- PUFfer is an acronym for Peninsula Ultra Fun Run. Fun run?
- The race is the brainchild of Jean-Paul van Belle, who had a mountain-deprived childhood in Belgium.
- The first pre-race briefing was held in August 1995, with 18 runners gathered at Fish Hoek Athletic Club.
- Just before the first race day a massive cold front rolled in, and the race was postponed to the following weekend.
- Nic Louw, who has notched up the most PUFfeR finishes to date (14), took part in the first PUFfeR. Louw has also run the Tuffer PUFfeR, which is double the distance and was introduced in 2000.
- The Tuffer runners start at the Waterfront on the Friday evening and run, through the night, all the way to Cape Point, where they turn around and run back to where they started.
- 2012 will see the 18th running of this endurance event; for the past few years, organisation has been the responsibility of Serena Haupt and Martin Rohland from Fish Hoek Athletics Club.
- Volunteers from hiking and running clubs (including the Pine Nuts – local hikers) come out on the day to provide much-needed food and drink at the various refreshment stations along the route.
- Mountain man Ryan Sandes holds the course record of 6:57:25, which he set in 2010, but it didn’t include the Maclear’s route, due to foul weather; runners were routed to the contour path – a slightly longer, but more runnable route.
- Olivia Read set the women’s record of 8:13:20 in 2008. Kevin Balfour holds the Tuffer record of 22:55:19, which he set in 2006 – the same year Linda Doke set a new women’s course record of 25:19:23, coming second overall.
By Sue Ullyett
Pictures By Chris Hitchcock
My love for the PUFfeR started a few years ago, when I supported some of these crazy distance junkies on their journey from Cape Point through to the Waterfront. Before I started my own trail-running addiction, I recall seeing sweaty, ragged runners emerge from the Vlakkenberg Trail near Constantia Nek and being slightly envious of them, wondering, “Where’ve they come from, and where are they headed?” Little did I know that one day I’d be one of them.
I have always been a reluctant second, preferring to be out there taking part rather than sitting on the sidelines watching. On an unseasonably warm August day back in 2008, I vividly recall watching the runners through the transition area and mumbling to myself that it would be my last time seconding… and so began my PUFfeR journey and my love for off-road running.
The run starts in the Cape Point Nature Reserve, at the restaurant, at 5:30am; and finishes at Ferrymans in the Waterfront – the winner in just under seven hours, with the last runner finishing around eight hours after that. It’s an 80km journey, most of it on trail (although the first section through the Reserve and up Red Hill is on tar – not my favourite). My Garmin clocks it as 75km, and others have recorded anything between 75 and 78km, but I’m all for rounding up… and 80km sounds so much more hardcore.
Ian Little, permanent PUFfeR number FP1, says that since his first journey he views Table Mountain not as a landmark but as something he has run over, from the tip of Africa to the highest point on Table Mountain, and finally to a pub! In fact, the slogan used on the T-shirt for the first event quipped: “A long way for a drink”.
But just what is it that keeps the participants coming back and the waiting list growing each year, despite very little marketing?
The race’s tagline is “Running in heaven, feeling like hell” – which is extremely appropriate, particularly on the section up to Maclear’s Beacon. The first part through the Reserve is dark and usually chilly, and you’re running on tar, which tends to put some of the hardcore trail runners off this event. You finally hit the trails as you crest Red Hill, and the trail junkies breathe a sigh of relief.
From Red Hill it’s easy, runnable trails through to Wagon Trail just outside the Silvermine Retirement Village (which I considered checking into, on my first journey across the mountain) at the entrance to Noordhoek. Wagon Trail is a tough climb; then there’s a slog through to Silvermine Dam, and from there you climb up towards Elephant’s Eye, making a detour down to Level 5 in Tokai Forest.
For the most part, the trails are very runnable, all the way up to Vlakkenberg and then down to Constantia Nek. And for most entrants, this is where the race (and the hard work) begins. Your legs have covered close to 60km and are starting to feel tired, and now you’re asking them to climb up to Maclear’s Beacon, which is 1 086 metres above sea level and the highest point on Table Mountain (Maclear’s is a stone cairn, built in 1865 by Sir Thomas Maclear for trigonometrical survey – just in case you’re in a pub quiz, or want to impress your friends).
The climb up to this point is tough, and by the time you get there you are ready to kiss the Pine Nuts (see sidebar), who greet you with open arms and plenty to eat and drink. My favourite is the salty, boiled potatoes, covered in butter… yum! From here, if it’s a clear day, you can look back and see Cape Point in the distance… it looks crazy far! It’s an encouraging reminder of how much distance you’ve already notched up.
From Maclear’s it’s a short, rock-hopping run through to the top of Platteklip, where the fun and games begin. Nic Louw, who has run 14 PUFfeRs – including the first one, in 1995, and one Tuffer (see sidebar) – prefers to take the scenic route from Maclear’s to Platteklip along the edge of the ‘table’, and not the ‘inland’ route, as it provides magnificent views of the City, Table Bay and the finish at Ferrymans.
“When the south-easter is blowing in the right direction, you can smell the beer,” he says.
From the top of Platteklip you can see the Waterfront, and you start to think, “OMG, I’m almost there”… but you aren’t, really. Those 70-kay legs must still descend steep, treacherous Platteklip Ravine.
As the race booklet states: “Be careful, as you’re pretty tired now, and the urge to commit voluntary suicide will be great. Remember you will be missing out on some good beer if you fall off the edge – and you can’t fly, either, even if in your current mental state you may think you can.”
Trust me, the urge to throw yourself over the edge does cross your mind once or twice. “Running in heaven, feeling like hell” – oh, so true at this point.
Then the adrenalin and the smell of home kick in – before you know it, you’re at the cable car. You hit the tar and your legs scream out; this is the section where you really start to hurt, but you dig deep and somehow find your way across Kloofnek Road, praying a taxi won’t take you out as you hobble across… or that it will, and end your pain.
With about 6km to go, the good people of the West Coast Athletics Club greet you along the road to Signal Hill – and they really lay out the red carpet, literally and figuratively. They take your order for a brandy and Coke before you get to their water station, so that it’s waiting for you when you arrive.
From here you make your way down the mountain, past the Noonday Gun and down through the Sea Point ‘burbs, over High Level Road. By now you can almost taste that cold beer, and that’s what gets you to Ferrymans – that, the prospect of some real food, and the chance to sit down and let the pain stop. Ignore the strange looks that you get from various people as you emerge from the mountain; muddy, smelly, sweaty and generally a bit dishevelled, but elated beyond belief.
Many compare the PUFfeR to the Comrades because the distances are similar; and I’ve heard people say it must be harder, as it’s the off-road version. Somehow, it’s not. I’ve done both, and trust me when I say this: the PUFfeR is easier. There’s variation in the terrain, and sections where you have no choice but to walk; or you’re climbing over rocks or under branches, using different muscles – not just pounding the tar, one monotonous step after the next.
Nic de Beer, who has also done both, agrees that Comrades is tougher – even though PUFfeR may keep you out there for longer.
“There’s a lot more walking during the PUFfeR, as some of the hills are just too steep to run; and you can use these sections to recover, knowing that everybody else in the field will also be walking them. With Comrades, all the hills are runnable, and every walk is time lost.”
Little agrees: “89km of the same leg-jarring tar is not natural! The PUFfeR has such a variety of surfaces and gradients that your muscles never get bored.”
Little also feels that the PUFfeR is something special; every year brings new challenges, be they the weather, the amount of training you’ve done, or the competition. What adds to its appeal is that it is restricted to a select group of trail runners (some say we are nutters!) who are committed to going the whole distance, and it’s a privilege to be a part of it. It would never work as a mass participation event, and is definitely not the kind of race you would want to open to many by making it a relay.
When asked about training for the race, most PUFfeR runners give a resounding “Love it!”. Little says he loves running sections of the PUFfeR, but finds it pretty scary knowing you have to put them all together on race day.
Caroline Balkwill, my training partner – who has shown me the route and hauled my miserable ass over Maclear’s more times than I can remember – has a love/hate relationship with the training.
“I love the training, because it forces me to get out of bed on cold, dark winter mornings; but I hate it for the exact same reason.”
Two-time Tuffer PUFfeR winner Linda Doke feels the training provides her with an excellent reason for spending more hours on the mountain. “For me, there’s very little that’s more exhilarating,” she adds.
Everyone has their special section of the race; and for Doke, the section from Constantia Nek to the Cable Station is her favourite.
“It covers REAL trail and is my favourite type of running, and then finishes with a tough road section… and I just love tough running!” For Balkwill it’s the same: “I love the section over Maclear’s. PUFfeR just isn’t PUFfeR if you don’t go over the top.”
For me it’s the section from Wagon Trail to Constantia Nek, as that’s when you’re feeling your best and you’ve left most of the tar behind. The section from the Nek up to Maclear’s is great technical trail running, but your body is tired and you really have to vasbyt. Every year, on the climb up to Maclear’s, I question my sanity, and part of me screams, “Never again!” But once I’m at Ferrymans with a cold beer in my hand, it’s a distant memory; and by the following week I can’t wait for the euphoria of doing it all over again.
And then there’s the Tuffer PUFfeR: to Cape Point and back – back to back. Doke and Louw have done it, and Balkwill too takes great delight in erasing it from her ‘wish list’ every year.
For me, it’s a ‘maybe’, and I have a bet with a friend that involves an expensive bottle of French champagne – and a trip to Paris.
- “Exercise caution,” says Linda Doke. “There’s no race I can think of that better justifies the well-known adage about not starting out too fast. The final leg, the Table Mountain section, demands everything you’ve got. The climb from Constantia Nek to Maclear’s Beacon is relentless, and you need to keep a lot of strength in reserve to tackle it well.”
- “Scout the route,” says Ian Little. “I’ve lost count of the number of lost runners appearing out the blue from the wrong direction.”
- Don’t stop road running. “The first 30km will bite you on the day if you don’t keep up the road running,” says Little.
- Watch the pace. “Keep track of time, so you don’t miss the Constantia Nek cut-off at 1:30pm. But don’t go out too fast, especially if it’s your first.”
- Get someone to run the section from the Nek to the Waterfront with you. It’s the toughest, most technical section, and it’s good to have some company. It might save your life, too! A few years ago, a runner slipped and fell down a steep ravine on the section to the cable car.
- Have your second meet you at the Nek with some hot salty soup, and then again at the cable car. It’s such a welcome break from all the sweet stuff and energy gels.
- Train for the climb up the stairs and concrete road from the Nek up to the water bailiff’s house and De Villiers Dam. Do it on tired legs during training.
- Run the first tar section in your road shoes and then change into your trail shoes. Also get your second to have a fresh pair of socks at The Nek.