Slogging becomes soul-running at the LUT

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during the LUT, high up on a +3100m ridgeline in the magnificent Ts’ehlanyane National Park, when the views had been replaced by thick mist and the way ahead was barely visible.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 (6:53).

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!

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