by Lee Olivier
Ultra Trail Drakensberg 100 miler was a very special first for me. My first sustained run at altitude. My first 100 miler... I’d been thinking about that iconic donkey bell since seconding runners at UTD two years ago. But I knew that actually earning the bell would be a great challenge. Was I up for it?
The first 73 kilometers of the race through Lesotho is what finally convinced me to do this absurd distance. I am definitely no 100 mile runner, but I so wanted to experience this remote area at altitude. Nix reassured me that she'd help me with my training, and that even if I couldn’t run much at least I was a strong hiker! A chronic foot issue in the months leading up to the race resulted in my running very little. I joined a Mountain Abandon Drakensberg weekend as final training and prepared to put Nix's hiking theory to the test.
I decided to avoid the pre-race buzz of the resort's village and so on the day before race day Nix, Pierre and I drove up Sani Pass to camp on the Lesotho side of the border. We arrived in cold, thick mist and icy rain. We pitched our tents between a few low rock walls and hundreds of holes in the earth, the tunnels of which were inhabited by a large colony of Sloggett’s vlei rat or "ice rat". This cute but rather large endemic rodent inhabits high altitude grassland above 2600m, but apparently thrives at 3000m in the vicinity of backpackers' lodges! While chubby ice rats and skinny dogs roamed around our humble campground, we took shelter in the back of the Hilux. An easy dinner of fried chicken and salad was prepared, all under the shelter of the canopy, while every form of precipitation, from hail to sleet to snow, fell outside. We ended the evening with a nightcap of whisky and chuckles before retiring to our down bags for the night. Next morning we awoke to tightly frozen-shut tent zips and car doors, the ground crunching below our feet. We were surrounded by a surreal beauty, the rain and thick mist from the previous night completely gone to be replaced by wind-still blue skies and snow-capped peaks all around.
My Lesotho journey was everything I expected it to be and more. Vast expanses of mountainous valleys with pretty much nothing else for hours on end. On the odd occasion I would happen across a hobbit-like mountain hut encircled by rugged stone walls, or a blanketed shepherd with his beautiful shaggy mountain dogs, sheep or Angoras on the trail. Nightfall was accompanied by a new wave of sub-zero conditions and while summiting Thabana Ntlenyana at 3482m, the highest peak in southern Africa, I thought I might just lose my fingers! But the night was a beautiful mass of stars and a giant moon lit the landscape. I was in awe. Midnight eventually brought the end of my Lesotho wonderland. I arrived at Sani backpackers and after a hot meal of soup continued down the pass into the never-ending undulating hills of the lower berg.
Morning broke as I came into the Sani Resort’s Waterfall aid station at 100km after a very chilly night out. I was met by a happy, smiling Nix who efficiently prepared me for my next leg, where she would be pacing me. I was tired but still positive and moving, albeit slowly. She patiently encouraged a me along the flattest section of the race all morning before leaving me with 25 kilometers to go along the last section of the Giant’s Cup trail. I tried to push hard as night fell for the second time, but my knee and shin had been playing up for hours. This was by far the most challenging leg. Not only was I in severe pain but also sleep deprived, and with 100km runners passing looking rather fresh, it was not easy going.
The last few miles of the race seemed to take forever. A technical section of gorge descending presented one final challenge, taking all my concentration to stay on the trail. Somehow I managed to assist a fearful 32km runner down a drop-off here as well, but the rocks in the river below were swimming before my eyes and I got the feeling I might be joining them if I wasn't careful. It was probably on this last spike of adrenaline that I stayed awake to the end. I finished in 36 hours, 6th female, 26th overall. I would like to say that I was ecstatic to cross the finish line, but I was simply too tired.
UTD 160 was an amazing experience that I shall never forget. To Nix and Pierre who not only seconded and paced me during the race, but also helped with my training and issues along the way to the start line, thank you. I hope Mountain Abandon helps other ordinary runners reach their dreams. Looking forward to the next adventure!