Race report: Ultra-trail Cape Town 2015

I entered the 65km ultra-trail run at the beginning of the year having never run a full marathon. Upon reaching the finish of the race, I felt as much relief as I did joy in completing this challenge.

About the race

The Ultra-trail Cape Town race starts and ends at the Tech Gardens rugby club in Oranjezicht. With the iconic Table Mountain set in the background, the runners can see where they’ll be going. It consists of a 100km ultra-trail, 65km mountain-trail and 20km urban-trail.

In only it’s second year, the Ultra-trail Cape Town has attracted runners from over 30 nationalities. Finishers of the 65 and 100km routes earn qualifying points for the Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc.

Landmarks in the 65km include: Signal Hill, Lion’s Head, Platteklip Gorge, Constantia Nek, Newlands Forest, UCT and Rhodes Memorial.

Training and preparation

My friend Guthrie convinced me to enter the race. Unfortunately injury prevented him from taking part this year, but I hope to see him there next year! I had read on the race website that one could hike the 65km route within the allocated 15 hour cut-off. This gave me some confidence as I felt anxious entering a race with such a long distance.

Having spent many hours analysing the route and profile, I identified a few key areas I wanted to train for. The climb up through Bo-kaap on to Signal Hill and up on to Table Mountain via Platteklip Gorge became my focus.

The VWS 25km Trail Challenge in May was my first trail race as well as my longest. I also ran the PPC Riebeeck Bergmarathon in August which was my first full road marathon. Whenever possible I made an effort to put in a good run on the weekend. This included a few long runs starting in Gardens which mirrored the first 10 to 15km of the UTCT route.

Something I added to my training was to include doing the super circuit at gym twice a week. This quick 45 minute workout of basic weight training with steps between each set helped a lot.

The pre-race briefing on Thursday evening, after registration, was informative. The organisers shared the history of the event as well as some tips. Some of the elite runners gave valuable insight into the race when interviewed.

Equipment and nutrition

In July I purchased a Salomon Advanced Skin3 12SET hydration pack. I used two Ultimate Direction 500ml bottles with Kicker Valves, in place of the Salomon soft flasks. The reason for this was that it is easier to refill the bottles and I also like the kicker valves. The hydration pack is lightweight, with a perfect fit that ensures there is no chafing.

Salomon Advanced Skin3 12SET hydration pack

I recently upgraded to the New Balance Leadville 1210v2 shoes. I had the previous version of the shoe and they just seem to work for me.

Hydration had been an issue for me in the months leading up to the race. I experimented with many energy drinks, but could not settle on one that agreed with me. This proved to be quite an expensive exercise as these products are not cheap. The biggest problem I had was getting tired of the taste of the drink after no more than a couple of hours. I ended up drinking a lot less than I should have.

In the end I went with one bottle of electrolyte drink and one bottle of water. I took two tubes of electrolyte tablets with me: Endurolytes Fizz from Hammer Nutrition and GU Hydration Drink. For something to eat between aid stations, I filled my pockets with fastbar from racefood. These are delicious to eat, even if you aren’t running!

The mandatory equipment list included: a rain jacket, a space blanket, a buff or beanie, a first aid kit and a headlamp.

The day of the race

After a restless sleep, I woke up at 3:15 am and immediately looked outside. To my huge disappointment it was drizzling. Every weather forecast I looked at predicated clouds in the morning with clear skies later in the day. But no rain!

I decided to wear my thermal arm and leg warmers which I use for cycling. In hindsight, this saved my day. I doubt I would’ve finished the race due to how cold and wet it was the entire day. As it was raining, I took my rain jacket with the intention of wearing it at the start… and then never put it on.

Arriving at the start venue at about 4:30 am, my heart sank as I realised I had left my rain jacket at home. It was raining and I knew there was no way I could start without it. In less than half an hour, my amazing girlfriend (who was writing an MBA exam later that morning) brought me my jacket.

The start

At 5:09 am the race began. Before long I was running down Government Avenue, wondering just what lay ahead. Shortly thereafter, I was on the mountain and away from the safety of the city. There was no turning back now.

The visibility at the top of Signal Hill was non-existent with thick fog engulfing us. By the time I had run around Lion’s Head and made it to the first aid station on Tafelberg Road, the wind had picked up. I felt comfortable though at this point, without knowing what was to come.

On top of Table Mountain

I always knew these were going to be two tough sections. After ascending Kloof Corner, the run along the contour path to Platteklip Gorge went well. Shortly after starting the climb up Platteklip Gorge, the hope of better weather diminished. With only a few hundred meters to go, I could finally see the top of the climb, albeit covered in clouds.

Now I had to make my way to Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on the course. As familiar as I was with this route, nothing could’ve prepared me for the conditions that lay ahead. The paths were completely flooded and runners scrambled all over the place to find a drier route. After a while it proved futile and the most direct course prevailed.

The volunteers at the Woodhead Dam aid station deserve special praise. They had no shelter and had the full force of the wind and rain whilst providing us with food and water. If I am honest with myself, I considered retiring a few times on this section. I felt ill prepared and completely out of my depth. The runners around me didn’t seem to be fairing any better, with many slipping on the rocky surface. My shoes did the job and I managed to stay upright the entire time.

Towards Constantia Nek

I decided to make a beeline for the next aid station, as the top of the mountain was no place to be at that time. I found a nice rhythm with a few runners along the concrete path towards Constantia Nek. The large number of hikers on the mountain at that time surprised me.

The steps down to Constantia Nek parking lot, from Table Mountain can be a killer for your quads. I took it easy going down for this reason and because it too was wet and muddy.

After refueling at the aid station, I left with a small group of runners to the Constantia Winelands section.

Constantia Winelands

By now it felt a bit warmer, although I still had all my layers on. Saturated from head to toe, the layers did a good job to keep me from freezing as it was still drizzling at this point.

I am sure the route through the farms would’ve been enjoyable if the weather was better. It was horrendous. All the dirt roads were slippery from the mud and it was tough going. Heavy underfoot as they say.

There were two aid stations in this section: one at Groot Constantia and the other at the Alphen. The lady who made me a cup of coffee at Groot Constantia is a star. I managed to find some shelter under one of the marquees, as (you guessed it) it was still raining by this point.

It was now 1:00 pm and I had made it to the Constantia Alphen aid station. This seemed a good time for lunch and I ate as much as possible. Marmite sandwiches, salted peanuts, cheese, crackers and a bar-one were part of my feast.

How I managed to twist my ankle going over the root of a tree remains a mystery. I could hear a gut-wrenching “click” as it happened and I knew it was going to hurt. I think it was down to fatigue and not concentrating as hard as I had been up to that point. There was no way I was going to stop now so I soldiered on.

Up into Newlands forest

All day I knew the long stretch home was going to be tough. Newlands forest is lovely for running, but not with 8 hours under your belt. Having taken the majority of the morning as easy as possible under the conditions, I had to dig deep now.

Once up and into Cecilia forest, I caught up to another runner. We started chatting and before long were making good progress along the contour path. I think we’d been running for a few hours before we actually introduced ourselves. Our conversation kept our morale positive, aside from the bitching about the weather, slippery boardwalks and how far UCT felt.

It took forever and a day to get from Constantia Alphen to UCT. This was a mentally draining section of the course. The eventual winner of the 100km race, Christiaan Greyling passed us before UCT and it was a sight to behold. He looked fresh and even told us to keep going, before he sped off in to the distance.

Ken and I both had loved ones waiting for us at UCT which definitely kept us going. His family and my girlfriend, having finished her exam earlier, were awaiting our arrival. Thinking back, this was the highlight of my race. A familiar face a hug and a kiss after such a long, hard and cold day made it all worthwhile.

The final slog

Ken and I left the UCT aid station in good spirits, making sure to keep running until we were out of sight of our “fans”. The long climb up to the King’s Blockhouse was painful. We bisected the contour paths and took the most direct route up. My calves were burning, but I felt fine and kept going up at a decent pace. I felt bad to leave Ken behind, but he told me to continue as he had slowed a little.

Finally I had made it to the contour path on Devil’s Peak and now had to get to the finish. It was cold and starting to get darker as it was now after 5:00 pm by this point. Whilst descending the contour path down onto Tafelberg Road, Ken came flying past. He had caught a second (or maybe third or fourth) wind and looked good.

Once back on the tar of Tafelberg Road, I decided to push myself and catch up to Ken so that we could finish together. After all we’d run at least 20km together and spent a good 5 hours motivating each other to carry on.

Reaching the finish, I had the pleasant surprise of seeing my Mom, who I didn’t know would be there. Having her and my girlfriend to support me at the end was special. I felt more sorry for them standing in the cold, than I did for myself at that point.

The joy of finishing the 2015 Ultra-trail Cape Town

My official time for the 65km route: 12 hours 53 minutes and 42 seconds. My final position was 90 out of 126 runners who completed the race. I think there were quite a few more registered runners, but even if I finished last I would’ve been happy. Wait, I lie! Maybe a little less happy.

Unfortunately my Garmin Fenix 3 lost GPS connectivity going up Platteklip Gorge. Don Huston (DATEZZ on the Garmin Forums), was able to repair my FIT file as best as possible.

Reflection

Relief. Pride. Grateful. Those are the feelings that come to mind.

Mentally, I feel relieved to have this journey behind me. I spent a lot of time (and money) preparing. I sacrificed time with loved ones to get to bed early the night before a run or whilst out training for long hours. It was always at the back of my head whenever a decision came up with regards to how to spend my time.

It is a great feeling of accomplishment to be able to complete (run, jog, hike and walk) 65 kilometers. Few have the chance to do it and not everyone succeeds on their first attempt.

Surviving the conditions with only a sprained ankle and some sore muscles is a blessing. It was dangerous out there. On a few occasions early on I wondered what it would take for the organiser to call of the race. But I made it and I am thankful for that.

It is difficult to describe to people how I kept going for so long and what it felt like the whole time. There was only one way I was ever going to finish and that was to keep moving. It became that simple in the end. I didn’t use my iPod to listen to music once during the day. In my mind, I just focused on getting to each aid station, over each climb and through each section. That’s all there was to it. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. And I thought about a hot shower, a lot.

In those moments, the clarity and simplicity through which you see life is quite special. It was a spiritual journey as much as it was a physical one.

Ultra-trail Cape Town 65 km: been there, done that and got the t-shirt (and medal).

A photo posted by Michael Thorne (@mikkelz_za) on

Thank you

The organisers of UTCT did an incredible job. The information leading up to the race was spot on. The route markings were excellent and the aid stations were life savers. All the volunteers and supporters on the day definitely made it easier to keep going.

All my friends who gave me advice this year and wished me good luck, I appreciate it all.

My girlfriend, Elze-mari: you’re a star. Thanks for your love and support on the day and throughout the year. You saved my ass! And to my Mom: I’m so glad that you were there at the finish. It meant the world to me.


Update: I’ve added a list below with a few links to blogs and photos of Ultra-trail Cape Town 2015.