I returned to Mont-aux-Sources under the hope that my third time would indeed be lucky.
Mont-aux-Sources is a plateau that forms part of the Drakensberg mountain range, with its peak over 3,000 metres (10,000 ft). The first time I visited Mont-aux-Sources was during my first visit to the area in 2010, when I hiked the peak in non-stop rain that made for a miserable day with no views to be seen. My second visit was for last year’s Mont-aux-Sources Challenge, but heavy snow the week prior to race day forced a shortened course to be used which excluded the peak. Therefore I was hoping that my third visit would allow a climb to the top with views of the surrounding area.
The Mont-aux-Sources Challenge is a 50-km race, starting in the Royal Natal National Park, running up a valley and then a gravel road to reach the Sentinel car park (where hikes to the peak start), and then completing an 11-km loop around the peak, before returning to the starting point.
Race morning was chilly but presented perfectly clear blue skies. With a seeded start based on marathon times I set off with the first batch. This would be the first of three races that I would run in three consecutive weekends, with a total race distance of 204 km. Therefore my plan was to run easy and enjoy the scenery.
I settled into a spot in the middle of the pack and during the first section of climbing I pulled off to the side of the trail to snap a couple of photos. I rejoined the file of runners with around 25 people in front of me, and set off for the 10 km single track climb through a stunning alpine valley. The pace felt too slow but I decided to stick with it for a while, since it would allow the leaders to break away, hence stopping any urge to follow them. Eventually I had enough and quickly passed three runners to allow me to settle into my own easy pace.
It was great running and at a spot where I could see the route ahead of me I was able to count off seven runners. I knew that I would overtake each and every one of them without even speeding up so I prepared to tick them off. As we continued to climb I slowly caught up to the stragglers from the group, and was soon ticking off runners. I reached the first aid station, and switched from single track to paved roads and then on to the gravel road that would lead me to the car park. By the time I reached the car park I was 18 km into the race and had caught all seven runners.
From the car park I set off on the 11 km loop, starting with an ascent up a series of switchbacks, followed by a climb up a cliff face on steel ladders, before making my way to the summit and then descending a very steep and rocky gully. As I started up the switchbacks I could see more runners in front, and once again commenced my counting, with nine new people on the list.
On the final climb to the summit I still felt strong but decided to walk anyway since I wasn’t meant to be racing. I reached the top of the gully and started a long, slow, technical descent. Near the bottom another runner came screaming past me, but I was only concerned with maintaining my unbroken bones to the bottom. At the bottom of the gully I started my return to the car park, now passing runners still on their way up to the summit.
Near the car park I had picked up to a quick pace and was just behind the runner who had passed me down the gully. Just as a group of ladies pulled to the side of the trail to allow me to pass I put on the brakes and suddenly pulled up to a complete stop. I then pulled out my camera and proceeded to take a couple of photos, one in landscape and one panorama. The ladies were baffled, unable to believe that someone near the front of the race was stopping to take photos. I pointed to the views ahead of me and said that it was a stunning place and I certainly wouldn’t miss the opportunity to enjoy it. Then I was off again.
With 18 km of downhill from the car park to the finish line I decided that I needed to take it easy or my quads would let me know about it a couple of days later. I settled into a comfortable pace, allowing the runner ahead of me to pass out of sight, and cruised all the way through to the finish line. I crossed for a comfortable 10th place. It had been a great day, with perfect weather, stunning scenery, and enjoyable running.
Importantly, my third time had indeed been lucky.