Dirtopia Trail Run Challenge: The Fire Run

If during last week’s trail run I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew, this week confirmed it. I discovered that however fit and strong you might feel on the road means nothing out there in the mountains. Running up a hill on a road and running up a hill on a trail have about as much in common as deep sea diving has with a crossing the desert on a camel … and I wouldn’t have minded having some assistance from a camel yesterday.

So there I was, foolishly looking as the marathon training plan I had taken from Hal Higdon. I looked at the distances I had to cover and figured, as I usually do, that covering the distance in a race would be far more fun, motivating and interesting than doing it on my own. And, since I had signed up for this beast of a run at the end of the year, covering the distance in trail runs would make absolute sense. So I’m combining road running and trail running, and training for a (road) marathon in July and a (trail) ultra marathon in December. Nothing weird about that at all. People do it all the time.

Last Sunday I was supposed to cover 27 km. I couldn’t find a race that was that long and it was Jazz Festival weekend anyway, so chances of me pounding the road for hours on a Sunday morning were going to be pretty minimal. So we did the Lourensford Trail Run, which was 12 km long. I think it was about 3 km into that race that the flaws in my plan started to reveal themselves …

But the training runs this week were good. I didn’t feel particularly stiff after the trail run and this week’s Strava log shows a happy row of truffalo trees, all the right size, all on the right days. I turned up for hill repeats on Thursday evening and the longer run on Saturday morning, and felt great on each one. I’m feeling stronger and fitter and more confident in my running abilities, especially on the hills. This weekend’s run was going to be a challenge but so what? I would just walk when it got too tough, run when I could. It would all be just fine.


Glorious autumn weather in Cape Town this week. I walked onto the beach before our hill session to take a pic or two. Soon it will be dark and stormy at this time of day.


Firstborn Daughter and Boyfriend signed up for the 15 km route of the Dirtopia Trail Challenge. Why, I wanted to know. We were meant to do the 25 km route. No, said Daughter, we are building up to next week. No, I reminded her, we are building up to nine weeks from now. Next week isn’t The Race. Next week is more training. Either way. Details. Makes no never mind. They had signed up for the 15 km route and I had signed up for the 25 km route.

On Friday I received a text from Dirtopia. My race number was 30. I felt a mild panic in my gut. If my number is 30, how many entrants were there … 30? 50? Why so few? Am I in the wrong race? Of course I’m in the wrong race!

I went in search of the race route and profile. I had looked at it before, of course, but last week’s trail run put the picture into 3D. Those jagged lines angling up and down on the graph were no longer just abstract data. I had experienced them. I had run along (okay, moved along) those jagged lines in real life. I had felt my lungs and glutes and quads and calves burn on the inclines and I had felt my knees and ankles resist on the downhills. I had felt the weight of the pack on my back, the sweat gathering between my shoulder blades. I had felt the salt crusting on my face and burning my eyes. I had stared into the sun, searching for the end of the umpteenth hill and, more desperately, for the end of the trail.

I stared at the profile of the 25 km route and felt a mild urge to have a little weep. Panic would be a sensible course of action.

Dirtopia Trail Run Challenge 25 km

The route profile of the Dirtopia Trail Run Challenge: The Fire Run 25 km. (www.dirtopa.co.za). How mean does this look?!

On race morning, Firstborn Daughter’s Boyfriend appeared to feel more panicked about my day’s challenge than I was and pointed out, repeatedly, the folly of my decision. But there were no downgrades and now substitutions, and so I was doomed to line up with the 25-kayers at 8:15 am. They looked lean and wiry. And mostly young. Some looked a bit grizzly, like mountain men. These were real trail runners. I’m not even a weekend warrior (more like a weekend worrier) … what was I doing there?!

Start line_low res

The start line before the wiry, grizzly mountain runners lined up.

The race director took the microphone and explained the route. We had to make it to the water station at the 8 km mark within about an hour and ten minutes, which meant running at an average of about 8:00/km, he said. If we were slower than that, they would be redirecting us to join the 15 km runners. ‘It’s going to be a long day in the mountain otherwise,’ he said. The temperatures were rising. It was going to be a hot, hot day out in Stellenbosch, and they didn’t want people (people like me), staggering about up in the mountains.

There was a way out of this! I turned to see if I could let Firstborn Daughter know that I was already considering this tempting and sensible option but I couldn’t see her through the buffs and beards crowding behind me. There were fewer than 100 runners in the 25 km route. This was not a route for someone on her second trail run, running to try out her backpack and shoes, running for fun, running for a taste of adventure.

The sound of the start gun snapped and off they barrelled – please note, they, not we. I was at the back almost immediately. For the first 3 km I clung on valiantly, keeping the pace under 8:00/km. The course goes uphill pretty much from the start, and then just keeps going up. The downhills would be no more than about 300 m, mostly less, and there was almost no shade. There had been massive fires in the area a few months ago, and all that remains of the forest are ghoulish black spikes poking skyward.

Dirtopia start_low ers

The first 2 km of the Dirtopia Trail Run Challenge are deceptive and I was almost lulled into thinking this could be done.

Charred land_low res

The shade and lush green of the oak trees soon opened up to reveal the charred, unsheltered trail snaking up and and up.

My running tights were starting to suffocate me. My quads and glutes were protesting. The Camelbak refused to release its water, no matter how hard I sucked at it, not matter which way I turned the valve. Man, this was tough!

It wasn’t long before the front guys on the 15 km route started overtaking me. One young stallion flew past me, then promptly veered off to the left amongst the trees, buckled over and started vomiting. Maybe too quick a start? I felt for him. I could still hear him heaving as I left him behind. He recovered, though, and passed me again.

At 4 km it looked as if I could still duck in under the cut-off point at 8 km. I could still do the whole distance. But did I want to? At 5 km the route veered up again, even more steeply. Strava shows a 25% gradient at some point. We were at an elevation of almost 400 m. And this wasn’t even the big climb. The big one, the ‘sting in the tail’, as the race director called it, was after the 8 km mark. My pace slowed right down. Walking happened. Lots of walking. I had lost sight of the last 25 km runner who had been ahead of me. The one who had been behind me must have fallen off the mountain, because she had disappeared from view as well. I kept stepping off the trail to allow faster runners to pass me – well, actually, anyone who was running was a faster runner at this stage – then couldn’t get back onto the trail as one after the other filed past, smiling at me and disappearing around the next bend, over the next crest, behind the next blackened clump of sometime trees.

The mid-pack 15 km runners were starting to lap me. I kept looking out for Firstborn Daughter and her Boyfriend. I figured they would be catching up with me soon.

By 6 km I knew that I was taking the opt-out option, whether I made it to the cut-off point in time or not. I could see the water station up on the next hill with swarms of runners making their way towards it. To me it almost looked like a finish line.

Oak tree and vineyard_low res

The little stretch of trail before the 8 km water station – oak trees, vineyards, shade.

‘Bailing,’ I texted the Signficant Other.

The cell rang immediately. He must have thought that by ‘bailing’ I meant that I was climbing into a medic van or being airlifted out or something. Breathing heavily, or trying to breathe, I explained that I was fine but that I wasn’t going to attempt the 25 km route.

I reached the 8 km mark. Took down some water – aaah! So easy to drink from a cup! Damned Camelbak! Texted Firstborn Daughter to let her know that I would be doing the 15 km route after all. I waited around a bit, sure that I would see them coming up the hill at any minute. Then, feeling only the slightest pang of regret, I set off on the 15 km trail. The regret gave over to relief. I was halfway. And, bonus, the trail slipped downward!

The Camelbak was hanging too low on my back. It felt heavy. My lower back was starting to hurt and the straps were giving me a headache. Everyone kept saying how hot it was. And still the damned thing wouldn’t let me have any of its plastic-tasting water. Someone walked beside me for a bit. ‘Lots of people aren’t going to make the 25 km,’ she said. ‘I know six people who bailed on the 25 km route. It’s this heat.’ I felt marginally less like a big loser. Then she picked up the pace and ran off. I walked on. Ran a bit. Walked some more.

I heard Firstborn Daughter’s voice behind me. ‘I thought you’d be miles away by now,’ she said. Ha! Rub it in, why don’t you?!

And then she passed me. Off she went. Boyfriend appeared to linger a bit, feeling duty bound to wait for me, and then he followed her fast disappearing little tail up the next hill. Oh, dear lord! What the hell kind of evil hill was this?! Who dropped it here and why? I put my head down, put my hands on my knees and tried to just power up it. No power. I stood for a while, looking up and looking back. I tried to take a picture but no picture shows the true meanness of a hill. A tired, sweaty young runner came up to me and asked if he could have some of my water. I squeezed the Camelbak’s bladder to encourage it to give him some water, and then he was off, up and over the hill.

Dirtopia hill_low res

Looking back at the spiteful little hill that snaked tentacles around my ankles and kept me anchored to the ground.

That eleventh kilometre took me more than twenty minutes to complete. I was on my own. I felt like the only person on the mountain. I walked, I tried to run, decided running was overrated, walked some more.

I kind of got it together after that. The road mercifully angled back down again, and I got into a gentle rhythm, running slowly towards the finish … that finish that just wouldn’t come soon enough. And then it was over. I ran past Firstborn Daughter and the Boyfriend sitting on the grass, shoes off, looking sunburned and daisy fresh, shouting ‘Whoo! Go mom!’

I glanced to my right and saw the announcer smiling at me, microphone to lips. Oh no! Please don’t announce that a 25 km runner has just come in! Please don’t congratulate me! It must be clear that I’m a bailer?! Right? The first lady home was coming in just behind me. How embarrassing it would have been had he announced that I was the first lady home …! Luckily these guys know more about what they’re doing than I know about what I’m doing.

I made it across the finish line. I had to explain that, no, I am not a brilliant 25 km runner, I’m not even a 25 km runner, I’m an imposter, a fraud, a wannabe. But do I get a medal anyway?

They gave me a medal. They are good, kind people. They gave me coke and water too. And a voucher for a free wine tasting.

Dirtopia medal_low res

How cool is this medal? And the Dirtopia guys reuse the race numbers and timing chips – no waste!

I joined the two trail running champs on the lawn in the shade. Took off my shoes. Collapsed onto my back. What have I just done …? While we recovered, we cheered for the hot and tired runners coming in. One 25 km fellow came in. We had chatted to him before the start. I saw him look at me as he ran past to the finish. His eyes widened in confusion and disbelief. I think he crossed the finish line feeling crushed. I hope I bump into him one day so that I can tell him that I didn’t beat him. I hope he doesn’t decide to hang up his trail shoes for good before then.

Next week is the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge Lite. Yes, ‘lite’ they call it. They call it that because the real challenge is 38 km. The lite is 24 km. Oh my word. More trail hell. Another attempt at taking on 24 km of trail up a mountain.

I could always just go out for coffee on a weekend morning, like millions of other people. Maybe one day. When I’m old.






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