12th December, 2016
My first visit to Cape Town was back in 2013 - a few days of doing as little as possible before Comrades in Durban. As it was June, it was Winter in the Southern Hemisphere and out of season (a very cheap time to visit!) so you can't rely on the weather helping you out. But I got pretty lucky; every morning my fellow hotel resident couple would forlornly tell me the Robben Island Ferry had been cancelled again while I managed to take the cable car up Table Mountain blessed with clear skies and views for miles.
I could see runners on the slopes underneath the cable car and from the top it's obvious the whole area is covered with trails including an especially inviting one to Signal Hill. Had it not been for Comrades I'd have been out exploring but the seed was planted.
This is the 3rd year of the Ultra Trail Cape Town and the race is growing fast in numbers and stature. Next year's edition will be part of the World Tour and probably attract more big names although Landie Greyling is here (fresh? from winning the Lesotho Ultra Trail 50 just 2 weeks ago), as is Sally McRae (11th at Western States) and Ryan Sandes is working the PA like a pro.
The UK contingent of 20 in the 100k includes me and Paul Simpson and should have also featured Cat but illness unfortunately wrecked that. Cat's determined to make it out next year and as the hours pass I'm becoming ever more determined to do the same. Though as I type this, it's blowing a raging gale outside just down from the mountain and has done for hours now and I'm sure the summit is off limits so even Summer is a lottery here.
We've got a B&B so close to the start you could skim a frisbee and hit it and all our fellow guests are here for the race. One Spanish chap and two Japanese, who had more and more amazing stories to tell as the days went by. Reiko san had competed in the Paris-Dakar rally on a motorbike 6 times, finished UTMB twice, run Reunion 4 times etc and Aya san was a pro snowboarder and now pro photographer here to cover the race for a magazine. It was a chance for me to get my Japanese out but being as I left 16 years ago and haven't used it much since, it was like retrieving a rusty barbeque from the shed and trying to work out how to light it.
The expo (tiny) and kit check (performed by you picking a random card with photos of a subset of the mandatory kit on the obverse which you have to then produce or be directed to the nearest handy fitting out stall where your credit card is assaulted with bats). One of my fellow runners bent my ear about how much stuff he'd had to buy having failed his MOT but I don't have a lot of sympathy - if the list says waterproof jacket and you pitch up with a cotton Hawaiian shirt (he didn't!) then what can you expect?
Danger is a constant refrain in conversation with Cape Town locals I've noticed. And it's always one of two things - getting mugged in the street or it's tourists going up the mountain in flip-flops and dying of exposure or falling off something. It's a 1,200 metre plateau with it's own very changeable weather system so it's to be respected and you may well need that jacket.
After registering I hung around for the highly social briefing - I have to say the locals are extremely welcoming. And the craft ale was £1.50. It felt like I met half the field and also had a chat with Landie who is extremely personable.
The local council and park management spoke and while that sounds very dry (and admittedly some of it was osmotically sucking the moisture from my pint) it impressed on me that the race works in partnership with them very well and they value the event and that seems like a good thing to me.
There are 3 races - a 100km with 4,300 metres of ascent, a 65km and a 35km. The 100 & 65 go off together at 4am and you have a strict 17hrs and 15hrs respectively to make it round as intact as possible. Interestingly, if you miss the first cut-off in the 100km race just before 30km you get diverted to the 65km route and can still go for a bona fide result in that race.
Now I promised myself never to underestimate a race again since the Black Canyon 100k and I've certainly made progress there. I now only underestimate by a known amount. This one has less elevation than the Festival des Templiers so it will be easier. Let's begin.
I'm in the 100, the alarm is set for 2am, bed is achieved by 8pm and I've done what I can.
The alarm went off 5 minutes later although on closer inspection it was actually 2am. Not that I'd achieved any sleep. One of those nights where your brain won't shut up about god knows what and the pizza dinner and cheesecake chaser are still doubling your heart rate 6 hours later.
Paul's gone ahead cos I'm still faffing but there's no rush, a short walk up the road to the start having frantically written down the aid stop locations on my bib plus a ludicrous cartoon approximating the elevation profile. I've said this before but the preparation is the result, folks.
Ryan's back on the mic, a red flare is lit and we're released into the city, blood stirred up by the epic journey ahead across one of the wonders of the natural world.
The first few ks are downhill into town where a surprising number of people are about for 4am, but after a couple of left turns and steep climbs we hit the trail heading to Signal Hill. There's a cool breeze, almost total silence and as the wide and easy trail climbs, the lights of the town and the black, forbidding silhouette of Table Mountain and its attendants make a spectacular backdrop. It's humid though and I've been sweating since the start so it was going to be a day of watching the water intake.
The darkness soon gives way - within an hour the sun's rising over the switchback trails around Signal Hill and Lions Head. There were some steep climbs here but as one of the volunteers at the 12.7km aid station said, "now the race starts".
There's a steep and uneven stair climb of 200m up to the Table Mountain contour trail which tests the lungs as every step is a little too high for comfort and the rough surfaces need careful foot placement and then the traverse across the face of the mountain on an in parts worryingly narrow path with nothing but a long drop beyond that.
Not many places were changing hands, everyone seemed settled into a whatever's comfortable kind of pace as was I especially as I was saving myself for the climb.
It didn't really matter. It turned out I was saving myself at current cashISA rates. Platteklip Gorge was devastating. 600 metres of 35 degree gradient and a tricky staircase of random rock. As it dragged on I got slower and slower and had to take the odd breather to one side. I don't know how long it took to climb. It seemed like forever. I reminded myself that this race is front-loaded with climbs and once this was done that was the biggest out of the way but when you're 20% of the race completed and feeling pretty smashed up that's not confidence-building! There has been too little hill training this year; there will be more hill training next year.
But topping out brings spectacular views out over the city from 3/4 of a mile up.
Maze-like trails wind across the plateau - this entire route is excellently marked by the way with flags every 50 metres the entire way - but all too soon there's a steep and very technical 1000m drop via a couple of aid stations. I really crawled to the first at 24km. I found very little of the trail was runnable and I was having to frequently use all four limbs to handle tricky drops. Time ticked away and I realised the cut-off of 4hrs 45mins was becoming a major problem. I had the GPS watch on its lowest setting to preserve battery so unfortunately didn't know exactly how far away the 24km point was. There were several others around me in the 100 so I thought we might be still on track. In any case, I couldn't go any faster!
I eventually reached 24k in 4hrs 15 minutes. An incredible amount of time. I was hoping to reach the next aid station by then. Fearing the worst and being dealt a further blow when a Nutella sandwich turned out to be Marmite ('At least you've taken on some salt,' says the kindly volunteer), I pushed on with the encouraging words that 'it's all road and downhill til 29k' wafting towards me on the breeze.
The first stretch was road and was also downhill but then came the stairs. I found these awful. They were random and rough-house, fronted with boards that protruded and caught the toe of my shoes and threatened to catapault me into the shrubbery. 4:45 was long gone and so was 5 hours by the time I made it to the CP.
It turned out they'd extended the cut-off to 5 hours but I was just outside it so that was the 100km out of the window but I had the option of continuing on the 65km route. It was very disappointing and I gave myself a good 10 minutes of eating and drinking to decide whether to carry on. It wasn't really in any doubt.. who wants to come all this way and go home after less than 20 miles? I soon accepted the reality that if I'd made the cut-off by a few minutes, there's no way 70km in 12 hours over this kind of course was going to happen.
So it was onwards! Of course it was onwards!!
The next stretch was reminiscent of the pleasant cruise enjoyed by the Titanic before it hit the iceberg. It was almost flat! Winding through vineyards and very English-looking countryside through to the marathon distance. The sun was extremely warm by now but for once I just about took enough water on board and there was some shade here and there. Soaking the buff gives instant relief but does make it look like you're a medical emergency when worn unfashionably.
Groot Constantia Vineyard
23km to go, 26 degrees and as the steep climbs reappear in the route it's becoming more difficult. Heat, gradients, fatigue and extremely technical terrain make for a perfect storm of hard. I kept thinking that making the cut-off would have meant almost 60km left to do - impossible to imagine! Lots of this trail was huge, random boulder scrambling and river crossing, but the worst of it was the ominously-named '1000 steps'. I don't know how many there were but honestly 1000 seemed like a gross underestimate. They climbed 200 metres and were crushing of the spirit with 30 miles in the legs. I came close to running out of water but mountain streams provided a ready chance to replenish and tasted like nectar at that stage in the day.
From the steps, there's a technical descent to Cape Town University which I half expected to find semi burned down given the recent troubles but happily it looked intact! The last aid station, one more climb and just 10k to go. The climb is back up to the contour path we traversed hours before from the opposite direction and was the only significant obstacle remaining. It's extremely steep and is broken up by a couple of roads which give a handy excuse to bend over double and suck in lungfulls of air. I stopped much more often than that, it was that steep - hauling myself up with the aid of branches and posts and whatever was to hand.
Halfway up and Landie hoved into view - she was on the 100km route of course which used the same closing section as the 65k, so she'd run 35k more than me and though she said 'what were they thinking?!' about the slope in a spirit of gratifying cameraderie, I couldn't help notice it gave her a lot less trouble than it was giving me.
400 metres or so later the contour was reached and that felt like the home straight though there's still a fair bit to do, the wind had started to pick up a lot and the trail's narrow and precipitous at this point. On a bad weather day, this would be a very sketchy race.
It's a chance to once again gaze out over the magnificent Cape Town vista and contemplate how far you've come. The start seemed like days ago.
The finish is a 400m descent away with the sounds from the PA carried up to meet you on the wind from a couple of miles away.
Descending like a badly-tuned piano thrown down some stairs
A few more switchback paths, a few more wooden boardwalks and finally the road back into the Rugby Ground where we'd begun, with a firm handshake from Ryan to cap things off - he's still working that PA!
What an amazing race. Because of the time factor I think it could be the toughest I've run. You do have to have a fair degree of mountain skill to be able to bring yourself in under that first cut-off and then maintain. I don't think (for once) I wasted a huge amount of time at checkpoints, the knees didn't protest and although I had a mild chest thing going into it I don't think that affected me too much. Though I've been coughing my lungs up ever since.
Nope, this one needs training and if I'd been able to put together half the year I had planned I think it would have more likely gone to said plan.
I'm really happy with the 65K finish and medal and I'm itching to have another go at it. I love South Africa, and Cape Town especially and as I write this, sat in Joburg Airport's hotel with my flight delayed 7 hours at least it may just be that I'll have the means to fund it! An unfortunate way to end what has been a brilliant trip!
I've said it before and I'll say it again, visit South Africa if you get the chance! Even with us running Sterling over a landmine it's still cheap to get by out here. The people are fantastically welcoming and they really take pride in the country and these events. Plus of course, you get to see some of the most spectacular scenery you can find.
One final mention for Landie - she took 2 hours out of Sally McRae to win. Has there ever been that kind of margin at the pro end of the field?
My Strava Track