Sky Run 2011, the long story

Unfinished business isn't healthy. It's heavy baggage to drag around, and if left unattended, it can cause blisters on your psyche and eat into your soul.
There're only two ways of dealing with unfinished business: you either come to terms with the job not done and put it to rest (risky though, for fear of it waking up years down the line when it's too late to act on it), or you keep trying until you can tick the box that it's finished.

Until last weekend I had unfinished business with Sky Run, undoubtedly the toughest endurance challenge on South Africa's trail running calendar. I had raced Sky Run twice and both times finished 2nd lady. My first one, in 2009, had given me the heaviest baggage: I'd been the leading woman from the start and about 75km in my GPS battery had died and found myself stumbling around a mountainside under the night sky without a clue where to go. Then, in 2010, my navigational skills were still a bit wonky, and I was beaten fair and square by the far better runner on the day (thanks, Hobbit!). (see my race report of last year at Sky Run 2010 )

This year I was more determined than ever to get my race right - I wanted this badly and I needed to toss my unfinished business, it was getting heavy! I did my homework - I knew my weak point was navigation and I made sure I researched the route, albeit from 1000km away via Google Earth! As always with any endurance race, nutrition and hydration would be fundamental and I planned what I would eat and drink, when. The unknown for me would be whether I still had endurance in my legs after my four-month layoff  earlier in the year from the stress fracture in my femur. My main competition in this race was also a concern: Su don Wauchope is fast, strong and, importantly, her coach is husband Iain don Wauchope, one of SA's top endurance athletes and the Sky Run record holder for this longer course.

Sky Run is special. It’s tough, run on an unmarked course (self-navigational between checkpoints) of rugged terrain, on an average altitude of around 2 400m above sea level, kicks in a full 5 316m of leg-burning ascent, and a nasty 5 158m of quad-trembling descent. This one's not for the faint-hearted.

The 4am pre-dawn start to Sky Run is always exciting - everyone's hyped up and nerves are running high. The route starts with a 300m dash to a hikers' path that begins a 700m climb up the side of a mountain to the first check point 11km away, high above the tiny, dusty town of Lady Grey. That climb sets the tone for the rest of the day... and night!

My strategy for this race was no different from other endurance runs I've done: to go steady, gradually picking up the pace into the day to maximise the daylight (every hour run in the light is time saved; running in the night by the light of a headlamp is considerably slower). I watched Su bound off with gusto into the dawn at the top of the first climb, and I forced myself to hold back and stick to my plan - there'd be plenty of time to pull her in. And it happened that way - I caught Su just after Snowden (CP3), at about 33km. We ran together, with a small group of guys, for the next 20km or so, and once we dropped down into the Balloch valley, I pulled ahead and picked up the pace. I ran the 7km along the valley on my own and reached Balloch, the "halfway" point (65km), in 9hr30 as 1st lady and, more importantly, feeling strong.

Every Skyrunner knows the real challenge begins after Balloch. It starts with The Wall, a 500m climb over about a 900m distance, with a mirror image descent down the other side. A 13km flat section is then rudely interrupted by a river-crossing-and-hill-shunt (together known as Wildfell), and a seemingly endless slog up the Bridal Pass to reach 2 700m. At this point, the lungs of coastal runners (ahem...) are working so damn hard that brain and legs politely take second skivvy - everything's moaning all at once, and there's still more than 25km to go!

All was going according to plan, and by the time I'd got onto the Bridal Pass, I'd managed to pass Isaac Mazibuko, who'd been in third position. When I checked in at CP7 halfway up the Bridal Pass, which was manned by a handful of jovial students huddled in a tent, passing the time singing pub songs and suiping lager, there was much excitement. The first guy stuck his head out the tent and yelled "Hey, it's the third runner! No wa-a-a-ay, she's a CHICK, she's a CHICK!"

Distance does strange things to the mind. And to the taste buds. Strange, unexplainable things happen with +60km under the belt. There in front me was a bunch of excited students, all yodelling in delight that a  "chick" could be in third spot...   and all I could focus on was the brown bottle of beer that the guy closest to me was clutching.
Now, let me explain... I don't drink beer. I don't like the taste. Simple.
But I eyed that beer so longingly that before I could say Charles Glass I was swigging it back, first one big sip... and then another, for good measure. It was cold, it was bitter, and it went down like liquid gold.
And I can still hear the guys' cheers ringing in my ears - this beer-swiggin' chick was their HERO!

Now, back to the race. Isaac, adrenalin probably pumping overtime at the shock of having been passed by a woman, overtook me near the top of the Bridal Pass and sped into the distance, not to be seen again. As I reached the top, Lance Chapman caught me and we chatted - he'd very gallantly given his GPS to his wife, Sue Chapman, who was also running, and he was navigationless. I had the route on my trusty Foretrex 401, so we agreed to run the rest of the distance together.

We pushed to cover as much distance as we could before dusk, and we donned our headlamps just as it was getting dark, about 4km before the Turn (CP 7). There was an icey wind blowing and by the time we reached the Turn, we were damn cold. I downed two mugs of hot, sweet tea made by those brilliant marshals, and we set off - not before learning the news that I had widened the gap between me and Su to a solid 70 mins, which was great to hear.

It was soon after that that things started going pear-shaped for me. I guess in our pre-occupation to maximise distance in the light, I'd forgotten to eat. And now I was feeling it. The idea of food held no appeal, and as I munched a baby potato, it fought hard to not be swallowed.

And then suddenly, out the darkness, we saw a headlamp moving towards us. Much to our surprise it was Nico Schoeman - he'd been in 2nd place some 10 mins behind Bruce Arnett at Balloch and running well, but as he'd reached the top of the Bridal Pass, the batteries in his GPS had died and he had no spares. He'd been directionless since nightfall - he'd not only lost his way but his second place (to Isaac, who'd long since passed him in the dark), and he was really annoyed with himself.

So now we were three: two strong guys sans navigation, and one beer swigging "chick" who was running on empty and feeling nauseous at the thought of consuming anything. A sad looking trio!

The haul up to the final CP, Halstone Peak, was gruelling, and the descent just as bad. Those final 4km took forever, and I was pathetically slow. Lance and Nico were brilliant - their patience could've lit up the nightsky!

Lance Chapman, me, Nico Schoeman crossing the finish line

And then, at last, the finish - the Salomon banners, the lights, the cameras, the cheers. It was all a blur of relief and exhaustion. At last I'd done it - 1st lady, tie 3rd overall finisher. 20hrs58min. No more unfinished business. I'd more than Touched the Sky :-)

Thank you to Adrian Saffy, the strongest gladiator of all, not only for organising this wonderful, gutsy endurance challenge, but then for completing the entire event as race sweep. Every year Adrian is out there longer than anyone, +30hrs of long, hard slog, bringing up the rear in the essence that truly reflects this great race: human spirit.

Happy daze :-)
(All photos courtesy of Kolesky/Nikon/Lexar)

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