hikers and climbers, with just the occasional gifted athlete sticking out from the pack. Recently, however, with the growing popularity of trail running as an organised sport, the field has got bigger, faster and more highly-tuned. Last year, the winning time was under five hours and there was even an email from the organisers suggesting entrants should train. 

Although the Lion’s Head is the smallest of the three peaks, it’s also the most technical and exposed, demanding some concentration on wobbly legs. Hauling up the fixed chains through the rock bands, my calf muscles spasm like mad snakes. After limping down Long Street on glass knees, I turn into Greenmarket Square to clock a personal worst. It’s been a long, torrid day and nearly half the field are still somewhere on the mountains. All those finishing receive a small clay model of the three peaks sculpted by Don, and any foolhardy enough to have completed 10 get a large oil painting by him. As you might expect, Don’s brushwork is imaginative, bold and visually striking, even if you can’t always figure out the artist’s perspective. 

After savouring a beer on the terrace, it’s time to go home. Don and Gavin will be here a while, with the slowest finishers typically taking up to 14 hours. I bid them farewell, adding I don’t plan on ever seeing them again, since this was definitely my last race. Gavin points out I said that last year and now only need do three more to get a painting from Don. I hobble to the car, pondering where I might hang it.

 

Devil’s Peak via Saddle Path Trail
Platteklip Gorge Trail
Lion’s Head Trail

Nightjar Travel