Race Report: Mont-aux-Sources Challenge

I always write up 3 weeks of rest in my training plan after running a hard ultramarathon. I force myself to rest for at least the first two weeks and then judge my return to training from there based on the recovery of my legs. Needless to say the idea of entering a 50 km race just three weeks after my first ever 100-mile race was not exactly what I had in mind for my recovery.

But amazingly, just three weeks after completing the Leadville Trail 100 (race report here), I found myself driving up to Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensberg mountain range for a race called the Mont-aux-Sources Challenge. Mont-aux-Sources is a basalt plateau that lies at an average elevation of around 3,050 metres above sea level. The race involves 19 km of climbing (1100 metres of ascent) to the Sentinel Car Park at the base of the plateau, a 12 km circuit reaching over 3,200 metres (including climbing two chain ladder sections bolted directly to the rock wall), and then the punishing descent back to the starting point.

There were two reasons that I was running this race just 3 weeks after Leadville: firstly I had not spoken to a single person that didn’t run out of adjectives to describe the beauty of the run, and secondly it is extremely difficult to secure an entry so to pass it up would seem wasteful. The Mont-aux-Sources Challenge allows 250 runners each year, with runners from the previous year receiving automatic invitations before filling remaining places off the waiting list which currently containing 1500 names.

Stunning Mont-aux-Sources valley views
My justification for entering Mont-aux-Sources just three weeks after Leadville.

Arriving on the Friday night for a mandatory briefing and pre-race dinner it was a case of good news, bad news: the good news was that the forecast for race day was perfect blue skies, but the bad news was that heavy snow during the week meant that it would be too dangerous to complete the loop from Sentinel car park. The race was being cut to 38 km for the safety of the runners.

Mont-aux-Sources snow on route
The snow on the route (taken the day before the race) that forced the Mont-aux-Sources Challenge 2012 to be shortened to 38 km.

With runners separated into batches based on marathon times I was starting off in the first batch, but was intent on running very easy and enjoying the views. I took a camera along and at first found it difficult to convince myself that it was acceptable to stop and take pictures. My first few pictures as we started to climb were taken at a walk but eventually I managed to accept that it was alright to completely stop, and stopped periodically to take snaps of the impressive peaks in front and the stunning valleys leading to their base.

Mont-aux-Sources valley view
The early climbing ran alongside this stunning valley.

The single trail for the first 10 km was magical, as we crossed waterfalls and streams, ran through forest areas and climbed continuously. After 10 km we reached the first aid station, and continued to climb on a dirt road that would take us all the way to Sentinel car park. I kept up an easy but steady pace, alternating running and walking (and stopping for photos). The well-stocked aid stations were manned by South Africa National Parks (SANParks) staff, who were incredibly friendly, but unfortunately the same could not be said for the leading runners. After my experience of runners at Leadville greeting every person they passed I decided that I would attempt this same friendliness during the race. As leading runners started to pass me on their descent I started calling out “well done” and “looking good” but only received acknowledgement from around 2 of the first 15-20 runners.

Mont-aux-Sources back along the route
Looking back not long before the first aid station

I reached the Sentinel Car Park having taken it quite easy and still felt strong. I persisted with my greetings and thankfully the runners further down the field restored my faith in South Africans by returning my greetings, even though they were still climbing as I cruised down the descent. I took it relatively easy on the fairly smooth dirt road section, but maintained a good pace thanks to the descent. Once I reached the single trail I allowed myself to slightly push the first kilometre or so, immensely enjoying the technical descent. Then I eased back to protect my legs, and as I continued I could feel my quads starting to fatigue. Not long after slowing down I heard feet behind me, and pulled off the trail to let a faster runner pass, fighting against the instinct to get dragged along at the faster pace for a brief period. I slowed my pace even further and I periodically had to pull off the trail to let further runners past. I didn’t record my time to the turnaround point so I do not know the splits for my first and second halves, but I ran the final 10 km of descent only 4 minutes faster than I had run the same stretch of trail on the ascent.

Mont-aux-Sources descent
Stopping to pose for a photo on the Mont-aux-Sources descent.

I crossed the finish line for the shortened 38 km Mont-aux-Sources Challenge in 4:19:16, and then spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon sitting beside the finish line with the contingent from the Fourways and Morningside running clubs, enjoying some drinks and the fantastic views of the Sentinel while thinking of what the additional 12 km would have entailed.

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