Shortly after signing up for the Run The Berg Trail Race, I started panicking – “What have I gotten myself into?” But as luck would have it a couple of months later, I saw a Facebook ad for the Gauteng Trail Clinic on the 27 and 28 July 2019 to be hosted at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort, South Africa. I did my usual online investigations, deemed it legit, and then convinced my husband that “We just have to do this!” As the weekend drew closer, I was a bit nervous as is typical of me when I don’t quite know what to expect. Would this be worth the 5 hour trip to Johannesburg? Would it be pegged too high for my very amateur level? Would it simply confirm that I was in no position to Run The Berg?
But all those fears and anxieties were laid to rest as soon as we walked into the venue. We were greeted warmly by the facilitators, Deon Braun and Heloise Hunter from Trail Magazine and introduced to the other experts and participants. We soon felt right at home. Although as participants, we had different backgrounds, needs and goals, we were united in our curiosity for trail running and desire to get better at it. The experts shared their knowledge and wisdom in a way that clearly showed their experience and abilities whilst remaining completely approachable. This created an environment where we felt safe to ask questions which were often responded to with practical examples and tales of adventure. I loved that the facilitators worked seamlessly as one team to create a fun, interactive, practical and knowledgeable workshop that left us feeling a lot more confident about our abilities going forward. My goals when signing up for the clinic were to gain more confidence as well as technical ability to Run The Berg. In this post, I reflect on the lessons I gained that helped me to achieve these goals.
My Biggest Take-Homes From The Gauteng Trail Clinic
Trail Form and Technique: This session largely focused on uphill and downhill running and was lead by Bennie Roux. Bennie is an elite ultra-runner who boasts a very impressive running CV and is the Munga 2017, 2018, and 2019 winner. The Munga brands itself as the “toughest race on earth” and is a 400km, semi-supported, single stage trail race in the heart of South Africa.
With such racing credentials, one would expect to meet an arrogant “I’ve been there, done that” kind of character. But Bennie was humble, polite and funny, and even shared a story of finding himself stuck on a ledge and having to call the rescue team (and his mum) for help! He discussed several key points on form, technique and the use of hiking poles and then took us outdoors for a practical session of power hiking, climbing and downhill running form. Coming from flat Gaborone with very little exposure to hills, I knew that the climbing and hill sections on the Berg would be my biggest challenge. For downhill running, the points that stood out for me were using my arms much more, like a “surfer on a big wave”, making good use of gravity, always planning a few metres ahead and committing foot placement. This latter point was a huge lesson as I hesitate a lot on trails which causes stumbling and even falling. I actually met facilitator Heloise on Run The Berg and it was a joy to watch her gliding down those hills!
For uphill running, my biggest lesson was probably knowing when to walk. Power walking can be so much more efficient in some instances, meaning that you save your energy for more critical stages in the trail run. This proved to be quite effective when I was at the Berg.
Later Deon also shared some tips on how to build and practise some of these techniques in urban areas by hopping on and off kerbs and running up and down steep banks. He also stressed the need to walk, hike and jog on technical ground that scares you. I don’t think I got nearly as much practice as I needed to before the Berg, but I will continue to do so on my trail journey.
Importance of Nutrition: Nutrition is something I often over-complicate and end up on a path that leads me away from healthy eating. Some of the key lessons I gained from Deon were the importance of keeping things simple, knowing your food and where it comes from and being more conscious of eating wholesome (and less processed) foods. Another key point was “staying topped up” on the trail, not waiting to get hungry before having something and he gave us a guide on what to eat when on the trail depending on the duration of the run. While on the Berg, I planned to be out for 2 – 4 hours each day and as per the guide I packed an assortment of nuts, bars, gels and date balls. We also had a short demo of how to make our own snack using oats, almond butter and banana. There was a delicious juice tasting demo with Yolandi from Rugani Juice which is a South African brand producing 100% vegetable and fruit juices and this has been a staple in our house since the clinic. We even took a couple of boxes on our Berg trip.
Running Happy: I had heard of Brooks shoes but as they are not available in Botswana, I had never had the opportunity to try them. So what a treat it was for me to learn more about Brooks shoes and how they differ from other shoe brands. What stood out for me was their emphasis on comfort. We had a shoe fitting opportunity and Ditiro ended up with new Cascadia 13 shoes and I bought my first pair of Brooks Adrenaline road shoes. Although I couldn’t use mine for Run The Berg, Ditiro used his and loved them, finding them incredibly comfortable and in his words “they offered a ridiculous amount of traction on just about any terrain at any angle”. We were also introduced to Feetures socks and won a pair for being in the Top 6 to sign up for the Clinic!
Ouch! Blisters: Craig Gornall from The Sweat Shop had a session on blisters, what causes them and their treatment. He mentioned that they are often caused by poorly fitted shoes and moisture. A key take-home was that on the trail you have to learn to identify when you have a “hot spot” (pre-blister) and deal with it there and then, even if it means momentarily stopping your race. This may involve emptying your shoe, applying tape to the spot, readjusting your sock, firming up laces – basically doing what you can to prevent it from becoming a blister. Fortunately, both Ditiro and I didn’t have any blisters on our Run The Berg adventure.
Speed and Cadence: Coach Neville Beeton gave a great presentation on speed and cadence with tips on “how to increase the power of your running engine!” Something that jumped out for me was the importance of incorporating specific speed workouts as part of your training plan. Another key take-home was being mentally and physically ready for speed sessions. He emphasised that there is no point bothering with a speed session if you are not in the position to hit the peaks that you are looking for. Rather take it easy, and do the speed session when you are ready. The presentation was followed by an interval training session and a fun relay to get the heart pumping! We could also do it in Fancy Dress hence Ditiro and my outfits!
Strength Training: Brendan McBirnie from Fitness From Africa lead a fun strength training class, taking us through a series of exercises at different stations. He also gave us a 12-week strength training program and emphasised that strength training actually changes according to how far you are in your overall running plan.
Stretch and Recovery: Biokineticist Anca Wessels lead a stretch session using various tools from foam rollers to tennis balls to rods to frozen bottles of water. We also went through a number of exercises we should do to test our fitness levels (e.g. x number of squats/ push-ups per min.). She also stressed the need for good form when performing the exercises. Ditiro was lucky enough to win a free sports massage with her after getting the highest number of pushups in a minute and used his voucher on our way back from the Berg!
Mental Preparation: Marie Snyman-Jacobs is an avid trail runner as well as an Executive and Life Coach with vast experience in facilitation, coaching and personal development. We went outdoors for a brilliant session on mental preparation and event mindset. The key lessons for me were warming up the brain before a race and being focused in both training and on the race. She shared personal examples of her own trail experiences and interviewed Deon who shared some of his successes and mishaps on the trail. This was a short session but really powerful as I always find it so effective when people who are experts in their area are able to show that they too can be vulnerable and make mistakes. It makes it easier for me to be less hard on myself.
The Right Gear: Layering and how to layer was a big lesson for me, especially coming from Botswana where layering is never really needed! We were taken through (and tried on) a number of hydration packs which influenced our purchase for the Berg. A notable point was really ensuring optimal usage of the bag for the race you are going to do. Another key point was the need to test your kit thoroughly before your race which was one of our reasons for signing up for the Mokolodi Scorpion Race before the Berg! It was also the reason we decided not to run in our Run The Berg tops on Race Day for fear of unexpected chafing! Fortunately, the tops later proved to be amazing but we didn’t want to risk it on Race Day.
The Power of Camaraderie: This came through from the different examples shared, the facilitators’ interactions with us and ultimately our discussions as participants. I’ve always said trail runners are a special breed of people and I think being out on a trail and negotiating different terrain, ignites in you the desire to be more in touch with other runners and to put others before you if need be. The trail clinic helped to shift my mindset even more in this regard and made me feel that whatever level we are at or experience we have, we are all in this together. I felt this at Run The Berg, and perhaps the closest word I have for it would be Ubuntu.
Thank you to Michelle and Clive Chowles and Sean Tait of Brooks Running, Craig Gornall from The Sweat Shop Bedfordview, Coach Neville Beeton, elite runner Bennie Roux, Anca Wessels of Wessels Biokinetics, Marie Snyman-Jacobs at Arpeggio Consulting, and Brendan McBirnie of Fitness From Africa, for your guidance, your patience, and your wonderful lessons. Thank you to Heloise and Deon for coordinating everything behind the scenes, for ensuring the smooth running of the clinic, and for being such gracious hosts. A huge thank you to Heloise for these beautiful photos and for allowing me to use them for the blog. To my fellow participants, thank you for an awesome weekend, for sharing your stories and for being so open to learning.
“Focus on specific terrain training, mental focus, good nutrition, and you’re over 90% there. Happy Trails” – Deon Braun