Running the 50km Mont-Aux-Sources Challenge in the Drakensberg, South Africa

Barefoot running minimalist running sandal sandal running

I gripped the first rung in the gyrating “ladder”. “Focus, think, concentrate” I said to myself. All I had to do was ascend this darn thing for 20 metres and I would be on the summit plateau at over 3000 metres. Yet so much could go wrong, especially with my cavalier finesse for not paying attention.

One ladder rung at a time. One hand, then a foot, then a hand, and so on. Three point climbing. Don’t be clever. Or fast.

My eyes peeped above the “within-grasp” horizon. The expert attendants unclipped me from the safety rope and I was ushered forward into big sky territory. This was the top. The hard part was done. The climbing was behind and from here it was all downhill. Kind of.

It had started six weeks earlier. The out-of-the blue email announced: “We’re happening. The Mont-Aux-Sources Challenge is on!". Covid lockdowns had ratcheted down a level and set forth a stampede of trail event confirmations. I paid my money and swore allegiance. I was in. This was my run.

The 50km Mont-Aux-Sources Challenge, hosted by the very competent WildSeries team, is promoted as SA’s queen of trail runs. Irrespective of being a queen it is quite ruthless in heading straight up the Drakensberg for about 25km’s to the “mount of sources (rivers that is)” at over 3000m and then more or less straight back down again. The total ascent as per my watch later was a little more than 2200m. Not too bad on paper, bad enough in delivery!

Six weeks of training meant two weeks for ramping up effort, two weeks for peaking (optimistic term for me) and two weeks of tapering. A miracle of schedule miniaturisation, unmatched in training journals, was my goal.

And six weeks later I apprehensively headed to the Drakensberg with at least one training run of 17km on the road, my longest. To help, I had fashioned a new pair of sandals with a hint of reinforcement under the balls of the feet to guard against sharp stones. I used these to run a few hill repeats at Klippies* and they felt quite good while being relatively light too.

Upon arrival mandatory covid testing ensured we were good to enter the Mahai campsite where I quickly pitched a tent and registered for the next mornings run.

Who sleeps well before a big race! Definitely not after 4am by which stage I was brewing coffee while eating muffins and dates. Time crawled until the race start especially as my group was scheduled for departure at 5:50am almost 2 hours away. It was good. 5:50am meant that I could get away with not wearing a headlight which meant a weight saving over the entire route.

Two minutes before my start a lapse of memory (increasingly frequent nowadays) saw me hastily unpack my trail bag to check that all items were included. Why the self-doubt? Nothing was missing and I loped into the start zone with a handful of talkative runners and 20 seconds spare.

The first 10 kays out of the valley to the top of the “little berg” were very reaffirming. I was cautious, slow and deliberate. Focussing on cadence and footstrike I tried to be light and nimble in the now. The pathway was good, the light sublime, the air unmoving and the scenery ageless. Not paying attention to others, I listened to my breathing, set minor goals by the tens or hundreds of metres as I sank into my zone.

I passed a few others and realised the first 10 kilometres where almost done as we approached Witsieshoek, a refreshment point almost halfway up this mountain of basalt. By now we were up about a 1000 metres and the altitude started to impinge on my well-being. Many years ago I had experienced a bout of altitude sickness** in the Drakensberg spending a night at 3000m vomiting and nauseous. This memory lived on.

One of my many failings over the years has been an inability to master nutrition on the long run. Sometimes I have managed quite well and at other times it’s been a disaster. On this occasion I had made a mental note to “eat” but even so conditions were railing against me. It was significantly cooler than anticipated and I had moved up the first section of the race more easily than expected. At Witsieshoek I refilled water, swallowed some gel and moved on.

And then, it came into view. Incredible! The next 10 kilometres and 700 or 800 metres of ascent soared above. Minuscule runners were hard to spot under the hundreds of metres of basalt cliffs. The spectre was astounding and terrifying. Me? Still? Up there? The immense scale cemented the word ‘challenge’ in the Mont-Aux-Sources trail run. Damned if you don’t, damned if you do.

This is what we seek. The drama of nature. And us as insects on the canvas. Lyrical, poetic, tragic. I still had so far to go. I greeted the support crew at the base of the chain ladders. “Are your feet OK?” I was asked. “My feet are fine! It’s my legs that are not OK!” I retorted.

Working my way up and over the chain ladders to the summit brought a certain trepidation ... dressed as insouciance. Nausea was now my close companion. The distance across the lumpy tufted high plateau looked ominous. The cold wind howled hungrily and out-of-the-blue rain pelted my fragile legs. A gusty marshal tent beckoned far ahead. “Get there” I said.

Beforehand we had been told, “once atop the Berg wonder over to the edge of the escapement and look mesmerisingly at the Tugela Falls – the world’s highest – as they plunge from the top of Mont-Aux-Sources”. Such touristic niceties escaped me as I turned northwards following the direct route to the top of the Gully, our escape route from this playground of eagles. And vultures. And trolls.

The lone runner about 80 metres ahead of me suddenly stopped. Removing his pack in the fierce breeze he wrestled is leggings from the compartment and fitted the flailing fabric with erratic moves. I watched. He was doing the right thing and my cold limbs messaged me to do the same. Think, act, do. Yes, I could be a hero too! But damn it, it was hard, like trying to swot a fly with a dishcloth. I toiled agilely, subduing my lycra legging quarry in the wind and moved, better dressed, to the top of the Gully.

I had never been to this part of the Drakensberg and I had no idea what the Gully was. Surprising me was the stout roped cast down its narrow and steep confines. I clutched the rope and moved down the loose scree. This was cool as long was no one above you dislodged rocks to cascade into your head. Perhaps it wasn’t as steep as my fears suggested. 

Exiting the Gully the helpful race crew greeted me while secretly checking that I wasn’t certifiably a danger to myself. They permitted me to continue.

The long, long descent started from this point. I had made a commitment to eat properly. But everything had gone wrong, again. I felt drawn and quartered, I prayed for more oxygen, I knew cramps were a heartbeat away. Stopping to urinate, which is a good sign, I saw my urine was deep brown, which is not a good sign. I immediately started drinking. Much more. My nausea waned.

Struggling, I watched as a few runners passed me with little effort. I needed something and at a pop-up refreshment station I ate potatoes and bananas with some water and a big restock of water bottles. Moving forward I started to feel better and by the time I turned back onto the pretty mountain path, which would guide me downhill to the Mahai starting point, I moved with increased resolve and marginal purpose. Interestingly my 5km splits going up were the same as those coming down.

The Drakensberg is spectacular. Moving across its geography is alluring and enticing. The seduction is complete when you run out of air and legs, with only the vista as your friend. Beautiful as it is, you always have further to go, on less.

Thanks to WildSeries for hosting this beautiful event. Again. 

I completed my run in Vegan Ultras a hybrid sandal used by a handful of ultra runners. It has a 12mm three compound sole including a softer midsole, a grippy non-slip footbed and a treaded (but not overly) outer sole. The lacing is from the Vegan X. It works.


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