The long-haired giant stands in the wind on a rock. He is overlooking an endless green mountain range, which is clearly visible to the horizon. At his feet, a cliff drops almost one kilometer straight down into a rocky canyon. The sun is firing its rays at the giant as if it wanted to burn him to ashes. In his hand, the giant holds a ram’s horn. As he blows into it, a howling sound is carried away by the wind over the Drakensberg. The rocks are shivering…..
One foot in front of the other.
The trail before me is only as wide as a pair of feet. Good, I only have two. But all of a sudden, they do not seem to know anymore, how that works – walk. I am sleepwalking. I am hallucinating. I hear voices.
Who is speaking? Did a runner get lost? Why is he not saying any clear words? Why is he croaking? Because the lost runner is a frog…the solution is simple, it is obvious, but my brain is made of cotton and it works slow, so slow.
Number one is breathing hard. His legs are burning. Like the pistons of a machine, they work undefatigably. The ground is loose, rocks are rolling, soil is trickling, gras is snapping, gravity is pulling him back. The hill is steep, almost vertical. But number one is stronger than gravity, he pushes himself up towards the highest point. He knows this mountain. He has climbed it dozens of times.It is one of the key places of the race. The Balloch Wall is not only one of the steepest climbs of the Skyrun, it is also a real psychokiller. If you get over it alright and reach the other side fairly fresh, you will fly towards the next checkpoint with long strides. If you struggle and come down the other side tired and wasted, you feel like lying down in the emus’ enclosure at the Reedsdell Farm, as birdseed.
The only thing worse than the ascent of the Balloch Wall is – the descent….even steeper, even more impracticable. The executioner of the Skyrun is even more ruthless this year. It has rained a lot in the past weeks and vegetation is dense, the soil eroded. Bruce Arnett is not impressed. He arrives on the saddle, finds the hole in the barbed wire fence without delay, slides through it and dives into the descent like a basejumper without parachute. Now, gravity is working FOR the man from Johannesburg! He has won almost every single Skyrun, for him, it’s not about first place – he wants a new course record….
The blond giant is leading a group of hikers over the ridge. They have begun their hike in Lady Grey, a small town at the foot of the Drakensberg. Their destination is Rhodes, a fair 120 kilometers from here. The route follows the ridge line, at an average elevation of 2500 meters.
John-Michael Tawse is a spiritual man. For him, the path into the mountains is the path to get closer to god. In that respect, one might think of the Drakensberg as one giant open-air church, but without all the fuss that people down in the valleys and cities sometimes make about religion. John-Michael likes it simple, and his “Skywalks”, as he calls them, his hikes into the sky, give him more energy than they take from him physically.
I am a deep-sea diver. The water is heavy, it slows down my movements. The diving-suit weighs hundreds of kilos, and the oxygen bottles on my back make every step a monumental undertaking. 20 hours on my legs, the burning heat of the day has totally dehydrated me.
I’m not eating enough, I’m not drinking enough, I’m not sleeping. – the Skyrunner asks a lot from his body and mind. For hours, he searches a path through terrain without any trails, up steep ramps and down anklemurdering grassy slopes.
River crossings are a comfort for feet and legs, the cold water is refreshing. But then, the skin dissolves gradually in the wet shoes. At noon, the calves are hurting from the countless bleeding scratches, which the agressive scrubs tear into the thin athletes’ skin. In the afternoon, the muscles are hurting from the heavy pack on the shoulders, which the water supplies pull down like a mean little goblin.
In the evening, the feet are hurting because open flesh is rubbing against the neighbouring toe at every step.
Now, nothing is hurting anymore. My eyes are heavy, they close by themselves. A time comes when they are closed longer than they are open, and I decide to lie down. Next to the trail. Only one minute. Or two. To give my brain a rest. Reboot. Restart. Just rest the eyes. Then, they will stay open again. Only five minutes….After all, it IS night. At night, people sleep, no? The last thing I hear, is my heartbeat.
Number one is not alone. He is with number 18. Together, they race towards the finish line. Unstoppable.
The trailrunner is a lone warrior. In the wilderness, he rarely meets another one of his kind, and even more rarely will they be running in the same direction…The skyrunner also fights by himself. But here, they do not run against each other, they run together…. Sportsmanship, fairplay. The sport has invented many words to describe this spirit. The Skyrunner feels a strange connection between himself and his fello Skyrunners. Last year, a hail storm failed to blow us all of the mountain with thunder and lightning. This year, we are fried by the sun like in an oven. The monumental dimension of this venture, the voluntary taking of risks, the sheer distance and last but not least the spirit of the founders, which remains present until today…they are all at the root of a connection between a bunch of individualists who are scattered over dozens of kilometers of this wild mountain…
Race director Adrian Saffy captures the mood, when he ends the prize-giving with the words “We are all Skyrunners…”
John-Michael has found two volunteers: Joe Sephton, one of the farmers whose land the Skyrun traverses, and Dr. Rudi Thethard. It is going to be the first Skyrun, it is the year 1996 and John-Michael Tawse wants to add a physical dimension to the spiritual one. Instead of hiking the 100 kilometer course, they want to run it.
The rest is history, 1997, the first official Skyrun takes place, but it has to be interrupted because of a snowstorm. But since, every year, a few dozen fearless Skyrunners have followed in Johnmike’s footsteps.
Some come for the sport, some for records, others for the landscape…but none of them climbs down the ridge without having encountered extreme challenges, and the most primal instincts. As says the blond giant, “Some may meet god, but each of us will at least meet – himself.”
John-Michael Tawse is the first Skyrunner.
Something is wrong. I wake up, shivering. The wind blows against my armour made from Paclite. Award the inventor of this noble material the Nobel Prize! He saves my life! The wind is a storm. In the valley, the night was warm; now, on 2600 meters, the gale is howling over the ridge, one could test the wind resistance of jet fighter planes here…
My two fellow Skyrunners are also awake. It is as if all three bodies have given the alarm signal at the same time: Get up, it’s too cold to sleep!
As I raise the hood, I can see the sun rise over the horizon. Purple, orange, yellow…warm rays bring back life into our freezing bones.
For how long have we been lying in the gras? Not long, but long enough to be able to walk straight again, without falling off the mountain on either side.
Number one has done it again… He finishes first. But not alone. Together with number 18, he arrives in Tiffindel before sunset, the only ski station in South Africa, which traditionally marks the end of Skyrun.
After only 14 hours and 43 minutes, at a time when most Skyrunners have only reached kilometer 70 at the foot of Balloch Wall, Bruce Arnett and Iain Don-Wauchope cross the line together.
They have missed the course record by only 4 minutes…it has been standing at 14 hours 39 minutes since 2007. It is held by a certain Bruce Arnett.
Bruce Arnett is the fastest Skyrunner.
The long-haired giant is standing in the dark, the legendary ram’s horn in his hand. Almost seventy bold adventurers are waiting for his signal. They are ready to follow in his footsteps. At 4 a.m. sharp, he raises the strange instrument, the spooky sound sends shivers down the runners’ spines, as they set out for the longest day of the year.
John-Michael watches them turn the corner, then he follows them into the dark. For five years, he could not be here, 2009 he returns to his roots. This year, he takes the job of the sweeper.
Number 40. Number 19. Number 3. In this order, our little troop moves over the ridge. We know now that we are going to make it. Ben MacDhui, the highest point on the route, is rising in front of us against the sky. On top, the last checkpoint before a short descent into the finish.
Number 40 leads the way. I have done this part of the route four times. Last year, we had strong headwind here. Now, the storm blows us towards the finish line. The closer we get to Ben MacDhui, the faster I go. In the end, I sprint the last few hundred meters to the flag that marks the checkpoint. I feel as if I could keep on running 100 kilometers like that. But it seems prudent not to actually try that…..
It is nunber 19′s first time in the Drakensberg. Her blond lion’s mane hidden in her jacket’s hood, her hands in red fleece gloves, she marches behind me, tireless. A few hours ago, we made a deal – we’d trade nice company for navigational skills. The deal is a sucess for both of us. Not many Skyrunners finish their first Skyrun without stopping and sleeping over in the cave at Balloch, in order to restart at 4 a.m. the following day. But number 19 went through the night. She is only the second european to do this race. The first one, that was me, three years ago. Number 19 is happy. The highest point. Yesterday, she was excited to start. Now, she is excited to finish.
Number 3 has spent two hours looking for the bridle path that leads to the main ridge. After the river crossing in the valley, it is not enough to jut DO the very steep ascent, one also has to FIND the right route. And there is only one way up. The moon has disappeared behind some mountain a good while ago, and the night is pitch black, when number 3 gives up. If you’ve never been here before, you have hardly a chance of finding the way. The hill gets steeper and steeper, then it ends in a vertical wall of rock. The map says, the trail goes pretty much straight up, but this cannot be right. This is the Skyrun, not the Skyclimb! Number 3 lies down in the gras between some scrubs. He will wait here until sunrise or until someone comes by who might know the way. All of a sudden, a bright beam of light wakes him up. Two runners are heading straight towards him. Two germans, of all people!Number 40 says, he isn’t that wrong at all. Right. But it’s true, he had simply been looking in the wrong direction, turn 90 degrees and the steep wall in front of them is actually walkable without spiderman gadgets. Number 40 follows the two into the ramp, which no normal hiker would even think of going up. But then, that was the case for most of the past 80 kilometers.
The searchlight in front makes his way through the dark, confident. Number 3 is back in the race!
Race director Adrian Saffy has never seen the Skyrun like this. Since 2004, he is not only race director, but also sweeper, organiser…. he would come into the finish with the last runners on sunday, and a few minutes later, he’d already stand in front of everyone, for the prize giving. This year, a recent knee operation has kept him from running the route himself. So he shows up all over the course on a quad bike, cheering his runners and motivating everyone from first to last.
Then he greets every single one of them under the big finish arc. He is also waiting for us, as we come running down the ski slope around imaginary slalom poles.
Number 19, Number 40, Number 3…. we all receive a medal, reminding us in the future, that we are all Skyrunners!
As if we could ever forget this day….
The Film of Skyrun :