“These mountains that you are carrying, you were supposed to only climb.” (N. Zebian)
The Lesotho Ultra Trail went into its 5th year in 2017 attracting a top class local and international field. It is classed as an Ultra Skymarathon because it exceeds 45kms in length and 2500 meters in vertical gain at high altitude. The course adventures to over 3200m above sea level in parts and this year I was invited to come and run it!
Our accommodation for the weekend.
Below are two photos I took during the race. I was in awe of my surroundings.
Lesotho is a landlocked country, entirely surrounded by South Africa. It is of similar size to Belgium or Israel and has a population of 2 million inhabitants. In the heart of the Lesotho Highlands lies the Maluti Mountains, with an intricate network of trails existing along the valleys and mountain flanks. These mountain passes are used primarily by livestock and shepherds, allowing them to pass through the Maluti Mountain range on foot. Many of these mountain passes have been established by hand and provide terrain for some of the best high altitude mountain running in the world!
Interesting fact: the lowest point above sea level in Lesotho is 1500 metres, making it the country with the highest low point in the world.
It is no secret that I love a challenge and I was tempted to do the 50km race, purely fuelled by my joy and passion for the trails (with minimal training!) but then came to my senses and decided the 38km course would be more than enough for me to tackle for my first high altitude mountain race. This proved to be the right decision, as two weeks before the run, I developed a painful Retrocalcaneal bursitis (inflammation of the bursa, which lies over your heel where your Achilles tendon inserts). However, I tried to remain positive and wanted to give it my best and honour this generous gift I had been given.
I limped into registration, with eyes welling up and a quivering lip but was determined as ever to find a way to scale that mountain range! I lay awake in the tent most of the night but got up in the morning and showed up at the start. I stood at the back of the group (this is where I remained most of the race!) and began with my walk-hop-jog around the lodge for the initial 8km loop. I wasn’t sure if I should carry on after this and make my way up the mountain, but I decided to go for it.
I could write many pages describing the events that unfolded over the following 10 hours. However, let me share one highlight for now: the weather! We experienced four seasons in one day, from sunshine, to rain and even a snow storm thrown into the mix. Being caught in the storm on the mountaintop at 3000m was almost too much for me to handle. I was scared and sore but the tears froze as soon as they hit my cheeks and I had to suck it up!
It took everything I had inside me to push through the pain in my foot and go from a walk to a jog to a run, simply to keep warm and keep the blood flowing. Luckily my new friend, Kirsten (aka snow sister) was not too far ahead of me and I managed to catch up to her just before the storm hit. Together we kept each other company until we reached the Camp JubeJube Aid Station.
These guys were my heroes. They rubbed my frozen legs, wrapped a space blanket around my waist and held my hand for the first few metres down the steep descent before waving us on our way.
I have never been in snow before and this was something I will never forget. It was the hardest run ever but also the most thrilling! Besides the pain, the altitude and terrain was also a huge challenge. (Even if I was injury-free, I would have struggled!) I was completely out my comfort zone but also in awe that I was in such a majestic place. I felt like one of those athletes in a National Geographic documentary, running on the edge of cliffs and leaping over rocks!
The winners of the race each received a Basotho Hat and a Basotho blanket. The Basotho Hat (or mokorotio) is a recognised symbol in Lesotho. It is made out of grass and has a shape of many of the mountains in the country. The Basotho blanket is almost entirely made of wool and is the traditional dress. They are a common sight in Lesotho and worn as a status symbol and cultural identification, while also providing protection against the cold.
Almost 10 hours after starting, the adventure came to an end and it was my turn to finally cross that finish line!
“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.” – Barry Finlay