Chasing Peaks and Mystical Forests

The Hobbit Trail Run
The Hobbit Train Run(s) include a weekend of trail races in the small town of Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. With distances from 5km to 90km, there are plenty of options for adventure. I found the relatively laid-back and chilled vibe of the races made it more about experiencing the mountains and enjoying them with others rather than out-and-out racing. The 40km route has around 1800 meters of elevation and is mostly on very runnable jeep track or single track although there are a few sections which are quite technical due to mud or loose rocks. But those tough sections are worth it to experience some truly spectacular scenery.
Race Summary
Distance: 41km
Elevation: 1800m
Fastest Male Finish Time: 3:59:05 (Jarryd Dunn, 2023)
Fastest Female Finish Time: 4:34:17 (Malan Simone, 2023)
Average Finish Time: 6:58:02
Average Finish Time Male: 6:48:42
Average Finish Time Female: 7:18:33
Terrain Difficulty: 3/5 (Mostly runnable with a few technical sections)
Setting the Scene
Hogsback is a small town perched on top of a high pass; most likely at least a couple of hours from anywhere you’ve ever heard of before. Coming from Gqeberha a steep eroded tar road winds up out of the brown grasslands pockmarked with green that surround Hogsback and into the lush green forest. Soon the tar road gives way to dirt and then you’re in Hogsback but blink and you might just miss it because a few minutes later and you’ll be out the other side. The town is surrounded by forest — mostly indigenous except for an arboretum. Above the forest, through the gaps you can see the granite backs of the three “Hogs” rising out of the forest. These are the Hogsback Mountains from which the town derives its name. The nearest Hog forms the main feature of the 40km route, and it does nothing for your nerves looking at its steep slopes and knowing that the route climbs it twice.
The Three Hog’s Backs

Some say the Hogsback Mountains were part of the inspiration for Tolkein’s misty mountains. Thus, the Hobbit trail seems an apt name for a race through the mountains. Although to me it felt less like the misty mountains and more like a benevolent Murk wood with the route winding through several sections of dense mist-fulled forest with a thick canopy of branches above you dimming the light, but more on that in a minute.

The Hobbit trail races take part over 3 days. The 90km trial takes place in two stages and kicks off the races starting on Friday. On Saturday the second stage of the 90km as well as the 40km, 16km and 5km. Finally, on Sunday there is a half marathon, 10km and 5km.

The Route

The 40km race is a figure 8 which is dominated by the two ascents of the First Hog. The first ascent is slightly shorter and easier with most of the climb done on forestry roads. The second ascent is both longer and steeper climbing up the back of the First Hog and looping around to meet up with the road used for the first ascent.

The Race

So it was that I arrived blurry-eyed and freezing at 6 am on a misty Saturday morning for the Hobbit 40km. Fortunately, between the sun slowly creeping over the horizon and melting the morning mist and a decent warm-up jog wrapped in many layers I was feeling much warmer and more awake at the start line. To help with getting an idea of the route and how the race went you can look at the Strava activity below.

Everyone's experience of a race is different. A start of 100 people will yield 100 different stories each with their own highs and lows. But they all started with a laid-back and somewhat disorganised race briefing followed by a neutralised run down the main road through Hogsback before turning off onto a jeep track which took us the 3km to the start of the climb. The highlight of this section was the appearance of a flock of Cape Parrots playing in the skeleton of a dead tree. Cackling to one another as they dived around its branches their green bodies shining in the warm light of the rising sun. Once the calls of the parrots had faded away it felt like it was time to start racing, so I eased up the pace to what felt like a good race pace and to my surprise no one came with me. Soon I exited the jeep track via a steep narrow path which led onto the forestry roads that wound their way up towards the top of the First Hog. The roads climbed steadily but persistently as the kilometers ticked by. As I climbed more and more of the surrounding country came into view, so I could see over the forest which clung around the top of the mountains and down into the patchwork quilt of farmlands which stretched into the distance below. It was beautiful. Suddenly, my reverie was broken. There was a loud rustling and cracking amidst the young pine trees above me and a cow erupted onto the path. For a moment I stared at it, and it stared at me, apparently we were both equally surprised to see the other. The cow then seemed to decide that I was not to be trusted, turned and disappeared back into the pine trees. The rest of the climb passed without much incident and soon I broke out through the top of the pine plantation.

Gradually creeping up the forest track climb. Photo by Craig Giese.

Reaching the top of the first climb the scenery changed dramatically. The path descended rapidly following a small river through fields of grass bleached brown by the sun. The grass fields were punctuated by small haphazard clusters of trees. After the relentless climb, these flowing trails were a welcome relief and this was up there as one of my favourite parts of the course. Under the morning sun, I would have been quite happy to run there forever. Soon the descent ended and the trail started to undulate through rolling grass hills with the occasional river crossing or pool of thick black mud providing the only obstacles. These mud pools were far deeper than I initially thought although it was often hard to tell quite how deep. Sometimes the soles of my shoes would find hard ground just below the surface but then I’d step onto a patch that looked identical and sink up to my shin in the thick mud. Fortunately, the pair of Vivobarefoot ESCs I was using drained quickly so I didn’t have to run too far in waterlogged shoes. Eventually, the route turned and climbed up and away from the river towards the forest.

Running through the forest felt like stepping into a different world. Within a few hundred meters the sun-soaked grassfields were gone to be replaced with a dark dense forest. The weather changed too, as mist oozed between the branches filling up all the available space and muffling the ambient sounds so that all I could hear was the pattering of my feet. For me, the next landmark was one of the huts used by hikers doing the Amatole trail but it took me by surprise when the trail entered a clearing and it suddenly appeared out of the mist. Then, an instant later, I was back in the forest on the other side and it had sunk back into the misty branches that closed in behind me.

Not long after the trail started to climb again. This was the start of the second major climb, a steep ascent up the other side of the First Hog which would eventually link up with the road from our first ascent. Slowly, I climbed the many steps as my legs complained bitterly over the change in terrain. Gradually, as I got higher, the mist faded. The second major climb of the route is slightly longer with more elevation than the first and I was feeling it. Especially since the path up consisted of steps and a single track which were both more interesting and harder to climb than the forest roads I’d used earlier. Eventually, we rounded the front of the First Hog and after traversing along a rocky path below its granite cap we joined up with the road we’d used for the first ascent but this time headed down towards Hogsback.

Starting the race I’d had the quiet goal of finishing in under 4 hours and at this point, it seemed that that would be easy. I had around 55 minutes to complete the last 10km and it was mostly downhill. Although somehow there seemed to be a surprising amount of running up as the route traversed the pine plantations heading towards the finish. Soon the pine plantation gave way to the arboretum which is the last section of forest that needs to be crossed before the finish. Here the clouds came over again and covered the sun and the trail started to twist and bend so I soon had no idea in which direction I was heading or where the finish was. It was also at this point that I was informed by a helpful marshal that the route was roughly a kilometre longer than I had initially thought. However, I chose to believe that they were mistaken and I only had 3km to go instead of 4km a choice my legs were largely in favour of. This illusion was shattered 500m later when a sign read 3.5km to go. Suddenly the equation changed from a relatively easy 2.5km in 16 minutes to 3.5km so there was nothing for it but to ignore the protestations from my legs and up the pace. Eventually, I broke free from the trees and put in a final big effort as the route threw its last challenge — a short but steep jeep track hill up to the finish. And stopped the clock to take the win at 3:59.

For me trail running is seldom a glamorous sport. But I felt particularly bedraggled as I staggered through a cool down back to the car. My hair and clothes were saturated from running through the mist, clouds and the wet forest causing them to stick unevenly to my body making me look like I’d just crawled out of a river. The only reason you’d be certain I hadn’t was that my shoes and legs were caked in mud. Even the bright orange soles of the Vivobarefoot Hydra ESC 's had been tamed to a significantly duller tone. To make things worse I’d been wiping the sticky residue from the gels I’d eaten throughout the race on my water-logged shorts (I can’t stand how sticky they make my fingers feel) where it had dissolved into a sticky solution. My legs had been basted in this sticky solution for hours so that I could feel the skin behind my knees stick together each time I bent my leg. I’ve seldom been so grateful for a shower.

Slightly mud-cacked pair of Vivobarefoot Hydra ESC 's!

The Edge

Sunday morning dawned bright, clear and very cold. In search of somewhere flat and easy where I could try to shake some of the fatigue from my legs my fiance and I headed to The Edge. The Edge is just as the name suggests. A few paths wind their way just above a sheer cliff that drops a few hundred meters to the valley below providing some spectacular views and mercifully flat trails. As an added bonus there were signs for the Hogsback Park run making it easy to find the trails. It was a pretty perfect way to end a weekend of adventure in Hogsback.

Running along the Edge.

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