South African athlete, Meg Mackenzie, in action in last year’s Golden Trail Championship – races the GTWS opener in the Pyrenees next week. Photo: Stephen Granger

Leading South African trail athlete, Meg Mackenzie, is set to race the Olla de Nuria in the Pyrenees Mountains next Saturday (13 June 2021) – the first race of the 2021 Golden Trail World Series (GTWS) – while several leading African athletes look set to join the series in the weeks to come.

Elhousine “Hassan” Elazzoui of Morocco, Rwandan Jean-Baptiste Simukeka, Kenyan Denise Bosire Kiyaka and the talented, although controversial, Eritrean Petro Mamu are all likely GTWS contenders, while several leading South Africans are updating their travel documents and looking closely at COVID travel restrictions, hoping to participate later in the series.

Hassan Elazzoui on top of the world – the leading Moroccan trail athlete has been preparing for the 2021 Golden Trail Series from his training base in Switzerland. Photo: Courtesy Elhousine Elazzoui

A recent double-move – to a new primary sponsor in North Face and a new domicile at the French Alpine centre of Chamonix – provides a fresh chapter in Mackenzie’s life. McKenzie is keen to test her new training regime over marathon-distance races at the start of this year’s GTWS, before transitioning to ultra-distance trail running.

“This year I’ll be focusing on longer distances such as the CCC at Chamonix (101km and 6100m of vertical ascent) and Transvulcania (76km),” Mackenzie said. “But I’ll begin my season with the Golden Series races, Olla de Nuria and Mont Blanc Marathon (27 June). After that, I guess I’ll see where I am in the rankings and decide from there! 

“My training has been good. It’s very different from training at the coast in South Africa – we’re at altitude, the hills are steep and there’s a lack of anywhere flat –  so it’ll be interesting to see how that transfers to upcoming races. And I can’t neglect the stress of moving to a new country in the middle of a pandemic and not speaking the language!

Bartlomiej Przedwojewski – aiming to continue his winning ways in the 2021 Golden Trail World Series. Photo: Stephen Granger

“I’m sure that’s had an impact on my energy availability for training but I’m always up for the challenge and growth that racing brings me. I’m also just beyond excited to see my friends again. It’s been so long!”

The Golden Trail World Series team have been resourceful in restoring the series to its full capacity, following the COVID-related cancellation of the traditional GTWS opening event at Zegama in Spain’s Basque Country, by introducing another iconic Spanish race into the calendar.

At 21,5km, the ‘OIla de Nuria’ may be significantly shorter than the other GTWS 2021 races, but its bite may be the most painful. Over 70% of the race, set in the Pyrenees Mountains in Catalonia, is above 2700m, and with a total vertical ascent of 1940m, there will be few sections runners will recognise as “flat”. Runners will summit three peaks over 2800m, with the highest, Puigmal, at a lung-searing 2913m.

Golden Trail Champion Swiss athlete Maude Matthys – one of the best climbers in the business. Photo: Stephen Granger

But Mackenzie does ‘gnarly’ better than most and with her strong background in mountaineering, she could come through with guns blazing at the GTWS opener. “The level of competition at Olla de Nuria will be very high,” Mackenzie reflected. “It’s a short race with very punchy climbs and descents so I guess anything can happy out there at high altitude.

“In general, I feel more prepared for these kinds of races than I did before, so we’ll see. While this is not a goal race for the year, I’m going to give it everything I have and go and race my absolute heart out!”

The list of elite athletes for Olla will be announced within the next days, but it is likely that last year’s Golden Trail Championship winners, Polish star Bartlomiej Przedwojewski and Swiss athlete Maude Matthys will be in the line up and will be tough to beat.

Most of the leading Africans are likely to join the series at or after Mont Blanc Marathon, just two weeks later, with Moroccan Elazzoui itching to race Mont Blanc against some of his close rivals from last year’s Golden Trail Championship in the Azores.

Special Edition 25km champion, Bianca Tarboton – aiming for success in the 2021 Golden Trail World Series. Photo: Stephen Granger

Simukeka and Kiyaka have raced frequently and successfully in Italy on road and trail and will likely race Dolomyths on 18 July, if not also Mont Blanc.

Bianca Tarboton and Kane Reilly, winners of the recent “Special Edition 25km” on Table Mountain in Cape Town, have targeted the third race in the series, the Dolomyths in the hope that they will be able to secure the necessary travel permissions to do so. Barbiton has set it as an important goal race for the year, while Reilly regards it more of a ‘nice to have’ extra as a build up to his primary focus – the CCC 101km in France in August.

And Toni McCann, current Otter African Trail champion, has her sights set on joining the series at a later stage.

The following races make up the 2021 Golden Trail World Series:

13 June           Olla de Nuria, Spain

27 June           Mont Blanc Marathon, France

18 July             Dolomyths, Italy

7 August          Sierra Zinal, Switzerland

22 August        Pikes Peak, USA

18 September Ring of Steall, Scotland

6 November    Grand Final: K42, Patagonia, Argentina

Story by Stephen Granger

©SPNAfrica News