2016 SkyRun 100km race report

Nico’s big race, the long awaited SkyRun 100km took place this past weekend. The race started in Lady Grey and crossed a section of the South African Witteberg mountain range to finish at the Wartrail Country Club. The SkyRun is considered by many athletes as the toughest trail run in Africa, as it is a self-navigated, self-supported race in a very remote and rugged setting, with roughly 4500m of altitude gain and loss. There are a number of peaks that need to be crossed with mandatory gear, mandatory medical checkups and strict cutoffs times that apply. Total time cutoff is 32 hours, with a 15 hour cutoff  to the 60km mark, the only place where seconds and supporters could meet and assist their runners.

Unbeknownst to him, the Hubs was entered into the SkyRun as a birthday present from his very loving dear wife (as mentioned here). This is a race that he has some long overdue unfinished business with, as he tried his hand at it a few times some 15 years ago (without proper training or gear) but couldn’t pass the 60 km cutoff in time. He bravely accepted the challenge again in April, and started with the gruelling training program.

Now, I have to mention here that this is a man that used to run 3 to 5 k’s every second day just to keep fit. His heart actually lies with mountaineering (which actually makes this race the perfect challenge for him), but he barely trains specifically for a summit challenge, he just maintains a very active lifestyle.

He followed the SkyRun 100k training program to the T, running tempo runs, time trials and long runs as he had to, never skipping a day, with strength training in between on top of all his other priorities.

Through the six months of tough training:

  • he never once missed family dinner, bathing the boys as he has done the past 5+ years or reading bedtime stories to our boys for a run. He would rather run hill repeats in Uis after they fell asleep, or run with his reflective vest through the dark, cold streets of Swakop. His family always came first.
  • he would rather start his long runs at 4 am so as to be back early to make me my first coffee and spend our special morning time together as a family, even though he worked on his computer until 12 the previous night (every night). He is that type of father and husband.
  • he would encourage force me to take time off for a nap or a run if I ran low on me-time or if our schedule of alternating run days got mixed up for some reason, he himself forgoing his rest or run time to give me an opportunity to catch up. He is the perfect gentleman like that. And then he would run in the dark again.
  • he would run in very sketchy places while travelling (frequently) for work, such as on treadmills in lonely, stuffy hotel gyms or on dark (after or before long days in the African bush), potholy, central African streets while children chanted his name and he had to dodge trucks and motorbikes and bicycles and just generally find himself on the bottom of the road user food chain.
  • he ran up and down Brandberg Mountain several times while the boys and I camped at the base, always making sure that he stuck to his strict turnaround times for our safety and comfort always putting us first.

During his training he picked up problems with both his ITBs, and we started with physio and additional exercises soonest, but the problem persisted. Nico finished his first road marathon in October in 5 hrs, after he had to walk the entire last 10km due to ITB related pain. He didn’t quit his marathon, nor his training program, but he had to scale down on long runs. We hoped for the best.

On our way to the SkyRun 2016 we spent time with dear friends of ours, one of which who happened to by a physiotherapist. Linkie showed us a different way of strapping the ITBs, and also some new exercises that we will both be doing from now on, we are so grateful for her input.

Spending time in Bloemfontein with beautiful friends.

We arrived in Lady Grey on the Friday, well in time for the registration and race briefing. The process was fairly smooth and included a medical examination. We already had dinner and was under the impression that race briefing would be before dinner (so we didn’t book a dinner for all of us), but ended up having to wait until after dinner for the briefing. The boys enjoyed the playground though!

Vivi and Daddy.
Waiting for the race briefing. Cold in Lady Grey! (Source)

The race started in Lady Grey town at 4 am, and roll call was at 3.30 am – luckily we stayed in a neat, comfy flat near the start.

Nico called me after the second checkpoint (21 km) and was going steady but strong. His ITBs were holding up, we were so relieved!

The boys and I had a leisurely  morning of breakfast and packing, after which we left for our accommodation near Balloch caves/the finish. At least, we THOUGHT it was near, but since we were driving a very low clearance sedan car and most of the roads were gravel, the going was really, really slow.

On the Balloch Caves road we indirectly caused a 20 care pileup after a courteous lady with a rented Rav 4 pulled off the side of the narrow road to give us way, had her one front wheel fall in an invisible ditch on the side of the road! A gentleman two cars behind her had to pull her out, while all the cars behind me had to pull into a nearby field to let the oncoming traffic past while I, in our Corolla, blocked half the road. Uhm, eish…

The poor lady driver of the Rav which fell in a ditch for our passing’s sake!

Athletes were monitored with GPS devices on the Sportrax tracking system which we could follow on the internet (where we had reception, which was few and far in between, but it helped).

Around 30 km Nico called me again. He was experiencing neck pain, which I ascribed to tension, as I have seen the tension in his shoulders on a long run when he starts to take strain. I urged him to relax his shoulders often, and he checked with me if it would be OK to take a Cataflam, which he then did.

Waiting, climbing and playing at Balloch Caves.

The boys and I received a very tired but still strong Hubs at Balloch, the almost 60 km mark, after 14.5 hrs on his feet. For the first time he was well within the allowed time, and we were so, so excited and PROUD of him!

Our boys running to meet their dad.

He downed a few cold drinks and sat down to rest and eat dinner. He also took another Cataflam. After about 30 min of arriving he went for his compulsory medical. They found his pulse to be 120bpm, far over the maximum 100bpm to give him clearance to continue. He rested for another 30 minutes and measured again after 15 min and 30 min (so rested an hour in total), his pulse didn’t come down. He couldn’t continue his race although he felt strong and able. All of us were very disappointed.

Now, almost a week since SkyRun, we are 99% sure he had another bout of Malaria on the race, since the neck pain is usually his first tell tale signs. His other usual malarial symptoms persisted until the Tuesday after the race, but has cleared up since. The Cataflam suppressed the neck pain but also may have elevated his heart rate, which is why he felt strong to continue but didn’t pass the medical. With hindsight, we are very relieved and thankful that he wasn’t cleared to continue the race, as nobody knows how things could have turned out had he further pushed his already stressed heart. He was also really concerned about the boys and I having to drive for an hour to our guest farm at night after seeing him off at Balloch. That may also have added to his elevated heart rate, who knows!

Whichever way, he is still determined to finish the SkyRun, and will be back in 2017 to do so.

This was my first round at seconding a runner on an ultra trail, and there are many things I have learned, did wrong and will or will not do again.

Things we will do again/differently next time on the SkyRun:

  • Rent an SUV or car with high clearance. A Toyota Corolla is really not your best bet, even though it got us everywhere, it was very much touch and go and very slow going!
  • Stay again within walking distance from the start. We stayed in a very comfy guest flat that was 3 min’s walk from the start, Nico was the first one there.
  • Buy all our supplies at a decent store in Bloemfontein (our point of entry) or at the very least Aliwal Noord. Only the bare essentials are available in Lady Grey.
  • Book dinner for all four of us during race briefing.
  • Stay at or very near Balloch cave or Wartrail CC so you don’t have far to drive far after supporting your athlete at Balloch and before receiving him at the finish.
  • Have more food for him (real food such as lasagna or pizza or a chicken stew) – he was still hungry after his complimentary meal at Balloch, and we didn’t eat at all.
  • Have his recharge electrolytes there, cold and plenty (Lucozade, Energade or Powerade), they only sell Coke and Sprite or coffee at Balloch. Take cash.
  • Have a ready made Slowmag drink when he gets there. Also take your own 5l of water.
  • Take a spare headlight or torch for the seconders.
  • Have a sleeping bag and pillow for your runner to rest properly for an hour or so.
  • Have lots of batteries for GPS and headlight ready.
  • Have a warm, clean change of clothes and socks, possibly shoes too.
  • Have refills for all his food-and-drink-on-the-go.
  • Send him for medical checkup early, then let him rehydrate, eat, send for physio if needed. Nico was probably dehydrated badly but the medics didn’t have drips/ran out of drips. Early detection may have made a difference.

The amazingly talented Kelvin Trautman took some photos of  Nico for his very touching Back Markers Project.

Problem ITBs fixed with strapping! (Source)
So, so proud to receive him after a gruelling 14.5 hr run in the mountains. Thank you Kelvin for capturing the moment. (Source).