By Stephen Granger
An unexpected record-breaking win from an ultra-trail novice and a dead-heat women’s record in the 100 miler, two record-breaking victories from world-class athletes from outside South Africa’s boundaries in the 100km, impressive victories in the Sundowner 32km and a suitable send-off to one of South Africa’ s best in the 21km were features of this year’s Ultra-trail Drakensberg (UTD), but in terms of top quality racing in both the men’s and women’s races, there was nothing to beat the Giants Cup Uncut 62km.
The fifth edition of the UTD took place from the Premier Sani Pass Hotel in the Underberg region of Kwa-Zulu Natal and the event in Southern Africa’s largest mountain wilderness included athletes from 17 countries and five continents, a trend race founder and director Spurgeon Flemington believes will grow. “Seventeen countries is more than we’ve had in previous years,” said Flemington. “Now that things have opened up following the pandemic, more targeted marketing will be a big area of attention for us in 2023.”
And with a growing group of informal ambassadors, such as top American ultra-distance athlete, Cody Reed, winner of this year’s 100km, and Czech athlete, Marcela Rambova, third in the 100 miler, allied to strong media collateral, including Sven Musica’s powerful race video depicting the ‘Berg’ at its finest, the trail running world will likely be beating a path to Flemington’s door in 2023.
Favourable weather (following threatening forecasts), organisational excellence and efficiency and a never-say-die attitude amongst many of the participants characterised this year’s event. “Nonetheless the drop-out rate in the UTD 160 was far higher than in previous years,” admitted Flemington. “I put that down to the extremely wet and heavy underfoot conditions. For the slower and heavier of foot I think this had a cumulative wearing and exhausting effect which resulted in missed cut-offs and drop-outs.”
Stronger athletes also struggled, however, with three of the leading six runners through the 46km mark in the 100-miler dropping out, potentially having underestimated the impact of altitude and starting too fast.
For all those yielding to the unequal struggle before the finish there were those dogged and determined to the end. Several striking images seemed to symbolise the never-say-die spirit of Ultra-trail Drakensberg: forty-four-year-old Carmen Tissang crossing the finish line shortly after 9am last Sunday morning (24 April), 28 hrs 11 min 29 sec after the start of the gruelling 100km race; Garion Krauss completing the 100 miler in an epic 44 hrs 56 min 41 sec, having run through two consecutive nights along high altitude trails; and the ringing of the iconic UTD cowbells by the finishers of the UTD 160 at the prize-giving.
Partnerships are key in an event of this magnitude. Apart from the substantial support from North Face and several other related brands in the sport, a team from the country’s premier trail event, Ultra-trail Cape Town, offered substantial on-the-ground support to Flemington.
And increasingly the local farming community have come on board, providing accommodation and organising the all-important refreshment stations along the routes. “The Underberg community is definitely becoming more aware of the impact of UTD,” reflected Flemington. “I have had numerous exchanges with locals who expressed interest in the event and enthusiasm at the number of participants and their positive benefit to the district at large.”
A key aspect of UTD is the integration of Lesotho. Flemington has unearthed a Basutho ‘wonder woman’ in the form of tourist guide Mapaseka Makoae, responsible for the logistics and infrastructure of the Lesotho part of the 100 miler in past years, but he now looks to deepen the involvement of Lesotho. “I have definite thoughts about the possibility of a ‘curtain raiser’ race on the Lesotho section of the 160 km course, either the day before or before the 100 miler on race day. It would open up the accessibility of the event to more local Basutho’s who either don’t want to do the 100 miler or are reluctant to come down to SA for the shorter UTD distances.”
The 2022 UTD will be remembered for top quality racing in all events. 37-year-old Douglas Pickard was not among the race favourites, but running in his first 100 miler, he caught experienced ultra-athlete, Simon Tshabalala in the final quarter and raced to victory almost half an hour inside Ryan Sandes’ record last year. And in a fascinating struggle in the women’s race, early leader Jo Keppler and strong finisher Amri Williamson joined forces to encourage each other in the final quarter of the women’s race to cross the line together an hour inside Williamson’s race time last year.
Top American ultra-trail athlete, Cody Reed, and New Zealand-based South African, Naomi Brand, duly delivered in the 100km, racing to victory in record-breaking times, while 27-year-old David Krone from KZN and German athlete, Marion Leiberich, romped home to impressive wins in the late-afternoon Sundowner Run over 32 km.
The Sweat-Shop’s Brandon Keeling was the only athlete who finished ahead of Bianca Tarboton in the half marathon, which proved a fitting send-off to the world-class Tarboton ahead of her five-month sojourn, racing against top opposition in Europe and starting with a 35km race at the Innsbruck Trail Festival in Austria next week.
But ultimately it was all about the 62km race (GCU62) along the five-day Giant’s Cup Hiking Trail between Bushman’s Nek and Premier Sani Pass Hotel. Recognising the depth of talent entered in the 62km race this year, Flemington upped the ante by offering a share of a R25 000 incentive to any athlete who could break the 6 hour and 7 hour barriers for the respective men’s and women’s races.
Four athletes stepped up to the plate and delivered top performances in a cauldron of high-powered trail racing, ultimately leaving Flemington out of pocket by R50 000, but well-satisfied at the outcome of his event.
Friends and some-time training partners, Johardt van Heerden and Daniel Claassen finished well inside Two Oceans Marathon star, Nkosikhona Mhlakwana’s 6:12:59 course record set last year and inside the 6 hour mark to claim R12 500 apiece, while two of the country’s most successful athletes in the sport in the past decade, Meg Mackenzie and Landie Greyling, obliterated Tarryn King’s 2021 mark of 7:22:28 by over 30 minutes to claim similar incentives.
“It was a great race for me personally and I am extremely happy about how the race played out,” reflected Van Heerden, who took line honours in 5:50:08 after struggling early on. “My energy levels were a bit down in the beginning of the race and my stomach was unsettled. Although I could not eat any solid food, I was able to take in calories in the form of gels and liquids. After the marathon mark, I started to feel much stronger and I felt in control to the finish.”
Van Heerden was only able to break clear of the strong-running Claassen after the final checkpoint at Cobham, eventually winning a close contest by less than five minutes.
Mackenzie has established herself as one of the world’s best in recent years and the Chamonix-based athlete was clear favourite to win. The race proved far closer than many had expected, however, with Stellenbosch-based mother of two, Greyling, back to her best, pushing Mackenzie to the limit. Mackenzie’s winning margin of 2 min 39 sec, in setting a new record of 6:40:25, was the closest of any contested outcome of the weekend.
“Landie is an extraordinary athlete – always has been and always will be!” acknowledged Mackenzie. “She’s running so strongly right now and I’m really excited to see how her season unfolds. I’ve raced with her enough to know she is definitely in top form again!”
Mackenzie returned to South Africa to see her family, connect with friends and race UTD, but with Greyling fighting fit, she needed a perfect race to clinch victory. “The race went really well,” Mackenzie admitted. “It was one of those rare days when everything went according to plan – it doesn’t happen often for me in ultras, but when it does it’s really fun!
“I loved the flowing single track and runnable nature of the course. I haven’t been on trails since UTCT last November, so I was really happy that my legs responded to my winter slog – running on snow and on the treadmill. I loved the long stretches of undulating trail and really got that wild, Drakensberg feel too. It was fantastic.”
The legally-trained Van Heerden’s running career has had to be balanced by his more-than-fulltime work as an advocate in the past but strong support from his sponsors, in particular his primary one, North Face, has given him new running options. The Mpumalanga-raised son of former South African steeplechase star, Arrie van Heerden, now has a chance to fulfil a life-ambition.
“I recently quit my job to pursue a full-time career in running,” Van Heerden said. “I am very blessed to be backed my amazing sponsors, who have made this dream a reality. I realised I wasn’t content to be one of the best trail athletes in SA, but that I want to be one of the best in the world.” The GCU 62km in the Drakensberg marked his first race as a full-time athlete.
Van Heerden has been nigh-unbeatable in South Africa, bagging titles in the UTD, Otter African Trail Run, the Whale of Trail and the Cape Town Trail Marathon and wants to test himself against the world’s best on European trails in the coming months. “I know I am going to have to be more professional in my approach and make some sacrifices which I am willing to do,” Van Heerden admitted. “I am also fortunate that my wife supports me 100% in this dream.”
Van Heerden enjoys a successful relationship with his coach and fellow-trail athlete, Christiaan Greyling. “I started with Christiaan about a year ago and thus far it has been a massive success as I haven’t lost a race since then! It saves a lot of mental energy when I don’t have to think out my own workouts. Christiaan monitors my training closely and I trust that he knows exactly what type of workouts I need and when.”
Coaching also plays an important part in Mackenzie’s life. Her involvement with James Montgomery in The Run Project provides coaching support to no fewer than a hundred athletes. “Our South African athletes are going from strength to strength (one of which, David Krone, won the Sundowner 32km at UTD in record time) and we’re expanding internationally too,” enthused Mackenzie. “We really believe in what we do and we put a lot of time, effort and heart into each and every athlete. It’s become an amazing community of love and support! We’re super happy!”
Mackenzie has several races lined up to test her mettle this year, including looking to improve on her impressive 9th place in last year’s Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc ‘CCC’ 100km in France this August, running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the Italian Dolomites and trying to get a ‘golden ticket’ entry into the Western States 100 miler in California in June.
Van Heerden also has a date with the famous French mountain, Mont Blanc, but for him it will be the Golden Trail World Series Mont Blanc Marathon in June. “I am looking forward to Mont Blanc as it is a race that will likely suit my strengths, being quite runnable, fast with a lot of climbing. The goal is to run a top 10 at Mont Blanc.”
Van Heerden also has African aspirations in the second half of the year. “I plan to race the 50km Dodo Trail in Mauritius in July – a very mountainous and technical trail with 3500 m ascent and descent – and hopefully achieve that elusive sub-4 hour goal at the Otter African Trail Run!”