With the first of two editions in 2017 of The Oxpecker Trail Run set to kick off this weekend, we thought we’d take this opportunity to share our experience of the 2016 event.
The event takes place in the Central Drakensberg, at a camp on the banks of the Tugela river. The drive from Gauteng is a substantial one, but with the majority of it being on the N3, it’s pretty plain sailing once you manage to get beyond the southern parts of Joburg. For the folks from the Durban/Pietermaritzburg area, it’s an easy after-work trip. We arrived after dark and navigating from the parking lot to the tents was a bit of a mission since we had packed our headlamps deep inside our luggage, but the tents were well organized and once we had orientated ourselves and kicked out of office mode and into adventure mode we started to get into the groove. The tented camp is wedged between the vehicle parking area and the main “race village”. It’s a sizeable event and so a walk either way can be a few hundred metres but it’s also nice to have the sleeping area somewhat segregated from the buzz of the race village.
The objective for the first night was really just to get registered, get settled in, get fed, and get a good night’s rest. This is pretty much exactly what we did. We met up with some friends and had our dinner in the marquee with some evening entertainment from the organisers, including a lucky draw and some interviews with the seasoned superhuman athletes that would be taking part in the event, before retiring to our tents.
Early the following morning, when it came time to get up and get prepared for the day’s running, the cold made it very difficult to extract ourselves from our cosy sleeping bags, but there was also a lot to look forward to and so we sucked it up, covered our running clothes with a few extra layers and headed to the food hall for breakfast. With some yoghurt, cereal, boiled eggs and bananas in our bellies, we were ready to tackle the 21km first stage of the event. The official results show a total of 807 runners that completed both stages, so the total number of participants that were lining up for day 1 must have been close to 1,000. We were split into 4 separate starting batches and sent on our way.
The route started out fairly flat as we headed away from the camp and in the direction of the looming Spioenkop Mountain. It quite quickly kicked up into a steady but manageable incline that took us onto the side of the mountain. After climbing approximately 130m of elevation gain, the profile eased off and allowed us to recover for a spectacular 2km of single track skirting around a ridgeline of the mountain roughly halfway up. The views over the Bushveld and Spioenkop dam were vast and the running felt good. But then it was time for the route to switch back and head for the Twin Peaks summit. This was achieved via a steep and fairly technical single track that climbs 150m in elevation over 1km and reduced all but the very best of the runners to a walk. At the top we were welcomed by the spirited singing, dancing and cheering (which we could hear from well before we reached there) of a group of local ladies that had carried all the waterpoint supplies up to the summit where we could stock up on some nutrition, admire the view, and have our photo taken.
We then ran along the top of the mountain, passing a war memorial along the way and descended down the Northen side, opposite to where we came up. A mix of single track and jeep track dropped us all the way down to the banks of the Tugela river where the second water point lay in wait, offering among other things, shots of Old Brown Sherry for those that hadn’t been warmed enough by the run. The route then followed alongside the Tugela river, on a very serene stretch of trail beneath poplar trees and finally finished back at the race village where ice baths and electrolyte drinks were there for the taking.
Everyone has their own way of winding down and recovering after a morning on the trails and Oxpecker provides a variety of options. A Seattle coffee stall proved ever-popular with a queue for most of the weekend, a bar serving refreshing Stellenbrau Weiss or Lager (in the nice big bottles, before they disappointingly converted to the new 340/330ml bottles) was also on offer, you could book yourself in for a massage or even do a bit of last minute gear shopping at the Funkypants store. The atmosphere was festive and everyone had that sense of accomplishment for the day creating an all round lekker vibe. After a shower and lunch, a nap under the trees on the river bank was in order but it had to be a quick powernap because next on the itinerary, the organisers had invited us to the Spioenkop Lodge for sundowners where a local historian gave a fascinating and insightful talk about the area and the battles it had seen during the second Boer War. It’s at this point for the unwitting runners like me that the you start to appreciate the finer aspects of the event and the legacy of the land and it puts into context the significance of some of the things you had barely even paid much attention to earlier in the day, like the little memorial near the summit and the subtle homages to Liverpool that are scattered around the facilities. It adds meaning to the route, gives it character and lends humanity to the wilderness experience. It’s also a damn nice place to have a beer.
Festivities continued back at the race village and supper was complemented with more fun and games on the stage, as well as a video recapping the day’s events. This was then followed by a bonfire party a little distance away, under the trees again on the banks of the river. For those who still have the energy and aren’t afraid of making the physical undertaking of the next day a little harder for themselves, the organisers set up coloured lights and a DJ booth surrounded by a number of bonfires for revelers to keep warm while dabbling a little more in the social side of the event, at their own peril. The party is distant enough from the tents for it not to interfere with those who just want a good night’s rest and I didn’t stick around long enough to see what time it ended.
The Sunday morning routine was slightly different, in that we were told we would have to be shuttled to the starting point of the route for day 2, a little way away from the camp. After breakfast, we were to congregate just outside the parking area of the camp where droves of the local minibus taxis had been sourced and were swarming back and forth to drive us up to a vantage point for what would be a mostly downhill day on the feet. Again, it was a nice touch to extend the patronage of the event to the taxi drivers of the area and increase the reach of the economic opportunities created by the event. Not only does this break down barriers, but it’s also the sort of thing that will encourage these communities to welcome trail runners in the future. With the overwhelming and unsustainable trend of populations migrating from rural areas to the urban areas, events such as these, however small their contribution may be, are important for bringing something back out of the cities. This is true for trail running events in general, but particularly for those where facilities are sourced locally rather than being helicoptered in and out.
At the start we were again released in 4 different batches based on the previous day’s results. Day 2 was less about the sweeping vistas and distant horizons and more of a bushveld experience. A gentle climb at the start tested how well we’d recovered from the previous day’s exploits and then unleashed us onto a long, flowing downhill trail that snaked its way through some fairly thick brush, scattered with the occasional aloe. Some loose rocky sections tested our concentration and before long, we emerged once again on the southern banks of the Tugela river where we followed it briefly before then having to take the plunge into the icy waters and get across. This is a substantial body of moving water and thankfully some infrastructure and support is in place to make the crossing more manageable. Once we emerged on the other side with our shoes soaked, it was an easy trot to the finish to collect our Oxpecker branded enamel mugs, which served as a substitute for a medal.
After cleaning up and filling the belly, its time to draw straws with your friends to try and appoint someone to tackle the drive home while all the passengers doze off and catch up on their sleep deficit from an action packed weekend. Or a safer option is probably to just share the driving.
Once we were back home and I had time to digest the weekend, I realised that The Oxpecker Trail Run is about far more than just trail running. It’s not a purist running event where only the fittest and most experienced runners come to test their limits. Indeed there are still some elite athletes that turn up and the trails and routes are as good as any, but from the moment you arrive there is a very casual and social atmosphere that sets the tone for the weekend ahead. In some ways it makes me think of a modern era reincarnation of the music festivals I used to attend in my younger years, where the live music is now substituted with trail running but much of the other factors that gave that sense of community and fun still persist and make it a great excuse to gather some friends and go and enjoy some time away. It’s a delicate balance, but there is no reason not to mix trail running with a bit of fun, and it’s something that The Oxpecker seems to get just right. Trail running as a sport is also obviously inextricably linked to the natural world and so it’s always nice to see these events being held in support of some animal or plant species, as is the case with this one and the Oxpecker birds.
From a logistical standpoint, the facilities were good, with almost a military style shower setup for the men (not that I’ve ever been in the military, but that’s what it feels like) that are not particularly private but are very effective at accommodating the constant stream of guys who just want to get clean. The ladies (from what I’m told) have built in showers supplemented by some temporary portable showers and all seemed to be to the satisfaction of most, judging from a lack of complaints more than any explicit positive feedback. The remainder of the ablution facilities were also suitable for the occasion and there were never really any capacity issues from what I experienced. Food was bountiful (most importantly) and appropriate for the circumstances and the entertainment was, well, entertaining.
Overall its a great way to spend a weekend and we certainly recommend it to runners (and non-runners) of all levels.