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October 16, 2012

Lessons in Trail

As some of you know, this weekend just passed, I ran the Otter Trail, a 42km, 2700m vertical gain explorers adventure that should not be confused with a run at all. I left Ironman SA behind in May to play around on the trails through winter and get back to basics, back to the 4 pillars that I speak of so often:

– Nutrition
– Strength
– Aerobic Capacity
– Recovery

The Otter is unlike anything I have ever experienced and I can see why experience on the trail counts. My rookie attitude was great for what I wanted out of the race, but if I want to go back and race, I have learned that there is nothing like specific preparation for an event like this. First, I wanted to get a quick overview of the race out the way before the important stuff – what you can take with you on your journeys.

The prologue was great the day before and looking at the depth of the field, I was hoping to make the top 24, called the Abangeni, so that I could avoid the 4 minute delay near the start, and well, because I am a competitive lad. The field, however, was stacked and on getting to the prologue venue I was astounded at the names just hanging around. In my mind, I had 23min as the cut-off to make the Abangeni. I had my work cut out for me.

I forgot to hit the start button on the Garmin at the gate and ran the flats and downhills as hard as I could, but holding back on the hills. The route was tricky, hilly and slippery to say the least and I crossed in 22:41 and thought I had just done enough. Turned out 23:20 was the last guy, I had managed to sneak in the top 20 in 19th and was happy. Time to rest up and get ready for the long day out.

I opted to run the race on home made rice cakes and Rehidrat only as this had worked well throughout winter training. It was superb and a choice I am going to keep making in longer races.

The race kicked off at 6:30 and it wasn’t long before we were off onto the beach and heading for the first trail marking. The front guys meant business and I opted to hang back and try make a push in the last 2 hours of the day as I didn’t want to finish in pieces. The first climb was over quite quickly and before I knew it, we had ticked off an hour and I was running with Jock Green, feeling great. The bloukrans swim is great and that is where the associated picture for this post comes from.

In the 2nd hour I really found a comfortable groove as the trail was more open and I felt really good as I was starting to pull back the front group of guys one by one. I was bang on track for the time I wanted to run and was coping with the ups, downs and technical sections well.

The trail is 100% single track and 100% technical by most peoples standards. I ran almost exclusively on trail for the last 3 months, but as technical as I thought I could run was a long way off what we experienced. In years to come, when I go back to run in a few years, I will include weekly rock scrambling, platteklip trips and far more single track running. I cannot describe how technical the trail is, and the mental aspect of remaining focused for that long is something I could pay more attention to, as an Ironman athlete who zones out and just plods on.

Around 2 hours I caught Bruce Arnett and another guy, and ran with them comfortably and we were making great progress through the rivers where cold water was a welcome sight.

As we crossed under a canopy of trees I felt 3 distinctive stings on my head (hornet I figured) and the ensuing headache and wooziness that followed between hour 3 and 4 were my only downfall for the day. I lost contact with the group I was in, and a few more groups as I struggled with focus and the poison worked its way through my system. It was not ideal but it was what it was and I opted to head for the finish as fast as I could, but without making a silly mistake like falling off a cliffside. This meant going a little slower, but I was content.

Around 4 hours I was picked up by a chap who was going well and my head was coming back around so I opted to dig a little and stick with him. I yo-yo’d off the back of him for about 30min and then found a nice rhythm. I figured 5 hours may still be on the cards if I motored and we were starting to pick up some big names on the trails. For a moment I thought of what could be, with the time I lost (I counted about 10min lost in my head) but it was just a moment – I was here for the experience.

I figured if I hit the only tar section with 6minutes to go I could make it, and at 4:58 we hit the tar. That little dream was over and I took a slow jog to the end, finishing in 5:04. I was happy to have come through the dark patch where I felt woozy and had to slow down, but managed to get through it and finish strong. This is a course you come to scout your first run unless you`re an overall contender. I need another year of technical running to be able to move down the hills with the front guys and in the end, I would still have been 25min off without the interruption in the middle, so I have plenty to learn. But here is what I did learn this winter, while running trail:

– The feet follow the head. If you believe you can run something, you can. The brain learns by hope, trust and chance/failure.
– I need to run more specifically towards events. Nothing prepares quite like it. For IMSA – flat, form focused runs. 3 hours max. For Otter – hilly, rock scrambling runs. 5 hours max (I only managed a handful of 3 hour runs).
– Trail makes you strong and powerful if you keep the intensity down and focus the intensity on running downhill.
– A decent gym routine does wonders for your trail running.
– Lunch runs in winter are the best thing in the world. A quick 40min out on the Table Mountain trails twice a week was superb.
– The endorphins high that comes from trail can result in more “training hangovers” than I thought. A reason to run every day then…
– Winter is the time to play. That was my biggest lesson. Trail was a massive adaptation and I looked at it like a new sport, a new challenge and a new adventure. Every session was an adventure and I came out of winter relaxed and refreshed, in a space that I entered a tired and broken man in May.

And so, for the first time in 5.5 months, I wrote myself a training program yesterday and it’s time to get the focus and plan back after a winter of running when I felt like it and how I felt like it. I hope the take the playful attitude into the next phase and keep the spirits high. Someday, I will be back to play at the Otter with the big boys, with more specific preparation and more strategy. This time around, I was the tourist, which was absolutely perfect for me.

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