The ice dragon

The ‘Rhodes Trail Run’ has always had a certain mythical air about her. People talk about her (in hushed tones) as though she’s a sleeping mountain dragon who may wake up and breathe her icy breath all over you – freezing you firmly in place should you mention the word ‘entry’.

Entries are like hen’s teeth, and many a runner’s conversation will be peppered with expletives over Rhodes and its entry process. One has to find the hen (running free and headless in a vast undulating mountain landscape), wrestle her on the ground ….and then get on a waiting list, only to realise she is indeed headless and thus toothless once you pop out at the top – of said list.

It’s complicated in other words.

So when I heard that a good friend had managed to wangle a wildcard entry for me a few weeks ago, I was beside myself with excitement. I knew next to nothing about the route, the distance, the terrain….all I knew was that it was very far away and very, very cold. There could even be snow.

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I kept it that way right up until race morning – the state of blissful ignorance that is. I have never approached a race with such a blind faith and so it felt a little surreal to be standing alongside the other 287 frozen runners at the starting line on the morning of the 12th July.

Rhodes is a charming little mountain hamlet in the southern Drakensburg – where the term ‘time stood still’ has never been more apt. Really. This here misanthrope would settle there in an flash – were it not for the biting cold. Our sleeping ice dragon had gripped the place the week before – all rivers and waterfalls solid, suspended, white.

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We set off at a fairly blistering pace. My legs and feet frozen, lungs sucking in the icy air. We left the village and ran for about 13 kilometres along the Bell River and into the Kloppershoek Valley, crossing the Bell a few times via frosty causeways and low-level bridges.

We then hit the offroad stuff – an 8 kilometre stretch of grassy, stony undulating terrain – criss-crossed with cattle and sheep tracks. The route is marked by the occasional orange flag – and bits of sheep wool stuck to thorny scrub. We eventually arrived at the bottom of the infamous ‘Mavis Bank’ – a very steep climb along a fence, which had many fellow runners cursing and heaving.

After this festive check-point, we hit the Lesotho border road, put our heads down and forged ahead into some icy headwinds, passing the ski slopes of Tiffendale at 3 000 metres to the right. It was quite uncanny to see the ski lifts (well, one) and little specks weaving down the patch of snow, while running. We pass the highest point at this point – Lesotho view at 2 680m.

The scenery was utterly breath-taking and I managed to whip out my phone to take a few squiff photos – difficult to capture the beauty of such a place on a cell camera. I have never run in such spectacular big sky, wild mountain country. I can see how this kind of running could become addictive.

The fourth stage took us off-road again from a check point in a quarry to Hooggenoeg Ridge via Hooggenoeg Point. I had a severe sense of humour loss at this point, knowing there was a female competitor behind me, chasing me down and putting my first place in jeopardy. My very calm, patient, tolerant running buddy/coach quietly put up with my howling and wailing and swearing and we got through the difficult terrain (full of hidden rocks and holes) with only a minor loss of dignity (on my part).

There were snow flurries at the next check point – remarkable considering we had set off with clear skies and sunshine.

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With sense of humour back intact and a clear view behind, I left the water tables with intent and bolted down the steep descent for about 8 kilometres. My legs felt strong and I knew this was the place to extend the distance between myself and the woman in lumo green who had been taunting me for so long. This stretch took us off the mountain plateau into the Carlisleshoek Valley. We dropped several hundred meters per kilometre. Those last 5 kays were long and hard – but by then I knew I had a win in the bag, and was feeling comfortable and happy.

I won the ladies race in 5-33 and was in the top 10. A long way off the winning ladies time last year, but no matter – I shall put it down to being in the ‘old bag’ category.

It was an absolutely fabulous run, and a great weekend adventure in totality, with wonderful company and some incredible icy scenery. What an extraordinary corner of this truly amazing country.

[With thanks to Filippo for the great pics].

For more excellent shots, go to: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.877050405657095.1073741891.169730133055796&type=1

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