SA trail champion and K-Way athlete Nicolette Griffioen continues to dominate ultra trail races since bursting onto the scene in 2014 when she won the 100km Ultra-Trail Cape Town (UTCT).

She continued her winning streak through 2015 with numerous victories, including the Ultra Trail Mount Moodie (87km), achieving both the SA long-distance champion 2015 and SA ultra-trail champion 2015 titles, respectively.

Later that year she represented South Africa in the IAU World Ultra Trail Champs (85km) in Annecy, France, achieving a top 25 finish as first South African female finisher. Some weeks later she competed at the Festival Les Templiers (75km) in France for the SA team and finished in 6th place.

The following year saw Nicolette winning the 2016 SA ultra-distance champs at the Hout Bay Ultra Challenge (68km), qualifying her again for the SA team, this time for the Long Distance Mountain Running World Champs (42km) in Slovenia, where she finished 5th woman and first SA finisher. Just a few months later she won the gruelling 100km Skyrun and remains the women’s record holder.

Nature lover

A 5th-year veterinary science student, Nicolette has to juggle her running with studying. Gentle and quietly strong, Nicolette is modest yet matter of fact about her running talent. She started running during Matric, taking 3km runs around the block to break from her studies. A year later she ran her first race, a 10km trail run in the Magaliesberg, where she finished third. That’s when the trail bug bit!

More heartfelt about the nature of the trail than the distance, Nicolette loves challenges between 40km and 100km, and the more mountainous and technical, the better.

Her most recent success came at the 2019 Skyrun, where she won the women’s 38km race in 4:47:11, a mere four minutes behind the overall male winner. As she prepares to take on the 2019 UTCT, we caught up with Nicolette to find out what drives this elite ultra-endurance athlete.

What does your typical training day look like?

A typical training day for me usually involves some form of morning movement. It depends on my day’s schedule but will typically be a short, easy session of running or swimming to mentally prepare me for the day ahead.

I feel that swimming acts as a great complement to my running. It’s zero-impact but still strengthens my cardiovascular system and forces me to be aware and in control of my respiratory rate and depth.

My afternoon session will then be my proper training run, between 12 and 20 kilometres, occasionally with a dedicated target such as hill repeats or some speed work. Generally, though, I prefer simple, long miles at an easy pace.

Do you follow a specific meal plan? What kind of food does she eat before a race or in preparation for a race?

I don’t follow a specific eating plan but do try to be mindful of feeding my body a high-quality diet. I’m a big advocate of eating only ethically sourced meat, but this can make it challenging to consume sufficient protein to satisfy the nutritional demands of long-distance running.

I enjoy fish from family fishing trips and supplement with chicken when necessary, but avoid all commercial red meat and pork.

I aim for a large part of my daily energy to come from natural, raw and whole foods such as nuts, fruit and vegetables.

My weak points, which I succumb to on a daily basis, are chocolate and cheese! Cheese is at least extra protein though, and dark chocolate isn’t too bad either. I don’t change my diet at all before an event.

What keeps you motivated?

The knowledge that I’m able to improve with hard work and dedication. And as I love trail running, it’s not that difficult to put in the effort required.

I do, of course, have days when I don’t feel like training, but I’m usually able to find a small motivator to get me going. Often, it’s just the struggle to get out the door and within a few kilometres, you can’t understand why you weren’t keen to run.

I use simple things to inspire me to get out, such as planning a new route, sometimes not planning at all and just running spontaneously, wearing different shoes (my barefoot shoes always make me happy) or thinking of the delicious meal I’m going to enjoy after the run! Everyone is different – work with your personal reward system to motivate yourself on tough days.

What’s your greatest trail running moment?

Winning and setting a new female record on the beautiful Skyrun 100km course in 2016. It was my first time running the race, I had zero expectations, I ran with my heart and enjoyed every step, and in the end, I was fortunate to have the perfect day.

Nicolette’s top 5 tips for someone preparing for a trail run race:

  1. Train on the trail. Don’t wait until race day to experience the underfoot variability of trail running.
  2. Invest in a good pair of trail running shoes. Yes, shoes are expensive, but an unsuitable pair can negatively and unnecessarily influence your perception of trail running.
  3. Be mentally prepared to be slower and out for longer than on any road run you’ve ever completed.
  4. Consider swimming or cycling as a form of cross-training to strengthen the multiple muscle groups that trail running engages.
  5. Take time to enjoy the peace, quiet and amazing natural environments that trail races traverse and you will feel even more fulfilled than after “just running”.