The Num-Num Trail Challenge is known as the toughest single day race in South Africa and Saturday I was reminded why this is the case. It certainly is a very hard race and there is a reason why this 36.5km is a 5 day hiking trail.
The day started out quite cold and everyone was feeling the bite in the air. I made sure I had enough warm clothing for the first part, but also clothing that could be easily taken off and put away in my hydration pack.
I was in the 4th starting batch and we were off at 07:15AM. The race starts with a climb and I quickly saw a lot of runners disappearing into the distance. This was my 2nd Num-Num so I knew what was waiting for me. I kept it slow from the start to save energy for the really tough climbs later on.
I was soon reminded of how hard and very technical this trail is. There is really not much running done and even the descents are dangerous and rocky so that running is not possible.
As I came to the first summit of the day I was also reminded of how beautiful and special this trail is. It is really one of the best trails South Africa has to offer. However, to experience the wonderful trail is very hard work.
Running on the top of that first summit made me think: “this is what true freedom feels like”.
The views were beautiful and I was feeling good. I forced myself to take it really slow over the first part of the course. The cold morning soon became warmer except for the parts in the forest where it remained surprisingly cold. There are dozens of waterfalls to see and just as many streams and stream crossings.
Rock after rock after rock…that is what the Num-Num feels like. The patches of runable trail is far and inbetween.
At some point Comrades legend Alan Robb caught up to me. He started in the batch after me. Alan has never been known as a man of many words. His only words to me…”do we actually get to run somewhere?”
During his Comrades winning days Alan Robb was known for his red socks. He still runs in red socks today. :)
The race is run on the 5 day Num-Num hiking trail with checkpoints at each over night hut/cabin. The run to the first checkpoint is really beautiful and by the time I was getting close to it I was in my groove and feeling awesome.
A few kilometers after the first checkpoint the reality of the race slowly starts to hit you. The tough course just never eases up. You are always climbing or descending. This course doesn't have any flat parts and as the time passes your legs start feeling it.
Somewhere between checkpoint 1 and 2 you reach the first two of many ladders. At this point they are still fun, but as the day goes on you start looking at, thinking about and feeling them differently. In short…they become hard and painful to go up or down.
There is a short run past some trout dams which is probably the easiest part of the route. Behind the dams is the farm house of whoever is lucky enough to live here.
Lick some salt? Later in the day I might have done that!
Then it is onto the next part which also gives you a first glimpse of the waterfall. Beautiful and certainly uplifting the spirit for the run ahead. I was still holding back as I knew what was ahead.
I knew we were going right to the top on the other side of the valley next to me.
See the cabin on the top there? Yes, there’s where we are going!
This meant a steep descent, followed by a river crossing on a shaky swinging bridge before starting a very brutal climb.
My progress was slow but I was also happy because I was feeling much stronger than last year. I think it was a lot cooler as well. I made sure to eat and drink my way up that mountain.
At the top the trail goes through some stunning rock formations before you finally reach the checkpoint. This is a huge milestone out of the way. The people at the water point were very friendly and I was feeling really good when I left there. Now all the way down to the river again.
We ran the loop for that very hard climb in reverse this year so I passed the spot below much later and on my way down instead of up. So I didn't have brunch here as I said I would. I did pause for the view and photo.
The descent to the river is steep and at this point your legs start feeling it. Now comes the run along the river towards the waterfall. There are many bridges and ladders in this section. My body started telling me I've been going for a few hours already.
The run is pleasant as you hear the river all the time. There were less runners this year and we were spread out a lot more. This helped with hearing all the sounds of nature. That’s how I like it! Just me and the trail… I think that was what I liked most about this race. Spending so much time on my own out there.
I didn't see any other runners during this part following the river. As I came closer to the waterfall I knew the next climb was ahead, but I was still feeling good enough to not really worry about it. At this point last year I was already struggling to drink or eat anything.
After the great waterfall view the next climb waits. This is also a hard climb and I think this was the first time I really started feeling tired. This course is brutal. My progress up this climb was really the slowest so far for the day. I’m trying to remember if I ate anything going up here but I can’t remember. I just know I was tired.
Climb and climb again and again…
The beautiful waterfall helped a lot...
I was a bit disappointed with the water point at the top here. There was nothing wrong with it, it was just a lot smaller with a lot less whooo and whaaaa when I arrived than last year. I was still very happy to reach this point. The worst physically was behind me. Mentally is another story.
The next part first takes you down into a stream again before climbing higher than the top of the waterfall. This part is where I really started feeling the day. There was less than 15km to go but I knew it would still be around 3 to 4 hours before I was done.
I climbed up here and bumped my head hard against that rock! It was the second bump of my head for the day. The first was against a tree branch. I know you need a strong head for this but really…?
It was getting darker in the forests now and photographing the waterfalls and scenery became more difficult. Climbing up the ladders also became more difficult. Was I getting tired?
Once you get out into the open there is a tough last climb to the top where you run over a gravel road and then a fairly pleasant descent follows. I did recover quite nicely here and my spirit also lifted a lot. I knew I would finish well now but also knew there was still a long way to go. I estimated the last 8km leg would take me about 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Before I started this last part I still had a nasty climb or three to negotiate. This is mentally the hardest part of the Num-Num for me. You run high above the finish and can see it just beneath you. Then you drop down into a ravine and make your way to very close to the finish. After that you make a turn and climb up and up again…away from the finish. Then there is about 9km to go.
Finally I reached the main road and the start of the last section. This is about 200m from the finish, but there is one tough last loop to complete. Mentally and physically this is really hard. As I said to someone at some point: ‘you get to a point where you don’t even want to take photos anymore”.
I think this last part is the most boring of the route as well. That’s why it is so tough. The trail is rough with a steep climb yet again. The problem is that by now you feel as if you’ve seen and done it all. No waterfall or bridge or ladder is special enough to stop and photograph now. This is the march to the finish.
I did take a few photos, but I was now really tired. I was just keeping an eye on that finish. 8 hours and I still had somewhere between 4 and 5km to go. My feet were now starting to hurt from all the rock hopping and climbing.
I was very happy though! I was going to finish this in a good time and I was not going to feel completely dead or sick afterwards. Just very very tired.
Suddenly, with less than a kilometer to go I got a cramp on my stomach. A cramp bad enough to make me head into the bushes. Wow, that was weird, but nothing more happened. The cramp lasted a while and then disappeared. I joined the trail again and found Ian, Staci Sandal Girl’s husband, just as he was about to finish. We had about 400m to go.
I was done and I was done. Happy, feeling good but extremely tired. I finished the beast in 08:55. That is nearly 9 hours on the toughest trail I know. I was very happy but so tired I did not feel like celebrating.
Anette and Rohann were there to meet me. That was the best part of the finish. This race just takes so much out of you. At least I didn't end on a drip like I did last year!A nice medal to add to the t-shirt and goodies. I am happy and satisfied, but this is probably one race where my “never again” actually means never again. This race is just that hard.