Stage 1 of the Cape Winter Trail Series: it gets real

I’ve done enough Staff Challenges by now to know that eventually, you’re going to get sick. It might be day one, or a month in or even three; it might knock you out of action for a few days or a whole week, but somewhere in those twelve weeks or three months or 100 days, you are going to get sick. And that’s a good thing.

Sunday was stage one of the Cape Winter Trail Series: a 15km run up into the mountains between Paul Cluver Wine Estate in Grabouw. According to the website the maximum elevation is about 400; the first 5km are pretty flat and once you hit the mountain you’re only up there for 6km, so it’s downhill for a long way too.

I’ve become quite good at breaking myself. Over the past few months I’ve had to get used to busting a few barriers, mental and physical. These days I don’t really train to run races. I train by running races, and I care about nothing but time. Running 10km at 5am in the rain, at 5min/km? 47 minutes, let’s do it, sore calves and all. Another 10 up dusty vineyards on a Sunday? Anything under 50, forget the knee, let’s go.

This is what the Staff Challenge does to a person. It makes you want to push yourself, hurt yourself for the sake of some far-off re-assessment, some photo shoot somewhere. It makes you crazy. Luckily, I got sick.

Last week I didn’t train much. I started feeling a bit shit the week before, I think, and it rolled over one day at a time until I was a mess of snot and sore joints, sneezing the place down and aching everywhere. Man flu is real. And it got me good. Chris said to stay away from the assault bike, to stay in bed instead of recovering by running, and to skip the strength work altogether.

The mountain was less forgiving. Groenlandberg is a nature reserve that stretches between Grabouw and Elgin, a mountain bank so steep you can see its waterfalls all the way from the national highway. If you’ve ever stopped for coffee at Peregrine, it’s there on the horizon to the left, sinister like some dark and distant road to Mordor.

If you look at Strava it’ll say the race was 13km and I did it in an hour and 23 minutes. That is misleading. Other things that are misleading: the website’s grading system, and the promises they make before they try to kill you. I’ve been wearing a Garmin Fenix 3 HR on my arm for a few weeks, and it says I ran 14.9km in an hour and 56 minutes. The difference between those two times is almost 2km, or 33 minutes. Turns out some GPS systems aren’t great at working out what’s happening when you’re going straight up into the sky.

The Paul Cluver stage of the Cape Winter Trail Series is graded as Green 4B. In trail running code this means moderately challenging terrain, with a mix of technical and non-technical terrain, mostly on established trails and tracks that may or may not have extended sections regarded as being off-trail. What they don’t tell you is that after the first four or five kilometres of easygoing single-track you’re faced with a rough path that points directly up a wall. By the time you got to the top you’ve gained 750m of elevation and lost your entire sense of humour, and coming home is an exercise in not trying to break an ankle while sliding downwards on your bum.

At the starting line I was determined to go under 80 minutes, then the mountain came out of nowhere and hit me like a tonne of ancient granite and I was really just looking to survive.

Man flu with a month to go is, I think, ideal. It forced me to stop pushing myself so hard for a full week, to hear the constant cough and exploding sneezes and dripping tap just behind my nose, and to listen carefully for the moment when all of that became a wheeze around my heart. And it made me stop worrying about the time on my wrist and pay attention to the beating in my chest.

The Groenlandberg is exactly the kind of mountain I’ve been expecting: steep, isolated, vicious. A cold-hearted killer. In the end I went just fast enough to feel I was getting somewhere without busting a lung, and slow enough to enjoy the process: the view, the clean air, finding a rhythm and just running through a beautiful mountain.

I’m pretty happy with my time, but happier that I didn’t go crazy, and happiest that I didn’t give myself bronchitis and that a day later I don’t have any pain of any kind anywhere. Still alive, still on track. That, with four weeks to go, is worth more than any extra 33 minutes.

Race Fit is an endurance-sports performance focused gym in Claremont, Cape Town. Chris Lippstreu, with a master’s in Sports Science, aims to to improve performance through strength training with the use of kettle bells, Olympic lifting and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Find out more at

The Spur Winter Trail Series is organised by Wildrunner, one of the premier trail running organisers in South Africa, who have run over 200 trail running events across the country. Other events organised by Wildrunner include the Mountain Challenge Series, Wildrun and Sanlam Cape Town Marathon Peace Trail Runs. For more info on Wildrunner events, visit