Seen here: Jan Ham in action at the 2018 AfricanX Trailrun presented by ASICS.
Photo Credit: Jetline Action Photo
This past weekend (27 – 29 April 2018) saw the 10th running of the AfricanX Trailrun presented by ASICS.
The AfricanX is SA’s premier stage race, and the 10th edition was sure to be one for the memory banks, and it most definitely did not disappoint. In fact, it beefed up with 2 stages that rates right up there with some of the toughest single stage mountain running classics on the Western Cape circuit.
In the past the AfricanX might have “suited” runners with a road running background (or at least be manageable for them), being less technical than most trail races and sometimes leaving the “hard core” trail runner yearning for more. Well, in 2018 this all changed, and with Route Director Pieter du Plessis back in the organising mix, the roadies were in for quite a surprise.
The Curse of Stage 1
In no previous edition of the AfricanX has the winners of stage 1 in the Open Men’s category ever gone on to win that year’s race. In fact, if you were a betting man you could have bet your last dollar on it and walk away with a smile at the end. It was said the AfricanX cannot be won on Stage 1, but it can most certainly be lost. If you were to follow trends, the big moves were always made on the second day, and those that went out too hard the previous day would lose huge chunks of time.
Well, 2018 was going to be different from the get go, with a 33km stage set in the Jonkershoek Valley, with three significant climbs and an elevation gain of nearly1600m, this stage would fit the strong mountain men more than the flat road speedsters.
2014/15 Champions Bernard Rukadza and AJ Calitz once again teamed up after a two year break, and Team K-Way Wintergreen took line honours by a mere 17 seconds ahead of Team #gearupgetout is #timetoplay’s Lucky Miya and Thabang Madiba.
Camping across from Calitz and Rukadza in the race village, it was great to see these elites go about their job. It’s just a pity it didn’t rub off on this runner.
What makes the AfricanX so special is the team dynamic of it, and anyone one will tell you that knowing your partner is an integral part of any team’s success. I’ve been fortunate to run five of my previous seven AfricanX’s with the same partner, but he unfortunately had to withdraw with just over two weeks to go due to health reasons.
A few Whatsapp’s and emails later and up stepped Alex Hawkins. Alex not only works in the trail industry, but is an avid runner with a very decent pedigree himself. The only issue we had (other than supporting different football teams in the English Premier League) was that we have never run together before.
Between the two of us we would get all the necessary gear, hydration and nutrition requirements sorted in no time, it was basically just a case of rocking up and getting the running done. To be honest, I reckon we came in with different mind sets or ideas of what we wanted out of the race, and somewhere/somehow we found a middle ground, at least for stage 1 & 2.
There are few trail settings in SA that get close to the picturesque Jonkershoek Mountains. With heavy rains earlier in the week, and cool, overcast conditions on the day, it was mere perfect running conditions. Crossing the many mountain streams and seeing various sized waterfalls on both sides of the valley was just spectacular.
Having done a relatively complete route recce of the Jonkershoek stage a few weeks prior, I knew more or less what was lying ahead, and played tour guide for those willing to listen. Except for my partner, who was somewhere ahead of me on every single climb. I guess I need to work on my guiding skills a bit more.
The initial start on the valley floor was ideal to get the legs warming up before the first major climb of the day, followed by some amazing, yet technical single track trail on the Sosyskloof side, before descending back down into the valley via Swartboskloof, some recuperating time on the valley floor and then the big climb of the day topping out on the Panorama trail.
All went relatively well till we got to the 27km mark and the bit of the route I did not scout. That last “little” climb up to the Saaltjie in Jonkershoek basically brought me to a complete stand still and it was a struggle to drag my limp body up that hill one step at a time.
Alex was patient with me as we (I) recovered over the next initial kilometre where the plantation roads started to wind down towards the valley floor, before finishing really strong in just under four hours. A relatively successful first day out for Team Tailwind Nutrition/Altra and something to build on in the following stages.
Stage 2: Making a Move and Running for Home
Stage 2 was a 35km “circular” route set out from the race village at Retreat, Boschendal, via the Banhoek Valley back to Retreat, and with some purposely built single track in this valley for trail and mountain bikers alike, it was sure to be a great day out once again.
Stage 2 at AfricanX is affectionately known as dress-up day, but with an estimated 1200m elevation gain over the day’s stage, there was still plenty of climbing to be done, and the ideal opportunity for the mountain men Calitz and Rukadza to make a move similar to that in 2014/15 when they went on to record not only Stage 2 wins, but basically wrapped up the race too.
And dress up for the top spot on the podium is exactly what they did! Calitz is a renowned tactician, and having studied the route profile very intensely, they knew exactly when to push hard, especially with the last climb up to the final water point at 28km, and a small spike in route profile just after that.
It would have been nice if he actually shared that knowledge with his camping buddies, and while he was already showered and chowing down lunch, I was still pulling myself up the fence towards said final water point. Calitz and Rukadza would eventually win the stage in just under three hours, opening a lead of over 7 minutes over Team #gearupgetout is #timetoplay’s Miya and Madiba.
The initial start out of Retreat, Boschendal, was relatively flat and fast with an early knee deep river crossing thrown into the mix just to keep spirits up. With the first of three significant climbs behind us, the running on the single track hugging the cliff face contour was absolutely spectacular. These trails are any trail runner/mountain biker’s dream as it snakes its way into the Banhoek Valley before a fun switchback section takes you down onto the valley floor. One more river crossing, water point 2 and another one of the major climbs, runners were now on the opposite side of the valley heading towards the renowned “Skyfall” switchbacks of Bartinney Wine Estate and water point 3 at approximately 22km. Alex and I decided to make full use of the opportunity at this stage of the race by having a nice glass of champagne on offer at the water point.
But alas, I celebrated too early! Dropping down from Bartinney one could see the final water point high up on a Simonsberg contour trail, and the final big climb of the day. This climb basically had two sections, and just as you thought you had it covered, it would kick up once again. The fence bordering the property we were running on came to many a runners rescue as we pulled and clawed our way up that “beast”.
Having finally reached the final water point, it was a case of 7km downhill to the finish, or so I thought. This is where my old primary school training partner Calitz’s unshared inside info would have been pretty handy, as just as you get the legs going again on the contour single tracks gradually heading down Simonsberg, it kicked up sharply once more. It was at this point that I completely lost my sense of humour on the day, and the last few kilometres of relatively flat running towards the finish was excruciating and the hardest part of a tough, yet beautiful day, taking us just under four hours to complete.
One for the Roadies, Stage 3 Redemption
Although stage 3 is usually shorter and supposedly easier, it’s by no means a walk in the park. By then runners had nearly 70km in their legs, and the last 21km (with 700m elevation) would hurt even more compared to the previous two days.
It has become an AfricanX tradition over the past few years that the leading teams and podium contenders in all categories start an hour later than the rest of the field. This way, most of the field could be in to welcome the top runners home for a change. The back of the pack also get to see their heroes run as they come flying past them on the trails of Boschendal.
The racing up front was blistering, and finally the boys of Team #gearoutgetout is #timetoplay got one up on Calitz and Rukadza as they crossed the line first in just under 1:22. Calitz and Rukadza stormed in 3rd on the day to the huge cheers from a growing crowd and the first team in AfricanX history to break the “Curse of Stage 1”, claiming overall victory by just over 5 minutes, after 90km and three days of intense competition.
Having suffered a bit the day before, I wasn’t 100% heading into stage 3. But stage 3 gets run on guts and glory, and having had two DNF’s (did not finish) on my name due to injury in my previous two years, for me it was a case of getting to that finish line and burying my own AfricanX demons.
The very fast and flat start didn’t help, and trying to keep up with the pace Alex was setting came back to bite me very early on. On any other day I would have loved this final day’s route, as the climbs were all runnable, the single track sections fast and flowing. Although my mental battery was fully charged, my tank was empty, and I really had to dig into my reserves to pull through. The cold I had in the week leading up to the AfricanX finally caught up and Alex had to nurse me home over those final few kilometres. We eventually trundled in just over the two hour mark, claiming a top 30 spot on the overall GC and completing the 90km of the 10th edition of the AfricanX Trailrun in just under 10 hours (Stages 1, 2 and 3 combined).
The 10th edition of the AfricanX Trailrun presented by ASICS has definitely been the toughest one yet, and hopefully a new benchmark has been set for the next 10 years. This year it put on some big boy pants with some serious mountain trails thrown in the mix, although the “roadies” got their chance on stage 3 to feel loved as well.
A big thank you to all the sponsors involved with the event, the amazing team from Stillwater Sports for putting such an amazing race together, and everyone else behind the scenes that made it possible.
Personally I would like to thank my sponsors Altra, Tailwind Nutrition, Racefood, Ultimate Hydration and Injinji for their continuous support and allowing me to live out this passion for trail burning inside of me.
There are too many individuals to thank, but a special word of thanks to Jacky McClean from Newsport Media for the opportunity to once again run SA’s premier stage race, or as I like to refer to it, SA’s annual trail family reunion, the AfricanX Trailrun.