This would be the coldest race that I have ever run in my life. With snow on the Berg and a wind off the mountain, there would be both a gusting wind and sub-zero temperatures to contend with
At five thirty on a wintry May morning in Warden it is usually cold. The tentacles of frost cover the fields as the subdued cattle in the stubble fields patiently await the first yellow brightness in the eastern sky.The desiccated mielies whisper in the breeze, shrugging off their frosty appendages. The pre-dawn mist hangs in the dips and valleys mapping out the twists and turns of the water course.
But this day was different. Extremely different. The temperature gauge in my BMW reads minus 5 degrees but with the wind chill factor from a snow covered Drakensberg, the actual temperature must have been below minus 10 degrees.
As John and I sped past Warden on our way to the Sterkfontein Dam on the 27th May 2006, the temperature gauge had been plummeting since our departure from Joburg. In the depressions the temperature slumped to a chilly minus 10 degrees before rising again. Worse still, the temperature never quite rose to the same high on the brow as that when we entered the depression.
In contrast with the Boksburg 32km race the previous weekend which was renowned for its cold weather, it had been a positively balmy 3 degrees. Apart from that, accompanied by a cold breeze it must have reduced the temperature to zero. But today would be far worse.
By the time that we reached Harrismith, the gauge refused to budge above minus 7.5 degrees. The sun had risen but with a sallow complexion it was rather wan and feeble. The saving grace would have to be the extremely late start of 9am.
Gusts of wind buffeted the car as we drove south to the Dam. By now the blinding white snow on the Berg was visible.
We were ahead of schedule as we drew up at the chalets well before 8am. What greeted us was a biting sub-zero wind gusting at 40kph off the Maluti Mountains. Apart from the extreme cold, we would have to contend with a wind storm.
By the time that the starting gun was fired, the ambient temperature had risen to an acceptable 5 degrees. In no small measure the wind storm had, if anything, grown worse negating the rising ambient temperature.
Looking like a mummy in a pharaoh’s tomb, I had donned my thermal vest, 2 T-shirts, my running vest and a wind breaker. In spite of these layers of protection, the jagged shafts of wind pierced through them like a bullet through mild steel.
Buffeted by the surging wind, the ragged disconsolate bunch of runners staggered and swayed in the wind as we made our way along a footpath on the shoreline. During this portion of the run, the force of the wind hit us obliquely from behind.
After 3kms we turned south to cross the dam wall. With that the wind hit us head on. With the speed of the wind gaining momentum as it raced unhindered across the water, the full force of the wind struck us. With dam wall being no more than 3 metres wide, the wind was liable to blow one right off the wall which had no railings to protect one.
Runners adopted an awkward crouching position as they attempted to mitigate the effects of the gusting motion, all to no avail. The wind was the supreme master as it attempted to sweep the runners off the wall.
This contest between runners and the wind continued for 2 kms, the length of the wall. Despite all these layers of clothes, I was frozen through from the ordeal of crossing the wall. Unfortunately I had forgotten my beanie and my thermal gloves as normal running gloves were less than useless in these conditions.
Getting off the wall assisted us immensely as the path made a 90 degree bend and headed westward. The wind no longer hit us head on but rather from behind. This reprieve was not to last too long. At the 14.2 km mark, the route turned left once more and followed the Harrismith to Bergville Road. Despite being now being 10:45, the wind chill factor kept the temperature well into the negative.
The only mitigating factor was that the wind attacked one obliquely and not head-on. At the 21 km mark even this slight consolation was withdrawn. At this point the route veered by 90 degrees as it followed the road into the Sterkfontein Dam. The road to the finish on the dam littoral was extremely undulating. In the dips one could actually run as the wind passed overhead but as the crest was summited this luxury with summarily withdrawn.
With the head-on wind buffeting one, at best I was able to walk over these crests until the next depression when the effects of the wind were not as serious.
In a state of self-pity with not even another soul in sight to share my discomfort with, even telepathically, I cursed at this stupid race, I swore at the wind as it pummelled me. I uttered all the Afrikaans profanities that I been taught in the Army. Nothing would alleviate the biting cold.
On the apex of the final ridge, I forced the legs to move at a faster pace. Even a shuffle would suffice. Immediately I was wracked by spasms of pain. The cramp forced again me to desist from running and once more to adopt a walking pace but it was more of an amble.
The minutes gradually ticked by but the finish which was clearly visible in the distance only grew imperceptibly closer.
Finally I staggered across the line in a ball of pain. Fellow runners hooted and shouted at me for finishing but I took no notice of their congratulations. All that I wanted to do was to lie down in my car with the heater full-on to thaw out my frozen body.
My finishing time was my PW – personal worst – of 3:03.
But I was past caring as I stumbled to my car in agony, frozen to the core.