Mother Nature: 1 Trail runners: 0
The Salomon Skyrun is a high-altitude endurance run over an unmarked 100-odd kilometre route through the highlands of the north Eastern Cape. It sees athletes traverse the remote Herschel-Lesotho border fence from Lady Grey to the finish at Wartrail Country Club. Runners need to be entirely self-sufficient and navigate by map, compass and GPS unit. Most take more than 27 hours to complete the race. Sometimes, though, the mountains win.
This year, for only the second time in its illustrious history, the race had to be shortened because of adverse weather conditions.
"I realised we had problems when I stopped at the Snowden checkpoint," said one of the race directors, Adrian Saffy, from Pure Adventures. Saffy was performing his regular race-day job as sweep and arrived at the third of nine checkpoints with a group of 16 runners.
"We were all shivering uncontrollably," he said. "When you're moving you don't really feel it; it's when you slow down that it sets in properly."
Saffy realised the severity of the situation – minus degree temperatures, gale force winds and near-zero visibility – and immediately told one of the marshals to radio ahead to all the other checkpoints.
"If everyone was feeling – and looking – like we were at the back, it was time to get everybody off the mountain."
Skyrun is an extreme challenge in the fairest of weather and, aside from prime physical conditioning, requires perseverance, determination and good old-fashioned guts.
"In order to finish, runners need to overcome so many personal perceptions and boundaries," remarked Saffy, who's lost count of the number of times he's completed the route (he knows it's somewhere in double figures).
"You have to draw on character and mental strength much more than physical fitness and ability and where this becomes most clear," he said, careful to qualify that he's not knocking any other sport or event, "is with road runners. We've had super fit roadies – sub seven-hour Comrades athletes – come tackle Skyrun and fail. Their minds are conditioned toward a seven or eight-hour effort and at Skyrun they're suffering for 20-odd. Physically they're fitter than most of the field, but because their minds aren't tuned to the gravity of the task ahead, well ..."
Worst weather ever
In all his years on the route, the radical conditions of November 16 were the worst Saffy had ever encountered.
"We've had periods of heavy weather in the past, but nothing as continuous or extreme as this. And those winds were hectic," Saffy said. "It felt like a Boeing 747 was taking off from under your hoodie."
Once the decision had been made to stop the race, the immediate priority was to get nearly 300 runners, spread over about 50km of mountains, down to safety.
"Most of the competitors are very experienced mountaineers and they helped the novices – formed groups, guided them down. A lot of the success of getting everyone off the mountain safely was thanks to the guys looking after themselves," Saffy said.
One of the runners who had to navigate his way to safety was professional trail runner AJ Calitz.
"I live in the Cape of Storms but that was on a completely different scale," said Calitz, who started the race as one of the favourites but faded early, not having fully recovered from winning Red Bull Lionheart on Lion's Head in Cape Town the previous weekend.
"I run on Table Mountain when it's two or three degrees in town. And that doesn't come anywhere close to what I experienced up there. I just tried to make sure the wind was always from my left. That's the only way I kind of knew where I was going. Even the GPS was going haywire!"
It was Calitz's first time at the event and his strategy was to stick with the experienced Iain Don-Wauchope, but things didn't go according to plan.
Humbled by nature
"I was running by myself at one stage and I was thinking, if something goes wrong …" says Calitz.
"The wind is too strong for a chopper to come, I'm a little bit off route so I'm not sure anyone will even find me. You know, you start thinking, Am I ever going to get off this mountain?"
"We were completely at the mercy of the elements. It was humbling to see what nature can do."
Calitz will be back to challenge for a title in 2014 and perhaps aim for the record of 12 hours and 36 minutes Ryan Sandes set in 2012. As, no doubt, will Don-Wauchope, who had a significant lead when the race was stopped and was awarded the win, with Hylton Dunn in second and Andrew Erasmus in third.
In the women's race, the win was awarded to Annemien Ganzevoort, with Su Don-Wauchope second and Tatum Prins third.
The Skyrun Lite (about 65km) remained unaffected and all athletes who reached Balloch Caves completed the race. Chris Cronje won the men's race, with Murray Sanders in second and Justin Short third. Laura O'Donoghue won the women's title, with Taryn McDonald in second and Janneke Laesk in third.