So there I was, on the start line of the
Lesotho Ultra Trail (LUT), Africa’s first Ultra Skymarathon, 50km of gruelling,
lung-busting technical trail in the Maloti mountains of Lesotho. This would be
skyrunning at its best, throwing at us everything a skyrunning event should,
and in so doing, this event would firmly place itself on the international calendar
of International Skyrunning Federation (ISF)-certified must-do races.
What I didn’t know at the time was that for
me the LUT would be far more than “just” a race, it would become a lesson in
perspective. And I only realised that about 20km into the race (thanks to man-out-the-mist
Deon C). Perspective, really, is something we all need reminding about every
now and then – it grounds us, shakes us out of our self-focused bubbles, brings
us back to reality, and helps us appreciate our blessings.
Perspective tapped me firmly on the
shoulder during the LUT, high up on a +3100m ridgeline in the magnificent Ts’ehlanyane
National Park, when the views had been replaced by thick mist and the way ahead
was barely visible. I had come to this race knowing that the chances my legs
would be up to racing were slim – I’d put them through a big year, and they
were crying out for rest. But I was asking them for just one more race for the
year, followed by a well-earned rest. This type of course with its tough
terrain and high mountains is what I love best, and races like this are when I
come into my own. I was hoping my legs could be able to churn out some steady
running and, hopefully, secure a respectable top 4 position in the ladies.
But my legs had other plans. For the first
20km or so they refused to heed what my head told them – this, they said, was
one challenge too many for the year, and they were not buying into my plan. Mind
and legs argued for seemingly ever, while my body plodded on. I was not in a
good space, and to top it all, the going was getting tougher as the air was thinning
the higher I climbed.
Then it dawned on me – the realisation that
if I wasn’t careful, my only memories of this fantastic mountain running
experience would be negative, all because of an inability to look outside of my
self-obsessed inner battle and see what was really important. There I was, high
on a mountain ridge surrounded by miles and miles of awe-inspiring scenery,
privileged beyond belief to be so, and all I was thinking about was me and my
desire to be competitive. Shake it off girl, I told myself, look outside of
yourself and get some damn perspective!
If it sounds corny as hell, I apologise,
but the moment I made peace with the fact that my race wasn’t working out quite
as I’d hoped, and that it was ok to just run and enjoy rather than compete, an
enormous weight lifted off my soul and everything changed. The mist thickened,
but my day brightened – it was all about gaining perspective. It was time for
some soul running of the very best kind, and I was now free to enjoy it to the
max. Trail running makes my soul sing!
AJ Calitz in front of race winner Andrew Hagen (middle)
Meantime, while I’d been fighting my
demons, there were battles of a different kind going on way ahead. In the
thickening mist on the top of the ridge, the front guys Lucky Mia and race
favourites AJ Calitz and Iain don Wauchope, were waging war between trying to
spot the tags that marked the route, and trying to maintain a decent race pace.
The marker tags were strips of yellow cloth tied to rocks placed every 15-20m
along the route, and despite their bright colour, they were difficult to spot in
the misty conditions. The mist was so dense that it was tricky to see anything
beyond a 10-15m range. Missing a tag was easy, and trying to find your line once
having lost a tag was hopeless as the markers didn’t map a straight line – instead
they zig-zagged a course that followed the ridgeline…  which, because of the bad visibility, we
couldn’t see!
In such conditions, leading the race at
race pace without getting lost was virtually impossible, and when AJ and Iain found
themselves on a tagless route, they knew they were heading for problems. But
with Lucky just ahead, the guys did what they thought best – they powered on at
pace, keeping Lucky in sight, in the hope they’d soon come across a tag. Strength
in numbers, the pressure of competition, the determination to hold the lead,
the risk of progressing forward weighed up against the risk of losing time by turning
back on your steps – all the reasons were there.
It must be an awful quandary to be in – do you
backtrack and retrace your steps to hunt for the last marker you passed,
risking valuable racing time and potentially your lead, or do you press on at
race pace, hoping the markers are just metres from you in the mist and you’ll
stumble upon them any minute. But there remains the golden rule – as race
organiser Andrew Booth had reiterated at the start line that morning: the
minute you can’t see the next route marker, retrace your steps to find where
you left the trail. Don’t let even 50m go by without seeing a marker. Tricky at
race pace in thick mist, for sure, but the principle is the same for every
runner, whether leading the race, mid-pack or at the back of the field.
Robyn Kime in front of ladies winner Tracy Zunckel
It was a damn hard lesson for Iain and AJ,
and it cost them dearly. They’d gone a long way before they eventually retraced
their steps and found the markers, by which time the chase group and lead
ladies Robyn Kime and Tracy Zunckel had caught them. Andrew Hagen had meantime
sped ahead and established a lead that he would widen by taking full advantage
of the incredibly nimble technical downhill running ability he’s so well known
for. [Andrew holds the record for the fastest descent of Table Mountain’s Platteklip
Gorge (11:43) and of Nursery Ravine (7mins something…). Frightening!]
Andrew won the LUT in 6:07, followed by
Spaniard Diez Raobago (6:22) and Quinton Honey (6:23). Lucky Mia finished in 4th
position (6:31), with Iain don Wauchope and AJ Calitz in joint 5th place
In the ladies race, Tracy Zunkel and Robyn
Kime had made their way across the ridge in the thick mist with Michael Owen,
the trio working together as a team to maximise their tag-spotting ability.
Robyn and Tracy reached CP6 together, and then the race was on – Tracy took off
like the gazelle she is, and 14km later crossed the finish line in a storming 6:56.
Robyn secured 2nd place just 11 mins later (7:07), followed by Canadian
speedster Stacie Carrigan (7:23). Gina Trealeaven secured 4th place
(7:56) and Julia Hackland 5th (8:44).
What a brilliant event! Staging an
inaugural ultra in another country is an unenviable logistical challenge, and
Andrew Booth and his KZN Trail Running team took it on with smooth professionalism –
the race was as slick as if it had been staged for years. And Maliba Lodge made
the perfect host venue, despite its main infrastructure having been razed to
the ground just three months ago.
The Lesotho Ultra Trail did skyrunning in
southern Africa proud. With about 90% technical trail and/or single track, and
mountains that surely even scare sheep, it was tough and challenging, it was
real trail. Together with the first event sanctioned by the South African Skyrunning
Association (SASA), the Matroosberg Skymarathon, the LUT will see the start of
many exciting skyrunning events to come in southern Africa.

Keep a close eye on the SASA space!