"The wind was freezing and gale force at 2600m up"
2019, the golden year I finally completed my first K-Way Skyrun. Now I’m no professional athlete and may never see a podium. But what I do have is curiosity. This race has been on my mind for years, watching videos on social media, wondering if I could ever get to a place in my running career where 100km would be possible. I met Coach Neville in February, after thinking I should consult a professional about my goal. One of the first things he said to me was, “Unless something goes wrong, you will do it”. Well, that was it, the beginning of my Skyrun journey!
I think the first step in a goal like this is to have belief in your abilities. No matter what distance you are currently running, with time and patience, you will run further and stronger. I found Coach Neville’s training technique very achievable in that there are rest days and appropriately placed pull back weeks (recovery weeks) to accommodate the increase in mileage. I was surprised at how few injuries I got during my training, only reaffirming my need for professional guidance. When I had trained for previous races, I was constantly burdened with symptoms of overtraining and my nutrition was never quite right.
Over the next few months, my excitement for the race grew, as did my weekly mileage. Seeing your first 100km training week on the Final Surge training app is very intimidating. But as with anything, when you break it down it becomes very manageable. I am very grateful to Neville, as he gave up many mid-week evenings and weekends to assist me with my long training runs. I learned a few tricks after 8-10-hour days running in extreme heat. Regular shade breaks, lots of ice in our packs and Neville’s secret Jungle Juice saved us in 37-degree heat. The famous Jungle Juice consists of a concentrated mix of carbs and electrolytes, which needs to be taken early on and regularly throughout the run. We also planned our routes so we could do loops back to the car every 10-20km to refill water and cool off.
So, I had an excellent coach, a solid training plan, and out to conquer all my big runs, except I had one persistent problem; blisters! On almost every run in an excess of 40km, I would finish with my feet destroyed by blisters. I attended the Skyrun Training Camp in September and was only able to run on the Saturday. My feet were so badly blistered I couldn’t walk on Sunday. This was not only painful, but disappointing.
I was advised to go see Craig Gornall at The Sweatshop who has done presentations on blister prevention. After a chat and him looking at my shoes and feet, I was sent off with some methods to try on my next long run. I ditched my Sauconys and went back to my old favorite, Altra, trying out the Lone Peaks for the first time. The Sauconys are just too narrow when my feet swell, and two black baby toenails are proof of that. I found my ultimate blister artillery is to cover your feet with Squirrels Nut Butter (or similar), a pair of Injinji base layers (to protect the toes), followed by a pair of Ballega Blister Resist socks. My Altras are one size bigger to accommodate the layers of socks and foot swell.
I still developed hot spots on the race, but this terrain is fierce, and I think if I wore pillows on my feet, I may still have had hot spots! The medics strapped my feet up at Balloch with a very wide industrial tape that stayed fast for the rest of the race. Blisters were, for the first time, not an issue. Win!
Walking with a painful blister creates compensation injuries and for me, this was a strained posterior tendon. Although this is not the worst injury to have, over long distances I found my foot becoming lazy and tripping being an issue. I went to my physio for regular treatments, followed by injections of Traumeel directly into my foot and shin. This can be painful, but it is worth it. I had my last set of treatments on Tuesday before the race and had no issues on race day. Another win!
Skyrun is a self-navigating race and getting used to navigation before the race is highly advisable. I did the Mnweni Marathon early in the year and the Skyrun Camp, and these allowed for two navigation training days to get used to my device. You do not need an expensive watch. I used a Garmin Etrex for navigation and it worked perfectly. The battery also lasts for days, very important for a race like Skyrun. The compulsory gear list is imperative as is quality of the gear. It’s important to take all the compulsory and recommended warm layers in your pack when you leave Balloch. We were still sweating with the heat in the evening and by 11pm I had every item of warm clothing on. You are at altitude during the night and it is extremely cold, regardless of how hot it was during the day.
Navigating at night when you are very tired can be frustrating. As a group, we all took turns navigating and leading through the night. This worked well and we seemed to stay on route. When it starts to get dark, it’s a good idea to group up with other runners, if you haven’t already. The night is cold and long and having company can really help with staying alert and on track.
A valuable element to a good race is the people you surround yourself with and your support. I was lucky to run with an excellent bunch of people I met at the training camp. I think if I didn’t have them, I may have had an entirely different race. I met so many remarkable people on the route too, and it shows that the type of people who dedicate a part of their life to challenges such as these, really are very special. I was also very lucky to be a part of the group of runners who train with Coach Neville. This group has many very experienced runners who have advice that is indispensable. Experience is the best teacher and having access to people with experience can help you tremendously.
If you can, arrange for a friend or family member to second for you. I had my brother, Sheldon, for support and it really made a big difference. Coming in to Balloch, I was starting to feel a bit deflated and having my brother waiting for me really lifted my spirits. I headed out into the second half feeling happy and reenergised.
The organisers will tell you at race briefing that some people don’t reach their second-wind because they haven’t fully finished their first. I didn’t understand what they were saying until about 2:30am on Sunday morning. Your first wind is longer than you think and the end of it brings you to the brink. I was almost in tears. My feet hurt, my hips had locked and even a slow walk was painful.
I remember just wanting to lie down in the soft grass and take a nap. But you force yourself to keep going, one foot at a time. It’s in these moments that your mental preparation will show. You will question your life choices and why you entered this ridiculous race to begin with. But, in the cold and dark, stripped of all my comforts and missing my family, I also had new found gratitude for everything in my life, and I missed it all.
The wind was freezing cold and gale force at 2 600m up. The Turn is at CP 8 which starts to feel like a myth when you have been heading towards the light in the distance for hours, and it never arrives. It is a long, dark stretch, and it almost broke me. I was saved by a magical little place called The Hut. We reached it around 3:30am when I was dead tired. A very special lady is there all night, handing out warm cups of soup and coffee to broken runners. There are also dangerously comfy couches to rest on, where my team and I had the best 10-minute power nap of my life. It is easy to get sucked into the warm lure of The Hut, so after the agreed 10-minutes, we regrouped and headed back out into the cold.
At day-break on Sunday, 25 hours into the race, we were blessed with a magnificent sunrise. The elusive second-wind kicked in and Halston (CP 9 and the final climb) was in sight. I think my desire to get the race over with and have a shower gave me a blast of energy I never expected. I scrambled over Halston and flew down the other side. The dicey steep descent didn’t even phase me at this stage, the finish was in sight and I had made it! My ultimate win!
Although I can tick off many “wins” and I felt aptly prepared, I still feel that completing this race has a lot to do with circumstances you cannot prepare for. There are so many elements that are out of our control. I am very aware that, had it rained heavily, my blister artillery may have gone out the window. I may have been injured on the trails or had extreme weather conditions. These things happen and are the luck of the draw. You may DNF and very likely could be something you could not train for. But this is also what makes races like these so exciting. You don’t know what will happen and sometimes throwing yourself into a sea of uncertainty rewards you with the most incredible experiences.
The organisers of this race, Pure Adventures, the farmers whose land we run through, the sponsors and all the helpers, really deserve credit for making such a phenomenal race possible. During one of the biggest droughts the Eastern Cape has seen in years, people carried water high up onto the mountains to ensure the runners had emergency water. And we needed it. People giving up sleep to stay at check points on the mountains all night to see runners through. All these efforts I am so grateful for.
I read the following in a trail magazine article; “Races aren’t tests, they’re celebrations. They are celebrations of life, existence, and yes … uncertainty itself. So, give yourself permission to celebrate no matter how the day actually unfolds.” My first K-Way Skyrun went as well as could be expected and I am certainly captivated by the 100km distance race. So next year, we will see, maybe a 100 miler will be next!