The soul of trail running lives in Knysna

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The dogs Simola and Divot Trail Town running festival Knysna Kyle Smith
You’re not leaving us home alone are you? Photo Kyle Smith

Trail Town: A smorgasbord of trail fun

Then I closed the door, with one last warning of “No peeing or poeping in the house.”

Tonight, 2 July 2016, was different because it was the inaugural Simola Phantom Night Forest Run, powered by Ledlenser. The event was part of Trail Town, an exciting addition to the Knysna Oyster Festival lineup of sporting events. The night run promised novelty: masked opera singers serenading runners with songs from The Phantom of the Opera, as they negotiate their way through the Simola Estate contours.

It was an experience I didn’t want to miss but it was bitterly cold and I wasn’t sure the little dog’s ears would survive if they were left outside.

 

When I arrived at Simola Golf Estate, it was clear that a lot of other people had decided the same thing (about the run, not about my dogs’ ears!). People with headlamps were milling about and chatting, whilst a few (like me) attached their timing chip at the last moment. After a briefer than usual briefing from Magnetic South‘s Mark Collins, we were off on our little adventure.

 

 

Simola Phantom 2016 Start excited kids
It’s time to RUN! Photo Supplied

Around 1km in, as we entered the first singletrack section, we were greeted by two smartly dressed masked opera singers. No doubt a tough decision for many presented itself here: should I stop and listen, or should I keep running? I made my decision quickly.

 

simola trail town phantom ledlenser 2016 singers Glenn Murray
A moving performance from two heroes of the Simola Phantom experience. photo Glenn Murray Photography

 

Phantom 2016 Glenn Murray low-res 3875-427pixels
It was a winter’s night to remember! photo Glenn Murray Photography

Far too soon the forest swallowed the music and I was left with only the sound of footfalls and breathing. In the depths of the forest, the light faded quickly and before long, headlamps were bobbing at various heights and speeds amongst the trees. The route was an interesting mix of forest roads, newly-cut singletrack and older cycling tracks, so bunching was never a problem. Thanks must be extended to the cycling fraternity for accommodating us.

Pushing up a steep incline, I could hear more opera singers somewhere ahead. As before, the debate of stop and appreciate an entire song, or keep going made its appearance. The cold won and I slowed, but didn’t stop. Those singers really need to be acknowledged for standing out there in the cold singing for our benefit. If I could feel the cold whilst running then they must have been freezing. Thanks guys and I hope to hear you again next year.

Finishing at Simola, Trail SA‘s Altus Schreuder was in fine fettle as the MC whilst happy runners and families milled around before enjoying a great curry laid out by Simola. Was it an experience? Yes. Was there adventure? Yes. (I understand some runners missed a marker and had a slightly different adventure or perhaps they would call it a mis-adventure.) Would I do it again? Most certainly, I have run the route twice since then, once ending in the dark. It’s a good route but the opera singers and headlamps gave it that extra special spice.

My hubby and I really enjoyed the Simola Phantom Forest night run. It was our first attempt at a trail and was great fun. What a truly unique event. The sound of opera in a dark forest on a cold night was thrilling to say the least. It was such a lovely experience for us as a couple and we crossed the finish line holding hands! Lauren Angelique Rose via Facebook

Tick two on my week of sporting over-indulgence (the first being the 50km mountain bike ride earlier that day).

Next up was the well-established Featherbed Trail Run, an event with a certain class and vibe of its own. Perhaps that’s because of the level of organisation, perhaps it’s the ferry ride where you get to chat with fellow runners, perhaps it’s the start where the 11km runners cheer on the 15km Coelacanth entrants or perhaps it’s running across the old train bridge. Or may it’s the jovial social afterwards with the superb dinner and prize giving, but it’s definitely in part due to the views over Knysna from an area you don’t normally get to run.

 

view from unimog trailer onto eastern heads knysna deonbraunpix_3430
The view from the Unimog’s trailer onto the Eastern Heads from Featherbed Nature Reserve. Photo Deon Braun

 

This was my fourth Featherbed and the first one where I was running with the Big 5 athletes. That meant names like Stuart Marais and Andrea Steyn. It would be an interesting start. As in super fast! Too fast I thought, but people were streaming past me, so I bit my lip and hung on. Up the Bee Sting, down the Bee Sting, through the restaurant, along the shoreline and wham! up the Stairway to Heaven. What a misnomer! It should be called the lung-busting, quad-crippling, calf-destroying, put you in your place humbler!

 

Start of the 11km Seahorse at the midday 2016 featherbed trail run
Start of the 11km Seahorse at the midday 2016 Featherbed trail Run. Photo Deon Braun

 

Only problem: my fellow athletes were still running. “We should be walking” a voice in my head said. Doubt is a terrible thing and can put you in a negative space. Doubt was creeping up my neck and slithering through my muscles. “Too fast, too early, you’re going to crash,” it whispered. Now, before you think I was competing for a top position, think again… more like top 50 if I was lucky. But I did want to better my time and there was an element of “let’s see how you fare” to it all too. So I kept pushing and let’s just say that I didn’t buy one of the action photographs.

I did my first Featherbed Trail Run this year with a few of my running friends. It was spectacular. Very well organised and a beautiful if tough route. We enjoyed every moment of the race and enjoyed the wonderful food afterwards just as much. Thanks for giving us runners the opportunity to run in such a beautiful and clean environment. Will do it again next year. Denise Nortier via Facebook<

My wobble came on the dirt road and lasted till the roller coaster. I remember checking my time and thinking “Hell’s bells, Stuart should be finishing now”. Surprisingly, the train track came and went with relative ease and soon we were skating around the last few bends before crossing the line at the super-festive finish. Tick three for the week.

Free Range virgin

Free – (adjective): able to act or be done as one wishes, not under the control of another.

A good definition to start with when thinking about the Free Range Runs. These were other innovative events held during the Oyster Festival under the new Trail Town banner. The concept: three trails that could be run anytime and in your own time. Pitch up, log in, do your thing and log out. It couldn’t be simpler. Although, seeing the back-end of the event organisation I have to say well done to Magnetic South for making it so easy for the runners.

 

Free Range map 2016 Knysna Oyster Festival Trail Town location

 

 

My first run was the Elephant Trail out in the Diepwalle forest, a 45-minute drive from the Knysna CBD. It’s one of my favourite sections of the Knysna forest. Even the name is expressive, close your eyes and say it slowly: Diepwalle. It’s an Afrikaans name that conjures up pictures of dense forest, narrow trails bordered by impenetrable walls of trees, ferns, and creepers. A place removed and isolated in history.

 

elephant route profile elevation map trail town 2016

 

The Elephant Trail starts on a steepish descent which had my abused quads whimpering in protest, so I was quite happy to take it easy, even walking a section. But what goes down, must go up, and pretty soon I started to climb on a little-used access road before branching off on singletrack again. It was about this time that my legs woke up and said “Okay, we know what to do… let’s go!” Recent rain meant the trail was muddy and slippery in sections but I had found my rhythm, my flow. It’s not about competing with the trail, it’s about being in harmony with it. One of my mantras flashed through my mind: “Light and easy, smooth and efficient.”

It’s a serendipitous moment of clarity, an epiphany. This is what has been missing from my running. Wikipedia will tell you that free running is a version of parkour, movement that is fluid and aesthetically pleasing. Contrast that with free range, a method of farming where the animals can roam freely outdoors for at least part of the day. If I take the two of these and mix them together with the definition of free, then to me the free range runs are not only about freedom to choose when to run, but more importantly about how you run. To run free is to run without diversion, to immerse yourself in the present experience. No distractions, no doubt, no issues, simply movement through a beautiful space.

 

One of three Elephant Trail circuits you can hike or trail run at any time of the year. Photo Gardenrouteadventureguide.com
One of three Elephant Trail circuits you can hike or trail run at any time of the year. Photo Gardenrouteadventureguide.com

 

It reminded me of the footage of Marc Lauenstein running the Otter African Trail Run. Cruising (and I mean flying – he finished the Otter in a record 3 hours 59 minutes and 29 seconds) along the trail, he was holding his arms outstretched. I remember wondering why, but thinking about it now perhaps it was an expression of the freedom he felt whilst running. If I get the chance to meet him again I will be sure to ask him.

The Elephant Trail literally dissolved in time and soon I was back at the little restaurant having a homemade ginger beer before taking a tour through the small but very interesting woodcutters’ museum. Tick four.

 

 

Terblans, the second of the Free Range Runs, was different for me. I ran on my own and I ran without looking at the time, but I ran hard and I was running against an unknown foe. My time on the Diepwalle run had placed me third and running hard could potentially improve this. Challenge accepted.

 

Terblans route profile elevation map trail town 2016

 

Right now you may be thinking that this detracts from what free range means, but for me, it doesn’t, not if you tackle it in the right way. You are still free to make of the run what you will, your opponents are lingering shadows and if you intentionally don’t track your time you simply do your best.

 

Terblans Free Range Run Gouna Trail Town 2016 Deon Braun
Kyle working against gravity on a false flat section of the Terblans Free Range Run at Gouna during Trail Town 2016. Photo Deon Braun

 

Bar a short section where you cross Kom se Pad, the entire route is singletrack. A beautiful, raw trail with a few stream crossings and the last 2km are a glorious gentle undulation that allows your legs to stretch and your lungs to fill. For Knysna residents, it’s only a 30 minute drive from the town’s CBD, and is highly recommended. As a Free Range event, it was simply a great run. Tick five.

 

Giant yellowwood trees set the scene for the technical, exhilarating Terblans Free Range Run at Gouna Knysna Festival Trail Town 2016
Giant yellowwood trees set the scene for the technical, exhilarating Terblans Free Range Run at Gouna. Photo Deon Braun

 

The last of Trail Town’s Free Range runs was held in the Goukamma Nature Reserve, a 15-minute drive from Knysna. This is a vastly different setting to the previous two. Here the landscape is dominated by fynbos, coastal thicket and sandy singletrack with expansive views over the coastline and the Goukamma estuary. A ferry across the estuary takes you to the start, which begins with a few sandy and quite steep ascents. Your heart rate climbs just as quickly.

I was the last runner on the last day (each Free Range location is held on two days, held non-consecutively). Running alone with a sprinkle of rain and a light breeze, I wondered how the other runners had fared. The footsteps were there in the sand, a testimony to their passing but that was all. I was chasing ghosts and perhaps a few were chasing me. Incorporating the Goukamma trails regularly into my training meant I knew this trail better than any of the others.

The first part gives you the views and the climbs as you ran along the crest of a vegetated sand dune, whilst the second worked its way back through the coastal thicket between the dunes. Go too fast on the first half and the second bites back.

 

bushpig goukamma route profile elevation map trail town 2016

 

Perhaps because it was my last run or maybe it was the tickle I had been feeling in my throat the last two days but this run didn’t feel as smooth as the others. “Be free!” my mind said. “We’re trying!” my muscles protested. I thought of Marc again, his achievement in breaking the four-hour Otter barrier and the footage of him running with his arms out. Pretty soon I realised my form had improved and I was moving more easily again.

Cresting a dune, I caught a glimpse of a runner 800m away, and then they were gone dropping down to the finish. That was the only other runner I saw on all three trails. I finished my run, paddled across the estuary and went home happy. Tick six, the final tick.

So ended my Trail Town experience. One week of awesome running, a mix of trails, experiences and events. Each with their own vibe and appeal. From the novel opera in the forest, to the tried and tested Featherbed, to the new Free Range Runs which showcased three brilliant trails and allowed you to experience them as you wished.

My advice? Leave the watch at home. You can run them slow and with family or fast and solo, but run them with a free heart and open mind. It’s liberating.

 

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