“YOU said YOU were going to do more hill training, speed, downhill training, distance and lose weight before the next race! But here we are again, unprepared and thinking that you’ll just wing it!”
These are the kind of thoughts usually playing havoc with my mind about 2 weeks prior to the Lesotho Ultra Trail (LUT); and having done three LUT races (one as a sweep), I am getting more and more familiar with the nervous excitement and internal conversations playing in my mind.
Come race weekend, the trip to Lesotho (I’m from Joburg) is always a treat. For some reason, as soon as you cross the border from South Africa, it feels like you enter another world. The rolling landscapes and animals grazing on the farms make the countryside look as though someone has trimmed the entire grassland with a weed-eater. The magnificent mountains start appearing about 10km from Butha Buthe and seem to go on forever.
Maliba Lodge (pronounced as Madiba by the locals) is nestled in a valley about 50km from the Caledonspoort Border. Upon arrival you immediately get a sense of what you will be facing the next day. The first sight of the lodge is also about the time that I feel another small anxiety attack setting in. This is where the race starts and finishes. It also serves a base for the weekend’s activities.
The race briefing is normally just another wakeup call to take the race easy, take enough water (which I didn’t, but more about that later) and a friendly reminder to grab some Jub-Jub’s at the 30km checkpoint / aid station. Sorry organisers, but that is all I take from the briefing. I am normally too nervous to take anything else in!
Sleep was a bit light for me the night before the race, but I got enough to keep the morning grumpiness in check. At the start line, you are treated to a lively performance of the Lesotho National Anthem sung by the Maliba Lodge staff, which really gets you in a great mood for the race.
The first 8km of the race meander through a valley and, in true Andrew Booth style (the race organiser), the route tracks almost back to the lodge. You cross a number of streams, so be prepared to get some soaking wet shoes early on in the race. This part is relatively easy, so one tends to want to ‘put foot’. The race gets a lot harder as it continues though, so it’s important to hold back a bit.
The next section takes you away from the valley into the mountains. Upon approaching the first big climb around the 11km mark, you will see a 3-tiered waterfall. Apparently one of a kind and a beautiful backdrop. It is now a 500m vertical zig zag climb to the affectionately known checkpoint called Camp Davis. This year, like all other years, I ate too much and also did not fill up with water. Big mistake!
The route continues meandering on top, or on the side of the mountains, leading you to another tough climb. This is where you reach the highest point in the race, a plateau altitude of around 3000m altitude. On my first LUT race I joined up with a now good friend named Altie Clarke. When we got to this part, I saw it fit to celebrate the highest altitude I had ever run at. I asked Altie to sing an appropriate song for this special occasion. It appeared that Altie had totally ignored my request, but about 5 minutes later, she breaks out into an almost recognisable rendition of Chariots of Fire. I was so confused as to why she was singing from the top of her lungs: “TaAAAAH TAHHH, TatatatataaaadahHHHH…”. Altie looked as confused as me and pointed out that I had just asked for her to sing a song. It took us another 5 minutes to figure out how much time had elapsed since the request. We eventually blamed the altitude for the confusion. This was the first time I heard the symptom called “mountain goat brain”.
Back to this year. At 28km I ran out of water, but luckily there were some flowing streams to fill up. I don’t know what it is about this water from the mountains, but it always has a slight sweetness to it and it’s obviously freezing cold. I suppose it may be the dehydration talking, but I swear that it’s best water I have ever tasted.
From 30km, just before you descend from the mountains, you find the second aid station. This time the volunteers unfortunately did not have water, but they did have the infamous Jub-Jubs. I didn’t actually know what sweets these were before, but I can only describe them as the best tasting huge Jelly tots ever. Come to think about it, everything tastes better at 3000m above sea level!
30km to 36km is all downhill running or, in my case stumbling on almost every step and perfecting the art of looking clumsy. It can take you over an hour to get to the second last checkpoint. At this point, you have the option to ‘downgrade’ to the 38km and coast home and many of the 50km entrants do choose to downgrade. According to the organisers, there have only been two occasions where a 38km entrant has upgraded to the 50km. This year I didn’t even think about downgrading….I wanted to experience the “hill that yet has to be named” again at the end. So, off I went and headed back onto the route for a second visit to Camp Davis.
At about 40km you see the mountain that you will have to climb next. It’s only about 3km but it is steep. At some point during this ascent I looked down at my watch and saw that I was only moving at about 2km per hour! The sun in the afternoon is brutal and the fact that you already have 40+ km under your belt doesn’t help the tired legs and body. One of the things that stands out for me is the cow bell that someone rings at Camp Davis to welcome the runners back to the top. This bell can be heard from about 1km away but the top of this mountain just doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. Eventually I got to the top at Camp Davis. Some runners were chilling on the chairs under the tent to catch some shade and to barter Rehydrates and other chemical concoctions. I opted for a quick bite of some Marmite sarmies (yes, the best in the world).
The last 8km is pretty much the reverse of the first 11km barring a couple of loops. I really enjoyed this part of the race as I knew the hardest parts were over. All the climbs were merely a distant memory, and the downhill running for this section is not too technical. There’s a small sting in the tail to climb back up to the lodge, but at this stage you can hear Andrew’s voice over the speakers cheering the runners in. A warm welcome back is always appreciated and the Wild Series team make a point of having special medals made every year. This year was a cow bell.
After a long day in the mountains, it was time to take off the (filthy) trail running shoes, share some war stories with the fellow runners and cheer the rest of the field to the finish. All of the above done with a Maluti beer in hand and another unopened one at the ready.
I’ll definitely see you again next year, Lesotho Ultra Trail! In better shape than 2019 – well, one can only hope.
Roddy du Plessis
Roddy is an avid trail runner and lover of running in the mountains who has completed numerous ultra distance trail runs. He has also achieved his Comrades Marathon green number .