Keep it Real
Armand du Plessis is an international adventurer inspired by his endurance runner mother. On his travels around SA and the rest of the world, he has had some jaw-dropping experiences.
Not quite a fairytale
I’ve definitely started gravitating towards off-the-beaten-path runs over the years. Running a few kilometres exhausts me, so I found that finding events where there’s a bit of scrambling up and tumbling down was a great way to hide my lack of running skills…
An event that’s got a special place in my heart is the Ultra Fiord: “An epic journey into the magical world of fiords….”
The tagline makes it sound like something you do in fairyland on a Saturday morning. A jolly little jaunt across beautiful scenery with birds chirping and frolicking huemul deer on green grassy fields.
Don’t be fooled, this is nothing like that. This is a fairyland with impaled heads, glaciers, crevasses, deep mud, freezing river crossings, extreme weather and everything else that Patagonia’s extreme south can throw at you. This is fairyland on difficulty level 11… with the cheat codes disabled.
The 2016 edition of the Ultra Fiord is probably one year that really sticks out for me. It was the second running of the event, the first year I ran it, and the weather was typical of the Chilean Antarctic region. Extremely unpredictable.
I prefer running in the cold, but coming from sunny South Africa, this was pretty new.
The race is in the extreme southern end of the Chilean Patagonia, in the aptly-named Last Hope province of the Magallanes region. This is truly wild country. You are running in areas completely devoid of people, crossing passes and glaciers without seeing another competitor, sometimes for hours at a time.
I remember crossing a pass into a significant storm, with an icy blizzard turning the water in my bottles to frozen slush and causing my watch to appear to slow down. I suspect this was more in my head than the watch but hey, that’s my memory.
It’s here where I also learned the importance of running with snow goggles. It’s near impossible to see without them.
In the middle of the pass, I remember starting to feel very sleepy, with it looking incredibly tempting to just sit down out of the wind and take a nap. Fortunately part of my brain was still functioning and recognised the signs of hypothermia. Slapping myself a few times got me moving through the pass and back to warmer temperatures.
‘Warmer’ being relative there. Out of the snow, you enter muddy peat bogs where you stumble through knee-deep mud, often losing and having to fish your shoes from the slush.
It was after the event at the prize-giving that there were whispers of something very wrong. Not everyone had made it through the pass. Arturo, one of the 100 mile competitors who was on the bus to the start with me, was reportedly missing and presumed dead. This was later confirmed – and his body recovered a few days later.
Two other runners were stranded. Even Chile’s special operations police forces were unable to evacuate them for three days. A special event, but one not to be taken lightly.
My favourite races
Two of my favourite races are both in the beautiful rugged principality of Andorra.
Ronda dels Cims 170km, with 13,500m of climbing, must be one of the hardest, if not the hardest, 100 milers in the world.
Els2900 for community and spirit, a small field of experienced mountaineers, and a race to tag the seven highest peaks in Andorra. They are what being in the mountains is all about. Pure alpine running, in the heart of the Pyrenees.
Going solo in the Berg
There’s something special about traversing a mountain range like the Drakensberg alone. Doing the Grand Traverse was an impromptu decision. The opportunity came, and I took it.
It did however mean that I couldn’t spend any time at altitude to prepare. Coming from sea level, it meant for most of the traverse it felt like sucking oxygen through a wet towel.
There’s no amount of beetroot juice that can make up for a lack of altitude acclimatisation. Stand-out memories from the traverse were sheltering from a lightning storm in what I assumed was an abandoned Basotho shepherd’s hut, only to be surprised by three shepherds arriving shortly after. Hanging out with them until the storm passed was very special.
The second truly stand-out memory was as I was descending to Bushman’s Nek border post, the finish of the traverse. At this point I was severely sleep deprived and beyond tired. I was having a hard time getting one foot in front of the other, and had long since stopped caring if I was even descending down the right ridge.
I was just stumbling forward, hoping that somehow this will come to some conclusion. Then out of nowhere, Heleen Mills appeared like an apparition. I wasn’t sure if she was real but the sight of her gave me new energy. She had crossed the border into Lesotho somehow and greeted me with ice-cold Coke and water, running the last kilometre back down to the border post with me. Absolutely amazing.
Shortly after that, we had to figure out how to get back to Cape Town, as my slow trip across the Drakensberg meant we had missed our return flight.
Armand’s sleep monsters
During Tor des Géants (after running for about 72 hours with almost no sleep) I came across a gnome standing in the middle of the trail.
The gnome refused to let me pass. I knew he wasn’t real but no matter what I did, he refused to go away. Only when I got to about 1m away from him did he turn into a rock.
Later in the same race, the straps on my poles turned into blue snakes wrapped around my wrists. Bizarrely, this didn’t bother me, and I remember just thinking it was pretty cool to run with snakes around my arms.
During my first Diagonale des Fous in Réunion, I remember waking up to the realisation that I was running through a jungle with a motorcycle helmet on. I was extremely confused, no idea what I was doing in the jungle, and no idea why I’d be wearing a motorcycle helmet when I don’t own a motorbike.
It was only once I saw another runner wearing a Grand Raid number that I realised what was happening: we were running Grand Raid, it was raining and I had my rain jacket on with the headlamp creating what felt like a helmet effect.
A bit later I remember seeing plants reaching out trying to grab the feet of the runner ahead of me. Interesting times…
During the 2017 Ultra Fiord event I ran past the gruesome sight of the head of a woman impaled on a branch. For a few minutes I believed I was somehow in the 1950s and this was some slave farm where workers were murdered. Really awful, scary stuff.
This did have an effect of jolting me out of the state I’d been in and I started making better progress.
No substitute for Vaseline
It was during my second Grand Raid that I experienced incredibly bad chafe.
It was painful and I was willing to try anything to find relief, which included sticking palm leaves into my crotch. I ran like this for a few kilometres, but without any doubt it doesn’t work as well as Vaseline.
Where’s my phone?
In 2017, my friend Luc Steens and I attempted a double Mont Blanc summit, from Saint-Gervais to the summit, down and back up again. But things started going downhill on attempt one…
Once we reached Dome de Goutier quite near the summit, we were out of water, and wisely decided to turn around. While I was taking a photo, I dropped my phone, and watched it bounce several kilometres down the ice.
Luc was battling with the altitude, and we decided to try and stay in a refugio on the way down.
Unfortunately we didn’t have enough money on us, so I decided to run down back to the town. Arriving back at the hostel the very angry-sounding French lady had (for reasons I still don’t quite understand) decided to evict our bags and left them next to the road. This was quite late at night, with no phone, in a small village. Things were not looking good.
It was only after explaining that we had just attempted a summit and that Luc was still at Refugio de Gouter, and I had run down, that the owner’s husband took pity, and allowed me to crash there. And gave me a beer.
Heleen Mills and Armand been dating for a year, during which she’s gained some insight into the true nature of Armand.
“On the flight home after Armand finished his DGT, the thing that really struck me as we scrolled through his photos, was the amount of videos and selfies he took with the Basotho herdsmen. Most people warn you against the herdsmen, but Armand embraced and befriended them.
“That tells you everything you need to know about him. He is the friendliest, kindest and most warmhearted person. Armand brings the best out in every person he meets.
“What he probably didn’t tell you:
“I’m going to drown.”
There were several big river crossings during the 100km Pondo Trail race with Steve Black in 2019.
This presented a real challenge to me, as I’m not a strong swimmer. Steve wasn’t much better in the water, so I also couldn’t expect him to save me. I remember one crossing specifically. I was getting swept out to sea and thought This is it, I’m going to drown.
I was seconds away from ditching my pack to save myself, when I managed to grab onto a rock, and got myself out of the river. Then Steve showed me that you can inflate your water flasks, and it your pack will work like a flotation device.
I wish he’d told me that before I almost drowned, but now you know!
|2019||Pondo Trail 100km South Africa|
|2019||Solo Drakensberg Grand Traverse 206km South Africa|
|2019||Monte Rosa SkyMarathon 35km Italy|
|2018||Tromsø Skyrace 53km Norway|
|2018||Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run 161km USA|
|2018||Els 2900 Andorra 70km|
|2017||Ultra-Trail Drakensberg 100km South Africa|
|2016, 2017||Transgrancanaria 125km Canary Islands|
|2016||Ronda dels Cims 170km Andorra|
|2016||Tor des Géants 330km Italy|
|2015-2018||Ultra-trail Cape Town 100km South Africa|
|2015-2017||Ultra Fiord 100 mile Chile|
|2015, 2017||Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 170km France, Italy, Switzerland|
|2015||Xtreme Dodo Trail 50km Mauritius|
|2014, 2015, 2017||Ultra Trail Raidlight Beachcomber 124km Mauritius|
|2014, 2015||Diagonale Des Fous 166km Réunion|
Being a tech entrepreneur
I’m currently working on Pulse: The first dedicated point-of-view platform and streaming eyewear that lets you experience sports through the eyes of athletes.
Pulse is creating an environment, closer to sports, where athletes broadcast their own activities. This would let you jump into the peloton during a cycle race, or experience the Mont Blanc Marathon through the eyes of Kilian Jornet.
Armand’s core belief
They say you can’t run away from your problems. I believe you can, you just need to run far enough.
Interview originally published in TRAIL issue 37.