Monday, 4 November 2013

Race report: Matroosberg Skymarathon® - 26 October 2013

Run in this direction
I always considered myself one of the world's worst campers but this weekend assured me that I am definitely in the top 3. I entered the Matroosberg Skymarathon® not only because it promised to be an awesome trail running experience but because I felt I was on the need of a solo adventure. I didn't know anyone else running and it was in the part of the world I had never been before so I excitedly set off on Friday afternoon with visions of getting out of the city and experiencing nature from the comfort of my 'not used often enough' tent. After battling the mountain mist I eventually arrived at the Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve ( just as the rain started coming down. I was thinking I should have gone for the cabin option. Nevertheless I was committed to roughing it and after a quick registration and goodie bag collection (complete with BUFF - you can never have enough of these) I set out into the darkness and rain to set my tent up with my new mate, the Wildman. The Wildman is a unique character well known in the trail running circles who had just returned after a 5 month stint freerunning around the Alps. When I say 'just returned' I mean the day before. Somewhere along the line he noticed how apprehensive I was on camping in the rain and offered to show me what to do. Thank the Chief for his pity as after unpacking my tent I realised my tent cover was on a different adventure so I was left with the option of sleeping in the rain or in my car. Luckily, after dinner  and the race briefing, a third option presented itself and we were able to pass out on the floor of the front of the fire...camping is easy.

Start climbing
With not the greatest pre-race rest, I woke up early and excited to take part in South Africa's first official Skymarathon. A Skymarathon® is defined as "Races within a minimum of 2000m total elevation gain and between 30km to 42km in distance. The course may be over paths, trails, rock etc (a limit of <15% on paved or tarred surfaces) and may reach or exceed 3500m." This race made  history in that it was to be the first South African race officially designated as a Skymarathon by the South African Sky Running Association ( The Matroosberg Skymarathon® is a 36km race ( with the general route being up 4x4 track to the top of Matroosberg Peak, around a bit up top and back down again. Matroosberg, at 2249m is the second highest peak in the Western Cape and the 7th highest in South Africa.

Standing at the start line there was weird kind of relaxed excitement in the air. Looking around I could see this was not the usual group of people that you find at races...these guys were serious. Everyone looked fit and ready for the challenge, these were not runners keen to go offroad, these were trail runners keen to run in the sky (some even after smashing 15 beers the night before). As a relative newcomer to trail running, I felt out of my depth but keen to join this fraternity. The buzz in the air felt like everyone knew they were about to go through hell but would be closer to heaven by the end of it (in the sense of spiritual enlightenment, their proximity at the top of the peak, as well as being almost dead).

The race can basically be split up into three parts of approximately 12km each, I call them "The Climb", "The Top" and "The B*TCH".

Part 1 - The Climb

Keep climbing
The race starts with about 3.5km through the surrounding farmlands, very scenic and the pace at the beginning felt very conservative. As one guy running next to me remarked about 1km in, "I am getting worried as I can still see AJ Calitz". From 3.5km it gets hectic with some sharp ascent. The "road" you are running on is classified as 4x4 track which I learnt once I got there is a lot tougher than normal Jeep track (I don't know why as Jeeps are clearly the best 4x4 in the world ever). It is some pretty relentless climbing and I managed it okay just trying to keep on a routine of 150 steps and then 10 seconds rest. This technique worked well and I enjoyed the progress I was making. As we got higher, the mist got more dense; I don't know if this was a good or bad thing as it is sometimes better to not know where the finish of the climb is. The last 2km of the climb got pretty hectic, I would say the road changed from Landrover to Hilux to Wrangler. It was motivating however as you can see the guys ahead of you coming back down the mountain so as soon as you start recognising people, you know you're getting closer. The turnaround point was just short of the actual peak which we could not get to due to bad weather. This was the 12km point and as I turned I thought, well at least the hard part is done.

Part 2 - The Top

Wrangler Track
The next 9/10 km consist of running back down the Wrangler track for about 2km and then you do a loop around a flattish portion of the mountain. There was not too much climbing here but the terrain was seriously tough. You are on mountain paths up here and the rocky terrain made it difficult to get momentum. That and the fact that we were doing this at altitude meant I really struggled. The mist didn't help either as you don't really know what direction you are heading in and struggle to see what is coming up ahead of you. After the loop was finally done I was still in good spirits but pretty keen to get down off the mountain. I got what I wished for as next is about a 3km fast decent single track down past the ski hut. I should have really enjoyed this but at this point I was struggling to concentrate and felt quite fidgety so was just keen to get to the Aid station that I knew was coming up. I lost track a bit up there and my eating was a bit all over the place so was keen to pull myself toward myself and get started on the last chapter. At about 24k there was the best Aid Station I have ever seen in my life, sponsored by Wintergreen ( I took the seafood approach and just devoured everything I could see that my body wanted. This involved about 7 salted baby potatoes, a handful of jelly babies, a handful of mini bar-ones and 2 Strawberry Whirls. After chatting for a bit I thought, well the second part turned out to be tougher than the first but at least it is easy from here.

Part 3 - The B*TCH 

On the way home
I left the aid station in good spirits and despite feeling bloated from definitely overeating, I managed to put in some good kilometres and even caught a few people that I hadn't seen since the start. The race briefing had told us there was a 250m climb still to come at the end but I thought that was not too bad and was hoping to still come in well under 5h30. The climb started and after a decent portion it levelled out and I thought, that's not too bad...then it started again...and didn't stop for long. This turned into the craziest most relentless climb I have ever experienced. It just didn't seem to end which I guess can be attributed to the pace at which we were climbing. I felt like a guy in one of those clips of mountaineers climbing to the summit of Everest where every step is a massive effort.  Eventually we reached the top of this thing, and then it reared it's b*tchy side. The decent on the otherside was basically down a rocky stream. There was no free flowing water but a little trickle which was enough to make the rocks extremely slippery. The water and a layer of light moss in most places meant most of my decent was ass to ankles. I have never hated the plastic type soles of my New Balance so much and was considering tossing them and barefooting it home. This was the super low point of this race. Eventually we reached the Red Bull station which marked the 5km to go point. I downed a Red Bull which gave me wings for about 2km and from there it was a 3km grind to the end. Through beautiful farmlands and across an awesome dam wall I hobbled it out focussed on getting in under 6 hours. I finished in 5h57 and went straight for the nearest chair which coincidentally was next to the nearest beer. The third part was definitely the toughest part of this race for me.

Judging by the expression on the spectators faces,
I could tell I wasn't in first place
The vibe, the people, the setting and the organisation (by ) all combined to make this an unforgettable experience. I didn't exactly cover myself in glory with my performance but I gritted through and will definitely be coming back next year to tackle the B*TCH again. I am honoured to be an official Skyrunner and to run in the same race as legends like the winners AJ Calitz and Robyn Kime. I learnt that I definitely underprepared for this race and was utterly defeated by the amount of climbing and the altitude. It is an incredible race and I am sure with better training and more experience I would not have found it as tough as I did. Defeated but not destroyed, this experience enhanced my love for running, trail running and now Skyrunning. I wanted an adventure this weekend and although it didn't go as planned, if it wouldn't really have been an adventure.

Race summary
I usually place inside the top 33% of the field. My goal is to consistently place in the top 25%. I was way off this time!

Distance:    36km
Time:          5:57:03 (2h14min behind winner...yikes)
Position:      43/69 (62%...not great. I needed to be 53min faster to be in top 33%)

Male:      37/57
If I was a Female:   7/12

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