May 9, 2011

AfricanX Race Report

Nothing is predestined: The obstacles of your past can become the gateways that lead to new beginnings. – Ralph Blum

Photo from

Photo from

Stepping onto the start line at AfricanX this year was a big one. There were many unknowns to myself and my partner for 3 days, the almost infamous Katya Soggot. In her I had a runner who had a reputation second to none. She had only run a few races in her life, but she had won almost all of them. She was the best technical trail runner in the country, according to the hushed stories and the whispers that come from this fringe sport of trail enthusiasts.

We had only run together twice.

Neither of us had ever run 2 big days in a row.

I didn’t even know her favorite color, never mind what pace she could run, how far I could push her (I have a reputation, apparently, for pushing people’s athletic prowess beyond what is deemed “the call of duty”) or whether she would possibly drop me for dead in the technical stuff.

But there we were, racing well established teams and friendships and the best of the best. Ian and Sue Don Wauchope, Leeanne Juul & Andreas Krensel being the two teams we knew would have to watch closest, we had a simple plan to take it day by day and run has hard as we could allow our AeT balloons to blow tight. The AfricanX has already built a reputation for punishing when the mind wanders and we wanted to get through 3 days of running as smoothly as possible, whilst aiming for the podium.

I had managed to control the bursitis in my knee to a point where I was confident that I could manage on a painkiller here and there if needed but the knee was not perfect and this was still a concern, even though I would never have voiced it to Katya or team management. Some things are best left to internalization.

As always, the start approached quickly and before you could say Pure Planet Racing presented by Fairbairn Private Ban… we were off on arguably the worst section for us, a pan flat semi tar section of 7km to the first water stop of the day. Not 1km in and going just under 4min per km, the Don Wauchope tribe caught us, their track background serving them well on the flatter sections, a theme which would continue for 3 days. As they disappeared into the distance we ran as hard as we could to the first and only big hill of the day.

Katya found her rhythm on the hill and we were passing some of the men’s teams all the way up and were back within sight of the DW’s at the top. They were about 90seconds ahead and I could not see team Puma (Juul and Krensel) behind so I was suitably happy. I took a moment to look at the scenery and when I looked forward, my partner was about 40m down the trail, bouncing rock to rock effortlessly.

I won’t lie – it took some risks, some prayer and some radical maneuvering of the body to get her back in sight, the knee now throbbing as we were running through the most beautiful forest section. As we came into the riverbed, we came across good mates Team Kelfords who had taken a fall. I had them pipped for one of the top 3 teams for the overall win so was not happy to see them struggling. They would bounce back and cream day 2 to end up 2nd overall after 3 days of racing. Next year boys!

Out the technical section we were around 40sec down on Sue and Ian but we knew there was plenty open flat running to come.

Back to the windy sandy downhill that leads us back to the coast, which again, was pan flat and this was the first time I had to apply some pressure to Katya in the form of a helping hand in the small of her back on some of the flatter parts once it became wide enough for us to run side by side. When I say we had slowed down and the DW’s were gaining some time I mean we were going 4:10 per km on the slight drags and they were going around 4min per kilometer. Hardly pedestrian, this partner of mine. We were holding pace through the 2nd water point and could just see the team ahead.

Unfortunately, the last 6km of the race were on winding single track coastal road, pan flat and we were unable to hold them at 40seconds. By stage end, the gap had grown to 2min30 and we were in second place. Katya had given her all, I could see. 100% on the day considering the terrain and the limited section of the course that suited her, I was impressed with her performance. Here is a quick overview of the day from Youtube:

We woke on day 2 without expectation and I was under the impression we would start slower and ease into the day. After speaking to Ian at the end of stage 2, he woke up under similar pretense. It would be a day where the first 5km would seal the race for someone else as Sue and Katya had somehow decided to try and kill each other going up the first hill. Amusing to watch really, but devastating to them both on the day. Running up an 8% climb at just under 4min per kilometer was plain suicide but the two girls were adamant to be first to the top. Around 4km into a 41km day, Katya eased off, possibly the smartest thing she did all day. I could see she had expended quite a bit of energy and we still had 9/10ths of the day to go.

We recovered as best possible and around 18km she was cruising brilliantly after a few pushes up the rollers to help her recovery. We were 3min30 down on Sue and Ian and no idea where Team Puma were. I had a sneaking suspicion Leanne was pacing herself brilliantly. She is a world class marathon runner and overall just an amazing athlete, so I had doubted we had seen the last of her.

Photo from

Photo from

25km in and we were in trouble. After endless steep rollers and already 750m of climbing done on the day, I could see Katya was going to have to go to new depths today. As someone who has never known this feeling, I would have to push her mind to where it had never been before. I had to be gentle, hard, tough and forgiving all in the same sentence, having to combine body language with intention and gestures with verbal praise to keep her going as we still had 15km to run and I could see Leanne coming up behind us, her heels never touching the ground and her smile carrying just a touch of “I got you”.

To have gone through the depths of that ugly place and come out the other side is a great thing. You learn about yourself. At the time, ordeal is just that… ordeal. It hurts, your mind is gone, your legs are blown and you make everything worse and worse. At 30km, we were in 3rd and Katya was hanging by a thread. Her quads, her powerful, all conquering quads, were blown from the monotonous pounding without any technical stuff. I understood that her body was going through hell, that she felt beaten like a tenderized steak in a Mozambican shebeen.

I felt for her as she slowly made her way down the long, technical descent. On a normal day, we would have been 5-6minutes faster down there. Having your skills removed is not anything I wish upon anyone and I by this point merely confirming the same point over and over… “the faster you run, the faster it’s over”.

She was a rockstar and never stopped moving. As I pushed her on the flats and the hills she drank all the Rehidrat Sport I could get into her. This required a very special technique as Katya is 5ft1. I would be pushing her and running hunched over so that she could access the mouth piece on my backpack. I would have to watch the trail, push her and make sure she was able to drink all at the same time. A few laughs were had by those following us watching us attempt to keep moving at all costs.

Then at 2km that amazing snap of the central governor happened in her head. She went from believing she would never finish to believing she would and she took off on a downhill tar section at the speed of light, making me wonder if I was going to keep up to the finish. Unbeknown to us, the DW’s had also blown to pieces and were just ahead of us, Team Puma already in for the win and Leanne having the run of her life. Katya was sprinting to the finish line and collapsed over it in pieces.

I was so proud of her. She had taken her body so far and dug a hole, as she claimed, to Australia and back. She had never experienced anything like that and I knew her life would never be the same again. She would be able to go further into the rabbit hole each time and silently, I knew what this meant for her competitors in the long run.

A quick video overview of day 2:

And so, after much rehab, sleep, eating and rest we woke up on day 3 with a “what have we got to lose” view on the day. 4min to the leaders and 3min30 back to the chasers. We opted to take it out easier today, as we knew Sue would go again. There was rumored to be a 2km tough technical single track just over the top of the hill at 6km so we wanted to get into that ahead of Puma so that we could extend the gap and if Leanne was flying again, they could catch us on the beach (last 4.5km) and we could still preserve our second place.

As the gun went, we took off sensibly and had an easy first 2km. There was a brief single track there and we pushed to get into it ahead of 3 or 4 teams and have clear tracks there, which worked. Katya had found her legs overnight and she murdered it through there. Puma were in around 15seconds behind us and came out 40 seconds down. We could see Ian and Sue ahead, prob 40sec up the road as well as the last 2km ascent began. I pushed where I could and on the flat 1km section at the top we motored to pass one last team as I knew once we hit the downhill Katya would be gone. The Don Wauchope LFM (low flying machine) went into the technical piece roughly a minute ahead of us and Puma around 40seconds back. I turned to look where they were and Katya was gone again. Within 3min she had caught Sue and was running so fast I had to cut corners to keep up.

I have never run that fast down any hill in my life, even on tar. Watching her fly, I pondered if they would put more of this sort of stuff into the route next year because DAMN, my girl was smoking the guys. We passed 8 teams on the downhill and more than a few boys will have to do their homework to beat her in any race with lots of technical descents, myself included.

Out the bottom and we had about 20seconds on Ian and onto the smooth section of the downhill they just opened it up. It was amazing to watch as they just float on the flat sections. Super talented husband and wife and deserving winners overall, we were passed around 10km into the day again by them and they quickly put another 30 seconds into us.

Puma were gone and I knew we would be safe if I could motivate Katya to keep running on the remaining flat 10km of the day.

The 6km to the beach felt like forever, I knew we would be losing time to Puma as they were the best on this specific terrain. I kept Katya going, having learned her breathing rhythms in the last 3 days and how far I could push them with little pushes and surges. We had planned to use the helping hand to the lower back all the way on the beach but when we hit the beach Katya smelt home and needed no help. We could see the Don Wauchopes around 90seconds ahead and once I spotted the tell tale style of Leanne on the beach, I reckoned we had 3minutes on them as well. Then we started catching the front runners and I could see in Katya’s eyes that she wanted to push and sneak up on them. With 2km to go, we had made up around a minute and were only about 30seconds back.

But then they saw us coming and merely upped the pace with the extra gear they always seemed to have. Once the status quo was established, we relaxed a little and I picked some plastic bottles from the surf to throw away in the bin. This would be as it was. Pronutro, Pure Planet Racing, Puma… 1, 2, 3. As the final podium, we came in the same on the last day, separated by no less than 2min30 between the 3 teams.

Remarkable running from the ladies. Amazing.

And so it was over. 85km of serious trail running through the fynbos was over. We had a laugh and had prize giving and went our ways with only sore legs and a few prizes to remember the experience in a physical sense. Already there was talk of next year, of what could be and what we could have done differently but I sit here writing this knowing that unless you go out and do it, I could never write the experience fully enough for you to live vicariously through these words and really know what I am talking about. You cannot fathom the ups and downs, the highs and the feeling you go through with this race. It is different to any other race I have done and most likely why I will be back next year to race again. Video from day 3 up next, Garmin files soon…

A few thank you words need to go out as well.

To Pure Planet Racing for the support, to Puma, Garmin, Rehidrat Sport, Velocity Sports Labs, Axis House, Fairbairn Private Bank and BoE Private Clients for making it happen for us. It makes it possible for us to be best prepared with the best gear. What more could you ask for?

To Stillwatersports, for putting on a world class event.

To my partner, Katya, for taking up the challenge only 6 weeks ago after not really running for 5 months and getting fit enough to run a race which doesn’t suit her entirely in only 6 weeks. She turned herself inside out for me when I asked that she push just a little longer. Thank you.

To the other winners – Velocity Sports Lab (Dawid & Rohan) for the overall win. I know your time was not without struggle and you held it together like real champions. Nice to see you as part of the Velocity family.

To the other category winners – superb efforts and I hope you return to show them how its done again next year.

To everyone else who made the race possible and who participated while tired, sore, potentially injured…. you are my inspiration.

Thank you.

4 Comments on “AfricanX Race Report

Kathy Johnston
May 9, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Thanks for using my photographs. I had such an awesome time taking them and pleased that you could use them.

Have a great day


[…] AfricanX Race Report┬áby Urban Ninja | Published: May 9, 2011 […]

May 10, 2011 at 6:54 pm

What a lovely, exciting piece to read, allowing me almost to feel myself present many times. Your description can be read as a tribute to Katya but I write this as a tribute to you both. I am charmed by your seriousness and humour, your lightness and professionalism. Thank you.

Jana Muller
May 16, 2011 at 7:49 am

Fantasic to read a personal account of this increadible feat. congratulations to you both. Katya – well done – wonderful to have someone finally sing your praises – a huge congratulations to you and it will be so exciting to see how you future trail running career goes.


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