Mountain running and Zimbabwe is not a connection that most people would make.
Sky Run Zimbabwe is a 56km mountain run through the country’s Eastern Highlands in Nyanga National Park and on private farmland.
Above the thick mist at 4am on a Saturday in December, a few dozen of us graced the start line to run the Turaco trail.
We first meandered through forest, followed by a morning sunrise over silhouetted grazing cattle; a fiery red sky and a bed of clouds below us.
For 13 hours I was grinning as I ran those farm tracks and grasslands, navigated the rocky slopes, hiked the valleys, powered up the never ending but awesome Pungwe Gorge, summited the 2592m peak of Mt Inyangi (Zimbabwe’s highest mountain), spotted the Nyamkombe and Nyazengu waterfalls, and replenished with river water so pure and untouched it could only have been delivered by Poseidon himself.
Those brilliantly exposed ridge lines with the Chimanimani Mountains nearby, Mozambique just a skip and a hop away, delivered a great opportunity for mind wandering – the history of this place and what Zimbabwe has been through the past few decades, and this area as a place my dad explored as a child.
On this race day the current hardships of this beautiful nation had been put to one side and we were all there for one reason – to cherish those mountains and run in the sky.
The beat of the drums at the finish line could be heard for the final couple of kilometres to deliver one of the most beautiful, friendly and warm finish lines in the world.
My experiences of mountain running in Southern Africa this year have taught me it takes spectacular people to create such races.
Chris Cragg, the man behind Sky Run Zimbabwe, is no exception.
It was his project of love that created the Turaco Trail, a relationship with the local people and the Park spanning 30 years, and a three year approval process to gain permission to develop this beautiful trail. Sky Run Zimbabwe has just celebrated its fifth year and it takes continual work and collaboration to keep the trail open. For example, every two months the trail has to be cleared.
“We get locals to maintain the trail for us, which provides jobs for the community. We definitely don’t have issues with land owners who are only too happy to have us bring extra revenue into the area,” said Chris.
Supplying revenue to local communities is a huge deal through initiatives like buying the fruit for the race from local farmers.
He said there are very few races in the world where you run 99.8% of the race on a true single-track trail, created as a hiking trail for one purpose, with the terrain and landscape continually changing.
“The love that goes into the preparation of this event will definitely be felt at every turn. These are just some of the things that make it special. Give it a try, you won’t be disappointed,” said Chris.
He conceded that from an international perspective Zimbabwe’s politics and its various problems have had an impact on the willingness of people to participate in this event. However, those brave ones realise once they are there that the day is all about sport and their enjoyment, and this positive news spreads.
“We do have many issues in Zimbabwe but the local people are definitely not one of them – they are incredible and make this event even better. There are a lot of positive things coming out of Zimbabwe despite how tough it is to make them happen.”
He said a lot of Zimbabweans themselves don’t realise what running in their own mountains is really about.
“But they have fallen in love with it over the last few years thanks to this incredible race. All problems cease to exist in that moment in the mountains.”