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  • Jen Bloss

Ultra-Trail Drakensberg: GCU65 Race Report

Because sometimes you just want to fly all the way across the world to run a race

expansive view of flat topped green mountains and blue sky
South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains

Going with the ultra flow: from New Zealand to… South Africa?

After having a fantastic day running the UTMB Tarawera Ultra-Trail in New Zealand in February, I was pumped. Motivated. Not injured. And curious…could I do another one? Sometimes that post-race excitement just hits you and next thing you know, you’re on the hunt. I am currently chasing my goal to run a marathon on every continent, so I knew that my next race would also be abroad. I began scrolling for races on the ITRA website that were within a certain time frame, and found the Ultra-Trail Drakensberg in South Africa.

To be honest, I was intimidated by it. This race was nearly 40 miles long, took place at some altitude (5-7000 feet), and had a lot of elevation gain (6,200ft per the website, 7,400 per the GPX file!). Since I’d already run 2 ultras in the last couple of months, I was worried that this would be pushing my physical limits on many levels. But I had the time and lots of training already under my belt. I knew that I didn’t want to do an African race that involved any type of game park or extreme heat, so it fit the bill. I secured the PTO and a friend to join me- and I took the plunge.

The setting: Drakensberg Mountains

panoramic view of green mountains
The Drakensberg as seen from Sani Pass

The Ultra-Trail Drakensberg takes place in the Drakensberg mountains, which is South Africa’s highest and most remote mountain range. It is a 3 hour drive from the closest major city of Durban, and also includes part of the country of Lesotho. The UTD 160 race actually runs IN Lesotho for part of the race! Google the Drakensberg and you will see images of gorgeous green mesa-type mountains for as far as the eye can see. The mountains have lots of high grass, single track dirt trails, and even some small creek and bridge crossings. It’s beautiful. 

The race distance I chose was the 65k Giants Cup Uncut. The Giants Cup trail is a popular multi-day hiking trail, but this race traverses the whole route in one day. Most of the other race distance options also run along the Giants Cup trail as well.

We arrived in the Drakensberg a couple of days early to explore, which I’d 10/10 recommend. We stayed 2 nights at Sani Lodge Backpackers, which was fantastic! Small rooms, but totally adequate, amazing food, access to trails, and a homey feel. The lodge also arranges tours of the area, so we did a day trip up Sani Pass and into Lesotho. It turned out to be a crazy adventure with a car breakdown and some hitchhiking, but that is a story for another post! The lodge is also at the same elevation as the race (5,000 ft), so it’s a good place to acclimatize for the race as well. 

Ultra-Trail Drakensberg Race Expo and Village

One of the coolest things about the race is that there is a race village! This year, the village and race finish was at Glencairn Farms. You could stay in actual rooms, or tents, in the race village, and there were food vendors on site. The race also had an optional shuttle to and from the Durban airport. I love this concept- making it easy for it to be the most runtastic weekend ever. However, because I signed up too late, the only option left at the village was in a tent that required bringing your own linen. As an international participant, that wasn’t going to work for me. So I ended up staying about 7 minutes down the road at a lovely hotel. While I was super bummed to miss out on the village experience, driving to and from Glencairn Farms was easy, and the hotel was extremely spacious and comfortable.

The race expo was very tiny. A gear check, t-shirt pickup, and only a few vendors. You could buy some gels, socks, and a bit of gear, but not much. I was super bummed about the lack of great merchandise, particularly non-wearable stuff. You had to pre-order additional UTD merch online, but I wasn’t a big fan of the few options they had (white t-shirts are always a no!) I was hoping for a coffee mug, stickers, or something along those lines. Honestly, I traveled to the farthest-possible place in the entire world I could ever go, and I was ready to buy stuff. Ostentatious stuff. Sadly, all of the race gear was disappointingly tasteful. My New Zealand race merch was in-your-face and I loved it. Oh well.

While the runners were overwhelmingly South African, it was fun to see that runners were coming from a variety of different countries- I even ended up meeting a bunch from Reunion Island. I was one of only four Americans in the GCU65! 

girl holding race bib at the start line of an ultra marathon

Race Morning: Shuttles and Start Line

On race morning I caught a shuttle at 4:30am that took me to the race start. I had a terrible headache, a bit of stomach ache, and felt deliriously tired, and I was just praying that those would pass. It was about a 1.5 hour drive to the start, and all of us runners just sat in silence during the journey. I closed my eyes, and by the time we arrived, I was feeling much better.

The start for the 100k and 65k races were at the same place, Silverstreams, which had a little store and a sitting area with a fireplace (a godsend!). They had coffee and tea available, and I sat right by the fire for a good long while to stay warm.

The race started right on time, just as the sky was turning pink with the sunrise.

female runner at start line of race with mountains in the background
Ready to go!

The Race Begins: Early On

The race started with a long climb, about 3 miles, to reach the highest point in elevation of the entire course (about 7,000ft). At first I was bummed because I got caught in a long line of people on the narrow single track, and everyone was hiking. The competitive part of my brain wanted to use my energy and bank some time for later by running a bit here and there. But I know that it never pays to go out fast in an ultra, especially one with a ton of climbing. So I power hiked and enjoyed the scenery. The clouds hung in low clumps over the mountains, and the overcast skies kept the temperatures cool. I stopped and took photos, tried to chat with some other runners, and generally felt great.

a line of runners along the side of a mountain
The course often hugged the edge of ridges

The Course: HILLS

As anticipated, this race was hilly. But like, really hilly. The climbs were often long, and sometimes had big steps or some boulders to go over. The downhills were either long stretches of runnable dirt, or involved big rocks to step down that were jolting and slow. The race people had cut the grass in the week before the race to make the course more visible, which was great. The mountains stretched as far as the eye could see, and were awe-inspiring! It felt really remote. And it was peaceful. There were a handful of suspension bridges to cross throughout the race, which was fun. After the start of the race, and especially after the first aid station, the runners spread out and I was rarely in a clump of people. I often leap-frogged with a few people, which I enjoyed. I need a jolt of sociability every now and then to keep me going and out of my head! 

The sun came out around noon, and the day began to heat up. It was much warmer, but not hot. Miles 18-21 were very challenging for me, and one of my lowest points. It was another long stretch of climbing and the sun was out in full force. I definitely had some moments of doubt where I believed I'd run out of food and be out there until the time cutoff. Thankfully, once the course went downhill again, my spirit was revived!

Because the course was so hilly, and I am not used to running at altitude, my mile splits were so slow. I felt like I was hustling the whole time, yet every time a mile clicked over, I was shocked at the pace. While I thankfully never descended into a really negative headspace, I knew I was going to be out there for a lot longer than I had originally anticipated.

line of trail runners running on a grassy mountain
Up and down over all those hills

Aid Stations

There were 5 aid stations in the GCU 65k. They were usually about 8 miles apart, and it often felt like forever between aid stations. I was thinking that it would take me about 90 minutes to cover that distance, but sometimes it took over 2 hours, which was a mind game.  I always went through my 1L of water and sometimes dipped into my spare bottle between stations. The aid stations had banana bread, hot cross buns, candy, water, hard boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, coke, and more. It was a decent selection, but really missing salty items like chips or pretzels. The bread items and potatoes are just too dry, even with butter, while running on a warm day. I’m probably one of the few people that don’t really like potatoes much anyways. The eggs really hit the spot near the end, but I knew they were not providing the carbs that my body really needed. So I mostly stuck to the fuel I brought with me- gels, chews, Tailwind, PB&J, and Little Debbies snacks.

One of the highlights of my race was seeing my friend who was volunteering at the Cobham aid station at km 45.7! Nothing like a familiar face to give you a boost!

african huts in a field
small suspension bridge over a creek in the mountains
One of several bridge crossings

The Course: Later On

Not too long after the Cobham aid station at 45.7km, the 35k runners began catching up and I began slowing down. The hills continued, but there were some decent stretches in the latter half that were flat and runnable. All of my muscles began cramping: quads, calves, you name it. I think I’d been drinking too much water and not enough electrolyte mix, and I hadn’t been able to find my electrolyte pills in my vest up to this point. I started to wonder what would happen if I couldn’t stop the seizing muscles while in the middle of nowhere without cell reception. Thankfully, I found the pills, and eventually the cramps subsided. I also began to ask myself why I had chosen such a challenging race! I liked that the 35k runners were around now, because it felt less isolating on the trail. However, it also meant that I had to stay alert for fast-moving footsteps behind me so I could move out of the way for those speed demons.

tall green mountains with ridges
Still can't believe I got to run here

female runner crossing a creek on rocks
Photo by Zac Zinn

So Close, Yet So Far: Getting Lost in the Dark

After the last aid station, dusk was setting in, but there were only 8km left to go. It felt like freedom was just around the corner, so close! And then I got lost. I was following the course marking flags, and then at some point realized that they stopped, there was no obvious trail that they led to, and I was all alone. So I back tracked until I found other runners. As a group, we followed the flags, and went ever farther. No one could figure out where the trail was! It was now completely dark and my Garmin died. Thankfully I had the GPX file in my Garmin Explore app, and could see that we were way off track. The group backtracked a bit, found the trail based on the GPX file, and got back on course. This detour took about 30 minutes or so, but I was ready to be done at this point. I hustled as best I could to keep up with the group, because I didn’t want to be alone in the dark, and I needed motivation! I asked another runner how much further we had to go; thinking it was like 2km- when he told me 5km and my heart just sank. 

The Finish Line

With some moral support from a fellow runner in the final stretch, eventually I made it in! It took me over 12 hours, but I did it! It was truly an adventure. Mission Accomplished- thank you Jesus!

female ultra runner holding medal at the finish line
Ultra-Trail Drakensberg: GCU 65 Finisher!

Final Thoughts on the Ultra-Trail Drakensberg: GCU 65

I would HIGHLY recommend the Ultra-Trail Drakensberg to anyone looking for a challenging ultra adventure! It was hard. It was beautiful. It was friendly and well organized. It was totally worth a trip across the world to participate in this event. My friend who volunteered at the aid station found herself inspired to start trail running, just so that one day she can come back and run here! There are race distances for every ability- from 25k to 160k, and the race village experience is such a cool idea. 

And if you’re going all the way to South Africa to run, you might as well add in some other adventures along the way! I also added in excursions to Namibia, Cape Town, and Victoria Falls, all of which were super easy to plan and not as intimidating as they might sound. More posts on those in the future!

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