Tag Archives: Trail running

Feet Of The MdS Runner

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Those following my blog know that I’ve become completely obsessed with running in the desert. I cannot explain why I have this dire need to run hundreds of kilometres over multiple days carrying my own food and all the equipment I would need to survive (no doubt)…a gruelling experience!

Over the past 18 months I’ve certainly done my fair share of research into the sport of extreme multi-stage endurance racing. I’ve crawled the web and probably consumed every piece of information relating to extreme, ultratrail and multi-stage endurance events; almost an expert on the topic just need to do a race (LOL)!

The more I learn about extreme ultra racing the more it fascinates me. Why would anyone of right mind run those silly distances, go through so much pain….most of all spend so much money to do it? Let’s face it, extreme sports are not cheap. What’s wrong with just working on the 10K and mastering the marathon?

On the surface it seems to survive a week in the desert comes down to following:

  • Your feet
  • Your pack (incl. food, hydration and equipment)
  • Your mind

Yes, obviously you need to train for the event but unless you’re a front runner you will likely walk half (if not more) of the race. Right now I don’t see myself running with a 9kg backpack over sand dunes and dried up riverbeds with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, carrying 3 litres of water!

This post is a reblog of Adrian May’s Marathon des Sables 2014 race report. Adrian has run the MdS twice (2012 and 2014) in aid of Hope for Children, a UK based charity which works in 8 countries around the world to help children reach their full potential.

When I saw a picture of Adrian’s shoes on Twitter after he completed the 2014 MdS I laughed for days (still am)!

Yes, feet are important but is this what it comes down to?

IMG_0708 Lots of learnings and insights for me in Adrian’s race report. Hopefully when my turn comes I will be ready and strong to push through whatever gets thrown my way!

WARNING: NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED!

Adrian May: Le Marathon des Sables 2014 Race Report

(as originally posted by Adrian May aka @MdS_Runner) It’s 02:00 in the morning on day 4 of the Marathon des Sable. I’ve been on my feet and moving since 09:00 the previous morning. Oh and by the way I’m carrying everything I need for a week in the desert, along with circa 1,000 other competitors, and the temperature has been a pretty constant 46 degrees Celsius during the days. This stage is 81.5km (over 50 miles) and I’ve already covered over 100 km in the preceding 3 days. The first 10km of today was lovely and flat and then we hit a 2km track up a Jebel (think massive sand dune with rocks on top) with an average slope of 12% and for the last 0.5km at 30% which means scrabbling up rocks on our hands and knees. The Jebel was some 15 hours ago and since then the course has gone up and down valleys, hills, dune fields and god only knows what – I’ve completely lost the plot. My feet are killing me. Every step is like walking on shards of glass. The last 20 kms is on soft sand in the dark; all alone with glow sticks on poles every couple of kilomters and the only light form my depleting head torch. I’ve really had enough. I could very easily just lie down on the sand in the dark and simply give up. All of a sudden I hear “Hello tenty”! It’s Chris – one of my tent mates full of the joys of spring catching me up, although as I later discover he’s far from feeling that himself. But for 20 minutes he shouts out encouragement to me and I suspect to himself but it works! I pick up my pace and we both make renewed progress with a power walk across this horrible terrain. Some lights glowing faintly in the distance! Chris suddenly announces that he can see tents around us. He gets more and more excited … “Only 500m to go mate” he shouts and then whispers ….”I think the officials have turned their head torches off and are going to jump out and surprise us when we arrive at the finish!” Why they would do this to us is beyond me and obviously to him to but I go along with it after all he could be right … only 500m to go!!! 5km and one hour later we arrive at the finish and poor Chris needed to head directly to the clinic for some “help”. But we made it and will never forget the horrors of that night.

Welcome to life in the Marathon des Sables. The MdS. It ruins your legs, trashes your feet but more scarily it thoroughly messes with your head. Disorientation, confusion, massive highs and horrendous lows are common place. Everyone will suffer this to a greater or lesser extent – and learn that mental strength is key to finishing the toughest foot race in the world.

Saturday: Day -1

The days leading up to the start should be labelled as eerily coincidental. We wanted to form our 8 person tent team in the days leading up to the event as we knew we were going straight to the desert from the airport. We already had a core of 4 BP ers – Rob, Andy, Gerrit and myself. There was another competitor also with the surname of May; called Tom (my son’s name) also running for HOPE – such a coincidence that I felt he should be invited to join and he brought Chris who’s brother works for Castrol. Keeping up with me? Peter and Matthew were persuaded to join at the airport. Even more bizarre was a colleague at BP who contacted me to say her sister and father were also running this – could I look out for them. Sure, in a field of 1,000 runners … no problem. I contacted Tom at the airport to learn he was sitting at a table in a restaurant with Laura and Len; the daughter and Father. So tent team 110 formed and Laura and Len became an extended tent team family that we could always go and cadge stuff from if needed! IMG_0543 Since this morning we spent hours in queues. Queued for water, for hexamine tablets, breakfast, to get our passports back, for lunch and now for registration. Each time standing in the sun. It’s hot! The main job this morning was final packing so we have all we need in our running bag and the rest gets sent back to storage until the end. The last 3 months has been spent on agonising what should be carried and what gets left behind. The final 2 hours sorting the last bits was awful – this was it. Final bag weight is 8.3 kg but will be up to 10 kg with water and distress flare. After the day of queues the tent group went for a walk down to the start and on for the first km. The dune field we know we need to cross lies across our path with the massive dunes glowing orange in the sunlight. IMG_0554 Tomorrow will start with a flat couple of km followed by the 12km through this dune field, then the rest of the route appears to be along a river bed but a number of hills in involved. Hard to tell from the route book. Big panic this eve as I couldn’t find my head torch but later found at the bottom of Tom’s back pack. An easy mistake as all our stuff tends to end in a big pile at the back of the tent. I should have shut up and he could have carried it for me! No one was clear on what time it is. Every official we asked seem to think it was either same as UK or others one hour earlier. All became clear at the afternoon briefing. Today we are on Morocco time which is the same as UK. Tonight we create our own time zone and go back one hour! Bizarre or what ??!! 44 nationalities taking part. The Ukrainians got a big cheer. Youngest is 16 and the oldest 76; so despite some peoples comments I’m not the oldest contestant! Weird demonstration of how to use the toilet facilities which peaked with the suggestion of putting a small stone in the bottom of the plastic bag to prevent unfortunate incidents if it gets windy … sorry too much information. The food provided today has been fabulous and provided for us – I’ve eaten well so won’t be hungry tomorrow! We’ve learnt that some official starting the race tomorrow so start put back to 10 UK time. Will be nicely warming up by then!

Day 1: 34 km

Best described as dunes, dunes and dunes!! Prior to the start we went through the usual process of creating the numbers for the year of the event. In this case 29…9th edition. Helicopters flying over to take photos but it took forever to get 1,000 + people organised!

Usual excitement at the start (1) Lots of noise (2) Helicopters flying low over our head and (3) loud music. We start to fall into a routine; safety briefings etc, sing happy birthday to however many people have a birthday, being asked to do a group dance to Happy (from despicable me 2) (!!) and then as the final countdown starts the volume ramps up with “High way to Hell”. Helicopters flying so low over our heads as camera crews lean out. The race starts with a flat run of 2.2 km until the dune field. Turns out it is the tallest dune field in Morocco! 12 hard kms at the start – our bags are at their heaviest! No time to settle down but straight in. CP1 we were given another 3 litres of water which was a pain to carry. Temperatures well over 40 deg c at this stage. 12km on the flat and then back into another dune field for another 6.5 km! The sand was draining. It took me approx 7 hours and 15 mins. During the last dune field there was someone collapsed in the sand asking for a doctor. A little way later 3 people in a similar state next to an officials car. So it was clear the staff were having their hands full. A combination of heat, dunes and the amount of water we had to carry made this a tough start.

Day 2: 41km

41 km – 1 km short of a marathon (on day 2, when our bags are still heavy!!) and once again it was very hot and lots of sand. Really tough stage. _EL23902 Temperature reached 46 degrees. Most passed in a bit of a blur. Up to CP1 I ran most of the way but for some reason CP1 to CP2 was just tough. Struggled to even walk fast. Finally stopped to recoup which included a handful of salt tablets and something to eat. Felt much better and kept on to CP2 where I ate and was set up to do some power walking to CP3. This was at the foot of a Jebel where we had a 15 degree climb to the top….and it was sand. This was at 34km. Managed to run/walk to the end…saw the finish and managed a fast run for last 100m and overtook a number of people to move up the board. Finished in 532th position. Got back to tent and knew before I took my shoes off that I had problems with my feet. I could feel the hot spots. Long story short I ended up in Doc Trotters with 4 blisters on right foot and 3 on left. As always the level of care was incredible. It took over an hour for the treatment which was made up of puncturing the blister, injecting with iodine (very painful!) and then bandaging up. Both feet now resemble a mummies!! IMG_0616 Incredibly qualified people treating us. The first doctor is head of intensive care for a hospital in Monaco. He started treating me but was asked by the head doctor to go and help one of three patients in the intensive care section of the clinic here. They were all suffering with heat stroke and this individual had to be airlifted out shortly after. Learnt later that this person had a temperature of 42 degrees and they managed to reduce with a drop but it later climbed again. He was taken to Casa Blanca and all our thoughts are with him. The second doctor leads a trauma unit in Paris for anyone involved in a serious accident. It’s very humbling to have such well qualified and knowledgeable people providing very basic but very gentle care to such a high standard. All 57 medical staff are volunteers. They are also very noticeable at each of the check points. Making conscious efforts to engage people in conversation and looking very deeply into their eyes just to check we are OK. So, we are well looked after.

Day 3: 37.5 km

Day 3 is over and I’m back in Doc Trotters waiting for treatment. Blisters have multiplied so I’ve had to clean my feet, remove dressings and wait. Another hard day. So much sand! The worst part was a Jebel at 17km with a 12% climb for over a km. It was all over loose rocks so at times on hands and knees. Breath taking views from the top. Once again the time up to the first checkpoint went well and fast…maybe too fast. I’m finding I’m fading around lunch time. Not enough calories in my bag (because of weight) so I’m trying to eat an energy bar or similar to gain calories. Back into camp there is a standard routine. Collect 3 x 1.5 litres of water. IMG_0608 Back to my tent and I immediately make a recovery shake. Walk 100m from the tents and strip off and clean up with a bottle of water I hold over my head. Modesty goes out of the window here! Then up to a couple of hours in Doc Trotters before going back to the tent for dinner. And that is honestly disgusting. I really have to force myself to eat it. Once again I’ve only eaten half so I’m not getting calories in. After dinner I wander up to the finish to see the last runners come in. Then to the results board to see how I did. Back to the tent and in bed by 9 ish and then sleep through to approx 530. I have to say my sleeping mat sounds like a crisp packet and makes a racket every time I turn over! Keeps both me and my tent mates awake … after a couple of nights I gave up on it and sleep on the rug on the desert floor. The postman comes round about 7. Thank you for your messages they really do help. It’s a funny sort of bubble we live in here and the outside world contact makes me feel connected. So …. The outcome from Doc Trotters is every toe on my left foot is bandaged up plus my heel plus a swollen ankle. The right foot is better…only 3 toes and the heel. Tent mate Peter is complaining about his knee. I hope it recovers overnight…. the big day tomorrow. 81.5 Km. I think I’ll need to make holes in my shoes to get my feet in……. !!

Day 4: 81.5 km

And so to the day I introduced at the beginning of this collection of memories. I’ve taken my notes direct from my blog .. written hours after I finished this stage in day 5 which is the rest day. It reflects how I felt. If I ever show the slightest inclination of doing an event like this then please stop me, shoot me if you must. In Doc Trotters again and my feet resemble a steak. Yesterday was the double marathon. I completed it in 17 hours. Last time I used the word brutal to describe the race. This time it’s worse. I honestly don’t know what word to describe what I went through yesterday. A good friend wrote on my tyvek suite “even when you have gone as far as you can and you are staring the spectre of self-doubt, you can find a bit more strength deep inside you if you look close enough”. I kept thinking of this and thinking firstly how much deeper I needed to dig and secondly how many people I would let down if I don’t keep pushing myself. The number of times I was literally in tears with the pain and frustration. I can honestly say I gave it everything and there was nothing left when I got in at 03:00. That all I wanted to do in the last three sectors was lie down in the sand in the dark and just give up. But I made it. God only knows how I will do a marathon tomorrow…but that is a worry for tomorrow. Actually that’s a worry after I’ve seen Doc Trotters and they comment on my feet! That day started off badly with tent mate Peter announcing his knee was so bad that he couldn’t walk let alone run so he was withdrawing. A tough decision and all respect to him for making it. 81.5 km – 6 check points and we’d already run over 100km the preceding 3 days. I had decided my strategy was to power walk this stage. We had a Jebel at 9.7 km described as a difficult ascent with 12% average slope and 30 % for last 500m. 2 km in total. Think very very large sand dune with rocky parts where we were literally scrambling on our hands and feet. I don’t like heights and it was ridiculous the height that we were scrambling along. The organisers at least provided a rope hand rail for us to hang on to. I kept having the fear that I would topple backwards with the weight of the back pack. It was all single file and on a number of times people stopped to take photos which caused delay. IMG_0670 CP2 was where the top runners came past. The top 50 men and 5 women are held back 4 hours after we start. Seeing them shoot past was rewarding but also incredibly emotional. Half way to check point 3 things went pair shaped for me. I wear custom orthotics in my shoes as I’m very flat footed and this causes more pressure on my ankle. However yesterday I chose to fit ordinary orthotics as they take up less space in my shoe. Big mistake. I could feel my ankle getting more painful. I had to stop and change the orthotics over. Unfortunately the damage was already done. My ankle was swollen and harder than ever to get my foot in the shoe. I then started self-medicating alternating paracetamol and ibuprofen to mask the pain. I can honestly say I wasn’t that successful. It felt like I was running on shards of glass. Last time I broke the day down by sleeping for a few hours on the course. I was determined to go straight through this time but by CP5 I was feeling so nauseous I couldn’t even drink my water. A doctor gave me a tablet to help. CP5 to 6 was a nightmare. It was on soft sand in the dark and it was hard to keep up any progress. After CP6 I suddenly heard the words from behind … “Hello tenty !!” It was Chris and we were both in a dark place. He was fabulous though…kept shouting out encouragement and I can honestly say I’m not sure I would have finished without him. He did decide at one point the we only had 500m until the finish; distances are hard to judge at night in the desert and it was more than 5km. With less than a km to go Chris was just not feeling good. He stopped to find his thermal blanket and told me to go on. I said I’d wait for him at the finish. There were about 16 people behind us. One a woman who I’d preciously challenged to sprint for the finish line. She announced we should all do this…so head down and goodness where I got the energy but I got in ahead of them all. After all that hard work I was not losing more places!!! After the lovely cup of tea provided Chris headed for Doc Trotters and I went back to the tent. 3 back already and those had all done incredible times. Got straight in my bag…but couldn’t sleep with the throbbing from my ankles. I’m Out of Doc Trotters now. Three doctors spent over 2 hours on my feet and now I can stand upright!! Been put on antibiotics and given some very strong painkillers so feel like I’m flying right now. I’ve won the prize for the worst feet (no prize !!) but had lots of photos taken of them by the medical team.

So now a time to relax, eat and sleep. Another marathon tomorrow and with all the TLC I’ve received today the least I can do is go out there and compete !!

Day 5: Rest day

Well, you’ve heard all about my Doc Trotters exploits and that took all morning. Today is our day off so lazy recovery time, but I’m struggling to rest and struggling to eat. The expedition food is so disgusting. I force half of it down then give up. We’ve been sharing the contents of our kit bags today between the tent today. Things we don’t need but others in the tent might! Otherwise it gets binned! We have a Korean super model doing this event – Lee. She’s in the tent in front and looks incredible despite the difficulties of the preceding days. She has a camera crew following her and from time to time they stick their camera in our tent. I had the bizarre experience of being interviewed for Korea. Television in French! Later in the afternoon there was an announcement that the last runners were coming in some 30 hours after they set off. Hats off to these guys…out all night and the heat of two days. The whole camp went out to clap them in! What a noise! The big event this afternoon was the distribution of a cold can of coke for each of us. Matt in our tent was caught kissing his! Others rolling theirs over their necks or foreheads before drinking. I’ve never made a can of coke last so long before! When I opened it the top burst and I wasted some. I was close to being distraught… over a can of coke …. ! Emails brought round mid-afternoon today. Thank you for these. Each one is savoured and is a highlight of the day. Across the camp I can hear a buzz of voices and laughter. Every one getting ready for tomorrow. Position 515. Top 500 finish is a distinct possibility! Beyond my wildest dreams…

Day 6: 42 km

And the wheels come off my dream to finish in the top 500. It really was just a dream but the reality up to this point seemed to point to me achieving it. And so many messages from you to encourage me to do this. So while I’m happy to have finished the MDS it’s tempered with disappointment. And so to the day…. Another marathon I’d cut holes in my trainers to make it easier to get my feet in with the tape wrapped round them; even then it was a battle and so was the hobbling I could barely do just to get to the start line. IMG_0708 As my feet warmed up the level of pain seemed to reduce and there were times in the first half where I managed to run for a while. We have been taught to look out for the signs of dehydration and between CP2 and 3 it became obvious to me that I was developing them. I was nauseous, couldn’t drink, lost my sense of balance and just got into a bleak place. I remember getting into CP3 and the dr immediately saying I needed help. So they added salt to my water, gave me some tabs and asked me to rest.. The last bit I refused. The dr looked me very deeply in the eye and made me solemnly promise I would drink regularly. I did and in time felt better eventually after what seemed forever I got in to the finish. Not making excuses just telling it as it was.

At the end it was back to doc trotters for my feet to be resorted …. The drs comment was ” your blisters have been breeding ! ” My ankle had ballooned as well. IMG_0703 Anyway enough of all that! Coming over the last hill you could see the camp 2kms away. The feeling of elation that I was so close. I remember shouting “yes” and exchanging big smiles with a Japanese competitor near by. An organiser standing by laughed and said “only 2 kms until you get kissed by a Frenchman!!”. As always Patrick Bauer was there to welcome everyone back with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks and to hand out the medals. _CA50819 All my tent mates were back and I bumped into some of them as they were coming to the finish to welcome me back. You are a great group and I’ve made some good friends this week! The evening was the medal ceremony followed by opera de Paris playing sumptuous music under a star filled sky surrounded by people who had all suffered in similar ways. A very special night. IMG_0706 The final day is a 7 km walk with us all wearing a blue UNICEF tee shirt to show solidarity for children and the prevention of violence towards them.

Day 7: 7 Km

It was a morning unlike the others. The start felt more leisurely and there was so much banter flying around the tent and the wider camp. In addition to the water collection we needed to also collect a blue t shirt. IMG_0711 Today’s leg was not timed but rather a show of solidarity in support of UNICEFS work against violence towards children, and we would do this by walking as a long group of 900 (over 100 had dropped out) across a 7 km course to the finish line. IMG_0737 Patrick Bauer once again went for a lengthy talk at the start but I think this time misunderstood the vibe of the crowd. He’d got into the habit of getting the music “happy” played and asking us to dance to it ! I don’t think many were physically capable!! Finally the music revved up to “highway to hell” and the helicopters started there adrenaline rushed very low passes over the crowds and I mean low…perhaps 10 metres!! Lots of flags flying and everyone went their own pace, tent 110 stuck together and we passed the time sharing memories of the previous week or at times quietly reflecting to ourselves. Eventually we reached the outskirts of the town (I have no idea of the name!) where the finish line was set up. As we got closer the older kids came out to meet us and were cheekily asking for anything they could lay their hands on! They would have taken the bags off our backs if they could! Closer to the town were the little kids with their parents and all of us were looking for something we could give. I’d been carrying around a packet of playing cards all week, which were never used and I’d forgotten about them. Luckily Chris remembered so they got given to a little tot who had no idea what he’d been given but I’m sure will be the envy of his friends!!

At last the finish line appeared with lots of people cheering and clapping and tent 110 formed a line and we went over together.

A good feeling.

_EL21579 Through the admin of handing back the transponder and the safety flare and we were then given half a flat loaf of local bread and a packed meal for the coach journey. The bread was incredible. Having eaten nothing but mush or power drinks or processed for all week the texture and taste was so good. We wandered over to the buses for the 4 hour drive to Ouzzazate. Once on the bus I quickly ate everything in the bag and then slept most of the journey. We arrived at the hotel; a bunch of smelly (and I truly mean we stank to high heaven), dirty, tired refugees all dressed in our bright blue UNICEF tops. A massive queue to check in that stretched out into the street. Gerrit announced he was going to get some beers. He wandered around neighbouring shops and not finding anything he asked someone stood nearby. All our jaws dropped when this lad climbed on his moped shortly followed by Gerrit on the back!! They disappeared for 10 mins and Gerrit returned with a big grin on his face on the back of the moped clutching a plastic bag filled with bottles of beer!! He’d promised the owner of the moped his blue t-shirt for his assistance. Checking in over, allocation of rooms and then a shower. Oh boy what a shower!! Good to feel clean again. Tent 110 met in the bar and it was hard to recognise one another or other runners for that matter!! A few beers later, and only a few…it was all we so could cope with, and after a wonderful buffet meal at 8:45 none of us could keep our eyes open and the day ended there.

And so the week came to an end. Some more admin stuff was still to be done but the bubble in the desert had burst. To be honest you had to be there to really understand what it meant to be there and what a big change moving back to the real world. All through the week Berbers at the camp, or waiters in the hotel would end any sentence with Insha’Allah. “Today will be a good day, Insha’Allah” or “you will have a good run today Insha’Allah”.

It feels fitting to say that we succeeded in the desert, never beating it – not even taming it … but we achieved our goal … Insha’Allah.

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The Marathon des Sables – they don’t call it an ultra-marathon for nothing.

Remember the Name, by Fort Minor [Chorus]

This is ten percent luck,

Twenty percent skill,

Fifteen percent concentrated power of will,

Five percent pleasure,

Fifty percent pain,

And a hundred percent reason to remember the name!

The Marathon des Sables – the toughest footrace on earth : An extraordinary race, for extraordinary people in an extraordinary place

CRAZY STORE Magaliesberg 50km

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Ever finished a run thinking “That was flippen good. I need to do more of this…got exactly what I came looking for!” Well, that was Magalies for me last Saturday after 8hrs and 30mins on the trail. It was way tougher than expected and certainly raised the bar on what I consider a great training run!

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The route for the 50km “Guinea Pig” race was finalised just a few days before so no one had any idea what to expect (ignore the route profile in my previous post). The route map was only given to us on the bus and I think we all might have underestimated how tough the day was going to be…training run or not!

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Magaliesberg 50km Guinea Pig Route!

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Magaliesberg 50km Guinea Pig Profile!

However, safe to say… IT WAS ALL WORTH IT!

The view from the top was amazing! I must admit I didn’t actually expect it to be so beautiful.

Tips From A Champion

We were shuttled with buses to the start of the race with only a few CRAZY bravehearts taking on the 50km. There were a few hardcore elite trail legends on the bus; the likes of Ryno Griesl and Jock Green. I was sitting next to another female (I think we were the only 2 females doing the 50km) and we started chatting. I wanted to know if she was an experienced trail runner (she certainly looked the part) and she replied that she’s done a few races and that she is training for the Skyrun. I told her I am also doing Magalies as a training run for ultra-trail Cape Town and it so happened that she had done ultra-trail Cape Town in 2014. Great, an opportunity to hear first hand what I am letting myself in for! She told me not to worry too much; getting up Table Mountain via Platteklip Gorge is similar to getting to the top of Magalies. Then she mentioned that she had done minimal training for ultra-trail Cape Town and she finished the 100km in 13hrs. Her view is that I will even be better prepared given that I’m still planning on doing Mont-Aux-Sources as a 2nd long run. I was quite chuffed with myself hearing all of this and was feeling really confident about how training was progressing. Then she mentioned that she’s doing most of her training at Magalies and said I must run at Magalies as well as it will be good training for Cape Town.

It later turned out (after chatting to the guys) that I was sitting next to Nicolette Griffioen, the South African Woman’s Ultratrail Champion! What a down to earth lady. Hahaha…now I am not sure about ultra-trail Cape Town anymore…”easy” has suddenly become all relative!

A Slow Start

Soon after the bus dropped the few crazies, we were off. I decided to take things really easy the first 30km. The goal was to finish in 7hrs 30 min. I was jokingly thinking to myself. “Perfect! That is exactly how much battery life my Garmin had, so hopefully I will be done before the Garmin goes”.

I was really uncomfortable carrying a 2.5l bladder and all my supplies for the day. I always feel I pack like I am going on holiday for days (lol!) but there were not going to be any water tables and who knows where you might end up (lol!). I felt slow right from the word go! I knew the start pace was going to be crazy fast with all these elite level athletes and it wasn’t long before I was right at the back of the pack and then dead last with the 2 sweepers. Yip, we joked! #TeamSweeper

I’ve never run with sweepers sitting on back (butt). I tried to shake them off but my feet went numb (didn’t see that coming!) and had to revert to run/walk within the first 2 kilometers! I told the sweepers that I was planning on running for 7hrs and 30mins and wanted to know if they are ready to run for the whole day. I didn’t actually hear a response, they probably thought I was joking (lol!).

The first 9km was all uphill, relentless forward motion…no point looking back, just climb as fast as you can! The hills were much steeper than the ones I am training on. I don’t know how many times I had to stop to catch my breath thinking ‘This is where I need to train!” It was so bloody tough but I was already planning a return trip. CRAZY!!!

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I just kept going, a few more breath catching stops and before I knew it I was right at the top! Well, except it wasn’t the top…there were still a few steep hills ahead, but I was just so happy at that stage to have made it that far – the worst climbing was over!

Going The Distance

Soon the 36km front runners started to catch up with me and I was thinking it would be so easy to just join in on the 36km race from here on, but when I saw the route split markers my curiosity got the better of me! No, I didn’t come here for easy. I have work to do!

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Needless to say, I was the only one turning off onto the 50km route. I can’t explain it but I love running all by myself. Running with others have benefits; I run more and for a longer period at a time (trying to keep up!) which is great for improving my time but running alone in the peace and quiet of nature (no matter how tough or rough the conditions) is when I am happiest. I see everything and I want to take pictures of everything…completely getting lost in my run and time aka… wasting time, lol!

Getting Lost!

This CRAZY race had its own plans for me. I kept missing the markers and had to back track so many times that eventually I just sat on a rock (almost in tears from frustration)…and all I could think of was in Comrades training they teach you never to stop, to keep moving in the direction of your destination and here I am sitting, catching a breath not knowing which way to go…caught between the feeling of wasting time (bye bye 7hrs 30min) and thinking what de hell, who cares?…actually… right now…sitting here…looking at the beautiful views…this is all I want to do!

Somewhere on top of Magaliesberg

Somewhere on top of Magaliesberg

But that wasn’t really practical, this is actually a race and not a leisurely hike! For the first time I took out the map, orientated myself and then just went for it. The challenge was not seeing any paths! I knew I had to stay close to the ridge so started to head in that direction. The whole time I was thinking I should probably call the emergency number seeing I am the only runner stranded on this 50k route; the sweepers had join the 36k runners (lol!)

I really had trouble spotting the white arrows or orange ribbons, my average pace was now 12min/km; that after I’ve worked so hard to bring it back to 10min/km post that massive climb!

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With all things black – no sign of white arrows!

I eventually found the path at 23km and from there on it was suppose to be downhill till about 30km. Great, I was on a roll again!

Going Down

The terrain was rocky, rocky, rocky…my feet started to hurt after 20kms already. I felt a burning sensation at the bottom of my feet. For some or other reason my socks felt really hard, I could almost feel every stich of it…first indication that blisters will be forming soon. Well. there was nothing I could do about that.

It was tough running downhill. The idea was to practice going down fast but I just kept tripping over the rocks and had to settle for a gentle jog. No point risking twisting ankles or falling at this stage. I started to relax and really enjoyed just running all by myself; the pace was way off and I really did not care!

Great views and runnable section right at the bottom!

What I like most about trail races are the curve balls thrown at you when you really running low on the side of humor (35km into the race). Coming off the mountain, running in and out of a private game reserve and then suddenly…BOOM! Yip, they made me climb over that dodgy ladder. I saw the arrow, but I was still looking for a little gate next to it (lol!)

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Don’t think…just do!

Craving Coke!

The race director really didn’t feel much for the CRAZY 50k runners, suddenly we were climbing again? It felt like I was going up that mountain for the 2nd time just this time round it was hot, my feet sore….and my water running out!  At 37km my Garmin reminded me that I’ve reached 7hrs and 30mins and it was calling it quits! I was still feeling good and tried to stay focus. I actually started to run again  but those hills force you to walk so I just power walked like a maniac through to the 42km mark. I craved for an ice cold Coke! Damn organisers, next time I will sponsor the refreshments for the 5oK race! I mean seriously only a handful of ultrarunners with no refreshments offered?

When I reached 42km my rescue bakkie was waiting for me. I really wanted to do the last 8km which was all downhill. I was feeling great but my time was up and I knew with no water or fuel it would probably be just a shuffle anyway so what would be the point? I know how to shuffle (lol!)

Lessons Learnt

  1. Never forget to have fun – Right now I am so focused (more like stressed) about training for ultra-trail Cape Town I sometimes forget to just relax and enjoy the run, forget about time, pace…just run and enjoy getting lost!
  2. Run steep hills – the hills were my nemesis. The once I am training on is not half as steep. I seriously need to up my game on hill training. I’m curious to experiment with poles as well; apparently it does help going up very steep sections.
  3. Train with pack – the pack with 2.5l of water irritated the hell out of me the first 5K. I consumed so much water during the first 10km just so that the pack could feel a bit lighter; I usually don’t need water during a 10k training run. I definitely need to do more training and easy runs with at least 2l of water.
  4. Shoes and socks – socks need to be checked but honestly…not one blister!!!!
  5. Feeling strong – training is paying off, yes I didn’t get to run the time I wanted however I felt great throughout the whole race. Physically I was feeling amazing with my calfs behaving, no cramps, no falls, no twisting ankles and I didn’t hit the wall…mentally let’s just say I could have ran all day!

I really enjoyed the day out. This was a great training run, a reminder of what’s to come but I feel I am ready to push myself a little harder next time.

Thought of the day: “The more I run, the more I love my body. Not because it’s perfect, far from it but because with every mile it is proving to me that I am capable of more than I ever thought possible”.

Mont-Aux-Sources Challenge

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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!

Race Background

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!

Going Camping

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!”

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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!

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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!

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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?

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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Operation Rescue

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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

The Gully

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.

The Finish

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!

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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…

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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:

Mont-Aux-Sources Video

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?

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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