SkyRun: Survival Of The Fittest

SkyRun participants embrace suffering. They’re often utterly miserable while they’re actually running the race – exhausted, bruised, swearing they’ll never do it again.

Jess Nicholson |

But when they look back on the challenges they’ve overcome, they remember their race as the best thing they’ve ever done. These ultra-humans say life will never be the same again – that’s what keeps them coming back for more.

As a novice second, I witnessed first-hand veteran athlete Al Leslie’s third attempt at the SkyRun last November. The event is an unmarked 100km race that follows the ridge of the Eastern Cape’s Witteberg mountains. The weather is often extreme, and it can change in an instant. Participants run through an entire day and night, carrying the bare essentials on their backs. They have only a headlamp and GPS to guide them.

To describe it as ‘tough’ would be an understatement: only 500 people have finished the race since its inception 20 years ago, and the 12-hour barrier has yet to be broken.

Craig Kolesky
Craig Kolesky

Formidable athletes vying for a top 10 position – including Al and his running frenemies, twins Steven and Andrew Erasmus – finish in less than 18 hours. But for most participants, the SkyRun is not so much a race as it is an arduous quest to finish. This endurance adventure, along stunningly beautiful but treacherous and remote terrain, will take the majority of the field up to 30 hours to complete.

Gluttons for punishment

Al and I travelled with the Erasmus twins from Durban to Lady Grey. Despite having attempted the SkyRun three times, neither of the brothers had ever finished. Their first attempt was in 2013, a year in which the run was called off due to extremely bad weather conditions – temperatures had been below freezing, and there had been gale-force winds and near-zero visibility.

“We were all shivering uncontrollably,” race organiser Adrian Saffy recalls. “We’d had bad weather before, but nothing as severe or relentless as this. The wind was hectic! I knew we had to get everyone off the mountain – and quickly.”

The bad luck didn’t end there: in 2014, Steven was injured and couldn’t compete, and Andrew fell ill and bailed at Balloch. Though Al finished his first race that same year, he admits it was so tough he cried throughout the race.

“I had decided to give up, when a guy called Johan – whom I had never met – sat down next to me. He convinced me to carry on, and we spent the next cold, hard, yet strangely wonderful seven hours together. At the finish line I hugged him, then curled up and went straight to sleep.”

Craig Kolesky
Craig Kolesky

In 2015, Al triumphed, finishing in eleventh place. But the twins suffered yet another bad race. When Steven reached the third checkpoint at Snowden, he found his brother Andrew there, freezing cold.

“Andrew was covered in blankets,” Steven recalls. “Beside him, a Ziploc bag bulged with vomit.”

While attempting to reach Andrew, race doctor Grant Lindsay fell off his quad bike and broke some ribs. Then it took three drips to help Andrew recover, and a further six hours to get him off the mountain.
“Getting down to Balloch was terrifying,” Andrew remembers. “There were sections where the wheels of the quad bike balanced precariously on either side of a two-metre-deep rut. Adding to that, my drip kept falling out.”

But despite the suffering they had endured in the past, all three athletes were there, sitting in the car with me, eagerly anticipating another attempt at the SkyRun.

3:30am. Runners jostled for a good position at the starting line. They adjusted their watches, took selfies, set their GPSs, kissed their seconds, sang and prayed. As the race started, fireworks splintered the sky, and spectators cheered.

Before I’d even reached the second checkpoint, I’d experienced a spectrum of emotions. I’d gone backwards (too fast), nearly fallen off the mountain, got lost, been laughed at, fallen in love, nearly been squashed (first by a doctor, then by a pharmacist), felt lonely and confused, had a chocolate bar and two cooldrinks, and considered moving to Lady Grey…

And I was just a second, driving around in a Land Rover with Saffy and Dr Lindsay. Such thoughts and experiences were magnified for those who were actually running.

“This race scares me,” Saffy revealed, as we drove to meet my runners.

“It’s like a colonic irrigation of the soul. You’ll find yourself. You’ll face your demons. You’ll develop a fear of open spaces. You’ll fall in love with a stranger. And when the going gets tough, you’ll appreciate someone telling you to man the f*** up. There’s something about these mountains…”

Enormous and still and magnificent. Once you’re up, it isn’t easy to get down. So Al and the Erasmus twins had to keep going. The mountain is large, and they were small; the ups were high, and the downs were low.

When my three boys reached the next checkpoint, they were on a high.

“We were running together in the beginning,” remembers Al, “and we were whooping with joy. The sun was rising, and we had the whole day ahead of us. It was beautiful.”

Halfway, at Balloch, I had fallen in love again. This time with committed race volunteers Johardt van Heerden and Thabang Madiba – both of whom are tipped by many to be the next stars of world running. Thabang told me about his secret running weapons: “My lightness allows me to outsmoke them. And I’m left-handed – left-handed people make better dancers, and I think that’s why I’m good at trail running.”

Together we watched the top athletes descend to Balloch cave, and attend their mandatory medical check-ups. On account of their experience, Johardt and Thabang could tell me instantly who was battling and who was mentally strong.

Shoes were changed, plasters applied, potatoes eaten. There were brief pats on the back. Andrew arrived at the checkpoint in sixth position – and he even made a joke, which we all took to be a good sign. Steve wasn’t far behind, although he admitted he’d stopped at the side of the trail to be sick a few times – and he had also decided he would never do it again.

“Even at my lowest ebb, I gave myself pep talks – and besides, I wasn’t about to let Al overtake me!” said Andrew. “I ran with Stuart Chaperon for part of the way. We set ourselves small goals – for instance, we’d aim to reach the next tree. I would’ve walked more if it wasn’t for him.”

Craig Kolesky
Craig Kolesky

Steve spent much of the second half running alone.

“When you’re digging deep, you need to be alone,” he said. “That said, I got lost at Halstones. Company would’ve helped.”

When Al came in to Balloch, he muttered, “This is awful. I can’t keep anything down and I need new shoes.”

After a short rest, we walked together, and apparently I said all the right things. I told him he looked good, and that the others weren’t far ahead. I told him to man the f*** up. I reminded him that he was expecting it to be tough – that this was normal for the SkyRun. We adjusted his backpack and found his playlist. We sat for a bit. Then he set off, alone, up the Wall.

“As people pass you, you think That’s alright. Maybe they’ll get tired, and I’ll see them again,” said Al. “Then another person overtakes you, and another…

“At the top of Bridal Pass, I couldn’t stop throwing up – uncontrollable, gut-wrenching vomiting. I just kept thinking, I’ve got to make it to the Turn before the sun goes down. This will pass. I will get through it. It will get better, and once I’ve finished, I’ll get to sit down.

“I couldn’t stop singing ‘The Sound of Silence’. Hello, darkness, my old friend. I arrived at the Turn just before nightfall. I still didn’t feel better: I was shivering. A very kind lady gave me a cuddle and some soup. The doctor gave me something for nausea. Eventually, I resumed running again with some of the other participants, but I couldn’t keep up. I desperately tried to keep their lights in sight, but they kept disappearing. Then my GPS died. I was alone, in the dark. I got lost.”

Bated breath

I waited at the finish. Christiaan Greyling breezed over the line in a seemingly effortless first place – despite the fact he’d spent 13 hours and 23 minutes on the mountain. Novice SkyRunner Lucky Miya followed in second, just seven minutes behind him.

Craig Kolesky
Craig Kolesky

“It’s tough. It’s very tough,” Lucky whispered, as Thabang helped him to take off his socks and shoes. AJ Calitz came in third (14:13). I watched in sheer awe as first lady Nicolette Griffioen came in seventh overall (15:16). And then came the twins – Andrew in eighth, and Steven in tenth.

But Al was still out there.

For the next few hours I searched the black silhouette of the mountain. The sky was midnight blue, dotted with stars – more stars than I’d ever seen in my whole life. Every now and then, slightly brighter stars would appear on the summit of the last hill. These were headlamps. Headlamps of people who had run 100km along the mountains, and who were nearly home. Eventually, my headlamp came into view, and Al crossed the finish line.

“What took you so long?” I spluttered, relieved but gruff. “You must never do that again.”

As with every SkyRun Al had raced before, all he wanted to do was shower, curl up and go to sleep. And, as expected, after breakfast the following morning, he declared: “That was awesome! Sign me up for next year.”

The Route

The trail starts at picturesque and quaint Lady Grey (1 649m) – the middle of nowhere, basically. From the start you climb for 40km to Avoca, which is the highest point (2 750m), and then back down to a checkpoint situated halfway, at Balloch – by that time, you will have covered 57km. Participants are required to pass a medical check-up at Balloch before they’re permitted to continue. Seconds are allowed.

Then, you reach a wall of mountain so steep, no-one has ever managed to run up it. In order to reach the top, you have to pull yourself up, using the grass for hand-holds.

“Everyone running down the other side [of the mountain] will feel like they need a quad transplant,” says Saffy.

Next up is arguably one of the toughest sections. In your state of exhaustion you must climb back up Bridal Pass to the Turn, at 2 750m (the same height as Avoca) some 77km into the race. An ascent to Wartrail follows, and one more tricky climb over Halstones awaits runners before the finish – though it isn’t as tough and long as the ascent to Wartrail, many make navigational errors on this last small hill, due to fatigue.

Tips For Seconds

· Share the suffering: If you’re a strong athlete, you could offer to be a sweeper. I helped participants carry heavy camping equipment, so I could also suffer.

· Give tough love: The last thing a SkyRunner wants is to feel that you pity them, or are worried about them. They will then feel weak and pitiful. Tell your runner the others look much worse than he/she does, and are also struggling. This helps enormously with mental toughness.

· Carry supplies: Your runner will need a new pair of shoes by the time they reach Balloch. Most athletes feel sick, have diarrhoea, or vomit at least once along the way. Have some anti-nausea medication in your second’s stash to alleviate these symptoms. It’s difficult for runners to stomach real food, but it’s advisable for them to try. Alternatives include baby food, soup, and cold cooldrinks.

· Planning: At the checkpoint, have everything your runner needs laid out. He or she will want to recharge quickly and get back out there.

Fast Facts!

No-one has run the race in less than 12 hours.

· In 2012, Ryan Sandes completed the race in 12:26 – the first to finish in under 13, and beating the previous record by over two hours.

· Sandes’ record was broken in 2014, by Iain Don-Wauchope, in a time of 12:08.

· Bruce Arnett, ‘Mr SkyRun’, has won this race 13 times.

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