Never before run trails winding through some of the most beautiful countryside SA has to offer. Check. Working up a healthy sweat for a worthy environmental cause. Check. And a strong sense of comradery amongst runners and spectators alike. Again, check. The Bezhoek Extreme Trail Run – which took place near Middelburg, Mpumalanga last weekend – was everything it promised to be. So much so that many participants who entered this inaugural event vowed to be back again next year.

Just like a debutante making her first fashionable engagement in public, when Bezuidenhoutshoek Private Nature Reserve threw her gates open to outsiders for the first time to host the inaugural Bezhoek Extreme Trail Run last weekend, she did so in style. But instead of showing off glittering jewellery and wearing a pretty, flowing dress, her beauty took on a distinctly natural twist.

Recent rains had turned the 3 000 hectare farm into a lush wonderland. The wide open plains, home to more grass species than the Kruger National Park, were vast seas of green – tickling one’s senses with all their subtly changing hues, not to mention giving the land a crisp, fresh feel. The many sandstone outcrops, washed clean from all the rain, almost had a fluorescent glow about them thanks to the soft, diffused overcast light. And the mixed herds of game dotting the landscape seemed fat and content, testament to the land’s rich bounty. Just as importantly, the still-moist ground meant a dust-free trail experience for everyone!

Yep, it was obvious to all 120 runners participating in the Bezhoek Extreme Trail Run 2017’s three events – the 55 km Extreme, 30 km Warrior and 15 km Challenge – that they were about to experience something special.

The only concern plaguing everyone’s minds was the weather. Just the day before, a sweeping cold front had brought heavy rain to the Highveld and the forecast for the Middelburg area looked bleak. In fact, organisers had to scrabble like mad to haul down gazebos, banners and the like as dusk set the evening before race day, the lashing rain and strong winds were so bad! And to make matters worse, the power got knocked out in the entire area, so everything had to be re-erected the next morning in the dark.

But that was just behind-the-scenes drama, and exactly the kind of thing you can expect when hosting an outdoor event. By the time the first batch of runners rocked up at 5 am to register for the Extreme’s 6 am start, everything was sorted and participants were largely none the wiser. More importantly, the weather seemed to be holding, with dawn showing promising breaks in the heavy cloud as the morning became progressively lighter.

Virgin trails are a go!
So with fingers crossed and fresh spirits, the 23 runners set off on the toughest event for the day, all of them eager to explore the brand new trails on offer. NavWorld Ambassador Bennie Roux, ultra-distance trail runner extraordinaire and the man responsible for vetting all three Bezhoek Extreme trail routes, joined in just for fun. The Warrior race, comprising 35 runners set off next at seven, with the larger, 62-strong field competing in the 15 km Challenge following at eight. And, as everyone had so desperately hoped, the weather held for most the day – the overcast, cool conditions proving ideal for trail running.

The whole point of the Bezhoek Extreme Trail Run 2017 was to get runners and fellow nature lovers involved in helping eradicate the many alien plant species and rehabilitate the land. With this in mind, Roux selected routes that not only showcased the farm’s varied natural beauty, but also took runners through areas targeted for rehabilitation. The idea being, when they come back to compete again next year, they get to see all the progress that’s been made.

As you’d expect, those participating in the 55 km Extreme got to see the most. Only this route, with a total elevation of 1 300 m, followed the Klein Olifants River on a newly designed single track all the way passed its confluence point with the Olifants River, which was a real treat. Roux picked this section specifically because it reminded him of the Otter Trail, it’s that pretty. The rest of the course comprised about 70-percent single track and 20-percent jeep track, with the remainder being dirt roads.

The only real difference between the 30 km Warrior and 15 km Challenge was distance and the amount of elevation gained. The Warrior had 550 m of vertical gain, while the Challenge had a more modest 270 m. Cut-off times were also relaxed, which made both distances very doable.

One thing all three events did have in common, though, was the last 10 km to the race village. This section was much more technical, featuring plenty of loose rock, single track and more twists and turns than anywhere else on the farm. It was also where runners had to dig a bit deeper to make it up the shallow gradient to higher ground and the finish line. However, you could never describe it as a killer. As Roux put it: “This section wasn’t bad really, it just took more energy and forced the field to run a bit slower.”

The Bezhoek goes extreme
It was only later that afternoon, with about 12 runners still out on the trail, when the heavens opened. And when they did, the rapidly changing conditions brought a whole new meaning to the word “extreme”, as the stragglers battled their way through heavy downpours and a cold wind that dropped temperatures down to single digits. To give you an idea how bad it was, a rain gauge located on the farm about 1.5 km from the race village registered 42 mm the following morning – most of which had fallen in the first two hours, just when these guys were trying to finish up!

By then, everyone who had already crossed the finish line was huddled under the two large marquees, and the mobile coffee station was doing a roaring trade. The soft serve ice cream machine and draft beer stand, eyed out with much anticipation by many that very morning, now went largely ignored. And everyone piled on as many layers as they could get their hands on. One smart (read experienced) couple whipped a nice big warm blanket out of their car and snuggled up, prompting a lot of teasing revolving around them erm, “acting like teenagers” from those of us still cold and green with envy. It caused a lot of laughs.

As you may have gathered, the bad weather didn’t dampen spirits one bit, if anything it just made the sense of comradery that much stronger. The festive spirit spilled out from both marquees, through the driving rain and across the finish line – egging the tired, completely soaked runners on as they approached the end with cheers, much clapping and shouts of encouragement. It was one of those special sporting moments, and one that many of us who experienced it won’t forget in a hurry.

Wrapping up
The prize giving continued in much the same vein, especially when event MC Erik Vermeulen started flipping a coin to find winners for the spot prizes. With two pairs of expensive HOKA ONE ONE running shoes up for grabs, along with two family holiday breaks (one at the coast and the other at Bezhoek) and a shiny new Garmin fenix 5X, it was in everyone’s best interests to get involved! In moments the place resembled a kiddies party, as the grown-ups enthusiastically jostled around to take their places to his left or right, depending on whether they chose heads or tails. And, as each round progressively thinned the numbers down to the lucky winners, the accompanying banter and shenanigans were an absolute scream.

Finally, when everything was done and dusted, one runner presented Erik with a surprise gift – a jar of his special homemade mampoer, which brought on a fresh round of heckling and laughter. Incidently, it was really good, the kind of stuff that leaves expensive tequila in the shade. Before I’d stopped gasping from my second shot, I could already feel it working its way to my fingertips and my entire torso was on fire. At last… for the first time in hours, I was warm. And I wasn’t the only one feeling the positive effects, which prompted the general cry “why didn’t you bring that stuff out sooner?”

By all accounts the inaugural Bezhoek Extreme Trail Run 2017 was an outright success. Many who entered expressed strong interest in coming back again next year, and the owners of Bezhoek were delighted with how things went. Bennie Roux – who joined the field running the Extreme, just because he could – was just as positive, saying: “It was an absolutely amazing experience. I’m sure this race will grow into a sold out event next year. There are so many races on the trail running calendar that it will always clash with other dates, but I’m convinced we can double the numbers easy.” – (c) 2017 NavWorld

The Bezhoek team would like to thank all runners for participating, and the many sponsors for their wholehearted support. Without all your involvement this great event wouldn’t have been possible.

About The Author

Sean Woods

Originally a photographer for the Star newspaper in the bad old days, Sean Woods turned to writing after the first democratic elections in '94. The career shift paid serious dividends, culminating in him becoming associate editor for Popular Mechanics magazine with a number of technology writing awards under his belt. His interests include anything to do with boats, motorcycles and all those fancy tech gadgets that help the modern world go around.

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