I knew we had been climbing for a while, but when I turned to see that we were actually above the clouds, it took my breath away. Yes, every single part of my body was in pain… yes, I was praying that we would reach the top soon… yes, there was still much more than half the race left… yes, I was wondering why the heck I signed up to do this… but I couldn’t help feeling truly blessed at that moment. Have you ever run a race above the clouds? I can officially say that it is an unforgettable experience.
Flash back to over one year ago… Pre-Service Training. One of our resource volunteers, Shannon, decided to join us on a morning run. (A resource volunteer is someone in their second year of service, who attends PST to help teach the trainees and give us advice/guidance based on their experience.) Shannon mentioned that she was training for the Porters’ Race in July. She explained it as an annual event in which people race up, over, and down Mount Mulanje. I was interested but also thought the whole thing sounded a little crazy.
Fast forward to some months ago and our resident fitness expert, CJ, made a group for those interested in running the Porters’ Race. It was aptly titled “I wanna die on Mulanje 🏔.” I joined but did not think that I would actually follow through… I’m not much of a trail runner. CJ posted weekly running suggestions and I did train some, but not as much as I normally would for a race. When the time came to book lodging for race weekend, I knew I had to make a choice. I debated for a while and then decided, why not… it will be an experience!
I was right; it was a once in a lifetime experience. I definitely did not know exactly what I was getting into. To be honest, I’m glad I didn’t because I probably would have turned and ran the other way as fast as possible.
Here’s what I knew beforehand…
Doesn’t look too bad, right? Well, the steepness of the trail was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. There was not much running involved because… well, a lot of it was impossible to run. Imagine rocks and boulders so steep you have to get on your hands and knees, and try not to look over the edge too often while doing so. I would call it more of an insane hike that you are trying to finish as fast as possible.
The Porters’ Race was originally established as a competition for Mulanje porters and mountain guides, who have done the trek countless times, usually carrying large packs. Over the years it has grown, and is now open to anyone over the age of 16 who is up for the challenge. We were blessed with good weather, whereas last year, it was incredibly cold and sleeting for most the race.
The winner this year finished around 2 hours 15 minutes, with NO SHOES! (I could be off on his time, since I wasn’t there to witness it.) 11 Peace Corps volunteers ran and our fearless leader, CJ, was first in our group, coming in around 3 hours 15 minutes. He placed 3rd among all the international runners!
I finally finished the 14.4-mile trek up, over, and down the tallest mountain in Southern Africa at around 6 hours. I was beyond thrilled to make it to the finish line. Here’s a short reflection on my 6-hour adventure.
The race began and I was slowly jogging, for about 5 minutes… and then the mountain literally shot up in front of me. My muscles were thankful that Zack and I had climbed some Colorado 14ers, not that anything could have truly prepared me for Porters’ Race.
The climb felt like it lasted FOREVER. We were high above the clouds by the time we reached the top. At that point, I was looking forward to some flat trails and the opportunity to run… but that didn’t last for too long. What I thought was going to be a relatively flat ridge traverse, was not… lol. It required even more climbing, but I did manage to run when possible.
I was grateful to have my Camelbak full of water because the last water stop was when we initially reached the top. I was also lucky to be with Hayden for much of the race before the downhill started. It was nice to have someone to turn to and say “this is insane,” and know you are not alone… someone is right there suffering with you. But it was also good to remind each other to take in the amazing views every once in awhile. It was a crazy race but it was also crazy beautiful the whole time.
The downhill portion was KILLER for me. I am not very sure-footed when hiking down so I was pretty slow. Of course there were tons of amayis zipping by me with huge piles of firewood on their heads. I often resorted to following their footsteps and movement patterns to make it down with the same efficiency. I also sang out loud… A LOT. “Take one step at a time, there’s no need to rush…”
I was getting super tired near the end and definitely tripped and fell towards the bottom of the mountain, no surprise there. But eventually I heard it… music… wafting through the trees… instant energy… my pace quickened. Off in the distance I could see the banner that hung over the starting line… then I heard cheering from my fellow volunteers. I made it! How? I have no idea but I did it! In fact, all 11 of us finished within 8 hours. An amazing feat to say the least.
It was by far the most physically demanding race I have ever done. It wasn’t just a race, it was a trek… up and down a mountain. I am definitely happy I did it, but will probably stick to my usual running races from now on, and hiking 14ers of course. Nevertheless, in spite of the sore muscles, scrapes, and bruises, I will always look back fondly on the experience I had “running” the race above the clouds.