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An Epic Tale of Mountain-Running Endurance

03 October 2022

Tobias Mews is one of the UK’s leading endurance athletes. In 2014, he undertook a feat of mountain-running endurance in South Africa.

This is his story.

Leading to the Kingdom of Lesotho, the Sani Pass in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa is the only motor-road to cross the Natal Drakensberg mountain range in South Africa. 4x4s, mountain bikes, motorcycles and donkeys are normally the only means of getting to the 9,426 ft. summit. But once a year, people run up it in the Sani Stagger endurance race. Tobias Mews thought he was man enough for the mountain-running challenge, and decided to tick off one of the epic trails on his bucket list.

  • TRAIL LENGTH: 42.2 km
  • CLIMB: 4363ft
  • FASTEST KNOWN TIME: 3hours, 4minutes

 

BROUGHT TO A STANDSTILL

It seemed kind of fitting that the point where I wanted to quit the Sani Stagger was on the aptly named ‘Suicide Bend.’ My legs, which until that point had been kicking up a bit of a fuss, were then in total rebellion. Although the Sani Pass is notorious throughout Southern Africa for bringing 4x4s to a standstill, that’s normally because they’re going uphill. Ironically, I didn’t have so much of a problem getting up the mountain on my own two feet, it was coming down that put me in a quandary. I did what I’ve never done before in a race. I sat down and marveled at the view beneath me.

A few minutes later, I heard my name. “Tobias! Get up!!” Startled, I looked around to the direction of the voice to see my wife, Zayne, descending the mountain behind me. She’d sensibly opted for the half marathon which started at the summit. “What are you doing?? You can’t stay here. Come on lazy bones, I’ll run with you.”

The main part of the Sani Pass itself is only 5.6 miles long. But as this was an out-and-back marathon, those who opted for the full marathon actually started at the Sani Pass Hotel, which sits 13.1 miles down the mountain at a refreshing altitude of 5,138 ft. I knew it would be fairly hard work getting up the 4,265 ft of ascent, but I never appreciated what that might feel like on the descent!

A MARATHON TOO FAR!

The Sani Stagger, the endurance race I was doing a poor job competing in, is known as the highest marathon in South Africa. And one of the toughest. Many a talented runner has attempted this race and been left crying like a baby. That number now included yours truly!

I hadn’t necessarily come to race the Sani Pass. That would of course have been nice, but I gave up on that idea within about five minutes of the race starting. No, I wanted to just experience this iconic South African mountain pass, which so happens to be the only 4×4 route to cross the Natal-Drakensberg Mountain Range. (The Sani Pass bans all cars, as they probably won’t make it up the steep gradient.)

Unless you have a 4×4, a mountain bike or a donkey/mule at your disposal, you’re unlikely to make it to the summit. With 20 hairpin bends, the Sani Pass cruelly twists and turns its way up the mountain side, causing nervous 4×4 passengers to utter expletives as they look over the edge, especially when they reach ‘Reverse Corner’ close to the summit. But once there, you’re rewarded with spectacular views – and South Africa’s highest pub, which sits at the entrance to the Kingdom of Lesotho.

TWO MAKES COMPANY

It had taken me a full two hours to run/shuffle/walk the 13.1 miles to the summit. I had brought a map of the route with me, hoping to recognize some of the bends that had fanciful titles such as ‘Haemorrhoid Bend’ or ‘Whisky Spring.’ Evidently someone had a sense of humor, but I was beginning to lose mine. A combination of altitude and dehydration thanks to the sweltering conditions, had made me feel weak. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Zayne popping along, I think I might still be up there.

We don’t often run together, as we each have our own pace. But that day I felt guilty for holding her up. However, despite the fact that she could have sped down the mountain in twice the time, she stuck with me, pointing out fauna, birds or something new to look at in the distance. If it hadn’t been for her, I might have been so focused on my feet, I would have missed what I’d worked so hard for.

Slowly but surely, despite every step causing my quads to shout in pain, we stumbled down the mountain together. I was doing a grimace/smile thing, while she floated like a butterfly.

A SWEET FINISH

“‘Almost there now” Zayne said to me, while I gulped down some much needed fluids from an aid station. I could see one of the medics eyeing me up with a mixture of concern and amusement. “You alright?” he asked me. “He’s absolutely fine!” Zayne answered for me, before grabbing my hand and pulling me down the path.

When we passed the South African border post, I realized that the end was now in sight. Instead of feeling relief, I was slightly annoyed with myself that what I’d hoped to be a tourist run, had turned into a semi-rescue mission – where I was rescued by my wife!! I’ve run up far harder mountains than the Sani Pass, but that day I was found wanting.

“Tobias – you’re such an idiot.” Zayne said to me as we made our way to the finish. “You’ve just tried to run up and down the most iconic gravel pass in the whole of South Africa. It’s not meant to be easy – otherwise everyone would do it. Be proud of yourself.”

She was right of course. I should be proud of myself. And despite the fact that it might not have been my finest athletic performance, it was an adventure. And the whole point of an adventure is the unknown you encounter on the way to the end. Plus, unlike most adventures, I have a medal to prove I did this one! Sani Stagger – I shall see you again. Only next time, I’ll train a bit harder!

 

Photo credits: Lesotho meunierd
Mafika Lisiu Pass Gil.K
Mountains Rocky Valley ChrisVanLennepPhoto
Sign at the Sani Pass Leonard Zhukovsky
Drakensbergen mountains BMJ
South African flags Leonard Zhukovsky