At a higher altitude with flag unfurled
We reached the dizzy heights of that dreamed of world
Encumbered forever by desire and ambition
There’s a hunger still unsatisfied
Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon
Though down this road we’ve been so many times.
– Pink Floyd, High Hopes
Two weeks ago the family climbed into the Land Rover for our first trip to the Drakensburg Mountains. It’s been a fairly quiet winter here for us, and the opportunity to get out of town was welcomed by everyone. This trip has been in the back of my mind since we first arrived here, and it certainly did not disappoint. Like almost every adventure we take, it starts with running.
Every Tuesday night at the University of Pretoria, a group of runners meet-up to test their fitness on a 4km road loop. Affectionately known as the Tuks time trial, many of the runners use it as a social time to catch up with familiar and friendly faces. Last April after doing some internet research on local running groups I came across the Tuks harriers and decided to give it a try. While there are some real speedsters who sometimes show up, most Tuesdays a core group of 30 and 40-something trail runners and ultra folks amble off the line with smiles on their faces and lighthearted strides. Since returning from Nashville, I have attended every Tuesday night for the camaraderie as much as the workout. The running community, no matter where in the world I am, never fails to be welcoming and fun and great hosts. In this regard the Tuks group is no exception.
In a nice compliment to the run, a campus eatery offers a weekly special dish for those who want to hang around and continue the fellowship. At one of the first post-run dinners, I asked the local and more experienced runners for their South African bucket-list races. I’ve discovered a few races on my own, but I’ve also found that they were hit-or-miss in terms of quality and experience. I know my best racing days are behind me, but I’m on a running streak again for the first time since 2016. I’m enjoying the increase in my milage and getting a few workouts in on the golf course. I feel like racing again, and I don’t know how long this will last, so I want to make it count. Two races, which had been advertised on my social media feed ironically enough, were also on the calendar for some of the others in Tuks. I love how running is an individual sport, yet we can be so easily peer-pressured into races and group training runs by others. So on consecutive Tuesday nights in July, I found myself committing to the Rundela 27km, a road race commemorating Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, and the Cathedral Peak Challenge, a 20km run from the base to summit of one of South Africa’s highest peaks.
The road race was long no and tough, but not a problem for my fitness and ability. Trail racing however is a different beast entirely. For the last twenty-five years, I have consistently trained on trails, but rarely raced on them. In high school our cross country team often ran long on the snowmobile trails and power lines and in college I ran at least once a week on the West Virginian hunting trails and endless dirt roads. Later, while coaching at Belmont University I ran most of my weekly milage in the early mornings on the horse trails at Percy Warner Park.
But even with all the miles over rocks and through the mud, I’ve never really had the desire to go racing up mountains and into wilderness. I’m too tall and lanky and my feet aren’t fast enough for the more technical turns. Even so, in 2004 I won a summit race up and down Bradbury Mountain by out-kicking some poor guy who lead the whole way. It’s funny that I think of that as a mountain race because that hill barely qualifies as a mountain topping out at 405 feet (124m). More recently I have seen mixed results in the (highly recommended) Nashville Running Company trail series races. I won a lovely six mile tour of a lesser known Metro park, landed on the podium at the 2014 Dry Creek Half Marathon and was also absolutely destroyed at the vicious 2017 Defeated Creek Half Marathon. So it’s been a mixed bag when it comes to trail racing. You might understand then that I would be a bit apprehensive when registering for the Cathedral Peak Challenge, a 20 km roundtrip climbing more than a mile into the thin air of 3000 meters of altitude.
We left Pretoria late in the morning on Friday and enjoyed the drive south through Johannesburg and towards Harrismith. This country’s landscape changes quickly, and within a couple hours we found ourselves crossing arid and windswept grasslands and descending into an environment that more closely resembles Arizona or New Mexico than what we imagined South Africa would be. Along the back roads into the Drakensburg we encountered dozens of baboons and cattle and goats all watching us with the same curious looks on their faces. We followed the signs till the road narrowed and twisted upwards. Set right against the mountain walls, the Cathedral Peak Hotel is a quaint if not dated resort. Imagine a real-life version of the Grand Budapest Hotel. We checked-in, tipped the eager bellhop, had a quick dinner, and settled in for the night.
Race morning was cool and clear and the summit looked inviting in the distance. I enjoyed two cups of coffee, some crispy bacon, and watched the sunrise paint the peaks golden. I was unsure of what the temperature would be at the higher elevations and decided to start the day wearing a jacket, gloves, and carrying a winter hat. The hotel and race are offering R25,000 for the a new FKT (fastest-known time), and as such, I figured the competition would be at least as strong as the coffee, but I didn’t know exactly how I would stack up next to experienced mountain runners. At the Rundela two weeks prior, I was surprised that my fitness kept me within the top ten for the first 20 km. My training has been much more consistent since the first week of June, but I still didn’t have any indication on how I would do climbing and descending for the next few hours.
With a short blast from an airhorn, the thirty or so competitors started off. Since no one immediately wanted to take the lead on the jeep trail, I strode confidently up the center, opening my stride and hoping someone would follow. In fact I was so focused on the guys behind me, I missed the first turn 300 meters into the race and continued up the wrong trail taking the others with me. An extra 100 meters had past before the call came from behind us that I had gone the wrong way. We turned and did our best to regain our positions at the front. It was difficult passing people on the narrow and technical trail down to the river. Whoops, sorry guys. After the water crossing the climb began in earnest. I didn’t know what position I was in anymore, and it didn’t really matter as the hill kicked steeply up, and it quickly consumed my attention.
The sun was erasing the long shadows and the temperature climbed as we did, steadily and intently. By 4km I had removed my jacket and gloves and by 7km I knew that I should have carried more water. The one liter (the required minimum) would not be enough at the rate I was drinking it. I alternated between running and power hiking on the crazier sections, and I felt like I was making solid progress. The lower parts of the trail were technical, but not overly so. It wasn’t until I reached a section called “Bugger’s Gulley” that I really started to feel the effects of my effort. The last and steepest part of the climb had rope sections and guides stationed to help competitors with the rock face. Here I really had to slow myself and concentrate as the consequences of a misstep were nothing short of fatal. The last 300 meters were more mountaineering than trail racing, and I was not prepared for the hair-raising vertical drops and the rock climbing skills needed to summit. Steadily though and after two hours and eight minutes, I found my way to the top. I summited alone and in fifth place long after the leader, but not long after the others.
The views from the top were absolutely spectacular, and I sat and snacked on a Cliff Bar examining the 360 degree panorama for ten minutes. I texted Erin that I had made the top, and as I was getting ready to descend, another racer, a South African carrying no water, food, or even vest arrived. He was wearing an oversized cotton t-shirt and old Reebok cross training shoes. In his best broken English, he asked for some of my water. I’m ashamed to admit that I hesitated, thinking about the long trail down and the temperature that would only be increasing. Reluctantly I handed over the bladder and straw from my vest. It only took a moment though for the gratitude for all I have and all that can do to return. I looked around at the peaks and the distant valley where the hotel and finish line was located. I saw the helicopter hovering below us, and the vultures circling on the thermals coming out of the valley. I will be ok, I thought. I have everything I need and then some. I can and should be generous with all of it. The race director later told us that the top of the mountain is where everything makes sense, but it is the journey that changes us. Perspective. The 10,000 foot view. I gave the man the last half of the Cliff Bar and wished him luck on his race. I knew that I would be fine in a couple hours. I didn’t need the water as much as he did. And I didn’t need to win or break records or become a jerk in the process either.
I cleared the three rope sections again, but I didn’t realize just how much the climb had deadened my quads. Exiting Bugger’s Gulley, each stride was compounding the fatigued muscles, and it was apparent that going down would be much tougher than going up. On the few flat sections off the ridge, I found my stride and ran freely in my highest gear, but that was about the highlight of it. My sweat was drying quickly in the sun and a salty crust had formed on my hat, vest, and lips. I regretted not putting sunscreen on my legs and arms. The helicopter circled as I dropped into the shadow of Orange Peel Gap. There the pain in my quads only steadily increased, and I was forced to slow even more going over the boulders and resign myself to finishing rather than racing the remainder of the trail.
Entering the final kilometer I was pretty much walking toward the finish line with my only concern being breaking the four hour mark. It wouldn’t be fast enough to get on the leader board, but it was an effort I could be proud of. I rang the bell at the finish line and collapsed into a salty and dusty heap. In fact, only the race director offering me an ice cold Coke would get me to sit upright. Two weeks on, I can still feel the deep muscle pain in my legs from that descent. It took me ninety minutes to come down from the peak, the race leader did it in half that time and set a new record in the process, 2:22:00.
I’m certain that we go back to the Drakesburg range. It is beautiful and lonely and pristine. The boys enjoyed rock climbing and Erin spent the morning riding horses through the canyon. There was something for all of us. I’m also certain that I will do more mountain races in the future. For all the suffering during and after that race, I really did enjoy the journey. Next week Erin leaves for her Kilimanjaro attempt. I’m equally proud of and excited for her. When I told my friends at Tuks last Tuesday night about her adventure, they shared this race idea with me.
Be good and keep in touch.