Updated: Mar 13, 2019
Increasingly, there are claims about which marathon is the toughest in the world. In fact, there are almost as many claims as there are marathons. If we accept that a marathon is 42 kilometres in length - and exclude all ultra-marathons - then the field is narrowed. But the argument is still unnecessary... because 'the toughest' is a subjective opinion.
Last weekend, I ran one of the toughest marathons I have ever run; if not the toughest. The Katse Dam Highlands Trout Mountain Challenge. If you haven't heard about it, I wouldn't be at at all surprised. It's a race that's hardly known. BUT it is one every serious runner should place high on their bucket list of essential races.
After this year’s race, I heard other runners comment, “life-changing”, “a never-to-be-forgotten experience” and “a permanent addition to my annual racing calendar’. No-one who ran had a bad experience, and yet it has so many elements that should make it 'unforgettable' - for all the wrong reasons.
First of all, it is run over brutal hills. These are not like hills you may encounter in a normal race. These are towering monsters that climb straight into the pale blue Lesotho sky, and are sometimes many kilometres in length. You will encounter your first major climb after just 7 kilometres of running. Then, a steep bone-jarring descent will take you to a quaint bridge that crosses a small river below the towering Katse Dam wall.
Take a good look at that wall. That's where you're going. You will have to climb straight back up 3 shockingly steep kilometres of winding, tortuous road. Even those who boast afterwards, "I didn’t walk a step", are only fooling themselves. Running on this hill cannot be more than just a short shuffle with plenty of gasping. I proudly thought I was running the climb quite well this year, until a Basotho shepherd in white gumboots, and with a blanket thrown casually over his shoulder, walked past me whistling to his goats.
And that is just the first of a series of gigantic hills that greet you at regular intervals, all made tougher by the thin air of 2,000-2,500 metres above sea level. The air is thin and pure, clean and very dry. Sounds great. And it is. But it makes the tough going even tougher. So if you start gasping and panting as you cope with exercising at this altitude, you will not be alone.
Thankfully, all this is forgotten as the sheer beauty of the surroundings help to take even more of your breath away. The rolling Maloti Mountains, topped with bright white snow, drop down to the sparkling blue waters of the Katse Dam. The tar road becomes a dirt track, which winds past picturesque villages full of cheering spectators and laughing children. Angora goats scatter for cover, while above White-Necked Ravens and Jackal Buzzards wheel in the sky.
I’m a keen birder and, while I didn’t spot the endangered Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) on this occasion, I did 'tick' the endemics: Drakensberg Rockjumper and Ground Woodpecker. Only in this harsh mountain kingdom would one find a woodpecker that doesn’t live in trees (perhaps because there are very few of them) and a Vulture that lives only on bone marrow and fragments.
Runners are also in for another treat. Where the sky meets the water, you will pass several trout-growing cages, where large trout are farmed in the deep, cold waters of the dam. These giant trout weigh several kilograms and are all destined for the Japanese sushi market. But we runners were fortunate to be able to buy a few to take home. 40 minutes in a 150° C oven creates a perfect meal for 6 hungry runners.
And it is the trout, or rather the management of the trout-growing industry at Katse, that have brought into being this iconic marathon weekend in a magnificent part of Lesotho. The trout business has created desperately-needed employment in the area. One worker feeds up to 10 people here, and the marathon is both a celebration and an annual gathering to bring management, workers, runners and the villagers together for one unique weekend. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the days before the race, when teams of volunteers get together to plan the race.
I enjoy being part of the team that measures the route and marks the course. No fancy boards and signs for us. We use white lime to write out the numbers the afternoon before the race, and keep our fingers crossed that the mountain wind doesn’t blow. On the day of the race, runners pass several drinks tables manned by enthusiastically cheering villagers and, because the route is an out-and-back run, the same enthusiastic villagers are there to cheer even louder on the return journey.
For South African runners, The Katse Highlands Mountain challenge ranks alongside the Skukuza Kruger half marathon, The Knysna marathon and the Mont-aux-Sources race as essential bucket-list races. For those runners who intend to visit Southern Africa one day, it's worth considering this hidden running treasure. I believe it stands stands alongside the world-famous Comrades and Two Oceans marathons.
This year we ran in ideal weather conditions. But it was what happened the next day that made the entire weekend perfect. We woke to a winter wonderland of snow falling in the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. Perhaps you'll be as lucky when we see you there next year.
THE 1986 COMRADES MARATHON
TACKLING A DOWN RUN
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