After completing the Salomon SkyRun in November last year, the bug bit and I soon realised that Ultra Trail running was something that I loved. Being a big guy- 100kg - Speed isn't my thing, but I can keep going for hours and enjoy the challenge the longer and tougher it gets.
Ultra Trail Drakensberg is 100km in length with 4 400m vertical climb and occupies an altitude window between 1 600m and 2 865m
While planning my 2017 race calendar which had the usual’s of Non Stop Dusi, Otter Trail Run and finishing with the Sky Run, the inaugural Ultra Trail Drakensberg caught my attention. I had run or rather waddled two Giants Cups before and absolutely loved the area and the trail which runs through the spectacular Maloti Drankensberg Park, so I decided to support Spurg and Matt from Running Man Adventures when they put on the first UTD. My race schedule went from busy to borderline crazy and I decided to approach Coach Neville to get some assistance with my training and build up for the race and year ahead. With events like the Non Stop Dusi getting in the way of my preparation, Coach Neville worked with me to get me to the start line in the best possible condition given my existing limitations. I had some health issues which had started at SkyRun, and Dr Lindsay almost pulled me off the route during my checkup at 60km on the SkyRun due to extremely high Blood Pressure. Together with Dr Mark Oliver we worked on my poor lung function and blood pressure and I was given the go ahead to race the UTD a few days before the race during my checkup.
Photo credit: Anthony Grote
The UTD had a fantastic start venue at the South African Border Post on the Sani Pass road. Spurg rang the cow bell at 5am and 42 eager athletes headed up the Sani Pass road. This had a few runnable sections, but generally a fast hike as we climbed over 1 000m in vertical gain within 8km. It was a chilly and clear morning, but the climb kept us warm and the banter was nervous and short as the climb stole my breath. I started a bit quick, and I only noticed this when I realised that I was running with Tracey Zunckel and Johann who is also a fellow Coach Neville athlete. I quickly slowed down so that I could rather keep company with my type of people and not the racing snakes. The dirt road up Sani Pass was relentless and took about 80 min to climb the 8km. The sunrise over the Drakensberg was something incredible, and had me trying to capture the spectacular view at every opportunity with my GoPro. While I was still climbing, Vincent Viet and Pedro Calderon came flying down the road. It was wonderful to see, but I commented to Richard who I was walking with that it was so unfair, as they are so small that they could fit in my back pocket!
Photo Credit: LeRoi Naude
At the turn at the top of the climb of 2 865m above sea level at the Highest Pub in Africa, we ran down the same road for about 5 km and my feet started to burn, and I knew that this would come back to bite me later. I stopped a few times to tighten my shoes as I was sliding in my shoes during the steep downhill, but nothing seemed to work, maybe something to do with an out of control 100kg Eland looking for an emergency stop. I have no doubt that I will lose a big toenail or two from this decent.
I arrived at CP1 which was about 4km down the hill before heading off onto some newly cut single track that the organisers are trying rehabilitate which traverses the Twelve Apostles. This was lumpy and uneven, and with most of the track falling off to the right which was challenging to me as I recently had ankle surgery on my right ankle from snapping my peroneus brevis tendon during my first Giants Cup. I spent the first part of the race with Tersius and we just enjoyed God's creation and the amazing views as a few eager runners scampered past. Once we got onto Khanti Ridge, the trail was better and we had a chance to enjoy some spectacular mountain running along this ridge.
The turnaround point at the top of Sani Pass
It was at this point that Steve Stott came running past who we decided to follow. Steve was my canoeing captain at Maritzburg College, so we spent the next few hours catching up on all the good old days. It was great to have Steve running with me as he had recently run the route and knew where all the streams were on the first section to full up bottles and wet our heads to keep our body temps down. I consume between 750ml and 1 000ml per hour, so knowing when I can refill is a great help. I also remember reading in Ryan Sandes' book that you should refill your bottles at every opportunity as you never know what may happen. I lived this and hardly every passed a stream or a pool without replenishing my bottles and washing my face and dunking my hat.
Just before descending into Sani Pass Hotel we passed Anouk who I only know from Strava and Facebook and one Westcliff Steps session where we bumped into each other while training for Otter. Anouk was having a bad day and said she was going to bail! We encouraged her to keep pushing, but understand when the body just doesn't respond.
We had a quick descent into Sani Pass Hotel where we were welcomed by a festive crowd including my amazing pit crew of my beautiful wife who had just done her first trail race; the two day Rock Jumper, and Devan Slabbert who had my bottles changed, sun cream applied and food shoved down my throat in a few minutes. I also changed my clothes from my warm morning gear, my socks hoping that it would help my feet with fresh socks and some new lube and gave my headlamp to Devan to replace the batteries which I would pay for later, school boy error! As I headed out for CP2, Mike De Haast shouted that I must be leading the Buffalo category. This is something I have been joking about for a while, but actually think race organisers should introduce a category for us bigger guys over 90kg. Steve, Tersius and myself headed out along the golf course towards the beautiful Gxalingenwa Gorge which is one of my favorite sections. The river is breathtaking and the pools, rapids and waterfalls are so inviting, and I was tempted to take a swim. The temperature was climbing and we took every river crossing as an opportunity to wet our heads. We then had a steep climb before going through a cave in which I didn't see any bushman paintings, before we had an awesome flowing few kilometers towards Cobham over the hanging bridge to CP3.
This was the half way mark of the race .At CP3 we had a compulsory 10 min stop which I took full advantage of as I needed to give my blisters on my heels some attention. After strapping my feet up, applying Vaseline, new socks and even new shoes, I was almost ready to go. My wife stuffed some tuna, rice and mayo down my throat while Devan refilled my pack with new juice, water and food. Devan had to rush off to take on the SDR 30km, so his assistance was amazing, but now it was his time to race. Steve and myself headed out of Cobham slowly as I was limping as the new strapping on my blisters obviously hadn't settled. We started off straight into another big climb which I was power hiking up. Steve kept on saying that I should go ahead as he was reconsolidating. Fascinated by this reconsolidating thing, I asked what the hell that is? It is apparently when he goes slower and eats and drinks lots so he can try find himself ..! He said I should go ahead and we could meet later.
Steve appreciating the view, caught by my GoPro on our way to Khanti Ridge
I pushed for a few minutes before deciding that I preferred company and someone to chat to, so I waited for Steve again and thankfully so as Steve almost got zapped by a Rinkhals that I noticed just as he ran past it which caused me to make some massive evasive action which must have looked like an octopus falling out of a tree - zero finesse!. We both had a look at this Rinkhals before deciding to get away as he turned towards us. After arriving at Mzimkhulwana which was CP4 at 58 km, we headed up a big climb which I think was Crane Turn. While climbing this hill, I asked Steve what time sunset was, as the sun was starting to head behind the mountains slowly but surely.
This was when I realised my school boy error and for some reason I didn't take my headlamp back from Devan at CP2. I also had this smart ass idea that I would use two packs during this race, and both packs would have all the compulsory gear. But my evening pack would have extra warm gear, external power sources to charge my watch and phone, extra headlamps after my headlamp failure at SkyRun and music for the night section. I soon started to panic and realised that I might be running with my iPhone light again if I didn't get a move on. I told Steve that I would push hard for Castleburn at CP5 which was the 70km mark. I think I ran my fastest 9km with the fear of running out of light.
Descending into Sani Pass Hotel and CP2 Photo Credit: Xavier Briel
I arrived at CP5 feeling great and really happy with how I had felt during the last section. It made me think that I should have pushed harder earlier as my legs had felt good, but knew that a conservative start is always a good thing and Coach Neville had advised me to do so. Just before arriving at the checkpoint, we had to run through the uMzimkhulu river which wet the feet just before the night section. I came into the checkpoint and was welcomed by my wife and Desire who helped me change my socks and get warm for the night section which was quickly approaching. I scoffed down some more tuna, rice and mayo mix and drank a recovery shake. I noticed a fellow athlete Juan Carstens heading out of CP5 who I was eager to catch as I wasn't keen to keep myself company for the last 30km. I had a quick turnaround, quickly said hello to Dr Lindsay before heading for the big climb up the face of Garden Castle which then heads up Black Eagle Pass and then turns towards Rhino Peak which we had run a few weeks before during the Trail Magazine Trail Camp. Unfortunately I only got half way up the climb before I had to switch my head lamp on.
Tempted to take a swim before the climb as Steve tops up his bottles
When I caught up to Juan he was battling with nausea and couldn't get food down, I tried to encourage him to do so as it is essential to keep eating and drinking. It remind me of saying “eat before you are hungry, and drink before you are thirsty" which is so true and important with ultra racing. Juan was battling to keep up on the climb, but we managed to have a good chat for about 20min and even discovered that he had encountered the same Rinkhals which he obviously did a poor job of chasing off the route. I left Juan on the way Swiman Hut which was the final check point at 85km. This checkpoint had an amazing atmosphere with the crowds cheering us on from a distance and when I arrived everyone got involved and tried to help in any way possible. I drank some soup and topped up my bottles and was eager to head off for the final lonely section. It was also at this CP that I noticed a few athletes who had bailed, which is always so sad to see as you can see the massive disappointment on their faces. But I always know they will be back, more determined and more prepared than ever before as trail runners are a special breed of people.
Steve walking into Cobham and CP3 at the 50km mark
Heading out of CP6 I pushed my pace a bit, but I battled to run as I kept on tripping, maybe just lazy feet, poor concentration or bad lighting, but I worked out that I could power hike with a few shorts runs at 10min/km which was far safer and more enjoyable than trying to run and trip at 8-9min/km up the hills on the last section. My initial plan was to try get as far as I could in daylight, and then to just power hike through the dark hours. It had taken a lot longer than expected on the first 40km, so I had 28km in the dark compared to the planned 15km. At the 90km mark I crossed the Mzimude River which is followed by a massive climb that seemed to take forever. You couldn't see much, but it just kept on going up and up and up! On a few occasions I realized that not much separated me from a massive drop to the left, so I tried my best to keep on route. The organizers did an amazing job marking and cutting the trail, so I didn't even take a GPS and felt in control at all times. During this climb I kept on thinking about an amazing movie I had watched called Hacksaw Ridge, and all I kept on saying is" one more kilometre Lord" as I passed each km and my watch beeped. You find strange ways to keep your motivation up during the night hours! At the top of the climb I knew I was on the home stretch, I picked up the pace and caught a few of the SDR runners who were battling through the final stages of their race.
Coming into CP 5 - Castleburn at 70km
On the rocky decent which was challenging as it had lots of loose slate and water flowing down, I took it very easy as this wouldn't be a great time to fall. I passed Spurg who was heading out onto the route to bring in a few of the back markers which was great to see. The last section I had to climb through a few fences and run along the river towards Bushmans Neck Hotel. During this section I ran around a corner and was confronted by two shiny eyes looking straight at me a few meters ahead. I shat myself and turned my headlamp onto bright and noticed an unimpressed beast that was just staring at me. I first checked to see what tackle it had between the legs, and once I noticed the package, I took a wide detour as I didn't have the energy to do any bull fighting at 98km! I headed up towards the hotel, up a steep little climb onto the lawns of the Bushmans Neck Hotel where I was welcomed by Mbulelo - the people's champ and my family and friends. I loved the race and the experience of racing on this spectacular route. I always learn so much when out running in the mountains and am always so grateful to have the ability and means to spend time running in the mountains, this is such a massive blessing! I finished in 18 hours 25 min and in 16th position. My goal was to finish before midnight and I did that comfortably, so I leave this race motivated and excited about my future challenges. I am not sure if I won the Eland category, but didn't notice many other runners over 80kg never mind 100kg! Also Anouk who I know pushed through and fought some serious demons out there, your race was an inspiration to me, well done for not giving up! This race and festival will no doubt continue to grow, as it is on a spectacular route and run by quality people! Until 2018, Cheers