Since I could remember I had a deep burning to one day do something remarkable and bigger than myself... The date is Friday the 15th December, location, George and this is my account of a speed attempt on the 132 km Seven passes ultra, in aid of the Sounds The Call initiative in Plettenberg Bay.
It was around 3 am that morning, I made my way to the campus rugby pavilion underneath a biblically luminescent starry mesh, passing several silhouetted Bushbuck who was finishing off what the ground keepers’ mower had missed. I was in desperate need of some shut-eye so I built myself a makeshift bed on the pavilion out of that foam they use to wrap around rugby poles. I dozed off, toes numb from the cold and tummy heavy from a cheese roll I had earlier that evening.
"I woke up feeling super groggy and covered in pigeon shit." - Roelof Mostert
06:57 - My crew was on route. Hugo Laubser, head of sport at the campus arrived and after dropping my kit in the gym, we set off to catch up. It was two years ago when he first agreed to host my event at this breath-taking campus. We chatted and sipped coffee until the rest of the crew, Yvonne and hubby Niel, pulled in.
09:00 - The vibe was awesome as we snaked our way up and down each of the respective seven passes on the iconic ‘Old George-Knysna road’. Yvonne and Niel surgically pinpointing all the fuel stops and landmarks while furiously scribbling notes for our route “recce” from George to Plett. “You're in good hands bru,” I thought to myself as we wrapped up the last bit of scouting just outside Wittedrift and headed back to George, pulling in quickly at the Kaaimans river to collect a Suunto from my good friend and river guide, Roach.
True to “pre-race” murphy’s law, there was little sleep to be had that evening. With the run starting at midnight I only had a couple hours to sleep but instead, I pretty much spent the time fidgeting with tech (charging stuff), double and triple checking gear.
20:00 - My crew was fast asleep and with apprehension and nerves aside, for the first time in a while I felt content, I was completely and wholeheartedly in the present and fully aware of the task at hand.
00:00, Saturday 16th Dec 2017 - “Bleeeep!” Goes my borrowed Suunto. “See you guys in 15 hours!” I nervously muttered into Niel’s camera as he recorded the start. Legs fresh and spirits high, I bounced the 1.6kms back down to the entrance of the Saasveld campus, the early morning air, crisp and invigorating. The silence shattered by Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow, pumping from the crew vehicle as they flew past on their way down to Hoekwil, the first fuelling stop.
"I was deeply stoked." - 00:01
The first 11km were dark and silent with only the illuminating tunnel of my headlamp beam providing me with comfort as I pounded down the winding forest road towards my first checkpoint. The run to Hoekwil was easy with only one or two climbs hard to gauge in the dark. The only indication of the gradient was the burning in my quads and drop in pace, otherwise, all to be expected and all good.
The Hoekwil road to Karatara was a slog, an endless tar road with no real shoulder. Only 15 km in and for some reason my left foot was throbbing. “Fuck! This can't be happening this early in the run,” I thought to myself. I tried to ignore it but with every step, the pain gremlin crawled up my leg and eventually settled around my knee and IT band. When I finally arrived at my second stop at 25km, my left leg was in a bad way. “Shoe change guys,” I muttered with frustration and like a formula one pit crew, Yvonne and Niel deployed two Norflex and switched out my trail tyres for my road tyres. With a new pair of kicks and a top-up of fluids, I was off into the darkness. The discomfort easing instantaneously. “Footwear! Holy shit!” I thought to myself as I surged on, chest out and back on pace.
I hit Karatara way ahead of schedule and apart from several packs of feral dogs chasing me down, milk trucks scraping me as they flew past on the shoulder and some general discomfort, everything was on point. My hour by hour liquid calorie intake was dialed and keeping me on form, but the darkness was getting to me. It was strange as only 30kms down and I was totally ‘over’ running in the dark. I would only start embracing the day in another 3 or 4 hours, but onward I pressed. Ticking off passes as I progressed towards Reenendal, the smell of cow dung blending thick with the low-level mist as I moved through the farms in the lower valleys. At some sections, walls of forest canopy enveloping the dirt roads like a colossal green big-wave close out. It was stunning and kept reminding me why I was here doing what I love.
"I was totally over running in the dark." - 04:25
04:30 - I hit the long stretch of Reenendal road leading to the Phantom pass. It was overcast so it would take the sun another two or so hours to do its’ thing. Mentally I was feeling incredible but mechanically I wasn't doing so good but with more than 50km’s under the belt some discomfort was to be expected. At this point my fluid intake was rampant and I couldn't wait to see my crew. I was down to drips and had 8km to go until the next scheduled stop at the Knysna turn-off.
Phantom Pass! I was so relieved to be here. Not just for the crew presence but I'd just smashed a crucial and extremely iconic section on this route, the Seven Passes road. Yvonne read me messages of encouragement and support coming through from various chat groups while Niel finished refueling my pack. With my favourite song blasting loudly through my headphones and spirits at an all-time high, I eased down the dirt road at a steady trot, soaking it all in, pace steady, mission true and vivid.
Next stop, the red bridge at the bottom of a super fun and incredibly scenic 4km downhill. Damn I'm happy it's daytime!
06:30 - I hit the Red Bridge in Knysna at 74 km in, I was concerned about being so far ahead of schedule because I was about to hit the estates, Easterford and Simola. I'd arranged to have two gates opened for me but had given an ETA of
10:00. Oops. Mid-climb, I plucked out the mobile and bombed out a few breathless phone calls, procuring passage through Easterford in the nick of time. A troop of confused baboons sat on the fence at Simola, scratching heads and butts, wondering what the hell I was doing as I power hiked into the estate.
The section from the Red Bridge to the Gona road is a long arduous climb through two country estates which were severely ravaged by the June 2017 forest fires. The view was breathtaking yet my heart broke seeing the devastation. This moment really made my intentions to support the volunteer fire crews and FMU's even more justified and worthwhile. Big shout out to the security guards who ushered me out of the estate with their vehicles, hazards flashing and clapping as I passed through the main entrance where I met my crew. So much gees!
Let the games begin. My crew bid me farewell as I exited Simola and started the long winding dirt road to Prince Albert pass. Gona, a scenic 15 km flat winding dirt road surrounded by valley upon valley of felled charred pine. The smell of burnt trees only occasionally disrupted by the sweet scent of designer fragrance and Ariel detergent, as hordes of weekend warriors whizzed past me on their mountain bikes. My eyes stung from the dust but I pressed on. My hip flexors were screaming so I eased off the pace, occasionally walking, I count down from 20, then pick it up and start running again. I did this a couple times and helped buy a combo of really good music I arrived at the Makulu quarry ( Prince Albert pass) on schedule and without any significant issues. I lay on my back next to the crew vehicle, stretching the hips and popping Norflex.
"The smell of burnt trees mixed with designer fragrance and Ariel detergent" - 09:30
I'm not entirely sure why I made the decision, at that moment, but I decided to change my shoes back to the problematic pair I’d worn earlier in the run. I was about to run up the Prince Albert pass road, all gravel, all uphill, all day. Two minutes in, the entire left side of my body started shutting down in the most spectacular fashion. I instantly regretted my decision and I may as well have been running barefoot. I immediately knew that I was in trouble and that this entire section was going to be considerably dark. I mean really KAK! The worst was yet to come.
"...this entire section was going to be considerably dark. I mean really KAK!" - Sometime between 06:00 and 11:00
I minced slowly up the pass, legs heavy. I started walking for a 10 count and then shuffled into some kind of crooked, drunken style of running, sending me all over the place. The pain was gnarly and my pace had dropped to 10 min/km. Jesus! Finally! A feeling of total and utter elation washed over me as I spotted Niel coming around the last bend at the Petrus trailhead. After what seemed like a lifetime he took off my pack and ran ahead to start restocking for the next leg.
I was broken and mentally very disconnected and all I could think about was reaching the finish and my reason for being here. My sub 15-hour target was very little importance at this stage.
11:00 - 90 km in and I reached the start of Petrus Se Brand, an 18 km undulating, remote forest trail, hidden deep in the Knysna forest, littered with small boulders, round river rocks and a healthy population of Puffies. Don't get me wrong, it's one of the iconic and most beautiful trails the garden route has to offer, but at 90kms into a 132 km endurance run, it is a stinger of note. My ETA for Wittedrift was 14:00 where James Stewart, of the Buco adventure racing team, and a group of local runners were to join me for the last 8kms down to Central Beach in Plett. My aim was to move through Petrus Se Brand in under two hours but in the state, my body was in I was deeply concerned that this goal would be unobtainable.
I pushed on regardless. The sharp buzz of crickets reverberating off the dense forest walls and the inside of my skull. I couldn’t hear the music from my headphones. 5km, 8km,10km, the distance between the small Sanparks trail markers were light years apart but the numbers started climbing and so was I. At around the 15km marker the trail started dipping down into the last deep valley. Running downhill was excruciating as my IT-band on the left leg started pulling at my knee. Infuriated, I shifted my weight forward and opened up my stride, my heels almost tapping my lower back as I started flying down the rocky trail, jaw clenched in pain, eyes watering and then “Bam!” My right foot connected with a river rock sending the hockey ball size projectile tearing through the bushes, I knew that my toenail had separated and was held on only by the massive blood blister now forming underneath. I pulled back immediately and hobbled the rest of the descent. I glanced at the time as I refilled my bottles in a small stream at the bottom of the hill. A massive climb separated me from my crew 3 km away.
12:15 - I couldn't believe it! Goosebumps crawling up my arms with the realisation that I was back on track and could actually achieve my sub 15-hour target. With a deep, slow sigh, I plugged my headphones back in, put my head down and started working up the long punishing climb to the Fisanthoek road and my 3rd last crew stop.
12:45 - I started my assault on Fisanthoek, a 4km forestry road with the most unforgiving surface. My ankles biting and occasionally rolling as I tried to navigate my tired body over the endless sea of perfectly round rocks littering the road. But I was in good spirits as I knew that from the end of Fisanthoek it was downhill all the way into Wittedrift. I cruised through the farms passing herds of grazing cows staring at me blankly, their jaws almost in sync as they maul their feed into pulp, the smell of earth and manure, thick and fragrant. I pass Protea wilds down the badly eroded bush-alley towards Henkie Stroebel's gate on Stof pad, just outside Wittedrift, my body entombed in a shell of discomfort, I almost pull both my hammies as I try to jump Henkies gate.
14:00 - I meet James and company in Wittedrift. My legs are in tatters as we make our way over the little koppie behind the town. The laughter and chatter of the group instil me with confidence and energy as we navigate the tricky little single track through the thick brush. I am silent. With my new friends fresh and excited, I draw off everyone's own individual energy. I am a superhero, charging up to fight an old nemesis, in one last colossal battle.
"I am a superhero" - 14:10
Throughout my years of running and competing, I've experienced some incredibly special moments, but the last 5 km from Old Nicks to Central beach will go down as the most significant. Running along the N2 with a big white flag bearing the Sounds the Call logo truly brought home my motivation for enduring 132.2km. We turned left into Plett and made our way down to Lookout and over the rocks onto Central Beach. Running on the soft uneven sand was difficult but I didn't care. We were home. The firefighters put their sirens on full tilt as we approached the lifesaving club. I passed the flag to Ian Barnard, a firefighter who was badly injured during the June 2017 fires and I hunched over, destroyed, but elated. My watch reading 14:57.
About the author
Roelof Mostert is an ultra-distance runner and employee at our store. The Seven Passes Ultra is a 132km endurance run from George to Plettenberg Bay run in support of the Plett and Knysna FMU’s and volunteer fire crews who battled the devastating firestorms in June 2017. His is a dirtbag story.
About Sounds The Call Initiative
Sounds the Call is a volunteer firefighting initiative based on the Garden Route. This initiative was founded in June 2015 by the Plett's Peoples Purse. Plett as a community is regularly faced with situations where people want to assist and contribute with time or money in a structured manner in order to ensure their efforts reach the people they are trying to assist in an efficient and timeous manner.
Plett People’s Purse was set up to achieve this without outside agenda. They are raising funds for the ongoing fires in the Garden Route region and equipping the firefighters. Get involved by liking their Facebook page or donating via their donation page.