Outeniqua Quest 2014

I'm a sucker for challenge and adventure. Throw me nouns like mountain, forest, desert, river, rock, glacier, cliff; lace them with adjectives like dramatic, testing, far, dark, remote, indigenous, and my ears prick up like a kid's when offered candy. Spice up the offering with words like inaugural, race, challenge, longest, toughest, and I'm that same kid now first in the candy queue.

So when I heard there was a new race on the calendar, and it promised over 100km of running through unspoilt natural forest, single track and single stage, I hit the key without hesitation.

The Outeniqua Quest delivered exactly what it promised. Following the 108km eight day Outeniqua Hiking Trail from Beervlei Hut in the mountains behind Wilderness on the Garden Route, the route runs up and down many mountains, over countless crystal clear streams and rivers, and makes its way past six checkpoints – each one a hiking hut – to the finish at Harkerville, just up the coast from Knysna.
Intrepid warriors amped at the start line

When traversing those 108km the runner, as I'm sure does the eight-day hiker, goes through varying stages of emotional turbulence. Ultras, more than any other distance running, plays with the psyche, shunting it from extreme elation to scary places of dark self-doubt, interspersed by long periods of most energetic, often monotonous periods in between. Ultras are a constant battle on many levels, not least of all physical.

Inevitably, a +100km race involves some degree of night running, more so if the course is particularly challenging in some way. With about 85% of the Outeniqua Quest on single track, and roughly 90% of that in forest, it's safe to say this race is pretty challenging underfoot. While the paths are far softer to run on than the rocker single tracks of the southern end of the Western Cape, those on the Outeniqua Quest are riddled, wracked and wrinkled with roots.

Roots... roots... ROOTS... they're evil and they're absolutely everywhere on this route - in the daytime they lie in wait for you, and during the night they leap up and snatch at your feet, tripping you at any opportunity. (I'm certain the elephants in that forest, shy as they are, would be a damn side more sociable if they too weren't afraid of those roots...)

This event is special. I've run remote, I've run bleak, harsh, volcanic, sub-tropical and tundra, but I've never run so far in uninterrupted indigenous forest. And running alone in dark forest made the experience all the more magical. There were sections of lush forest where I felt like I could've been on the set of Avatar for the magnificence of the towering trees, the cascading vines and the towering tree ferns – all it lacked was lithe-bodied naked blue people and floating rocks.

Navigating the route was far easier than expected – the trusty SAN Parks markers showing white bootprints were simple to follow, and were supplemented by s
mall reflective stickers that caught the light of our headlamps perfectly through the dark hours.

While not the harshest ultra in South Africa, the Outeniqua Quest takes no prisoners – the route chewed up and spat out its fair share of competitors, twisting ankles, hammering knees, and in several cases just taking psychological toll on tired minds and squashing them out the game. That's what good ultras are about – they're wolves in sheep's clothing, drawing the runner unassumingly into their clutches and wooing them with beautiful scenery and distracting views... and then BAM! slapping the poor soul a stinger when energy levels slip. It's at that point the real battle begins: the will of the tired runner to achieve the goal versus the vengeance of the trail never to be easily conquered.

If you're into ultras, this one's definitely one to add to your racing calendars, folks, it's a must.
Race winner Samuel Holtzkampf (13:00)
me with race organiser Sonya Otto

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