Monday, 14 May 2007

Marvelous Mnweni

This weekend I had the absolute pleasure of taking part in the Water for Africa Mnweni Marathon. It is organised by ultra trail runner Bruce Arnett, well known for his domination of Skyrun over a period of 8-odd years. Bruce launched his Mnweni Marathon in 2001 and changed the initial point-to-point route the following year into its current circular format.

Dagga donkey at the bottom of Mnweni Pass
The race starts from the Mnweni Cultural Centre, a community run project. It's a super venue with clean, spacious hot showers (gas), toilets and a communal kitchen (gas cooking). Although there are rondavels, camping is also allowed (R35pppn) on the lawns within the safe, enclosed area of the Cultural Centre.

Click on small images to see bigger images

The race had a bumper turnout of around 60-runners, double the entrants from last year. We were a mixed bag of road runners, ultra runners, social tail runners and a very substantial dose of adventure racers.

We set off at 06h00 on Saturday morning; it was just light enough not to need headlamps. The first few 3km were on dirt road and then we headed up on a trail past settlements and then back down to the river, following the Mnweni River upstream.
On the way we passed a pack of dagga donkeys carrying sacks stuffed full of dope. It was only just before we headed up the steep Mnweni Pass that we saw the Basotho men, with more bags and more donkeys. As I learned post-race from other runners; it costs R10 for a full bag at the top of the pass (Lesotho is at the top) and R50 at the bottom. These guys and their donkeys transport the goods.

I'd had a nice easy run/walk from the start and continued my leisurely pace up the Pass. I have three strategies when it comes to steep ascents; take small steps (big steps = excessive effort; its all about levers - physics in action), maintain a consistent pace and keep heart rate in check. This way I'm not fried by the time I get to the top and can use my legs and energy on the down. But my stratgey was in stark contrast to race leaders Ian Adams and Andrew Porter. They were neck-and-neck at the bottom when Ian shot ahead, demonstrating his uphill strength to beat Andrew to the top.

On top of Mnweni Pass
On the pass I caught up with Gustav and Toine, road runners from Pretoria. We found a great spot to take photos before heading up and over onto the flat plateau in Lesotho; the source of the Orange River. This photo shows how high we climbed - right from the bottom of the valley; we filled up with water from the river below. That's the Mnweni pinnacle in the background; towering above a steep valley on the other side of the Mnweni river (the Mnweni Pass is on the river's eastern bank).

The top was flat and grassy with a slow, slimey river marking the Orange River source. We headed due East and down the impressive Rockeries Pass. It's a steep descent on a rocky, slippery trail. As always, I had my Black Diamond Contour trekking pole. Trekking poles really help on descents to aid stability.

A few kilometers down the pass began to flatten slightly and the footing became more secure; time to run, like a horse bolting for home. Gustav had warned me that another lady, Jenny, was just behind us; although I had planned to run the last section anyway, the threat of competition helped to ignite the fire under my seat.

Man... the trail on this lower section was fabulous! We flew on the stable surface reaching the dirt road swiftly for the final few kilometers to the finish. What a wonderful section to the finish (slight downhill all the way).

Race distance is around 38km with 3540m cumulative ascent and descent. I completed the course in 7h51, some THREE HOURS after race winner Andrew Porter (4h54 finish time). Andrew got ahead of Ian on the descent down Rockeries and smashed his previous course record (Ian in 2nd was also in under the previous course record). Gerard van Weele and Ryno Griesel were 3rd and 4th (Go Adventure Racers!). The winning lady, Tracy, a local from Bergville, finished in around 6h30; a very impressive run. Susan Sloane crossed the finish around 15-minutes before me.

I'll tell you what I liked about this race;

  • Simple logistics - pack your takkies and go run
  • Inexpensive entry fee (R50pp + R20pp to Mnweni Cultural Centre for access to the region)
  • Lovely start/finish venue (and you can leave your tent up)
  • Beautiful area; my first time in the Mnweni Valley
  • Challenging route
  • Most runners finished by dark; you get to spend a social afternoon post-run in your camping chair chatting to the other runners
  • Friendly, personal feel to the event
  • T-shirt that fits and a nice Mnweni Marathon medal (this is one I'll keep)

I definitely think the race should keep a limited entry of around 75 runners; as restricted by space at the start/finish. A limited field also keeps the route uncongested. Happy helpers are hard to come by but they would be needed with a bigger field. Injuries do happen and having race marshals in the field would be useful to help injured and exhausted competitors return to the start/finish. Although the entry fee is very favourable at R50pp, R100pp would still be fair.

Altitude at the start is 1280m. At the top of Mnweni Pass it is about 2900m. Altitude profile from my Suunto T6

All in all, a lovely weekend in the mountains with perfect weather. Good stuff Bruce.

Post script: This race was the final outing for my Camelbak reservoir. I've had it for EIGHT YEARS! It has a tiny leak at the bottom of the reservoir, which drenched my Salomon Raid Revo 15l and my shorts for the duration of the race. Considering this reservoir has travelled the World with me, has been on every adventure race, staged ultra, ultra trail run and almost every orienteering event and training run with me... not bad going. These reservoirs may be pricey at the outset but when they're used a few times a week over 8-years, it doesn't seem so expensive anymore.

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