Words by: Sven Musica
images by: Sven Musica and Arlo van Heerden
Be it a challenge or be it a race, whichever one the athletes choose makes no difference, Using our bodies to overcome physical achievements in the process of preserving and protecting our natural world hold a far greater value.
With friday Registration underway, the race village begins to buzz, the air is filled with the anxious energy of meet and greet, race pack collection, batch start confirmation and route preview presentation. Now having had its 26th Birthday, the Wildseries Mont-aux-Sources Challenge holds legend status amongst runners, both with a road background as well as trail.
Lying in the tent on race morning was made incredibly difficult by the fact that i managed to miss the race start about 4 times. “why on earth does my alarm not wake me up!”. You see, as an athlete i know we have these dreams of missing the race start, forgetting our shoes or kit, perhaps having no hydration pack. But in La La land, how do you explain to the event organisers that you dont have photos for them?
It wasnt 3 seconds after my 03:45 began to echo in the tent and i was vertical. With the ridiculously sketchy weather forecast i prepared myself for the worst and packed almost everything i had to begin my hike up toward Witsieshoek. Now what makes the morning challenging is that i know i can pack my bag with everything the previous night, and i will still second guess myself on raceday. With camera gear, essential mountain apparel, food and hydration all checked off i took to the hills with the pool of light from my headlamp illuminating the path ahead of me.
I managed to slowly hike up towards the “vlakte” with the ever increasing day glow at my back, thinking to myself about what a good cup of coffee would do for my soul at that moment. There is no place for self pity though and the thought blew off as i noticed the glow of headlamps approaching from the valley below. Within no time, the eventual winner Linda Zondi had made a large gap on the rest of the field. One special highlight was seeing friends like Tracey Zunkel, taking the time to stop for a few seconds, give me a hug and take off again and eventually take the ladies win.
Out of fear of our images looking similar to those of last year, i had hoped for a change in skies. just asking for something, something with dynamic light and texture. Well, well, well, as Hanno put it, “ask and you shall receive” and receive i definately did. It got so good that i managed to get multiple sunrises while capturing the athletes heading towards Witsieshoek.
With the break of day slowly becoming a glorious morning, I see the run, stop, run, stop, run stop action of a photographer inching his way towards me. Just before Witsieskhoek Arlo van Heerden catches up to me. You see, Arlo is an interesting character, not only is he shooting alongside me, but he is a runner, like a lifelong runner, its in his family and its in his Blood. However, up until recently he never quite dedicated himself to becoming a top trail athlete. The guy has talent that he is only starting to begin to show, and he is beginning to thrive on it. I sometimes joke and say that i only bring him along for the food, which was partly true 365 days ago, but this year was different, this year he brought a huge amount of value and creativity with him.
Now, at 10km in, The runners face “The Road”, its quite an interesting road though, it starts out paved, shortly thereafter becomes gravel, Then technical gravel to the point that it might be safer running on single track, it then becomes paved again and after 10km you reach Sentinel car park. But dont be fooled and think that “The Road” is easy, oh no, i think why the athletes dislike “The Road” so much is because it sucks the ego out of everyone and forces them to walk/shuffle/walk the stretch on the way up. But i have my opinion on “The Road”. It allows the runners to become social at this event, running abreast you begin to chat to those who have otherwise had your backside as a view on the single track with a back and forth of “whats”, “sorry”, “Ok’s” and “Hmm’s” during the conversations. Its this very stretch that people become friends and possibly begin to take on the challenge together.
Once you Hit Sentinel car park, its back to trail, yes, i know its an, either you love it or hate it, pavement. But overhearing a conversation with Andrew Booth about 1, the erosion elimination factor it provides as well as something that he said that sat in my memory, “there are not many places in the drakensberg that one can stop a car, walk up a short trail and experience the beauty of the drakensberg then this area” , He made alot of sense, we should not be selfish in our quest to demand rough and raw trail at the expense of allowing others to not enjoy a similar experience.
At this point the runners are beginning to edge closer to the 3000m altitude mark and you begin to gasp a little, everyone experiences altitude differently, and i won’t lie, it got to me this time round.
CHAIN LADDERS, if the distance and elevation gain didnt scare the runners enough, then the chain ladders provides one of 2 cherries on the mountain cake, the other i will get to in a moment. Gavin Raubenheimer, is probably more in the mountains then what he is at home, he knows a thing or 2 about safety, and although your palms might be sweaty, he is the guy that makes sure he doesn’t need to fetch you a 1000m in the valley below. Please bear with the quantity of images you are about to see, i just feel Arlo and myself managed to capture the chain ladders in such good detail.
The energy onto of the Chain ladders is electric, watching the runners sense of accomplishment cresting the final chunk of rock and clipping out of their Harnesses with a mix of smiles and tears, laughter and celebration and hugs always makes for awsome image captures
The runners pass Mont-aux-sources peak and make their way to the very top of the Tugela falls, the second highest waterfall in the world, with an incredible view of the valleys below. The climb up to the highest point on route and the second cherry on offer, “The Gully” is gradual but oxygen sapping. Its this very point that runners seem to lose their sense of humour .
“The Gully”, lets just say, its not your friend. I hardly get happy runners in “The Gully”, its just nasty, gnarly, and brutal. The aid of ropes to get you safely down is just that, and aid. Other then that, you on your own.
Once you have accomplished The chain ladders and Gully, its homeward bound. But what goes up, must come down, and coming down sounds all good and well, but its a long long long way down. It hurts… …your knees… … your ankles… and when you carry a 13kg pack, it kills your shoulders and back. But its this stretch that i have experienced on both occasions, the critically endangered Bearded Vultures, and its that very sight that closes off the experience of the Wildseries, Mont-aux-Sources challenge.
With the departure of Old Mutual who has been a major influence on the event over the past 3 year at not only The Monties race, but all Wildseries events, it is a major loss, and its this very time that athletes/runners, need to stand together and support events such as this that play a huge role in helping conserve the natural world so that one day, the generations we leave behind us can also appreciate the same beauty of the natural world that fills our souls and the deep yearning for adventure in us.
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