One of SA’s best all-terrain runners, NavWorld Ambassador Bennie Roux is on a mission – he wants to get people moving. And when it comes to starting a new activity from scratch, then reaching the heady heights of professional achievement, Roux knows exactly what he’s talking about. As unbelievable as it sounds, he originally couldn’t stand running, and never envisioned himself as a successful, high-profile endurance athlete – just goes to show how positively one’s life can change when you find a passion and put in the effort.
Endurance trail runner Bennie Roux’s long list of accolades is impressive, enough to fill mere mortals like us with awe, not to mention garner the respect of fellow hardcore competitors. He knocked the pants off the opposition to win the Addo 100 Mile (160 km) Trail Run last year. Same goes for the Wolkberg Trail Run… twice (2015 and 2014), and the Namaqua Quest Trail Run back in 2014. And lets not forget his multiple Comrades finishes, or the fact that he’s a Two Oceans Marathon silver medallist.
Ever looking forward, Roux is now gearing up to run the first-ever Munga, a 5-day staged trail run taking place 19 – 24 April. And, by all accounts, it’s going to be his toughest race yet. This brutal endurance event, with a field limited to 100 runners, will be raced non-stop over a course of 400 km. “When I did the Addo 100 miler around this time last year, I found it much tougher than I thought it would be,” recalls Roux. “The Munga is the equivalent of running two 100 milers, plus a Comrades. At the moment I’m waking up at 2 am, and I know it’s the race that’s on my mind”.
Starting at an altitude of over 2000 m in the small town of Belfast, Mpumalanga – the Munga’s route then follows the escarpment, finishing in the heart of one of our country’s most beautiful natural treasures: the Blyde River Canyon. Along the way, the unsupported runners will pass through private land, forestry areas and nature reserves. They’ll also be navigating primarily by GPS, so the possibility of getting lost (especially in the typical morning fog) and taking a wrong turn is very real. Five race villages and 10 water points are spread out along the way. Cut-off time is 120 hours, with the top contenders expected to finish within 60 and 70. Understandably, only the hardcore need apply.
Roux’s can-do attitude and almost-superhuman stamina is an inspiration for all of us. And it doesn’t matter if we’re unfit couch potatoes wanting to make healthier choices, or dedicated runners focused on upping our game – this man’s journey from novice runner to endurance trail star holds lessons for all of us. Even better, he’s never forgotten his roots, and still identifies with his unfit, newbie runner past. As a consequence, Roux doesn’t just walk the talk, he runs with it!
“I used to hate running. I wouldn’t even run to the toilet!” Exclaims Roux, laughing. As a school kid living on a farm in Reitz, Eastern Freestate, cycling was much more his thing. It was only when he moved to Pretoria to study that he dumped two wheels in favour of his feet. Roux explains: “I do sport to de-stress and enjoy nature. After having had a few scary experiences on the road, I just found the traffic too dangerous and figured it was time to quit while I was still ahead. At the time I had no idea what sport to pick up next.”
Fortunately, his brother Hendrik, already an experienced Comrades runner, stepped in and introduced him to road running. “My brother and I are extremely close and highly competitive,” explains Roux. “I ran my first Comrades in 2000, mainly just to prove to my boet that I could finish. Before I started training for it I couldn’t run 3km without collapsing!”
After running on the road for 7 years, one day a friend introduced him to trail running – that’s when Roux’s discovered his true life purpose. “I’m a natural outdoors guy. I can’t drive past a mountain without wondering where that cattle or game track leads. I get a kick out of being alone, of being able to look all around me, completely surrounded by nature and see nothing man-made. It’s an amazing feeling – it inspires me to work harder, train harder and better myself as an athlete.”
The way Roux sees it, getting into running is easy. Here he gives major credit to the many Parkruns that take place all around the country. These events literally happen in every suburb, every weekend and cover 5 km. You don’t have to pay to enter, all you need do is rock up and enjoy. You’ll find moms pushing prams and grannies walking dogs – it has to be the least intimidating introduction to running you’ll ever come across. Says Roux: “Even if you’re a couch potato you can easily walk the distance. If you then persevere a bit and put in some effort, before you know it you’ll be challenging yourself to enter your first 10 km run. When that happens your transition to a new, healthier lifestyle will be well and truly underway.”
The two things Roux recommends newbie runners invest in when starting out, is a good pair of shoes and comfortable clothing. “You don’t have to spend a fortune and go for the best running shoes available, but you do have to make sure they fit snugly in the heel and bridge, and that there’s enough wiggle room for your toes. Also remember, feet swell during long runs, so shop for a shoe that will remain comfortable to wear.”
When it comes to training, Roux likes mixing things up – using road running to develop a consistent pace, and trail running to build strength and stamina. “I’m not one of those puritans who refuses to run on tar. I enjoy the odd 10 or 21 km road race just to see where I am in terms of speed and form, so I’ll never completely get off the road.”
Apart from regularly running a few favourite local trails near home, Roux structures his off-road training around the next upcoming event – doing the best he can to simulate the terrain and conditions he’s likely to encounter on race day. However, as the Pretoria area is relatively flat, and many trail runs involve serious hill climbs, this can be a problem. Roux says, “To get around this I try and train at Hartbeespoort as often as I can, otherwise I go to Wonderboom Reserve and do hill repeats.”
His base training normally involves 3 sets per week, totalling about 120 km – with a hard day’s training always followed by an easy one. However, when preparing for multiday races, he makes sure he conditions himself to run on tired legs – pushing himself through 2 or 3 hard days before having an easy day. Roux elaborates: “About six weeks before a race I gradually take my mileage up to around 160 km per week. I then taper things down again, dropping distance to focus more on quality. The last thing I want is to pick up an injury because I’ve over trained.”
For runners struggling to improve their performance, Roux advises they find a training program that works for them – then stick with it, forever. He explains: “I see so many runners continually changing their training plans, coaches or nutrition. They end up changing so many variables at once that they never really figure out what works for them or what doesn’t.”
Being a stereotypical male tech junkie, Roux loves his gadgets – and swears by his Garmin Fenix 3 GPS sport watch, which he uses to track distance and elevation (vertical gain), along with his heart rate and pace. He’s also a big Strava fan, saying: “My attitude’s simple, if it isn’t on Strava it didn’t really happen!” That said, he’s also a strong believer in keeping a logbook. “I like to measure everything and record it all diligently in a logbook. I do this to understand exactly how I’m performing. It’s also the best way to pick up if I’m over training.”
As far as general nutrition goes, Roux has tried virtually every dietary plan out there and has come to the startling conclusion that… a normal balanced diet works just fine. “I think the human body is amazing and can use anything for fuel. My motto is just don’t overdo anything.” That said, he does try to avoid things like bread, sugar and fizzy drinks.
The day before a big event, Roux sits down to a nice big juicy steak. When on the trail he carries an energy bar or two and always runs with a hydration pack. He also carries dry E360 powder with him (stashed in a zip-lock bag), so he can mix it with water to replace electrolytes, carbs and proteins on the fly when necessary.
“The best way to deal with nutrition on the trail is to experiment. Try various products and different brands while training or during smaller races. Make mental notes when taking gels, bars or energy drinks, this will help guide you in future races. Whatever you do though, a key part of your nutrition plan when running has to be to replace electrolytes” says Roux.
His routine for winding down after a race is to immediately replace the body fluids he lost during the run. Roux stresses the point: “This is so important, and I see so many runners getting it wrong. How often do you see folk hanging around the finish line glugging down nice cold beers? Guys, you need to hydrate properly first… then you can drink the beer!” – (c) 2017 NavWorld
You can follow Bennie on Twitter: @bennieroux