The SkyRun takes place between Lady Grey and Wartrail Sports Club each year. This year’s event, sponsored by K-way, was held over the weekend of 16–18 November 2018. It offered a choice of three distances: 100km, 65km and the new 38km entry-level event. The organisers, Pure Adventures, had to make last minute changes to the start venue and the routes of the 65 and 100km races due to unrest in Lady Grey but the event went ahead despite all the challenges.
Chris Wilcock was invited to experience the all new 38km SkyRun event. This is his (lengthy) race report.
Having turned 60 a week after the 2018 Golden Gate Challenge at the end of October, I had initially planned for the RAC Tough One to be my first event as a Grandmaster. Then I received a call from Zissy asking if I wanted to take up Nutreats’ media entry for the new 38km Skyrun event and write about it.
Tough decision! I mulled it over for a few milliseconds and said, “Yes, yes, yes!”
Having lived for many years in the Eastern Cape I was of course familiar with the SkyRun and had completed its “neighbour” the Rhodes ultramarathon a few times. I had not yet attempted the SkyRun for various reasons, not the least being the extreme terrain, extreme weather and extreme distance. Many extremes in one sentence.
The SkyRun started off as an unsupported 100km race across the Wittenberg mountains in the Lady Grey/Tiffendell area. Later a 65km distance was added to accommodate the speed merchants. This year the organisers added a much shorter distance of 38km to serve as an entry-level event. It is hoped that this tough but doable distance will whet the appetites of potential SkyRunners and will encourage more people to tackle the bigger distances in the future.
I am slow and normally choose the longest distance when there is a range of distances on offer. To do the shortest of the three distances on offer would be a new experience for me. The thought of 65 or 100km on a mountainous unmarked route at the end of a rather gruelling year was daunting enough to make the 38km event sound like a very attractive option!
So, I started thinking about and planning my SkyRun and mulling over what I would be up against. I do a lot of mulling…
Planning (Mulling Over) Phase
I considered the altitude that starts at 1800m above sea level and tops out at 2754m. Approximately 15km is covered at an altitude of 2500m and higher. I was not too concerned about the altitude as I live at 1600m; I have encountered 2650m at Rhodes; up to 2600m at Golden Gate and have been above 3000m at Mont-Aux-Sources. At 3000m, I do feel a bit drained but have not suffered any ill effects.
Distance and terrain
Having covered longer distances over rough terrain at the Forest Run, Golden Gate, Rhodes and Monties, I was not that apprehensive about the distance and terrain. At the same time, I have a healthy respect for mountain runs. This “healthy respect” borders on sheer terror and there was no way that I would underestimate or disrespect these 38kms of high altitude, unmarked rough terrain!
I am reverently respectful of Mother Nature and was prepared for the worst. The weather in these mountains doesn’t play and can go from benign to terrifying within minutes and often bears no resemblance to the forecasts! In fact, several SkyRuns have had to be stopped or curtailed due to extreme weather setting in. Part of my mental preparation included anticipation of cold, wet and windy weather. With a 4.30pm start, I was not expecting hot conditions, but you never know. I was prepared for any eventuality.
There is little support provided and participants are expected to be self-sufficient in terms of water, race nutrition, cold and wet weather clothing etc. It is a what-you-need-you-carry race. The 65km and 100km events do make a concession and allow seconding at the Balloch caves. The 38km does not go to the Balloch Caves so you’re on your own.
I didn’t anticipate this to be a problem as my trusty Giant back-pack carries sufficient water for the duration and I generally don’t take in much by the way of nutrition on the trail. I rely on my rather ample fat stores for fuel. This is fine when healthy and on the move. One also must cater for emergencies such as becoming incapacitated and having to wait several hours to be rescued. For such an eventuality, I carry a small packet of biltong and some nuts with me. In deference to the compulsory equipment requirements at SkyRun I also packed some Race Food bars and a couple of sachets of Rehydrate.
I generate a fair amount of heat when running so I normally dress quite lightly even in the coldest weather. I have happily taken on -16 degrees Celsius in shorts but again, the preparation is for worst-case scenario. Like waiting for hours on a freezing mountain to be rescued. I added a largish moonbag to my outfit in order to carry extra water, gloves, long tights, wet weather gear, Buff, long sleeve top and spare socks. In the weeks before the race as I accumulated the compulsory gear shown below, I definitely had misgivings as to how I would carry everything!
Having done quite a few ultra-distance trails, I have most of the kit that I need but of the above, I didn’t have:
- Food -Nuts, Biltong, Racefood bars and Rehydrate.
- Long tights – as the sight of me in tights is a scary one, so I borrowed a pair from my son and put them into the bottom of my pack fully intending not to wear them other than under the cover of darkness!
- Waterproof jacket and pants – I have a lightweight rain jacket but no hood. Fortunately, K-way generously gave me some cool kit which included a really good quality rain jacket with hood. I also bought a matching pair of K-way rain pants to take with. It would be foolhardy to venture into these mountains without proper wet weather kit.
- A GPS unit – more on that below.
One of the best parts of my preparation was going to Cape Union Mart to collect some really nice K-way kit generously gifted from K-way. It must be awesome to be a sponsored runner 😉
I am a morning person! Starting a run in the late afternoon was always going to be a challenge. I run better on an empty stomach so for a morning run I eat supper which, by the time I start running the next morning, has been properly digested. This obviously wouldn’t work for an afternoon run so I would need to eat something quite early in the morning to give it time to be fully digested. A few weeks before the Skyrun I did an afternoon run after having had lunch and suffered badly, feeling bloated, heavy and listless! The following weekend I tried having a breakfast and then nothing but tea and coffee during the day before doing a late afternoon run. That worked so I decided to adopt that approach on race day.
Other than eating, I planned to take things very easy on race day prior to the start. I was a bit concerned that I would not know the exact starting time due to having to wait for the first 100km runner to finish.
Each minute that ticked by would mean less daylight to run in so having to wait would add to the stress.
Running in the dark
This did worry me during my many mulling over sessions before the race. I am clumsy enough in broad daylight, so I was not looking forward to tackling steep technical descents in darkness. I hoped that my headlight would be good enough to prevent a nasty fall. On its brightest setting the batteries don’t last very long so 2 sets of replacement batteries went into the pack.
This was my biggest worry in the run-up to the SkyRun. I have been known to get lost on well-marked routes in broad daylight. I love being on the trails so much that I probably go into some sort of trance and don’t bother checking the markings until I get that vague and uncomfortable feeling that there aren’t any…
This is an unmarked route on a mountain, mostly run after dark… Potential for disaster!
The organisers recommend a Suunto navigation device, which is excellent advice. However, I was reluctant to shell out a few thousand Rand for what may well be a once-off encounter with an unmarked route. First, I decided to try a smartphone app and asked navigation guru, Lisa de Speville, for some advice. Lisa suggested downloading a few apps and trying them out by inputting routes that I know. I did just that, downloaded a GPX viewer and tried it out by setting up some Google Earth tracks. This worked well, so I decided to chance it and use the app rather than buying a Suunto – as much as I would love a Suunto!
Just getting to Wartrail, which is the Start/Finish venue of the 38km event, is quite an expedition from Johannesburg. Nowhere nearby is served by any commercial airlines so a long road trip is needed to get you there. I would advise future entrants to allow enough time for a relaxed trip to the event and enough time afterwards to get back. It is such a beautiful area that it would be better to make a week of it and spend more time in those magical mountains.
The nature of the route pretty much precludes any seconding other than at Balloch for the 65 and 100km runners. The 38km route is not accessible so my loyal and long-suffering wife, Sanet, would have to just wait at the campsite at Wartrail and follow me on the Sportraxs system provided by the organisers. There is no signal at Wartrail but the organisers set up a computer at Wartrail to track competitors. This gave details of our progress through the checkpoints along the route. Special trackers were fitted to the elite athletes in the 100km to provide live tracking but as I was neither in the 100km event nor an elite, my fan club i.e. wife and children, would have to be content with getting periodic progress reports as I passed through checkpoints.
Change of plans
A couple of days before the race, violent protests flared up in Lady Grey: the venue for the pre-race meal, briefing and the start of the 65 and 100km races.
Rather than postpone or cancel the race, the organisers moved the entire race to the Wartrail Country Club – a massive logistical nightmare that allowed the race to go on.
As expected, the altitude didn’t bother me. I guess living up in Joburg we are used to not having much oxygen in the air!
Distance and terrain
The distance was enough to be challenging but not enough to be really grueling. The terrain was much as expected, although there was a lot more gravel road and jeep track than I had expected. There was a lot of really nice single track and then some stretches of no track. Possible the “no track” sections were where I strayed off the GPX track.
Well, to say the least, Mother Nature had the last laugh! The SkyRun was hit by a heatwave with temperatures, even so high up in the mountains of over 40o C. The 65km and 100km runners bore the brunt of it and the dropout rates were unprecedented. Luckily SkyRunners are tough, but also sensible, so, as far as I know, there were no serious medical emergencies caused by the heat.
The weather for the 38km run was actually very mild and much easier than expected. We were fortunate in that we did not have to endure the extreme heat experienced by the 65 and 100km runners. My cold and wet weather gear stayed in my pack and I ran quite comfortably in shorts and a short-sleeved tee for most of the way. I put on a long-sleeved top after nightfall because I was mostly hiking then and not generating so much heat.
Preparation on the day of the race
In practice, things didn’t pan out as planned and my preparation wasn’t ideal. I am always nervous before an event, even after all these years of running. I was already a bit stressed as this was an unknown event and I battled to relax which one needs to do in the hours before the start. Added to this was the fact that I didn’t know what to expect at the race village due to the late change of venue necessitated by the unrest in Lady Grey.
When it comes to weather, the Eastern Cape doesn’t do mild. While some SkyRuns have been held in snow and freezing cold, this one was held in the middle of a heatwave, so “chilling” in the tent, which closely resembled a sauna, was not an option! I spent the day in a state of nervous energy checking and rechecking everything compulsively… I eventually sat in the boot of the car under the trees and drank coffee. That helped but by the time the run started, I was mentally and physically exhausted. Not ideal.
The briefing, which seemed to be designed to scare the hell out of us, actually helped to calm and relax me. I enjoyed the briefing and was very happy to learn that the organisers would allow us to start our race at 4.30pm as planned rather than having to wait for the 100km winner. Due to the route change and the brutal heat, the winner would only arrive near 7pm and we wanted to be up Bridal Pass by then!
We were treated to an amusing demonstration by Pierre (never fear when Pierre is near) of K-way of the many and varied uses of the Buff. My favourite: the pirate scarf which I will wear on the next “Talk like a Pirate Day”. Yes, there really is such a day!
Now I don’t want to trigger that debate but, after 40 years of nutritional trial and error, I have found that low carb works for me. I have become fat adapted and run any distance quite happily on water only. I took along some energy bars and Rehydrate to comply with the compulsory equipment requirements and I also packed in some nuts and biltong. I had an egg and bacon breakfast at 7.30am and a couple of Zissy’s Roast veg and Feta at around 9am so that I could start the race at 4.30pm on an empty stomach. That worked very well and I didn’t need to use any of my supplies other than a few nuts around the middle of the race for the saltiness. I also had a cup of soup at the Hut, more for the warmth and comfort than due to a need for food. I didn’t have an energy slump anywhere and was as strong at midnight as at any stage although I was feeling sleepy by then! However, I would not recommend such an extreme strategy to anyone else. Each person has a unique make-up and must find out what works for them. I still have to figure out how to approach the 100km as going 30–40 hours without food is a whole new ball game. I think the stew provided at Balloch cave would hit the spot!
As I said above, I would have loved to treat myself to a Suunto but settled for an app on my phone. This actually worked pretty well. The only time that I got really lost was near check point two and I can’t really blame the GPS for that.
I was quite near the check point and could see the lights at the checkpoint so I closed the app to save battery power and headed towards the lights. I must have been only a couple of hundred metres from the checkpoint when another runner materialised out the dark to my right and said that we were going wrong and that the lights were “the beacon that they warned us about”. I didn’t recall any warning about beacons but dutifully trotted after her into the darkness. I soon lost both her and the lights and was properly lost. I then switched on the app again to try to find my way back but for some reason I really struggled to pinpoint my location. After more than half an hour of going around in circles, I saw the lights again and decided to head for them and see what it is. Lo and behold, it was the checkpoint and I was back on track again. For some reason the GPX track showed the waypoint in a completely different place.
Quite a few sections of the route followed fence lines where one doesn’t have to constantly look at the navigation device which made for easier going. Descending the ridge after the Halstone checkpoint was quite difficult to navigate. When moving so slowly and when standing still, it is difficult for novice navigators like myself to figure out just where the track lies. Subconsciously I seemed to want to veer off the left on this section and often found myself quite far off the GPX track supplied. I didn’t actually get lost but taking the right lines on the technical sections of SkyRun is critical and I think I lost a lot of time on this section by taking more difficult lines in the dark by being off track.
My verdict: the app worked fine for the 38km route but I think that if you want to get serious about the longer distances you really do need to invest in a Suunto.
Running in the dark
I have mixed feelings. In places it was pleasant to enjoy the coolness and quiet of the mountain night but on the other hand I missed the views hidden in the dark. I am also very clumsy, so I did hardly any running after nightfall so that part of the run became more of a hike. I am not fast, but I don’t enjoy walking so much. I like to run steadily and so I prefer a route with a nice mixture of technical and runnable sections. Being out in the mountains on a quiet, mild night is however quite special and is an experience that I will treasure.
At this point I became introspective and relished the opportunity to mull over (mulling again…) the meaning of life, to explore my deepest thoughts and to appreciate the infinite dome of stars above. No, I’m lying, I was just putting one foot in front of the other, trying to stay on track and doing my utmost not to land on my face! Hopefully others, lighter on their feet, managed to ponder life’s mysteries.
After my navigational mishap just before the second checkpoint there was an easy stretch of road to the Hut where we could fill up water, relax for a bit and get some nice hot soup and coffee. The cheerful guy at the second checkpoint told us that it was “just a couple of k’s to the Hut”. Well most of the runners I spoke to afterwards felt that it was much further than “a couple of k’s” and it took quite a long time to get there. The lights were visible from far out, but they seemed to disappear from time to time, eventually I started wondering if the Hut was just a myth. But soon enough I arrived there and enjoyed the hospitality.
I had run bits and pieces of the route with fellow participants but not for any length of time. I find solitary running and having company equally enjoyable so I wasn’t fussed either way. Just after the Hut however, Debbie and Sondra joined me, and we stayed together right to the end, helping each other through fences and sharing the navigation duties. The part of the route near to Halstone, and especially the steep descent after Halstone are tough and the company there was much appreciated.
My own race strategy
In comparison with my usual conservative strategy, I went out hard from the start in order to cover as much ground as possible before dark and to be able to view the sunset from the top of Bridal Pass. I did exactly that and it worked pretty well. I got to see the most spectacular sunset and still felt strong for the “night shift”.
The 38km route may be less than half of the 100km route but it is no pushover as can be seen from the route profile. At times, the going was tough, especially in the dark, but I am like one of those Lister engines that we used for electricity on the farms before Eskom took over the load shedding duties. Like a Lister diesel engine, I am old, heavy and slow but I keep going notwithstanding an occasional exhaust rattle! So, after my scramble up Bridal, I plodded steadily along in the dark, albeit with the occasional stumble. I had some company at times, which I liked, but at other times, I also enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the mountain night. On the open bits one could see the runners’ lights twinkling ahead and behind. These offered comfort that I was still on the right route.
During my planning (mulling) phase, I tried to estimate how long the 38km would take me. Being the first time the 38km was run I had nothing to benchmark against so I had to work from first principles and estimate my night running speed. I had planned to go out hard while it was daylight and try to cover 12km in the first 2 hours. This was making allowance for the climbing indicated by the route profile. That would leave me with 26km. At 3.5km/hr and allowing some time for getting lost and stops I estimated the total time to be 10 hours give or take half an hour.
As it turned out, I took 2:19 for the first 12km because Bridal Pass was steeper than I estimated. Then I went at about 4km/hr and made up time. Getting lost near checkpoint two cost me about half an hour. The biggest error in my calculations however was the last stretch from Halstone where I took 2:22 to cover a mere 5.3km.
My results from the Sportraxs system show that I went out hard, then slowed in the dark, was very slow from Bridal to CP2 which is where I got lost and went at a snail’s pace from Halstone to the end. My overall time was within the predicted range of 9:30–10:30 so I was quite happy with that.
|Start (0 km)||–|
|CP1 – Edgehill (5.3 km)||6.28||23||11/17 17:03:19||0:33:19|
|WP1 – Bridal (12 km)||11.59||12||11/17 18:49:02||2:19:02|
|CP2 – Turn (21.3 km)||13.78||33||11/17 21:23:07||4:53:07|
|CP3 – Halstone (32.4 km)||14.54||30||11/18 00:21:18||7:51:18|
I felt pretty strong throughout and could have gone faster if I had been surer of my footing in the dark. I did have some aches and pains in the day or two after the race but that was more from falling than muscle soreness and I was back on the road within a few days.
Final Thoughts on The K-Way SkyRun 2018
The atmosphere and “gees”
The finish line announcer, known as Raasbekkie (some would say Beulbek), has to be the most enthusiastic finish line announcer in the world. You could hear him from miles away welcoming each and every finisher, and making sleep in the camp quite impossible…
His raucous guidance when you appeared on the ridge above the camp and his “Well done! You! Are! A! SKYRUNNERRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!” as each runner finished, echoed down the valley all of Saturday night and into Sunday morning. Such amazing infectious sustained enthusiasm I’ve never seen before. Although seriously dude: you didn’t need to tell the world that I am 60 years old.
I have been involved in a lot of race organisation and I know what a nervous state I work myself into. And that is when things run smoothly. How the organising team managed to stay so calm, outwardly at least, under such trying conditions I honestly do not know. Each person on the team remained calm, cheerful and approachable throughout the event.
I also appreciated the flexibility of the organisers who were firm but not rigid and were amenable to relaxing a little of the minimum equipment rules to suit the circumstances and by allowing us, the 38km runners, to start before the winner finished.
My favourite thing about the 38km SkyRun
The climb up Bridal Pass and then on to the top of the ridge beyond that. I felt strong going up here and the views from the top were just stunning!
My least favourite thing about the 38km SkyRun
My least favourite thing about the 38km SkyRun has to be the terrifying descent of the ridge after the Halstone checkpoint, in total darkness. I slipped, I stumbled, I fell, I left skin behind, I stubbed my toes, I got thorns in my hands, I got thorns in my butt… I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Seriously though, I never ever want to do that descent in the dark again. If I ever do the 100km, I will make sure that I arrive there after dawn on the Sunday. Fortunately, I had the company of Debbie and Sondra on that stretch, otherwise I may well have not made it through.
My verdict on the 38km being a stepping-stone to the longer events
I think that the 38km checked all the boxes for it to be a stepping-stone into the full SkyRun. It offered:
- Introduction to navigation on an unmarked route
- Introduction to night running over rough terrain
- A distance and vertical gain (D+1600) which is challenging but doable for a reasonably strong trail runner
- A cut-off time which doesn’t put pressure on the runners
I believe that the 38km run is a great innovation and should provide an infusion of new blood into the longer events. Incidentally, the 38km runners were never made to feel as if we were not “real” SkyRunners by any of the organisers, helpers or by the real SkyRunners themselves. That illustrates the humility and self-respect of everyone connected to the K-way SkyRun has.
The last-minute change of plans, the crowded camp at Wartrail, the harder route for the 65 and 100km events and the extreme heat would have reduced many a runner (did I say road runner?) to a whinging, moaning, unhappy bunch. Not so the SkyRunners. Each person took the trials and tribulations in their stride and made the most of it. I didn’t hear a single person complain about anything. Huge respect!
The elite runners were humble and friendly. AJ Calitz, the 100km winner, was on hand to personally welcome the last finisher home. Many of the top runners took the time to post race reports on social media. The words of joint winner, Tracy Zunckel, who as gracious and humble as ever, reminded us that the SkyRun is not about winning but about the camaraderie and teamwork needed to get through such a brutal test. Little things, but so important.
Wow! So many people contributed to make this a memorable experience that the thank you section needs to be almost as long as the race report!
Many, many thanks to:
- My wife, Sanet, whose love, support and sacrifices know no bounds!
- My family who never fail to encourage me in my adventures
- Feige and Zissy from Nutreats for arranging my entry and for giving me space for my writing from time to time. Don’t forget to subscribe to their newsletter and follow them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
- Kelly Burke for arranging my entry and Taryn Cupido for the K-Way kit
- K-Way, for sponsoring the race and for the awesome kit. If you are ever looking to sponsor a middle of the pack grandmaster, I’m your man!!
- The lady who put the medal around my neck at the finish and made me feel like a winner.
- The guys who stoked the donkey all night so that I could have a piping hot shower at 3 in the morning.
- The local community who worked tirelessly to make the weekend a success.
- The photographers. See their stunning pics on the K-Way Skyrun Facebook page Those who placed pics on social media. I took many of the photos in this article, but I may have nicked a few off the website and social media pages…
- The people at the checkpoints who spent so many hours out there waiting for us.
- Pure Adventures, Mike de Haast, Adrian Saffy and your team – you rock!
- K-Way, Suunto, Audi, Biogen, LedLenser, racefoodTM and all the other sponsors and contributors.
- All the other runners for the camaraderie, support and for being awesome!
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He's a reader, writer and coffee addict who has a child-like thirst for knowledge. Chris believes that Life is Good!
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