The chosen few who stepped off the bus at Maden Dam in the Eastern Cape on Friday before dawn finished in the small town of Hogsback the next day, having traversed the Amathole Trail. Yet those who undertook the Merrell Hobbit 90km Journey this weekend travelled so much further than just distance. While roaming the mountains and forests they plunged deep into themselves to find their fortitude, figure out their reasons and test their grit as whipping winds, sub-zero temperatures and rain accompanied them.
“This was a weekend of firsts for me; first time running back to back ultras, first time swearing and praying at the same time while trying not to slip off sheer cliffs with nothing but mud on my shoes, longest time spent on my legs, coldest my hands have ever been, but without a doubt the most fun I’ve ever had on any trail.” Alicia Grobler’s experience epitomises the essence of this trail. She and her friends Max Visagie and Francois Steyn displayed the camaraderie that melts the hearts of the organisers.
Both very competitive and very successful multi-sport athletes, Tatum Prins and Graham Bird of Mountain Runner Events are passionate about putting on races that encourage people to get outside and embrace all that the outdoors can offer. “The Merrell Hobbit is definitely our favourite event. A race for some, a personal quest for others. Either way it presents a challenge that pushes body and spirit to find new limits.”
Bennie Roux and Stewart Chaperone raced, and raced hard across the tough and technical terrain with both taking line honours on different days and Stewart winning overall with just a six minute lead in 12h20. First ladies Natasja Kask and Michelle Davis chose to cross the line together as new friends, as did so many of the others who had shared the journey.
The other, shorter trail races are run on Day Two of the Journey from the Arminel Hotel, with routes designed to merge the runners of all events at various stages so everyone finishes under the same arch. The famously tough 38km course joins the 90km where they can then both go over the Hog’s Back, a steep climb and traverse along a very exposed ridge. On Saturday morning, with the extreme weather that had been accurately predicted rolling in, Graham had to make some tough decisions. It was with a lump in his throat that he made the announcement to the hundred strong 38km field that their route had to be cancelled and the 90km runners would be redirected along the belly of the Hog instead. “We marked the route on Thursday in glorious conditions but knew that it might be in vain. It would be irresponsible to send people over that mountain in the mist and slippery, freezing conditions. We looked at all options, and considered laying out the distance on the jeep tracks, but we offer a trail run and prefer quality kilometres over quantity.”
The 38km entrants were invited to race the breath taking (not only beautiful but technical and hilly) 16km through the indigenous forest, which they did, and all came in wet, dirty and happy, and grateful to have not been sent up higher where it was so much more bitterly cold.
“We appreciate everyone’s understanding and acceptance of the situation. There was not one grumble. Everyone still got in an honest, hard, run, and more importantly, the medics and safety crew were left to sit and drink coffee all morning, which is what we pay them for.”
More than 300 people tackled the trails this day, remarkable in these wet and icy conditions, and testament to the character and guts of the growing South African trail running community.
It’s a destination event, run over the long weekend so families can make a holiday of it and explore everything that the Hogsback region has to offer.
“We could not put this weekend together without the support and encouragement of our marvelous sponsor Merrell, who understand and believe in our approach to trail running races; keeping it personal, keeping it real and performing beyond expectations.” Said Tatum.
Out on the Amathole Trail, the routes have been well cleared and marked by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Amathole Forestry Company kindly give their permission to use their lands, the community of Hogsback is welcoming and supportive and the Arminel Hotel continually provides the best race venue and most helpful staff.
With the prediction of the wet weather, Buffalo Toyota King Williams Town generously offered a new Toyota Hilux vehicle to handle the rough, slippery roads needed to access the trails. Its incredible power and handling impressed everyone and it was difficult to hand it back. Aquelle Water and PVM once again sent products to keep all the athletes hydrated and energized.
But it was the staff that impressed the most. Up at Cata Hut where the Journey men and women spent a comfortable night with good food; out on the trails where they checked runners in, fed them warm tea and muffins; at the start, at the finish, all over being efficient and friendly. “This is our business” says Graham “but more than that, this is our passion. Happy people on trails is mission accomplished!”