AJ Calitz – Verdon Canyon Challenge

AJ at Zegama, 2013

AJ at Zegama, 2013

AJ Calitz gives me the ‘scoop’ on his race report from the Verdon Canyon Challenge 100k in France. Have to say, having talked with, interviewed and watched him race at Zegama, AJ is without doubt one to watch in the future. His Verdon win proves it!

Here goes….

*All images are from Zegama-Aizkorri and we will update asap.

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. This set the tone for a weekend on which my feet only touched the ground when I was running!

Verdon Canyon is one of the biggest canyons in the world and renowned for its turquiose blue waters. However on the way there with Antoine and Levi (a norwegian athlete standing 6’6 tall…) It dawned on me that the furthest race I have ever run is comrades at 89km and longest in terms of time is Platteklip at 11h. This race will trump both.

Verdon is a major race on the European calendar with 1000 athletes taking part from all over Europe. This was the 20th edition so a special occasion all round. It is at the outset hard to explain how big the language barrier is in the EU. The race briefing was in French, and the entries and signs and spectators, marshalls etc….

The small town of Aiguine played host to the race. A typical small “alpine” town, beatiful scenery and houses, very warm and friendly people! I stayed in the top floor of a beautiful hotel overlooking the lake on one side and the village square on the other; all courtesy of the partnership between Ugene Nel from Quantum Adventures and Antoine from the Verdon Challenge, everything was paid for! We were treated to a pasta party before the race and I disregarded Tim Noakes recent advice to stay away from pasta.

The race started at 03:00 Saturday morning which meant waking up at 01:30…ridiculous, but made sense later in the day and as the cutoff is 35 hours it made even more obvious.
Compulsory kit checks done and we were off at a moderate pace through the town for 300m when we hit the first climb, about 800-900m vertical but super steep and techical followed by a crazy descent. For some reason my lamp was not working properly so I took another tumble on my knee but it was only a cut and not too deep so I carried on until my lamp failed. I then had to stumble around until the chasing pack caught me and ran with them. However,  running in someone else’s lamp is not the same as running with your own so I took another tumble. I witnessed the most awesome comeraderie as everyone stopped and either helped me up/waited to see if i was ok. I hope in SA we would do the same.

AJ at Zegama 2013

AJ at Zegama 2013

Ran in the chasing pack with Jean-Marc Zugg, three times runner up, local legend and French running star and a Salomon team bloke. We had quite a nice pace but I moved to the front after about 25km to increase the pace and catch the leader Thomas Pigois.
As is my style of running I went hard in the hills and cruised down, whereas they do it the other way round. I realised this would not suit me so I broke away at about 40km. Just after I realised that I had got my feeding/drinking wrong and was feeling terrible, I almost pulled out. But at the halfway mark was a refueling station where we dropped our goodie bags earlier so I could get some much needed food and drink. Very surprised at my recovery (thanks GU!) and ate and drank like a maniac, whereafter the started climbing again.

At this juncture I need to mention the route. It is really really hard, and technical and difficult. But it is madly beautiful and rugged-very comparible to the Otter with regards to difficulty and terrain. The climbs are very very long and peak at the top and then go straight down. If there was a total of 10km of flats it is a lot, personally I think more along the lines of 8/9km.

I caught Thomas at 60km and could see he was struggling, always makes you feel better to see others suffer;-) and I had the lead 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 etc. but the crowds and the guys at the aid stations were incredible and so supportive ( in french) allez allez!

At about 70km I realised I had quite a big lead as on top of the mountain you could see very far and I could not see anyone, which allowed me to relax a bit and enjoy the scenery (i did a bit of a kilian Jornet and stopped for 5/10 seconds on the mountains just to enjoy it). I also started to count down km’s from there as that was when it really started hurting. The 80km station only had water, an essential part of the briefing I missed. Luckily i had enough provisions to last to the next one.

As we crossed the bridge over the canyon, the 100km race turns left and the 55km turns right, another point mentioned in the briefing ( in french) and the course is not closed to the public so there were loads of people around and in front of the sign. I remebered from the map that there is one section of the route we run twice, so as we had passed the bridge before and seeing many other (55km runners) go right, so did I. I realised my mistake at the rock climbing section where the marshalls told me i was on the wrong route ( and that last year first and second place made the same mistake!) so I waited for 20minutes to find out what to do as the helpers had no radio signal and had to climb out of the canyon first. No word came so I carried on and went the 55km feeding station where i had to wait another 20min. At last word came that I could continue and was still in first place, BUT this route was much harder and 5/6km further. Not being a happy camper I slogged on and managed (barely) to drag myself over the last mountain, another 800/900climb and then two more smaller ones (like signal hill from camps bay) and saw the towh through the trees, I had no idea whether I was still leading so gave it all over the last section.

AJ at Zegama 2013

AJ at Zegama 2013

I thought i could have had a go at the record and was on schedule, but the events of the day cost me more than an hour…my lead of 90minutes was whittled down to 15min. But still super stoked with the win and the knowledge that I ran further and harder than anyone else! 106km

Thanks to all the prayers and support back home, it really does help so much-especially after the dissapointment at not being able to finish Zegama. I truly hope more saffas will do Verdon next year, you will not be dissapointed! It was very hot during the race 32/35c so it will suit us after our summer whilst the euros just had winter-made a HUGE difference!

A special thanks to God who heard my prayers ALL day, my wife who spent all of it on her knees praying and all my sponsors, kway, vivobarefoor, guenery and liberty health! You guys made it possible.

Yours in trailrunning

AJ Calitz

“Somewhere in the world someone is training when you are not. One day when you race him, he will win.” Tom Fleming


Men’s results
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)