The 13 Peaks Challenge was conceived by Ryan Sandes and after he had run the roughly 115km route, he invited all trail runners to give it a go, with the aim to summit the 13 peaks of the Table Mountain Range on the Cape Peninsula. One of the most recent to finish the challenge was Leigh De Necker, and this is her story of an epic two days of summiting.
A quarter-life crisis is an odd thing. Mine started about a year ago, and included one (and a half) unsuccessful romantic relationships and their respective break-ups, family dramas, moving house, financial struggles and career uncertainties. So, stuff we all have to go through… In order to deal with this, I run. I converted all my frustration into the energy that got me running faster and stronger than ever. I was fired up and ready to take on my second ultra-marathon. But, two days before the Two Oceans 56km, I got chicken pox. A vaccinated, 28-year-old, on Easter weekend, with chicken pox!
I was forced to miss the race and was quarantined. I screamed, cried, swore, threw tantrums threw things, scratched a little, ate a lot. I was incredibly unpleasant to be around, and to look at. Turns out, viruses and anti-virals really mess with your heart, physically, and rob you of all your fitness (and happiness). Okay that is dramatic, but stubborn as I am, I decided to train anyway, and as my luck would have it, I got injured. By that stage, I was sitting with about 23.1% sanity remaining.
So before I went around kicking children, I decided to allow myself time to recover and I entered a consolation race, the Knysna Marathon. Fast forward to training for said marathon, running it, and doing pretty well, considering my misfortunes, I fell in love with trail running all over again in the process. Things were looking up! But, then I lost my little dog, Gigi, in a tragic accident, and with that experience, I lost my last little bit of sanity. So, before sanity would return (or in order to regain it), I decided to take on the 13 Peaks Challenge. I’m not sure if I was literally trying to run away from all my problems, or if I was really just in search of some kind of perspective. Hope?
Up for the Challenge
So yes, this was a fantastic idea, considering I had never run more than 56km on the road and only 25km on trail. A two-day, 115km, 6585m elevated mission up 13 of Cape Town’s most iconic mountains definitely seemed realistic… especially since I have zero sense of direction. So bad, in fact, that I still get lost looking for peanut butter in the supermarket I visit weekly. So, if I were to do this, without accidentally navigating my way off Chapman’s Peak, it would have to be with a little (or lot) of help.
Luckily, it didn’t take much to convince my friend Sean Altern to join me. He is always over-prepared for such things, while I am always underprepared. Sean is patient, I’m not. Sean doesn’t swear, I do. Sean is always calm, I’m not. So Sean basically prepped everything, while I contributed snacks, bad ideas, inappropriate jokes and wet wipes (that nobody ended up using anyway).
Leading up to this, I could not think of anything else but the challenge. I spent a lot of time running (and getting lost) in the mountains to prepare, but I knew it was 90% a mental game! The combination of nerves and excitement was overwhelming, but also a relieving distraction from all the issues causing the above-mentioned quarter-life crisis.
Very Early Start!
Before I knew it, it was 4:30am on 2 August 2019. Breakfast was chicken mayo and vegetables on toast. Since I’d never taken on a challenge of such proportions, I figured I’d eat a bit of everything, and hopefully the body would find something useful. JJ Bell and Sean picked me up and we were on our way to Signal Hill (Peak #1). Alex Topliss met us there for the start, and we took a few photos before setting off at 5:07am. It was dark, but a perfect winter’s morning! As we trotted on and up, reaching the summit of Peak #2 (Lion’s Head), we looked down at our fellow Capetonians also sitting at their peak… peak traffic.
Waves of fog and cloud slowly crept in from the sea and over the city lights as we looped down, but it didn’t take long to start the next climb up Kloof Nek, and we enjoyed a jog along the edge of Table Mountain. We looked back every so often to see the top of Lion’s Head peeking out above the blanket of clouds, which we were now well above. The sound of waterfalls, traffic, hooting owls, hooting cars, rustling leaves and trees is an endemic remix only Cape Town can offer. As the city lights dim and the sun lights up the mountain, a sensory overload of magic is experienced. It was all fun, laughs and inappropriate jokes, Sean listening quietly while Alex and I spoke a bunch of nonsense. Sean must have known what was coming, as it didn’t take long for the infamous Platteklip Gorge to shut Alex and I up. I had never climbed the gorge before, but people always spoke of it being quite nasty. It was.
Upon reaching the top, we started running again. It felt like we were running on the moon, leaping between cratered rocks and dodging puddles. Well, Sean just ran through the water, clearly not too concerned about the dreaded “trench foot,” despite his constant referrals to the condition. We skipped and slipped our way over a few frosted boardwalks to reach a big pile of rocks triangled to form Peak #3, Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on Table Mountain as well as the Cape Peninsula. The view included beautiful sneak peeks of bits of mountains, city and sea between patchy clouds.
After a few majestic poses on top of the beacon, we said goodbye to Alex and descended the back of the mountain. It was surprising to see so many frosted board walks, and Sean slid right down one into a bush. I had a long, loud laugh, before asking whether he was ok. He was, and our fall scores were officially, Sean 1 – Leigh 0. This side of the mountain was shaded, so it was a little chilly, but the descent allowed us some time to move faster and warm up. This was also the first water refill point. We relied largely on drinking water from the rivers, waterfalls and mountain streams, and nature provided us with ice cold, fresh water for the duration of our adventure.
Another cool thing about this challenge is that the journey between and to the top of each peak is so different, from the vegetation, to the rock formations, to the paths leading to the summits. Grootkop (Peak #4), was no exception. The path (or sometimes lack thereof) was overgrown with dense bushes. In between some rocks we found the occasional Aloe hiding, which was awesome to see. This one was a real Bundu-bash getting to the top, where the clouds did not really allow us too much of a view, but the mission up there with our legs in full 4×4 mode was great fun!
As we bush-whacked back down, creating our own path for most of the way, it was a little cold until we made our way down through the clouds, passed the shadow of the mountains and back into sunlight. There was a fair amount of single track to Judas Peak, #5, and for any trail runner, a stretch of good old single track is pure bliss. Judas Peak was one of the easier climbs for me, but one of the most spectacular views. Hout Bay was clear in sight now and so was our next peak.
The decent down Judas was incredibly steep, taking us through all kinds of gullies and cracks, but with some really awesome views. The ocean was flat, 50 shades of blue, making it look deceptively tropical. We did experience a small rockfall at one point, which I initially thought was a baboon, bergie or caveman coming after us (your imagination goes a little wild after being in the mountains for six hours). The path eventually spat us out on Suikerbossie Road in Hout Bay and then it was literally straight up Klein Leeukoppie (Peak #6).
We definitely underestimated this one. It is terribly named, because there is nothing “Klein” about it. The path sometimes just ends randomly, forcing some rather intense rock climbing. In a lot of ways, the climbing was actually great – using our arms to pull ourselves up gave the legs moments of relief. Fatigue was definitely being felt, though, but it is so important to stay focussed, as the smallest foot misplacement could result in a nasty fall.
We eventually made it to the top, to yet another breathtaking (literally) view. We decided this was a good time to take a 15-minute break to have something a little more substantial to eat. Up until this point, we had been snacking on biltong and energy bars mostly, so a peanut butter and jam sandwich for me and a bag of Big Corn Bites for Sean (and simply just sitting down), really gave us the boost we needed to proceed.
Spot of Trespassing?
Straight back down and we got in touch with JJ de Villiers from CCP in Hout Bay. Sean and I had a WhatsApp group with JJ, Ray Chaplin and Ryan Sandes to send progress updates and share the adventure, but also for safety reasons. Due to security concerns in the Hout Bay area, JJ had offered to meet us on Sandy Bay beach and watch us go up and down Suther Peak (#7) safely. However, finding JJ and Sandy Beach was a laugh… The map led us to an electric fence and closed gate (which we only later discovered had an intercom for someone to open for us).
Not knowing this at the time, we missioned through woody vegetation to find a way around, but ran straight into another stretch of fence. The top was barbed wire, so the only way through was under. Gentleman Sean bent and lifted the bottom of the fence while I squeezed under. I couldn’t lift it high enough from my side to help him, though, so he lay there wiggling, unable to move past his crotch area. I laughed at him again, but eventually he slipped through. This put us on somebody’s private estate, so the concern of a viscous dog or sniper attack was real! So we ran along the road quite quickly, infused with subtle panic, trying to look as though we belonged there, and eventually we made it out alive. Along the way, we explored a few roads which were interestingly named after either flowers or really old people, before finally making it to JJ.
We had a brief introduction and briefing from JJ and then up Suther Peak we went. I was a little low on water, but was so distracted by how epic this climb was. I do see why it is referred to as “Suffer Peak,” but it’s a beautiful, pleasant kind of suffering, as twisted as that sounds. In between bright green plants were little bright yellow flowers (Sean, the nerd, was dropping scientific names everywhere). There were a few leafless, bare, burned trees, and looking through their frames back down on the ocean, now lit up by the midday sun, was nothing short of spectacular. This was definitely a favourite!
Game Face On!
Back on Sandy Beach, JJ rewarded us each with a strawberry Steri Stumpi, and I sat on the beach chugging from a five-litre bottle of water. Ray was there too, taking photos, laughing, joking – perfect company for a little pit-stop. We refilled on water and refuelled our spirits, then trotted back down the streets named after old people. The next stretch involved a lot of road running, through to the other side of Hout Bay, dodging pedestrians and drivers who should never have been awarded their licences. Meanwhile, Ray leap-frogged us to capture some epic photos. Sean and I walked the ups, but every time we saw Ray and his camera, it was “Game face on, pose, run, look fresh!”
My Garmin’s battery died at the Chappies tollgate, and of course, I had not brought the charger, but Sean’s Fenix was still running, and of course, he had his charger. (Sidenote: I want a Fenix.) A Red Bull before our mission back into the mountains had me fired up to summit Chapman’s Peak (#8) before sunset. Now infused with sugar and caffeine, I think at one point I even suggested the one-day challenge, but there was no comment from realistic Mr Sean. The light was stunning, with sea, sky, mountains, plants all saturated with deep blues, greens, orange and yellows, and we made it just in time to enjoy the sunset at the beacon.
I had set up another WhatsApp group before the challenge for family and friends, where I posted pictures, videos and updates, and where I got the most incredible support and encouraging replies. One of the many things I gained from this experience was a boost in appreciation for all the indescribably awesome people I have in my life, who love me and back me in all my madness! After tagging our eighth peak on the group, I received another unexpected message, from somebody who really, and seemingly carelessly, broke my heart in the past. A message that, a month, maybe even a week earlier, would have really rattled me. I did, admittedly, send a few strong four-lettered words echoing through the mountains, but I quickly settled into feelings of indifference, liberation, healing, forgiveness, contentment and peace.
One More Climb
We spent a while going on in the ‘almost dark’ without our headlamps, just as a safety precaution to not attract too much attention to ourselves in the low light. As we popped over another little hill, we switched our lights on and then it was up and up to our final peak for the day. I really struggled with this climb. It had been a long day on the legs, and I was overwhelmed by the enormity of what we had already done. Every step felt heavy, and the climb felt really long and steep. Now that we were back in the dark, I was also disorientated, which exhausted me further.
When it started to get foggy, I realised we were high up, ascending through a cloud layer again. Sean was constantly encouraging me, which helped too and I could hear my phone buzzing from my support crew. Finally, we hit a steady jeep track, went through a hazy layer and into clear, starry skies at the summit of Noordhoek Peak (#9). “Sean, look how awesome Simon’s Town looks!” I said. “Leigh, that is Hout Bay!” Clearly, I was still disorientated, but on such a high… again, literally!
We took a ‘Blair Witch Project photo’ with our headlamps and then took the opportunity to reflect on the day and say a prayer. We thanked God for newly found perspective, and appreciation for family, friends, nature and the strength we just proved we have in our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits! It was really powerful, and I’m grateful to have shared it with a friend like Sean, and everybody from my support crew, albeit indirectly. I also took the opportunity to honour and pay tribute to my Gigi girl, which was a special moment for me too.
It was auto pilot on the downhill through Silvermine, past the dam, back on the road, out the gate and across the road onto Ou Kaapse Weg. We were pleasantly surprised to hear the legend JJ de Villiers cheering us on for an awesome end to Day one. Ray and JJ Bell were there to meet us with blankets and more Steri Stumpies, and Ray had got me my favourite dinner, a peanut butter bliss smoothie and Prince Wrap from Kauai for the trip home to rest.
Back to the Trails
I did not sleep well. My legs were a little sore, but my biggest ache was the bottom of my feet. I think it was from the sand in my shoes. I was, however, more overwhelmed by the experience, reflecting on it and going through all the messages from family and friends. I slept lightly for about four hours and then got up just before 4am. It was chicken mayo, veggies and chocolate for breakfast, and the running started just before 5am.
Another start in the dark and as we set off, we noticed a set of eyes reflecting the light of our headlamps. It was a little bokkie. This was so cool to see, and on another perfect winter’s morning, we summited Muizenberg Peak (#10) just before 6am, looking down on a lit-up city still fast asleep. This was a nice warm-up peak to get the heart pumping and legs going again, but I was having trouble getting water from my hydration pack, and was concerned that there was an issue with the drinking pipe.
After a crazy amount of fiddling fuelled by frustration, rage and thirst, I finally discovered that by simply twisting the little mouth nozzle to 90-degrees, the free flow of water is unlocked. I have had this pack for months, done countless runs with it, and I only realised this now! I may not have provided too much functional use or benefit to Sean, or myself apparently, but there is no doubt that my moments of being an absolute imbecile provided Netflix-level entertainment. This was followed by a quick toilet stop, which further strengthened our friendship, as Sean graciously passed the ‘white gold’ to me from the neighbouring stall. Then it was a bit of complaining about sore feet, a sand-removing shake of the shoes and back over Ou Kaapse Weg, through the gate, past the dam, this time heading towards Constantiaberg.
Tired Legs, Slow Progress
We found a rather large slug on the path, which we dubbed our mascot and pacesetter, as his pace was representative of the speed at which we were going! I could feel yesterday’s fatigue and was moving very slowly, but moving nonetheless. It was misty as we climbed, but the morning sun shone through, bringing out the saturated colours of our surroundings as we summited Peak 11. I tried to jump onto the beacon for a photo, but my legs were not ready for that kind of commitment and I just ended up kicking Sean instead.
The downhill along a mountain bike track allowed us to pick up some speed again and see from a distance the mountains and surrounds of Hout Bay we had conquered yesterday. Then there was a (relatively) small climb called Vlakkenberg, which I also suggested be renamed to something more appropriate (but inappropriate to repeat here). We came across some trail runners who recognised us from the social media posts Ryan Sandes had been doing, and they gave us a round of applause and encouragement as we passed.
We descended past a pig farm and back onto the road at Constantia Nek, where Ray was waiting with friends Gen and Justin. It was such a nice surprise to see them, and they joined us up to Klassenkop (#12). The company was great and the way up was mainly a steep Jeep track, which made a pleasant change from the millions of rock and stair climbs. As we passed De Villiers Dam on top, the path converted to single track, which then became bushy, then rocky (like the moon again, or what I would imagine a place like Utah to look like), and ultimately involved crossing a gully, via a tree, to get to the beacon (a pile of rocks). This was another of my favourites, being particularly unique, and the laughs with Gen and Justin made it that much more awesome. Gen also fell. I laughed again. Later I fell too, so Karma. And overall fall scores were tied.
Into the Home Stretch
I had done Devilʼs Peak (#13) the week before, so I felt confident about the last stretch, but I had heavily underestimated the mission between Peaks 12 and 13. Day 2 had a lot more distance between peaks than Day 1, and I started to feel a little frustrated, because we would climb up and then go down again, then up, then down. Nursery Ravine was a very steep, technical down, but eventually we entered the forest, so in my head we were almost close to my ‘home turf.’ After more up, down, up, down missions, my feet were starting to burn and for the first time, I was starting to feel a little fed up.
Eventually we came across a landmark I thought I recognised as an area I run through often. White rocks. Well, turns out there are a lot of patches of big white rocks in the forest, and we were in fact 4km further back from where I thought we were. It was, once again, very disorientating, but this time also disheartening. I became frustrated with myself because I already have a complex about how dreadful my navigation is, so this really ticked me off. Sean continued to be encouraging, but I was grumpy and had lost my sense of humour, so I told him to allow me to sulk.
Finally, a waterfall I really did recognise, and Ray standing under it with more Red Bull. My smile was back, because for the first time in the whole challenge, I knew exactly what I was in for. Red Bull chugged, another one in my backpack and up and over Newlandʼs Ravine. Sean was motoring, but I was still going at the pace of the Constantiaberg slug… but I was going. Sean did stop to wee a lot, though, throughout the challenge, which allowed fantastic opportunities for me to snack, often. With the sound of his piddles, coupled with the rustling of my energy bar wrappers (along with my clicking ankles and the bass from my heart beat, compliments of the Red Bull), we created our very own “ode to the peaks” anthem.
Time to Reflect…
Then, Devilʼs Peak was done! In trying to find the appropriate rock to balance my phone on for a self-timer shot, I probably added an extra kilometre to my total distance. Anyway, out onto Tafelberg Road, Ray and Tam were waiting with more Red Bull and an assortment of sugary snacks, and then it was auto pilot to the end. There was no more pain, no more frustration, and I was hardly taking in the views anymore, just the occasional glance up to where we were, and where we needed to be.
Racing to catch the sunset, dodging a string of cars that were trying to do the same, we finished the 13 Peaks loop at Signal Hill at 18:17 on 3 August, having run 37 hours, covering 115.8km and 6585m of elevation! Tam and Ray popped the champagne, and I was climbing the beacon like an ape, and doing handstands all over it. Sean just celebrated calmly like a civilised human being.
At the end of all of this, I found the perspective and hope I was looking for. I learnt a lot from the beautiful heart my Gigi dog had, and increased appreciation and love for the incredible people I have in my life. I found physical, mental, emotional and spiritual strength I did not know I had. It was my so-called quarter-life crisis that led me to this point, so maybe a quarter-life crisis is not such a bad thing after all, but rather a blessing.