Merrell Mentors series: the art of trekking

Merrell Adventure Addicts, Graham Bird, trekking, trekking tips, adventure racing, Expedition Africa 2016

(Left to right) Graham Bird, Grant Ross, Tatum Prins, Donovan Sims at Expedition Africa 2016. Photo: Peter Kirk

The Merrell Adventure Addicts are not only our country’s leading adventure racing team, but one of the toughest contenders on the international stage. The AR World Rankings were updated in May 2017, and South African hearts burst to see Merrell sitting in an incredible sixth place.

But what really sets Merrell apart, above their impressive list of adventure racing achievements, is their commitment to helping this sport grow in South Africa. The grit they’ve gathered from enduring some of the world’s toughest trails is not something they keep to themselves, but something they’re intent to share with aspiring adventurers.

It’s been incredible to see the product of their efforts through the Merrell Mentored Adventure Team.  This initiative involves one experienced racer from the Merrell Adventure Addicts team taking three newbies through their first full expedition adventure race.  At Expedition Africa 2017 ‘Tiny’ Donovan Sims lead the team on an unforgettable journey through the Baviaanskloof.

Go Multi teams up with the Merrell Adventure Addicts in their pursuit of growing this sport. In our Merrell Mentors series, members from the team will share valuable insight into the different skills needed to be successful in adventure racing.

The first discipline that will be tackled is trekking. Tatum Prins takes charge of this topic as Merrell’s trail running and trekking queen. Not only has she competed with Merrell in some of the world’s toughest adventure races, but placed third at the 400km Munga Trail 2017.

Here’s what she has to say:

Merrell Adventure Addicts, Tatum Prins, trekking, trekking tips, adventure racing

Tatum Prins, trekking and trail running queen! Expedition Africa 2016. Photo: Peter Kirk

The trekking appeal

One of my stand-out trekking moments happened at XPD 2010 in the great Australian outback. Our estimated 19 hours of trekking turned into 35 hours. We ran out of food and water, and at some points were quite delirious from a lack of the basics and severe sleep monsters. It was one hell of a trekking leg!

Despite the challenge, I find the biggest appeal of trekking is that all it requires, quite simply, is you.

There’s no equipment like a boat or bike that you have to propel forward, and the only thing you have to work with is yourself. Trekking allows you to get into incredible places, take on big mountain ranges, and reach high peaks with that 360 degree view we all long to see.

Trekking takes you to places that most people have never been too, and on many occasions you feel like you are the only person to have ever been there at all.

Adventure racing (AR) used to have big trekking legs that lasted up to 24 hours. In more recent years, the AR trekking legs have become much shorter and therefore a lot quicker. But despite the distance, trekking always gives you the time to really get into a zone. And all you have to do is place one foot in front of the other.

Merrell Adventure Addicts, Graham Bird, trekking, trekking tips, adventure racing

Merrell leader Graham Bird on a trekking leg at the Costa Rica Adventure Racing World Championship 2013. Photo: Nacho Cembelin

Trek well to be successful

A large portion of time in AR is predominantly trekking. If you’re able to move quickly as a team you will make up time, but this depends on the route you choose and the terrain you’re trekking on.

With the vast array of terrains in our country, South African novices should prepare accordingly. It all comes down to where you’re racing, so you have to do some homework on the area well in advance. It helps to have an idea of what you’ll be taking on, not just to make sure you have the correct gear, but to be mentally prepared for the challenge too.

Taking on trails in the Western Cape? Think fynbos, with lots of overgrown and scratchy plants. You definitely want to be wearing long pants!

Heading to the Transkei?  Expect cattle tracks and coast lines. Drakensberg or Cederberg area? Get ready for big mountains and technical terrain.

If you have a strong running team and there is a 40km trek on the beach or easy hiking trail, then it’s a great opportunity to push the pace.

If the trekking leg is long and hard, the best thing to do is move steadily and consistently.

In many races, success comes down to best technical team. You can lose a lot of time if your trekking leg goes through a kloof and your whole team is not that technically savvy. There are so many variables that play a role, and navigation is critical in all cases.

Merrell Adventure Addicts, Graham Bird, trekking, trekking tips, adventure racing, ARWS 2013

The start of many, many miles for Merrell. Adventure Racing World Championship 2013. Photo: Andreas Strandh

Preparation

If you’re balancing a day job with AR dreams, how do you even begin to prepare for that kind of distance on your feet?

You can never train the distance that you’ll be doing in an adventure race or a long trail run like The Munga Trail. And you also have to find the time to ride and paddle, so you’re taking on a lot.

I think the first thing you have to do is work out how many realistic hours you have to train in one week. From there, break it down and set aside time for each discipline, focusing on the one that you’re weakest in.

For me, running takes it out of me a lot more than riding does, and for less time. A three hour ride equates to a 1.5 hour run. You definitely want to be able to add a few long runs in your training programme. It will be beneficial to do 6-8 hours at one go, but it doesn’t mean you have to do that every week. You would need to build up to spending that amount of time on your feet.

Living in Cape Town, I’ve grown to love our mountains and the privilege of making up some long runs in my back yard. When I head out to my team mates in Kynsna, I experience the same thing. If you’re lucky enough to live near the Drakensberg, then your preparations are well underway!

Merrell Adventure Addicts, Graham Bird, trekking, trekking tips, adventure racing, ARWC 2013

The importance of a trusty headlamp! Graham Bird treks through the night at the ARWC 2013 in Costa Rica. Photo: Andreas Standh

Equipment

Believe it or not, you actually need quite a bit of gear to trek.

Hopefully by the time you’re at the start of the race, you would have have figured out the best pair of shoes for yourself, and trained in them long enough to have worn them in. Merrell have a big range of shoes to choose from. And they’re brilliant for rocky, technical terrain.

Socks make a BIG difference, funny enough! It might seem obvious, but making sure to choose the right ones is something that’s often overlooked.

If they’re not the right length, then disaster can strike when they get wet. Short socks are going to slip down, chafe and cause nasty blisters.

Shorts, tops, and women’s bras specifically, need to be tested well. Make sure these items don’t chafe you.  It’s really important to run in them wet to see where they could potentially chafe. This way, you can take extra care to prevent chafing in that area by putting on anti chafe cream before the race.

Trekking poles are always a win. I use Black Diamond Z poles. They are light and compact and take an enormous amount of weight off when you’re feeling fatigued. I wouldn’t do a big trek leg without them!

Don’t forget your headlamp. Black Diamond also has a great range of running headlamps – the last thing you want is your headlamp to bounce around on your head while you run. Make sure you try it out first.

Choosing the right backpack is essential. It needs to be big enough for all your compulsory equipment, food and water. But it must also carry the weight in the correct area, stay comfortable for long periods of time, and be as light as possible.

Another biggie is a waterproof jacket and base layer, which will be compulsory. You’ll have to do your homework about the areas you’re going to, and then choose something accordingly.

Merrell Adventure Addicts, Graham Bird, trekking, trekking tips, adventure racing, Expedition Africa 2016

(Left to right) Graham Bird, Grant Ross, Tatum Prins, Donovan Sims. Expedition Africa 2016. Photo: Peter Kirk

The mental game of trekking

One of my greatest trekking lessons: If you have only have 10km left, it could still mean another five hours! You’re going to need a strong mindset that’s in it for the long haul.

Trekking often involves long sections of serious bundu bashing . There are times we have literally crawled on the ground under bushes and moved at only 1km an hour.

More: Developing mental strength for endurance sport

Take it in bite size chunks (unless, of course, you’re on a beach section and you can run it). In many cases, the trekking leg is often where you get an irritating niggle somewhere after hours on your feet. If this happens, you’re going to need a strong mind to push through the pain and to keep moving the same pace as the rest of the team.

Happy trails!

Other articles you’ll like

Start adventure racing: a beginners guide

When trail running meets trekking

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