FRENCH RACE CROWN FOR CALITZ
Fresh from his win at the 20th edition of the Verdon Canyon Challenge in France, K-Way athlete Andre Calitz tells of his experience.
Although he has run the 89-kilometre Comrades Marathon, won the 80-kilometre PUfFeR trail race and set records at the 11-hour Platteklip Charity Challenge, this100-kilometre Verdon Canyon Challenge was to be his longest race in both distance and duration. Calitz received an entry to this event after winning the 2012 Spur Country Classic Series of mountain trail runs, which were presented by Quantum Adventures in the Cape Town region of South Africa.
Before the race Calitz was warmly hosted by trail runner Antoine and his wife Sophie.
“Rarely in my life have I been welcomed with more grace and open arms than with Antoine and Sophie in their beautiful home in Grasse. I felt part of the family immediately and was sad to leave after only two days.”
The provençal town of Aiguines is the start-finish location for the race.
Calitz describes it as “a typical, small ‘alpine’ town with beautiful scenery and houses and very warm and friendly people”.
“Verdon is a major race on the European calendar with 1000 athletes taking part from all over Europe,” Calitz explains. “This was the 20th edition so it was a special occasion all round.”
On race day Calitz was up at 01h30 for the compulsory kit checks and 03h00 start. The route began with a 300-metre section through the town before heading upwards – steeply!
“It’s about 800 to 900-metres vertical but super steep and technical and followed by a crazy descent. For some reason my lamp was not working properly so I took another tumble on my knee. It was only a cut and not too deep so I carried on until my headlamp failed.”
Calitz injured his knee three weeks ago when he took a fall at the Zegama-Aizkorri race in Spain. The deep gash required staples and saw him pulled from the race by the race doctor.
Without a functioning headlamp and out in front on his own, Calitz stumbled in the dark until he was caught by the chasing pack. He joined this group.
“However,” he explains, “running in someone else’s lamp is not the same as running with your own so I took another tumble. Everyone stopped and either helped me up or waited to see if I was ok.”
The group included Jean Marc Zuigg, a runner who Calitz describes as “three-times runner up, local legend and French running star”. After about 25-kilometres Calitz moved to the front of the group to increase the pace so that they could try to catch the leader, Thomas Pigois.
Calitz’s style is to push hard on the ascents and to cruise he descents – totally opposite to most runners as well as the group of runners with whom he was running. So, he broke away at around 40-kilometres to settle into his own pace. But, by this time he was feeling terrible as he hadn’t consumed enough food and liquids. He almost pulled out of the race!
Fortunately, at the halfway mark, one of Calitz’s pre-prepared ‘drop bags’ was waiting. In it he’d put his favourite race nutrition products.
“I ate and drank like a maniac!” he exclaims.
With food and drinks down the hatch, he recovered quickly. Just in time for another steep ascent!
Calitz describes the route and terrain as “really, really hard and technical and difficult. It is madly beautiful and rugged – comparable to The Otter with regards to difficulty and terrain. The climbs are very, very long. They peak at the top and then go straight down.” He thinks that there couldn’t have been more than eight or nine kilometers of flat ground over the entire 100-kilometre race distance.
By the 60-kilometre mark Calitz caught Pigois. “I could see he was struggling… It always makes you feel better to see others suffer,” he says with a knowing smile.
“I took the lead still with a long way to go. There are no time checks so you never have any idea how far you are ahead or who is behind. The crowds and the marshals at the aid stations were incredible and so supportive, shouting ‘Allez! Allez!’.”
From the top of a mountain, at around the 70-kiometre mark, Calitz could see a good distance back and with no runners in sight he knew his lead was big.
“I also started to count down the kilometres from here as that was when I really started hurting.”
After 80-kilometres the race route splits and as the route is not closed to the public, people were milling around at this junction and standing in front of the sign directing runners left or right, according to the course.
“I remembered from the map that there was one section of the route that we run twice. We had passed this bridge before and seeing many other runners (55-kilometre course) go right, so did I. I realised my mistake at the rock-climbing section where the marshals told me that I was on the wrong route!”
Last year the first and second-placed runners made this same mistake.
“I waited for 20 minutes to find out what to do as the helpers had no radio signal and they had to climb out of the canyon to get signal. When no word came, I carried on to the 55km course feeding station where I had to wait another 20 minutes.”
Eventually Calitz received instruction that he could continue on this route and that he was still in first place. This section of route is harder and about six-kilometres further than the section he should have been on.
“I wasn’t a happy camper,” he recalls.
“I slogged on and barely managed to drag myself over the last mountain, another 900-metre climb, then two smaller ones and then I saw the town through the trees. I had no idea whether I was still in the lead so I gave it all over the last section.”
Initially Calitz thought that he had a shot at the course record but taking the wrong route easily cost him more than an hour.
“My lead of 90 minutes was whittled down to 15 minutes. But, I’m still super stoked with the win and the knowledge that I ran further and harder than anyone else! 106km!”
Calitz crossed the line in 14 hours 15 minutes and 4 seconds, a comfortable 16-minutes ahead of Jean Marc Zaugg and 44-minutes ahead of Thomas Pigois.
After the race Calitz’s host, Antoine, remarked, “He should have explode the best time if he had not broken his lamp and took a wrong way at the end”.
Although he won the race this weekend, Calitz may have unfinished business with the race record…
“Thank you to all of my supporters back home,” Calitz writes. “It really does help so much, especially after the disappointment of not being able to finish Zegama. I truly hope more Saffas will do Verdon next year – you will not be disappointed! And special thanks to my wife and all my sponsors – K-Way, Vivobarefoot, Gu Energy and Liberty Health! You guys made this possible.”
1. Andre Calitz, 14:15:04
2. Jean Marc Zaugg 14:31:27 (0:16:23 difference)
3. Thomas Pigois, 14:59:31 (0:44:27 difference)