In this world of sanitised adventure, the Mnweni 38km marathon trail race in the Drakensberg remains the exception. It is a run for hardcore, trail purists made more extreme this past Saturday by plunging temperatures and a snow blizzard.
For the uninitiated, this is a self-navigation, self-supporting race (using GPS co-ordinates and no water points). There is no cell phone reception and no medical support or rescue service on hand. Runners ascend the Mnweni pass, achieving over 1 000m in vertical altitude gain in just 2.5km, cross the source of the Orange river at the summit, before descending the Rockeries, a treacherous zig-zig down the mountain. The total vertical gain on the run is 2 100m.
Organising the race is a labour of love by Skyrun legend, Bruce Arnett, who started it in 2001. This race is not for those who measure their worth by how many medals and T-shirts they accumulate. There are no prizes, no medals, no T-shirts … nada. But what you do get for your R180 entry fee (yes that’s not a typo … just R180) is an unforgettable day running in the mountains with like-minded souls, and memories to cherish.
An indication of how tough those who compete are, is that despite the extreme weather with metre-deep snow and a snow blizzard, of the 191 starters, 187 finished. That’s right, just four runners did not make it. Of these 183 made it within the cut-off time with Francois Stoltz the last man home in 11.44. Now my maths isn’t that good, but this is an incredibly high finish percentage.
An early view of what awaited us up Mnweni Pass. Photographer unknown
I decided to do the run as part of my training for the 100km Salomon Skyrun in November as I had never tried self-navigating before. I have a reputation for getting lost on marked trails so navigation was clearly a skill I needed to master. In April I ran the trail with some of my runners and promptly got lost. While Marzelle van der Merwe and Pierre Jordaan bounded off ahead, Elani van Zyl and I spent 13 hours cold and soaking wet, finishing around 9pm. It was great fun, but I ruefully decided I wasn’t fit enough to do the race and gave my entry to a delighted Pierre. But two weeks before the race I was talked into doing it by one of my runners Cornel van Heerden, who was doing it.
Fast forward to the race and the weather forecast was minus 8 degrees at 8am and snow. In 40 years of running I have never run in this white, powdery stuff and was hoping for snow … and lots of it. Good gear becomes critical in extreme weather conditions at high altitude and as Line Tresselt, a Norwegian runner I used to coach, always told me “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear”. I was fortunately able to tap in to the experience of one of my runners, John Black, who has not only run numerous Skyruns, but also successfully climbed Mt Everest, and he gave me some great advice on gear.
My gear comprised a Salomon 12 Advanced Skin hydration pack, two base layers (Nike and First Ascent), a Salomon mid-layer, Salomon lightweight rain jacket, Salomon skull cap, waterproof gloves with inners and Mac in a Pac lightweight waterproof trousers. Shoes were Salomon Marin which gave good grip with nary a blister. A lightweight Black diamond head torch, space blanket and whistle completed my gear.
With so much water available from rivers I opted to carry just 1 litre of water in my pack, but a lot more energy supplements than usual as this becomes important in extreme cold. I carried five gel sachets and five energy bars. In my two soft flasks, I carried powder energy drink and Rehidrate which I could just add water to at rivers. It is difficult predicting how long such a race will take as it depends on so many factors such as weather, getting lost, cramping etc.
The start was 6 degrees with light rain and quite pleasant. I noticed I was one of the few not wearing ski-pants as I had decided to start with shorts and then only add my rainproof trousers later if I became cold. On the route a month earlier I wore ski-pants and they remained soaking wet all day so I figured I wouldn’t wear them again. But I have no doubt a good pair of ski-pants would have helped in the snow.
The first section of the race was straight forward and I latched on to Kevern Sandalls, a strong runner doing his 5th Mnweni, as I figured it would prevent me getting lost and he was also great company. It did mean though that I was running harder than planned and the payback hit me 6 hours later when my legs went into rigor mortis. I’m a coach … but hey, do as I say, not as I do!
Just before the pass where runners cross the river to go up the valley on the far side before crossing the river again, Kevern suggested we try another route to cut out the loop. But it could backfire he warned me. Fair enough, I said. We eventually got stuck on a cliff above the river and had to work our way around to get down to the river and then boulder hop up the river until we reached the crossing point. Although it was shorter we probably lost a little time on this section.
It was here at the river before we started to head up Mnweni Pass which looked spectacular covered in snow, that I made my first two mistakes of the day, mistakes that were to cost me later. The first was that I forgot to top up my two soft flasks containing energy and Rehidrate powder, and the second was not putting my waterproof trousers on.
My hands were already quite cold and as I was wearing gloves without the fleece inners, I stopped and took out my inners. Putting them on became quite hard to do with cold hands while running and jumping over boulders. After I had managed to put one inner on I realised I had dropped the other and had to turn back to look for it. At this stage Kevern had moved ahead while I faffed around and I was on my own. Putting the glove inners on was by far the wisest thing I did all day as later in the snow my hands were so frozen that I would have been unable to do so.
2nd placed lady and 5th overall, Marzelle van der Merwe on the early stages of the climb
At the bottom of the pass I caught up to Kevern again, and already the grass was covered in ice indicating bigger things to come. Then suddenly the snowflakes started floating gently down. Lovely I thought, just like a Hollywood movie. But as we moved up the pass the snow became thicker, the wind picked up and suddenly it became a snow storm. Kevern pulled out his trekking poles and powered off ahead. Runners with trekking poles had a huge advantage going up Mnweni Pass and down the Rockeries on the other side and they were flying past me.
Interesting graph showing how as altitude increased, temperature dropped inversely
I think climbing Mnweni Pass must rate as the toughest thing I have done. With a vertical gain in altitude of 1km over just 2,5km, deep snow and the blizzard I was head down. Put one foot up, slip back in the deep snow and try again. I kept forgetting that I couldn’t lean on snow and every time I unbalanced or put my foot in a hole I would try save myself by putting my hand on the snow, only to fall into it. The fairer sex is the stronger I discovered as an obliging female behind me more than once gave me a push on my bum to help me. In 40 years, I’ve never had that happened to me in a road race and she is my hero.
Obliging lady in blue who gave me shove on the bum when I needed it. Pic: Gerhard Beukes
Midway up the pass some of the front runners started coming back down, telling me that the conditions at the summit were too extreme and dangerous. This was quite disconcerting and worrying, but I decided to carry on climbing as I was still feeling strong. Then suddenly race organiser Bruce Arnett came down the mountain and stopped to chat, saying he was trying to decide whether to stop the race. Bruce was also running the race and had been with the leaders up the mountain. He then turned around and ran back down to check up on us slower runners. And then went BACK UP to re-join the leaders. What a man!
A look at my Garmin shows that the last kilometre to the summit took me 19 minutes. I think that must rate as my slowest kay ever!
We had more snow this year, which also started lower down than in 2013 when we also had snow. But in 2013 we also ran in the continuous rain on the entire run to the snowline, so with everyone being soaking wet it probably made 2013 more severe and and definitely not as much fun - Bruce Arnett, race organiser
Arriving at the summit we entered a strange new world with two kays of thick snow to cross before starting the descent on the other side. This expanse of snow was broken by a deep track made by the lead runners who had acted as snow ploughs, clearing a path for us slower runners. This as one of my runners who was in the leading group, Colin van der Bergh, told me, was exhausting.
My obligatory selfie on the summit
I hit my worst patch on the summit and for a while I went into a mental black hole. My feet felt like blocks of ice, my legs were cold, my hands were aching, I couldn’t speak as my face was numb, and I knew I urgently needed to take in some energy supplements. My failure to put on my waterproof trousers and forgetting to top up my soft flasks with energy drinks now came back to haunt me. I simply had to keep moving as otherwise my core temperature immediately plummeted. I was unable to unzip the pocket on my pack to pull out energy bars and I kept falling over into snow drifts while trying to run and was starting to cramp. Fortunately, I had a few sticks of droewors easily accessible and I ate those. But I was unable to chew properly so would swallow small pieces and down it with snow. I tried desperately to take a pic of the summit with my GoPro but my fingers couldn’t depress the shutter. Pics shared on this report are from runners who were there with me.
Myself in red jacket. Pic taken by Cornel van Heerden
And then suddenly I came to the end of the summit, and to my wonderment saw the leading group just ahead making their way down the Rockeries. This group had wisely called a truce on racing at the summit as it became a matter of survival. I soon joined them and suddenly the most amazing thing happened, it became fun again. There was cheerful banter and laughter and the warmth of a group of like-minded people doing what they love. We were sliding down sections of the Rockeries on our bums, whooping and laughing. Cornel van Heerden caught me full in the face with a snowball. We had become kids let out of maths class, having fun in the snow.
Arno and Cornel van Heerden
In the First World War a 100 years ago, when fighting in the trenches in France, probably the most remarkable thing to ever happen in a battle occurred. On Christmas Day the shooting died down, German and British troops declared an informal truce and played a soccer match in No-Man’s land. And something similar happened at Mnweni. Here was the eventual winner Rory Scheffer chatting to Bruce Arnett and second placed lady Marzelle van der Merwe. Here was the eventual winning lady Nicolette Griffioen chatting to me about her studies. I slipped and fell at her feet (I have a habit of falling at the feet of beautiful women) and she jokingly asked me “Are you enjoying yourself?”. And I realised I was, and even more, I felt ALIVE.
Words cannot really describe the beauty, pain or euphoria of those moments on the summit. My fingers were too numb to take photos, but the scenes will be frozen in my memory forever - Nicolette Griffioen, ladies winner and joint 3rd overall
Sliding down the Rockeries was huge fun
This side of the mountain was also warmer and as we went down the Rockeries we saw sun trying to break through. We warmed up quickly and soon my hands and feet returned to near normal. As the snow thinned out and it became rockier, at some hidden signal the truce suddenly came to an end and the front runners suddenly disappeared, racing again.
Mnweni 2017 was pure madness, but in the best ways possible. A mix of indescribable views, frozen fingers and toes, face planting and the most raw mountain running I've ever experienced. Sharing the adventure with friends and trail runners who share my passion made it that extra bit more special! - Marzelle van der Merwe, 2nd lady and 5th overall
I was fortunately running now with Cornel and his 19-year-old brother Arno, and we kept it relaxed until with 10 kays to go they moved ahead leaving me to run the last section of the race on my own, busy with my own thoughts. My early fast pace came back to bite me now and the last few kays I was painfully slow, but I still had a sense of wonderment of what I had just experienced. Reaching the finish line was very satisfying, no razzmatazz, no crowds. But a welcome cup of hot coffee from Cornel’s wife, Karine. For the record, I finished 37th in 7.08. But this was never a race, it was a journey shared with some wonderful people. So, will I be back in 2018? Hell, yes!!
4 of top 5: Nicolette Griffioen, Marzelle van der Merwe, Rory Scheffer and Pierre Jordaan
The top 10
- Rory Scheffer 6:15:48
- Pierre Jordaan 6:19:10
- Bruce Arnett 6.22:15
- Nicolette Griffioen 6.22:15 (1st lady)
- Marzelle van der Merwe 6:24:58 (2nd lady)
- Rui Arouca 6:26:03
- Warren Manson 6.34:58
- Thomas Mann 6.36:10
- Colin van der Bergh 6.36:58
- Ralph Enslin 6:38:13