What makes tough?

Take a bunch of people. Same race. Some will cruise through. Some will drag their bodies through, aiming only to make the finish line. Others will withdraw, the race being just too tough for them to complete. What makes a race perfectly doable for one person and near impossible for another? Indeed, what makes tough?

Distance & duration

Many kilometres, regardless of discipline, make tough. The more kilometres, the longer you’re out there. More time on your feet. More time in the saddle. More time on the water in a kayak… Just being out there for a long time increases discomfort, exposure to the elements, repetitive movement niggles and injuries and general aches and pains. You’ll also need to refill water (dehydration can be an issue) and to carry more food (nutritional deficits are more likely) and certainly also more kit so that you’re prepared for weather changes (hot and cold) as well as night (headlamps).

Tip: You’ll know full well that you’re going to be out there for a long time so pack accordingly and don’t skimp – it really isn’t worth it. Make sure you’re carrying a foot care kit and don’t forget that anti-chafing lube for your toes, underarms and bottom. Your water capacity should be at least two litres and a keeping an electrolyte sachet, like Rehidrate, in your pack is a great standby. Load up with enough food plus some high-energy emergency extras like dark chocolate and a couple of gels. And be prepared for the dark with a headlamp and extra batteries. Always keep a compact, light shell in your pack – upgrade to a waterproof jacket should conditions demand.


Although Ranulph Fiennes says, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”, bad weather can really put a damper on your race. It’s hard to decide whether bitter cold with wind and rain is worse than sweltering heat with high humidity.

James Lea-Cox recalls riding through Northern Kenya.

“It was so tough that I felt that even if you paid me a million Rand I would not go back and do it again. It was close to 50?C and I had very little water, which was salty as well. I hadn’t eaten well in days and I was pushing my fully-laden bike along a really sandy road. Too sandy to ride. Being dehydrated with very little energy and a heavy bike under a scorching heat made for a particularly tough time. On reflection you forget about the suffering and think you would rather be there than at a desk at work!”.

Tip: In the heat, always wear a cap and shades and a top that covers your shoulders. Muscle tops and vests have no place in outdoor events, especially where the duration exceeds three hours (can you spell s.k.i.n. c.a.n.c.e.r.?). Pack in that thermal and don’t put a foot outdoors without a shell or rain jacket (as appropriate). And if you pass a water source, fill up. You can keep moving without food for a good period; dehydration can be debilitating… or fatal.

Elevation gain (and loss)

If a race doesn’t try to kill you with heat then they’ll probably try to hurt you with big ups and big downs. Mountain-goat Andre ‘AJ’ Calitz, winner and record-holder of the notorious up-and-down races Three Peaks Challenge and Platteklip Charity Challenge, works the ascents in his training.

“There is no substitute for proper climbing and unfortunately the best way to learn how to go up mountains fast is to go up mountains fast,” he advises. “Hill repetitions have their place as they offer good intensity, rhythm and strength work but mountains are a different story because they’re very steep and very long. Lion’s Head is an awesome all-round training route; it’s a nice hill with a difficult climb to the top.”

He’s not immune to the hammering from the downhills either.

“There’s no way you can do this in minimalist shoes because you need the cushioning and it is really impossible to prevent your legs taking strain because you have to go down. Getting a rhythm and trying to ‘flow’ helps a lot. For the best example of ‘flow’, just watch Iain Don-Wauchope run down a hill!” he says.

Climbing has always been a killer for Capetonian Phillip Gibb.


“Both at the Jonkershoek Sky Run and at the Table Mountain Challenge there were parts where I sat or walked because I just did not have anything left to give. One thing I will always do now for a race with that much altitude gain and loss is to print out a route profile so that there will be no more ‘are you kidding me’ moments,” he says.


Tip: As Andre says, the only way to prepare for climbs is to climb. Run staircases, work the StairMaster in the gym or run mountains. Down too. Know what you’re in for.


Running at 3,600 metres above sea level is not the same as running at sea level. Up high in the mountains you’re dealing with less oxygen (actually, lower air pressure is to blame for fewer oxygen molecules per lungful) and reduced humidity. You’ll probably breathe faster and harder and in the drier air the threat of dehydration is ever present. The ideal would be to have a few weeks at altitude to acclimatise but for most of us that isn’t going to happen. Instead, adjust and adapt your strategy for altitude, remembering that it will have an effect on your performance.

Tip: Do regular high intensity sessions for a few weeks before the race to get your body used to working at a higher heart rate. Running uphill works well too as running a flat stretch at altitude can feel like running a slope at sea level. Be sure to keep hydrated while travelling to the race (and during). At the race, start off slower than you would at a sea-level or home-altitude race and then build speed as you settle in. Overall you’re likely to be slower than at sea-level so don’t let this get you down. Run and enjoy the scenery.


When it comes to race terrain there’s grassy, rocky, muddy, soft, hard, sandy gravel-y, smooth, wet, vegetated, slippery and you may get all of the above in one race! Terrain definitely makes an impact on toughness.

Rocky, uneven terrain places demands on your feet and ankles and non-stop concentration, good proprioception and foot-eye coordination is essential, which can be really tiring. Soft, grassy, muddy and sandy terrain is very much in the energy-sapping category. And in adventure racing, crawling through vegetation or moving through a kloof at 400 metres in an hour can be incredibly demotivating.

Tip: As with hills, the only way to get good at any particular type of terrain is to train in it. For the rest, you’ve just got to get through it. It will end if you just keep moving.


I’ve always found sprint adventure races to be more tough than a multi-day adventure races because of the intensity of the racing; flat-out from start to finish. Don’t let shorter, more intense races put you off longer ones.

Tip: Train fast to race fast. Even if intensity isn’t quite your thing, it does make for fun participation and you don’t have to crack the whip unless you want to be competitive.

Pack horse

The weight on your back (after a few hours) is proportional to your enthusiasm level. It’s relatively easy to hike with more than 10 kilograms in a pack but it isn’t easy to run loaded down. Weighty backpacks have been responsibility for more than their fair share of chaffing (hips, shoulders, neck), ITB flare ups and general pain and discomfort in the feet, back and shoulders.

Journalist Fiona McIntosh ran the length of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route a few months ago. It took her 20 days at around a marathon-distance per day to clear the 800-kilometre distance.

“We´ve seen a dozen or so peregrinos on bikes, but, somewhat surprisingly given the popularity of trail running in Spain, no other runners,” she observes.

“By lunchtime [on day 2] I had reasoned why. Running with a heavy pack, particularly on roads, is punishing. Mine is 7kg without water and on the largely tarred/paved surfaces today I felt every kilometre. My feet were aching, my muscles sore.”

Tip: Wear your backpack in thoroughly during training, gradually increasing the weight to get accustomed to moving (running, trekking) with it loaded. Identify chaffing hot spots and do preventative taping. For races, pack appropriately, including only what you will need. You don’t need an extra tee-shirt; the dirty-stinky one will do quite fine.

Split personalities

There’s that team thing again. Under pressure personalities are not the same as they are over a relaxed cappuchino. Sulks, disappointments, tempers and outbursts… these make more tough than a night-time paddle on an icy river.

Tip: It may take time to find a complementary racing companion so use every race as an opportunity to learn about what works for you. Consider tough race situations and ask yourself, “If my teammate shouted/ran way/sulked, how would I feel?”. Don’t do this to them either.

Bit of everything

And then tough can be the result of a bit of everything.  The first 12 hours of a 40-hour hike during the 2008 Bull of Africa adventure race was nearly the undoing of Lauren Goulding and her all-female team.

“It was scorching hot, our backpacks were super heavy with food and water and the rope-work equipment we had to carry. One team member was dehydrated and I was in such a state from the lack of sleep that I couldn’t string a sentence together. I would start talking and then forget what I had been saying or my team mates would speak to me and I could see their lips moving but couldn’t understand a word they were saying. I wasn’t even sure who they were,” she says.

After battling for hours and crawling through thick lantana – on their knees! – Goulding made the decision to retrace their steps to find better terrain on the other side of the Kei River.

“It’s that time in the race where everyone gets really grumpy… and the responsibility I felt as navigator… shew! Everyone was just trying to get through it in their own way. On the other side it was better and we could re-group mentally. We still had a bloody long way to go.”

In the words of rock climber Alex Honnold, “I’ve had tons of times when I wasn’t having that much fun, but afterward you’re normally pretty psyched about it”.

Yes, tough is what keeps us coming back for more.

 Author: Lisa de Speville | Originally published in Go Multi magazine, Issue 57. Jan/Feb 2013