Lesotho (from the Wikipedia definition): the Kingdom of Lesotho is a landlocked country, completely surrounded by South Africa. About 40% of the population live by the international poverty line of US$1.25/day. Over 80% of the country lies above 1,800m and Lesotho’s lowest point at 1,400m is the highest lowest point in the world.
Lesotho Wildrun (Wildrunner definition): The LWR is a mountain running journey through the magnificent, remote and wild mountain kingdom of Lesotho. This three-day, 120km mountain wilderness experience takes place through the Ketane Ha Mothibi and Thaba Putsoa ranges, roughly 60km SE from the Lesotho capital of Maseru.
And as if that wasn’t enough to bargain for, this year the LWR got a lot wilder!
With a massive cold front descending on the southern tip of Africa as we were packing our kit to catch our flight, every weather site we trawled warned of extreme conditions advancing towards the interior by Thursday. With Lesotho not only being “the interior” but at altitude, and Thursday being Day 1 of our race, we knew we were in for some less than toasty temperatures to spice things up in the mountains.
The rain arrived the night before race start, with a steady downpour through the night. Despite the deluge, Wildrunner’s arrangements panned out like clockwork: everyone was up at 04:30 for hot brekkie and kit check, bundled into three Basotho taxis and driven 90 mins to the start at the tiny village of Ha Searle. The roads were mud slush after the solid rain and steering the taxis was a tricky task. Just 100m short of the start line, we had a taste of what the next three days had in store for us: a river had burst its banks, flooded the road, and the taxi could go no further – we had to wade across the river to get to the start line.
Day 1 covered 43km and 2080m vertical gain, topping us at 2640m at the 32km mark. The trails were incredible, passing remote villages reachable only by horse and foot. Crossing the Ketane River, said to be “knee-deep at worst”, was an eye-opener – the river was raging chest-deep (ok, so waist-deep for the guys) and the force of the current was strong. The six of us up front gripped hands and crossed as a chain (interesting logic, in retrospect – if one went down, we’d all go!) and we made it across dry from the shoulders up!
Solid rain + single digit temperatures meant that keeping pace was crucial to maintain body heat. I was well kitted and felt fine in my thermal and waterproof, but I slipped in a small stream about 3hrs into the run and completely drenched my thermal. Any trail runner knows that wet and cold on the outside is fine, but the minute your underlayers get wet, your core temperature drops fast. Within minutes I was shivering. I had a dry thermal in a ziplock bag in my pack and I knew I had to put it on fast, or I’d find myself in trouble. So, in an open area of marshy ground in the pouring rain, I literally stripped off my wet stuff, pulled on my dry thermal and my waterproof, and felt like a million bucks again. (Thanks Steve, Deon and Peter, I’ve never been dressed by three sweaty men before!)
The wet conditions over the three days made the course muddy and slippery, considerably slowing the pace of even the front runners, as comparison with previous years’ results show. The weather conditions changed the dynamics of the race, making it far tougher, sure, but also far more dramatic, more beautiful, more real.
My plan for each day was to start steady, maintain a consistent pace, and finish each stage strong. Most importantly, I needed to not get lost. The race is self-navigational, with runners relying on GPS and choosing optimal routes between waypoints. Following waypoints on a mountainous course is not easy, as some runners learned – one speedster, who will not be named in this blog but who has since signed himself up for orienteering lessons, paid dearly for heeding his nose rather than his GPS and ended up covering a good 20km further than everyone else on Day 1.
Day 2, 28km with 2175m of climbing, was a stunner. The route circumnavigated the Maletsunyane River Gorge with an eye level view of the 192m high Maletsunyane Falls, the highest single-drop falls in southern Africa. Again, the single track was breathtaking, a mountain traverse trail that often meandered just metres away from 300m sheer drop-offs to the gorge below.
Day 3 dawned cold and wet yet again but we were lucky, this time the rain held off and we scored snow underfoot. If Day 2 was for me the most dramatic scenery, it was Day 3 that scored the weather prize – for us African runners, there’s nothing more novel than running on snow. The air was cold, the ground crisp, and the beauty of the surrounding mountains draped in soft white snow took the burn from our legs and lungs as we pushed up the infamous Baboon’s Pass at around 2500m. (For those who’ve never run at altitude [and no, Capetonians, Johannesburg’s 1600m is not altitude!], training at sea level makes running at +2400m feel like you’re pulling a trailer and breathing through a thick sock.)
The race finished with a river crossing (as we’d come to expect by now, thanks Owen) and a steep climb (thanks again Owen!) to reach the lavish green lawns of the Ramabanta Trading Post. The rain held off until just before the last couple of finishers trickled in, and then the heavens opened, yet again.
The LWR is an incredible three-day journey filled with rich experiences and intoxicating views that give runners a glimpse into a world that time seems to have forgotten. For me, the most lingering visual memory is a quintessential Lesotho image – of a tall, statuesque Basotho shepherd standing in silence high on a mountainside in the rain, wrapped in his traditional Basotho blanket and leaning on a staff as he watches over his sheep as they graze.
|Cherry on the top: 1st lady, 3rd overall finisher|
As with all Wildrunner’s events, the organisation is slick and everything happens like clockwork – and achieving that in remote regions is often harder than running the routes themselves! Huge thumbs up to Owen, Tam and the rest of the Wildrunner team for this great Lesotho gem of an event. Thanks too to my main sponsor Salomon, for keeping me toasty in the very best kit, and to PeptoSport for keeping my energy levels up.
And to the three lodges that hosted us hungry, cold and tired runners: Malealea Lodge, Semonkong Lodge and the Ramabanta Trading Post, you were brilliant – excellent food, comfy beds and great hospitality!
*photos by Kelvin Trautman