I’ve been woken up in a frantic rush. I have no idea what these people are on about. “Come on Darol, Pete is outside!” says Chris. I’m somehow delirious, nothing anyone says makes sense. Eventually, Andrea cottons on and hands me a coke and a banana with simple instructions: “eat!”. Blindly following Andrea’s instructions I slowly come round and realize what’s going on. A morning hypo (Hypoglycaemia or a low blood sugar level). Now that I know, things are a lot easier. It’s still rather difficult to do anything or respond, but I can put things together in my head. Ok, my sugar is low (eat) my trail running kit is packed at the door, what for? Then the penny drops, Pete is here to take Chris and me to the Lesotho Defence force air base to catch a helicopter to the middle of nowhere to mark the route for the Roof of Africa Hard Enduro. A day of literally: “Bear Gryllsing”… This involved getting dropped off by the helicopter at the top of Moselemane Pass and running while marking to our pickup point, just 35km away. Not a day to go out unprepared: there would be no help, no shops, no villages, endless mountains and no cell phone reception. Now that my sugar had recovered a little, I started frantically packing: pack, shoes, gps, ultramel, glucose, gu, fruit, dates, biltong, lemon creams, map, compass, cell phone, knife, waterproofs, fleece, glucometer, insulin, needles and batteries: While zipping up my bag and walking out the front door at same time. Let’s hope I never forgot anything, you never know what happens in the mountains…
This is just one of many things that can go wrong with diabetes on any given day. Add to this that I’m going on and doing things that any normal person would deem risky, dangerous or downright crazy!
One of the reasons I was jumping into that helicopter that morning was for training for the Lesotho Ultra Trail, a 50km ultra Sky Marathon. In just two weeks I’d have to be ready to defeat the odds betting against me.
Skyrunning is defined as:
Running in the mountains above 2,000m in altitude where the climbing
difficulty does not exceed II° grade and the incline is over 30%.
I’m no average weekend warrior, I’ve completed 2 cape epics, many cycling races, been adventure racing for years and organise my own 6-day mountain bike stage race in Lesotho called the Lesotho Sky. I had never even entered a trail run before, let alone an Ultra Sky Marathon. It’s a little embarrassing lining up at the start line with some of the best athletes from around South Africa and needs to ask where to put my race number… this, fortunately, was one of my only issues. I know how to suffer, and I know how to fight myself after spending countless hours in the mountains. This along with many years of practice with my blood sugar management puts the odds back in my favour.
My alarm went off at 3h30am, way too early for any sane human, but for good reason. I need to eat 2 hours before the rather early 5h30am start. My sugar is good (5.3 mmol/l) and I frittered around for ages before catching the shuttle up to the start, defeating the whole point of waking up at stupid O’ clock in the first place. Breakfast was terrific, I scoffed down some salmon, cheese, yoghurt and some muesli. My good intentions of doing a warm up never materialized either as just as I got my last mouthful in, we were summoned to the start…
In the start chute, I position myself with the people I presume will be of similar pace, based purely on physique which is pretty difficult as all 136 starters are lean as ostrich fillet and look like they could run for days. The plan was a simple one, run your own race, your own pace and finish. I had nothing to prove and no rivals to beat as I had never done any trail run before. Last minute sugar check: 9 mmol (perfect for the start), and I was off.
“The route is an absolute suffer festival!”
The route is an absolute suffer festival, the one saving grace is it is unbelievably spectacular. I often forgot I was even racing with sightings of countless waterfalls, remote villages and endless vistas. The 50km has 2 major hills the first just 12km with 1140m of altitude gain and the second after 35m with 727m gain. The route tops out 3150m above sea level. All in I climbed 2741m (That is 3 Table Mountains…)
The crucial element to success at this event was and always will be what you eat along the way. I packed crunchies, droewors, cheese, mixed nuts, a banana, an apple, some dried fruit, 2 jungle bars, a peanut butter and Nutella sarmie and 2 GUs in case of emergency. The key is eating consistently, keeping my blood sugar from dipping to dangerous levels and maintaining the performance I needed to complete the challenge.
The first 20 km went like breeze, crushing the first monster climb, making friends on the route, and taking a few shots for my social media and Instagram along the way. Things were dandy until I got to the one part of the route that I was really looking forward to. The epic 15 km downhill. I can’t describe how terrible the path was. There was nothing but relentless switchbacks of rocks, boulders and what looks like a riverbed. Occasionally you would lose the path because of the intense concentration needed to avoid getting a tennis ball transplant in your ankle… A combination of this concentration and fatigue took its toll on me and I crawled into the 32km refuel point. A better sight I was sure I have never seen. The ladies at the point were incredibly helpful getting me everything I needed besides a new set of legs… my sugar was a little low too, so I promptly stocked up on jelly babies, potatoes and banana. It was clear that I needed to change my strategy here to one thing, survival.
“No one likes a moody, high sugar diabetic halfway up the toughest part of the route.”
I spent too long at the refuel point, 30 minutes after the refuel I started to taste the high blood sugar in my mouth and my performance had deteriorated rapidly. A test confirmed, 16mmol/l – not ideal in the heat of the day at this stage of the race. The high sugar was dehydrating me in a stage of the race in which I was already struggling with hydration. In fear of losing my sense of humour, I took some Humalog (my insulin) and took a 15 min timeout before soldiering on. No one likes a moody, high sugar diabetic halfway up the toughest part of the route.
This second climb is what makes this race what it is. It is a brutally honest climb that not once gives you the sense that you are nearing the top. It was hot and I was struggling with my blood sugar initially. Fortunately, you burn a lot of sugar up a climb like this and step by step I felt better and better. Nearing the top you could hear one awesome noisy marshal cheering for us up to the top.
There is very little in the world that gets near to the joy you go through when you finally reach a much-needed refreshment point after 42km of the toughest trail possible. Being a race director myself, I had a good insight as to what was going through Andrew Booth’s (the race director) mind when he set this route. Quite frankly this last hill turned the event from an average day out into one that everyone will remember for the rest of their life!
With only 6 km left of downhill, you would think that it would be plain sailing, but that last 6km was the section in which I’d have to dig the deepest. Every joint and muscle in my legs and body were in agony. And downhills were far from being my friend on this event!
The finish was surreal; some kind of end to the pain was a great welcome. Although, quite frankly, I was worried about being able to stand up after I sat down!… My finish line blood sugar level was a cool 5mmols/l. Happy! Now to smash some carbs if my body would let me eat anything before a solid 2 hr power nap. The venue for the event is second to none, coming into a 5-star mountain resort for the finish could not be more fitting. Maliba Mountain Lodge and staff pulled out all the stops to make a truly memorable experience.
I finished in just over 10 hours in 75th place (there were 140 odd starters).
“Some people tend to think that diabetes affects my sport”
Some people tend to think that diabetes affects my sport, but more than anything your head is the most important thing to get right. Make no mistake my diabetes does affect my performance but this is completely normal to me. I know nothing else. I want to run, therefore I run and learn about diabetes and the way to react. The more I run the better I get, I’m sure next year I’d be pretty disappointed with 75th…
The route can be described as nothing short of brutal! The event as a life-changing and truly spectacular experience I will never forget.
For information about the event and venues: