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Home / Blog / Knysna Extreme Triathlon: What I learnt sharing a race course with wild animals

Knysna Extreme Triathlon: What I learnt sharing a race course with wild animals

Racing can take you out of your comfort zone – as adventurer Sean McFarlane found when he entered the Knysna Extreme Triathlon and faced 229km of African off-road terrain and wildlife…

Here come the ostriches. Moving at an impressive pace, their necks rise high above the fence line that thankfully separates them from me.

As they effortlessly run alongside me as I ride, I tuck my head down and try to console myself with the thought that at least I’m more aerodynamic than them. Yet with so much to see, this isn’t the place for head-down riding.

On the other side of the road, another flock of ostriches approach, rushing as if they don’t want to miss the party.

The antelope I’d passed five minutes ago seemed much more relaxed, sitting down and not fussed about anything. This is the bike leg of the Knysna Extreme Triathlon in South Africa.

Although I’m thousands of miles from home, races like this tend to have a habit of making you think the world’s a pretty small place with people from all over the planet sharing a common interest and passion.

But this event is unique. The organiser tells us at race briefing that the sharks tend not to come into the swim area and that an elephant lives on the run course. A couple of his previous races this year have had bother from a giraffe and rhino, respectively.

This really is a whole new world to me: the natural world meets extreme triathlon. To be a very small part of this awesome union feels daunting but exhilarating. I often get asked why I do events like this. This is why.

“As I approach ‘Wilderness’, we turn off the coastal road and leave the Indian Ocean behind”

Pushing comfort zones

I’d been interested in the Knysna Extreme Triathlon for the past three years and had been in touch during that time with race organiser, Sean Sandiford.

The Southern Hemisphere has always attracted me but, like so many of us, the travel requirements had up until now put me off. I was apprehensive about going, entirely due to the ‘couldn’t be bothered’ angle.

Yet I have increasingly become aware of a general reluctance by many of us not to do anything that could possibly involve even a modicum of hassle, an attitude I’m sure made worse by lockdown.

I know it’s not healthy do to so – the brain needs exercise just as much as the body. So, with a bit of a pep talk from my wife, I sorted the considerable logistics involved – a process I could feel taking me out of my comfort zone and doing me good – and headed south.

Arriving in Knysna a couple of days before the race, I immediately felt at ease, with locals very pleased myself and my fellow entrants had made the effort to come. It was a most welcomed welcome. A check to see both bike and body had made it, and I was good to go.

The longest swim

Swimmers bob in the water before the start of the 2023 Knysna XTri
Athletes battled 5km of tidal currents in the Knysna Estuary. (Credit: Devin Paisley)

Extreme triathlons are not known for their exact distances. For this one, a very lumpy 174km bike had a 5km swim before it and a 50km off-road run after.

I was confident I could swim for a long time, albeit slowly. The run held the biggest fear factor, so the aim was to take the bike in such a way as to arrive at transition two fairly fresh. Well, that was the plan…

Dawn was just about breaking as I set up transition. A short swim the day before had reassured me that the water temperature was fine.

But there seemed to be a collective feeling of lethargy as one by one we entered the water, ready for the start. No mad rush.

The swim course is a very thin rectangle, with the current helping and hindering in equal measure. It takes a while to reach the first buoy, but I feel the current assisting as I turn and it’s quicker progress now.

The water is very pleasant and for this, the longest swim of my life, I’m just focusing on getting it done. After the final turnaround buoy, I catch a few others then drop back. I come out midway to encouraging cries from my supporter Terri.

I’m pleased to reach dry land with no aches. Job done, for now at least.

A cyclist round a bend on the Knysna XTri 2023 bike course
The 174km bike course features a debilitating 3,000m elevation. (Credit: Devin Paisley)

The start of the bike is flat and quick, but the first climb gives my legs a good dose of reality. The hard shoulder is wide and lacking any of the small stones and litter we get back home so I feel safe there.

Also, very unusually in these races, my support car is asked to drive almost the entire bike and run course behind me with the hazard lights on and with a race sticker.

Terri judges things just right, finding that elusive balance between encouraging me and heading off up the road a bit when needed. Suffering is sometimes
best done alone.

“The entire run is on a wide gravel track cutting through the forest. It’s stunning and I try to harness some of nature’s energy”

As I approach the wonderfully named town of Wilderness, we turn off the coastal road, leaving the Indian Ocean behind. The mountains ahead look ominously high and my legs quiver at the sight of them. For good reason too, as
the gradient now ramps up enormously.

This is properly steep, at least 25% in parts. I should get off and walk as others do (my running shoes are in the car behind me) but I see a photographer who’s clearly enjoying the scene and I feel I have to carry on riding.

It’s a mistake, though, as this short section takes far too big a toll. I’m nowhere near recovered as we approach the famous Outeniqua Pass. I look down, hoping for an extra cog or two. With the heat building, I’m struggling. I’ve just got to get over this.

The scenery is spectacular as the mountains wrap around me. Yup, this is extreme triathlon. The 800m sign at the top is great to see, and I relish the freewheeling and cooling descent afterwards. I just wish there was more of it.

This area of the course feels very different. More barren and very sparsely populated, at first I admire the engineer who designed these incredibly long and perfectly straight sections of road. Three hours later and I shout out to Terri’s horror what I’ll do to that engineer if I ever find them!

Sean McFarlane on the bike leg of the 2023 Knysna XTri
The final climb had Sean and his rivals zig-zagging all over the road. (Credit: Rory Scheffer)

It’s tough terrain. It looks great and should be fast, but these long roads go on forever and always finish with a steady rise that on each occasion becomes harder. I ask Terri to grab me a caffeine energy drink as I feel myself seriously flagging.

She drives off into the distance, returning with a can of Red Bull that seems to do the job. It does feel a bit desperate, though. The final climb has me zig-zagging but I’m not alone. Overtaking fellow zig-zaggers is not an easy thing to do.

The final ascent is about 10km, but a will to get to the end picks up my pace. A lemur walks across the finish line ahead of me just for good measure”

Into T2 and my bandy-legged John Wayne walk is obvious for all to see. Sitting in the boot of the car to change, I could easily go to sleep. Not the best feeling to start a 50km off-road run, but the body does give you more when needed and I know that. I jog off and try to find a rhythm.

The entire run is on a wide gravel track cutting deep through the forest. It’s stunning and I try to take it all in and harness some of nature’s energy.

Runners on the Knysna XTri gravel track run course
The compact but forgiving gravel tracks offer a degree of comfort for tired limbs. (Credit: Rory Scheffer)

One thing you must be fully prepared for in many extreme triathlon races is being on your own for large parts. Terri is close but the next competitor is 15 minutes ahead. I feel pretty alone but the array of noises tells me I’m far from the only life form here.

Suddenly I run past a house full of noises and the residents shout at me. Terri tells me they are saying, “Your courage will get you through.” It stirs my emotions and lifts me.

The ascents are just on the limit of what I can now run – walking bits seems just as quick. The final ascent is long – about 10km. It ends with the final checkpoint from where a combination of the gradually descending track and a will to get to the end picks up my pace.

A lemur walks across the finish line ahead of me just for good measure.

Heat and tummy trouble

I finish 11th solo in 16 hours and 37 minutes, the longest time I’ve ever taken in an extreme triathlon. I feel surprisingly okay at the finish, but I’ve endured huge and prolonged dips all day since the swim.

The heat has certainly got to me, particularly on the bike. With the airflow it’s more difficult to be fully aware of it, but I’ve had similar problems in the past so am disappointed to have not used that experience properly.

My stomach wasn’t great on the run especially towards the end – so much so that I took on no nutrition or liquid at all for almost the last two hours. If these events are now going to take me so long, I really need to sort that out.

The physical boost I got when I overtook two others late on in the run was incredible – I’d love to know the chemicals involved and be able to consume them!

Sean McFarlane celebrates completing Knysna XTri 2023 with his faithful supporter, Terri
Sean celebrates completing the race with his faithful supporter, Terri. (Credit: Devin Paisley)

I felt a huge debt to Terri – my estimated times were far quicker than I’d managed – and she’d faithfully stuck by me all the way.

She’s local to Knysna and having her support me added to the wonderful feeling of making a connection with the area and the people here through an incredible and unforgettable experience.

The same was true of organiser Sean and many of his team, including his partner, and his mum and dad.

Once again, extreme triathlon gives so much more than just swim, bike and run, and that makes a big difference. I did feel a huge sense of achievement at the finish. It’d been a massive physical challenge but also the logistics and planning involved had greatly increased the effort needed.

I could have easily just stayed at home on the sofa but was so very glad I hadn’t… A lesson we can all learn from.

Let’s Go

Close up of an athlete's leg bleeding as he crosses the finish line of the 2023 Knysna XTri
The Knysna Extreme Triathlon will take you to your physical and psychological limits. (Credit: Rory Scheffer)

Enter the event
Find out more at knysnaextreme.co.za. There’s also a half-distance race (ish!) which incorporates a 2.5km swim, 100km bike and 30km run.

How to get there
British Airways, Finnair and Virgin all currently fly direct to Cape Town from London. Several other airlines fly there from other parts of the UK with a flight change and these tend to be cheaper. From Cape Town, you can hire a car and drive to Knysna (475km) or you can take a short flight to George, hire a car from there and then drive an hour to Knysna, as I did. Same side of the road for driving as the UK.

Where to stay
Self-catering, good quality accommodation is plentiful in Knysna and easily found online. The pound is very strong against the South African Rand so the cost of living there for Brits is low. Eating out is high quality and very affordable.

How to make a week of it
Unsurprisingly, there’s an enormous amount to do here, particular if you love the outdoors. Knysna is on the well-known Garden Route. I stayed for a week afterwards, just scraped the surface of what there was to do and had a fantastic time. The local tourist website is as good a place as any to start.

Top image credit: Mountain Room/Rory Scheffer & D Paisley

Profile image of Sean McFarlane Sean McFarlane Journalist, triathlete, film producer and sports manager


Freelance journalist and keen triathlete Sean writes for a wide range of publications, all of which promote various forms of outdoor adventure and exercise. He also produces promotional short films of some of the most spectacular landscapes on earth in partnership with This Way Up Media. Through his work, he actively promotes the swim, bike and run options on offer in some of Scotland's, Europe's and the world's most exciting areas. At home this includes recent projects in Loch Ness, Kintyre, Cowal and the Outer Hebrides. Further afield he has ongoing projects in Sweden, Italy, South Africa and Cyprus. Through his sporting career and as a well-established and successful triathlete, he now acts as a race consultant and corporate event organiser for a range of clients, both domestically and overseas. In addition, his work with Athletico Management allows him to manage some of Scotland’s finest sporting talent. He now works with a new You Tube channel, Always Another Adventure, which aims to help and inspire as many people as possible to get outside, raise their heart rate and have a whole load of fun along the way.