"I'd rather be seen on my bicycle than on a park run" - Quote from the dark side

Monday, 13 September 2010

Mont-Aux-Sources 50km Challenge Race Report

I don’t know exactly how to describe this unbelievable experience in words. I’ll write a few and add some pictures to tell the story of my journey. Warning: long report!

In short:

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.

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…

...to this...

...and 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!


Patrick Mahoney said...

wow. This is epic in every way. What an incredible event, incredible pictures and a great report.

Neil Zee said...

Great! You are pretty amazing. That is a lot of climbing!

Emz said...


That mountain scale [2nd photo, I think] . . . crazy.


Julie said...

Hi Johann,
Wow! I can't believe that you got to experience this awesome race! This was one of the best race reports that I have ever read! The pictures show just how challenging and beautiful the course was! I bet that the waterfall water was refreshing to drink:) I love the Hee Haa, I am finished picture! Nice work Johann!

Quinton J said...

Johann…I’m proud to know you. This is the type of adventure that I dream about…and you lived it. For now…I’ll live it vicariously through you. Congratulations.

Jill said...

WOW!!! Simply WOOOOOWWW! I think I'd crap my running shorts on that chain ladder. Congrats to you, that is one hell of a race!!

DRog said...


O M G !!!!

Im at a loss....incredible!!!!!!


Im new to your blog and did not realize this is what you have been gunning for. The chain ladders! those conditions! unreal


The Turtle said...

That looks crazy. Congrats on an amazing accomplishment.

ajh said...

That is so impressive. What a rugged race! You did a great job and totally met your goal. You must feel so great. How do you get in to this if only 250 people get in?

HappyTrails said...

That is quite an awesome accomplishment Johann. You had me interested in trying it out until the ladders. I would have an anxiety attack right there!!! Just curious, is 10,200 one of your high points for elevation or do you have some higher mountains nearby? Congratulations on your achievement!

John Kynaston said...

Well done Johann. Really enjoyed reading your report - great photos.

Congrats on your race. Must have been tough having to wait so long at the ladders.

Giorgio said...

Great adventure Johann and congrats on Mont-Aux-Sources 50km race! Beatiful and detailed report! You showed us wonderful photos which you took while you where running.
I'm sure you enjoyed running through that wonderful landscape although the weather was wet and cold.
Let's see other photos Johann!

Jon said...

WOW!!!!!!!! Someone else used this word: EPIC. That area of the world is so beautiful, and treacherous from the pictures you posted. Nice job!

Pahla said...

You, my friend, are AMAZING!! What an incredible race and thank you for sharing so many pics with us (since I will never be running that one myself - chain ladders? Yikes)! Excellent accomplishment!!

Anonymous said...

i agree with you Johann. This was an amazing race. I did my third one this year and finished shortly after you in 9:57. Since it was my third I had to put my name on the waiting list again to come back for more. i think that this is the most incredible run in SA (even better than Comrades - of which i've also done a couple). Tx for this.

Anne said...

What an amazing experience Johan! Beautiful photos once again...definitely gave us a good idea of the degree of difficulty of this trail race! Wow!!! I'm so impressed!

abbi said...

What an amazing and difficult experience. Congrats to you...I'm sure it'll be one you never forget!

Ewa said...

Thank you so much for your sweet comments on my blog.
I just looked at your race pics and I LOVE them. This looks like fell running in UK.
Now that I stopped drooling over them I can finally read your post. OK I am a sucker for nature and ultra photos.

Ewa said...

OK, just finished reading your report. This is truly amazing. I can't imagine how slippery it must have been. I love running barefoot but I would never attempt to try it on this trail.
Congrats on a great time.

Andre said...

Hi Johann Well done my little brother You make us proud!
Wens ek kon dit saam met jou doen!

Mark said...

Wow, Johann! You ran an incedible race!! Congratulations!!!! Great report, too!

The Green Girl said...

Wow, that's so cool that there were only 250 runners.

I can't imagine sleeping in a tent the night before a race - what an experience!

I can't believe you could drink the mountain water from the falls - that is so cool! I also forget to hydrate when it's cold out.

I cannot imagine running on terrain like that. Thank you so much for taking the time to snap shots to share with us.

And I can't believe how had to claim chain ladders! No wonder you had to have a briefing the night before this race.

That shot at the top of Tugela Falls was absolutely breathtaking.

I can't believe some runners ended up with hyperthermia - I am so glad you were properly dressed for the elements.

Congratulations on a challenging race finish. I truly enjoyed reading your race report.

Andrew Opala said...

Awesome Johann! Just awesome. I hope you can find your interview online somewhere and send it to us!

Char said...

The photos are just brilliant. They really give us a small glimpse into what and where you had to run. I can't imagine how hard it must have been going over some of that terrain. Well done on a huge effort!

Unknown said...

congratulations! What an amazing experience that must have been!

Black Knight said...

Yes long (beautiful) report but also long runs! It looks like an epic experience, you deserve an important role in the invincible Black Knight Army! Great photos that give us an idea about your adventure.

shannon said...

Awesome race report! The trail looks like a supreme challenge, you took great pictures. The chain ladders must have been a bit daunting as it didn't look like there were any safety nets if you fell. I don't think I've ever run a race where I had to follow a line on the ground either! Amazing achievement, Johann!!

AZ said...

That sounds and looks like an incredible race. Nice job on it (and on the race report and pictures). What a great experience.

Adrienne said...

Wow that is some EXTREME trail running! Your attitude is awesome too, it would be easy to be discouraged with the ladder issue and the cold. Glad it was a good experience. Fun to read about it.

4 Winds said...

Cracking photos, Johann. Some interesting terrain there!


Chris K said...

Uh-mazing. Congrats Johann. I really enjoy your blog. BTW, as trail runner, I agree that you don't need to get all crazy about perfect form like I have been blogging about. You have a great approach to running.

Molly said...

that is, without a doubt, an amazing race. The ladders would have scared the heck out of me. Congrats to you on such a great race, and for making your goal! Great job!!!!!

Natalia said...

Goed gedaan! What an amazing adventure. Congratulations on a superb event! I have hiked in the Drakensberge, but I cannot imagine doing something like this - at that altitude. All that training paid off, and you looked great at the finish. Thanks for the pics and nice report. Mooi loop!

saucony shoes said...

This is such a great adventure! I love it!

ultra collie said...

loving your report johann
the terrain and conditions seem quite similar to parts of the lake district and the weather too
you made me want to do it but how i'd ever get charlie up the ladders???

Lindsay said...

i am new to your blog and this is one of the first posts i read... you are amazing! the ladder on the descent down, no thank you, too scary!

sounds like an amazing race, very challenging.

Matty O said...

Not sure why I haven't found your blog in the past... ... ... what a post Johann! This is truly an amazing journey you took.

Keep up the great work!

Lesley Looper said...

What an amazing race and course, in more ways than one! Water stops at a waterfall? :D Love it! Thanks for all the pics, and for the great race report! Congrats on your performance!

Unknown said...

I know this is a little late, but congrats and great race report!!

Anonymous said...

Heya i'm for the first time here. I came across this board and I find It truly helpful & it helped me out much. I am hoping to offer one thing back and aid others like you helped me.
Feel free to visit my web blog ... healthy diet