A favourite quote of mine sums up this post pretty eloquently: “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” – T.S. Eliot
Almost one month to the day, the 65km Mighty Mutter Trail Run is perfect prep for the 100km Salomon Skyrun, only thing is, the Might Mutter is a race you train for, it’s not a “training” run. You don’t just train for Skyrun and run the Mighty Mutter the month before. You have to have a tapering off week, you have to have your gear in check, and you have to have tried and tested your nutrition strategy. You have to train as though it is the main race for the year.
Dennis and I arrived at St. Bernard’s Peak Lodge at just after 8pm. After an afternoon of ridiculous hurdles, i.e. the Jeep overheating 20km into our 300+km journey, we arrived safe and sound, although we did miss the race briefing, which I now have a completely new appreciation for. We collected our maps from Malcolm Millar, the event organiser, before heading back to the car to set up camp, prepare our bags and get some rest, and when I say “some”, I mean two and a half hours of staring at the ceiling of the tent praying to God that you’re actually dreaming in a deep sleep, that you’re staring at the ceiling of a tent.
Waking up to howling winds at 1:40am on Saturday morning, I quickly got changed, double check my hydrapak, force-fed myself some breakfast and then Dennis and I made our way up to the lodge to meet the other runners. By the time I got there I had already broken a sweat and at the last minute I decided to leave my Salomon Hydrabelt I had bought the day before due to the mountains being incredibly dry. This meant I was losing some extra food and water capacity, but the weight was too much.
We set off at 3am and ran pretty hard for a couple kilometers. Just after the first savage ascent about 3km into the 65km route, I was running with Dennis, Andrew, Guy and Blake although to be honest, I was running a little out of my comfort zone. I was expecting this though, and had planned to ease off after the first 15km so as to cover as much as I could in the cool temperatures of the morning and to keep up with experienced Mutter runners. I was so stoked, not only because I was maintaining pace with this really good runners, but that the GPS on my Suunto Ambit was guiding our own little “peleton” perfectly. After an hour and a half or so I started to lag behind the group as we climbed up to Thule checkpoint which was magnificent and so so brutal at the same time. As I summited this steep incline, I was greeted by one of the most amazing sunrises I have ever seen, but was then punched in the face by a 50km/h wind that never gave up for the remainder of the day. This wind was nasty, but it didn’t stop me from smiling to myself because I was so chuffed that I had conquered Thule as now most of the climbing had been done, or so I thought.
I was now running on my own but happy with the fact that I was kind of near to the front and knew that I had some strong runners behind me like Vaughn Smit and Andrew Booth, both of who were Mutter Pro’s. From Thule Checkpoint, it was now onto Engagement and then Eagles Nest. This route quickly became more and more incredible as it made its way along the edge of the escarpment on a tight, rocky little trail. Bliss!
Again, the wind never let up but now the route headed off the ridge and onto the abandoned Ngoangoana Houses. This section was made up of vast open grasslands with tufts of hip high grass which made for some tricky running due to the long grass hiding some nasty rocks and ditches. This open landscape allowed me to see how far ahead of me Andrew Booth and two other ladies who had past me a bit earlier were. As I reached the Ngoangoana Houses, I started to make my way to the Natural Archway, the next checkpoint, and as I turned around, I saw a group of people emerging about to start their run through the grasslands, they were at least an hour behind me. I found this comforting, knowing that there were some runners that were pretty far behind me, so I continued running around the side of the one hill with spectacular views of the mountains on my left hand side. As I began to arrive at what I thought was the Natural Archway, I could see that the runners who were an hour behind me were now cresting the hill I had just run around. They had taken a short cut I had no clue existed and saved themselves about an hour or 5/6km! This kind of got me in a panic but it was fine as I decided I would now run a direct line to the Natural Archway. Distance wise, this was the halfway mark, but time wise, it was around one third of the way but by this stage I was feeling very strong. I had been running for quite some time, but to look down at my watch and see that it wasn’t even mid-morning left me feeling slightly disorientated as I had already been running for 5 hours. This lifted my spirits a bit knowing that I had plenty of time available to complete this race.
Just after the Natural Archway, I stopped at an empty house where I filled my bottle with some water and a GU tablet, washed my face and set about running the “second half” of the race. I could see two people ahead of me that were running pretty confidently, so I assumed they knew what they were up to. I tried really hard to chase them down, but didn’t want to go too hard and tire myself out, which resulted in maybe a 50m gap between them and me. They were running a very different route to my watch, but I thought it would be wiser to run with them as I had only mapped out this portion of my route extremely roughly and had a much better chance of staying on track if I kept up with these two people in front of me. In hindsight, I maybe shouldn’t have doubted my Google Earth ability…
It wasn’t long before I was 5km off my GPS route and had lost the people in front of me. I also found myself halfway down the side of a massively steep hill unable to continue down and having to literally scramble to get back up. I was in kind of in trouble now and it was only 9:30am! I decided my best bet was to stop, take out my map and reassess my situation. One look at my map and my level of panic went straight to 11! Looking at a map made me feel as though I was reading the instructions on how to change the clutch on a spaceship. I immediately put my Suunto Ambit into compass mode which drew a dead straight line from where I was to where the next check point was. Extremely stupid move, but I didn’t have too many other options. Thankfully the next checkpoint was only 14km away. Totally doable.
The thing about running on the side of hills is, the bigger they are, the less chance you know where the curve around to, which means your only real option of getting to where you want to be is to run over them. When the hills start to become sheer inclines, things get interesting, until you reach the top and realize that you can’t get down the other side of a hill due to a 20 or 30m cliff. All I can say is that I spent a lot of time counting how many seconds it took a rock to reach the ground. After the 3rd time having to do this, I began to find it a bit boring.
About three and a half hours into being lost, I had covered 12km and had less than 2km to go. I got a point where I knew I was near to Thule Checkpoint as the landscape looked similar to a section of the map. I just wasn’t sure in what direction Thule was so I decided to continue on my direct line to Lonely Rock. I was presented with a climb up a dry waterfall which required proper climbing. I spent about an hour in this climb which although tough provided some shelter from the wind which was great but it brought my attention to how much I was sweating. This was not good, and as I reached the top of the climb I literally got pushed over by a gust of wind! I quickly got as low down to the ground as I could and scurried over to a boulder to catch my breath and find the route to Lonely Rock. About 30 meters after being blown off my feet, I found the jeep track that the route description described which lead runners from Thule to Lonely Rock. I couldn’t help but smile knowing I was back on track.
At Lonely Rock, I waited for two runners who I could see on the jeep track to catch up to ask if they wouldn’t mind if I ran with them, and to my surprise, it was Vaughn Smit. We calculated that I had done just over 15km extra in the time spent running from the Falls to Lonely Rock! But man was I glad to be back on track. A huge relief as I now had a pretty straight forward route home and people to run with, who also knew where there was a natural spring where I could refill my completely empty hydrapak and bottle.
This was a weird portion of the run as all I could think of was the skunk from “The Gods Must Be Crazy”. The same way the skunk chased tirelessly after the guys boot, I was trying my absolute damnedest to not slow down Vaughn and his mate. All was going great until the PIG. I was slightly behind Vaughn and his mate but for the life of me, I couldn’t find the sheet to place my sticker as proof of passing through this checkpoint. After almost 20 minutes of searching for the piece of paper, I saw Vaughn and his mate head on. I felt really bad as I had no idea that had waited for me, and I calculated that I should rather continue running than spend any more time on a hunt for the sheet of paper. As I left the PIG, I noticed on my watch that I had to run the jeep track for 8km before the next waypoint which was awesome as I was almost at the finish.
After 45 or so minutes of running the same jeep track, I looked down at my watch to see how much further I had to go and was greeted by a blank face. The battery had died. My GPS was no longer alive. Fortunately I was right near to the finish…
I knew that just after the jeep track there was a beacon where you turn left. You DO NOT turn right, which is where there is civilisation. You definitely turn left, and just after the beacon. The beacon was 8km after the PIG. I had been running for 45 minutes, so I was kind of in the right area, or so I thought. I climbed down the mountain until it flattened out and I ran for about 1.5km until I reached a sheer cliff. I remember reading in the route description that you would be able to see the St. Bernard’s Peak Lodge from miles away. I couldn’t see shit. After an hour of running the same area for an hour and a half, I decided to call Dennis-Lee from where ever I could find signal. After trying multiple times to reach him, I had planned what I was going to say to him, which was, “Dennis! How you brother? Bud, I know this is kind of like cheating, but, how do I get off this mountain? Hahaha. Oh, sweet, so I’m right here? Awesome. Oke, can you put my beers in some ice? Ahh sweet! Shot bud. See you in a bit.”
Suffice to say that is not how the conversation went. After the 5th attempt to call Dennis-Lee, he answered, “Bud, where are you?” I just responded with, “Dude, I’m standing in an orchid with a cliff on my right, a massive plateau in front of me and the mountain I just climbed down on my left, and the sun has set.” Climbing up a waterfall would now be considered a pleasure thinking about what I now faced.
By now it was 7pm, panic had settled and it was now game time. It’s a waste of energy to worry about something you can’t change; you now just have to deal with the situation. I called Dennis again to try and lighten the mood and asked him to ask the organiser if he would consider extending the cut-off as I would still really like to get my medal. During that conversation the organiser asked if I had found water, which I had, and he asked if I could deal with spending the night on the mountain, which I said I could if that’s what it came down to. During this conversation Dennis said something that struck me and was much bigger than the situation I was in. I can’t remember his exact words, but the switch that flipped in my mind was: no matter how long it takes, regardless of how tired I was, I just had to keep running until I reached home. A simple decision which resulted in a massive boost of energy and strength. The pain from the blisters, my knees, my ankles, the sun burn and the nausea simply stopped, and I had this sudden appreciation for being able to do what I was doing. Not the strength and endurance to run for the time and distance I had done so far that day, but to be able to run at all. I was also so so unbelievably stoked to be in the situation I was in.
Back to the situation I was in, I decided to climb back up the mountain to where I last knew that I was on the right route. I then called Dennis-Lee again and he said that there were 3 people about an hour out from where I was. I was also able to pull up Google Earth on my phone, and could find a way to the hotel, but that it would be best to rather wait for these guys to catch up and for us to all descend together.
After some time, at the start of the ridge I saw headlamps. All three of them. I called Dennis to let him know that I had made contact with them by flashing my headlamp and getting a response from them. I could hear a big roar from the other side of the phone and couldn’t help but laugh. As the lights grew in size, I could finally make out Christine, Buzz and Beth. I cracked a couple jokes and tried to explain my how I got lost without sounding like an idiot who can’t read, but they weren’t buying any of it!
After the four of us had covered about 8km, a mist bank came in. The temperature immediately dropped ten degrees and visibility was pretty much nothing. We had been going for over an hour but the people who had run the route before were not 100% familiar with where we were. Buzz had been in constant communication with Malcolm but we just went able to get out bearing. We knew there was a beacon with a light on it, and when we pass the beacon we turn left and will be able to see the light of the hotel, but after continuing along the jeep track until there was no more jeep track, we still had not come to the right spot. We were now lost, something I was getting very tired of very quickly.
After leaving the jeep track for a while and trying to drop altitude to get out of the mist bank, Buzz again radioed over to Malcolm who said to watch out for the lasers that he was going to shine on the mountain. As he switched on the laser, my jaw dropped. This dancing green light lit up the ridge line. For a couple seconds I stood and just stared at this magnificent light with no concern over the fact that we couldn’t see the source of it and what we would have to cover to get to edge of the ridge line. We were headed in the right direction!
About an hour later, after climbing down the steepest route off the mountain in the pitch black of night, we crossed the finish line to the welcoming sound of our cheering friends and the glorious of the Mutter cowbell. The time – a little after 10:30pm.
I cannot be certain of what distance I covered, but knowing that I had completed the 65km route, I had run an additional 15km before meeting up with Vaughn at Lonely Rock. The hardest I ran the entire day was during my second stint of being lost between 4pm and 7:30pm. I would say it is safe to call it between 95km and 100km. 19 hours and 30 minutes.
A training run, I think not…