PUFfeR 2018 – The (in)experiences of a novice.

The PUFfeR (Peninsula Ultra Fun Run) is an 80km (approximately, depending on how well you know the route and the shortcuts) part road, part trail run hosted by Fish Hoek Athletics Club, which starts at Cape Point and finishes in Sea Point taking runners along the mountain range of the Cape Peninsula. 2018 is the 23rd year of this event, started in 1995 by a Belgian dude called Jean-Paul van Belle along with 17 other runners, this year they took 180 entrants.

The slogan “Running in heaven feeling like hell” is the perfect description of this race!

The route starts at roughly 5.30am (actually, as soon as everybody’s off the buses) in the dark and goes through the Cape Point Nature Reserve for about 13km to the reserve gate at checkpoint and refreshment stop 1, left onto Plateau Rd to Red Hill, the first biggish climb (half of the John Korasie route, backwards). On Red Hill before the descent into Simons town the rout takes a left at Pinehaven for a few km’s down a scenic tar road to the Waterworks at Lewis Grey Dam, there the runners hit the first trail section, over Black Hill and down into Fish Hoek for some more tar; up Ou Kaapse Road past Noordhoek Manor the route turns off onto the old Wagon Trail up another big climb and over into the Silvermine reserve, another climb on some tar before turning off onto Level 5 gravel road which runs along the mountain over the Tokai forests and around to the Vlakenburg trail and down a knee-busting descent to Constantia Nek. From here the race really starts with a massive climb from the Nek up past Castle (Camel) Rock to Maclears Beacon, highest point on the range, along the top of Table Mountain and down the long, steep Platteklip Gorge, onto Tafelberg road, past Kloof Nek and up towards Signal Hill where runners encounter the incredibly awesome West Coast AC support station (details about that later), down the hill towards Sea Point and to the finish at Hamilton’s Rugby Club.

West Coast: This year West Coast AC had 13 entries to the race,  2 ladies – Cathy & Jenny, both of whom unfortunately pulled out early due to injury. And 11 blokes, 10 of whom were at the start. Carl pulled out the day before due to the flu. The starters were Gary, Guy, David, Charl, Rob, Bruce, Malcolm, Marius, Izak, and myself, Justin. I was unfortunately the only one who did not finish, the other 9 all went on to collect their medals. Super strong team we had this year, well done to all the guys who finished. It was a hell of a tough day out on the mountains.

Some West Coasters before the race (click to enlarge):

My failure: So as you read above, I did not finish. I made it as far as Constantia Nek, 56km into the race, and missed the 1.40pm cut off by 10 minutes. I’m quite certain I was the only runner to be cut off at this vital point because the guy I was running with from early in the race, Laurence and myself were the last to make it through the previous cut off at Silvermine meaning from that point we were dead last, jokingly dismissing all the marshals we passed going forward, much to their obvious relief. He took off ahead of me at Vlakenberg and made the cut off by seconds, I couldn’t keep up down that steep rocky decline, especially in road shoes, making me the only runner in the field to be cut off at this most important cut off point. To be honest, I was relieved because by this stage, after 56km, I was broken. Looking ahead from the top of the mountain I was standing on at the mountain I’d have to climb on the other side of the Nek the thought of pushing my fat ass on up that mountain to Maclears Beacon and down Platteklip on legs that were exhausted, knees aching and feet burning was daunting to say the least, I was secretly quite ok with not going any further despite my usual hearty determination telling me to keep going and not give up. It was an uncomfortable inner battle of decisions between my head and my heart. But, my head had won, I’d already given up. I sat down for 2 minutes to enjoy the view, then hobbled off down to my own finish, both hating myself for now being a deliberate quitter, and also incredibly sad at the knowledge that I’d screwed this up and would be missing out on that beautiful medal that my friends would all be wearing later that day.

You see, I completely underestimated this race. Having done the 90km Comrades Marathon two months earlier I thought the (mediocre) training I’d done for Comrades with a few training runs in the mountains prior to Puffer would be more than enough, I mean, it’s “only” 80km, right? I thought I could take it easy from the start and keep a steady run-walk strategy and make it comfortably. Well I should have known when I was one of the last out of the Cape Point reserve gate at about 13km that I already had this theory wrong, but I didn’t click yet, even as the back-markers passed me heading towards Red Hill, I thought I was ok, and this was just an exceptionally strong field of runners (something I HAD noticed at the race briefing 2 days earlier, I was the only fat guy in the auditorium. Somehow I thought this was funny!) I also wasted time in the reserve taking photos, again thinking I had more than adequate time to bugger around with the camera. Of course I got some stunning photos, but to the detriment of my race, partly. Having listened to some advice in hindsight it became clear that “taking it easy” on the road sections is not gonna suffice, it’s important to make up distance as fast as possible without burning out on the road sections to provide adequate time on the trails to make the cut-offs and not finish in the dark.

Heading towards Red Hill I hooked up with Laurence and we decided to go all the way to the finish and pace ourselves comfortably. I didn’t know it yet but this was also a mistake. See, he had done Puffer last year and convinced me the pace we were going was more than enough. I stopped making calculations in my head and went along with his theories. Boy did we get them wrong, we were going too slow, too much walking at times we didn’t need to. When we got to the Silvermine checkpoint, coming up the road the supporters were yelling we had just 2 minutes to make cut off. I thought they were taking the piss, we believed that 11.20am cut off was at the previous checkpoint an hour back at the bottom of Wagon Trail (somebody there told us that!) Anyway, after some refreshments and a good 5 minutes for a badly needed number 2 we headed off to the Nek with only 2 hours to get there. We got our pacing wrong here too, much too slow at first and having to push hard later. By the time we got to the trails leading up to Vlakenberg I was knackered, yet still hoping to make the cut off. At the top of Vlakenberg before the descent Laurence went flying past me and down the trail to the Nek determined to make it despite his dodgy knee, I didn’t have the legs left to go down that descent at speed, nor, honestly, the desire. I let him go, resigning myself to the fact that my race was nearly over. Honestly, having just missed the cut at Silvermine and being stone last all the way from there had already broken my mental resolve, I knew I’d stuffed up and the new goal of having to play catch up and chase cut offs was already a deal breaker. 

However, despite failing due to a series of poor decisions and being grossly unprepared for the race, it was not all negative! I really enjoyed the experience as far as I did get. It’s a fantastic race in some spectacular places, if you are strong enough to do this and fortunate to get an entry it is well worth every moment, albeit a long tough day out!

I learned an enormous amount from my experience at Puffer, and I’m determined to come back tougher and stronger next year to fetch my medal with a strong finish. I have decided to skip Comrades next year in order to train properly for Puffer, the plan is to do a LOT of mountain running in the next year, loads of road and trail and strength training, and go back to Puffer with the strength and confidence to nail that bad-ass as a midfield finisher! (Providing of course Andy, the organiser, accepts my entry next year!! Pretty please Andy!!)

My journey to PUFfeR: As previously mentioned, I ran Comrades in June. It was not a good race for me this year because, like Puffer, I went in overweight and under-trained due to an overconfidence from having a good finish last year at my first Comrades, however I still finished in time, by a few ball-hairs, but I got my back to back, and regarded Comrades and the journey there as sufficient training for the road parts of Puffer. Basically, a lazy excuse to not have to do too much more.

I ran in the mountains a few times, getting to know the equipment I had and building up what I needed as money permitted. I entered and participated in the Bastille Day 25km which I absolutely enjoyed. That was a big confidence boost since that was a proper mountain trail run that I did fairly comfortably and wasn’t last. Thereafter through the Puffer Whatsapp group we organised weekly training runs on the actual routes, a few of which I dropped out of, for various reasons, basically I didn’t take them seriously enough. I ran sections of the route from Red Hill to the finish only once each. Not enough. Then came the taper leading to the big day. Through all this training I was not watching my diet and packed on about 6kg shortly after Comrades (the post ultra hunger from this one was insatiable and unstoppable), leading up to Puffer I lost about 2kg.

Let me tell you from experience – being overweight and taking on an ultra trail is NOT a bright idea at all !!! The extra energy you need to use to move the extra weight and the stress on the knees is huge. This fact, I believe, is the main reason I was so buggered by the time I was done. My knees were shattered and I was exhausted. 

Again, lessons learned!

Some photos I took at the beginning in the Cape Point reserve (click to enlarge):

My race: The day started with a 1am wake up alarm, all my kit was packed and prepped over the 2 days before, a full printed A4 page worth of stuff. Bruce and his wife Tammy and her dad picked me up at 2am, we picked up Izak and headed to the Cape Point Reserve gate where we get the bus to the start. I think we were second there, after the organiser. The toilets hadn’t even arrived yet. Over the next hour and a half the other runners arrived, there was an excited buzz in the cold night as we filed onto the buses for the long drive to the start at the tourist centre in Cape Point, close to the lighthouse.

We were no sooner off the buses and had a quick leak in the bush (I’m sure almost everybody did) when the race was started. This is the part I liked most about the race – running in the cold dark of night with the only light being the stream of headlights on the runners like migrating fireflies, and the bright stars above. No cars, buildings or other man made lights around, besides the distant glow of the city across the horizon. As we progressed the morning faded in slowly as the sky lightened and changed colour and broke into a beautiful day, perfect for the occasion!

The first checkpoint was at the gate, I forget which clubs hosted which checkpoint and refreshment station, which were roughly 10 to 15km apart. Each station was well stocked with food and drinks and varying degrees of vibe and cheer, some were well attended with crowds of supporters and runners seconds. But none came close in intensity and enthusiasm as the West Coast station!

Talking of supporting seconds, I have to say a huge thank you to Tammy Wood and her dad Anthony, for looking after me throughout the route. They were at all the strategic points with supplies, refreshments, clothes changes, toilet paper, etc. It’s vital to have support at this race, and we had the best.

Well, I plodded on slowly for the rest of my race, enjoying the people and the awesome scenery… you know the rest!

From Constantia Nek, when I retired, I got into the car with Tammy who was just waiting for me, and we drove around to the West Coast station on Signal Hill to wait for our club runners to arrive and pass through, all of whom were surprised and disappointed to see me there, obviously having bailed early. I was very happy for them all for doing so well.

The usual cheesy selfies:

The West Coast Station: This has to be mentioned! The WC station on Signal Hill has over the years become an epic part of this race, a club tradition to put on a show as the best support station on this race by miles! Positioned about 4km from the finish at the top of the very last climb on the day, it is a refreshing relief to the exhausted and broken runners who for a brief moment get to relax, enjoy a drink including beer, wine, OBS, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, etc, hot pancakes, sweets and loads of food choices. The ladies rubbed sore shoulders, the music and enthusiastic cheering made them feel like celebrities briefly. They left there revitalized for the final stretch to the finish.

A hearty thank you to Evette and her team of eager supporters who all played a role, from running drinks orders up the road to the tent (some racking up near half marathon distances on their Garmins), Louise on pancakes, Lisa on the camera, Justin R with his new GoPro, the name-checkers, hostesses with welcome drinks, dancers, DJ’s, Jacqui with her splash bucket, etc, etc. You guys were all fantastic! Well done!

The photos of the West Coast station (Facebook)

Justin Roux’ GoPro video of the WC station (Facebook)

A final word: This first Puffer was personally a bag of mixed emotions from the excitement of getting there and the disappointment of not finishing. I’ve learned a lot about what to expect for the event and about myself and my own shortcomings and potential capabilities. I know that with the right training and my head in the right place I can finish this thing easily enough, and next year that is what I will do. I regret missing it this year but the sulk and pity was over by the time I got home that day, I will use the lessons I’ve learned from this to come back strong as an ox next year and collect my medal at the finish and drink that free beer with pride!

Thank you for reading!

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