The recent launch of the 2021 Golden Trail World Series has cut through COVID uncertainty and created new year excitement amongst the world’s best trail athletes, who can look forward to another year of high quality competition in some of the world’s most alluring landscapes.

Although still dependent on the path of the pandemic, a full programme of races leading to a Grand Finale in Patagonia in Argentina, is on the cards for 2021, with a growing number of Africa’s leading marathon-distance trail athletes eager to participate.

The “Golden Trail” brand has been associated with trail running at its finest – bringing together the best athletes on the planet racing head to head in the world’s most iconic and competitive marathon. Two successful seasons of the Golden Trail World Series promised a third in 2020, but the COVID pandemic changed that as race after race in the series was cancelled.

Innovative and “show must go on” thinking by the GTWS team, however, transformed trail gloom into golden light.  Instead of a series of races, a one-off Golden Trail Championship in the form of a four-day stage race was planned over challenging routes in the middle of the North Atlantic in late October.

Moroccan marvel, ‘Hassan’ Elazzoui, in action at the Golden Trail Championship ©️GoldenTrailSeries®️ – Azores Trail Run®️ – Jordi Saragossa 

Fastest times on ‘Golden Segments’ in thirty countries had yielded golden tickets to the championship on the Azores Islands. By early October, seventy-four “goldies” had been issued to athletes to join those who had already gained access through top 2019 performances in the Golden Trail World and National Series. Everything was ready to go.

The Championship, which was won by Polish athlete, Bartlomiej Przedwojewski, and Swiss speedster, Maude Mathys, attracted a diversity of talents, from the specialist short to middle distance trail athletes, to ultra-trail specialists and orienteering champions, such as French athlete, Frédéric Tranchand, and Sweden’s Tove Alexandersson, to engage in toe to toe combat over four days.

The success of the Golden Trail Championship, which built on Tour de France’s “coloured bib” format, which rewarded a variety of skill sets, has led to a decision by the series founders to retain that format every alternate year, thus ensuring elite athletes enjoy the best of both worlds. 

Swiss athlete, Maude Mathys, took top honours at the Golden Trail Championship ©️GoldenTrailSeries®️ – Azores Trail Run®️ – Pedro Silva 

On the one hand, they will be supported to travel to several of the world’s most sought-after races in a league competition with a Grand Finale in an exotic location, while in alternate years they will be free to plan their own races during the year and enjoy a week in a place of their dreams, racing against the best in the world over several days and building lasting friendships.

The six races from the 2019 Golden Trail World Series have been retained for 2021 – Zegama in Spain (The Basque Fever), the Marathon du Mont Blanc in France (“Roller Coaster”), DoloMyths Run (“The Couloir of Hell”) in Italy, the “Impossible Record” Pikes Peak Marathon at high altitude in the American Rockies and the “Scottish Vertigo” Ring of Steall in Scotland.  The Grand Finale will take place in Patagonia in Argentina, where the world’s best will take on the daunting “K42 Adventure Marathon”.

Positive changes to the series include an increase in prize money, reaching out to the “lucky loser” (the “top eleven” now qualify for the Grand Finale) and the doubling of points for the Grand Finale. The latter modification will leave the title of “Golden Trail World Series Champion” open until the final results from the Grand Finale are tallied.

For better or worse, COVID has provided a clear marker, separating the formative years of Golden Trail from an exciting future packed with potential and new innovations. Indications are that while several ‘Golden heroes’ from the past will be back, a younger generation of the world’s top athletes could be to the fore in 2021. 

Africa’s most-prominent and successful Golden Trail World Series athlete in recent years, Meg Mackenzie, is turning her attention to longer races – specifically focusing on Transvulcania, UTMB’s OCC and Ultra-trail Cape Town – and will not attempt a fourth season of Golden Trail.  But other Africans are looking at the season with excitement.

“I plan to race most of the Golden Trail races in 2021,” said top Morocccan, Elhousine“Hassan” Elazzoui, who placed an impressive fourth in the recent Golden Train Championship. “I have been in the desert with my family for the last few weeks-away from COVID infections- and I’m looking to achieve good results in 2021 to attract good sponsors. I plan to race Zegama, Mont Blanc, DoloMyths (Elazzoui placed third in 2019), Sierre-Zinal and Ring of Steall and hope to make the final.”  

Hassan Elazzoui, home in the Sahara desert in Morocco in preparation for a top year in trail running. ©️ Hassan Elazzoui (used with permission)

And might this be the year that 2017 and 2018 World Mountain Running champion, Kenyan Lucy Murigi builds on her Sierra Zinal successes to include other Golden Trail World Series races with the aim of qualifying for the lucrative Grand Finale?  

Following in Mackenzie’s footsteps, Cape-Town based Toni McCann and Bianca Tarboton have the ability to mix it with the best and are eager to do so in this year’s Golden Trail World Series.

Toni McCann – potential to make waves on the Golden Trail circuit later this year  ©️ Stephen Granger

“COVID allowing, I would most definitely be interested to race the European circuit this year,” said McCann. “I’ve got many dream races and have a desire to go back and race Zegama, Mont Blanc and the DoloMyths again as I feel I have unfinished business with those races. So far, the only race I’ve confirmed is the OCC at UTMB (56km trail race in France in late August).

“Fingers crossed we can get some international racing in – if not, local is lekker and I’ll be enjoying our home trails this year with dreams of racing internationally in the coming years!”

Bianca Tarboton – excited at racing in Europe this year ©️ Stephen Granger 

Tarboton completed her engineering degree at the University of Cape Town and is delighted to be able to plan trail running adventures with relative freedom. “Yes, I am planning on going to Europe for 6 or 7 months from either the beginning or end of April,” Tarboton explained.

“I’ll definitely take part in two or three of the Golden Trail races and have my eyes on Sierre Zinal, Ring of Steall and DoloMyths in particular,” enthused Tarboton.  “I’m considering Mont Blanc too – I was supposed to do it last year before COVID cancelled the race, so it would be great to give it a proper go!

“I don’t know if I’ll do the whole series this year, I think I might try to do a bunch of different types of races to get experience and see what my strengths and weaknesses are. So, besides the GTWS races I might try to do some sky running races and a few Vertical Kilometres in between them all.

“Before I leave, I’m hoping to take part in some shorter, faster South African races, then hopefully the 32km race at Ultra-trail Drakensberg before I go. But the Grand Finale sounds incredible! I’d love to go to Patagonia even if I didn’t make top 10!” 

Johardt van Heerden – top South African trail athlete ©️ Stephen Granger 

Johardt van Heerden has been South Africa’s leading marathon-distance trail athlete in recent years, winning both the Otter African Trail Run and the Whale of Trail in record time in 2019, and failing by just 20 seconds to retain his Otter title last year, when leading Spanish athlete, Pere Aurell, pipped him at the post.

Van Heerden, who earned a Golden Ticket to race the Golden Trail Championship in the Azores last year, but was unable to travel, is itching to compete with the world’s best athletes in Europe.  “COIVD-willing I’m targeting Marathon Mont Blanc (the second of the Golden Trail World Series) in June next year,” said van Heerden. “I believe that is a course which will suit my abilities. So, if all goes well that will be my next race.

“If I do well enough at Mont Blanc and get support to take part in other races in the series, I will definitely give that a full go and if I could qualify for the Grand Finale at Patagonia that would be amazing.

“The South African situation is still unclear,” Van Heerden continued, “but it does not look likely that there will be many races in the first part of the year.  But I will definitely go back to the Otter in October and if I don’t qualify for Patagonia, I’ll like to take on the 100km Skyrun (in the Eastern Cape) at the end of the year.”

Bartlomiej Przedwojewski – unstoppable at the Golden Trail Championship ©️ GoldenTrailSeries®️ – Azores Trail Run®️ – Pedro Silva  

International stars are also penciling GTWS races into their running calendars for the year, with an eye on prestige, prize-money and adventure.  “I am happy that 2020 was good for me, it was a difficult time for all as but finally we took part in GTC and it was perfect end on the year,” said Polish high-altitude fire-fighter, Bartlomiej Przedwojewski, currently the in-form athlete on the circuit, and overall winner of last year’s Golden Trail Championship.

Przedwojewski has won many high-profile races, including the Golden Series’ 2018 Grand Finale at the Otter Trail in South Africa, but the title of Golden Trail World Series champion still eludes him. “I will take part in the 2021 GTWS and I hope I will be in the top three in the final. I will take part in Zegama, Marathon du Mont Blanc, DoloMyths, Pikes Peak and maybe Ring of Steall. For 2021 my main focus is the GTWS.”

American Jim Walmsley – eager to race Comrades Marathon ©️GoldenTrailSeries®️ – Azores Trail Run®️ – Jordi Saragossa 

Another big name in trail, American Jim Walmsley, second in the Golden Trail Championship, is also likely to see 2021 Golden Trail Series action, although with more of a focus on specific races rather than the series as a whole. “I would like to keep Zegama on my radar for this year, although unlikely,” Walmsley explained. “I would also love to try running Sierre-Zinal again if it works out with timing for UTMB.

“As far as Pikes Peak goes, I have an interest in the race, but the timing is too conflicting with other races for me. I generally don’t focus on any one series. I like changing things up too much to focus on any one series through a whole year.”

Norwegian athlete Stian Angermund – one of the favourites for the 2021 season ©️ Stephen Granger 

Top Norwegian athlete and winner of the inaugural 2018 Golden Trail Series title, Stian Angermund, has his sights set on the new season and success in the final in Patagonia.  “I’m planning to run GTWS and go to the final this year,” Angermund said. “I hope to do better than at the Azores (Angermund placed 5th). I think that performance was only ok, not super.

“I think I will run Zegama, Mont Blanc, DoloMyths and Ring of Steall. But when Sierre-Zinal and Pikes Peak are organised, I plan to run a local uphill race in Norway called Skåla opp.

“The Azores stage race was a fun experience. I would like to do more of that. Maybe every other year can be fun to have that as a final. But not every year… I think the stage race can be more fun with more variation of the races. Some uphill, some up and down and some more runnable sections.”

Stian Angermund dead-heats with Moroccan Elhousine Elazzoui at the finish of the final stage of the Golden Trail Championship ©️ Stephen Granger