The Mnweni Mountain Marathon is a low-key trail running event hosted twice annually in the Mnweni region of the northern Drakensberg. The approximately 40km circular route is a self-navigated and self-supported run or hike up the Mnweni pass and back down Rockeries pass.
Saturday the 7th of September saw the Spring runners of 2019 gathering outside the Mnweni Cultural Centre in overcast but mild conditions and very good spirits. A healthy variety of young, old, runners, hikers, flush hydration vests, bulging backpacks, wrist GPS devices and paper grey-scale maps (kindly provided by event organiser, Bruce Arnett) coloured the wintery landscape as we set off down the road just after 6am.
Being a self-navigated run in an area scattered with a myriad of cattle tracks, baboon trails and local footpaths leaves plenty of room for interpretation, or perhaps misinterpretation, of the map. First-time participants are probably better off with a GPS track, but even these number more than one. Somehow, I ended up with an older version of the route and after approximately 12km I found myself running alone on the far side of the river that is followed up the valley. Although initially flustered at this lonely and likely slower line, I soon calmed down and immersed myself in the solitude and serenity of my surroundings. Only then did I begin to appreciate just how alive with birds and flowers the valley was, and a pair of endangered Southern Ground Hornbills treated me to a 'Berg sighting.
By the time I reached the base of the Mnweni pass I had lost some ground (and done about 2km extra I later discovered), but the terrain opened up and I got a visual on some of the lead runners ahead. Motivation restored, I began the steady hike skywards. A few hundred metres of elevation put me above the clouds and with the summit looming I reached the 2nd and 3rd positioned men. We climbed the remainder of the pass together and summited a breathtakingly beautiful sun-bathed, snow-specked plateau.
Knowing the worst was over we relaxed a while and meandered across a short section of the summit to the top of Rockeries. As the name implies, this pass is not exactly smooth or well-groomed... But it is super fun and fast technical descent right up until you find yourself rising from the ground, the wind knocked out of you, face dust-coated and knees bloody! This was me after only a few hundred metres and perhaps just as well for I conveniently recalled that the run ends with about 6km of flat dirt road and a still-healthy pair of quads goes a long way towards a fast-paced finish.
I enjoyed the rest of the descent at a comfortably fast but safe speed and hit the final stretch with a little left to give. The guy in second place (also my boyfriend) soon dropped me on the flat but I tried to keep my pace up. When my legs finally began to fade I checked my Suunto for the remaining distance. About 2km and my time were currently 4 hours 38 min. I had not looked before the event but I had a sudden thought that Meg Mackenzie's standing female record was four hours and fifty-something minutes... Not knowing exactly what I was aiming to break I renewed my efforts. At 4 hours and 50 minutes I crossed the finish line in 3rd place overall, tired but happy with my faster than usual flat-road running. I had managed to shave a meagre minute off Meg's previous record, but mostly I'd had a great day out in the mountains, sharing amazing trails with amazing friends. And this is what mountain running is about.
Author: Nicolette Griffioen