Robyn Johnson wins the X-Berg Challenge

What does it take to win a 160km adventure race? An Interview with X-Berg Challenge winner, Robyn Johnson
July 31, 2023

It you’ve met Robyn ‘Bob’ ‘Skraals’ ‘Auntie Boy’ Johnson, you’re a lucky individual. Robyn is one of the kindest and humblest people on the planet, but what she doesn’t let on to is that she has the tenacity of a bull dog with a juicy bone, and the vasbyt of a prisoner escaping from Alcatraz. When she sets her mind to doing something, she will do it, typically with a big fat smile on her face, and afterwards she’ll merrily list all the positives involved with, say, having ones legs shredded to ribbons by brambles. “Ah you know, it was actually all good because despite the blood running from my shins, we were having such a great time together up there in the 40 degree heat! Such a jol with all the guys, sharing heat stroke!”. Sneak Attack. You’ll never know how much discomfort she’s really in.

It’s these exact attributes that led Robyn to taking the numero uno spot in the 2022 X-Berg Challenge held in the central Drakensberg. I caught up with her for a chat about how the race went and to get some tips for people who’ve been considering entering the race. In general though, in the main event runners will cover 160-ish kilometres with 4 days to complete the course, but most do it in two nights. It starts down at the Drakensberg Brewery and heads up into the Monks Cowl reserve, after which the route drops down into the Didima Valley and into the Cathedral Peak area – where there will always be a massive climb up a pass to test ones jelly legs, typically at night time. The race then heads back over to Monks Cowl, with turn points in the Wonder Valley area and in the Sappi plantations before ending back at the Drakensberg Brewery. It’s a flippin’ epic trek, made all the more fun by racing against different disciplines – but we’ll let Robyn explain the details in her interview.

Let’s chat a bit about this year’s race, how did it compare to the race in 2021 in terms of participants and the general vibe? If it was different, why was it different?

The vibe at X-berg is always great! A gathering of likeminded people in the mountains is bound to be good fun. Nobody takes themselves too seriously and there’s always plenty of laughter and banter. In the main race, there were a similar number of participants to last year (a relatively small gathering of 8 of us!). However, this time I was the only ‘runner’ entered, which felt pretty daunting leading up to it – it’s a long time to be on your own out there. The mini had fewer participants this year, a pity considering what a great event it is. The upside to a smallish field meant that we knew everyone and their seconds by the end of the weekend!

Can you describe what the objective of the X-Berg Challenge Extreme race is about?

X-berg is a truly unique race. Runners, cyclists and paragliders are all racing against each other in the Drakensberg mountains. You might think that the cyclists or paragliders would have an unfair speed advantage, but the ‘route’ is very cleverly designed. There is no marked route, but rather athletes need to make it to numbered turn points, choosing whichever route they like. While the cyclists may be faster, they often have to take a longer route around the big mountains. Similarly, the paragliders may fly far on their wings, but have to carry their heavy kit up the mountain. All in all, the race seems to be a tight finish every year, with the disciplines being well matched! Will you go fast and light? Or slower and steady with some creature comforts? Tough direct routes or longer contour paths? The choice is yours! The race is also very accommodating – you can do it solo or in a team, one discipline or all three, you can even complete it as a relay.

Athletes have to stop between 11pm and 5am, so you also need to choose your sleeping spots wisely. Whether you sleep in a cave, cottage, tent or in the open, it really is a great adventure. A lot of the race is spent ‘off the beaten path’, which really makes it special.

How were you feeling going into this year’s race?

Very underprepared! Despite having 18 months to train since the previous X-berg, many of us were plagued with injury, illness and too much work. Having survived the event in 2021, I at least had an idea of what was in store this year, but my goal was really just to take it easy, have fun and just try to finish without injury.

Did your race differ from what you were anticipating or expecting? If so, how?

Very much so. Being the only runner, I expected to be alone for the majority of the race. Luckily for me (and unluckily for the paragliders), the conditions weren’t really flyable. As a result, many of the paragliders switched to ‘mixed discipline’ and we ended up hiking together for a lot of the route! It was amazing to have great company as we slogged up Mlambonja pass, spent a chilly night in the open and chatted while distracting ourselves from the ruthless climbs.

What was the weather like?

HOT! We were treated to berg wind conditions – hot, dry and windy. I think most of us felt close to heat stroke at one stage or another. I don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in my life. On the plus side, we swam a lot in beautiful mountain pools! The last day dawned cool and misty – although a change in conditions, another day of bad luck for the flyers with zero visibility!

What were some of the biggest challenges of the race for you?

Definitely the heat. Getting to the resupply box at lunchtime on Day 1, I felt very out of my depth, battling with the heat and feeling my lack of training. Luckily, a hummus sarmie from Kath and a Coke at the Cathedral Peak Hotel sorted me out and on we marched. Another challenging point was leaving the rest of the crew at Jacobs Ladder on Day 2 – they elected to head down to Monks Cowl to fetch their gliders (ever optimistic!), while I pressed on to Wonder Valley cave. I don’t mind being on my own, but there’s always that little moment of apprehension for the night ahead!

What were some of the highlights of the race for you?

The river swims rank highly, I felt like a kid every time we got to jump in a mountain pool. I can definitely recommend stopping to appreciate the moments along the way, you never regret stopping for a swim! Similarly, we stopped at a cave on Day 2 to shelter from the sun while we had some lunch. It took us a while to look up and notice a huge array of bushmen paintings, an awesome sight!  Another great moment was finally reaching the hard-earned turn point 3 near the top of Mlambonja pass. Bundu-bashing through spiky mountain plants after 10pm is no joke – it was such a great feeling to cross that imaginary circle.

When did you realise you may have this race in the bag?

To be honest, I didn’t! My phone picked up signal on night 2, and by all accounts, the cyclists had it in the bag! They had a phenomenal race, but called it a day relatively early on Day 2. They had experienced a 40-degree day down in the valley and were suffering from the resultant heat stroke. Although I was expecting them to come in long before me on Day 3, I decided to turn off my data and just run my race without any updates coming through. I neither wanted to kill myself trying to beat them nor be lazy having seen them finish ahead of me on the live tracker. As a result, I jogged into the brewery, happy with my finish and asking the race director how long ago the cyclists came in. It was a complete surprise to find out that they were still on their way!

Obviously it would be nice to see race numbers increase, how would you sell this race and experience to a cyclist, runner or paraglider looking to do something adventurous?

I would tell them that this is completely different to any event you’ve ever taken part in. You will test boundaries you didn’t know you had, you will make new friends, and you will see the most amazing places this country has to offer! We take for granted how close and accessible these ‘bucket list’ places are – you will kick yourself for not having got yourself into the mountains sooner. I think one of the best parts of X-berg is the preparation side of things – you’re not simply getting fit for another event. In the months leading up to X-berg, you learn navigation skills and the best apps to use, you explore new routes (shortcuts aren’t always quicker!), you work out how many snacks you need (can you ever have too many?), you test gear (will a sleeping bag fit in my pack? Is my paraglider too new to sleep in? And how bramble-proof are these pants?). The race at the end is just the cherry on top. You only have to look at the number of return entrants to know that this race is worth doing.

And what advice would you give them?

As mentioned above, preparation is key! Study those maps, and actually get into the mountains with your kit. If you don’t have trekking poles, I would highly recommend them too. Although it’s not necessarily essential, the more familiar you are with the route, the better! There are often training weekends organised before the event, which you can attend if you are interested in entering – these are a lot of fun and are great for meeting other participants.

Do you intend to defend your title in 2023?

I’m not sure about defending my title, but you won’t keep me away in 2023! My goal for both years so far has been to have fun and try to finish, and that won’t change!

Any last comments or thanks you might like to put out there?

Of course, a huge thank you to the Between Heaven and Earth team and race directors. There is a LOT of work that goes on behind the scenes, from organising meals, resupply trailers, live tracking and safety, training weekends, prizes, and updates. As well as a big thank you to the fun-loving and good-spirited friends who add so much to the race. It is such a privilege to be able to take part in such a unique event – this isn’t anything like it in the rest of the country, and possibly the world!

The X-Berg Challenge will be taking place in March 2023. If there was ever a race you’d like to enter for the pure adventure element, this is it. Dates will be released soon, but you can read more about the event at

I think one of the best parts of X-berg is the preparation side of things – you’re not simply getting fit for another event. In the months leading up to X-berg, you learn navigation skills and the best apps to use, you explore new routes, you work out how many snacks you need (can you ever have too many?), you test gear (will a sleeping bag fit in my pack? Is my paraglider too new to sleep in? And how bramble-proof are these pants?). The race at the end is just the cherry on top.