Doing Your First Adventure Race The Week Before Comrades? I Blame Phuti

[Adventure Race #1 / 2 June 2018]

Rule #1 of Comrades is “Don’t try anything new on race day.” No one says anything about the week before Comrades but they probably should. I found myself in a dilemma. The ultra-runner’s version of Catch-22: It would be really stupid to do your first adventure race the week before Comrades; but running Comrades is really stupid in the first place.

I was all set for my 9th Comrades. I wasn’t planning to conclude my Comrades taper with my first adventure race. I was planning to be a sensible ultra marathon runner. That’s the honest truth! Life was simple until Phuti got involved.

The Invitation

To establish Phuti’s culpability in this saga, we’ll need to go back to the middle of May when I received a last-minute invite to the Hollard JURA Pre-Run from Kelly Fraser, the race’s PR Head. She advertised it as, “Around 6km, super chilled take-a-selfie pace. Not just a trail run, but something with more Johannesburg urban flair.”

I had seen the event advertising but knew very little else, so I checked out the Jozi Adventure web site and learned that JURA is an acronym for “Jozi Urban Run Adventure”. It looked like a lot fun but six “super-chilled take-a-selfie” kilometres were too few to entice this Comrades runner – hardly worth getting out of bed for. However, there was the promise of free food (both breakfast and lunch) and this clinched the deal.

The Breakfast

The race is sponsored by Hollard and they host the pre-run formalities at their Head Office in Parktown. I did my pre-run warm up by drinking several cups of coffee and tucked into a rich breakfast (there’s nothing my stomach can’t handle when it’s only facing 6km).

About Hollard

With over 7 million policy holders and an insurance policy book exceeding R16 billion in annual premiums, Hollard is the largest privately-owned insurance company in South Africa. Hollard has regularly featured in the top 10 list of the best South African companies to work for. They sponsor the JURA, JUMA (the softer mountain bike version) as well as the Dare Devil Run (where you get to run around busy city streets wearing nothing but a purple Speedo in aid of cancer detection and prevention).

After squeezing in one last muffin, it was time to go and the entourage piled into the waiting mini busses and headed to Emmarentia Dam. Those in running kit were outnumbered by photographers, sponsors and a full medical support crew. As I gradually got to know my fellow athletes, I realised that I was in the company of some authentic journalists and social media influencers* which made for interesting conversation.

* I don’t believe I fall into either category – if I had to be labelled it would be as an, “under the influencer whilst on social media” (my prowess with prose on the internet after a few post-marathon beers is unrivalled).

Six Super-Chilled Take-A-Selfie Kilometres

The pre-run was really interesting: Race Director Russell Willis gave us running commentary (quite literally) of route highlights and everything that goes into organising the event. It certainly gave me an appreciation of the amount of planning, organisation and costs involved to put on an event of this scale.

As part of the preparations they clean the entire area of litter, repair broken structures and generally give this stretch of Johannesburg a very early spring clean. On top of this, they even help to improve the overall water quality with “Bokashi Balls” – these are organic dumplings made of bran, molasses and a cocktail of beneficial endemic bacteria. Each ball purifies about 1000 litres of water and they drop 1000s of these balls at various points along the water system. If you’re wondering why the Braamfontein Spruit looks (and smells) its best in June, you can thank the Jura team.

As advertised, the pre-run was indeed “super-chilled” (and so were our feet!) – as it was essentially a media promo, there were frequent stops to receive detailed route explanations, wait for stragglers to catch-up and allow the photographers to get into position for the perfect promotional shot.

As this was just the pre-run to market the event and there were still over two weeks before the actual Jura, only a few of the race-day obstacles were up – mainly the wooden structures. The one that provided the most entertainment was the very aptly titled “Nutcracker”. Ladies tend to get across a lot faster than the men. Not only do they have a smoother, unimpeded ride, they also don’t need to worry about splinters causing a puncture (I was in shorts so was very careful not to get a papsak!).

On race day there is a full medical and rescue team on hand in case there are any causalities. When I was chatting to the race director Russell he mentioned that in the first year there were over 40 people with serious injuries but this has dropped to one or two minor scratches in subsequent years. I was curious as to why this was – Russell was not sure. I can only assume that Darwinian natural selection is at play and the clumsy and uncoordinated have slowly been weeded out of the event.

All in all, it was a very good morning rounded off by a great lunch on Hollard’s premises. I was asked whether I would be coming through for the event on 2 June. Being the sensible tapering runner that I am, I politely declined with the obvious excuse that, “Unfortunately I don’t want to take any risks the week before Comrades.”

Phuti Plants The Seed

I was still being sensible when I posted a few of the pre-race photos onto Twitter – and this is where Phuti comes in. Her seemingly innocuous reply to my Tweet, “These are the kind of things that I will be doing after Comrades.” was the gentle nudge that disturbed the delicate balance in my prefrontal cortex. I doubt she intended for her comment to plant a festering seed in my mind but it did.

Now the other thing you should know about many Comrades runners is that they love to finish Comrades and they love to talk about Comrades – but it’s only the sadists, masochists and psychotically challenged who actually love running the damn thing.

The week before Comrades you are a bundle of nerves – violently oscillating between excitement and dread. Many Comrades runners secretly hope for a valid excuse to avoid 12 hours of pain on the second Sunday in June. I won’t deny some part of me thought that if I broke an ankle or fell on my head at the Jura I would be able to escape my annual bout of anguish and mental torture.

My brain is full of compost which provides incredibly fertile ground for inexplicable schemes to bloom. And Phuti’s seed that rapidly germinated and beanstalked was, “Why wait until after Comrades?”. There may be a myriad of deep-rooted subconscious psychological reasons for doing ones first adventure race the week before Comrades but it’s simpler to just blame Phuti – thanks Phuti!

The Mentality Of The Average Comrades Runner

When it comes to tapering for Comrades, I normally go cold turkey but this year I was trying to be more diligent to prevent my muscles from going into atrophy. I figured I wanted to run about 18-20km to round off my Comrades training. The Jura has 6 and 12km options. In 2006, Hollard introduced an innovative “pay as you drive” insurance product where your premium is determined by your driving distance. Naturally, I wanted to double my risk and therefore went for the 12km option – but this still left me 6km short.

I have an old school friend, David, who lives three kilometres away the start (Marks Park in Emmarentia) so, with a 3km warm-up and warm-down, he was the logical choice to join me on this adventure.

Some people will tell you that it’s very easy to know if someone has run Comrades – because they’ll tell you. This is a terrible stereotype. Many of us are far too modest to go around bragging about running the greatest ultra marathon on the planet – we use more subtle methods to show off our accomplishments like body language (and the body language of choice is normally a puffed-up chest inside a Comrades race shirt or a big head inside a Comrades cap).

This made the choice of attire for my first adventure race very easy – the only complication was which Comrades shirt to wear. I eventually decided on the understated luminous orange 2015 edition but (not wanting to rub it in the faces of the recreational runners) went for a neutral cap.

The Jura

To prevent congestion on the route, there are batch starts and we’d been slotted into Batch H for an 08h40 start – perfect for a bit of lie-in and also provided the sun with enough time to take the chill out of the winter air. By the time we arrived at the start after our 3km jog, we had both removed our long tops.

David and I watched a few batches set off with a sack race before disappearing into the Johannesburg wilderness. A couple of announcers, cheer leaders and dancers (amateur and professional) made for a vibey and entertaining atmosphere at the start.

Soon enough it was our turn and we lined up at the back of our batch. My friend David is a man of integrity and religion, he’s soft-spoken and mild-mannered – but when that gun fires the red mist comes down and his competitive side brutally erupts. David showed Batch H his immaculate skills in the sack – powering to the front and demolishing all those who got in his way. If I was going to get injured during the Jura I didn’t want it to be at the first challenge so I was more dainty in my approach – but I did make a mental note that David would be a good shopping companion for future Black Friday sales.

The race is organised in partnership with Joburg City Parks and the entire course is urban trail along the Braamfontein Spruit. If you want to see the natural beauty of Johannesburg (and no, that’s not an oxymoron!) this is the best way to do it.

We were lucky with a beautiful, still, sunny Joburg winter’s day which made running conditions ideal – although the shady bits still showed how cold it was overnight with large patches of frost.

We successfully negotiated our first few obstacles and then made our way over Emmarentia Dam. This special Candoc bridge gives you the opportunity to walk (or run) on water. It’s sways and wobbles around as you cross but you would have to be spectacularly uncoordinated to fall in the dam. However, there is always that one guy – the guy who is the reason coffee cups have “Contents May Be Hot” warning labels and, after taking a plunge one year, the reason why you’ve got a large team of life savers on duty in case anyone else goes for a morning swim.

Pamela (right) and her son (left) [yes, that was a weak Baywatch pun] looked particularly keen to give someone mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. David and I are both happily married men so we made sure we stuck to the middle. If you do fall in, there is no chance you’ll be able to swim to safety and escape Pam’s clutches as they even have powerboats on hand to chase you down.

From there it’s through the canoe club, over a slightly submerged wooden bridge and down the drain.

There are quite a few inflatable obstacles and this one proved to be very entertaining. They make sure you hit the wall early on in the race – but at this wall you have to get the right amount of momentum, traction and leverage to launch yourself over the top. The less athletic used teamwork to get over whilst others gave up and walked around the obstacle after four or five failed attempts.

A natural highlight of the course is the reed tunnel which is especially cut through a dense reed bank for the race.

After this you experience Joburg’s urban forest and the obstacles here are mainly provided by mother nature in the form of fallen logs, tree stumps and river crossings. As you can see from the picture below, they also keep us going with the promise of beer!

Shortly thereafter comes the 6/12km split but just beforehand there is the chance to rehydrate and stock up on calories at the Anatomic Support Table. There are several support tables on route so you won’t go thirsty or hungry in the veld. The only thing missing is beer – I misunderstood the advertising and sadly realised we would have to get all the way to the end before enjoying a beer.

Fully satiated, we continued on our way. The next section is through the Parkview Golf Course – and the Jozi Adventures team make sure that they throw in a few extra water hazards for their participants.

Having done the pre-run, I knew what to expect. You can hop over rocks for the first few river crossings but at some stage you’ll need to take the plunge and fully immerse yourself in the experience. I realised that in most races participants get cold feet before the race (at Comrades it’s more like frozen feet) – but at the Jura you will definitely get cold feet during the race!

Speaking of feet, I was grateful for an opportunity to rest mine for a short while as I crossed the monkey bars.

The Tale of Fritz & Gertrud

This couple in front of us (who I will call Fritz and Gertrud for the purposes of the story) were still maintaining dry shoes at this stage. Unfortunately, this is the only photo I have of them together – I would have taken more had I known the human drama that was about to unfold.

All was good at the above crossing but the next one was a little trickier. Fritz (who has longer legs and more spring in his step) went first and bounded up the bank but Gertrud found herself between a rock and wet landing. Stuck on a rock, halfway across the river, she pleaded for help and stretched out her hand. Fritz stood halfway up the bank and ignored his damsel in distress. The growing bottleneck of runners waiting to cross the river watched the ensuing impasse.

A vigorous midstream debate failed to break the standoff. I could not understand what they were saying to each other (I think they were speaking German but it could just be that they were using guttural swear words I’m not familiar with). Eventually Fritz conceded with a few steps towards his wife and half-heartedly stuck out his hand.

We passed them a short while later and it looked like there was still plenty of heated discussion going on. There is a figure of eight loop a bit later on the route as you run under, around and then back over the obstacle below. You can just make Fritz out waiting patiently for his wife in the photo (we overhead him telling the marshal that, “I’m chust vaiting for mein vife to choin me.”).

I am not sure how long he waited but it looked like Gertrud never reappeared – I assume she was fed-up and had turned around. Fritz was now flying solo and stormed past us a short while later. The last we saw of him was at the tyre obstacle before he disappeared into the distance.

I assume that husband and wife were reunited at the finish and hope their post-race counselling sessions are going well.

Back To The Trails

While we were trying to keep up with Fritz and Gertrud’s soap opera, we got to enjoy some really nice trail running though the green belt interspersed by the occasional obstacle. For the 6km runners who want to know what they miss out on, the highlights package is below.

Another highlight is running in the lowlight through underground tunnels and storm water drains. Running in costume is encouraged at the Jura – in fact there is R25,000 on offer for various best dressed team prizes. I didn’t see anyone in a clown outfit but next year I think I will add to the atmosphere by lurking in the drainage system dressed up in a Pennywise outfit!

Some examples of the dress-up are below – for those worried about the fate of the bees, I did manage to warn about them about the approaching SWAT team.

During the first half of the race David still had the red mist and was impatiently tolerating my photo stops but he seemed to be much happier with the breaks as we neared the end. We now rejoined the 6km course and tackled some more inflatables – we both have young daughters and with that comes significant “jumping castle” experience, so we bounced over these obstacles with ease.

Things were pretty social at this stage as we headed back to Mark’s Park.

As adventure races go, the Jura is very accessible and is more fun than scary. I was impressed to see that there was even a blind runner who was competing in the 6km!

Most people take a very relaxed approach to the event and there were also a lot of families participating. This poor guy might have been regretting his decision but the horseyride was probably the highlight of his daughter’s race. Dad was going along at a decent trot and, although he laughed when I passed and told his daughter that if “she pulls on his ears he’ll run faster”, I could see the look of angst in his eyes.

We were almost home as a final beer advert enticed us towards the finish line.

The final section is jam packed with obstacles, including a giant scaffolding structure and squeezing between some massive gonads.

All good things must come to end and at the Jura it’s one last slide to cross the finish line.

The Beer

There is a nice relaxed atmosphere at the finish area with plenty of food stalls. After the obligatory medal shot, we headed straight to the Mad Giant Beer stand – and enjoyed a couple of their lagers.

Aside: Mad What?

Take a look at the Mad Giant logo from a distance and/or angle. What do you see?  To me it looks like “Mad [and a very rude four-letter word that also ends in ‘nt’]”.

I Tweeted them to ask whether deliberate or a graphic design faux pas but have not received a reply.

My view: there are some very naughty graphic designers out there who need to wash their mouths out with something stronger than beer!

All that was left was the gentle cool down run back to David’s home in Greenside – we ran, we rang (the doorbell) and we waited.

Now David is a successful businessman and an acknowledged expert in the property industry. He is the founder of Chorus Letting (a leading residential property agency) and has recently been on the talk show circuit to launch his book, “The Expert Landlord”. The book covers topics like how to maximise the return on your rental property, how to find the right tenants, how to navigate the rental law quagmire and how to become a professional landlord. The only topic he does not cover is how to gain access to your property when you don’t have keys and your wife has taken the kids “art jamming”.

Once we ascertained that their masterpieces would still take some time to complete, we cut our losses and did an extra warm down trot to the Doppio Zero around the corner and enjoyed a couple of cappuccinos while we waited for the paint to dry.

It did provide time to reflect on the Jura: David and I both had a great time and will definitely be back next year. The good news for my Comrades medal count (and bad news for my legs) was that I didn’t manage to get injured and therefore had to join 20,000 other idiots at the Comrades start line the following Sunday.

Phuti’s Postscript

As for Phuti, she got her 4th Comrades finish and smashed a sub-10 hour personal best. When I checked in with her she was still resting on her Comrades laurels but was looking at entering a couple of trail runs as well as the Mandela Marathon in August (a lovely but tough run from Pietermaritzburg to the Nelson Mandela capture site in Howick).

Full Disclosure: I received two free entry tickets for the Jura but paid for the beer.

Signing out from the Jura. I made it to Pietermaritzburg – look out for the next report from my ninth Comrades Marathon.

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