A personal account of half a decade's worth of Skyrun
The history of Skyrun is a fascinating series of arduous adventures, repeatedly stricken by inclement weather, along the majestic ridge lines of the Witteberg mountains. But only first-time Skyrunners, thirsty for information and in trepidation of their journey to come, generally take the time to read the detailed race history on the Skyrun web page. Then, once they have completed, or let us rather say attempted, their first Skyrun, that event becomes the start of their own personal Skyrun timeline. No longer does the origin of the race matter. Now they have something real – something tangible and with emotional attachment – from which to work for the next year. And the next. And the next. For many, that virgin Skyrun merely sets a stone rolling. They don’t realise that a lengthy and difficult love-hate relationship with mountains and “walls” and clocks has just been set in motion. And inevitably, their Skyrun journey becomes deeply intertwined with the journeys of others, as is evident in my own history of Skyrun.
My first experience of Skyrun was in 2015. My boyfriend at the time was running the 100km and although I had also entered, a persistent case of ITBS saw me seconding instead. Unable to return to sleep after the 4am start I drove through to Balloch and went for a short run to waste time and dissipate some of my frustration at being sidelined. After admiring the views from above the Balloch Cave, I ran south on the plateau above the farm, feeling on top of the world until, predictably, the familiar pain of an ITB-induced mechanically locked-up knee brought me to a halt. I was relieved. I had desperately needed to prove to myself that there was no way I could have completed 100km over that terrain... I scrambled down to the winding valley track and for 3km made my best attempt at a limp-free walk back up the road to the aid station as all the runners’ crews and supporters drove past obliviously.
November 2016 couldn’t come soon enough. My little Balloch rendezvous the previous year had not only confirmed my suspicions that ITBS doesn’t just disappear overnight for a race, but it had also revealed to me a whole new landscape in that mountainous Eastern Cape wilderness. The rolling sandstone hills and basins, interspersed by sharper rugged peaks, and all with the most amazing network of pristine sheep and cattle trails... The bug had bitten and I was going back for my share of the fun!
A few weeks before the 2016 race I had the privilege of joining a Skyrun route recce. We did the standard training camp version of the trail, making Balloch the overnight stop on Saturday and completing the second part on Sunday. I was less interested in the navigation and route choices, and more interested in the unique flora of the area. For two days I plied an unlucky botanist, who had joined our recce, with endless questions on the high altitude vegetation. I specifically recall the yellow buttercup-like flowers of Geum capense in the damp turf after Snowdon, the Kniphofia colonies and wild horses before the ascent to Avoca, the Large Golden Vlei Moraeas that are common in the area but still so magnificent, and a special sighting of a Red Rock Rabbit as we descended the Dragon’s Back. This Skyrun biome really had me hooked!
Race day finally arrived and I donned my trail shoes with as much enthusiasm as I had for the recce. It was my first proper mountain ultra and my plan was to take it easy from the beginning, always running within myself. I hiked most of the way to the tower and by the time the sun rose I was keen to stretch my legs on the ridge lines ahead. Even then, I continued my relaxed approach all the way to Avoca and only picked up the pace on the descent into Balloch Valley. Without much stress I reached the 58km point in 7:45. But I knew what was coming... Leaving Balloch my struggle began, and when I finally reached the saddle of the wall I was forced to sit for a few minutes. After consuming a few jelly tot calories, I began the treacherous descent. Of the following section I recall only heat, dirt road, more heat, and more road. Despite the elevation to be gained up Bridal Pass I was only too happy to finally be off the road. I pushed all the way to the top where I collapsed on a rock to await the next the runner, who went by the name of “Ben”. I’d had enough of solo running, my knee was bothering me, and I was keen for company, so I tagged along behind Ben all the way to the Turn. There I managed to get in some soup, my first solid food in several hours, and choked down a piece of dry bread roll. It was enough. That plus some good music kept me going to Halston Peak. Upon reaching the final checkpoint I suddenly realised we’d made such good time that a daylight finish might be possible. Spurred on by dying batteries in my headlight and zero experience in night time running or navigation, I bade Ben farewell and headed for the finish. It was too dark to be seen yet just light enough to locate the finish and I crossed the line without a headlight in a time of 15:16. A new female course record and the most amazing 100km course I’d run to date.
I should have called it right there. Taken a break from Skyrun and waited for my record to be broken before returning. Instead, I headed straight back in 2017 to try for a sub-15 hour run. I knew there were spots where I could have saved time in 2016, and I was convinced I could do it. My mom and my mountain partner, Pierre, travelled down with me. My mom was running the 65km - her first time on the route and the start of her own Skyrun history. Pierre was returning from injury and would second us at Balloch. Except for having a great support team, 2017 was the inverse of 2016. Nothing went well. The mountain was snow-covered and so I dressed for cold weather, but it was a crystal clear day and I baked in my thermals. There was plenty of water on the mountain so I carried very little, but it was all frozen or buried by snow, which I ended up eating for fluid. I needed to “race” so I ran with a fast pack, but the pace was not sustainable for me over 100km. And finally, I had one single-minded focus – to break my own record – and the minute that that no longer seemed feasible, my motivation crumbled. I fell asleep in a chair in the shady barn of Edgehill, dehydrated, nauseous and relieved to be done for the day.
That was my first ever DNF. It took me weeks to work through the emotions, accept the decisions I had made out on the trail that day, and realise that although difficult, the overall experience had matured me and taught me more than all my race finishes put together. Then, all that remained was to set things right on the course. But alas, it was not to be. Three months before the 2018 running I broke my fifth metatarsal. I spent two weeks trying to “run it off” before going for radiographs and finally admitting that I’d have to pause my training. I knew there’d be no records that year and I opted to rather run with my mom on her first 100km attempt. That year turned out to be the infamously hot “out and back” run. Like so many other participants, my mom struggled severely with the heat, the prolonged time at altitude around Avoca, and the idea of doing “the wall” twice. She pulled the plug at Balloch, and unable to contemplate the late night finish of continuing alone, I took my shameful seat on the bus back to Wartrail. A second DNF, albeit slightly less taxing than the first.
2019 Saw me completing the final year of my veterinary degree. My last exam was scheduled on the Friday morning, day before Skyrun. Once again, this was not conducive to running a 100km record. So while my mom and Pierre drove to Lady Grey, rested a day and prepared for the “real run,” I studied, wrote my exam, caught a flight to Bloemfontein and rented a car to arrive in Skyrun country around 10pm the Friday night. Thank goodness I’d had the rare common sense to only enter the 38km. For the second time in my Skyrun history I supported at Balloch, but this time there was no regret. I loved every minute of the social atmosphere at the aid station and was able to see both Pierre and my mom in and out of Balloch before heading back to Wartrail for my own little night run. For the first time in 3 years things went according to plan. I ran a decent sub-5 hour 38km and realised just how quickly the back end of the 100km can be run if you still have the legs. Meanwhile, my mom and Pierre both finished the 100km, Pierre with his best time to date and my mom setting straight her own DNF of the previous year with a very solid sub-24 hour. 2020, I told myself. 2020 I will finish the 100km again...
Now, I’d be lying if I said that my only goal for 2020 was “to finish”. The top goal was to win, the second to have another daylight finish, the third to break my previous course record. The ultimate would have been all three, with Pierre also having the run of his life and crossing the line alongside me. But unfortunately the day dreams and reality of ultra running do not often align and it was a completely different and unexpected scenario that played out on the day.
Pierre and I never planned to run the race together, but training together fairly often means we do run a similar speed. We started out from Lady Grey at what should have been a comfortably fast pace. The problem was, it was just a tad too slow for our daylight finish target, and neither of us was actually feeling comfortable. But we soldiered on and reached Balloch in a mediocre 8:30, still hoping for a negative split and a sub-16 hour finish. But it was on the wall, that we “hit the wall,” so to speak. Pierre was struggling to breath, on top of nutritional issues. I wasn’t in a great space, but I was holding my own as 2nd position female. We eventually reached the saddle of the wall where I decided to leave Pierre to sort himself out. But he recovered almost instantaneously as the gradient reversed and we practically flew down the valley, across the fields and onto the Edgehill road, passing several runners who’d passed us on the way up.
Unfortunately, Pierre’s second wind didn’t last and neither did my resolve to leave him to run his own race. Any ultra runner will tell you that friends made on a long run often form a team with which it becomes increasingly difficult to part the longer you’re out there. Pierre being my partner made this even more applicable. In truth though, I was concerned about his inability to breathe properly and complaints of a closed-up throat which worsened with food intake. But a few things kept me from advising him to withdraw from the run. The first was knowing the devastation of a DNF, the second was guilt at having let my mom quit at Balloch two years earlier, and the third was feeling partly responsible for his Heaven & Hell DNF where he’d experienced very similar symptoms and I’d encouraged him to rather abort the race for safety reasons. So now I was left with one option, and that was to continue with him to the finish, even if it meant a 24-hour plus run that ended, coincidentally, on his birthday. We’d cross the line together.
Once this decision was made I was overcome by a calmness and clarity of mind. I was able to sit patiently at various levels of the Bridal Pass ascent and admire the most magnificently green and serene mountains. The top of the basin revealed an impressive waterfall to anyone who managed to raise their heavy heads and gaze in that direction, while the myriads of flowers around my feet had as significant a presence in those moments of immense appreciation for nature. At the top of Bridal I did what I should have many hours earlier. I implemented a forced stop, gave all my electrolyte drinks to Pierre (I could no longer stomach the warm and sickly sweet fluid anyway), got some calories into him, and we continued after a 15 minute rest. The change was immediately noticeable and the setting sun with cooling air seemed to breathe new life into him. Nonetheless, we didn’t push the pace for fear that the energy wouldn’t last for the remaining 20km. But we continued to move consistently and eventually reached the famous soup and bread of the turn. After a good dinner we set out for the last 15km to the finish, but after 17 hours on my feet, Heaven & Hell now came back to haunt me. My right leg locked up in a way that made bending my knee almost impossible, and it was all I could do to walk. The descent off Halston Peak was excruciatingly slow, and I cursed myself for not having chosen the 65km event, knowing full well that I hadn’t fully recovered from my last ultra run.
Finally though, it was done. The commentator at the finish line announced something along the lines of “the honeymoon couple” was on their way. Whatever it was, I didn’t care. Nobody could understand what we’d been through that day, physically obviously, but even more mentally. Constantly evaluating one’s own condition, then someone else’s, re-evaluating, doubting decisions, justifying decisions, calculating times, moving the goal posts, again, and again, and again. I like to think we’re stronger for what we accomplished. Certainly it wasn’t the easy option, to finish together, and we’ve both since expressed a degree of regret over the way we ran the race. But at the end of the day, if there is one thing I’ve learnt from the ultras I’ve done, it is to not criticise too heavily decisions made out on the trail. It is far too easy to forget the details that influence our in-race choices once the fatigue, pain and emotion has subsided.
So that brings my Skyrun timeline up to date. That the 2020 edition went ahead in such a strange year is testament to the tenacity of the race organisers, K-Way as the sponsor, the Eastern Cape farmers and all the runners, and I am extremely grateful to have been a part of the event. I no longer hold the 100km female record as it was completely smashed by the speedy Dutch Ragna Debats in a brilliant time of 14:20. However, my Skyrun history is by no means over. Each year I plan to diversify my race calendar, travel further afield and experience new trails. But perhaps this will always be the one run that draws me back, forever seeking that pure enthusiasm and freedom of my first Skyrun. Forever dreaming of that perfect day...