Ultra Trail Drakensberg
When you arrive somewhere, the first few minutes always seem to set the tone. You are almost in sensory overload while all the senses settle into the new surroundings. Where we had just arrived, in the heart of the Drakensberg mountains, made my senses very happy. I always think about how I got to the place I am at when I get there, and no not if I arrived on a plane and then car but why it came to pass.
Plenty of people with the best intentions send me races that they think I will like. I think at times they are actually just sending me races that they like or they just somehow don’t know me at all, but thats something for another time and I should remain grateful as its mainly random messages that take me to places and races. This one was from Captain Mingay and his sister Laurin, the former saved my life (true story) so I know he has only my best interests at heart and although I have only met Laurin once, she gets it and would not waste my time.
Ultra Trail Drakensberg (South Africa) 2022 I was told would sell out real fast so when it opened for registration I entered to make sure I had a place. I chose the 100km for no particular reason other than if I did end up going I should be able to get the race done in a day and then I can take Holly and we can have a nice holiday. Aside from flicking through a few pics on the gram all I knew about the race was what the Captain had told me. Race registration done I put it to bed until Jan / Feb time when I checked on the actual chances of the race going ahead (having had a December trip to South Africa cancelled due to COVID, boring) and things actually looked good so I started trying to put a trip together. It was then then my both my eyes and my heart lit up. I realised where I was going to be racing, I realised I would also be able to take Holly and we would have an awesome time and I realised that we could visit Lesotho. Unreal.
4:29am we arrived at the South African boarder post to Lesotho. Normal pre race vibes, some dude on the mic making some half decent jokes to try and settle peoples nerves. Some slight drizzle and about 8 degrees. Magic I thought. For the first time prior to a race start the MC asked everyone to take a moment to think about the people that had made it possible for us to be on the start line that day, a super nice touch I thought. They then played some powerful music and bang on 5am the race was underway. The first 8km straight up the Sani pass 1,000m elevation, pitch black.
Could not be more perfect. It was a jeep track and about 3km I knew my legs were going to be good. I also knew that at 8km we would spin around and get the chance to run straight back down what we had run up as the day broke. At that point the only thing that would have been able to make my life any better would be to have my family there with me. It was one of the wildest day breaks I have ever seen.
Just over half way back down the Sani pass we hit the first check point and were told to head down into the river which may sound simple but now I knew this race was for real as we literally slid down a mud wall. The smile on my face bigger than ever as we crossed our first of over a dozen rivers for the day. The next part of the course I find hard to put into words so rather than mess it up I will just say it was amazing. Terrain, views, climbs, skies, whatever you want, amazing. Having counted the number of runners that came back down Sani Pass before me I knew I was sat around the top 20 and was running well with a group of about 4 other runners. They took the lead and by the sounds of things they had run the course before so with just over 20km on the board I was very happy to sit at the back of this bus and enjoy the ride.
This pace took us into the next river crossings which came just before the 35km check point, this was serious business as they started to take their shoes and socks off. Its a tough one as it takes more time but you keep your feet dry which with 65km still to run I was happy for this option. Ice cold water waist deep with a slight current, these were some decent river crossings. Not quite long enough for some cold thermogenesis to kick in but nice all the same. Horrific if you don’t like the cold or are a bit soft I guess.
We had done just under 40km in 5 hours which was good going across the terrain and the next section of the course remained beautiful and was predominantly runnable right into the 58km check point. With the flatter terrain the landscapes became epic in different ways and the route snaked us through various private properties, a nice perk of the race. Holly was waiting for me at 58km as was Captain Mingay’s parents, all of which gave my morale a big lift. Just having familiar faces does something very powerful. I do not love to spend long at aid stations, I find them quite toxic for the most part and I always feel a bit selfish that people have been waiting for me for so long and I literally filled my water bottles and was out in about 3 minutes but apparently there was a race going on. Ha ha.
The next 20 odd km was interesting, I saw Holly again in 4km and also at about 75km. The route was not as nice on the eyes as the earlier stages had been. It hugged a flat river for a long time which is smart from the race organisers I thought as it brings a new dimension to the race. You are into the last 40% of the race, the minds and body start to tire a bit but you still have a fair chunk left. I was alone for the most part but had started to pass the guys who were running the 160km race, each time I did I stopped and walked with them for as long as I felt they lifted my mood and I did the same to theirs. They had had a hard night in the rain and still had some good km’s to go, most of them were in a good state of mind which was cool.
This section of the course gave me some really good thinking time. I felt like it was a gift. It was a gift that it was quite flat so I did not have to concentrate too much on my running / falling over. It was a gift that I was alone and although I knew I was still in the top 20 that really did not bother me at all right now. I was in this super clear moment of absolute clarity and although it may make you laugh , 70km into the race I was able to deal with a number of things on my mind and in my life. I had not parked them here to address at this stage but they came into my mind and rather than trying to solve them immediately I processed the thoughts as I ran and I guess by default was able to deal with them in a great way. Non were about the race, non were negative, all were amazing and where I got to made me smile so much. Many people ask me what I get from these races. This section of the course and the clarity it gave me on the thoughts that came to me is the biggest thing I took from this race. Thank you.
25km to go and I cruised into the final check point that I would see Holly at. I could see from some of the people around me that the race had started to take it’s toll on people. Holly told me that the people that she had seen go through from the various races that were being run were all broken to which I immediately replied, “everyone but me.” She smiled and told me I looked fresh. Not sure if she was joking, I don’t think so, this was probably the best I had felt in the whole race. Some of my thoughts I mentioned above were actually about how my body was feeling, thats for another day though. But right now in this moment I felt amazing and I was excited for the 25km to the end.
88km and the final check point. I have never much been one for formula one but I would have given their pit stop guys a challenge here as I filled 1 water bottle and left. I looked at my watch and really for the first time all day set myself two targets that were linked. Target 1 was “full gas” and target two was to keep under 10 mins per km. I knew there was about 250/300m climbing left but I also knew that there was the same in descent and I was feeling good. Night had just fallen and people were mentally falling all around me. I charged past smiling and having the best time of my life. My head torch was also having a party with the cloud / fog / mist, call it what you want, just like driving in fog the bright lights of a car make the fog worse, same was happening here. I laughed as I changed the setting, not enough light and I am kicking rocks, too much light and all I can see is fog, amazing times.
Each time the trail went up I pushed harder, I had no clue how far ahead the guys that were beating me were and it didn’t matter, this was for me, this was for the clarity I had had earlier, this was epic. What was more epic was what was to come next. At 96km the trail started going down, not your normal down, absolute mayhem in every sense, super wet underfoot, narrow paths that led down to steep drops, rocks, river crossings, rain, throw anything else in there that you think would make it more epic and it had it, I wanted it end but didn’t, incredible times.
As I waded through another fast flowing river crossing I saw some light pollution on the other side of a hill, with 100km already on my watch it had to be the end, more water, more bogs and a bit more trail before the final turn across some field and into the finishing arches. Holly was stood on the finish line as I crossed it playing my air guitar and smiling from ear to ear.
Maybe it’s early to write how I feel about crossing the finish line, maybe the clues and the real feels are in the moments I had to myself in the second half of the race and the things that I was able to process. To be honest it felt very normal to cross the finish line, there was no point in the race that I was in trouble, could I have gone harder you may ask? Ask away. I will never have an answer as it’s gone now. I ran as hard as I could all day long and loved pretty much every step aside from the ones where I kicked rocks with my big toes that I never even knew were on the trail.
This was a beautiful race in a mind blowing part of the planet and one that I think I will look back on as the race that unlocked a lot of things for me.
Thanks for reading and if you want to go race here in future let me know, I will take no persuading to go back.