A wintery week in Knysna heated up fast with the eventful Featherbed Trail Run. The same record broken within a few hours, an athlete suffered heatstroke, and a team of nutters doing five events in one day, meant the action got even hotter than the weather.
For one week a year, hordes of athletes descend upon the picturesque coastal town of Knysna to take part in the Big Five Challenge. The Featherbed Trail Run is the longest event with six possible races in one day.
This was the eighth edition of the scenic, yet gruelling run that takes place on the Western Head of the lagoon. It may be July, but Knysna is not South Africa’s winter playground for nothing, as temperatures soared into the 30s for the midday run.
Runners chose between setting off in the morning, midday or the afternoon, there was a toss-up between sleeping in or dealing with the sluggish afternoon heat.
Running with the best
Rory Scheffer is relatively on the trail running circuit, making a name for himself by winning the Giant’s Cup multistage, 65km trail run in May this year, for the second time. He threw his hat in the ring with some of multisport’s big names when he signed up for the morning Featherbed run.
Stuart Marais, a South African multisport legend, and last year’s Featherbed champion, was Rory’s toughest competiton. Another prominent multisporter, Andrew Houston was there to contend with. Andrew came fifth at the 2015 Dusi Canoe Marathon.
“I opted to do the morning run,” Rory said. “This meant I would be up against top athletes in the Big Five events.”
Rory may be a relative newcomer to elite endurance sports, but he is already picking up a strong reputation with Andrew naming him as one to beat before the race.
“Looking around on the start line it was clear to see it was going to be a tough day, big names like Stuart Marias, Rory Scheffer, Theo [Blignaut] and Aiden Nugent were all there,” the Dusi canoeist said.
The battle for what was eventually second place was tightly contested, both Rory and Andrew went flat out to try and outdo each other.
“From the start it was a quick dash up the paved road before heading back down to run through the restaurant. It was here I really got to see how strong these other athletes were and that I had my work cut out for me if I wanted to podium,” Rory said.
“Up the Stairway to Heaven I was really pushing, but had Andrew on my heels. It was on this climb that he passed me and I knew it was going to be a chase to the finish.”
Andrew counts himself lucky to overtake Rory: “It was a flight for second,” Andrew said.
“Rory, Theo and myself battled it up the long 2km climb. I was fortunate enough to make a small gap over the them by the top and dug deep to try maintain this gap. Rory is a renowned trail runner and has a fast flat pace, so keeping ahead of him was a huge task on the railway home.”
Rory battled hard, but even his flat pace “At the top of the climb it was a test of leg speed over the undulating trails down to the railway bridge. Once at the bottom I could see Stuart and Andrew just ahead of me and pushed really hard to catch them – but they were just too quick.
“It was an honour to share the podium with two star runners, as they are both first class athletes. I look forward to racing against them in the future.
“This year was my first attempt at the race and I wasn’t sure what to expect on the day,” Rory said. “Prior to the race I had heard nothing but good things about the route, the organisation, the level of competition, and especially the iconic ferry ride across to the start of the race.
“I was really excited to be taking part.”
Surprising Women’s winner
The pre-race speculation was a repeat of last year’s winners for the trail run. Carla van Huyssteen was 2014’s women’s champion, but this year even a record breaking run would not be enough to take top spot.
Carla raced in the morning and clocked a new course record of 1:02:23, that record stood for only a few hours. Andrea Steyn stormed through a steaming hot midday race, where temperatures reached well over 30 degrees, breaking the record for a second time that day in 1:01:40.
What made it even more incredible was Andrea’s lack of trail experience. “It was one of my first ever trail runs so I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Andrea.
“I knew it would be tough, especially the first 7km, so I tried to go really hard and just kept going. I thought I wasn’t going to make it but I did.
“I love running and I’m back in the game and feeling good, but it’s going to be a hard battle to beat Carla [in the Big Five Challenge]. She’s a really good mountain biker so I have to use my running ability to gain time.
“I knew from the beginning it would be tough beating her on the bike and in the swim. I would have to beat her in the trail run and in the next two events if I want to take the [overall] title.”
Hot at the top
Andrea’s record breaking run set in the midday heat was made even more impressive when it emerged that heatstroke had struck one of the runners of the Seahorse midday race.
Leentjie Visser clearly gave it her all over the shorter 11km Seahorse course, coming third in 52 minutes 47 seconds. Her run gave her the Women’s Seahorse title, but it also caused her some problems…
The surging run did nothing for the Leentjie’s health as she suffered a bout of heatstroke at the finish line.
The fiery midday Coelacanth 15km run was won by Michael Cannon in a tight sprint to the finish, leaving Johan Pretorius in second place. Not to be outdone, Lauren Cannon, Michael’s wife also claimed a podium finish in the midday heat with only two course record holders in Andrea and Carla ahead of her.
It is clear there is some running pedigree at in the Cannon household!
Getting to know the Coelacanth
Michael Gombart did well to take sixth position up against the likes of Stuart, Andrew and Rory in the morning run, especially seeing as he was experiencing the 14km Coelacanth route for the first time.
It would be a brutal climb up the Western Head that he would not have experienced before, having only done the 11km Seahorse run previously.
“From the start at 08:30am it was full speed up a short climb before we headed along the coastline to the Heads and up the stairs. I took a quick moment to look back to see the amazing views of the famous Knysna heads below,” Michael explained.
“Stuart Marais was blistering from the start and had pulled a big lead by the time we reached the climb. Feeling a little fatigued I was struggling to keep pace on the way up, but I reached the top and got onto a freshly cut trail that undulated all the way to the mast. The expansive view over the Knysna Lagoon to the right was a welcomed companion at the top.
“There were some quick and tricky single track sections that followed, then as your reached Brenton, you turned right to head down to the infamous railway line via an awesome single track known as the rollercoaster.
“I really tried to put my head down here and gain back a place, as I was currently lying sixth, but as willing as the mind was the body wasn’t listening.
“Across the railway bridge, which presents an interesting running section, I following the railway line back to the finish at Cruise café with a little loop along the water to the finish line.
“I was happy to run a 1:00:36 and sixth place in the morning race, after all three races my time was at least good enough to remain in the top 10 taking ninth overall.
“I will definitely be back next year to hopefully improve on that time and try for a better position.”
One of the Five
Sixth spot in the midday race belonged to Hanno Smit, and although sixth is not on the podium, it is special because he had already completed two endurance events that morning.
Hanno is part of the Merrell Adventure addicts, a team of adventure racers that decided to take on the Big Five Challenge in one day. They had already completed an 80km mountain bike cycle and a mile long lagoon swim by the time Hanno set off for the 15km trail run.
That was not the end of the day for Hanno and his team, who still went on to complete an XTERRA course and a half marathon.
A special run
The Featherbed Trail Run is an iconic race in the calendar as it is the only time that the public are allowed onto the Western Head of Knysna. The rugged course, which is majority singletrack, has a testing climb, and a steep drop onto a treacherous railway bridge across the bay. There are not many races where you are taken to the start line in a ferry!
The run is part of the Big Five challenge, an event that attracts scores of people to the garden route town to test themselves in a number of disciplines.