Nicolette takes podium at the Three Cranes Challenge

My first trail race of 2020 was KZN Trail Running's Three Cranes Challenge. Despite high hopes, the event unfortunately yielded zero cranes of the live avian variety, but it did deliver fully on its promise of three days of amazing trail running!

Based out of the serene Bushwillow Caravan Park - aptly named after the local Forest Bushwillow (Combretum Kraussii) - the Three Cranes is run in a clover-leaf fashion with each day starting and finishing at the base camp. Although this inevitably leads to some repetition of short sections of trail around the race village, not needing to bus athletes out to different starting points is fully in line with the event's eco-friendly approach. KZN Trail Running is one of SA's leading event organisers in the movement towards "cupless" water tables and a significant reduction in plastic waste. So arriving at Bushwillow on Thursday evening and knowing I wouldn't need to drive my car or waste single-use-plastic, and could recycle my rubbish (separate bins were provided on site), my long weekend was instantly off to a good start!

Day 1 was a challenging 30km but undoubtedly the prettiest in terms of scenery. A high percentage of single track allowed us access to the pristine mountain grasslands of Karkloof Nature Reserve, as well as the lower altitude indigenous forests. In order to limit human disturbance in this sensitive conservation area, many sections of trail were not cut pre-race. This made for more strenuous and slower running, but simultaneously allowed more time to observe the unique trailside fauna and flora, including some orchids! And after all - is that not the very reason we like to run through such areas? 

Day 2, I was warned, was the flattest and least stimulating of the three. Perhaps because I was mentally prepared for the worst, or maybe because I'd finally managed to switch my mind from work to play, I enjoyed the 40km more than expected. Runnable terrain made time pass quickly and I appreciated the best sections of the day - an indigenous forest ascent early on, a series of shimmering dams and meandering grass trails in the lovely Mbona Mountain Estate, and a deliciously cool stream crossing 6km from the very-hot finish line. 

Day 3 finally saw our fantastic weather take a turn for the worse. The overnight rain let up 10 minutes before I emerged from my tent, which was also 10 minutes before our 4:30am start! With the muddy roads and intense darkness I also took a turn for the worse, i.e. the wrong, fairly early on in the race. I managed a full extra kilometre before getting back on track, and prepared myself for a game of catch up. Atop the ridgeline, which made up about half of the day's 22km, an icy wind swirled low cloud around menacingly. My increased effort kept me warm though, and almost too soon I was on the magnificently technical, slippery single track descent back down to Bushwillow. Despite time lost to speedy Midlands runner Jo Keppler on the last day, I held onto an overall lead and walked away with the prettiest beaded Crowned Crane. But much more than that, I walked away refreshed, revived and fulfilled. There is nothing quite like morning trail solitude and afternoon trail talk with good friends, new and old, to send one home alive and inspired...