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Words: Michelle Coetzee | Photos: Anja Aucamp

The Soaring Eagle flies high

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The first ever Soaring Eagle 2 Day Trail Run, hosted by AfriSki, flew high above the Maluti Mountains in Lesotho on 9 and 10 February 2013. The race was an epic mountain run boasting breathtaking views over the escarpment, with athletes running at an altitude of more than 3,000 m on certain sections. The Soaring Eagle 2 Day Trail run was unlike most other 'traditional' trail running events in that athletes had to run with preprogrammed navigational systems to ensure they stayed on the planned route. In addition, various check points, manned by the local herdsman wearing red bibs, were located along the route to also help keep track of their progress, and a number of locals with intimate knowledge of the mountains and valleys were employed as marshals. For those unable to be at the event, a minuteto-minute account of what was happening during the race was updated on the event's Facebook page (TriSport) and on TriSportSA Twitter, as well as links and photos posted regularly on YouTube. Runners were accommodated in the Race Village at AfriSki Mountain Resort, and after a tough day out in the Lesotho mountains, they were treated to a delicious meal by the friendly staff of the Sky Restaurant; officially the highest restaurant in Africa. Top trail runners, the likes of Dreyer van Huyssteen (fourth in SkyRun), Bruce Arnett (multiple winner of the SkyRun), Dirk Cloete (three-time winner of the Augrabies Extreme Marathon) and Ryno Griesel (winner of the Cape Odyssey), competed against each other for the top podium position at the first running of the Soaring Eagle Trail Run. Distances varied from around 32 km on day one, depending on route choice, to a hilly and more technical 16 km on day two. Both days were circular routes and the athletes got to experience a sense of total freedom as they traversed the mountains before getting a taste of the rural side of Lesotho as they ran on cattle tracks, passing local herdsman, sheep, goats, donkeys, cattle and the occasional groups of wild horses along the way. The only sound to break the peaceful silence of this pristine landscape was the clanging of bells that hung around the necks of some sheep, and every now and then, runners were treated to the sight of majestic eagles soaring high above them.

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Day 1

From the start, this race was no picnic! As the athletes set off from AfriSki, the first obstacle they encountered was a tough climb up the slopes, usually the playground of snowboarders and skiers in winter. In no time, the men were separated being from the boys as they powered their way to the top, with Dreyer van Huyssteen, Ryno Griesel, Dirk Cloete and Bruce Arnett leading the way. Dreyer and Ryno set their own pace and soon had a good lead on the rest the field, which continued throughout the entire race. Sonja Otto, organiser of the event, predicted that the first person would only cross the line in four hours. But this was not to be and everyone was blown away by Dreyer’s performance when he finished in a time of 03:21:13 - and he didn't even look tired. He later said that he would like to do it in less than three hours next year. Ryno crossed the line second, in a time of 03:34:18, saying he just couldn’t keep up with Dreyer anymore and decided to start walking some of the route. But when he saw Dirk Cloete closing in behind him, he dug deep and started to run. Dirk finished in 03:35:36 and said that when he saw Ryno, he decided to give it his all and try and catch up. The first lady to finish was Deidre Watson van der Merwe in a time of 05:31:30, who was running with her husband, Adriaan. Deidre was very optimistic about the race and amazed at the beauty of the route.

At one point in the race, Adriaan wanted to warn Deidre about a muddy part but as he turned to alert her, he ended up in the mud. Needless to say, he was nice and dirty crossing the line, but both of them were smiling and telling jokes. John Rollason, the event's oldest participant, was determined to finish the race despite the weather turning nasty and bringing thunder, some hail and big fat rain drops in its wake across the mountains. And even when the rest of his group decided to call it a day, with 15 km to go, and catch a lift back to AfriSki, he said no thank you and kept going. Hano, the event organiser, followed him for the rest of the way on a quad bike, while photographer Anja decided to run with John, camera and all. John finally crossed the line in 09:33:05 to the loud cheers of the spectators as they congratulated him.

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Day 2

The final day of the race found the racers in high spirits, in anticipation of a more technical day. Once again the race started off with a steep climb up the slope before the route dipped down into the valley and crossed a river. It was a close finish between Dreyer and Ryno as they came into the last stretch, but Dreyer’s long legs served him well as he inched his way ahead to finish the second day in the lead, in 01:47:41. Ryno was hot on his heels in a time of 01:48:30 to claim second place. Next to cross the line was Bruce and Dirk.

Bruce said that Dirk had forged ahead on the last hill, but knowing that Bruce was right behind, Dirk gunned it for the finish line – with arms flailing as he tried to keep his balance down the ski slope. Dirk crossed the line in 02:00:56 and Bruce in 02:01:25. Bruce said one’s ego gives one a boost when you see someone in front of you and you can’t help wondering if you can catch up and climb one title closer to the winner’s podium.

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Deidre once again took first place in the ladies on the second day, and said she enjoyed the technicalities the route had to offer. Deidre crossed the line in 02:58:54, with Amanda Viljoen coming second in 03:38:25. Amanda unfortunately lost her running partner along the route when Conrad took a wrong step and sprained his ankle. Nonetheless, she finished the race with Andre Knobel and Egbert Vermeulen trailing closely behind.

The athletes agreed that AfriSki is the ultimate place for high altitude training or just to improve fitness levels, as there are more than enough

trails for mountain bikers and runners to train on. Some athletes said they would definitely be back to do their training in these beautiful mountains, as training at these altitudes would definitely give you an edge.

TriSport organisers, Hano and Sonja Otto, are very excited about the future of this event and plan to host it annually, as well as host a two-day mountain bike event at AfriSki in 2014. •

èRelated articles: • The Botter Trail Run (Issue 21, p. 22) • Running Wild (Issue 20, p. 24) • RETTO Race - The Perfect Race (Digital article, Nov '12)

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This event was Sponsored by Gone Skiing and AfriSki; Powered by Pure Nutrition; and Clothed by TriSport and Vivobarefoot. For more information and to view the YouTube link of the race, go to www.trisport.co.za or www.facebook.com/trisportsa.

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TRAIL RUNNING: The Soaring Eagle flies high  

DO IT NOW Magazine, Running. The first ever Soaring Eagle 2 Day Trail Run, hosted by AfriSki, flew high above the Maluti Mountains in Lesoth...