René Vollgraaff 2020 interview

Our TRAIL 36 cover athlete interview, René is the Sole Survivor, outlasting every runner who attempted the four AMUK 100 milers in 2019...

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Rene Vollgraaff by Lourens Reyneke 2446 TRAIL 36
photo Lourens Reyneke

René Vollgraaff is a survivor, a self-professed nerd, and a runner. She outlasted every other ultra runner to become the only Run AMUK Challenge finisher of 2019. We spoke to our cover athlete about her past and present…

Rene Vollgraaff bio info T36Early life

In the Laerskool Brandvlei, which had only 60 pupils by the time I finished grade 7, everybody had to participate in a sport. Face it, how else do you fill up a netball or rugby team?

That also meant that a slow shorty like myself played goal defence for the first team. The only one shorter than me in that team was my younger sister. We were the school’s only team in the 10-and-up age category.

The same at the annual athletics event – everybody participated. But there even the low number of participants couldn’t help me. I was always dead last in anything going around the track.

By the time I reached grade 11 in Upington, following some years of chasing around the hockey fields with zero ball sense, I tried jogging. I wanted to be part of one of the school teams participating in the town’s annual Ysterspan Kompetisie, which you could do with only one discipline. After being scarred for life in the previous year’s cycling trials, which I attempted with my friend Gerda’s mountain bike with perma tubes, I figured jogging seemed less traumatic. And it was.

By the end of grade 11, December 1999, my godfather (who was running things like Comrades at the time) said I should try the Danger Point Half Marathon at Gansbaai with him. I did, and although the day after probably still rates as one of my most painful post-race days, the bug bit me properly on that last day of 1999.

Addo 2020 Rene Vollgraaff by Richard Pearce  T36
Addo Elephant Trail Run in 2020. “I went back to Addo this year. Out of the four AMUK races in 2019, I suffered the most on Addo. It was a combination of the rookie mistake of not eating early enough and often enough, the heat, and then things just didn’t click.” photo Richard Pearce

Becoming a trail runner

In 2015, as I was preparing for my first Comrades, one of my colleagues in the London office wrote an article about his upcoming Marathon des Sables. I read it and thought “seven days, 250km, carrying all your own food’’ – that sounds completely impossible and ridiculous.

A few weeks later, at the Two Oceans expo in Cape Town, I picked up a flyer for the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon. Suddenly “seven days, 250km, carrying all your own food’’ sounded marginally less impossible – maybe because it was on my home turf.

That flyer got stuck in my memory, and as the first post-Comrades void hit me, I looked up KAEM, and ended up entering. And with that, it was pretty much sealed.

I remember I did the 20km race at the erstwhile Crazy Store Magaliesberg Challenge as preparation, thinking I should probably just practice on some offroad. I arrived there, bushytailed, thinking “I did Comrades two months ago, how hard could this be?’’ I learned quickly and hard!

Rene Vollgraaff by Lourens Reyneke Karkloof_2018 TRAIL 36
At the 80km mark during the Karkloof 100 Miler in 2018, René smiles when she sees Lourens and his camera. “Seeing Lourens along the route on these races often makes me feel a bit guilty, knowing that he’s not in a happy place, but willing to be there for me. We can be a bit selfish as runners, right? However, when he’s got his camera I know he at least is doing something that he loves. And every time I see him along the route, it means he’s not lost somewhere between the pine plantations.” photo Lourens Reyneke

KAEM was my introduction to endurance and ultra trails, which was probably a good thing. All the things we complain about: It’s hot, my feet are blistered, my pack is chafing me, I can’t face eating any more macadamia nuts, the drinking water is the temperature of tea, and the ground is hard and uncomfortable when I try to sleep… I had all of that on my very first proper trail run. And because I didn’t know better, I assumed that’s the norm, and kept my mouth shut in case the others realised what a novice I am and that I don’t actually belong…

I’ve done the race twice now and it still ranks among some of the best experiences I’ve had. There’s the planning – how to get seven days of food in a pack that you can run with, and deciding that having enough sunscreen is more important than having a third set of underwear. Then the event… it’s exceptionally well organised, from entry to final prize-giving dinner.

And the people, crew, and runners are fantastic. When I looked at KAEM the first year, I read some of the Facebook posts with people raving about the group being one big family and I rolled my eyes because I’ve never been the “rah-rah, let’s go team” type. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t like res at university. But I can now say I was wrong – or else the KAEM people just happen to be my people.

I’m proud to be part of the KAEM family. Even my mother has become involved, working as a crew member every year. I made lifelong running friends on my first KAEM in 2015 – Richard Shannon and Stephan Keller. Three years later, the three of us finished The Munga together, after we all failed on the first attempt.

And somehow the KAEM Buff is very recognisable. If you see someone wearing it, you can easily strike up a conversation and quickly you’ll be comparing war stories and catching up on gossip about people you’ve both shared a gazebo with.

I didn’t know Sandra le Roux at all before Addo 2018, but we both were wearing the Buff, so we started chatting at the starting line and continued talking for the next 32 hours to the finish line.

I’m hoping for a year where work will not interfere and I can go back and do this race again.

Year Race Position
2019 Run AMUK 4 × 161km 1
2019 Mac Mac Ultra 161km 2
2019 Karkloof 100 miler 161km 3
2018 Karkloof 100 miler 161km 3
2018 Magaliesberg Challenge 50km 3
2018 Munga Trail 400km 2
2018 Addo Elephant Trail Run 161km 1
2017 Lycian Way Ultra Marathon (Turkey) 250km (six stages) 3
2017 Magaliesberg Challenge 50km 3
2016 Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon 250km (seven days) 3

Balancing act

I’m a journalist and I oversee the macro-economic coverage for Bloomberg News in sub-Saharan Africa; the economics editor as it were. Most of my job involves sitting behind a computer with eight screens running, or having meetings, and being very pedantic about numbers. Which means the training is often a welcome escape.

Although both work and training require many hours, I think they complement each other. First, work pays for my running habit.

Second, I think the running tends to make me a better worker. This will sound arrogant, but once you’ve run for 40 straight hours, working for 20 straight hours on the rare occasion that is required, such as the final vote count in an election or the firing of a finance minister, is not an issue.

But I sometimes have to remind myself that my coworkers have lives outside running and working, and just because I think I’m okay to carry on, it doesn’t mean they are keen to!

René Vollgraaff’s ultra running thoughts

I sometimes think I should record some voice snippets, when I’m alone and see something beautiful or simply random and have strange thoughts. At Karkloof 2018, as we were running through the avocado orchards, it struck me how silly it would be if I accidentally stepped on one of those giant hard avocados that fell off the trees and rolled my ankle. Imagine being eliminated by an avocado!

Delighted to see hubby during Ultra-Trail Drakensberg 2019, the second stage of Rene’s AMUK. photo Lourens Reyneke

At Addo 2020, I encountered some jackal twice while on my own in the middle of the night. My first thought was of my father, who would see jackal on a trip in the middle of Namibia and then be convinced that jackal is on its way to the farm in the Northern Cape to kill and eat his Dorper lambs.

There was also the time I went for a training run on the farm. It was December, and it was 8am or 9am, and I wanted to do a 20km loop, so I took along a CamelBak with some water for myself, or so I thought.

My brother’s Border Collie Magiel decided to join me and after about 10km he really suffered in the heat. We then developed a procedure: when Magiel gets too tired, he would run very slowly right in front of me so I’d have to stop. I then sat on a rock, with him in my shade and then I’d squirt water into his mouth with my CamelBak. Which meant no water for René! We finished our 20km loop, both unscathed.

I guess it’s not dissimilar to the times when you share supplies like cramp tablets or Rehidrat with people who hit a bad spot during a race. You know there is a risk you could run out and need it at some point, but at that moment you rather want to make sure even the Border Collie can continue with you.

The best part of any ultra run, most times even better than the finish line, is when the day starts waking up around you after running through the night – even before the colour changes on the horizon, when you can feel and hear and even smell that it’s a new day. For me, that is the best energiser – it’s as if your body clock then resets and forgets that it’s missed a whole night of sleep.

The people who made René

My family would say in public that I’m mad, but it’s genetic. They’ve all had an influence on the way I do things. My grandmother Reinette Matthee (after whom I was named) travelled the world and did almost every hiking trail in South Africa. She’s ascended Table Mountain from every possible route. So when I’ve done events such at the Otter (where ouma broke her nose in the 1980s) and Ultra-trail Cape Town, I’ve thought of her and chatted to her afterwards about the routes and the views, hoping I can achieve just a little of what she has.

Rene Vollgraaff by Lourens Reyneke TRAIL 36
Running at Cradle Moon just outside Johannesburg, one of Rene’s favourite training spots. “I can drive 40 minutes from my house and see zebras and giraffes in the wild before work, if I go there on a weekday. After that, nothing can spoil my mood.” photo Lourens Reyneke

My parents, Johan and Yolande, live on a farm in what many people would say is the middle nowhere, lacking many of the modern amenities we are spoiled with. That forces you to be pragmatic. You can’t just drive to Woolies or Builders Warehouse or @Home when something is broken or has run out.

You must toughen up and make a plan. I think I got a lot of that from my parents. Lost in the middle of the night in the Drakensberg? Figure it out.

The same with my brother Kobus and sister Rika, both also Northern Cape farmers. They’ve been extremely supportive, and are not the type to give you the option of quitting. They seem to think “I got myself into this mess, I’d better make sure I get out.”

My sister is the toughest person I know, and is my motivation on many of my runs. She’s had cancer twice by the age of 34, and went through the dreadful treatment. That puts running 100 miles in perspective.

My husband [Lourens Reyneke, who was the cover photographer for TRAIL 36] would tell you he feels cheated. He married someone six years ago who ran around the block every morning, and then she suddenly went mad and wouldn’t stop.

Lourens doesn’t like running himself, but he is a great supporter, handling my grubby socks at the Pilgrim’s Rest checkpoint at Mac Mac Ultra, delivering my runner friends’ cars to the finish at Addo Elephant Trail Run, and almost getting stuck in Lesotho overnight at Ultra-Trail Drakensberg. And he takes great pictures in the process.

I always thought I wanted to date a jock. You know, the rugby captain, the top athlete. Those okes. I never did, because nerds don’t. Until I realised in my mid-30s that I actually just wanted to be a jock all this time…

I signed up with Linda Doke for coaching from the start of 2019 and that has been a great experience. She’s been supportive of most of my crazy plans and the best thing is that she’s done most of the ultra trails herself. When she gives me tips on the event, it’s often first-hand experience talking. 

This interview was originally published in TRAIL issue 36, our first completely digital issue!

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