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.
I will be joined by Mike for the section from Foresthill to the Rucky Chucky river crossing. Through another Australian ultra-runner Tamyka, who has completed Western States on two occasions, I was introduced to the Stevens Creek Striders. The running club hosts the Last Chance aid station each year, and Tamyka’s pacer Dennis suggested that Mike would be the man for the job.
For the section from the river to the finish I will be joined by Louis. I met up with Louis through the pacer page on the Western States website. We had been in touch a few times since I landed in the US and would meet up for the first time to go for a run at Squaw Valley. We met up at the bottom of the tram and headed off for our return journey up to High Camp along the Granite Chief Trail. I had taken this trail a couple of times on previous visits to Squaw, a four-mile trail straight up the mountain to the escarpment.
I was due for a rest day so I decided to take the day off … almost.
The previous day after my run down to the Rucky Chucky crossing of the American River I had driven over Donner Pass towards Truckee. I had camped in the Tahoe National Forest and woke up early to visit Squaw Valley, the start of the Western States Endurance Run.
I drove up to the ski resort, parked my car in the day use parking and put on my running kit. But the plan was simply to enjoy a short hike. That hike however would entail four miles of walking up a ski mountain. I walked towards the starting line for the race, intending to hike up to Emigrant Gap, the highest point of the entire race. Part of the reason for the journey was to scope it out since the following day I planned to return, but then to continue over the pass to check out the running down the other side.
Unfortunately the attempt was cut extremely short. As soon as I reached the service road upon which the race starts there was posted large signs advising that hiking was not permitted. I headed back to the hotel where I will stay prior to the race, where reception advised me that the don’t allow hikers since lots of maintenance vehicles use the road during the skiing off-season. There was however an option to hike up to the escarpment along the Granite Chief Trail. My new plan was born.
I headed across the ski village to the start of the trail and commenced my hike up the mountain. It was a steep hike in places and just near the escarpment I had to cross a couple of patches of snow. But after a little under 3 miles of hiking I reached the escarpment. There were a number of ski lifts spread throughout the area, as well as the terminus for the large gondola known as the “tram”.
I headed into the terminus building to chat with some of the staff there. I found a staff member who had run Western States before, so when he heard that I would be running he was glad to help out by pointing out the various features. He pointed out Squaw Peak and Granite Chief, as well as the way we would ascend onto the escarpment and most importantly, Emigrant Gap. I thanked him and continued on my way.
It was a little over a mile for the final ascent. I reached the top and spotted the Watson Monument that we will run past on race day. Then just behind it was the trail that will allow us to commence the 23,000 feet (7,000 metres) of descent that we will complete over a distance of 96 miles having started with a continuous four-mile ascent.