Make it count!

Life has become a series of Facebook and Instagram posts, with so many of us snapping away at the world without even noticing the smaller things that make up this grand adventure that we call life. In this series, we are setting out to find people who aren’t afraid of stepping into the unknown and doing things that are a bit out of the ordinary. In the first of our “I did this” series, we venture into the dramatic, scenic Drakensberg Mountains as we head out for our first “trail run.”

I don’t often run, but when I do, I run a marathon! True story. It all started when my brother phoned me late one night, explaining that he had entered for a trail run, the Mnweni Marathon in the Drakensberg, and wanting to know if my husband and I were interested in joining him on this adventure in about two months’ time. Logically, it does not make sense to agree to something like this, especially when you have never run more than five kilometres in your life but, what the heck, life is short and all that, so my husband and I entered!

We immediately downloaded a running application — well, about a week after the phone call — in preparation for our marathon and the “great training” began. Four days a week of long-distance running, between eight and 20 km, and one month later — in our minds — we were ready to win this thing. I mean, how hard could it be? And then it happened. A stomach bug. But three days and a few kilograms lighter, I was ready to start training again. Then came the weekend and, along with that, the family and junk food. Next came the long weekend, which brought just about all our Free State friends, who obviously want to spend as much time at the beach as possible, to visit us. Needless to say, we did not train one bit during those three weeks and, on top of that, ate as if it was the Christmas holidays. Then it suddenly dawned on us that there were less than two weeks left before the big event and we shuddered at the thought.


After much contemplation and consideration, we decided to go for it, even though we were certainly undertrained and ridiculously unprepared. The trip there did not start off too well and things weren’t looking great as, after eventually only leaving Ballito at five, we found ourselves in a two-hour traffic jam just 40 kilometres away from home — I don’t know if you know this, but this is not the perfect way to start a weekend trip. Three hours later we arrived at the muddy “campsite” of the Mnweni Cultural Village and discovered that we had missed the race briefing. Oops! We were also advised to prepare for extremes of heat and cold. And true to our luck, we experienced some of the worst weather conditions that Mnweni has seen in years — to the point where the organisers were considering cancelling the event. We found the rest of family, who were busy setting up tents in the pouring rain, had a quick supper in the car and called it a night as the race was due to start at six the following morning.

Then it finally arrived — race day. It was dark, cold and hadn’t stopped raining since the day before when we arrived, but here we were at the starting line and ready to go. My heart was beating rapidly and the adrenaline rushing through my body pushed me to a faster than average jog. Half an hour in, as dawn was breaking, my senses started to engage. We passed small huts where curious little faces appeared in the doorways, then we met a few grazing cows, followed by a narrow path leading from the dirt road straight to the mountain that we were supposed to go over and around. It was glorious — a sensory overload. The crisp morning air, the greenery leading to the dove-white mountains soaring up into the sky, with the sun starting to crawl out from behind the grey shadows in the air — spectacular.

This was a mountain trail run, with all the terrain and weather implications that the term implies. Only the first and last five kilometres of the route are accessible by vehicle and the remainder is single track, or no track. We didn’t know the berg and we had never self-navigated, so we shadowed the ones who had. It was scary and unknown territory. I remember thinking, “I wish we had been at the briefing.” Especially when we lost our navigator. Yep, that’s right — we lost him and had to follow our instincts until we met up with some fellow-runners once more.

We made our way through long grasslands, then even longer grasslands and over rocky rivers, winding through protea fields before we found ourselves at the foot of the mountain. Speechless, I gazed up at the craggy, rugged mountain with a sense of awe. Yellow, green, brown and orange were seamlessly woven into a tapestry of natural splendour forming the round body of this gorgeous African giant in front of me, whose peaks were wrapped in a blanket of snow. We stopped briefly for a snack, as the icy breeze was cutting through our clothes. Over the next 2.5 km up the pass we climbed vertically to about 1,000 metres to 3,000 metres above sea level. This was tortuous, to say the least, and we moved extremely slowly, often only to find that “the top” was never the top. About three misty, cold and miserable hours later, with lots of prayer, tears and determination, we reached the plateau on the summit.  Breathtaking. The peaks, as far as the eye could see, were cocooned in layers of snow. It was utterly quiet and I had never felt closer to God. Expanses of white rolled out in front of us with a puddle here and there which, we later learned, was effectively the source of the Orange River.

Descending the steep mountain was nothing but a freezing slip-and-slide, “skiing” on your feet or your backside, dodging rocks and trying to keep from sliding off the mountainside. To say that it was an amazing experience is definitely an understatement. The bone-jarring descent took its toll on my body and when the snow was finally behind us, my knees started to feel effects of moving down staggering heights at tremendous speed, but we all made it down in one piece. With about 16 kilometres to go, we then ran through beautiful landscapes full of shrubs and trees and rocky paths, stopping only to refill our camelbacks at waterfalls, as we continued to self-navigate through the hills and onto the dirt road leading back to the campsite.

We had made it — 42 odd kilometres and 11 hours later, we arrived back to a cheering crowd at the entrance to the village. Who could have known that our bodies were capable of carrying us up and down sky-piercing mountains, over rivers and rocks of all sizes? Yes. I had run/walked a “marathon” without properly training for it. Even though we had missed the briefing and hardly ever known where we were, we had met up with old friends, made new ones and learned a lot about ourselves along the way. What an amazing adventure! I can now proudly say, “I did this” and I look forward to many more crazy expeditions.


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