Two days after I finished the Magaliesberg Challenge I received an email that read:
Dear Prospective Monties Runner,
If you are receiving this email it means you are next on the waiting list for The Mont-Aux-Sources Challenge that will be held on the 6th of September 2014 and I have a substitution entry available for you.
I believe if you don’t have a ticket…you can’t win. Never thought I would ever be invited, apparently the waiting list for Monties is two or three years long. I was beyond myself from excitement!
Taken from the organisers website:
This prestigious 50km cross-country run takes place in the Royal Natal Park, part of the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site and home to the endangered Bearded Vulture. The Bearded Vulture once roamed freely from the Cape of Good Hope, along the eastern mountain spine of Africa, and into northwest Africa. Now it is thought that the only population left in the Southern Hemisphere resides in our isolated and rugged Maluti-Drakensberg highlands, and that there are less than 100 pairs left.
Make no mistake, the Old Mutual Sunday Tribune Mont-Aux-Sources Challenge is a toughie, but it’s definitely worth the blood, sweat and tears, and will certainly be an experience of a lifetime. Expect to run through some of our country’s most rugged and beautiful scenery. In 2012, the Amphitheatre mountain range was capped in snow and made a breathtaking backdrop to the race. Your route will take you through the Mahai Valley and up towards the escarpment where you will have to tackle the chain ladders and then scramble down the Gully. This race is a spectacular adventure, and worth every ache you will suffer afterwards!
I can honestly say the part where the organisers claim “blood, sweat and tears”, Monties lived up to it!
With such short notice there wasn’t time to think about accommodation. All the runners I knew were going to camp in the park. I love the outdoors but I’m really not much of a camper. I knew my kids would love it and staying inside the park meant I could just walk to the start. I’m in the process of training and preparing my body for a 300km self-sufficient race through the desert and some advice I’ve received so far is that I should get use to sleeping on the floor, so anything that is going to help prepare me for my big race is a “go”!
The drive from Joburg to Royal National Park took 5 hours! We arrived at the park at 6pm just in time for the race briefing and pasta dinner. When the organisers announced the cut-off time for the race is 11 hours my daughter looked at me with big eyes asking ,”Mom, did you know you were going to run for 11hrs?” I just smiled thinking to myself, “This is like a second Comrades!”
I spoke to a few runners at dinner about what to expect and whether you can run the race in normal running shoes. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with my new Brooks Cascadias. I ran Magaliesberg Challenge in them and they were great, a bit hard on the upper and started to hurt my foot. I also brought along my Puma trail running shoes (just in case…) but felt they are too soft with not enough grip so no good for going up or down a mountain. I was seriously contemplating running in my Nike road running shoes! Everyone told me I can’t run this race with normal running shoes, so I opted for the Pumas. I was thinking rather be comfortable then running with a shoe you know is going to hurt you. Eish, was I wrong! I ended up in so much more pain…
After dinner it was time to set-up camp. We finally got around to laying our heads down at 10pm. We slept on blownup camping beds. I was so tired and just wanted to sleep so we didn’t bother to pump the bed properly. Let’s not go into the detail. I didn’t get much sleep that night. The most uncomfortable, coldest night I’ve experienced in a long time.
Oh yes, did I mention no electricity at our camping spot!
I’m very organised and prepared for my races but with the camping, being cold and no coffee first thing when I opened my eyes, whatever plans I had for that morning went right out of the (tent) window.
The Start (at 1500m)
The start of the event is staggered to relieve congestion on the mountain paths so runners are seeded (A-E) based on their marathon time. I was in the D seeding, starting thirty minutes after the “elites” which was great because I managed to get myself a cup of coffee at the start and was good to go!
Even though I was awake very early, I felt rushed getting to the start. With no electricity my cellphone was only half charged! Not great as I decided not to run with a camera and was now not going to be able to capture much of the views. I also forgot my iPod which meant no music for 10 hours of running but in hindsight, the best thing that could have happened as I realised how important it is to be focused when running trails!
The Climb to Witsieshoek (1st 10km)
The Drakensberg has splendid scenery. Here you can savour the ultimate freedom of great open spaces in a world of gigantic peaks. On this race you start climbing for those peaks from the first kilometer. It is all single track so either you hold your pace and keep moving forward (more like upward) or make way for the faster runners. I get nervous when I hear other runners behind me, I always let them pass but some of the paths were so narrow you have no option but to just keep moving. If I’ve had any expectation of running this race it was gone after the first hour with only 5km completed. I was officially hiking Monties and I was OK with that. This is what this experience is all about, to take some time-out and enjoy everything that the Drakensberg had to offer. You run through the beautiful Mahai valley and forest, pass waterfalls and river streams, so absolutely no need to rush anywhere, right?
Once out of the forest you start to make your way to Witsieshoek where the first water table is (around 10km for the start). I power hiked for another hour and by now, most of the runners have passed me. Everything was so peaceful. I was feeling so blessed to be out there experiencing what only a few get to see.
Witsieshoek (10km at 2180m)
Two hrs and 10km later and I reached the top of Witsieshoek. Finally a little piece of flat section where you could use some different muscles. It felt so easy to run after all that climbing! It’s my first race where I’ve experienced water tables 10km apart. Water tables at Monties are well stocked and not your usual grab & go! I took my time to fuel, hydrate and rest. I’ve never stopped to rest at a water point before, but the next pitstop is 10km away and I know better now… it’s not your normal road 10km!
There are some beautiful downhill stretches on this part of the route, however make no mistake you were still climbing and the climbs just seem to go on forever literally stretching for kilometers! The views were breathtaking, I really didn’t mind the uphill sufferfest. The only difficult thing for me was not being able to take decent photographs, you just cannot capture the beauty of the Drakensberg on a cellphone.
I really enjoyed running this section from Witsieshoek to Sentinel Car Park. It is all runnable gravel road and the last section to the car park is paved. Three hours into my race and the first runner was on his way back! Me thinking, “There’s a Monties Half?”
At 18km I spotted my running coach, Ray Orchison from Runetics who came flying pass me with a huge smile on his face. He went on to take the 2nd place! Unbelievable to think how fast these front runners must have ran to the top to be heading back to the finish already! Very inspirational however not very motivational, with 32km to go I still had my whole race ahead of me!
Sentinel Car Park (20km at 3166m)
Finally 4 hours into the race and I was at the Sentinel Car Park. Recovery time! Fuel, hydrate (also filled the Camelbak) and rest a bit. I was surprisingly still feeling strong. All I wanted to do was run a little bit, but you just climb and climb. The section from Sentinel Car Park to the world famous chain ladders are all single track, in some sections very steep with just enough space to put down one foot and balance yourself.
It later became a little technical and tricky to run the section between Sentinel Car Park up to the Chain Ladders with the front runners also making their way back on the same narrow path, but me being me I let everyone pass. I am not yet brave enough to go rock hopping. If a section seemed too steep or technical to jump down I sat & slide down. At this stage the path (or lack thereof) was at a funny angle and steep down. It was during one of these awkwardly sliding down sessions that my right calf suddenly went into a massive cramp. I was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place! I couldn’t move, couldn’t even lift my body back up. Screamed like hell. I noticed a group of front runners heading in my directions and I just couldn’t get out of the way. I just closed my eyes (kept screaming) and told them I am fine and its OK, they can just jump over me but they were all very concerned and stopped. They told me how to stretch my calf and bent my toes and ask if they can give me something for the cramps. I think they gave me Cramp Block or at least it looked like Cramp Block. Eish! I felt bad making them stop their race. I know they all “running for time”. I wanted to tell them it is OK they can go, but I still needed to get back up. I couldn’t get back up or down on my own, unless I wanted to go all the way down! It was hilarious to say the least but at the same time I realised how dangerous! One of the guys said he will sit with his back to me and I can just hold onto him and move over slowly to the other side. I don’t know who he was, but he’s my SuperHero!
All that I could do was to start walking off that cramp, making sure I don’t do any funny sudden movements that could make the calf cramp up again. I was starting to feeling a bit frustrated, this climb was slow enough I didn’t realise it was going to get even slower but once I started moving the calf was behaving again.
I made it to the top (well not quite the top yet) but the views here were amazing and worth a thousand cramps and falls! I just couldn’t resists a selfie. Only a few meters away from the chain ladders now…bring it on!
The Chain Ladders
I haven’t had great experiences getting on with things at height! I psyched myself up for the chain ladders. I Googled & YouTubed it to see what it looked like and to see how others were climbing it. There are two chain ladders, the one somehow looked more scarier than the other and after speaking to a few runners I’ve made up my mind to go up on the one that have the extra round circle handles to the side. Made me feel a bit more comfortable. I saw Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel went up that chain ladder (unsupported!) in their movie Travailen, so how bad could be it be?
About 5hrs into the race someone was putting a harness around my waist. I saw a guy getting dizzy and feeling nauseas as the altitude was starting to affect him. I didn’t keep track of the cut-off times along the route but apparently getting to the chain ladders were one of the cut-off points which I’ve comfortably made. One of the marshals told me to not waste time and to just keep moving. Best advice ever! Some of the runners were still having “high tea” and homemade brownies! I just wanted to get up the chain ladders and get it over and done with. There would be no looking down or around at the most beautiful views. I will see nothing…just the rock I’m busy climbing!
When it was finally my turn to climb onto the chain ladders, the guide told me I had to go up the other ladder. I just said “No” politely and moved to my pre-selected (in my head) ladder. I then started the climb up, very slowly. I got to the top, just to find a second set of ladders. I don’t know how they tied the ropes but on the second set of ladders my rope points to the other chain ladder. Felt like I had to think and act quickly. It looked so steep going up there. I asked the guide to switch the rope and a voice from the top was shouting “No” I must just continue. I couldn’t see myself getting up the other chain ladder. It was so easy holding the circle handles, now to not have handles and it was way steeper! I panicked and begged the guide to changed the rope. Let’s just say he turned out to be my star for the day. Made it to the top in no time…and what a view! No other way to experience the Drakensberg but to make that climb!
The Amphitheatre (26km – 3200m)
Running on top of the mountain was amazing, after all that forever climbing it was great to use some running muscles. I felt like someone that got lost in another world. It was beautiful and I wish there were more time to take it all. I was still on track for my sub 10hr finish but it was still slow going because even on top of the Amphitheater you don’t stop climbing – it’s just not as steep, so easier comparatively. What makes it very difficult though is the altitude. We ran to the lip of the Tugela falls (unfortunately no water) and from there we made our way to the Gully. Getting to the Gully required some more climbing to finally get to 3200m! It was tough but I felt strong at that point! I must admit, the fact that I am very fit and and had the energy to power walk is what got me to the highest point in no time. It felt good to pass some runners for a change. I could see them struggling going up there. Some were even following me now encouraging me to just keep going at my pace, they are happy to just run behind me!
I was happy to made it to the Gully with quite a few runners still behind me. I realised I forgot to take the gloves the organisers gave us at registration. The Gully is a steep decline with lots of loose rocks and sand. Very slippery. They don’t tie a harness to you but you are require to slide down holding onto a rope for your dear life. I mentioned to one of the runners that I forgot my gloves and he just smiled and said “Your Lucky Day! ” Trailies are very nice people! Another hero…
If I thought the chain ladders were scary I had no idea what was waiting for me trying to go down the Gully. I had the gloves sorted but the shoes? OMG. Let’s just say I was sliding down holding onto that rope so tightly trying to keep from falling right onto my back. There were quite a few runners trying to get down holding onto the same rope and to top things, it wasn’t just runners going down, but the normal hikers and visitors trying to make their way up the Gully! So many people on one rope, pulling left right and centre. It was madness! The rocks started rolling down, literally heard people scream “rock coming”. It was hilarious. One of the rocks almost rolled into one guys head as he was trying to make his way up. Everything felt out of control. Then suddenly I went flying through the air (no idea how that happened). It must have been my lucky day becuase I just missed hitting a rock, landed right into some bush…and I could feel my right calf going into a massive cramp. All I could do was scream. I was just lying there, not knowing whether I should laugh or cry now, for the second time that day I couldn’t move. Everyone wanted to know if I was OK. I was but the calf cramp was going to kill me! I decided it was time to just relax and let everyone that I passed coming up to the Gully pass me again. When I finally got my 2nd (or 3rd breath) back I decided to not use the rope to go down again, but go down by myself. It went well, I made it down the Gully! The last section was quite slippery and I wanted to get out of there faster than it was possible. This time I slipped and landed on my butt right in front of everyone at the bottom. Very embarrassing (felt like crying), but dusted myself off and started making my way back to Sentinel Car Park; officially on my way back to the Finish!
The Going Get’s Tough (Back to Sentinel Car Park)
I honestly lost track of time. This section from Sentinel Car Park to the Gully & Chain Ladders is probably the toughest part to run (up or down) because it is so rocky and the path is so narrow. I saw some runners starting to “sprint” and heard them saying next cut-off is at the Sentinel Car Park (5/6km away) and we only have 45 mins to get there. It was difficult but I tried to move as fast as I could. I couldn’t risk falling, might not be so lucky again! I was also getting a bit tired now, not physically (I still had energy to run a marathon) but mentally…everything just seem to happen in slow motion!
7hrs into the race and I was back at Sentinel Car Park. Made the cut-off! Ahhh…refreshments. I was so hungry. FUEL, HYDRATE and REST. I’ve made some running buddies along the way. We were all now chasing the clock. Mont-Aux-Sources finally became a race! No longer thinking about just hiking and enjoying the views. No..after all I’ve been through? I want to finish within the cut-off and get my medal!
Pushing Your Limits (Back to Witsieshoek – 40km)
The nice thing about running back on the same path is that you are mentally prepared for what’s coming. I knew the next section to Witsieshoek is fairly runnable and I intent flying down there. My running buddies looked like experienced trail runners. They had all “the gear”, even the poles! So I just took the lead from them. It was quite interesting running with them. Watching them in front of me made me think about running in the desert with poles. I must do this again next year – it’s the perfect training camp! I slept on the floor, the route was challenging, I could feel the blisters forming and popping, sun was up high & I was really pushing my limits to just to keep up.
We had to reach Witsieshoek by 2:15pm. Running this section in the heat turned out to be quite tough. My breathing was getting heavier. I was not sure if it was altitude or just me pushing hard. I knew if I was going to give in to walking I was not going to make it (wish I had some music to listen to, it was so hard to focus). I remembered a quote that never made any sense to me until then…”when you want to breath as much as you want to succeed, that’s when you will succeed”. Never pushed myself so hard. I made that cut-off with 2 mins to spare.
I could finally relax again, no more cut-offs only an “easy” 10km to the finish and it is all downhill! It took me 2hrs to “run” up to Witsieshoek so I figured, at maximum 2hrs down…
Mental Toughness (Last 10km)
I don’t know why I thought the last 10km to the finish was going to be a walk in the park. It wasn’t. In fact it was the most difficult section for me. I’ve been running for 8hrs (40km) and the slow pace was getting to me. The fact that I had to walk sucked. I didn’t know how to run on the narrow trails, especially going down. I was also not willing to take chances and invite Mr Calf Cramp again and by now my feet were killing me. I could feel the blisters forming on my heels early on in the race but ignored it and also I felt one of them popping. Very painful. I could feel every little stone I stepped on. I’ve never felt pain in a race, not even running Comrades. I was very close to tears. I should have known better and attended to the blisters earlier on, and now it is too late. If I take my shoes off now, they ain’t coming back on. Best to just push through the pain…
I was all alone now. It was so quiet and peaceful and I just felt so blessed to be out there (now back in the cool Mahai Forest). I decided to take it easy and just enjoy the most beautiful afternoon views of the Drakensberg. This is what I came here for. I’ve made peace with my slow pace and started to reflect on the day, feeling sad that this experience will soon be over.
Just, it wasn’t over that quickly. The last few kilometers felt like a lifetime. It took me 2:15hrs to get down that mountain. “51.7km!” Do you have any idea of how long 1.7km extra is when you thought you going to be done by 50km? Coming down the mountain I saw my husband and son waiting to for me and found some renewed energy (of relief!). It always amazes me how much energy I have left at the end of these ultra races. I always end up feeling I can do it all over again. Madness!
I finished on a high and was very excited to pick out my little rock trophy, a sure reminder of how strong I’ve become…
This was by far the most challenging race and one of the best experiences in my life. Thank you to the organisers for a well organised race in one of the most beautiful settings in South Africa. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been part of the 20th Anniversary of the Mont-Aux-Sources Challenge!
Note from the organisers: A total of R400,000 was raised for the conservation efforts of Wildlands and Ezemvolu KZN Wildlife!
Other Interesting Mont-Aux-Sources Experiences
I only manage to take a few pictures before my cellphone battery died, also have a look at Nathan and Shaun’s amazing Monties experiences below:
This video by Nathan Pellow-Jarmin beautifully captures the Drakensberg in all its splendour - Words Can Simply Not Describe! I get goosebumps everytime I watch it. Did I do that?
Mont-Aux-Sources Photo Gallery
Shaun Naidoo’s Mont-Aux-Sources Facebook page showcase all the detail that makes this race an EPIC Experience!
Quote: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face”. Eleanor Rooseveldt