NavWorld Ambassador Naomi Brand may be a relative newcomer to ultra-distance trail running, but she can sure go the distance. Taking the first woman’s spot at this year’s Addo 100 Miler. She completed the gruelling, 160 km route through the Eastern Cape’s Addo Elephant National Park in 24 hours and 57 seconds – beating the previous race record by a whopping five hours! Still flush from her well-deserved victory, Brand tells us how she did it.

Looking at ultra-distance trail runner Naomi Brand, aged 29 – with her petite physique and bubbly personality – you’d never say she’s got what it takes to win races that break most men and make them cry. But make no mistake, this is one tough lady… and her record-setting win at this year’s Addo 100 Mile Trail Run proves it. “Growing up on a working farm in the Western Cape did a lot to develop my mental strength,” explains Brand. “My father’s attitude was ‘you’re not going to die from sweating a little bit’, and both my sisters and I were expected to help work the farm.”

Her can-do attitude, brought about by exposure to physical labour and her dad’s positive example, took root early in Brand’s life. As a consequence, for her, running long distances is nothing new. “By the time I was in high school I was already doing about 30 km a day, running along the beach on our farm,” she recalls. “I also had an extremely strict school coach and competed in track, 1 500 m and 3 000 m, as well as cross country. When older I ran for Maties, but mainly on the road. By 2014 the trail running bug had well and truly bit, and I’ve been concentrating hard on it ever since.”

Conquering the Addo
Although familiar with pounding out the miles, Brand had no idea what to expect when running the Addo, saying “I don’t think you can ever adequately prepare for distances as long as this.” That said, once she’d committed to the race, Brand put in as much prep as she could – going to places like Sabie and Tzaneen, where she could train in mountainous terrain over weekends. Says Brand: “My main focus was endurance, so I concentrated on 50 km runs, back-to-back long runs and going out during the middle of the day to get used to the heat. I also loaded my backpack with water and regularly climbed stairs. What I was trying to do was get a feeling of what it would be like to be out there for such a long time.”

For Brand, one of the surprising highlights of running the Addo was finding people who kept the same pace she did, allowing her to have some company on the trail for a change. Brand elaborates: “I normally run alone, mainly because I typically end up behind the front guys and somewhere before the rest of the girls. Just having Martin Malherbe, a trail legend in his own right, keep me company throughout the night and on to the finish line did wonders for my moral.”

Taking advice from veteran Addo competitors, Brand opted for a brisk pace right from the 2pm start. She did this for good reason – to make sure she beat the heat the next day. “This proved to be invaluable advice,” she recalls. “The next day peaked at over 40 degrees, if I’d run slower the previous day I would have been exposed to it for way too long. Cut off time for the race is 36 hours, so you can go into the night again if need be. I have so much respect for the people who stayed out that long… it must be so hard on your body.”

One stand out moment for Brand involved stumbling across a night adder in the dark about 80 km into the race. At the time she was running with close friend and long-distance running role-model Andre-Hugo van Zyl. “Andre saw it first and jumped over it, but I got such a fright I sprang in the opposite direction and landed in a thorn bush! Fortunately, it had just eaten something and was very slow. After de-stressing with a good laugh, we both put the adrenaline boost to good use. Sadly, as we were in seriously hilly country, it didn’t last for more than 500 metres!”

Seeing sunrise after making it through the brutal Valley of Tears was another special moment. Brand elaborates: “Set at about the 125 km mark, the track through the valley was the toughest part of the entire course. It was extremely technical with never-ending ups and downs, and you needed to constantly look where you were going through the dense forest – something that’s not so easy to do when you’re sleep deprived and your legs are screaming. Being able to watch the sunrise after having subjected myself to that really gave me hope and the drive to continue.”

Digging deep
However, it was the final stretch that proved to be the most difficult. Says Brand: “It was after the infamous Ellie’s Tavern checkpoint that the words ‘digging deep’ started to take on a whole new meaning for me. I experienced some of the steepest hills I’ve ever had to climb in my life and my legs were in an awful state. I realized how lucky I was to have Martin there next to me – that extra heartbeat, footstep and voice that was battling through hell with me. And hell it was. As the temperature climbed, we changed from running to a kind of survival-shuffle.”

About 5 km from the finish line, Brand nearly gave up the fight, suggesting to Malherbe that they stop running and just walk it out. Says Brand: “I just couldn’t any more. It felt like my face was on fire from the heat, my water was finished and I was badly chafed. I was also starting to hear voices and hallucinate.” With about 1 km left to go, Malherbe coaxed her on, saying “If we want to make a sub-24, we’ll have to run.” According to Brand, she still doesn’t quite know how they managed to half-sprint the last 800 metres to the finish line – all she can faintly remember is a sea of friendly faces welcoming them and a strange booming voice announcing “First lady, Miss Naomi Brand!”

Graphic courtesy Trail Adventures

Lessons learnt
One of the biggest take home lessons for Brand was how much technology can help with one’s run. Says Brand: “Having just become a NavWorld Ambassador, I’m very new to running technology. In fact, I only received my Garmin Fenix3 a week before the race, so I had to undergo a crash course to learn how to use it. But that’s the magic of it – even for someone like me it was extremely easy to use. I quickly became accustomed to glancing at my wrist to monitor my body’s vitals and regulate my pace. Being able to check your distance and see what time you’ve already done just helps. Just as importantly, it definitely saved Martin and I from getting lost in thick forest more than a few times.”

Overall, Brand was happy with her run, but doesn’t mean she won’t approach the race differently next year. “For a start, I didn’t realise there would be so many water crossings,” she explains. “If I had, I would definitely have packed an extra pair of dry shoes! I also got chafed quite badly, so next time I’ll take care of my body more. Picking up race injuries like these means you take longer to recover and get back into regular training.”

That said, now she finally has “one big distance” under her belt, Brand is focused on the upcoming Munga in April after “stupidly agreeing to do it a while back!”. Says Brand: “Covering a route of 400 km run over five days, this is a hard race. On the one hand I’m worried I haven’t given my body enough time to recover properly for it. But on the other, I don’t think I’ll ever be this ready again either. All I know is, now that I understand what it takes, I want to ride out this momentum.”

More about Naomi Brand
When Brand says she loves nature, she means it. This petite powerhouse studied animal science at Stellenbosch, got her wildlife honours in Bloem, then worked as a field guide in Limpopo for a year. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she’s presently a fifth-year veterinary student at Onderstepoort, juggling full-time studies with a busy annual race schedule. “I’ve always wanted to work with wildlife and become a vet,” explains Brand. “Trail running is the ultimate sport for me as it combines my two life passions – running and nature.”

You can follow Naomi on Instagram here: www.instagram.com/brand.naomi/

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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