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Running Strong as a Base for Adventure and Ultra Racing

July 20, 2013

Lisa de Speville is a writer, runner and race director who discovered adventure racing and never went back. Running, however, is at the core of everything she does.

By Lisa de Speville

Lisa de Speville is a writer, runner and race director who discovered adventure racing and never went back. Running, however, is at the core of everything she does.

I’ve been running longer than I haven’t. I started off as a sprinter (100m and 200m) in school. A friend on the athletics team with me one day invited me to a 10km road race. I would have been 15 or 16 then. His dad was a regular road runner. He ran the whole way with me and I did just over 60 minutes. They would swing past and fetch me on a Sunday morning to go to road races, and it must have been on my third race that I ran sub-60 hour. It was a night run on a week-night evening. What a rush that was!

I kept up road running from then. Initially it was just races on the weekends, and gradually I started training during the week. At varsity, I got into underwater hockey. I stopped running road races for a few years, but I always kept up my running. I got back into racing about 1998 and got into half marathons. My times dropped with every race, and I hit a PR of 1:36 for the half.LISA1

A few years ago I decided to try a 12-hour circuit race; I did 98km in the 12 hours and was 1st female and 3rd overall. Result would have put me 25th in the previous year’s IAU rankings.

As much as I love running, the minute I tried an adventure race I was hooked.


I started adventure racing in mid-1999, when a chap named Zirk Botha launched a series of three events—a 180km, a 250km and a 500km. A friend saw a double page spread in the South Africa edition of Runner’s World mag and phoned me to say there was something I’d be interested in. I went out and bought the mag that afternoon, phoned a friend, chatted to another and within two weeks had a team. We didn’t have enough time to do the first event so we jumped blindly into the 250km, and that was it for me. Total life conversion. I started off navigating in my first race and I haven’t stopped. Multiday racing just works for me.

I got into orienteering to improve my navigation skills, and from there got into regaining. By mid-2000 I’d done a 250km, 500km and another 180km adventure race with a 250km on the horizon. I de-registered from my studies at university—all I wanted to do was race.

I started AR.co.za in 2001, the AR Club in 2002 (a multidiscipline sports club). In late 2001, after participating in the Camel White Water Challenge on the Zambezi, I returned home and was asked by a magazine to write a product review on a bivvy bag. I got passed from person to person and ended up with an invitation to the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme, a seven-day staged ultra in South Africa, in the Northern Cape.

This race was a big turning point for me. I was self-sufficient, but sweltering hot by early morning. I took it really, really easy. By the ultra stage, my feet were sore and I had a couple of blisters; but otherwise, I was fine. I started off that afternoon with some guys at the back. One was sweeping and collecting trail markers; the other has really, really bad ITB, so I’d been encouraging him along.

It took us two hours to do 10km, and I just thought, “I’ve got another 70 to go, and I don’t think I can take being on my feet for another 14 hours—or more!”

I left the guys and started running. Initially I ran just the flats and walked the ups, and then I just kept running, covering every 10km ‘set’ in about 1:10. I started overtaking people early on, and then just ran on my own the rest of the night. The Northern Cape has the most magnificent open sky with clear, clear visibility. Absolutely memorable! When I got to the end of the stage at about 05:30, just as it was starting to get light, I was completely pumped. I could barely go to sleep. I just wanted to keep on running and running and running.

“I passed so many people over the last 20km. What fun that was. i could have run forever!”

Through my writing, I got a slot on the inaugural Jungle Marathon in Brazil in September 2003. I placed first female and about 10th overall. That’s where I met Rebekah Trittipoe. She might have been able to beat me, if she hadn’t been so ill for a few days. I thrived in that environment. Generally, races with tough terrain where conditions are difficult seem to suit me. In January 2005, I ran the inaugural Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica. I was 5th or 6th female—I certainly wouldn’t have placed higher. This race wasn’t self-sufficient, and I’m definitely not fast enough to take down women who run a 2:50 marathon.


I was in the U.S. in September 2004 to write for Primal Quest. I tied in the trip with visiting buddy, Bob, in Virginia. After that, we met up in Pennsylvania for Mountain Back, which we ran as a ‘Supra Pair’—a relay format over the 80km distance. Long story, but I’d missed my flight in Washington, and convinced two guys to share a hire car and drive through (I couldn’t drive in the U.S.). I’d gotten in at about 4:30 p.m. and slept for an hour and a half before the race start! Bob and I won the pairs category: We did an 8:48 run. What a beautiful and a lovely race.LISA

Two weeks later was Mountain Masochist. Unfortunately, I lost a dear friend in South Africa died so I’d been a bit wrecked pre-race. I felt terrible for a stage between 30-40km, and then I totally rocked it. I passed so many people over the last 20km. What fun that was. I could have run forever!

In early 2006 I met up with Bob again in Hawaii for HURT. During the 100-miler portion I came in after the first lap way faster than I’d expected, although I felt like I was taking it easy. I took it slower on the second lap—I was running in same time zone as Catra Corbett. Going into the 3rd lap, I knew we were not going to make the 36-hour cutoff. My thighs were also really taking strain, so I decided to switch distances, and do a 100km finish. I think I was 6th female on the 100km which took about 20 hours, but I was disappointed that I didn’t decide to divert to the shorter distance sooner because then I could have aimed for a better placing on the 100km.

“As much as I love running, the minute I tried an adventure race I was hooked.”

I competed in the Himalayan Stage Race in India in October 2007, the Rogaine World Champs in Estonia in 2008, and in June 2012, I did the 24-hour Rogaine Ireland with an Irish chap I met in person the day before.


Forest Run is the product of many visits to the beautiful Komatiland Forests’ Belfast plantation in South Africa over the past decade. We use this area for orienteering and rogaining (long-distance, time-limited, point-score navigation) events, as the forests are top-quality underfoot. In 2007, I had the idea to organize a one-day, ultra-distance trail run after taking part in a number of events locally and in the U.S. I have now been participating regularly in trail races (staged, ultra) for almost 15 years locally and abroad, and it was due time for me to be on the other side. It took those 8 years (plus a bit) for me to actually get around to it!

Putting together a marked-route event is decidedly different from the navigation-based events that I usually organize, as the one thing that I most worry about is for runners to take a wrong turn. The race is 62km and goes through beautiful terrain; so now I have Adventure Lisa’s Forest Run.

Adventure racing suits me because I always juggle things—work, play, tasks, hobbies, sport. So yes, I mountain bike and paddle and all the other bits that are part of adventure racing. I’m also into yoga, I teach pole dance classes (been into pole for 4 years now), and two weeks ago I joined a ‘circus school’ focusing on the aerial disciplines. I laugh when I remember that at university, my professor and supervisor would always say to me, “Lisa, I wish you’d just focus on one thing!” Twelve years down the line, I’m even worse!

No rest for the wicked!

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