Real mountain. Real tough. Mnweni Marathon, 10 May 2014

Words: Terence Vrugtman ǀ Photos: Meg Mackenzie

Nearly every weekend, if not every, there is a trail running event somewhere in South Africa. Mixtures of single track, jeep track, and the odd obstacle, these races have increased in popularity because they allow the everyday Joe to explore unknown locations with a sense of security. And then there is the Mnweni Marathon, the only trail run that takes in the main Berg without long stretches of running on dirt roads.

Photos by: Meg Mackenzie

What officially became the Mnweni Marathon in 2002, has grown beyond organiser and founder Bruce Arnett’s expectations. The Mnweni Marathon is a tough 42 km mountain trail run that forces you to be more prepared and aware of what is out there. It’s a different type of running thrill, an exposed feeling that is drawing out some tough runners/mountaineers. Says Arnett, "The route is one of the most magnificent trails in South Africa and the non-commercial nature of the event avoids economic exclusion and preserves the simplicity of the run as a celebration of being in the mountains."

Rocky single track and at parts no track at all, the race is a self-navigation and self-support event. Runners are given a 1:50,000 map and 10-minute race briefing before setting off on their own. And then it is just you and the mountain. Including an elevation gain of just over 2,000 m and a 12-hour cut off, it’s no wonder this run is now the SA Trail Running Champs qualifier.

The race route starts at the Mnweni Cultural Centre and winds up a hill and alongside the Mnweni River. The terrain changes as the single track leads you to the longest hill of your life; 2,5km long and 1,000 m gain. Once at the top, which is not flat, you scramble for about 2 km along a section with no path to the next valley, where you start to make your descent.

Down Rockeries is a 6 km super-technical section that further widens the gap between racer and participant. At the bottom, there is a flattish 10 km section that leads you back to the start along the Ntonyelana River valley.

Photos by: Meg Mackenzie

In 2013, the race had an unexpected challenge when the skies opened up and neatly dropped a fresh layer of snow all along the route and mountain. The 2013 race winner, Meg Mackenzie, shares her experience. “The route up Mnweni Pass and down Rockeries is, in my opinion, the toughest on the trail running circuit. It consists of cattle tracks (when you’re lucky), boulder hopping, river crossings, mud, thick bush and tall grass. And then you hit the pass, which takes the leaders up to 50 minutes to reach the top. The technical switchbacks are relentless, but you are rewarded with a view that seems surreal, it’s so beautiful!

"Rock hopping down Rockeries Pass is an unforgettable experience. You experience the rush of not quite knowing where your feet will land, but hoping for the best.

"It offers an experience like no other trail run I have ever done, the isolation you experience on that mountain is incredible. Most of all, the sense of accomplishment you feel is far greater than any other 42 km run you will ever do! In the words of the inspirational Emilie Forsburg: "In two years you won’t remember a win or a good position, but a good day out in the mountains – that is what you’ll never forget.”

If you are not taking part in this year's event on 10 May, then it should be on your check list for 2015.