You’ve got to be a great trail runner to take on NavWorld Ambassador Bennie Roux. Winner of last year’s Addo 100 Miler, this human dynamo has gone and done it again – this time coming first at the inaugural Munga Trail Run 2017. Ploughing stoically through the 402 km course in just over four days, with less than 12 hours sleep. Roux’s solid performance at this inaugural event just shows what can be achieved when one trains smart and puts in the right amount of grit. Relaxing with his feet up, with a career-topping win behind him, Roux shares a few insights about his benchmark run.
Main photo: Sven Musica

The premise behind the creation of the first ever five-day, single-stage Munga Trail Run 2017 was simple. Crazy, but simple: Would it be possible to run the equivalent of five consecutive Comrades marathons in one go in under five days? Organisers wondered. And, while competitors are at it – they thought – why not lead them down nearly unnavigable sections of trail… at night, make sure they don’t get any outside support, throw in some mother ascents and see what happens. Needless to say, only 26 brave souls signed up for this year’s challenge. More significantly, only nine made it across the finish line before cut-off time.

Fortunately for Bennie Roux though, what seemed a herculean struggle for other competitors, turned out to be one of the better runs of his career. Having spent some time with Roux before the Munga, I knew how hard he’d prepared, and how mentally psyched he was, for the event. When I waved goodbye to him after a photoshoot two days before the start, I just had a gut feeling he was going to do well.

That said, what I didn’t expect to see was him having a such good time. Think about it: It’s a relentless, completely unsupported 402 km-long trail run – starting in Belfast, Mpumalanga, then following the escarpment to its end-point at the Blyde River Canyon. Five rest stations, spaced roughly 80 km apart, provide showers, hot food, charging facilities for electronics, and a spot to sleep should runners choose to do so. How long they spend at each station is their business. Water points are set up every 30 to 40 km. Other than that, everything else runners may need along the route (food, protective clothing, water, headlamp, spare GPS batteries etc.) they must carry. Even super-fit athletes should find that a tough challenge, right? But, as live Facebook updates of the race started coming in, I could hardly believe my eyes; Roux really did look like he was having fun.

Photo credit: Sven Musica

Catch him if you can

Right from the outset Roux’s live tracker showed he was going strong. But the first real indication that the race was seriously going his way came via a video update by Race Director Erik Vermeulen at Race Village 3, 250 km into the run. In it, Vermeulen comments about how runners are coming in “properly smashed up” and requiring a lot of attention to their feet. He then goes on to mention Roux’s 6-hour lead and the fact that his feet “look like a newborn baby’s”.

Next thing, a photo taken during Roux’s layover at Race Village 3 pops up, showing him chilling with a big, satisfying grin on his face and clutching a nice cold beer. But it was the picture of him relaxing on the grass, casually holding a muffin at Water Point 8 that, for me, really took the cake – he didn’t even look as if he’d worked up a sweat. From where I was sitting he could have just as easily been chilling at a family picnic in a park!

The moment I get him on the phone after the finish, I mention all this and he just laughs, adding “Hey, I had to walk to the shops to buy that beer!” Roux attributes his success to the way he approached his training right from the outset. “For a race like this there are so many things that need to go right, but so few that can go wrong,” he explains. “Realising that I couldn’t plan my run, I decided to just take it as it comes and adapt. For example, sleep when I need to and, when I’m feeling good, just keep moving. That said, I’m very surprised how well my race went. At no stage did I feel any pressure on myself, I was in my comfort zone from step one.”

Best foot forward
One clear advantage Roux had over other runners was the strategy he adopted to manage and take care of his feet. Says Roux “I got great advice from Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon veteran Dirk Cloette. Dirk’s golden rule is simple; whatever you do, first take care of your feet!” Taking Cloette’s advice to heart, the first thing Roux did on arrival at all the water points was remove his socks. Next, he washed his feet and socks, then let them both hang out and dry before donning his footgear again and continuing. He explains why: “When you have dirt or dust inside your shoes, the moment your feet start sweating, it turns into a grinding paste – that’s what causes blisters.”

As a strategy, it worked perfectly. When Roux finally crossed the finish line, his feet were in no worse shape than when he started out 402 km earlier. Just as importantly, he never subjected himself to the debilitating pain many competitors had to endure, sometimes for days, during their runs.

Photo credit: Sven Musica

Challenges on the trail

However, just because Roux had one of the best runs of his career, doesn’t mean he didn’t encounter any problems. One small mistake that could’ve cost him the race was him forgetting to charge his electronics at one of the race villages. Roux explains, “Being unfamiliar with races this long, I completely forgot to charge my electronics. I ended up in a forest at night, there was almost no moon and the unmarked trail was extremely difficult to pick out. Suddenly, I realised my GPS was almost flat and I was only carrying one spare battery! I got a huge fright, if I’d lost power then I would never have found the trail again.”

Looking back, Roux realises his desire to cut down on weight made his minimalistic approach to the race a little too extreme, saying “My backpack was at least 2 kg lighter than most other competitors and, with hindsight, I realise I cut thing’s finer than I should. And make no mistake, next time I’ll definitely pack more batteries, along with a nice powerbank or two!”

One aspect of the Munga that Roux points out was how difficult the trail was to pick out in some places – forcing one to stop and zoom in on one’s GPS to get an accurate heading before moving on again. There were also areas where serious scrabbling through the bush was required. Roux elaborates, “It might sound minor to those sitting at home, but when you’re wading through dense bush, and there’s a fallen tree in your path, you can’t just go around it – your only option is to head straight for the middle, getting through stuff like that isn’t easy.”

Not surprisingly, Roux got lost a couple of times. Just before Graskop he found himself running into a lush valley at night. Once at the bottom, the dense, tall grass towered way over his head and he quickly lost any sense of direction. “It was the middle of the night and the grass was so thick I had to continually struggle to find my way through, it was very disorientating,” he recalls. “Eventually I came out the other side and saw the trail markers, I was so pleased with myself. Then, about 300 meters later, I looked at my GPS and noticed I was running back along my old path, in the wrong direction! My only choice was to turn around and go through it all again.”

A more serious navigation slip 24 km from the finish saw him lose the lead to Nicky Booyens – forcing him to push hard to make up for lost time and get back up front again. “It couldn’t have happened at a more critical time,” recalls Roux. “At first, I just thought my GPS was being funny and would auto-correct, but it didn’t. I ended up running hard for an extra 14 km to make up for that mistake.”

Understandably, Roux feels on top of the world after his well-deserved win, saying “Now that I’ve accomplished this, I’ve just proved to myself that anything is possible.” Laughingly, he concedes, “Okay, it might take you longer than you initially thought, but it IS possible!” – (c) 2017 NavWorld

Bennie’s Munga 2017 race stats

Stages           km             Moving Time            Elevation           Pace
Section 1      78.6            08:18:11                         923                        06:20
Section 2      83.9           12:34:00                        2375                      08:59
Section 3      83.5           13:36:49                         1676                      09:47
Section 4      92.1            21:14:00                        3214                      13:49
Section 5      58.4           11:49:09                         1070                      12:08
Section 6      19.2            03:13:11                         519                         10:02
TOTALS:      415.7         70:45:20                   9777                     0:10:13

Racing time: 101:20:00
Stationary time: 30:34:40
Estimated sleep: 11:30:00
Massage time: 1:30:00
Eat/sit time: 17:34:40

You can follow Bennie on Twitter: @bennieroux  or check out his Facebook page: 

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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