Touching the sky

Posted on November 19, 2013

20131116_pureadventures_skyrun__event-1021This past weekend was one to remember. I, along with another 350 runners descended on the bijou village of Lady Grey in South Africa’s Eastern Cape for the Salomon Skyrun 2013. I expected a toughie, of that I have no doubt. The press release in the week prior, with talk of the likelihood of puking and seeing either God or lions, cleared that one up quite nicely!

The race, labelled South Africa’s most extreme trail event, is a monster mountain race of either 100km, the daddy of the event or the ‘lite’ option, ‘just’ 65km in distance. The race is fully self-supported, self-navigated and boasts a mighty 4,700m of elevation gain.

I heard about it at the Dodo Trail in Mauritius this past July. Clearly, just hearing about it wasn’t enough though as a few enquiries later, I was signed up and the trip booked.

Of course, at that point I hadn’t quite considered the difficulties of training for a high-altitude, technical terrain, mountainous event in the flat, sandy desert where I call home. Details, details! Instead I just did what I could with what I had, a maxim that every trail runner must embrace because very few of us have the luxury of the perfect terrain on our doorstep.

Registration was a joy. Wonderful people in a wonderful space… nervous anticipation mixed with excited chatter, old friends and new friends… tales of the trails… but even the great atmos couldn’t conceal the sounds of howling winds and lashing rain outside.  Goody bags were collected followed by a pasta party before settling into the marquee for video footage from last years event… the sort of footage that can’t help but rev you up and touch your soul. At that point, we were all blissfully unaware of what the following 24 hours would hold for us but soon enough we found out.

0245 and the alarm rang. 0330 and the roll call began. 0400 and the race commenced. And then?  What followed was a long day… and night for some… of brutal conditions that tested us all, in mind, body and spirit. It is one thing running on such exposed and technical terrain at altitude and another altogether, when you throw in extremely adverse weather conditions. Think gale force winds, horizontal rain and sleet and visibility often little more than a couple of meters. There was rarely a moment’s respite as we tackled high ridges and peaks, scrambled on rocks and forged our way through unmarked wilderness terrain.

Eventually, twelve hours after the race commenced, the final curtain was drawn and the race brought to a sharp halt. Consensus over radio contact between the support in the mountains and the team back at base simply deemed it unsafe to continue. We are at the mercy of the mountain gods after all and there are times when we must surrender to her power.

As for me? Even before the race was cut short, the conditions had got the better of me. Soaked through, my body battered by the winds, my mindset started to turn. Throw in a serious case of the trots and a rolled ankle, and it flipped. As we approached Avoca, the highest point of the race, I knew already that it wasn’t my day. I had no desire to push on…

A long wait in a cold, wet tent preceded a long hike down back to civilisation. This gave me five or so hours to let my mind wander and a few of the things I thought about are these:

  • Even though the race was stopped mid-way, I bailed before this… my first DNF and I now know first hand that yes, we really do learn most from when we falter…
  • The bonds forged during times of blood, sweat and toil are truly like no other. I’ve written about this so many times before and the Skyrun was just a joyful reminder. As I lay shivering in a wind-blown tent, in came a fellow runner also ready to throw in the towel. She cried and then we lay spooning each other, desperate to share what body warmth we could muster. I suspect she might become a life-long friend!
  • The spirit of camaraderie is at its best during times of turmoil. At some points, the adverse conditions rendered it nigh on impossible to even make out the identity of our fellow runners. But still, in times like this we realise that running really isn’t a solitary sport. Hands were held to cross over fences, food was shared and every runner seemed so vigilant, watchful over each other and determined to work together as a team.
  • And finally, I thought about how regardless of our skill, sense or speed, beyond our planning and preparation, we must never lose respect for the mountains. We never conquer them… they allow us to traverse her majestic terrain when it suits them but they never let us forget our frailty.

The day ended with warm food around the campfire at Balloch cave. When finally we found a bed for the night, we flopped into it, shattered but strangely exhilarated. And as my eyes drew to a close, I reminded myself that it is the moments in life when we are truly stripped back, that we learn the most about ourselves. Every single one of us out there had to dig deep and has left us stronger individuals today.

And I suppose it comes as no surprise that whilst yesterday, if asked whether I would return in 2014, I would have said, ‘No way’, but today I find I’ve softened already. By tomorrow, I’ll probably have added it to my 2014 calendar…

For race details, visit

Photo: © kelvintrautman | nikon | lexar

My thanks to Skyrun organisers, Pure Adventures and to Salomon South Africa for this truly epic experience.

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