Ultra Marathon Recon 3: Constantia Nek
Constantia Nek - the second half of the race begins
Constantia Nek is without doubt the most challenging part of the Ultra Marathon route. It twists and winds its way up from Hout Bay, and the last 2 km are particularly vicious when you have 44km already in those legs. It's here that the race will bite back and have its say if you have gone too fast early on, and the post-race "war stories" all share a common phrase..."When I got to Constantia Nek". That is why it's so important to manage the effort to this point - it's almost as though your mental approach to how you "spend" your energy should be to say that the first 44km get half your reserves, and the final 12km get the other half, because this is where the test really begins!
The climb itself builds to an unwelcome crescendo! It starts in Hout Bay, and is very gradual for a few kilometers. Again, I'm banging the same drum, but the crowd support coming off Chapman's Peak Drive, along with your soaring spirits and fast legs as you fly down that descent can easily lure you into going too fast here. It's important to recognize that the climb does start just as you leave Hout Bay, but it's very gradual at first. It's normal to slow down a little though, so if you are paying particular attention to pace, don't despair when you find that you're dropping off your goal pace slightly.
Then as you head under the denser tree cover (a welcome relief from direct sunlight), it ushers in the steeper part of the climb, and it kicks up to 8 or 9% for the last 2km. The key thing here is to settle into a rhythm that is light and not laboured. It's easy to slip into "pounding" the hill, and making it a real slog. It takes mental discipline and spirit to keep light, keep your cadence up, your posture good and run the hill in a controlled fashion at a pace you can manage.
Constantia Nek is also a good place to walk. And that's fine, as long you plan for it. I've said before, but it bears repeating - walk before you HAVE TO. In other words, don't run until you are literally at the end of your reserve, and then find yourself walking. That's when it's really tough to get started again! Rather, plan to walk for periods. The "beauty" of Constantia Nek is that you're probably running it at 6, or even 7 min/km, and so if you walk, you don't really lose all that much time, but you save big on energy and effort. So don't be scared to say "I'm going to run this climb as two segments - 1km each with a 3 min walk break in between". That's a prudent strategy over 56km, if you need it.
Other than that, it's really just a matter of keeping positive - the climb is difficult not only for its steepness, but because you never really get a sense for how far away the top is, until you take the final bend, emerge from the trees and see it a few hundred meters in front of you. Having run and cycled it many times, I can relate to that frustration of telling yourself "Just one more bend to go", only to discover that what lies ahead is just another bend! So try to keep your discipline mentally, and stay positive - no negative self talk allowed. In my work with the SA Sevens team, we call this "Staying above the line", and that's key!
The video below shows the climb, from the marathon mark, to the top. Once at the top, you get a) massive crowd support, so soak that in, and b) a flat section, followed by a long descent, which I'll look at next time!
As always, questions welcome!