About a month ago a press-release dropped into my inbox with the title ‘Inaugural Lesotho Ultra Trail attracts world class field.’ I was intrigued. I vaguely knew that Lesotho was a small country surrounded on all sides by South Africa and that it would surely make an exotic location for ‘Africa’s first Ultra SkyMarathon’ and, secondly, my curiosity was piqued by the continued globalisation of skyrunning, as it’s philosophy and ethics fire a passion for pure & technical mountain races further and further from it’s Italian heartland. So how did we get to the point that in a few short months some of the top mountain runners in the world will descend on this small Kingdom to compete in the first race under the umbrella of the South African Skyrunning Association, the first time the organisation has been represented on Earth’s second largest continent? I delved a little deeper to find out more..
What the runners can expect to encounter in the Maluti Mountains © Lesotho Ultra Trail
Before 2009, James Hallett, owner of South African based Go Trail Media and Chairman of the
SASA (South African Skyrunning Federation) didn’t even particularly like running, “I found every excuse in the book not to run,” reflects Hallett, “Back in school, cross country meets were avoided by faking illness, later on, social runs organised with mates were sidestepped by just not pitching at the designated meeting point- they soon got the message and stopped inviting me. Nope, running to me was simply not an appealing pastime, something I just didn’t see the point of.” However, a relocation for himself and his wife to help his parents run their guesthouse near a coastal forest called the Umdoni Park in Pennington, about an hour South of Durban, was the catalyst for a dramatic change in his attitude, “Its extensive network of trails seemed to beckon us to explore them. And so we did, initially just by hiking random weekends,” says Hallett, “It didn’t take long however before our hikes had evolved into runs, as we challenged ourselves to go further and explore more of what the South coast had to offer.. Very soon it was quite the opposite, finding every excuse to try get out of work, chores…whatever it was that would keep me away from the trails and my new found love for trail running. I felt like a horse out of the starting gate every time I took to the trails.” A horse, as he was about to find out, that was galloping headlong into the heart of the South African trail running community.
Go Trail has, in a relatively short time, become the digital media platform site for all things trail and off-road in South Africa. What began life simply as a blog for Hallett to reach out to like-minded souls, passionate about running trails evolved quickly into an important resource for the sport in the country, “A friend and mentor named Brian Mc Dowell, then editor of Windsurfer International, was actually the guy who single handily encouraged me to go down the road of creating a magazine-type platform and so the present day Go Trail came about.” Remembers Hallett, “Of course the platform has continued to develop and evolve through new avenues such as film production, social network initiatives and personal projects being explored around the development of our GT community.” It was also through Go Trail that he was first exposed to the concept of skyrunning and he thought that an article about the sports history would be an interesting topic for his readers. He decided, in early 2011, to contact International Skyrunning Federation vice-president Lauri Van Houten about setting it up. Little did he know at the time but the first seeds of the South African Skyrunning Association had just been sown.
‘Touching the Sky’ was the resulting article published in the August 2011 issue of Go Trail, the excellent article began with the following introduction from Van Houten:
“When Go Trail editor James Hallett asked us to write an article for their South African readers we were more than excited to share the story of skyrunning and started looking at the map to see where the altitude lies. 1000 meters is all it takes- there must be a gold mine of locations out there.”
It was something of a prophetic assumption on her part, as there ,nestled in the womb of South Africa, is a country, quite literally, like no other on Earth.
Lesotho Ultra Trail recon day with race director Andrew Booth © Andrew Booth
Lesotho is a geographical freak- the only country in the world where all of it’s terrain is above 1000 meters altitude. In fact, 80% of the country is situated above 1800 meters, so, altitude wise, it sounds like a skyrunning fantasy. Factor in the technical, rocky terrain of the Maluti Mountains and the Tsehlanyane National Park in the countries highlands and one would seem to have everything that holds dear to the principals of the ISF.
The ‘Touching the Sky’ article had a great response from readers and James and Lauri kept in touch. When the ISF was launching it’s Ultra Series and also holding their ‘Less Cloud More Sky’ seminar on La Palma last year, Lauri thought once again of James Hallett and the prospect of a South African Skyrunning expansion, “I invited him out to Transvulcania to our Ultra launch in 2012 and to the seminar where he got more insight about our philosophy, met a lot of top runners and got a first-hand experience of skyrunning.” She says, “We discussed the possibility of setting up a ‘South African Skyrunning Association’ and after many bureaucratic trials and tribulations, managed to get it together last year when it was approved at the AGA.” Hallett now found himself as chairman of the newly formed ‘SASA’, he didn’t have any races yet but, boy, had he passion and vision.
Hallett knew that approaching already established races to become skyrunning events was a hard sell so he adapted an approach straight out of the movie Field of Dreams– if you build it, they will come. He explains his method as follows, “My view with the process was always such that, if we, ‘SASA’, took the time to begin promoting skyrunning here in South Africa, sooner rather then later, the off road running community- the events and runners- would begin to pick up on the value that it has in not only creating an exciting local running concept, but also exposing our country to the growing international community,” he enthuses, before adding, “Of course this is not to detract from the efforts of existing established events and their organisers, but with an added vehicle such as SASA to help develop this specific segment here in South Africa, the benefits would outweigh any concerns of it not becoming a success.” So he built his association, promoted it and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before they came.
James hanging with Anton Krupicka & Frosty during Transvulcania 2012 © Greg Fell
In the end it was all very straightforward, the organisers of the Lesotho Ultra Trail approached Hallett to discuss the possibilities of it being a sanctioned event, “It didn’t take too much to convince them really, in fact there was no convincing at all- race director Andrew Booth had long since realised the opportunity that skyrunning posed here in South Africa- resulting in the establishment of what they’ve coined as ‘Africa’s first Ultra SkyMarathon®’.” Back in Italy, Van Houten was delighted, “The Lesotho Ultra is a great event to launch skyrunning in South Africa – it was “tailored” to fit the skyrunning parameters and the location is extremely appealing.” So what, exactly, can the runners expect from the continents first Ultra SkyMarathon?
“Look its going to be tough,” those are the first words from Andrew Booth, the Lesotho ultra trail race director, “55km with just over 3000m of climbing at altitude is always going to be hard. But we have made a few decisions that have limited the risk, like hosting it in November when snow is unlikely.” He then goes on to explain the dynamics of the course and if there is any shocks in store for the competitors, “It has a good mix of terrain. Steep technical climbing is balanced out by some easy, flowing running sections. How surprised runners will be depends on how well prepared they are. Those who have never done anything like this before might well be taken aback by the sections of steep and rocky climbing,” he adds. The event and course has proved a massive draw already- the event quickly reached maximum capacity and has attracted such names as Mike Wolfe, Adam Campbell, Dakota Jones and Joe Grant. Hallett puts much of the success down to the openness of the host venue, “The owners of Maliba Lodge, the host venue of the Lesotho Ultra Trail, have been extremely forthcoming with regards to embracing the concept of hosting a skyrunning race which has helped both our cause as well as the organisers of the event. It’s them that should be thanked for providing the means to hosting these top runners,” before laughing and adding, “I’ve joked with the race organiser, Andrew Booth, on several occasions that he must be the luckiest event organiser in South Africa to have such a supportive host. Often it’s the organisers who have to go to great lengths to encourage host venues to see the benefits of hosting a race and not the other way around.”
James crosses the finish line on day one of the 2011 Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race in Sandakphu, India
James Hallett has certainly come a long way from feigning sickness to avoid having to go out for a run and for that we should rejoice- skyrunning’s future in South Africa is in very good hands. Yet despite his deep involvement in competitive trail and mountain running in South Africa, Hallett’s personal view of the sport is somewhat different, “My passion for our sport is purely to enjoy being a part of its growth, and to be involved where I can at shaping its future. I try to run as much as I can but I don’t do it competitively…in fact quite the opposite,” he reflects, before adding, “Trail running for me is a personal thing and it’s often the canvas I use to further develop ideas for projects I may be working on.” So what then, I ask him, can we expect from SASA in the years ahead? “As contradictory as this may sound coming from someone whose mandate includes growing the skyrunning events circuit,” begins Hallett, “I’d also like to see less focus put on events and more shifted to the sport as a whole. Youth and underprivileged runner development, stronger relationship development with environmental agencies in order for them to understand our sport, and community based projects aimed at not only encouraging social running outside of events but also awareness for our natural areas. Often as “competitive” runners we arrive at a race and rarely stop to think about and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. Of course we get to do this in our training but collectively as a community we should do more to share it with one another.” One cannot doubt Hallett’s passion for what he is doing and the balance he aims for between expansion and conservation comes across as both genuine and heartfelt. The dawn of South African Skyrunning is well and truly upon us.
I’ll leave the last words to Lauri Van Houten: “South Africa in particular has a great running community and some wonderful locations. Put the two together plus James’ determination and professionalism and you have a recipe for success. We’re very proud of James’ efforts and thrilled it’s actually coming about and with such a special event to launch it.”
The Lesotho Ultra Trail takes place on 30th November 2013.
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More info on The Lesotho Ultra Trail can be found on the race website.
More info on Skyrunning in SA can be found on the SASA website.
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