I ran from here...
…to the top of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre and back again following this route…
The race is open for 250 athletes only and I felt privileged to run through this world heritage site. It might be a small field, but it has all the makings of a big event.
Registration and the pre-race briefing took place Friday evening in the marquee tent and there was a feeling of excitement among everyone. I met up with a few members of a local running forum and it was good to meet some people in person at last.
Team Runner's Talk
Ready for tomorrow's big race!
We camped in a tent and I didn’t sleep very well. I woke up at some stage and could hear some drizzle on the tent. Not long and this turned into light rain, which stayed with us the rest of the night.
Saturday morning started with drizzle, mist and cold conditions. We assembled in the marquee tent for a final update and everyone was busy with final preparations.
Kevin aka Runner's Talk and me, ready to run!
There were 4 starting batches and I was in the last. We waited inside the tent as one by one the batches were called to the start and sent on their way. Suddenly it was our turn and all I could think was “this is it..."
Checking in at the start.
Waiting for the start.
Then we were on our way and everyone scrambled for position before we reached the single trail. The first 10km is a climb of 1700m (5577ft) on single trail to the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge at 2286m (7500ft). The trail was wet and muddy and I had to be careful not to slip and fall right from the beginning. The mist was really thick in some places.
I was feeling super and extremely excited to finally run this race. We reached the Mahai Falls where a few runners took the time to drink some fresh, icy cold mountain water. I also stopped for a very refreshing drink.
Taking a drink at Mahai Falls
I made certain from the start to drink enough as it is easy to forget this in cold, wet conditions. I drank water and had two GU gels during this 10km climb. My legs and body were feeling great and I felt positive my hard training and preparation would pay off.
Then, almost suddenly, I was at the top and Witsieshoek came into view. I gave a Heee Haaa yell as I ran onto the paving. First milestone reached feeling fantastic! I was very happy to see one of my old running friends, Elsa, at the aid station here. She was happy to see me and gave lots of encouragement.
Witsieshoek at 10km. Happy to see an old running friend here.
I had some Powerade and a few jelly babies here and were on my way very quickly. From here it is 9km to the Sentinel Car Park. This 9km is run on a gravel road with some paving at the beginning and end of the road. The road climbs about 300m (984ft) from Witsiehoek to the car park. I had to put on my gloves here as the wind was extremely cold and I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore. I didn’t feel my fingers for the next three hours…
Wet and cold on the gravel road.
Above some clouds already.
Finally the car park came into view and I let go of another Heee Haaa!!! Another milestone reached! I was still feeling very good. There were two aid stations on the gravel road and another one at the car park.
Sentinel Car Park in the distance.
After the car park the route follows a concrete path for a while before you get to the technical and most challenging part of the race. The path suddenly changes from this…
This is the climb on the way to the infamous chain ladders. The path goes past the Witches, the Sentinel, Western Buttress and Sentinel Caves to the chain ladders, a further climb of 450m (1476ft). The organizers were kind enough to place a string along some parts of the route for runners to follow in the mist.
Follow the line.
At the zig-zags. Really tough part of the course.
This was a very tough part and I had to use my hands in some places. I remember people mentioning that this is where you’ll start experiencing the lack of oxygen, but I must say I didn’t feel anything. I was tired, but fine. Everyone was moving slow over this part. It was still very cold and unfortunately no views to enjoy through all the mist.
Up to the chain ladders.
When I finally reached the bottom of the ladders I was shocked to see a long queue of runners waiting to go up. This was strange as everyone said the wait will be 4 – 5 minutes. I felt disappointed but decided to just relax and use the time to rest and drink some chocolate milk.
Long queue at the bottom of the chain ladders.
We soon realized this wait can cost us a lot and after enquiring we realized that we will lose about 40 – 45 minutes here. Not good for the slower runners on the course! In the end I lost about that much and from reaching the end of the queue to the top of the ladders took me 1 hour and 5 minutes! My hopes of finishing below 9 hours were gone. I changed my goal to finishing below 10 hours, the cutoff, and was still confident and happy.
The chain ladders. There is another set at the top of these.
The wait at the bottom of the ladders was extremely cold. I had no feeling in my hands and just hoped I was grabbing the ladder properly on my way up. The ladders can definitely be scary and those who don’t like heights will have a hard time. At the top of the second ladder there is some more climbing to do and then you are there…on top of the amphitheatre!
On top of the world!
We were now above most of the clouds and mist and the sun was even breaking through here. I was expecting bitter cold up here, but it was actually very pleasant. I think I started feeling my fingers again somewhere on the top of the amphitheatre. We followed the path towards the top of the Tugela Falls. My spirits were high and I had another Heee Haaa moment here.
Top of the Tugela Falls. Total drop is 948m (3110ft).
Being up here was absolutely magic! I was happy and felt fantastic. I had a GU gel and some water and then started another hard climb to the top of the Sentinel Gully. This is the highest point of the race at 3110m (10200ft). Unfortunately the mist and clouds deprived us of the brilliant view. I took this photo just to remember my moment at the highest point.
Highest point of the race on the Sentinel.
Then it was time to start the journey back down. With the long wait at the ladders there wasn’t much time for hanging around anywhere. The Gully is probably the most dangerous part of the route. Loose rocks form the base of the Gully and luckily they provide two ropes to help runners on their way down.
Slowly down the Gully. The picture doesn’t do it justice. It is very steep and very long.
When I finally reached the bottom I was very glad I took the advice of previous runners and brought strong gardening gloves for the run. They were great on the rope and also warm in the icy wind. At the bottom of the Gully I saw two people wrapped in space blankets. I heard later these were runners with hyperthermia that could not continue.
The descent back to the car park had a few tricky parts as well...
Then we were back on the path we came up with and would follow the same route back to the finish.
Going back, Sentinal Car Park in the distance.
Sentinal Car Park. The TV guy did a short interview with me.
Then it was back down the gravel road to Witsieshoek. The mist cleared a bit and it was a little warmer at times. I calculated that I could still make the cutoff by about 15 minutes and finish in about 09:45. That didn’t leave too much to spare so I pushed along at a steady pace. I was still feeling good and had Powerade and some PB sandwiches at the aid stations on my way down.
Back down on the gravel road.
I reached Witsieshoek in 08:02 which gave me 01:58 for the 10km descent on the single trail down the valley. I felt comfortable with this and just kept my pace as we ran down and down. I had a quick drink at the Mahai Falls again and a final GU gel for the last 5km.
10km down to the finish. You can see the trail down below.
The last stream crossing…don’t fall now!
About 4km to go. You can just see the white marquee tent at the finish down below.
The last part felt long but I knew I would finish in time. This lifted me and I realized I never felt bad and never had any problem. I just kept going and going. It was muddy and slippery towards the bottom and this slowed me down a bit.
Then the last checkpoint was there and it was all over. 800m to go, then the finish on the field.
Making my final turn into the finish.
Done, Heee Haaa! Finished in 09:43. Very difficult, but very enjoyable.
I’m extremely happy with my race. Apart from the long wait at the chain ladders everything was brilliant. I felt strong all the way and had absolutely no problems at all. I wanted to run 09:00. I lost about 40 – 45 minutes at the ladders and finished in 09:43. For me that is great. The organisers extended the cutoff to 10:30 because of the delay at the ladders. Many runners must have been very grateful for this. I’ll be back next year and hope to see the views then.
Thanks for reading this long report! I’ll do a few more posts about some details in the next few days.
You can view these and more photos here!