What a race eh… it’s a race that has been on the radar of many a runner for years. Established 16-years ago, the Salomon SkyRun has often been perceived as a race just for South Africans, however, that is all about to change…
‘2014 is going to be a great year for the race. This year we will elevate the race to a new level with a strong International contingent to take part’ says Michael de Haast, race director for the Salomon SkyRun.
This will be the 17th edition of the race and it has a great history. Created by a group of guys who were ex Special Forces, one day they decided they would visit a friend… he just happened to be 125km away… they undertook the journey on foot!
‘Looking back, it almost sounds a little like how Ironman started… I wonder if beer was involved?’ said Michael, ‘Created in ‘95’, they called it the Sky Walk and in ‘97’ the race started officially on the same route. I have made some slight changes since. We use to finish at Tiffindel Ski Resort. Now we finish at the War Trail Country Club as the ski resort closed 4-years ago.’
Taking place in the southwest corner of Lesotho, the Witteberg mountain range is part of the Drakensberg range. The route has high elevation with an average of around 2700m. On the ridges, runners are always at altitude, it has no paths, and therefore everyone needs to make his or her own trail. It makes this challenge unique.
Drakensberg will ring true for so many at the moment, Ryan Sandes recently completed the Drak Traverse, however, this course takes place in a different region. ‘The Drakensberg is a massive range of mountains,’ explains Michael, ‘this race is on the Eastern Cape side essentially where the Drakensberg ends.’
Lady Grey provides a backdrop to the race start. ‘It’s a beautiful and quaint town. Very small, picturesque and it’s a great place. It does offer some logistical issues though as hundreds of runners arrive looking for accommodation. One of the advantages of our elite athlete package!’ Michael says.
A severe course with extreme logistics, the race is at a maximum with 300-athletes. Two races are on offer, the 60km ‘Lite’ and the 100km SkyRun. ‘Safety is paramount and we need to manage the athletes on the mountain, for example, a winner can take 12-hours but the last person may take 36-hours. The course is remote and difficult, we can’t just drive in; everything is done by foot. It’s complicated but we are very experienced. We split the numbers as 200 for the full race and 100 for the ‘Lite’.’
The trail is very tough, technical and harsh. The 2013 edition had very tough-conditions and for the first time in its history the race had to be cut short for safety reasons, so, this is no easy undertaking. ‘The weather can change at a drop. You can have 3-seasons in one day. At altitude, weather is a factor and it can’t be underestimated.’
The race is self-supported (particularly water) and runners need to navigate. GPS units are allowed and a GPX file is provided by the race organization, however, as Michael de Haast says, ‘some local knowledge and good map and compass skills often will have an advantage over any GPS user. Preparation is key and for those who want to win, a little homework will go a long way.’
The highest point of the course is Avoca Peak at just under 2800m. All the race peaks have British naming. The settlers settled in the Lady Grey district with British ancestry in1820, hence the names and history.
The course has over 1000m of climbing in the first 10k to The Tower, following a ridgeline to Olympus and CP2. The key is not to loose height. Snowdon at 30k offers the first feeding option where water is available. The route climbs again and you climb to Avoca, the highest point. From Avoca, the course is beautiful. It has iconic landmarks, the famous Dragon’s Back, a 2m wide ridge, which you run on, and you have vertical drop offs on either side… insane running! It really is incredible. Coming into Balloch, CP6, this provides an access points for spectators; it’s just over halfway. Climbing out of the valley, participants go up a steep ascent of 700m only to drop down once again into another valley. The Lite race finishes at the Country Club but the 100km entrants must go out for another 40km loop. After CP7 you climb the Bridle Pass; it’s a tough climb and the locals use it for getting cattle over the mountain. The terrain is tough but the views are incredible. Looking out over the Eastern Cape with approx 75km covered, a path becomes more defined and then at CP8 you turn back and return to the finish. From CP9 you have a severe descent that will test each and every participant to the line. It’s a tough race that should not be undertaken lightly!
‘It’s an emotional journey SkyRun.’
Ryan Sandes holds the course record in a time of 12:36 and the race has had great competion from AJ Calitz and Iain Don Wauchope. In 2014, the race are offering $10,000 for the first runner to break 12-hours. This is a record that may well go this year… ‘We would love to give the money away. With the International field we are lining up, we think the record may well go should the conditions be favorable.’
An International field will race and currently Nick Clark (Altra) and Gary Robbins (Salomon) are confirmed. Nick Clark is an experienced mountain runner who has placed well at Western States and Hardrock 100. He also competed in the Grand Slam of ultra in 2013. Gary Robbins has a strong adventure racing background and is the current course record holder for Hurt 100. More runners will be added, and in total, the race will have 4-male and 2-female international athletes.
The opportunity to race and have the experience of a lifetime is not going to be reserved just for elite international athletes. For the first time, the Salomon SkyRun will open its doors offering 14-16 international runners from any racing background the opportunity to join the ultimate racing experience.
Michael de Haast explains:
We are offering a once in a lifetime experience to international runners for the package price of £999. Runners will need to arrange their own flight/travel to arrive in South Africa on the 20th November in Bloemfontein. Transfers will be arranged to Lady Grey for 3-nights including race entry.
On Monday 24th November, this select-group will then participate in a workshop with the elite international runners, this will include Nick Clark, Gary Robbins and Ryan Sandes plus others as and when confirmed.
November 25th everyone will transfer to a Moketsi Game Lodge for 2-nights that will include full board.
To finish the trip off, we will then all transfer back to Bloemfontein and onward travel with 2-nights in Cape Town.
The elite athletes will be present for the entire race package offering an opportunity never offered before. (Ryan Sandes will be an exception who will be at the race and the clinic but will not be at the game lodge.)
This is an opportunity that will be available only to a select few. The combination of the race, the elite international package and an opportunity to relax and enjoy South Africa to the full is just incredible.
If you are interested, please complete the form below:
Ian Corless had an opportunity to speak with Nick Clark and gather his thoughts on his current racing and the opportunity that the Salomon SkyRun will provide.
Interview with NICK CLARK (Altra)
IC – Nick, you are becoming regular interviewee…
NC – Yes I am, it’s great to be back
IC – A great Grand Slam in 2013 and the TCC earlier this year, things are rolling along nicely. You have just raced UTMF in Japan.
NC – Japan was fantastic. A great trip, the race was good for 70-miles and then not so good for the last 30…
IC – Was that when the tough climb started?
NC – I had been fuelling really well. I got to mile-70 and had some soup and it turned my stomach. I basically couldn’t eat for the remainder of the race and yes, that coincided with that brutal climb. Good to get around the mountain, I had points when I wasn’t sure if I would!
IC – What was the racing experience like out in Japan? Is it very different to Europe and the US?
NC – The racing was incredible. The level of detail that went into this race was mind blowing. They must have had over 1000 volunteers…
IC – Wow!
NC – Yeah, it was like UTMB. The course was marked every 20m or so. Incredible. Every detail was, as you would expect from the Japanese. It was meticulous, a really great and well-organized event
IC – Impressive. I spoke to Mike Foote (The North Face) recently, he had a great race…
NC – Yep, he sure did!
IC – You ran with him for quite a while. He said the course was interesting as it combined so many elements. It didn’t suit anyone style? Road, trail and climbing; did it suit you?
NC – Funny, I think they achieved what UROC have been trying to do for 3-4 years. They wanted a course that didn’t cater for any strength but I personally feel they favoured road guys. The Japan course had good stretches of road, that’s fine, I don’t mind that. You get in a rhythm, click off the miles and then you’d do 10-miles of road and then you would be in the mountains and it would take 4-hours to do 12-miles… crazy. We must have had 4-5 miles of rope sections that gives you an idea of how steep it was in places. A real mixed bag and I think that worked well. No particular style was favoured.
IC – Sounds like a course that would really suit you?
NC – Yes, I work on my speed, I don’t mind road and I love the mountains, so, yes, I was in great shape and I thought the podium was a distinct possibility. I was running with Foote and he made the podium. I’d like another crack at it I think…
NC – Well, lets talk up about South Africa and the Salomon SkyRun, which takes place in November. Michael de Haast was telling us all about this race, it’s in its 17th year. This race is tough, gnarly and I guess it’s just getting on peoples radars… funny, this race is going to be quite a contrast to UTMF. No markers, navigation, tough and a 100km long. What are your thoughts?
IC – It’s going to be amazing. I have never been to Africa so that will be awesome. I’m looking to experience the country and then thrown into the mountains is going to be fantastic. You know the navigation will be interesting. I don’t usually use a GPS but I can use one here so that will be essential I think with little or no time to prepare. I will need to try to get on a level playing field. I have no issues with map and compass either so it’s a great challenge. I am thrilled.
IC – This race is navigation, you come from the UK where fell running and navigation events are normal. However, I would imagine this is not something you experience in the US? So, do you feel comfortable with this?
NC – Yes I do. You are correct; navigation in the US is not required for an average race. You run, drink beer and have a burger…
IC – You make it sound great!
NC – It is once your done! I do lots of navigational stuff in the off-season in Colorado so it comes natural and I feel good with that. I can hone my map and compass skills and I feel comfortable. I think for this race though I will have a GPS. Having said that, you still need to take the correct line.
IC – I think back a few years when you came to the UK and you did the Bob Graham Round.
NC – Oh yes, the BGR!
IC – When you did the BGR you had guides, did you get involved in any navigation?
NC – No, not really, the year I did it, 3-years ago I think. It was December 21st, shortest day of the year…
IC – Perfect timing!
NC – Oh yeah, perfect timing! You don’t get much daylight in the UK in winter anyway…
IC – And didn’t we have bad snow?
NC – Yes, thick snow in places but it all depended on the terrain. Conditions were atrocious. Probably 3-4 foot snow in places. It was up to my chest at times. It was cold, wet and miserable. A great experience but I pulled the plug as it was become too extreme. I had been severely cold for ages; I couldn’t feel my feet. I had someone with me all the time but on the ridges and open places it was extreme. You couldn’t see 3-5 feet at times so the help of others was essential. It is what makes it so unique. You put your head down and go for it.
IC – Sounds like perfect preparation for the SkyRun! I’m sure you are aware that the 2013 edition of the race was the worse conditions they ever had. It was the first time in the 16-year history that they cancelled mid-race. Visibility was zero, runners were hypothermic… I can see the BGR being a great prep. The race takes place in the SW corner in the Witteberg Mountains, Ryan Sandes holds the CR in just over 12:30. Michael the RD is putting up a $10,000 prize purse for anyone who can break 12 –hours
NC – I didn’t get that memo! Wow, that is definitely worth going for. Very motivating. I think I am going to have to do more research.
IC – When I spoke to Michael, he did say that GPS units are allowed and they would provide a GPX track. The hitch is, the track is 4-5 years old. It’s valid of course but the local guys… AJ Calitz, Iain Don Wauchope (maybe Ryan Sandes) they will know a few shortcuts, so, a little pre race map time will be required.
NC – Yes, you are correct. Locals will have an advantage but I will just do what I can. Importantly I think I will make sure I am on someone’s heels who knows the way.
IC – A good tactic!
NC – Yes, oh yes and then we can have a 5k race at the end.
IC – The race description says… grading is difficult to extreme, depending on temperatures it may be very extreme. Expect 13-36 hours to complete. A massive difference! The field isn’t huge, just 250-people, one of the advantages that we have this year is along with yourself we do have other International Elite runners joining. Gary Robbins from Canada will join us and we will add 4-more. I guess one big bonus is that this trip is open to 14 to 16 runners to join us. What aspects of this are you looking forward to?
NC – Listening to all that I just think wow, once in a lifetime deal. For me it is about soaking it all up and experiencing everything to the full. I’ve never been on a reserve, the mountains will be incredible and the whole experience sounds immense.
IC – Do you know the area Nick or will this be an open eye experience.
NC – I know the Drakensberg Mountains but I know little else to be honest; that is what makes this trip so attractive. I think it what will appeal to everyone.
IC – Gary Robbins will join us, he was out in Japan with you but he had an injury. You guys have gone head-to-head before; you know each other well? Gary has a strong adventure racing background that will work well in SA!
NC – Oh yeah, for sure!
IC – Do you think looking at yourself you will be at a disadvantage? I know you have Western States coming up so I guess you will focus on SkyRun after.
NC – WSER is in June. I will get that out of the way, I am on a training block for that at the moment after a 2-week rest block post UTMF. I actually go to Gary’s race in August, the Squamish 50 in British Columbia. I have other projects planned that will definitely work well for November. I will be in the mountains doing off trail routes, so all will be good. I plan to be out in remote terrain so this will be perfect for South Africa.
IC – It’s an exciting prospect. Pretty sure we will catch up after WSER and it will be great to discuss how you prepare for SkyRun and if you work out how to use a GPS…
NC – Thanks, a pleasure to chat and thanks for the support. I turned 40-today, so Western will be my first ‘masters’ race.
Images – ©Trautman/Nikon/Lexar
Images – ©Kolesky/ Nikon/ Lexar
Race Website – HERE