I first heard about the Mont Aux Sources Challenge (“MAS” for short) in 2012 from a client who is an avid trail runner. At the time, I was new to trail running but the overall concept of the race and the route immediately appealed to me, and after looking up the online reviews, pictures and videos this was a run that I absolutely had to do.
In 2013 it was necessary to add your name to a fairly lengthy waiting list for an entry into the race. I was lucky and my name did emerge from the waiting list onto the entry list but unfortunately I had already committed to the Num Num Challenge on the same weekend. The Mont Aux Sources Challenge would have to wait.
The years went by and I continued to hear rumours of the Mont Aux Sources Challenge whispered among the running community. Tales of endurance, pain, fear, flighted beasts, jagged cliffs, battles against the elements etc. These tales only heightened my intrigue, so finally this year I convinced a running buddy of mine to enter with me (the entry process is far simpler than previous years and there is no longer a waiting list entry system).
Some background to the race itself, the Mont Aux Sources trail run is a simple pyramid profile run. Up for about 25km, gaining around 1 700m, to the top of the famous amphitheatre in the Drakensberg, and then down again for 25km. There is a small loop around the top of the mountain to make sure participants get to appreciate the spectacular views at the top.
The race starts and finishes at the Mahai campsite, where we set up camp for the weekend. We arrived on the Friday afternoon and set up our tents with thunder rumbling in the distance. Soon afterwards, the rain arrived. Fortunately, the rain only lasted a few hours and the weather had dusted the high peaks with some snow.
That evening the runners gathered for the race briefing and registration process. During the race briefing, it became apparent that the MAS is not just another run. The race is an opportunity for runners to experience an astonishing route while the entry fees go towards noble causes. The protection of Bearded Vulture pairs that nest along the running route being one of them, and being a bird nerd myself, this is indeed a worthwhile cause.
The other aspect of the run that became apparent was that the race organisers and the repeat participants (of whom there are many) do not position the run as a race, but instead they create an atmosphere where the run is viewed as an experience and opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings while incorporating a physical challenge. In keeping with this atmosphere, the race organisers have extended the cut off to allow a generous time period to cover the distance which affords strong hikers, and not just runners, the chance of participating. The race organisers go further to allow a process where those who don’t make the official cut off to gather in a group and complete the course together (in 2019 all participants finished very comfortably within the cut off).
The start also follows the general relaxed atmosphere of the run, allowing participants to elect when they want to start within a ½ hour window. It’s a self-seeding system so runners who wish to race the course start ahead of those who are out there to experience the course.
By the time we started the race, the weather had cleared and the sun was just starting to rise. The course follows a well-marked trail from the camp site to the Witsieshoek Hotel. As the sun rose the need to stop and take pictures increased. Right from the start, the course goes uphill and the participants are rewarded with amazing views of the mountains surrounding the valley through which we ran.
Although the gradient of the uphill is unrelenting (literally not a step downhill), I personally found the paths very runnable and moderately technical in sections.
From the Witsieshoek Hotel, the run follows the dirt track (still all uphill) to the Sentinel parking lot where it once again becomes a single trail for more uphill running and a little bit more technical to the bottom of the chain ladders.
Ah yes, the chain ladders. I am scared of heights and this was the part of the run that I had been most apprehensive about. Having climbed the ladders before when hiking the trail, I did have a sense of what I was in for but I was very pleasantly surprised! The race organisers have recruited the mountain rescue teams to assist with this part of the race, and each participant wears a secured harness while ascending the ladders (there are 2 of them) and the whole experienced was made very safe.
At the top the chain ladders, the run goes a little bit more uphill on moderately technical, but once again very runnable trails and this just serves to enhance the views. The atmosphere was also enhanced by the light covering of snow at the top.
The route doesn’t require descending the chain ladders and instead we scrambled down the gulley to re-join the path down to the Sentinel car park. It was at this point in the run where the vultures literally started circling and so we were treated to a rare sighting of a few of the Bearded Vulture pairs.
From the car park, we retraced our footsteps down back down to Mahai. Although it is all downhill from here, the fatigue from the 25km’s of climbing and rock scrambling down the gulley starts to take its toll and then we found ourselves facing the reality that the opportunity to run this beautiful trail is hard earned.
The race village at the finish is a festive place and the supporters (who are also joined by the finishers) line the shaded grass banks next to the finish to cheer the runners home. The race organisers also provide well stocked ice buckets that have every refreshment from sports drinks to beers. There is also a post-race dinner and prize giving.
Overall, this race exceeded my expectations and I would say it is comfortably in my top 5 races ever. It was absolutely brilliantly organised, the route was challenging but a good mix of runnable paths and dirt tracks with a smattering of technical sections along the way. I will definitely be one of those repeat participants.
Brett is a Bill Rowan Comrades medalist who has completed 4 Comrades Marathons and numerous standard and ultra marathons. He is currently exploring his latest passion of trail running.