Registration UTD style. Photo: Marzelle van der Merwe

A traditional Drakensberg electric storm and downpour greeted runners arriving at race registration at the Premier Sani Pass Hotel on the eve of the 5th Ultra-trail Drakensberg (UTD) yesterday (Thursday), underlining the fickle nature of ‘Berg’ weather conditions and the enormity of the challenge facing the participants.

Over six hundred athletes will tackle one of five races over 164km, 100km, 62km, 32km and 21km, each holding unique high-altitude challenges and offering adventures of a lifetime.

More rain and even light snow are predicted for the first half of the 100 miler, which got underway this morning (Friday) from the Sani Mountain Lodge at the Lesotho Border Post. With the first half of the race run through highlands of Lesotho and with most of the field likely to summit Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest point in Southern Africa at 3482m, in the dark, runners will need to call on all their physical and mental reserves to reach the finish inside the 48 hour cut-off. 

The remaining four races will start and finish over the weekend, when thankfully more favourable weather conditions are predicted.

The challenges may be tough, but the call from the Drakensberg is powerful, and the event has attracted the cream of the crop of Southern African trail athletes in just its fifth year.  This year’s line up of elites is stronger than ever before, with significant contests anticipated in each of the races.

Ryan Sandes in jovial mood at the check in. Photo: Marzelle van der Merwe

The participation of Ryan Sandes, South Africa’s highest profile athlete, is always a media-event in itself and his debut in the UTD160 marks his first-ever race over 100 miles in South Africa.  Sandes is favoured to win, although his short five days of acclimatisation could see him struggling in the first half at high altitude and play into the hands of Johannesburg trail athletes Ruan van der Merwe and 2018 winner, Jock Green. Grobler Basson, second in the Cape Winelands Maxi Run in December, and Gabriel Kriel are also likely to be in the mix for a podium place.

Annelise Scholtz could hold a slight advantage over KZN runner Jo Keppler and Cape athletes Amri Williamson and Linda Doke in a strong women’s field, although the latter could be to the fore if conditions deteriorate, given her vast experience in ulta-races around the planet.

Experienced ultra-, Christiaan Greyling, is favoured in the UTD100 over 100km in a power-packed field, although any one of Rory Scheffer, Robbie Rorich, Albert Phungula and Martin Malherbe could conceivably take the honours, while the interest in the women’s competition is whether Comrades champion, Ann Ashworth, can better Nicolette Griffioen’s outstanding 13 hrs 07 min 2019 record and place in the top three overall.

Linda Doke at the check in. Photo: Marzelle van der Merwe

Cape Town athlete, Daniel Claassen, and Gauteng-based Thabang Madiba could fight it out for top honours in the GCU62 (Giant’s Trail Uncut), while Taryn King should prove too strong for her rivals in the women’s contest. 

The appearance of Comrades gold-medallist and Ultra-trail Cape Town double-winner, Prodigal Khumalo, in the SDR32 (Sundowner Race), which takes place in the afternoon after the finish of the half marathon, holds much interest, partly to gauge his form leading up to an assault on the world 50km road record in four weeks’ time and partly to see if he can hold off the talented Bianca Tarboton, who looks certain to win the women’s race. 

Story by Stephen Granger

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