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The Big 5 Challenge

Words: Stuart Marais | Photos: Chris Hitchcock & Cherie Vale

The Knysna Oyster Festival is about family, friends and excitement. Not to mention the option of pushing your body way past its abilities!

Photo credit: Cherie Vale, Newsport Media

This year, my boy, Luke, and I ventured down to Knysna to enjoy a week on the Garden Route. Together with Granny and Scuba, we all would partake in the sports and escapades surrounding the annual Oyster Festival.

True to form, my old man Scuba (59), would also be challenging himself by entering the Big 5 Challenge.He shared war stories with us every evening around a fire and still had energy to encourage me to go for the win. I was proud to have him on my wing throughout the event and drew extra motivation from his positive energy.

The Big 5 is the combination of the five major events at the Knysna Oyster Festival. I mean, who wants to go to a festival without any activities? The Big 5 allows all of us adventure junkies to experience the vibe of a fantastic festival and at the same time get an overdose of feel-good endorphins throughout the week. It becomes the counterpoint of your 'suffer fest' week.

Athletes competing in the Big 5 challenge had to complete the following events:
• 80 km mountain bike
• 2 km swim or 100 km road bike or 22 km paddle
• 15 km trail run
• Xterra (3 km run, 22 km MTB and 7 km run)
• 42 km / 21 km road run

I use this event as a solid week of training to prepare for big races in the second half of this year. It allows me to shock my body into gear with some high-intensity efforts and have some fun at the same time. It also gives you the chance to meet up with old friends, build relationships and meet new, like-minded multisporters.

Photo credit: Chris Hitchcock

Here's a little more detail on the days where I found myself hurting at the finish, yet still walking away with such fulfillment.

80 km Mountain Bike race

Knysna greeted us with an icy-cold morning. Layered from top to bottom with base layers we set off to start the Big 5. I was hoping for a gentle role out, but the climb from Knysna to the top of Simola had everyone in a panic, frantically scurrying for a wheel and helping hand to the top. Bunches quickly formed, mine was with my Xterra rival and friend, Dan Hugo. We were set for a long chase as the pro mountain bikers disappeared up the road. We worked well together and made the catch at 50 km. We caught them by surprise and split the group through the mud puddles in the valley. I enjoyed the day and hard ride to start the week, ending 5th overall.

2 km Lagoon Swim challenge

For the second day's event, I opted for the 2 km swim, for no reason other than to avoid the annual 'crash fest' on the road bike. The swim was a mad scurry in 11°C water and I got very disorientated by the swimmers heading in opposite directions through the harbour. As a result, I relinquished my lead and would need a good trail run to get on top again.

15 km Featherbed Trail Run

The route takes you along 15 km of the most sublime trails around the Knysna Heads. It was, without a doubt, the most spectacular event of the week for me! The ferry trip across the lagoon to the Featherbed Nature Reserve and the run back across the old railway bridge was priceless and beautiful.

I was fortunate to have the current SA Trail Running Champion, Thabang Madiba, toe the line alongside me. There's nothing I enjoy more than a battle... I set off in front and had created a 30-second gap by the top of the climb. However, Thabang has a knack for fearless descending and quickly closed this gap. We were neck and neck heading towards the final 3 km stretch along the railway bridge. I had confidence in my speed, so I entered the final single track ahead and reached the bridge first. I surged along the bridge and slowly opened a gap on Thabang. To cross the line 20 seconds ahead of such a phenomenal athlete was special.

Xterra Full Distance

I had nothing left in my legs and my body was dead, so I hoped my head would get me through this challenge. Dan, Brad Weiss and myself were racing for Xterra glory. I took off on the trail run looking to create a gap in the first 3 km. This was never going to happen. My legs hurt and there was a long, hard day on the trails ahead. I was caught at the top of the first climb by Brad and Dan soon joined us. Nobody said a word and the attacks came fast. On the 22 km mountain bike stage, I followed Dan with Brad not far behind. Soon it was Dan and I, and then only Dan. He was too strong and opened up a 2-minute lead heading into T2. I was finished, but content with 2nd as I cruised through the final 7 km trail run.

Knysna Half Marathon

This was the final day and I was far in the lead in the Big 5 Challenge. The early start to catch the taxi into the forest is always a highlight. The vibe is like no other and the long wait on the road prior to the start is filled with plenty of looney stories. As the 7,300 athletes toed the line, we set off. I ran comfortably to finish 5th, in a time of 72 minutes, clinching the overall win for the Big 5 Challenge; a great way to end off a phenomenal week in Knysna.

Driving back to Stellenbosch with the two most important people in my life (and another on the way!), I realise how fortunate I am to be able to take part in such an incredible challenge, in the most beautiful area in South Africa. See you again next year Knysna!

More information
For more information on the event, visit www.oysterfestival.co.za/the-big-5-sports-challenge/