Having run several tough ultras before such as Scenic Trail, Transylvania Trail Traverse and UTMB, I am not completely new to ultrarunning. Last year alone I ran four races around the 100km mark. The 100 mile (160km) distance is however something that I have had a lot of respect for since running the UTMB in 2016. That race took forever and I made a deal with myself not to run another race of that length (UTMB is 170km) until I was ready for it. It is not easy to run these distances and there is no point in signing up for an ultra unless you know that you really want to finish, and that you understand what it will take to do so.
There are two main reasons why I made the choice to run the Karkloof 100 this past weekend. The first being that, in an interview for a local newspaper a couple of years ago, I said that I wanted to run an ultra on every continent before I turned 25. When my mom then asks if I want to come along to South Africa for a conference in the Krüger National Park It was only natural for me to do a quick google-search to see if there where any ultra races in South Africa at the time. The second reason is that I am planning to do the Western States 100 in the (not to far) future. Western States is a very prestigious 100 mile event in the US with a long history being one of the first ever 100 mile races. 2019 will be my third year qualifying for the lottery and as the chances increase every year I feel that I am getting closer to a start at this iconic race. In the event that I receive an entry to Western States I want to be certain that I am well prepared and stand a chance to finish the race under 24 hours which earns you an extra nice belt buckle (… more on belt buckles later) and this is where Karkloof 100 comes into the picture! Having done another 100 miler as preparation before potentially getting in Western States would give a much needed self confidence boost, doing it under 24 hours would be even better.
We arrived in South Africa a few days prior to the race and went for a road trip through the Drakensberg mountains on the border to Lesotho. The scenery was amazing and the trails in the parks (once you found them) where exceptional. Driving was exciting with roads that were poorly marked and full of potholes. Driving at night is not to be recommended with cows, goats and people all over the place, not to mention the mist sometimes coming down from the mountains. We however made it to Howick and the start of the race without any incidents apart from a few navigational errors.
The course was an out and back course, meaning that there was a turn around point after 80km at a place called Benevie gardens. The start and finish area was at a nice cozy venue on the outskirts of Howick. There was beer on tap, a festive atmosphere and a great view from high up on a clif. When first arriving to collect the race number you immediately felt welcomed, something that always makes a big difference for the overall impression.
The race number came with a goodie bag which amongst other things included a message from a child at Khipinkuzi school. Karkloof 100 together with the Southern Lodestar Foundationed had partnered in order to contribute to feeding a child in need for seven years for every runner doing the 100 mile race. What a great initiative and especially nice since I missed this years Charity Trail at home the same weekend.
There was roughly 100 runners doing the race who all gathered together under the roof of the big tent waiting for the race start at 20.00. A couple of minutes before the start the spectators were sent out along the first 100 meters of the course forming two lines with their mobile-lights out creating one of the most impressive atmospheres for the start line at a race of this size.
Since I have had some nerve-related trouble with my left leg following the Grossglockner Ultra in July I wanted to take it easy in the beginning in an attempt to maximize my chances of finishing with a good feeling. I therefore positioned myself somewhere in the middle of the field before the start, this meant that I had to (a race is a race?) pas a few people during the first kilometers but I never felt stressed in any way.
After only a few kilometers into the race one of the most exciting things happened. I had just left a group of runners behind to try to catch up to a few others ahead. To tell the truth I wanted to find some runners keeping a nice pace that I could follow, I did not want to be left alone through the night. As I was closing in on the runner ahead I started to hear something approaching from behind, at first I thought it was a runner without a headlamp but as I looked over my shoulder I saw that it was a zebra. A ZEBRA! There was actually four of them and they were less than a meter away. I quickly caught up to the runners ahead of me and told them what I had seen, they did not seem to concerned until the zebras came charging back as they where now stuck on a narrow path between two groups of runners. Being the only foreigner in the race I was probably most excited about the zebra incident, the other runners seemed more concerned to avoid being trampled by the slightly panicky zebras.
The aid stations with 15 to 19km apart. The first one was at Karkloof 11 where we got to go into old brick-mushroom-farm-tunnels. The aid stations where well equipped with all that an ultra runner needs. Soon after Karkloof 11 we passed a larger road through a pipe, here Oliver a guy who I ran much of the race together with hit his head on the edge of the pipe which must have hurt, it was bleeding quite a bit.
The night carried on rather uneventfully with a flat section to the second aid station at Rockwood followed by a steep climb and downhill to the third aid station at Bushwillow. From Bushwillow there was a nice runnable section followed by some undulating hills before arriving at aidstation four, Mbona. Between Mbona and the turnaround point at Benevie gardens there were some more runnable sections, the trouble was that it was now early in the morning just before sunrise which is a difficult time of day to be out running.
As the sun went up I got some new energy. From Benevie to the finish runners where allowed pacers and there was also a 50mile race that started a little later that morning, this meant that there were some more people on the trails, which was nice. After the turn around point it was also nice mentally to know that you were halfway to the finish and that it was more downhill than uphill on the way back. I also know that mom would now be supporting me at some of the aid stations giving me some extra energy and support. The first time I saw here was at Mbona on the way back, with good energy and positively pleased with how my left leg was feeling.
Everything went well (considering the distance) until rockwood with 35km left to go, where we entered a real African thunderstorm coming down mountain. It was unlike anything we have in Sweden. It also started to rain heavily just as I made it in under the roof at Rockwood. I took some extra time here to see if the rain would move on but it kept coming. The time spent at Rockwood was not wasted however as I was handed a really nice vegetable wrap by one of the volunteers to eat.
After I while I took out my rain jacket and carried on. I saw mom after a few kilometers where we passed a road and got some more fuel, still feeling pretty good but starting to get wet. The real down period came not to far from the last aid station. Buy now I was completely soaked, had chafing issues and the my left-leg was not feeling to good, I was quickly approaching zombie-mode. I changed into dry shorts and put on waterproof pants, changed t-shirt and put on an extra mid layer shirt. According to mom it took a while to get me out of the aid station… to me it felt like I spent no more than five minutes there.
The last bit was tough not only because I was tired but also because my headlamp stopped working, something that should not have happened as I brought two headlamps and three extra batteries to South Africa which in total should be enough light for more than a week. My mistake was that I left one of the headlamps with my dropbag at the turning point thinking that I most definitely wouldn’t need two on the way back. As it turned out something happened to the second head torch which meant that it would not shine even though it was fully charged.
It got completely dark with only 5km to go. I managed to make some progress but it was difficult to see the markers and I did not want to risk going of course. Eventually I caught up to a guy who was walking and followed him for awhile until another runner caught up to us from behind, I then followed him instead. It was tricky running without light even when following someone else especially as it had become very slippery from the rain. The runner I was following (a local teacher) was kind enough to wait for me and shine his light to help me at the trickiest sections.
The second half of the race took much longer than the first half, almost 13,5 hours versus 10 hours. I am a little disappointed with losing so much time at the end but then again I am happy to have finished under 24 hours. It was the last 30km where I lost the most time. I had promised myself on beforehand not to think of it as a race and more of an adventure so I will stick to that and not care to much about the time. For most of the race I felt quite good and one thing that I will bring with me from the race was that it was easier than I had expected. With some solid injury free training I think I could do really well at a race like this.
At the finish line I got a beer in a custom made finisher mug and my belt buckle, changed into dry clothes and had a quick finisher meal before having to say goodbye to the organizers. We had to make a hasty departure in order to catch the flight from Johannesburg to moms conference early the next morning.
This race was by far one of the best organized and friendliest ultras I have ever done and one of the highlights to my running year. I would like to thank everyone involved!
If you ever have the opportunity do the Karkloof 100 don’t hesitate, you might even get to run with the zebras!
A 100 mile belt buckle is a reward you often receive at the finish line instead of a common medal. I have earned a few belt buckles before but none of them have been for true 100 mile efforts. You can either attach them to a belt or just have them lying around like any other medal. The only time the belt buckle serves its purpose as a “show-off” accessory is in the unlikely event of you meeting another ultra runner, most of the time the buckle goes by quite unnoticed.
The Karkloof 100 buckle was particularly good looking!