Rockhoppin' Trail interview with Robyn Owen

It has been ages since I profiled anyone on Rockhoppin’ Trail. Back in 2013 it had been my plan to write regular profiles, but somehow life, time and training got in the way and instead I stuck to the loose, unscheduled kind of style that is more appropriate for Rockhoppin’ Trail.
Well, ok, for me.
There’re no rules for who gets to be profiled on Rockhoppin’ Trail – I decide! The person can be South African or international, man or woman, short or tall, young or old, carb crazy or paleo…  There’re only two criteria:
- they must have achieved something incredible on trail; and
- they can’t simply be amazing people we've heard or read about – I must have met them personally.

Because of time constraints and trail distractions, I’ve only profiled a handful, but they’ve all been impressive. Check on each to read their interviews:
Rockhoppin' Trail interview with Kilian Jornet
Rockhoppin' Trail interview with Mimi Anderson
Rockhoppin' Trail interview with Stevie Kremer
Rockhoppin' Trail interview with Ryno Griesel

And now I reckon it’s about jolly time I profiled another great achiever. This time it’s the young South African dynamo, Robyn Owen (nee Kime).

                                                                                                                                     (photo by Terence Vrugtman)

Robyn wasn’t widely known in trail running circles until recently, when she stormed this year’s Retto version of the Otter Trail Run (the Otter route in reverse). She not only smashed an incredible 22 minutes off the women’s Retto record, and became the first women to achieve a sub-5 for that direction (by a massive margin of over 10 minutes), but achieved the fastest women’s time for either direction!

Suddenly the name Robyn Owen was on everyone’s lips in the trail running community – who was this kid, where’d she come from? But young Robyn is no dark horse – she is an athlete extraordinaire who has been excelling in pretty much every adventure sport she’s taken up. She’s enormously talented, she’s not afraid to face the most gruelling of endurance challenges, she’s strong and she’s fast. But what makes Robyn extra special is that she’s one of the most humble athletes out there. That puts her permanently on the top o’the podium in my books!

                                                                 (photo by Terence Vrugtman)

I first met Robyn in 2013, running the 37km Matroosberg Skymarathon. She amazed everyone that day – seemingly coming from nowhere, she not only scooped a clear win in the ladies by a massive margin, but kept the lead men on their toes. She finished 5th overall, just 20 mins behind race winner AJ Calitz, and just seconds behind speedsters Ake Fagareng and Noel Ernstzen, who both panicked they were about to get chicked!

Age:  26
Profession:   civil engineer
Achievements:   Apart from whipping the Retto, Robyn has…
Passions: (apart from Mike) Loves wild, beautiful spaces, seeing new places, meeting interesting people and creatures, being active, challenges, competing…
Goal in life:    Still to be determined. In the meantime she’s having as much fun and accumulating as many rich experiences as possible.
                                                            Robyn and Mike doing what they love best                       (photo by Mike Owen)

LD:  Your Retto win must’ve rocked your world – it certainly rocked the entire trail community! Looking back, what are your thoughts on that day?
RO:  The strong ladies field was a major topic of the Otter in the days leading up to the race. My name made the long list of favourites but only near the bottom. Being in the enviable position of having nothing to lose, I could afford to run a bold race.
To my pleasant surprise nobody sprinted off the start line; the front ladies pack ran the first 2 km across the Nature's Valley beach together at a fairly civilised pace. As we got to the end of the beach Stevie (Ed: Kremer) pulled slightly ahead to enter the trail first and I tucked in behind her for the first hands-on-knees climb. I then stayed on her heels for the first half of the race – on an absolute high the whole time. At Bloukrans I couldn't believe how well my day was going – to be sharing the lead of "The Grail of Trail" with the super-star of trail running after 10 km was already more than a dream come true. If I'd blown and limped in last, or even if I'd pulled out later on, I still would've classified it as a good day.
Robyn hot on the heels of Stevie Kremer during the Retto

This year there was a slide into the Bloukrans river and we decided to go down it together (there was a prize for the best slide photo of the day). Unfortunately the water at the bottom was less than knee-deep and Stevie hurt her ankle as I landed on top of her. She ran on as if nothing had happened and never mentioned a word about it in the post-race interviews, but later that afternoon it was very swollen and she walked with a definite limp. I still feel pretty guilty and think the result might have been different if that hadn't happened.
Just after the halfway point I started battling to match Stevie's pace on the climbs, and knew that I'd have to make up for it on the descents if I was to keep in contention. On a particularly long technical descent I passed her and got a lead which I managed to hold for a few kilometres, but then she came jogging past as I heaved up a climb I would never have thought runnable and disappeared out of sight. The game of cat and mouse continued a few times before we were back together at the waterfall with 3 km to go. Two of these last 3km are very technical: giant boulder-hopping along a rugged shore rather than trail running. This is my favourite type of running and I gave everything I had left in me to pull a gap. 

LD:  Were you clock-watching? Also, when did you start to realise that you had the win in the bag?
RO:  Once we got to the waterfall together I knew that I should be able take it, but I could feel myself being reeled in again on the final few hundred meters. It was only on the final corner when I could see the finish line about 50m away that I was confident. 
I don't run with a watch (I actually had planned on wearing one just for this race but I forgot it in my tent). Just after halfway I asked Stevie the time and knew we were on pace for around 5 hours. Then Mark Collins ran the final 2km with me and told me along the way that I was under the ladies record for both directions and lying 5th overall. The finish still felt a very long way away but I did have a few goose-bumps from then on. 

LD:  Let’s talk Dusi. Having seconded the Dusi a few times, I’ve seen what you guys go through, and I know how the heat in that Dusi valley can ramp up – it’s gruelling out there. Would you say that the challenge is what attracted you the most, and that realising what you could achieve drove you to push even harder?
RO:  That sounds about right. I grew up in Pietermaritzburg, watching a thousand canoes crash over the first couple of weirs in the Dusi Canoe Marathon every year. It's a big event for the little city and one that everybody knows about. It was one of the obvious challenges that as a kid I dreamed of doing one day, and I was fortunate to get that opportunity quite early on. (Yes, the Comrades is another one but I'm shelving that for one day when I'm really big!)

LD:  Strong at canoeing, strong in trail running, strong in rock climbing… the natural progression then was towards adventure racing, right? Tell me about your time with Team Merrell Adventure Addicts, and the races you guys did in Swaziland, Australia, Brazil, and the one in Patagonia – 3rd team to finish out of 26 starters!
RO:  (I'm actually a very novice rock climber, I just pose in precarious-looking places for Instagram photos!)
Amongst the outdoor sporting community I’d heard a lot about adventure racing – that impossible sport where crazy people race for days through wild terrain with hardly any sleep. I wasn't sure why anyone would want to do that, but the fact that there were people who could and did always intrigued me. The invitation to join the Merrell Adventure Addicts came many years before I expected to be attempting something so crazy, but it caught me in a yes-mood. (Who could say no to all-expenses paid trips to Swaziland, the Australian Tropics, the Brazilian Pantanal, and Mystical Patagonia anyway?) 
Those races were all absolutely fantastic experiences. It was rewarding to discover that there is life after "the wall" (the one that you hit when you "blow" or "bonk" as frequently happens towards the end of races that last a few hours), and that you can actually feel ok after two or three or four days of almost non-stop forward motion. The sleep deprivation hallucinations were interesting. The places we visited were absolutely incredible. I raced with and against amazing and interesting people and learnt a huge amount from them (technical skills, soft-skills and inspiration for future adventures).
                                                    Team Sanlam Painted Wolf in training action                   (photo by Terence Vrugtman)

LD:  Then you joined Team Sanlam Painted Wolf to compete in the AR World Champs in Australia in November. The Collins brothers + Andre Gie + you = that’s a winning combination if ever I saw one! And that week you had us all on the edge of our desk chairs as we e-watched you push on. You finished 4th out of 99 teams, and did a sprint finish to pass an Aussie team just before the finish! Chat a bit about the race from your perspective. 
RO:  The ARWC 2016 in the Shoalhaven in Australia was relatively easy from a survival point of view, but it attracted the biggest and most competitive field that an adventure race has ever seen. The racing was fierce. We made a few navigation mistakes and lost motivation quite early on, dropping back to 25th about a day into the race. But after a regroup we pulled our way back to finish 4th three days later (of course a huge amount happened during that time but it would make too long a story for here). Of the races I have done this was the one where I had the least sleep and the sorest feet, but it was also the one I enjoyed the most. Mark, John and Andre were amazing teammates –  apart from being brilliant racers, they looked after me and made me feel like a valuable part of the team. We had a far from flawless race but the setbacks never dampened the spirit of the team for long, and when we did go well we were pretty speedy! The crazy sprint finish for the final two of more than 600km is something I will never forget.

LD:  You and Mike have started a trail guiding business, called For the Love of Adventure. Tell me about that.
RO:  We are both happiest when we are outside in wild natural spaces, and are passionate about travel and exploration as well as the amazing places on our back doorstep. We launched For the Love of Adventure to share these passions with others. We offer guided hiking and trail running around Stellenbosch and the Western Cape, as well as custom adventurous holidays both near and further afield. Our dream is ultimately to both have an outdoor lifestyle that is financially sustainable. (

LD:  Next up on the racing front:  the Coast to Coast Challenge in New Zealand. Tell us about that one.
RO:  The Coast to Coast "Longest Day" is a single day individual multisport event involving 33km of steep technical mountain running, 70km of river kayaking and 140km of road cycling from the west coast to the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. It is tagged "the World Multisport Championships" and is a major event in New Zealand. I don't know exactly who I will be up against, but the competition is likely to be very strong. Local knowledge apparently plays a big role, especially on the run and paddle sections, and I plan to go over a couple of weeks beforehand to familiarise myself with the trickier bits.

LD:  Who’re you sponsored by?
RO:  I am an ambassador for Best4Sports, the makers of CrampNOT: the world's first neuromuscular complex for exercise induced muscle cramps (the world's first preventative and cure for cramps that actually works), as well as a few other revolutionary nutrition products which will be launched soon.
As Team Sanlam Painted Wolf, we’re sponsored by Sanlam as well as a host of other great people and brands.
                                                                                                                                                 (photo by Cherie Vale)

LD:  And on the cards for next year is surely Otter 2017. Tellme tellme!
RO:  Yes, I hope to be there. 4h30 is an alluring target for the women that I'm confident will be broken at some stage. I doubt that I will be the one to do it but I would like to at least help to put the pressure on!

LD:  What would you say are your strengths that pull you through the tough moments?
RO:  I don't think that I'm any better than anyone else at pulling through tough moments. Generally, once you're in a tough situation you don't have much choice but to pull yourself through it. I probably do voluntarily throw myself into unpleasant situations more often than most. Is that a strength or stupidity?

LD:  Finally, your most amusing thought during a particularly tough racing moment?
RO:  No way, those thoughts shouldn't be put into writing!!

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