Article by Chris Wilcock

The Event

The Picaroon

Having a fondness for quirky events I entered the Picaroon held by Pirates Club on 24 June 2018.

The Picaroon which is billed by the organisers as “Joburg’s coldest and dirtiest tri-event” is held in mid-winter every year to raise funds for the Pirates Running Club’s development programme.

The event comprises:

  • A 24 km MTB cycle followed by a
  • 5km trail run and
  • last, but not least, a 60m swim. In a dam. In Joburg. In mid-winter. Sans wetsuit…

According to the organisers there are no times, no medals, just loads of fun. This is an informal unofficial event so there are also no marshalls, no route markings, no traffic control, no race number bibs nor any of the other typical trappings of an organised event. There is however plenty of camaraderie and fun.

The entry fee is a nominal R100 which entitles participants to participate in any or all of the disciplines. Even spectators are encouraged to join in the swim. Oddly enough there weren’t many takers for that!

All entrants receive the iconic, sought after Picaroon floppy hat!

My Picaroon Experience

Being a fan of all endurance events and having followed the Iron Man events I have been keen to try out some multi-sport events to add to my normal running and trail activities. Being an informal event with manageable distances, the Picaroon seemed to be the ideal first attempt at a triathlon of sorts.

And so it turned out to be.

The Cycle

This is the discipline which I approached with the most trepidation. Justifiably. I last cycled any distance in primary school and that was a long, long, long time ago. My total preparation for the 24km Picaroon MTB ride was a 40 minute ride to figure out how the 24-speed gears worked on my borrowed mountain bike. My primary school bike didn’t have any gears, let alone 24…

I must say right from the start that cycling is not my thing. I regard cycling as a mode of transport rather than a sport. As Bertie Wooster might put it I would rather be found dead in a ditch than be seen in public in cycling tights.

But it is only 24km and mostly on the Braamfontein Spruit trail so how hard could it be? And I could wear baggy shorts.

After some preliminary “formalities” we set off on a chilly winter’s morning suitably wrapped up. The experienced riders disappeared into the distance while I wobbled a bit uncertainly onto the Braamfontein Spruit trail. I soon realised that cycling is not as easy as it looks, especially on a narrow bumpy trail without route markings. We were given a map but all my concentration was on trying to stay upright and out of the way of the many weekend warriors (runners and cyclists) whizzing down the trail.

Before I got totally lost I managed to join up with a small group led by organiser, David Case, who very kindly stopped every now and again to let us slower ones catch up. The usual “mechanicals” of tangled chains, binding brakes and wheels caked in thick mud impeded progress but my main problem was just staying upright and out of the way of the faster and more experienced riders.

The Spruit on a Sunday morning is very busy with many runners and riders enjoying the fresh air on a crisp morning. I have to admit that I got in the way of quite a few other riders but the tolerance of the other trail users was heart-warming. Not one person got impatient and my rueful “Sorry!” was invariably met with a cheery “No problem!”

After a while I figured out that trying to ride slowly and carefully made me more unsteady. When approaching obstacles and narrow bits it is better to throw caution to the winds and go full out hoping to stay upright and not crash into anything. When going slowly the probability of falling is higher but the consequences are less dramatic. Full tilt means less chance of falling but a higher risk of serious injury. Some choice!

The route which took in Delta Park, Albert’s Farm and the Botanical Gardens, is by no means a technical route but there are quite a few tricky bits: narrow openings in fences, dodgy looking wooden bridges and a metal contraption leading into a pitch dark tunnel all had to be negotiated. Wobbling over the dam wall at Albert’s Farm, I was presented with the option of falling to the left down the embankment or falling to the right into the water. One of our group chose a tumble down the embankment and emerged dishevelled but fortunately largely unscathed. I closed my eyes, pedalled hard and somehow managed to stay upright and reach the other side dry and with all skin present and correct. Trying the same trick along a fence-line in the Gardens I was not so fortunate and left some skin behind.

After a few spills and a seriously battered butt I was happy to turn into the Pirates Club and do a lap of honour over the sports fields to gratefully dismount in the “transition” area. Here was a self-help refreshment station to fuel up before the running leg.

In true Pirates’ spirit the urn contained gluhwein…

Trying to figure out how this infernal machine works!
A group of riders setting off on a chilly June morning
Cycle leg done!

The Run

This is me looking happy to be off the bike and back on my own two feet before setting off on the run

I was more than happy to get both feet onto terra firma and set off on an enjoyable run through Delta Park and the Botanical Gardens before heading back to Pirates.

Running appeals to minimalists. We just lift one foot, move it forward, put it down, do the same with the other foot and repeat for as long as it takes. Much easier than cycling! Being a bit clumsy I also however have to remember not to trip over stuff, crash into things, fall off mountains or, my personal favourite, slip off stepping stones into freezing mountain streams. And at the Rhodes Ultra next week, add: don’t slip on ice or fall into snow drifts!

The Run Route

The yellow stars indicate the “checkpoints.” These were old books bought from a charity shop, hanging from trees. To check in you tear out the page corresponding to your race number. This gets handed in at the end to be checked, or not.

I found the run quite hard after the cycle leg which had caused some muscle damage but I thoroughly enjoyed the run through Delta Park and around the Botanical Gardens.

The last kilometre or so was an easy road section back to Pirates from where we drove to Emmerentia Dam for the swim.

The Swim

Each participant’s times for the cycle and run were recorded and then everyone waited until all had completed the run, in order to swim in one batch. We then drove to Emmerentia Dam to brave the cold water.

I wasn’t too worried about the swim as it is only 60m. But the water was cold, really cold!

Normally, after the initial shock of diving into cold water, I warm up quite quickly after starting to swim. But this water was so cold that I felt cold to the core before I had even got to the turning buoy and just got colder and colder. I started out with a few strokes of freestyle but my face got so numb that I soon switched to breaststroke just to be able to keep my head out of the water.

I was really glad to get to the end. If it was 100m I think I might have had to be rescued!

I don’t want to say anything more about the swim other than that the warm shower at Pirates afterwards was heaven!

The Party

No Pirates event is complete without some socialising! Sitting outside in the sun with a mug of hot tea followed by a couple of cold beers waiting for the spitbraai to be served was very pleasant.

Next Year

The Picaroon is now firmly on my list of events not to be missed. I have a year to learn to ride the bike. And to obtain a pair of padded cycling shorts!

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