When the month of March rolls around each year, it is time for one of the most popular events on the Western Cape's trail running calendar – the AfricanX Trail Run. Spread over 90km of tracks and flowing trails, and broken into three back-to-back stages, it is a proper test of both speed and endurance. But more significantly, it is a team race, and that's what I'm going to talk about here.
AfricanX presents a course that is tempting to a variety of runners due to both its distance and its choice of terrain. While there are no massive mountain ascents, there are plenty of changes of gradient and twists and turns, steep ramps and rough trails for seasoned trail runners to enjoy. For the road runner there are flat sections, flowing single tracks and fast downhill dashes where a high top speed will be an valuable asset. Day 2 is the hardest, while day 3 is the shortest and feels like a mad dash. For the elite teams, the course is nearly 100% runable.
Choosing a partner
The default choice is somebody who is well-matched for pace, or even somebody a little quicker than you if you want to perform to your very best. But the ideal choice of partner is most probably somebody who you will enjoy running with and who will come to the event with the same goal in mind, and that goal need not be ultimate performance. There are lot's of ways to enjoy three days of trail racing with like-minded people in a beautiful setting, and if all you care about is the result, then you are probably missing the point! The critical thing is that you have the same end in mind and that neither of you feels like the other isn't on the same page.
A word of caution: be careful that you don't pressure yourself into doing something silly. If you go down ill before the race, you should seek medical advice before participating. While some illnesses are not too serious, racing with or just after flu (for example) can do serious damage to your heart. I mention this because nobody wants to let their friend down, but understand that you could be gambling with your health – or even your life. Give your partner the heads up if you get sick, so at least you can find a substitute.
In any multi-day event, recovery is just as important as speed. If at all possible, do back to back training runs with your race partner, and proiritise frequency of running, even if you can't always fit in a long run. Your body learns from your taining, and if you can get into a habit of running everyday, even if only for the period leading up to the race, you'll most probably find that your recovery will be excellent between the stages. You're also going to want to see if there's a difference between how you and your partner respond to climbs, descents, distance and heat, so try to incoporate a good mix of those, especially if you are introducing a road runner to the trail. If you are a road runner, you might have some tips to get more speed out of your trail running friend who might be accustomed to a slower pace.
Training is the time to work out your fuel and fluid intake strategy, and learn what works for each of you. This can be crucial because if you are having a rough day, you need your partner to notice that you are struggling and know how to get you going again. Nobody is able to gaurantee a good day everyday, and when you rely not only on your own performance but also that of your partner, there is twice the likelihood of a problem that will slow you down. Whether performance is your goal, or conquering the distance, or companionship, your experience will be much more fun if you can both avoid a physical breakdown. Practical advice: work out how many calories you need per hour, what product you'll use to deliver those calories, and at what frequency. And make sure you know your partner's plan too. If you have no idea how much you need, I'd suggest about 3 kCal per kg of body weight per hour as a starting point (eg. 200kCal/hr if you weigh 67kg). You might be burning three or more times that in reality, but as with fluid intake, you do not need to replace every calorie on the run – you'll do that when you eat a meal and recover. You just need to keep your blood sugar at a sensible level, while your body draws on stored fat (and some carbs) for most of your energy. If you eat low-carb and are “fat adapted”, you might get by with less calories.
An ideal pacing and nutrition strategy will have you feeling optimistic and energetic right to the end, but if you slip into a “sugar low”, you'll probably experience a loss of motivation and a strong desire to quit, in which case a smiley and upbeat race partner might just tip you over the edge! Generally the things that are going to lead to trouble are either pushing too hard too early, or letting your fuel intake lapse. You're going to need to pay attention to each other so that neither of you get's into that sort of trouble, and that involves knowing each other's limits. If you have a HR monitor, you have a very useful tool for objectively gauging your effort level, but if not, just listen to your body and leave a little in reserve for the next day.
At the end of each stage, you need to switch over to recovery mode, and the sooner you get some food in you and top your fluids up, the sooner your body will be ready to go again. Try not to get stressed out about all the technical things like electrolytes and proteins, just make sure that you get a healthy and digestible meal in you and that you are comfortably hydrated (but not over-hydrated) before you go to bed.
When things start going wrong, it usually affects your state of mind, which in turn diminishes your performance even further. If you've ever been dropped by a competitor in the middle of a race, you'll know just how hard it is to stay motivated as they get further and further away. But, as often as not in trail running, this is just temporary. If you stay positive and stick to your plan, you will often find your second wind later while others might be struggling. Sticking to the plan is much easier when you are running in a team, since as an individual, one doesn't tend to think or act rationally when it's not going well. The right words of encouragement, a few sips of energy drink and a shift in gear are often all it takes to slowly bring the engine up to full power again. Don't be afraid to tell your partner that you are struggling – rather deal with your problem early on and adjust your pace so that you can ensure a strong finish.
If despite your best efforts one of you does have the dreaded “bonk”, there is no good getting yourself in a fit about the time and position you are losing, because that isn't fun. Slow down, top up the fuel, and keep positive, and you should start to feel the body coming right. You're ultimately going to take home selected memories from the race, and those memories will be largely based on a combination of the most intense moment, and how the experience ended (the “peak-end” rule). If you can pick yourselves up out of a really bad time, you will have something worth remembering.
Above all, running a team event means that you have somebody with whom to share all the highs and lows of the experience, and over 90km, there will be plenty of those. Don't take it too seriously – it's just a run after all – and be sure to bring your sense of humour!