Things I learned running 100 miles at Addo Elephant Trail Run 2019

Is the 100 miler distance becoming the new normal? TRAIL's Deon Braun asks this (and many other questions, mostly about his sanity) after completing the 2019 Addo Elephant Trail Run 100 miler, held 15-17 March.

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One hundred miles is the new black

Reflecting on Addo 2019, I’m sure that in a poll I’m yet to conduct, 83% of respondents will say they did their first trail run because a friend suggested it. But I suspect that close to 100% of 100 miler runners will say a friend convinced them to try the 160km distance…

Addo 2019 Richard Pearce jumping 100 miler runner TRAIL 31
The early kays of Addo 2019 100 miler allow runners to find their rhythm on relatively gentle terrain. It’s the only time they’ll have the manicured gravel of a district road underfoot. Port Elizabeth’s Annalise Scholtz (left) went on to win the women’s race and finished second overall in an astounding 23 hours 51 minutes. She lowered the 2017 record held by Naomi Brand by 10 minutes. Next to her is Pretorian Conrad du Toit, Johan Jordaan from Bloemfontein, and up in the air about it all is Johann Olivier. Unfortunately, Johann’s celebrations were premature, and he didn’t finish. photo Richard Pearce

Persistent friends are like pit bulls

That was totally my experience. In my case, my friend was very persistent. Race organisers tend to be persistent, and they notice when you’re not conforming to their suggestion. Especially when it’s their race they’re recommending you run. Yip, Addo Elephant Trail Run‘s Sian O’Keeffe wasn’t going to relent. There was nowhere to hide.

But, life happens, even if you really want to tackle an adventure. Take 2016, the year that the Addo 100 was reintroduced after a slumber of six years. That year I was training like a Trojan who knew war with Sparta was imminent. It was going so well I thought I’d double up with some gardening while running. I mean, you’d also run home with discarded 3m-long bamboo stems, right? If you run with bamboo, Jungle Jim, you might as well jump a flower bed too. If only I knew there was a hidden ditch on the touchdown side. The resulting ankle sprain was a bad one, and too close to the race to consider starting.

Hobbling on to consistent failure

The early kays of Addo 100 miler allow runners to find their rhythm on relatively gentle terrain. It's the only time they'll have the manicured gravel of a district road underfoot. Port Elizabeth's Annalise Scholtz went on to win the women's race and finished second overall in an astounding 23 hours 51 minutes. She lowered the 2017 record held by Naomi Brand by 10 minutes. Next to her is Pretorian Conrad du Toit (see p38), Johan Jordaan (p19) from Bloemfontein, and up in the air about it all is Johann Olivier. Unfortunately, Johann's celebrations were premature, and he didn't finish.
Addo 2019 100 mile start. photo Richard Pearce

On race day, I was granted organiser permission to hobble the last 15km of the 44km course to take photos and spectate. The next two years revealed the biggest challenges in 100 mile running: you have to be consistent and you need to commit time to your training. Both years fizzled. I downgraded to the 44km in year one. In year two, I had to cancel my trip because the magazine deadline coincided with the race.

I felt like a flake, but Sian, my persistent, patient friend, still seemed to believe in me.

No turning back, but challenges too

Entries approached for 2019, and he reminded me of my deep-seated psychological need to run a 100 miler. “This is your year,” he said, with no hint that I had the option of downgrading to the 76km or 44km at Addo 2019. So that was it.

No more excuses to not do this crazy stupid distance. But as I’ve hopefully already ably demonstrated, Life has a weird habit of throwing the most inconvenient situations at us. In October, an inadequately educated guttering company employee sanded an asbestos fascia board and I happened to be in the area. Had I or had I not inhaled asbestos fibres? I may never know, but the uncertainty was as bad as a Yes.

Addo 2019 Richard Pearce mist sunrise landscape TRAIL 31
There are some sights you only truly see with your inner eye. Like this one, 30km into the race at checkpoint 3 on the morning of the second day. It’s easy to look at the gentle rolling terrain around Addo main camp and think that this is what Addo is everywhere. Its geography is much more varied. The race terrain is almost constantly up and down, on some of the steepest terrain you’ll encounter in a South African ultra. The tracks are made for Parks 4×4 vehicles, and the road builders couldn’t have been asked for contours. So you will find yourself hauling ass up brutal gradients like F*ck Sian Hill and what I’d call No Way! Hill (a series of super-steep ups after Ellie’s aid station). When you’ve completed the ups, there are equally steep downs that totally hammer your quads and feet. photo Richard Pearce

That knocked me off track mentally. My training floundered at a crucial time for building strength and stamina. Then came January, and an urgency to catch up on lost mileage. You know the 10% rule. I know the 10% rule*. But it’s easy to overrule the rule when you’re way behind schedule. The result? A 120km week netted me a painful ankle, the same one I’d sprained six months earlier. Another two weeks were slurped up by the Injury Monster while it healed. I was looking at the calendar with real concern now. Could I really cover 100 miles with this patchy take-off? It didn’t look too plausible.

* To increase total mileage by no more than 10% on any consecutive week.

You need a reason, says Nietzsche

With a suitable Why, any How is possible. More or less what Nietzsche meant, I think. I found my Why, after much soul searching. I realised that I have a real need to be in Nature.

Standing, walking, running, or just being under the shelter of a wild forest does something miraculous to my circuitry. I was only seven years old when I felt that buzz under the canopy of the Zululand coastal forests.

Addo 2019 Richard Pearce 44km runners aid station TRAIL 31
A sense of humour is vital for ultras. That’s why you can smile when your 44km mega effort is referred to as ‘the fun run’. Because number juxtaposition works! Whether you run 44km, 76km, or 161km, you’re still an Addo ultra runner. Cheers to that Gerald Males and Mile Vermaak! photo Richard Pearce

Fast-forward 44 years. Durban’s Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve felt like my seven-year-old’s adventure playground every time I did my training hikes and runs there. The injury blues? The asbestos scare? It was all gone. All that remained was purpose, and direction.

It was because I had found the answer. I wouldn’t run Addo 2019. I wasn’t fit enough yet to do that. But I could hike nearly all of it, as fast as I could, but also take time to simply be. I’d breathe in the sunset, and inhale the next day’s sunrise. This was about living, despite the imperfections, the should haves, and the could haves.

So I spoke to Addo race director Sian O’Keeffe and he said he regularly told people they could finish within the 37 hour cut-off by hiking, but only if they didn’t squander time at checkpoints.

ADDO 2019 Valley of Tears panorama by Rebel Media Guys TRAIL 31
Behold, the Valley of Tears! photo Rebel Media Guys

Ready, steady, go! No, really, go!

And so off I went on 15 March 2019, with another 80 mostly apprehensive souls. Most were Addo 100 novices, but some were returning for their fourth run. One of those was Addo stalwart Tobie Reyneke, who would be setting a new South African ultra record for completing a whopping 53 hundred milers – if he finished. (Read about Tobie in TRAIL 32.)

Just like doing an ultra, processing the journey isn’t something you rush. Here’s my take on Addo 2019, six days after starting it.

What I learned at Addo 2019

Step up gradually

If you can, do a few preparation races before an A-list event like Addo. This will help you address any areas of weakness, and help you improve your kit and nutrition planning. I knew I should do this, but didn’t plan any events due to other commitments, so relied on muscle memory from my last ultra, in er, 2013, the 65km SkyRun. I wasn’t too surprised when all sorts of unforeseen things made their appearance on race day.

Don’t over-cater

My first mistake was that I was perhaps too self-sufficient. I’d brought a Ziploc bag of custom-mixed nuts and seeds for the latter stages when you start craving savoury tastes. In hindsight, the foods like boiled baby potatoes and salted peanuts at the checkpoints would have been enough. That bag of nuts resulted in me breaking my hydration pack zip. Worse, I lost the bag of nuts in the first 2km when I handed it to Fred Richardson, but then ran on ahead without getting it back from him. Damn, I did miss eating that trail mix!

Pacing

Around 8pm on the first night I thought I’d lost the trail, just after one of the checkpoints. It seemed to peter out, and I couldn’t see any markings. So I decided to back-track up the hill to where I was certain I was still on course. A group of four came running down the hill towards me. Relief! I wasn’t lost after all. I joined them for a bit. But they were hammering the downhills, and I realised I could not match their pace (aka youthful optimism). I let them go. But 100 miles is a long way. Eventually, I passed them one by one and finished well ahead of all of them. My lesson: don’t race anyone. Just pace yourself. It’s a long way, and stuff happens.

Protect your feet

I thought about gaiters but didn’t do a concerted search for my pair until the last week, when I realised I’d probably thrown them out because they’d disintegrated. The only ones I could find were sew-on desert gaiters. Oh well, I thought, I’ll take them with, even though they need their attachment velcro to be stitched onto the shoe to be effective.

My lightweight pair of Hoka One One Torrent shoes hadn’t been prepped for this. My rationale was that at least the desert gaiters would keep pebbles out of my shoes. They did indeed do this, but it wasn’t stones, but water and sand that came back to bite me in the last 10km. The hotspots from the fine river sand slowly morphed into blisters. I had changed socks twice after river crossings, but when the first two pairs had got wet, they had soaked up tiny mud granules, which were abrasive like fine sandpaper. Some of those grains stayed on my feet, and were transferred into the third pair of socks, causing further damage.

In contrast, Andrew Booth‘s feet were fine in the final 10km. He had used one pair of Injinji toesocks, which he hadn’t removed at all, and low profile wrap-around gaiters that fasten under his shoe soles. These had kept out almost all of the river sand that had got into my shoes. So I need to incorporate a similar strategy for my future races. Ultimately, you run with your feet, not your legs, so make them your top priority.

Addo 2019 Richard Pearce Dr Johan sleeping TRAIL 31
Bloem doctor Johan Jordaan is a familiar face at the Otter African Trail Run, where he and his MD wife Dojo both assist and take turns to run either the Race or Challenge. Here he takes a chair nap on his way to a ninth overall. photo Richard Pearce

To sleep or not 

I chose not to, a decision made on the move when several people, including Sian, advised against it. “You won’t want to get going again,” was the general message. I thought that wouldn’t be a problem for me, but was also curious about how long I could go without sleep. The sleep monsters only descended on me in the final 5km, and one reason they even got me was a nutritional one…

Nutrition

You need to keep eating during events like Addo, even in the 44km distance. Eat at the aid stations, and have food with you to eat on the move too. Nibble, nibble! In the aptly named Valley of Tears, I realised with a jolt that I hadn’t eaten anything for nearly two hours. I couldn’t believe I’d neglected my topping up. It’s easy to get pulled into the moment. I ate what I could access in my pack without stopping, and made sure to eat well at the Ellie’s checkpoint.

ADDO 2019 Paul Freeth lubing by Rebel Media Guys TRAIL 31
Don’t forget to lube! Squirrel’s Nut Butter was one of several high value brands that made Addo 2019 the best yet. Paul Freeth demonstrates while wife Kelly looks on bemusedly. photo Rebel Media Guys

My second (and bigger) mistake was thinking that I could coast on a virtual downhill once I got to the last checkpoint. There was about 11km left to the finish after this, and it was getting late, around 11pm. I had been awake for 42 hours at this stage. I ate fruit, potatoes, and peanut butter sandwiches at the last checkpoint (CP17), but didn’t want to consume anything with caffeine. I thought it might interfere with sleep after I finished. So I also didn’t use any gels because I thought the solid foods would fuel me all the way to the end. That was a mistake.

By contrast, Andrew Booth, who had completed another 100 miler at Ultra-Trail Drakensberg, was asking crews for two cups of tea, which he was then putting into his soft flasks with sugar and milk, and sipping in the final 10 kays. He looked strong in the final stages, while I started tripping over my feet, and losing my balance on the dark forest singletrack in the final 3km. I was also seeing buildings, huts, and gazebos in my peripheral vision, while being perfectly aware that they were not real. My mind was just craving to finish, so it could sleep!

Addo 2019 Richard Pearce runner heading into sunrise TRAIL 31
The 100 mile has an exciting future ahead of it. More events are bound to spring up, giving you choice. Those with lenient cut-offs will give you the option to run or hike. Now all you have to do is find a persistent friend who will volunteer you to do one! photo Richard Pearce

Hallucinations

If you’ve ever eaten magic mushrooms, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I started seeing things when I’d nearly crossed through the Valley of Tears. It wasn’t psychotic, lock-him-up now level. Colours became vivid. Rocks and stones glowed like pure gold bars in the late afternoon light. In the forest, I saw a leguaan (monitor lizard) perched on a rock, its head point skyward. As I approached to within 5m, I realised it was actually a dassie (hyrax). It didn’t move, and I only saw it was a rock as I walked past. At another point, I also saw a giant six-foot tall crested eagle. It was green, which isn’t the autumn plumage colour of this species. I wasn’t too surprised to see it was actually an aloe as I passed it.

Keeping cool

Most runners said Addo 2019 conditions were hot and humid. I agreed on the hot but didn’t think it was particularly humid. I guess living in Durban helps! I also wore white UV sleeves, which kept the hot sun off my arms. I would have been even cooler if I had chosen a white cap and a white running shirt. The dark blues I wore definitely soaked up more heat than I wanted.

Mental Preparation for Addo 100

1. Enjoy the dark zone. The appeal of 100 milers is that they push you into a realm you don’t get with most 50 milers (80km). Apart from the fatigue, there’s the sleep deprivation (although some runners take power naps). Most 100 milers involve running at night. This sounds daunting, but I found the cooler night to be incredibly enjoyable.

2. Expect the wild. At Addo, you have a chance of seeing the area’s wildlife, including jackal, leopard, warthog, and kudu. Hippo are also about, but rarely seen. Addo has the Big Seven (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, rhino, great white shark, Southern right whale), but the race is held in a corridor where all are excluded except for the elusive leopard. I nearly walked over a sleeping jackal who had chosen the middle of the jeeptrack as her bed in the early hours of Saturday. We both got a fright, and crab-walked around each other.

3. Hike if you prefer. If you aren’t fit enough to run 160km, find races (like Addo) with lenient time cut-offs, and hike them. I ran probably less than 10% of the 161km, even sections that were quite runnable. I knew wasn’t conditioned enough to run that far, so trekking was a happy compromise. You do have to train your hiking though. Trekking poles help if you use them properly. Addo 2019 is the first of four 100 milers that make up the inaugural AMUK 400 Mile Challenge

Addo 2019 Richard Pearce fred & deon TRAIL 31
Don’t run with back sweep Fred Richardson too long Deon Braun, back markers don’t make it! photo Richard Pearce

4. Roll with the punches. Things will go wrong. My hydration pack’s zip broke in the first 500 metres. Not because of a poor quality zip, but because I was trying to film the start and be a runner at the same time. I asked Fred Richardson to put back my phone and a bulging pack of trail mix back while we were moving, and that was a mistake. Safety pins are useful things. Fix things, and keep moving.

5. Just commit. It’s true that you need time to properly prepare for a 100 miler. You’ll just enjoy it more if you’re better prepared, so give the hard yards the best you can. On race day, and for days, months, and years afterwards, you’ll realise what a brilliant investment that commitment was. The best time to sign up for a 100 miler is the first time you think you might like to try one. Then get training. The preparation is part of the journey, so promise yourself you’ll make it fun, and it will be!

Addo 2019 Results

Addo 100 miler (161km)

Men

  1. Hylton Dunn 23:05:44
  2. Georgie Minopetros 24:15:30
  3. Conrad du Toit 25:52:10
  4. Andrew Jansen van Rensburg 26:51:22
  5. Johan Jordaan 26:51:32
  6. Paul Freeth 26:58:09
  7. Frikkie Pienaar 27:50:26
  8. Warren Douglas 27:50:53
  9. Sean McGibbon 27:57:15
  10. David McGibbon 27:57:33
Addo 2019 Richard Pearce Annalise Scholtz women winner TRAIL 31
Three women – Annalise Scholtz (pictured, second overall), Jo Mackenzie, and Tracey Campbell – finished in the top five at Addo 100! The past two years have seen an unprecendented shift in trail running: women are moving to the top of fields, especially over the longer distances. Camille Herron led the way internationally in 2018, and now other women are showing they can too. This year, 18 women entered Addo 100 miler, a new entry record. photo Richard Pearce

Women

  1. Addo 2019 top 3 women 100 miler 2019 richard pearce TRAIL 31
    Jo, Annalise, and Tracey. photo Richard Pearce
    Annalise Scholtz 23:51:02 CR
  2. Jo Mackenzie 24:13:30
  3. Tracey Campbell 25:18:36
  4. Karoline Hanks 25:53:04
  5. Sarah Hearn 30:01:52
  6. Rosie Carey 33:30:25
  7. Nikola Ramsden 33:30:41
  8. Rene Vollgraaff 33:41:22
  9. Jeanine Hattingh 34:59:44
  10. Kelly Freeth 34:59:45

Addo 2019 76km

Men

  1. Ryan Sandes 06:56:25
  2. Aurelien Collet 07:06:34
  3. Obey Mtetwa 08:03:24
  4. Matthew Healy 08:06:31
  5. Chris Strydom 08:25:18

Women

  1. Helen Buley 09:09:57
  2. Jana Trojan 10:09:35
  3. Caro Jordaan 10:52:30
  4. Barbara Mulcahy 11:08:47
  5. Margaret Carstens 11:18:28

Addo 2019 44km

Men

  1. Ben Brimble 4:01:13
  2. Craig Williams 4:28:46
  3. Jacques Mouton 4:33:35
  4. Eddie Mouton 4:37:31
  5. Karl Midlane 4:39:44

Women

  1. Melissa Van Rensburg 4:21:54
  2. Tiphaine Germain 4:56:25
  3. Carla Whitehead 5:00:42
  4. Annatjie Botes 5:06:26
  5. Cathryn Proctor 5:23:55

The 2020 Addo Elephant Trail Run is on 6-8 March. 

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