The skull greeted us as we drove into the new home of “KZN Trail Running” based just outside Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa for the start of the 3 day Umgeni River Run Trail Fest, 10-12th August 2012.

The 3 day event would consist of a 12km night trail run on the Friday evening, a 22km on Saturday and a 25km run on Sunday.

This was a small event consisting of 45 runners lining up at the start of the 12km night run, 51 runners for the 22km and 26 runners for the 25km on the Sunday. The drop in numbers between Saturday and Sunday will become clear a little later on.

Day 1

night run

So, with headlamps in place and a sense of excietment filling the quiet dusk of the day, we set off down the trail like a bunch of crazy men in hot pursuit of a pot of gold at the end of an unreachable rainbow.

A couple of hundred meters or so into the race it became necessary to switch on the headlamps as darkness began to consume the last signs of day.

Round the corner and the start of the first climb, all I could see in front of me were the shoes of the leader as I stuck as close as I could making sure that I never let him get away, not even for a moment. Up and up we went, the hill demanding more and more from us with each burning step, and just when you thought, “I must be near the top” the hill turned into what appeared to be a staircase to heaven! It was at this point in the race that I suddenly found myself in very unfamiliar territory….leading the race.

The relentless climb had reduced the leader to a walk as I ran past and continued to push, refusing to give into my minds cry to “STOP!” With burning lungs I was over the top and at full acceleration down the other side, hoping, praying that my feet would land safely, I figured it was far better to run down the hill then to roll.

The balance of the route consisted of many twists and turns over small streams, around dams, up through thick bush, down rocks, between trees, along smooth grassy footpaths and over rocks hidden under grassy fields. Like a long drawn out string of Fireflies dancing under the starlit sky with each step ever closer to the elusive finish line.

Out of nowhere the finish line appeared, ending a wonderful experience of 12.7km’s of night trail running.

Day 2

profile day2

After what seemed a very short sleep we were back at the Trail Centre ready to catch a taxi down to the start of the 22km run starting at Nagal Dam and running upstream next to the Umgeni river back to the Trail Centre. The smell of burning brakes coming from the Taxi was our first clue that the run back was all uphill!

Turns out Andrew, the owner of KZN Trail Running who is a very nice guy, seems to think 1km or 2 here or there is no issue, needless to say there were some bleating runners at the end of day 2. What was supposed to be a 22km run ended up been a 24.5km run (and 28km’s for a few who got lost).

I get that it was only 2.5km’s longer, but just a moment please direct your attention to the profile above.

The run started at 420m above sea level, climbing to 591m above sea level between 3.5km’s and 6km’s, that’s a climb of 171m over 2.5km’s. My quads were screaming, my legs were tired, oh, and did I mention that the temperature was 30 degrees! In all fairness I cannot blame the ache in the quads purely on the night run (although I did end up pushing a bit harder then I needed to). I had committed school-boy error 101 and run a 16km and 20km run on the Wednesday and Thursday respectively the two days before the start of the race.

Needless to say, that as the heat sapped every ounce of energy from my body and elevated my core temperature rapidly, I was forced to adopt a run/walk strategy in order to get over the huge climb that would take us just passed the 6km mark. At this point in time I was lying second about 100m’s behind the leader who had not run yesterday and was heading out on fresh legs.

Once at the top it was a steep quad killing decent down the other end to the first river crossing. The cool water of the river was like mothers milk to the aching legs, ever part of me wanted nothing more than to simply sit down and enjoy the rest of the sweltering hot day in the soothing river. So, perhaps I took a bit longer then I should have crossing the river giving the chasing group of 4 runners the change to catch up. As I left the water the first of the pack was already passed halfway across the river and so I made a dash for it down the path with renewed determination.

Nothing was going to stop me now….except for a tree which had fallen across the path, “No problem” I thought, “head down and get over it as quickly as possible, worst case scenario, run through it.” Which is exactly what I attempted to do and as I lurched into the air I realised that plan “A” was not the greatest Idea I’ve ever had, landing slap bang in the middle of what turned out to be a tree covered in thorns. I was good and stuck, the thorns had gripped into my skin and clothes and as I tried to remove them I simply got tangled further. Fortunately for me or rather for him, 3rd place was just behind me and like a helpless lamb caught in a thorn bush he had to assist in plucking me lose.

From there, the final river crossing. Like a wounded buffalo I dragged myself through the water and into the first and only water point of the run, a cup of coke has never tasted so sweet.

In 3rd position now and running an endless gradual uphill with core temperature soring and legs growing ever heavier and heavier. Suddenly the lead pack had caught not only myself but the leader who had slowed and also lost his shoe in some mud, he quickly retrieved it and joined the rest of us now in a group of 5 runners. Around the next corner we came face to face with a herd of cows on the trail and with that I found myself in front leading the pack, “they’re only cows” I thought to myself, followed by, “Do cows kick?” Didn’t matter, as long as the cows ran along the path in front of us I would remain in 1st place. That’s exactly what happened, the cows simply continued to run out in front of us along the path until eventually the heat got the better of them too and given the relentless chase of their hunters they surrended as if to say, “Take us, we’re done.”

With that, so was I. Reduced to a walk, the pack continued to move away from me into the distance. And once again as we began the brutal climb out of the valley to 688m’s above sea level I adopted a run/walk strategy. As I got closer to the top, two of the runners where just ahead of me, as we reached the top I had pulled them in. Now a group of three we ran along the flattish to downhill section next to the recently harvested sugar-cane fields.

And then I saw it! Like a gift sent directly from God Himself, my pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, a shower! No I wasn’t hallucinating, I wasn’t seeing things, it was a shower. Ok, so not an actual shower, a pipe coming up from the ground with a nozzle on the end used to fill tanks on the back of trucks with water. I dropped my hydrationpack like a hot coal, turned the tap and stood under what felt like an ice cold waterfall. It was heaven!

There were less than 6km’s to the finish and that cool-down was exactly what my core temperature needed, I set off with a new found pace in the legs and started to reel the others in, it wasn’t long before I found myself in 2nd place and opening distance.

Onto part of the trail we had run the night before and off to the finish line, but not without tripping over a rock and crash-landing hard on the trail.

It was done, I had made it, I was finished. This had to be one of the toughest 25km races I had ever done.

Day 3

profile day3

I woke up on Sunday morning feeling like I had raced a hard marathon the day before. The sun has taken every ounce of energy, the legs were tired and sore, my left big toe very bruised and being unable to bend through the toe I wondered to myself, “How am I going to run 25km’s today”, and if the other runners felt the same way, that would explain the small turn out of only 26 runners, half that of the previous day.

Realising the toll day 2 had taken Andrew had reworked the route for today, making it a little easier, slightly shorter and very enjoyable.

As we drove to the start I decided that I was going to go out there and enjoy the run, I would run as the legs and body dictated, taking it easy and enjoying it.

As we started the run I was pleasantly surprised at how good I felt, my legs felt strong, my body felt energized and I was more than ready for this run.

The run had a few moderate climbs and some gentle downhills with some stunning views thrown in. A truly enjoyable run to finish the weekend. Seems there’s not much a run can’t fix and despite struggling with the toe between 10 and 12km’s over a rather technical section by the end of the run the toe not only looked better but felt much better too!

I finished Sunday’s run in 4th position to three guys who had not run the previous two days and took first place in the 3 day trail race, seems the top or more qualified trail runners had opted to sleep in for the weekend. But for me it was just a novel experience to get a sense of what it’s like to lead a race and to do what you can to ensure you keep it that way throughout the various days.

In finishing…

This was the first multi-day trail series I have run and I loved it, perhaps not parts of the second day as I wrestled with every fibre of my being, but as a whole what a great experience.

I have learnt many lessons and this small event has given me an idea of what I’m in for when I take on the Wild Coast Ultra in Feb 2013, 250km’s over 6 days.

When we get out into God’s creation, unspoilt and unpolluted by noise and busyness we leave feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, cleansed by the fire of struggle, determination and self-inflicted pain.

And so I drove home with my very fitting 1st place prize along side me in the passanger seat, an indigenous tree…only to hit a two hour traffic delay 100km’s from home.

Ah, if only to be back on the trails, back in God’s Country!

– Ray Orchison

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