Chances are, you just kakked yourself a little reading that title. The statistics also show that, chances are, as a canoeist, you’ve never done the Berg either. But I'm pretty sure you still kakked yourself a little reading that title.
Afraid of what we don’t know are we?
Let’s be fair then. The Berg has a reputation for being a brutally long and cold race. And yes, there have been years when it has been made longer by low water levels and stiff head winds, dense blue-gum forests in the river course that only wily Capies know their way through, and the ability of the distance to make the skin come off your hands. It is done during the coldest and wettest winter month in a place that has cold and wet winters for many months. And you sleep in a barn on the 3rd day. Oh yes – The Third Day. Isn’t it quite long? And then there is yet another long day?? Coming to think of it, it really does sound like a terrible idea. Let’s go do something less challenging instead - like a cycling race.
But I digress. Let’s have a look at this race from an objective point of view. I’m going to deconstruct the 8 top criticisms or reasons I have most frequently heard people give for shrinking to the occasion.
1. It’s too far to race. My body can’t handle the distance.
It’s not a race, you chop. Sure, there is a podium, medal and age group classes, prize money and the usual fanfare that comes with a sports event. It’s not an informal Sunday time trial after all. But it’s not a race in the traditional sense that you go out guns blazing. At least, not unless you’re from SCARC and it’s your first Berg. The aim of the Berg is to put your preparation into action, and to reach the finish line. Where you place in the field of competitors is a function of completing the adventure – not the aim. Your position is in fact such a trivial detail that at prize giving in the town hall of Velddrift every Berg finisher is called up individually and personally handed their medal. And I admit, ironic to my argument, by a former winner. However, this is a tradition that started at the Berg many years ago as a sign of respect that even the mightiest give to the rest of the field as a doff of the old cap on what is a fine achievement. Whether you come in the top 10 or last, you are saluted by your paddling peers equally for finishing as much as for winning.
2. I’m from Gauteng – I don’t know the river and there might not be water.
Well two things have pretty much sorted this problem out.
Firstly, there is a dam from which the race organisers can secure a release.
Secondly, there has been a massive drive to clear the river of invasive plant and tree species. The worst of the tree blockages and notorious “forest sections” have been cleared out in the past 5 years – making for much easier navigation through the trees. When I learnt to paddle on the Berg River 10 years ago there were sections we couldn’t get through. We tripped with axes and saws on the weekends leading up to Berg. I hadn’t been back for 5 years until last year’s Berg and there were areas I couldn’t recognise because the same trees that caused all this trouble had been removed. In fact, we are talking more Lunar Landscape less Enchanted Forest these days.
3. But isn’t it cold?
Yes. Put on warm clothes. It’s easier to pack on layers for a cold day than what it is to go into The Devil’s Cauldron on a hot day.
4. But isn’t it cold in the months leading up to Berg?
Yes – but literally only for 8 weeks. Many people tell me that training through an entire winter for Berg is what put them off. I must agree – if I had to train an entire winter for Berg I would also be put off. Be realistic here. Berg is 10 weeks into the Highveld winter – not at the end of it. It only starts getting cold in April. May and June are the only genuinely cold months in which you have to train. 8 Weeks. (Besides this current cold front which is not helping my argument here. Yet another winner handing out a medal from the skies above). By July you have done the hard work – here you have 1 week of “maintenance work” (sitting in the sauna at gym) and another of “tapering” (sauna at gym followed by a beer) and off to the Berg you go. So this whole “I don’t like training the whole of winter” story is also a fib. All you need is 8 weeks of putting on pogies and a beany. True story.
5. I can’t leave my family in Joburg for 2 weeks and take leave off from work…
Well then don’t. Fly to Cape Town on Tuesday morning (the seeding time trial is Tuesday afternoon should you wish to have a front row start) and fly back on Saturday evening. 4 days leave from work, 5 days leave from the Bulldog and your progeny, R1250 for a return flight, send your boat on a trailer. It’s much less admin than Umko or Ithala with similar travel costs with the added bonus that your boat will look new when you finish the race.
We know where the cheap accommodation is (and lekker places too, like Laerskool Riebeek Kasteel’s Koshuis) and a few little spots along the way. Just ask, I will give you the low down on how we run our show.
6. I’ve seen footage of people with no skin on their hands. No ways – I’m not crazy enough. Besides, I would never last the distance. 75km in one day is for the mentally insane. (For overcoming the distance obstacle, refer to point 7.)
You will get a blister or two. But with the modern advent of rubbing Vaseline or Dubbin on your hands before the race, this problem seems to subside dramatically. If you look after your hands, they will look after you. Look at what the old river dogs do, and do it. There are many tricks and lessons you learn on this journey that make it more manageable. And as my FinRek lecturer always used to say: "You only learn to do what you need to do by doing it." Little did I know that this also applied to Vaseline.
(There is certainly a personality type that has done a Berg that talks up the harshness of the experience to validate the achievement. Take the war stories with a pinch of salt – these personality types also amaze me at how much they could drink in their youth, how many hours they used to train, how many woman they have bedded. Their list of grand achievements is only superseded by the lack of witnesses and an objective barometer. Make no mistake, it is a tough challenge and it commands respect. But take a good story from whence it comes too.)
7. Training. I don’t have the time to go to the Vaal for 7 hour sessions.
Not unless you’re trying to win the Berg you don’t. You would be surprised how flexible your training can be for someone who just wants to finish. There is a saying in the running fraternity that you don’t have to run the comrades in training to run it on the day. This also applies for Berg. Here is a breakdown of a typical week of training required to finish the Berg: (Please note: no 7 hour sessions at 5am on the Vaal when there is ice on the water. You need a head of stone to think this is required. Sure it helps - but it is not required.)
Monday : Rest (Wow, nothing on your first day)
Tuesday : 1h15 of interval training
Wednesday : 10 - 15km steady
Thursday : Time Trial
Friday : 45 minutes speed work
Saturday : Klip Race / 21km Flat Race / HASSC / Marathon Champs GCU & SA etc.
Sunday : 3 hours steady on Hartebeespoort Dam*
This is just an example, but if you follow this type of training program you will get the hours in your body to cover the distance of Berg. On the weekends, alternate the race days with your 3 hour session. So if there is a Klip race on Saturday, do your distance Sunday and vice versa. This is a 9 hour training week. Do this CONSISTENTLY for 3 months and you’re mint.
*A side note on Hartebeespoort Dam. Since 2005 there has been a R900m cleaning project conducted on the dam and catchment areas. Where this project stands now I’m not sure, as the internet and DWAF have gone quiet on it, but the effect on paddling is that it has been a pleasant experience doing a session from Paddle Power down onto the dam for the past 2 years or so. Also, it is about 7 degrees warmer at Harties than the Vaal on any given morning, with a squadron of yachts and the occasional roar from a lion in the zoo next to the dam wall, which is a great bonus. Drive time from the West Rand and Northern Suburbs is about 35 minutes to Paddle Power – so you can leave home at 7, be back at 12, and get your 3 hours under the belt every weekend.
8. I have a family of 5. It’s too expensive for everyone to go.
What can I say… Buy a TV?
So get a good April’s worth of training into your body and commit to a further 8 weeks of winter training to prepare yourself for the adventure of a lifetime. It really is that simple.
P.S. If the Vaal is the “Toughest Canoe Marathon in the World” then how hard can Berg really be?