If you’re part of the running community of South Africa you’ve probably heard of the famous and exclusive Rhodes Run. For everybody else and the Rhodes rookies like myself, I thought I’ll bring you up to speed with what happens in the little village of Rhodes when the temperatures plummet each year.
First of all, the “Rhodes” I’m referring to is an actual town in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa and not a university. It is not the Rhodes memorial in Cape Town. The University of Rhodes is also not situated in Rhodes, nor is the memorial, which adds to the massive confusion. Bluntly speaking, it’s just off the southern border of Lesotho in the valleys below the Tiffindell Ski Resort. I actually find it quite fascinating that people don’t know of its existence, meaning less people to go and destroy the 1980’s vibe.
Before we get down to the run itself, let me just pause in Rhodes for a second. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, this little village really creates that sense of simplicity, something different, something warm and something worth caring for. A quick stroll down the tree-covered gravel roads had me stumble upon a tennis club where I could only imagine hundreds of friendships being built. Cracked up and in much need of paint, these courts had character.
I also found some horses just nibbling away at someone’s front lawn and it seemed like they couldn’t care less about the weirdo pointing a camera at them. I’ll probably have to dust off a few books to get down to the history of this little village, or one day I’ll go back and sit in that cracked up little library, sip on some tea, and let an elderly tell me the story.
When you absolutely don’t have the urge to stay in bed after six o’clock on a cold winter’s morning then this event is something you’ll love. It’s freezing cold in Rhodes and it takes very little motivation to hit the snooze button for another couple of hours once you hear your alarm going off. You can count on the crows creating some early morning chatter to wake things up before you hear the sound of a bell being hammered up and down the silent, sleeping streets. That bell means it is the morning of the Rhodes Run and you have about an hour to get layered with as much clothes that you can possibly find in your own and friends’ travel bags.
Wind jacket on, wind jacket off, wind jacket on, wind jacket off. For me, someone that hates early morning training, it was a case of not knowing what to expect and not having a clue what to wear. It was utter chaos. It was way too cold to hang around the start chute with only a short sleeve base layer, a short sleeve top and some short pants, but I knew that, and opted to freeze my butt off anyway. With one minute to go I finally made the decision of stuffing my jacket in the backpack, never to take it out again. This whole dress code conundrum left me starting with my gloves in my mouth, my fingers too cold to press my watch’s buttons and my body in shock of what we were doing away from the comfort of a warm and snugly duvet.
Starting off on a rolling gravel road for the first fourteen kilometers was not really my idea of a trail run. Although the scenery was magnificent as expected, I constantly thought of how to run a road race, because I literally didn’t know how. Kick the heals up, increase leg turnover, easy breathing, why do I feel so heavy, get lighter, the heals, the split times, the breathing, the heart rate… It was an utter mess and by the time we reached the first checkpoint I knew I would be in for a long day. I forgot to take in the scenery, which to me is the most important aspect of any race. I dumped all my Barkley East tap water, which tasted horrible, and refilled with something a little less washing powder like thanks to the friendly faces of the Kloppers Clan at the Mavis Bank Farm Check Point.
The next section, also known as Kloppershoekkloof, can be dubbed as a proper trail running section. Cattle trails, scratchy bushes, lots of twists, turns and rock hopping water crossings make this part of the route undoubtedly one of my favorites. For some odd reason my concentration got lost somewhere along all of the earlier road running and disaster was on my doorstep. I went down hard on more than one occasion and by the time I reached Mavis Bank I looked, and felt, like coming out of a war zone. On one particular occasion I slipped and did some proper ploughing which probably rattled a few of the onlooking cows, unhitching my one shoelace in the process. Before I could really find my feet again and just as I got up to speed, I got caught up in that lace and BANG!, I got smacked into the ground again. I wonder what those cows must have thought. To be honest, I have no idea what went wrong on the day as that was not the most technical terrain I’ve ever been on, not by a long shot, but it got the better of me. If you train for this event, I suggest you work some sections of off-camber running into your routine, going along the face of a steep slope and not just up and down. Whilst doing this, get someone to hit you on the legs with some thorny branches to add a little race specific spice.
Mavis Bank, the much-hyped up Mavis Bank is known to be the heart and leg breaker of this event. Many tears and swear words have been uttered on this part of the course. It is a steep grass bank that takes you up along some fence line towards the music and Old Brown Sherry at the top. How is that for motivation? It is quite a festive affair at the top thanks to the legal practitioners and undercover OBS supplier crew from Kisch IP. That might even be the underlying factor for many people deciding to call it a day at this check point. Back to the climb, for the average road runner it’s probably not in the same league as “Polly Shorts”, much tougher. But in terms of trail running climbs it is something to be expected. Although there is no set route and lots of grass clumps, which makes it difficult to keep the legs turning, you can hitch a good old power hike up there and reach the top relatively soon. Just under two hundred and fifty meters gained in a kilometer is what you’re in for, if you’re into numbers. Yes, that is an average gradient of 24% which tops out at an elevation of around 2500 meters above sea level.
Did someone say headwind? Yes, from the Mavis Top Check Point to the Tiffindell Check Point (Quarry Check Point) you’ll run head on into a wind that will get the “Argus” cancelled any day. Add to that some altitude, winter temperatures and an approaching cold front and you’ll quickly get introduced to wind-chill temperatures of sub-zero degrees. So, the question is, did I pull out that wind jammer from my backpack? Absolutely not, I was convinced to be more aerodynamic without it. What an utterly stupid decision that turned out to be. As my nose was freezing and my body was trying to process what on earth I’m doing out in the cold, my eyeballs were also getting fed-up with the situation. The best advice I can possibly give to anyone doing this race is to take along a pair of sunglasses, or reading glasses, or ski goggles, or a full-face motorcycle helmet. Just take something, anything. I know, I also hate running with them but unless you want the second half of the race to be a blur, don’t make the same mistake I did.
Turn sharp left and the wind blows you right into the Tiffindell Check Point (Quarry Check Point). If you were wearing your sunglasses in the wind section, you’ll love this check point as you’ll be able to see the variety of sweets and a modified snowboard full of shooters that will most likely knock you off your feet. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see much and missed the shooter snowboard completely. A blessing in disguise.
The Hooggenoeg Ridge section is what you’ll experience next. There are no tracks and no trails on this section and thousands and thousands of grass clumps await. Now, if you don’t know how to run over grass clumps, don’t stress, I also haven’t got a cooking clue. I was so disorientated with my blurry wind-blown vision that I struggled to find a straight line between the hundreds of route markers. On this section it is literally just going from one route marker to the next with as little ankle-rollovers as possible.
After two decades of grass clump running one finally reaches the Hooggenoeg Hikers Hut Check Point at thirty-six kilometers into the run. I was relieved as I knew the last fourteen kilometers would not require any concentration, nor too much vision, and I could literally run in my sleep. The Hooggenoeg Hikers Hut Check Point is famous for its Prairie Oysters prepared by the Walkerbouts crew. A natural source of all organic, non-vegan friendly grass fed protein, apparently.
If you have ever experienced running down a mountain on a concrete road, you’ll know what the next section entails. If you haven’t, it’s much the same as walking into a coffee table at night, agonizingly painful. Nevertheless, you’ll drop with over six-hundred vertical meters in the last fourteen kilometers with half of that being done on a two kilometer concrete section. Let the brakes go, because a face plant is always much more spectacular for your fellow participants as opposed to everyone just going down with the handbrakes on. In all honesty, you might as well just focus on a bit of running form and take advantage of the free speed. Six kilometers from the finish the final water point awaits. They offered me a chair while I could hear some comments about the blood stains on my legs. I guess a picture is worth a thousand words after all. I refilled with some Coke and took on the last six kilometers to the village.
It wasn’t all plain sailing to the finish though, caught up in the peak-hour traffic of Rhodes.
The little village was out in full force to cheer the runners towards the finish line. Supporters were looking into the distance to spot their own runners from miles away. Police on horses didn’t want to give me a ride. A lady offered me a chair, on condition that I first cross the finish line. The announcer brought everyone home, some by name and some by number. And finally, the chocolate milkshakes from First Choice was the icing on the Rhodes cake.
What a nice vibe and well organised event, the Rhodes Run.
Cheers to that,
live a little,