What is Skyrun?
Skyrun is a 100km foot race over the Witteberg mountains at an average altitude of 2000m above sea-level. It is tough, relentless and challenging, and for this exact reason hundreds of runners come together in the small town of Lady Grey to test their faith and courage against the toughest challenge known to any South African Trail Runner. We suffer, sweat, share laughs and tears for up to 30 hours in some of the most remote places on earth. We dehydrate, get altitude sickness, vomit, get sunburned. We learn that our heads are stronger than our bodies, we pick ourselves up out of despair, run forth, jump fences, make new friends, see amazing views and test our gear against the elements of nature. We do this all for one reason: To finish and be a known as a “Skyrunner”!!
To be a Skyrunner means more than just finishing a 100km race. It means that this individual has committed and devoted 4-10 months of focused training, weekends of sacrificing social events with friends, discipline to follow a healthy diet and spending thousands of Rands on quality gear. To be a Skyrunner means that this person does not give up, no matter what! These qualities are what makes athletes unique in every walk of life.
Skyrun 2016, which happened to be the 20th anniversary, started on 19th in Lady Grey, where the town population is bumped up with 20% in one weekend. Pure Adventures, along with the local community have successfully managed to grow this event to a world-class showcase of South Africa’s pristine beauty. Every year runners from all over the world flock to this unique event.
To me personally, Skyrun has always been a highlight on the calendar, because since I started trail running, I not only witnessed many of my trail running heroes win this event, but also share incredible stories of the challenges they endured in these mountains.
The Story of my race:
The Skyrun race does not start with the first uphill, but with years of training, planning, acquiring the perfect gear, acclimatisation, setting goals and many prayers to get one to the finish line.
When I had all the above sorted, it was time to put my recipe into action. I was aiming for an ambitious sub-13 hour race, as this would have been 2 hours faster than my previous best at Skyrun. I had my planning and pacing worked out and when the very energizing 4am start approached, I was filled with excitement. I sped off on the tar section to the trail to avoid getting stuck in trail traffic on the singletrack. I entered the trail first and to my surprise I was leading the race by a few meters. It was at this point that I thought that maybe I can make a break in the dark and get out of sight without anyone realising it. This racing style is totally out of my comfort zone and a big risk, but I knew my body and knew that I can keep the pace. I also knew that it is very tough to run 100km on your own, keep the focus and stay in front of this very competitive field. Luckily Ryno Griesel, winner of the 65km race, caught up with me and kept me company for the first 30km.
I adapted my normal race strategy from pacing to racing. Traditionally, I would pace myself and run with the front group and playing off my race against the other athletes’ weak points. But this time was totally different and I went out from the start to lead the race. It was by far the biggest risk I took in any race, because the pedigree of the other racers in the field ranged from Lucky Mia (SkyRunning Champion 2015), AJ Calitz (SA Ultra Champion 2016) Bruce Arnett (13 times winner of the Skyrun), local expert and podium contender Hilton Dunn, and Jock Green (with the second fastest time amongst the 2016 competitors). Within the first checkpoint I opened a few minutes gap and decided that no matter what, I will run a bold race and stay faithful to God’s promise of Isaiah 40.
My goal at Skyrun became to be the first runner to the top of Avoca peak, 2700m above sea level. When I reached this point without anyone in sight, my next goal was to enter and leave Balloch before anyone else arrived. When I reached both these goals, my goal shifted to move over the Wall before my competitors could spot me. With the steep gradient of the well-known Balloch wall it was almost impossible to achieve this, as every competitor can see almost 30 minutes forwards and backwards. The jeep-track from Edgehill has always been my Achilles hill and this is where AJ and Lucky quickly closed the gap and I could spot them with less than a kilometre behind me. This gave me enough of a fright to set my next goal to be first to the Turn, which I managed with renewed motivation. At this point I increased the gap to 25 minutes, but was severely dehydrated. I was at no point at ease here as I know that at Skyrun an hour can be gained or lost in this last 20km. All I did was to keep any competitor out of sight and knew that if I can reach Hallstone’s peak first, I have a very good chance to become the 2016 Skyrun Champion. I will never forget how dehydrated and exhausted I was when I ascended this final brutal climb. Every step of Skyrun was worth it, every minute of my race was blessed by God to the end without even one stumble of my foot. He did make my feet like a mountain rheebok and carried me through the heat of the Skyrun hell!
Many top guys aimed to be on top of the podium, but there can only be one winner. This year it was me, next time it might be someone else, but one thing is certain, trail runners are a family: We race competitive, but we celebrate together like friends. I have huge respect for the athletes who I raced against and will most likely see them on the top of the podium at Skyrun soon, because they also never give up.
The highlights of my race:
- Spotting a bearded vulture flying low over my head at “Old faithful stream”
- Having Landie Greyling as my support crew
- Seeing the most glorious sunrise
- Running the first 30km with Ryno Griesel
- Making a gap in the first km without planning it
- Seeing many of my friends finishing the race
- Seeing the camera crew so many times with their words of encouragement
- Taking a stupid line ending up cliffed-out, on a ledge with my calf in spasm while the camera man, Bruce Viane moves effortless on the other side of the fence
- The taste of Nuun hydration on a hot day like Saturday
- Licking ice cold water from a rock on the Bridal path
- Crossing the finish line as the Skyrun Champion.
Once again I appreciated what an event like Skyrun means to runners. We come to this race to test our best gear against the extremities of the weather’s menu, we come to finish off our year of trail racing, we make new friends, but most of all we come to do soul searching in the remoteness of the mountains.
I take my hat off to the following people whom deserves huge respect: Pure Adventures for organising this event fluently and effectively. The farming community, for their involvement, land and marshal support. To my wife Landie Greyling, being a super supportive second. To the media crew, Craig, Kelvin, Brett, Bruce, Sven, top photographers who have great love for the mountains and the athletes.
To my strength coach Ronel Nattrass, and training group Vicky van der Merwe to assist me to be the best with limited time to train. To my work, Chill Beverages allowing me to work remotely with events. No my sponsors, Salomon, Buff, FormFunc & Humanscale, Extreme lights and Activepatch4u for providing me with the best gear to withstand the challenging conditions. Thank you to my nutrition sponsors, Nuun hydration which effectively maintained my hydration throughout the hot-as-hell Skyrun, IamSuperbar for sustained healthy energy and Hazz coffee for my caffeine shot before departure.
I am blessed and humbled by the number of messages I’ve received during the race of family and friends tracking and praying me all the way to the finish.