08 May 2019

Ultra Trail Drakensberg... Part 3

Strapped. Fed. Hydrated. Champing at the bit. We were about to leave Cobham. All 3 of Deon, Tobie and me ready to move through the night. Tobie stops us about 100 meters out and says, “I’m going to hold you two back, and jeopardize your finish. Go.” Deon and I looked at each other as Tobie adjusted his pack. “No, we’ll stay with you”. “Go,” Tobie insisted. Again, we exchange looks, check that Tobie is really serious and not just saying it. We all know that he is most likely giving up his finish so that we will have a chance… It really is that fine. We will have to be marching and “running” at 4km an hour.

Motoring up a hill... Thanks, Xavier Briel for the photo
If you’re a road runner reading this you’ll laugh at nearly 4km an hour (15 minutes per kilometre). It is seriously slow even on challenging roads. Knowing you’ve got 50km to go (if you don’t get lost) over some serious climbs and descents with little visibility and challenging temperatures… and you’ve been going for 115km already (actually closer to 120km, with all the “detours”… but don’t tell the organizers, they’ll charge me more!!) 4km an hour would be a challenge if everything went right… But what if…!

Keletso and others were not far behind Tobie, this we also knew and it made our departure less of an issue. Also, the weather was going to be favourable and the track much easier to follow (mostly) with both the UTD marking and the white Ezemvelo foot prints. Deon and I settled into a fast march uphill. It was a conversational pace, but we were walking with purpose. These are large mountains, and as Tobie said, we needed to respect them.

The kilometres dropped off as we climbed into the clouds… mist. Deon thanked me for leading the pace. I have long legs, so maybe it’s easier? Having my knee strapped with black and pink tape certainly helped my ascent. Deon was getting sleepy tired… An editor who steers clear of caffeine and meat was talking about having coffee at the next check point Mzimkhulwana! I told him it was what got me going again at the top of the 12 Apostles, and had been key to my strong finish at Addo 100. I am a good salesman.

However, with the light mist and the heavy pace adding to Deon’s fatigue after about 9km, he also said to me, “go”. We were (apparently) less than 1km from Mzimkhulwana with quite a drop in altitude to get there. We’d seen the lights resting in the valley, waiting patiently for mad men to meander down.

A view we were missing...
I was feeling uneasy and coming in fast like you have this feeling you’re being watched, possibly followed, even stalked. About 250 meters before the swing bridge and the check point you traverse just below a ridge and cross a stream. While traversing I looked over my shoulder, and as I swung my head back to the path I saw them. Them seeing me. Six red eyes. All standing stalked on silhouettes against a dark sky. The one on the left bobbed. Was it a baboon or a dog. Or a jackal? I recalled that warning in our race briefing… bend down for a rock and pretend you may throw it. The eyes bobbed more, didn’t flinch, and stared. I stared back as I slowly moved off the ridge making the odd growling bark, and down the path and toward the bridge. They didn’t follow and soon disappeared. The hairs on the back of my neck settled and I had some welcome food and conversation, ordering Deon his cup of coffee as he pulled in and I pulled out.

The next section to Castleburn was a mad rush of ascent and descent. It was also through the mist, and although I’m sure there were some superb views in daylight, it proved the power of the mind to get you through darkness to the next point of light. We are capable, more so than we know; and it had me thinking of the inherent capacity in uBuntu… the power of “being” in a community! Toward the end, this section had us crossing two rivers. It was only here that I realised my toe wasn’t broken after playing soccer with a Drakensburg rock… but that the plaster had come loose and started causing a blister where no sock or shoe touches, but under the toe where a loose plaster gathers! For the rest of my feet in the wet, the stones, and narrow paths there was nary an issue. I am so grateful for great gear like Balega’s and Altra’s. Damn that plaster sitting under my toe. I should have heeded the warning to take it off earlier… It came off at this very next checkpoint.

One of the views I did see before sunset... captured better than I could have.
The doctor awaited at Castleburn. A warm tent, conversation and food. New socks, no plasters! I got a quick bill of good health to continue and encouragement from Spurgeon if I didn’t waste time he'd be handing me a bell on Sunday. I asked if there was a mattress on which I could stretch, but chose the ground instead. Then the mattress arrived, and I’m glad I chose the ground… I’m not sure I would have risen from something that looked so comfortably inviting! Stocked up, refuelled, mildly rested and stretched, I headed off. 28km left in 7 hours.

Up again… strongly hiking into the stars I went. Have you had that sensation that a mist falls on you when you lie in bed and fall asleep into blackness and dreams? I have. That night the physical presence of mist suddenly descended sleep into my mind and my eyes drooped, blinking took a fraction of a second too long and I stumbled like a drunk. This continued for about half an hour as I forced myself awake, searching for stars, white footprints, neon tags...

There are two other memories I have of this time, but I can’t tell which was first. A moth with wings the size of my one glasses lense landed on my spectacles while chasing my headlamp. I switched off the light and that sleep-dark descended. There was no difference between open eyes or closed, no stars, light or any frame of reference other than touch and the sound of the moth departing. Oh to lie down…

The other memory woke me up… In this thick mist I could see the path for 4-6 meters, the white footprints up to 7 meters and the neon trail markers up to 8 meters away. But as I crested yet another small climb there was but one white footprint pointing slightly left, and no path to follow directly. That’s okay, I was sure it can’t be too hard… but for the lack of visibility and sleep! I went 5 meters forward, stopped and returned to the foot. I did this 5 times in different directions. Nothing. Lost. Alone. Determined. Setting myself on the course of the footprint I went 10 meters forward, looked right and left. Nothing. Took two paces left and saw a path… I followed it making sure there were no gaps so I could find my way back if necessary. I was awake. And it was the right path, as the next footprint 50 meters on confirmed. I think it was a short while later that I descended out of the mist making markers easier to see!

Looking well awake on the Saturday morning!
Leading into Swiman checkpoint is a path on which you double back. Seeing a few lights ahead of me, I chased them directly. It was Chris and Bianca heading out of Swiman… looking like they were going to make it, but it had been a tough day and night for them, too. Onward for us all with barely a greeting. And I reached the checkpoint 10 minutes later. Knowing what sleep deprivation can do, I asked for a cup of coffee and a mattress with blanket. They said, “it’s the last checkpoint and only 13km to go; we want you to carry on!” “Sleep first”, I said. It wasn’t even 15 minutes of lying down. But it was necessary and worth it.

As I’d passed the Malkoppies, so I passed the last of the runners and the sweeps on my way out of Swiman. The temperature was moderate compared to the previous night, but with under 15 minutes of sleep in 2 days and 152km down, my body was aware of the chill in the breeze. I considered another layer, but also thought it might get too hot if I did.

Again alone going up… and knowing I needed to go down. My knee was starting to hurt again, and while I had considered removing the strapping while in the sleep-deprived state before Swiman, I knew I had made the right decision to leave it on. There was some seriously technical climbing and descending over this last 13km. Again, I regretted not being able to complete this in the light. I could see lights ahead of me, but in trying to time the distance to them I knew I wouldn’t catch them… they were just too far ahead. Or were they? I did some sums in my head. “Crap!! This kind of concentration has me dawdling and cutting it fine”. I wasn’t even 100 percent sure how I had to go. It had been too cold to charge my watch last night, and the battery was about to run out again. It was 50km from Cobham and I’d stopped it how long ago? Oh man, I can’t remember! Where is a watch with power to last?

So I started chasing… forcing a good pace uphill, getting my heart and muscles into the “red” zone (or at least orange). And downhill manoeuvring my knee into positions that didn’t hurt and keeping up the effort. It was slow and sore, but it worked… Those lights ahead of me were getting closer. They were. And then I crested the hill with a campsite shining its bright lights! It’s not Bushman’s Nek… is it? Those headlamps I’m chasing are half way down the hill… it doesn’t look too steep. I can catch them! I will catch them… and I did. Chris and Bianca! And as I’m asking how it’s going Chris tells me to bugger off and not hold them back! Haha, good man. The river crossings and fine dirt were taking its toll on more feet. But that Bianca had the smiles and Chris the pluckiness meant I knew they’d make it.

The sun was starting to fade the stars and lighten the sky! We passed the bright camping ground and rounded it on the left and headed over a little hill... 

It wasn’t easy to keep ahead of them. As we passed through a ranger’s yard they caught and overtook me. It was the last “sprint”… a gravel road up to Bushman’s Nek. We each reeled in a few more people… All spent after the last 24 hours and more chasing this finish line.

I decided to beat that sunrise… and ran until we left the road; it was more than a kilometre at 6min/km pace; impressive. The last 200m we took a detour uphill into a field, through one last culvert, traversed a path cut into the side of the hill below Bushman’s Nek and then up some steps before a 20m dance to reach the finish line. A happier place on any run will be difficult to find… the finish line.

My hero: a gentleman, & a stubborn, articulate, encouraging, intelligent, runner.
So, my initial “goal” was 37 hours. That goal left the building on day one when I realized how altitude affects a person… I adjusted to 40 hours. That was possible, even with a cold night on the mountain. My learnings: Waste less time at the aid stations (damned chairs!), take the hills more gently (especially downs), and don’t trip over your poles. I ended with a 43 hour and 8 minute race. Well inside cut-off, in the end, and a healthy last among those attempting to #RunAMUK; but I’m still in it. And Deon finished before cut off, too!

Ultra Trail Drakensburg was rounded out by a great prize giving later that day exchanging war stories with organizers and participants alike. Of course there was the ceremony of the cow bells, where the 100 miler's get to make a noise... Congratulations to all of those that finished and met their goals! That race is beautifully brutal. It checked a box on my bucketlist I didn’t know I had.

The recovery has been harder than after Addo. Naturally. And for a while I seriously doubted my start at Mac Mac Ultra to come… Its too soon, I thought (or maybe hoped). But with some great nutrition (thanks Neolife), rehab and prehab (thanks Ilona Hearne Biokinetics) and an awesome family (spiritual, and human), I will be ready to continue #RunAMUK to #RazeABar!


  1. Once again a most inspirational account Steve. Thanks for what you're doing.

    1. Thank you! When I think of what each of the beneficiaries go through to make a difference in the lives of those who are unable to "vote" for themselves, I can't stop when the going gets tough. #JointCustody, 'ey?


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