The Witteberg is a South African mountain range just off the south-west corner of Lesotho. The range, which rises to 2408 metres, stretches for about 60km from Lundin’s Nek in the east to Lady Grey in the west. The range lends its name to the Witteberg Series, the uppermost fossiliferous sequence of the Cape System of sedimentary rocks in South Africa. The race starts in the town of Lady Grey which is famous for its annual Nativity Play and its quaint houses and incredible scenery.
The Sky Run is true mountain running with a variety of terrain from hiking paths that lead you up to the tower, some jeep track is a welcome relief from most the terrain which is on the mountain side as this is a self-supported and self-navigation the route choice is very much in the hands of the individual competitors. Once you leave the town of Lady Grey behind the beauty and remoteness of these mountains soon engulf you and we ran for the entire race without seeing much civilization around except those involved in the race.
This race is unique in that it is truly self-supported and a self-navigational race where we tackled the remote terrain of the Witteberg Mountain range with a Map a Compass or GPS unit and a back pack containing all our food, water and compulsory equipment that enabled us to survive in this harsh environment, while operating at an average height of between 2200-2500 meters above sea level. That’s high and really sucks at your lungs. The air gets thin up there.
Thursday night saw us leave Pretoria at 3h00 am to collect our seconds Carmen and Gawie on route to Lady Grey. We arrived in Lady Grey at around twelve. Next on the list was settling into our lodging and meeting the rest of the runners at the race briefing which is an event in itself, as one gets to meet the rest of the crazy runners taking on this challenge.
After getting into bed around 20h00 we were up at 2h00 again. This is where your seconds start playing a major role in seeing that everything is in place and keeping you calm. A quick breakfast of salmon pate and avocado set us up for the morning and we were off and arrived at Lady Grey around 04h00 to some rather balmy weather. The atmosphere was electric with runners in various forms of hot and cold dress. I was expecting it to be very cold on the mountain and overdressed for the occasion.
Our race fuel for the day was 2x 65g liver pate, 1x 100g nut butter, 1x 25g cheese wedge, 1x 25g nuts and 1 x can of coconut water split between two 500ml soft flasks. 30 Moringa capsules each.
With the starter counting down the runners took off at a pace that had me wonder if they knew something that I didn’t. It seemed they did. The route climbed sharply out of Lady Grey to the first check point at the Tower with 800m of elevation over the first seven kilometers and was heavily congested taking quite a bit more time than we had planned for. A 12km run combining hiking trails and mountain running started off a great day. As you climb the trail to the tower in the dark, the majestic landscape unfolds in front of you with the first morning rays breaking having you feel as if you are on top of Africa. The views are breath taking but there really isn't much time to look around.
Once past the Tower you’re fairly warmed up and thinking about the next food item to eat. I had out first meals in a hip pack for easy access, allowing us to eat while moving and a small block of cheese filled the impending hole. Following the fence line, we made your way along the ridge line to the second check point at Olympus where we found water which was unexpected and filled up. With the first cutoff easily behind us and the last escape available we were off to Snowden Peak
At Olympus, we ate some liver pate and then picked up a small trail that lead to Snowden which is check point 3, another 11km or so. Just passed Snowden there is a natural spring where you can fill up your water bladders with the sweetest coldest water ever before making your way to Avoca Peak the highest point (2756m) on the race. I filled my soft flasks but did not think it was necessary to fill my bladder as well and this proved to be quite a bad mistake as I am generally light on water but the combination of compression choice and heat was getting to me . My feet had started to take a little strain and I was overheating.
The climb up Avoca peak is challenging as the gradient is steep and the terrain is rough especially after good summer rain. Here we stopped to eat again and I popped another 10 Moringa caps. Gracia had nut butter and I opted for another liver pate. My feet were hurting and on fire so I swopped socks hoping to relieve the burn. This did not help much with only temporary relief. Gracia had also fallen several times and her knee was hurting bad and was also rapidly losing sight in her right eye. We managed to get some My Pain at the check point for her that helped a little. She had no problem going downhill but climbing hurt like crazy. From Avoca, the route took us over the “Dragonback” a ridge line that is about 3 meters wide with steep descends on either side. This is a fantastic formation of rock that is a feature of the race and a spectacular viewing point on a clear day. It’s not so cool though when you are tired and think the wind is going to blow you off the mountain. The route flattened out for a while as we moved towards CP6 at Skidor which is again a leg of about 10km and this provided an opportunity to strip down to my bib. Gracia needed to get her compression socks off and finding a suitable spot for her to also strip down was rather funny. I had also torn my compression pants leaving a gaping hole on my rear. My compression top wrapped around my waist sorted the additional aeration out nicely but the bib on its own looked like a tank top. I had been chugging down more water than I have ever needed on a trail and the tank top with the extended water belly made a cool picture. Not!
At Skidor we descended into the valley down a technical descent before picking up the river that lead us to the compulsory stop at Balloch Cave having now covered about 55km of the race. Our seconds were ready for us with a selection of chicken strips, salad and terrine and fresh coffee brewing but all I really wanted was a sip or two of beer which ended up being rather refreshing.
Gracia and I were both feeling strong although we had been out for way longer than we anticipated. With our seconds waiting at Balloch we were ready for a quick medical, shower, change of clothes and a meal before heading out. Its an amazing feeling seeing your seconds waiting for you as you get to the half way mark. I passed my medical and went for a shower but not before popping 20 Moringa caps. Gracia was not so lucky. Her knee had been acting up and she was quite blind in her right eye. The Dr thought is it could be neurological and would not let here continue. Her disappointment was terrible. She urged me to continue on my own, something that I was not too keen to do. We had trained together for a year in preparation for this race.
I got out of Balloch at 19h30 and it was upwards and onwards as the last group took on the challenge of Balloch Wall a climb with a vertical ascent of over 500m in just 3km and back down the other side on the way to CP 8 at Edgehill Farm. It was dark and man was I thankful for that as all you see is a vertical trail of lights. The long slog had begun to Edgehill, where there was some welcome coffee and a short break. This would be the last break longer than five minutes until we reached the turn.
Navigating through the Bridal Pass from EdgeHill to the turn is tricky but having the sweepers with our group made it rather simple. I cannot imagine what it must be like looking for the entry to that pass at night. A steady climb up the Pass will took us to the ridgeline and to the check point at the Turn. I was falling asleep on my feet. As we saw the turn first light started breaking I felt a surge of energy that comes with the morning sun that’s amazing. I had been regularly at risk of falling asleep while hiking. At the turn, we had some coffee and here we doubled back toward the Wartrail Country Club via Halston Peak which is the last check point on the route. With 11 km's to go to Halston peak I still felt pretty good.
You cannot imagine that anyone can climb Halston peak after being out for that long. I managed to scramble up but can assure you that I was not happy only to find that I had to scramble down again. Adrian decided to give us one of his motivational speeches at the top this took time and I was really concerned that we were not going to make it in time. The climb down from Halston’s is technical and is made more difficult by the fact that you are very fatigued at this stage but buoyed by the fact that you are now heading to the finish at Wartrail Country Club.
At the bottom of Halston peak it was clear that I was not going to make the 30-hour cut off. With 50 minutes and 4km to go it should have normally been a walk in the park. The previous day Adrian had made a comment that one never gives up on Sky. I broke into a run thinking come hell or high water I would give it a bash. I had bought my commemorative 100km jacket before the race and fully intended making it. The thoughts that go through your head after 29 hours of racing and thinking that you are not going to make the cut off are really unpleasant. My gps was in my back pack and as I passed Adrian I shouted, where to? He said follow the fence which I duly did only to end up nowhere. This was so frustrating and while I thought I could follow the route instructions it was clear I had no idea where to go and I had to wait for the other runners to catch up or get my gps out.
One of the race marshals decided to take a run into Wartrail. I tagged along as fast as I could on my rather broken feet. I recall asking him how much time we have left and he said 20 minutes. It still looked so far. As we descended the hill to Wartrail my second approached and guided us towards a river crossing. The marshal was concerned that I would get my shoes wet but this was no time to worry about wet feet and I plunged into the river. I was finished. Gracia met me on the other side of the river bank and indicated that I needed to run around a flag set. I don’t think I have ever sworn so much at the thought of that extra 200m .I finished with 11 minutes to spare. Twenty-nine hours and forty-nine minutes later.
I had not eaten again after leaving Balloch for the next fifteen hours and munched down on a rather nasty burger when I ended at Wartrail. The beer was awesome too.
In April, this year I was not a trail runner. Today I am. This was an epic event. I will be back.