Nic’s Wartrail tale

Last weekend was the 12th running of the Wartrail Challenge, a 250km staged multisport race in the Witteberge region of the Eastern Cape. After a four-year hiatus, Team Cyanosis’ Nicholas Mulder travelled down to compete in one of the best multi-day races in the country. Here is his report…

60km Mountain Run – Lady Grey to Balloch

This was my 4th running of the Garmin Wartrail and once again, the 60km first day trail run from Lady Grey to Balloch was decisive in the overall result of the race. 77 participants were on the start line at 4 o’clock in the morning and it was immediately obvious that the Wartrail had become extremely competitive since I last ran it 4 years ago.

After a quick sprint to get through the first narrow gate and across a swollen river outside town, the pace settled down on the climb up the hiking trail to CP1, the microwave tower. I found myself setting the pace for the second bunch, after 6 athletes got away early on, pushing a record-breaking pace up the hill.  I had set myself specific target times to achieve for each section of the race that were based on my previous personal best. I wanted to finish the run in about 9 hours, which would beat my PB by over half an hour. I was thus happy to let the gap grow and conserve my energy for after CP1 when the route left the hiking trail and continued cross country.

Shortly after CP1 the gap to the leaders had grown to just over 5 minutes. I was still content as my split time showed that I was well within my targets. Shortly thereafter, dawn came and I was able to pack away my headlamp. I’d decided to use the Petzl Myo XP as it great lighting so as not to loose the hiking trail in the dark, yet was light enough and compact enough to carry without problem for the remaining 7 hours of the race. The route enters a fascinating section of the Witteberge range at this point, where the fastest route constantly hops from the left to the right side of the range, with some interesting crossings of the main fence line that follows the ridge. At one stage the lead bunch found themselves climbing too high, allowing for me and Tommy Booth (who’d been running with me since the start) to catch the six leaders. The lead bunch proved to be quite competitive, with various people constantly testing each other and pushing the pace for short periods of time. At one point just before the Olympus checkpoint (CP2), Nico Schoeman put in a good interval, stringing the leaders out again. Graham Bird, Donovan Sims, Craig Carter-Brown and Paul Moketi went with him, whilst myself, Tommy and Hanno Smit settled in as the chasing pack.

From CP2 to 3, the route follows an old 4×4 trail and the gap see-sawed between 4 and 6 minutes. Shortly after CP3 (Snowdon) we closed it to 1 minute as we once again started going cross-country, but this was just the impetus for the leaders to put in one massive and decisive surge as we neared CP4 at Avoca. This surge also coincided with the only real route choice differences between the top runners. The route had been running on a terrace just off the left side of the mountain ridge when Don and Craig started climbing for the ridgeline about 3km early. Nico, Graham and Paul waited a bit longer before climbing, whilst Tommy, Hanno and myself stayed on the terrace till the last moment before climbing for the checkpoint. I’d always thought this to be the best route, but Nico and Graham proved otherwise. Together with the faster pace and better route, they went past the Avoca marshals 8 minutes ahead of us. They were well on record breaking pace, whilst even I was still 30 minutes faster than my previous races till this point.

The section shortly after Avoca is probably the highlight for most Wartrail competitors. The mountain ridgeline gets very narrow, at one point even earning the name of ‘The Dragon’s Back’ as competitors jump from rock to rock with spectacular views on either side. I’d chosen to race in Salomon S-Lab shoes for the race and they proved to work superbly even on this technical section. This year we had perfect weather: cool and partly cloudy with lots of water from heavy rains in the previous days. The views were therefore endless as we traversed the ridge and contoured around some of the higher mountain peaks en route to the final CP at Skiddaw. It also became obvious that the 5 runners must be flying, as there was no glimpse of them ahead, no matter how far the view went.

Just after the Skiddaw checkpoint (#5) I went though a bad patch. I’d not been watching my food intake carefully and needed to slow down to get some good mouthfuls of food and drink down. Hanno saw me falter and immediately opened a gap on me and Tommy. I recovered quickly and we were still able to finish off the final 10km of the race into Balloch in good time. This was the first year that I’d run the entire race distance with someone and Tommy proved to be a great help for me, both in pacing myself and also mentally, having someone else around to chat to every now and again. We finished together in joint 7th place in 8h54, taking a whopping 40 minutes off my personal best. This years field was super-competitive. To give some idea of this was that I was only 1km away from the finish when the old course record time went by. In the end, all of the top 4 finishers, led home by Nico Schoeman, broke the existing course record. Pretty impressive.

131km Mountain Bike – Balloch to Mdlokovana

Suprisingly, the legs felt good at the start of Day 2 for the 131km bike ride to the banks of the Orange River. The weather was once again mild, but we were in for a strong headwind on the second half of the ride. The first few kms passed quickly as we cruised down the Balloch entrance road in a neutral zone before hitting the dirt roads and the first climb of the day. Two riders immediately flew off the front, but I tucked in behind the Adventure Addicts team of Graham, Hanno and Donovan, with Craig setting the pace. The overall Wartrail results in the solo category would be sorted out amongst everyone in this bunch, with my chances being the least likely given the time deficit I had to everyone from the Day 1 mountain run.

The first real climb comes at the 25km mark as you get to Lundean’s Neck. Thereafter follows one of the best downhills in the country, 25km of winding downhill to the Telle River running along the border of Lesotho and the first marshal point of the day at the 50km mark at Telle Junction. With the recent heavy rains, the road was in very poor condition. Back in 2007 I managed to clock 70km/hr on the downhill. This year I only got to 56km/hr. There were  lots of erosion ruts and even one big rockfall that had come down overnight. I was grateful to be riding my full-suspension Specialized, as I would have been bounced out of the saddle a few times on that downhill.

At Telle Junction there is a short 2km climb. My legs weren’t up to the job and I had to let the group go. I found myself in no-man’s land with no riders in sight behind me. This would mean that on all 4 Wartrails that I’d done, I’d ridden the final 80kms on my own. This year was going to be one of the toughest, with the strong headwind we faced over the final 50km of the stage.

Lundean’s Neck is the big climb of the day, but there are still some short nasty ones at Majuba Nek (the second CP) and shortly after passing Sterkspruit (and the third CP). I managed to pace these well, but the long hours of solitude along district dirt roads saw me loosing further time as I failed to mantain consistency over the flats.  I managed to find some extra energy after passing the last checkpoint of the day (Herschel) and floored the final 20km down to the village of Mdlokovana and the finish line, coming home in just over 6h30.

62km River Paddle – Mdlokovana to Aliwal North

The final day of Wartrail is always the most fun, and this year didn’t disappoint with the Orange River in near-flood. Some estimates put the river at 600 – 700 cumecs? Who knows, since the gauging weir at Aliwal was overflowing! The high water meant the river was flowing fast, approximately 10km/hr through the canyon that dominates the first 20km of paddling. Less-proficient paddlers were given the option of starting halfway down at the 30km mark, but about 20 paddlers still put onto the water below Mdlokovana village at 7am.

The first few kilometres were ‘intersting’ as I quickly remembered how to paddle in rivers once again (it’s been two years…). With the high water, most of the rapids had been washed out, with big ‘swirlies’ now making the paddling interesting. I settled in behind Jeanette Walder in approximately 10th position and tried to read as much of the river as possible, sometimes watching her boat for clues. After a few good swirlies and some wave trains, I felt comfortable, but still got surprised by a couple of proper whirlpools about 10km into the paddle. The second one was a monster, sitting hidden behind a small rapid, but being at least 10m wide. I’ve never been go glad that I’d played it safe and taken the slower water on the edge of the rapid. We got to the halfway point in 1h44. That’s a crazy 18km/hr of paddling. In the 2007 winter Wartrail, it took us almost another 2 hours to reach this point.

The second half of the race is much more predictable. The river flattens out and slows down. The trick in this section was trying to work out where the fastest flowing water was, with the river sometimes reaching 100m in width and only 1 small rapid worth noting. We were soon caught by Donovan and Tatum of the Adventure Addicts team, with Don quickly pulling away. From there it was a long drag to the Aliwal weir, just a couple of kms from the finish line. Once again the weir was a compulsory portage section. The high water made it more interesting than usual as we needed quick wits to get out of the boats in some reed banks and put in at some fast-flowing stuff just below the weir. From there at least, it was just a couple of minutes before we finishing under the N6 road bridge.

The fast-flowing river meant that I broke yet another PB, taking 20 minutes off my fastest paddle time. It also gave me my best ever total time of 9h14 and a final position of 5th in the Solo category. Once again, a big thank you to Adrian Saffy and his team for a great Wartrail, one that continues to improve year-after-year. I will definitely be back next year!

Team Cyanosis is proud to have the following brands supporting them:

First Ascent outdoor apparel, Salomon adventure footwear, Petzl headlamps, Foodstate vitamins and supplements, Island Tribe sun lotion.

–  Specialized bikes and accessories, Summit Cycles in Midrand, Suunto field compasses and wristop computers, O’Neill wetsuits.

Author: Nicholas Mulder | Team Cyanosis | Garmin Wartrail

* image by Kelvin Trautman