Take two, and action…
Subsequent to my post “What do you need to run to Mafadi, the highest point in South Africa”, I went back, a bit more prepared.
5 hours and 46 minutes. That was the time to beat and the Fastest Known Time (“FKT”) to the highest point in South Africa set by ultra-runners Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel a number of years ago. Would I like to have gone faster? Probably yes, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. For me, a FKT is all relevant to who has tried it before and inevitably records will again be broken in the future. Yes, I tried and it was a whole lot of fun, but on the way down I made a critical navigation error and as a result I didn’t quite get there. That’s life, some days the strangest things will just not go your way. I got up, showed up and had one heck of a time. For me, the “why” isn’t all about breaking records though. It’s about enjoyment, fun, being engaged with His creation, and taking it all in. With that being said, I’ll be back for more to see where my limits are on this route.
OK, let’s just have a refresher of the route before we dive into my run and count how many times I hit the deck.
The route is relatively uphill for the first twenty kilometers. A slight drag and only a mere two-and-a-half-thousand meters of vertical gain by the time you reach the top. At times gradients reach well over thirty percent with rocks, vegetation, the odd hiking group and unpredictable weather conditions all thrown into the mix. On top of that you reach an altitude of 3451m above sea level which translates into very limited oxygen and squealing sound effects from your chest. Oh, and then you still need to get back after all of that.
April in South Africa means the closing in of winter as the season shakes off the last bit of African sunshine. Just kidding, we are spoiled with sunshine in the winter too, but you get my point. Trails that were beautifully green a few weeks ago are ever so slightly tumbling into a vague orange with only the final few die-hard creatures still slithering around to catch the last bits of summer sunshine. Cold blooded lizards watch you from a distance while they prepare to have their mini caves turned into igloos. Thousands of liters of mountain water make their way down the rivers before being bottled downstream and getting a hefty “Drakensberg Mountain Water” price tag. Trails are overgrown in the valleys below and in a lot of areas you just have to trust that there will be some sort of surface where you are about to step. It’s like nature has a sneaky sense of humor, strategically hiding rocks and holes below the grass neatly hanging over the foot paths. You try and gauge the surface, but inevitably your lucky packet includes you going face to face with the ground. Stand up, have a laugh, and try again. To try and explain the seasons in a nutshell; In summer it will most probably rain and thunder will chase you around on the escarpment late afternoon. In autumn you’ll have these lovely engagements with the ground and a love-hate relationship with the head-high grass smacking you in the face. In winter there will be ice, and we as South Africans don’t quite know how to deal with ice. And, in spring, why did I not choose spring?
I started out knowing that I would be slow in the valleys due to the trails being overgrown. I face planted a couple of times but apart from that it went quite a bit quicker than expected. “Just keep moving forward” was a phrase that kept on repeating itself in my head whilst I was bulldozing through those thick, thorny sections. I realized halfway up to the escarpment that I was ahead of the time chart I created for myself and that I just had to keep it together to the top to be in with a chance of coming close to the FKT. I briefly glanced over my shoulder and, for a few seconds, had to come to a complete stop. I had rose above the clouds and the breath-taking views were just something to behold for a moment. The “why” all of a sudden just made a whole lot of sense.
Fast forward all the way to the escarpment where, again, conditions were breath-taking. This time due to the lack of oxygen though. I was still trekking a little bit quicker than my previous attempt up here and continued to hold a decent pace all the way to the summit. Ok fine, I was walking, but at least I was trying to walk fast. Ah cute, some horses. Oh crap, some dogs! Dogs on top of the escarpment can be quite dangerous, or so I’m being told. They protect their shepherds’ sheep and when you find your way to the wrong side of their imaginary fence and the six feet high language barrier things can get a bit out of hand. I’ve never personally experienced it though. It’s probably just luck. Well, it was my lucky day and I didn’t have to do a slow-motion sprint away from any dogs at 3451m above sea level.
I touched the Mafadi cairn, a rock rolled off onto my foot, and I thought: “Jeepers, there is indeed some bad luck associated with these cairns”. I realized afterwards that that was the highest rock in South Africa that had just rolled onto my foot, which I thought was pretty awesome. I made the turn ahead of schedule, so where did it go wrong?
By the time I reached to top of Corner Pass on my way down I found myself on the wrong side of a rocky, icy outcrop. Corner pass was just below me, but I couldn’t quite get there. I had to cautiously backtrack to an area where I could get down safely, and so I did. If ever I have the opportunity to choose between losing a few seconds to losing a leg, I always choose losing the seconds. Corner Pass was dry and even with the loose rocks and judgement error at the top I was still moving ahead of schedule, but not for long.
Going down Corner Pass, I passed the trail on the right that leads towards Around-the-Corner Pass and knew that the northern high approach exit should be towards my left within the next couple of meters. It is an easy-to-find exit and I’ve done it previously in misty conditions without any issues. But, this time, my mind played some tricks on me. The weather was clear and I could see for days, which uncharacteristically created a bit of a problem. The picture that I had in my mind of how the exit should look like all of a sudden changed. Previously, I couldn’t really see anything apart from the specific rock where I had to exit the pass. This time however, I was able to see much more rocky outcrops which all kind of appeared somewhat similar all of a sudden. So, I went down, but not far enough. Thinking and telling myself that it couldn’t be down any further, I went back up again. “Where is this bloody trail?”, “Was it that overgrown when I came in?”, “Did I come down over these rocks?”. I thought that it couldn’t be, so I went back down again. “Did I pass through all of this vegetation on my way up?”, “Are the trails on the two sides pass this far apart?”. “Not a chance”, I thought, so I went back up again. I knew that if I went down too far, I had to come all the way back up again, and hill repeats inside a Drakensberg mountain pass is not a thing you want to do every day. The time was out the window, the GPS track was lost and I decided to just switch off, let it go, and find my way back again. I slowly climbed onto some rocks leading to a point where I thought the trail should be. It was a bit sketchy, but luckily dry. I could rely on my footsteps and could trust my fingertips for grip. Retrospectively, I don’t quite know why I backtracked onto this silly, sketchy slope. After some scrambling, I reached the spot where I thought I had to be. I glanced down and finally saw the trail way down below. It turned out I exited the pass about 50 meters too high. So close, but yet so far. At this point, the main priority was getting off this squealing slope and back onto the trail, safely. A feeling of relieve, but also a feeling of anger, crossed my mind. Anger channeled towards myself, my own instinct, my own decisions.
The moment had passed and I had forgotten where the time charts needed me to be in terms of any records. I had given up on time, but realized again why I love running in this magnificent creation. I was only a dot on the surface of something so much bigger. I had a chance to reflect, to take it all in, to pray, to shout, to live. I had a chance to be that dot on the surface, where no one else could hear me apart from the One that really matters. I had a chance to experience that moment, and take it all in, because… “it is not in a safe place where I feel most alive; It is not in the comfort of my house where I’m exposed to those fine art scribblings, those thousands of contours, never the same; It is not in a safe place where my knees tend to buckle, dropping me in prayer through His name… It is in these mountains where my faith is bigger than my fear; It is in these mountains where the Lord shows off, where he makes the danger disappear; It is in these mountains where I am left breathless, in awe, time and time again; It is these mountains that I long for, it is in these mountains where I’m kept sane.”
I had the pace, the energy, the speed, the heart and the legs to break that record, but it wasn’t to be. God had another plan for me on the day. A much greater one, a reminder of a bigger picture.
I stopped the clock at 5 hours and 49 minutes, and I was satisfied.
Until next time,