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SA trail-running #strongwomen conquer the mighty X-Berg Challenge

Strongwomen Robyn ‘Bob’ Johnson (28) and Kathryn “Kath-dog’ Fourie (38) took part in an unusual endurance event in March 2021.

X-Berg Challenge was a concept initiated 9 years ago by a bunch of hardcore paragliders who were keen to emulate the wild X-Alps event held annually in Europe.

The basic idea is that paragliders need to ‘hike and fly’ to a series of checkpoints in a specific order to complete the race.

Adding endurance elements

However, when Pierre Carter and the flying crew set up a South African-ised version of the event – the seconders developed a severe case of FOMO and asked organisers to add a running and riding challenge to the mix.

And so, the concept was born – paragliders, runners and mountain bikers set out to all reach the same checkpoints, but via different routes and modalities. And the rivalry between feet, wings and wheels grows stronger every year.

The X-Berg Challenge is not your average stroll in the Drakensberg, though. The Extreme event in which Robyn participated took place over four days and reached the high ‘Berg escarpment. The ‘Mini’ event in which Kath raced happened over two days and one night.

Photo credit: Georgia Carter

Q&A with R & K

Robyn and Kath decided to have a little post-race tea party to compare adventures and provide some advice to up-and-coming X-Bergers.

R: Firstly, what made you decide to enter the X-Berg Challenge? Have you always been a runner? Did you consider entering the cycling discipline?

K: I didn’t consider riding X-Berg because I don’t enjoy marathon riding at all! I decided to do the X-Berg Challenge because my partner, Mark got me amped on the idea while he was training for it in 2020 (that obviously got cancelled due to Covid).

After doing the intro training weekend at the end of 2020 and not dying (close, but no cigar) I sort of knew I could manage the Mini distance in 2021, if my cranky knees didn’t let me down.

K: Why did you think it would be a good idea to run 150km in the mountains by yourself?

R: I have always been an “outdoorsy” person and love spending time in the mountains. I had fallen into a bit of a rut and low point in my life – I felt like I needed a goal and to push my limits.

This seemed like a good way to get fit, get outdoors and spend time with like-minded people while providing a challenge!

K: How did you first hear about the X-Berg Challenge, and what made you want to take part in that specific race?

R: I first heard about it through my colleague, Jon, who is an insane athlete and has now won both the cycling and running events!

At first I thought it was a challenge for crazy people – it seemed so out of reach for a ‘normal’ 5km runner like myself. I really liked the low-key aspect of the challenge – there’s no huge prize money and the field is relatively small. It’s basically just a bunch of friends having fun in the mountains and trying to get through it in one piece!

The ‘mini’ I entered was cancelled in 2020, but the idea had taken hold! When 2021 entries opened, I weighed up two options: do the Mini and have a higher chance of having fun or do the Extreme and face the biggest challenge I could imagine.

I knew from the start that it would test me physically, mentally, and emotionally. At that point in my life, I knew I needed the challenge! I wanted to see what I could do.

R: In terms of percentage effort, how would you divide up the prep versus actual race? What did the prep entail and would you change anything?

K: The prep for me was getting out into the mountains and being on my feet all day over many weekends. You learn so much by being out-and-about, like which way to strap your poles onto your bag so they don’t annoy you, where you get sun burned if you aren’t paying attention, how much happier speckled eggs make you than wine gums… all the tiny things that add up to an efficient and positive day out.

Kath bumping into other runners

So, like 90% effort into prep, 10% effort into the race, but 100% vasbyt in the race. There is zero room for being unprepared out there. The only thing I would change is forcing myself to go and do more uncomfortable overnights and choose some wet weather weekends to train, instead of opting for Netflix and my duvet!

K: I am sure many people want to know how you train for the Extreme event? Can you explain your training for the Extreme?

R: My training involved a lot of low, slow running and hiking. We spent many weekends in the Berg getting time on our feet. On these weekends “training” took a back seat to snack breaks, endless chatter and swims – a decision I don’t regret for a second!

I had carried over some fitness from the panic training prior to 2020’s Mini. But I felt like I pretty much started from scratch after lockdown and one too many slices of banana bread! There was definitely a ramp up closer to race day as the fear overcame the laziness!

Bramble carnage – this trail isn’t for the faint-hearted

K: Aside from prepping for the physical side, did you have a philosophy or goal going into the race?

R: I just wanted to get out and enjoy being 100% present, as cheesy as that sounds. I find mountain missioning to be the closest to not worrying about tomorrow or thinking about yesterday as I can possibly get.

There’s this song by LCD Sound System that I love, and the one lyric is: “There’s always a side door into the dark”, and that’s sort of how I feel about long days in the mountains with a bit of suffering.

You shine light into those dark spots and get to know yourself a lot better. I wanted to finish. I never set out to win, which has never motivated me in life.

K: It seems pretty clear you went into the race to challenge yourself as much as possible. How did it actually go in terms of the distances and elevation? Where did you wind up sleeping?

R: Interestingly, I covered almost exactly the same distance on all three days – 55-60km a day. However, the time it took me to cover that distance varied hugely.

Day 1 had the most elevation gain. It ended with a full ascent of the escarpment and totalled 3240m (that’s 19 trips up the Ponte Towers, or 4 ½ rides up the Table Mountain Cableway!) My total elevation gain was around 7,000m over the three days. I spent night 1 in the open in Lesotho and night 2 in a spacious cave in the little Berg!

R: How did your stats pan out from a distance perspective?

K: I did the Mini. In theory that should have been +/-75km. We left at 7am on Saturday and I got back into the race village at about 11am the next day. I was on my feet for 16 hours on Saturday, covering roughly 57km of mountain terrain and climbing 1993m in elevation. I covered 22km on Sunday morning.

I slept in Wonder Valley Cave – thankfully with my partner, Mark. I was supposed to be there alone, but his plans changed due to the wind not playing ball for flying and we missioned together for part of the race.

R: What was the hardest moment for you in the race physically? And mentally?

K: I was tired come 6pm. My legs were shredded from brambles. I was also hungry but couldn’t eat – all the usual fatigue stuff. We had about 12km to go to the cave… it turned into the longest 12km and 5 hours of my life with storms, thick mist, uncontrollable shivering, hallucination, and serious doubt about what to do to stay safe. We got into the cave at 10:58pm, 2 minutes before cut-off.

K: What were the lowlights and highlights for you?

R: On day 1, it was very hot while I was heading down the Valley of Pools. I came to a beautiful pool in the stream and my first thought was “I’d love a swim!” This was quickly overtaken by another thought – “it’s a pity that you’re racing.” It was at this point that I realised that we were all there for one of two reasons – to win it or to have fun (or both!).

There was absolutely no point in achieving neither, and I clearly wasn’t there to win it! Jumping in that stream set the tone for the rest of my time in the mountains. Other highlights included stopping to watch the sunrises, taking photos of the views, chatting to the local kids and catching up with amazing friends and seconds at the resupply points.

I hit quite a low on the first day when I finally found myself completely alone for the first time, as night, rain and mist descended simultaneously.

It was an incredibly daunting feeling, halfway up a steep pass and knowing that there was no tapping out at this point! I didn’t really have an option but to keep plodding uphill into the scary unknown and the cold, wet night. Luckily, by the end of the race, that “take it as it comes” mentality was well practised!

R: What stood out for you as a highlight?

K: I remember feeling seriously elated on day 2 when I could still actually run in the Sappi plantations on the roads when it became possible to balega! It was such a good feeling to know my body had seen me through the whole thing. Maybe I was also just happy that I was almost done!

K: The race really seems to have a weird mind-shift experience for many people. Do you feel it’s had an impact on you more broadly?

R: It’s an overused term, but the whole experience has truly been life-changing! I have made so many amazing friends, had unbelievable amounts of fun and gained a huge appreciation for the stunning mountains that are actually right in our backyard.

It was incredible to see that my body could cope with this and it’s opened my eyes and imagination for plenty of new adventures.

R: Speaking of what your body can cope with, what did you eat?! Any tips for the rest of us?

K: I thought I was being clever by packing a lot of the same stuff: sachets of nut butter, Fry’s veggie burgers in English Muffins, date balls and a few sweets. Bearing in mind I don’t eat bread much normally, it was a poor choice to pack 6 English Muffins! I wound up just eating the veggie burger patties and stuffing the bread back in my bag as it wouldn’t go down! I would say test out as many different foods on training weekends as possible.

R: Across all disciplines in your event, how many women were there vs men? Did you enjoy the fact that the race doesn’t even look at gender?

K: There were 14 men and 7 women, but what was interesting is that purely in the running there were only 3 guys but 5 women.

I like the fact that gender doesn’t come into it in terms of placings. I also think it’s not so much gender that determines the race results but how hard you’ve trained against your specific weaknesses and with your own gear.

K: Speaking of being a #strongwoman, did anything occur that made you feel uneasy or vulnerable?

R: On night 2, I descended in the dark off a bumpy ridge to tag a turn point in a forested area. Ten metre before my goal, I looked up to find myself head-to-head with another torch, just on the other side of the turn point!

I had to make a lot of decisions in a very short space of time, and didn’t want to call out and reveal that I was a lone woman. In the end, I decided that mock confidence was the way to go – I marched towards the light, into the turn point and then turned on my heels and fled as fast as my lungs and legs would let me! I never found out who the torch belonged to (most likely a curious herdsman), but it really highlighted that if things went wrong, I was on my own up there!

R: What about you? How has finishing the race changed your mindset?

K: In leaps and bounds! I would love to do more stuff like this, even without the race element. It is unbelievably awakening.

No amount of therapy sessions could progress you as far as training and doing an X-Berg Challenge can take you!

This is literally the first time I have finished a race; I lie, I hadn’t even finished it yet – I remember it was like 5km to go and I was already thinking, “I can’t wait for next year!”

K: What are your plans for the rest of 2021 adventure wise, and do you see an X-Berg Extreme 2022 on the horizon?

R: 2021 is looking to be a pretty exciting one for me! I’ve resigned from my job to give myself some time to really live, explore and take on any opportunities that come my way. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to this chapter than X-Berg and there is very little that could keep me away in 2022!

Bob & Kath-dog’s Top Tips For The X-Berg Challenge

  1. Get into the mountains – any mountains. The best prep is to expose yourself to the weather, vegetation and your bodies ups and downs, because knowledge of what to expect is key.
  2. Start slowly to build a base! Give yourself at least 6 months to build up a solid base. Start with 10km of fast hiking, then 12, then 15, then 20, then overnight and do 30 in total – just keep building up until you can do +/-35km and get up and do it again the next day with not too much stiffness.
  3. Practice navigation using both a GPS and your phone with ViewRanger or similar. You lose heaps of time if you stray off course!
  4. Go to the training weekends offered by the X-Berg organisers. Not only are they super fun but you learn so much talking to the old dogs who have done it many times.
  5. If you can recce the route in chunks, do it.
  6. Use Google Maps or Base Camp to analyse the route closely to see if you can create better options to tag turn points.
  7. Do not underestimate the usefulness of good kit: A proper running hydration pack, good raincoat, trekking poles, gaiters, lightweight hat, headlamp, soft flasks.
  8. Start a checklist of all the stuff you need in your bag and ultimately, closer to race time, try and train with all of it in your bag.
  9. Food is so important, but you actually need to put yourself into exhaustion states in training and see what your body wants and what it will accept. This will really save you come race day (Speckled Eggs are always the answer!)

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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