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RUNNING

Words: Pietré Smit ǀ Photos: Pietré Smit & Christi Pienaar

A few months ago my superfit, adrenaline-junky sister, Christi, approached me with the idea of doing some trail running. "It is so much more exciting than road running," she said. "Think about the spectacular scenery along the way," she said. "And what a good excuse to get outside into the bush," she said.

SOX The ultimate mountain, forest and coastal challenge

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What she failed to mention was the is the 5 a.m. morning runs, the one toe and two fingers that I was sure I would lose to frostbite, or the fact that I would need help sitting down or getting up! To motivate me to get me started (she knows me well!), she suggested we take part in this race near Wilderness. In my ignorance I agreed, and before I had a chance to read the fine print we were entered and the plane tickets bought. All I needed to do now was start running! Half the fun of starting a new venture is, of course, acquiring the necessary kit. So, off we went to buy the most beautiful purple trail running shoes (I hesitate to call them shoes because they are more like luxury SUVs for your feet) and a streamlined backpack that will put any black ops kit bag to shame. I had every intention of training my heart out for this event, but as it does, life happens: work, social engagements, sickness, and general laziness resulted in much enthusiasm, but very little actual time spent on the road or trails. Time stealthily slipped by and before I was mentally or physically prepared for it, the day arrived for us to jump on a plane to George, for the second edition of the Southern Cross Trail Run, or SOX as it is affectionately referred to. The event took place over the long weekend of 9 -11 August, 2013, with the race village located at the Ebb and Flow Rest Camp, in the Garden Route National Park just outside Wilderness. We had a choice of either booking into one of the chalets or guesthouses in or near the park or sleeping in the race village tents erected on the embankment of the Touws River. We decided to rough it and slept in the tent village because it was simply beautiful out there. Unfortunately, we never thought to take the weather into account. When we arrived, it had been raining non-stop for a few days and the little tents flapped miserably in the wind. After a (not very long) debate, we decided to book our nervous bodies into a nearby guesthouse. There really was no sense in suffering unnecessarily … Registration took place at the race village, set up in the Wilderness Nature Reserve for the duration of the event. Despite the rain, the atmosphere was electric and nervousexcited athletes could be seen huddling around fires and clutching cups of steaming coffee. Many chose the warmth of the marquee, which was stocked with your choice of refreshments and provided a welcome escape from the drizzle and chilly breeze. As the weekend progressed, the marquee transformed into the heart of the event, where we enjoyed many a tasty meal, hearty conversations, and shared war stories as well as slideshows of each day’s events.

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Day 1 Morning came a little too soon, but after a warm night’s sleep I felt ready to tackle the first day: a challenging 30 km route into the Outeniqua Mountains. With my pretty purple shoes and my black-ops pack filled with emergency rations, a space blanket, and some water I hopped on the bus with my sister and off we went to the start of the first stage. The rain seemed to have dissipated as approximately 250 athletes took their places underneath the yellow SOX arch at Karatara. With a blow of our emergency whistles we were off and straight into the first hill. This set the trend for the day’s run. Clearly the race co-ordinators, Sonja and Hano Otto, are no great believers in easing into things. The first hill turned into a mountain, which turned into three mountains that felt like ten. As one runner after another trudged by, I realised my 'training' (which I knew to be a little sketchy) was grossly insufficient. This was when I realised how privileged I was to be able to share such an event with my sister. She patiently kept pace behind me and every time it felt like l was going to lose a lung or need a hip replacement, she reminded me to stop and take in where we were and what we were doing: experiencing pure trail running in the unspoilt beauty of the Outeniqua Mountains and areas that are usually not accessible to runners. Spectacular! Conditions were wet and very technical, but we soon found that we may be slow uphill, but our downhill skills were quite impressive – if we might say so ourselves. Sore, tired, and dirty, we made our way down the last hill to the finish line. We had survived the monstrous mountains of day one! Buses took us back to the race village and our warm, comfy B&B. Even though the rain had stopped and the temperature had climbed, so happy about a warm bath and soft bed! Only to repack our gear, ready for day two.

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Day 2 Very sore and stiff, we woke early Saturday morning. I had no idea how I was going to survive another gruelling 30 km of running, but I put on a brave face and limped my way to the bus that was waiting to take us to our second starting point, Millwood Museum and Tea Garden. Day two promised to be something

completely different - 30 km of spectacular trails through beautiful indigenous forests. No more mountains - I can do this! With our now brown running shoes we set off, maybe not quite at a run, but we soon warmed up on the massive hill start that kept going up and up. We cursed Sonja and Hano every step of the first 3 km uphill, with not a tree in sight (that’s NOT what the brochure said!), until we topped out and turned the corner. This was the start of the most spectacular (downhill) jeep and single tracks that seemed to go on forever. The trails snaked past streams, up hills and down slippery paths that wound through the quiet forest, the backdrop for Dalene Matthee’s Circles in the Forest. Once again we could not help but be overwhelmed and awed by the majestic tree giants that towered above the forest canopy. After the initial beauty of the scenery had worn off, our aches and pains crept back into our consciousness and a few new ones also made themselves known. By now my legs were jelly and my mental acuity had diminished to the point where Christi only received monosyllabic responses to her cheerful remarks about the scenery. At around 24 km, we hit the last water point and I was reaching the end of my endurance. The last 6 km wound steadily uphill until we broke through the cover of the forest and treaded wearily upwards, under the midday sun. By this point, I had run out of water and the last stream had been left behind an hour ago, in the cool forest shade. Pure stubbornness and my sister’s helpful remarks kept me placing one aching foot in front of the other. I was only communicating through grunts and hand gestures, but at last the top was in sight! A small jeep track took us downhill and around the next bend, where the yellow SOX arch unexpectedly greeted us. Great food and friendly company awaited us at the finish, even though it took me a while to appreciate the hospitality of Millwood Tea Garden. Back at our B&B, I passed out on my bed in all my dirty glory and was incapable of moving for several hours. I was just glad to see that despite her fitness even Christi was having difficulty negotiating the giant step down to the bathroom and beckoning shower. How are we going to manage one more day?

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Day 3 The morning of day three was tough. Two spectacularly beautiful but gruelling days had taken their toll. I’m ashamed to

say that only with the help of a few painkillers did we manage to drag our worn out bodies out of bed, stick our blistered feet (Christi) and blue nails (me) back into our now black and slightly soggy torture traps some call running shoes, and strap on our (medieval corset like) packs for one last day on the trails. Day three concluded the Southern Cross Trail Run with a surprisingly gentle and flat(ish) 20 km trail along our magnificent coastline. It started off with a magnificent sunrise over the Indian Ocean, at Victoria Bay, which painted the skies a fiery orange. A steep descent on winding single track (which we were experts at by this time) spat out onto the railway tracks, which wound its way lazily along the coast, over bridges and through tunnels until we reached Wilderness Beach. A short, sandy run led us onto the wooden boardwalk that weaved prettily through the reeds along the lake and length of the village. We were happily running along when FH (F&$#@ Hano, as he is also not so affectionately referred to, especially on steep uphills) decided to introduce one last mountain! Ok, maybe it was more of a hill, but let’s not split hairs. We took our time up the steep and winding trail, all the way to the top and where a magnificent view over the Ebb and Flow Rest Camp and Touws River greeted our sore eyes and legs. A steep and technical descent, with a couple of river crossings thrown in, brought us to a gentle scenic trail along the riverbanks. That was where FH had one more surprise for us; a freezing, but exhilarating swim across the black waters of the Touws River! A short, flat, easy, and squelching run led us to the beloved yellow SOX finish arch right in the heart of Ebb and Flow Rest Camp. We had made it! That concluded the excitement of three days running through the most spectacular and unspoilt landscape our country has to offer. I never felt stronger than when I crossed underneath the yellow arch after having survived three days on the trails! I felt truly blessed to have been able to share such an extraordinary experience with my sister. Next year will definitely see us again and maybe, just maybe I’ll train a little harder. • For more information on the Southern Cross Trail Run, visit www.trisport.co.za

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TRAIL RUNNING: SOX - The ultimatemountain, forest and coastal challenge