Hot performances at Ultra Trail Cape Town as world-class trail running lights up Table Mountain

By Stephen Granger

The thermometer soared over 30 degrees as the racing heated up on the final day of the 9th RMB Ultra-trail Cape Town yesterday (Sunday 26 November), delivering one of the performances of the competition during the ‘Table Mountain 35’, a day after the completion of the serious ultra-trail races.

Dimtry Mityaev acknowledges the spectators after winning the UTCT 100km title. Photo – Stephen Granger

Not without its challenges, almost inevitable given the size and substance of the premier trail event on the continent, the positives undoubtedly outweighed the downsides and the majority of the four hundred-plus internationals, including a number of strong competitors from across Africa, ended their season on a high, vowing to return for more.

South African trail runners were delighted to test themselves against some of the best on the planet, enjoying a measure of ‘home ground advantage’ as foreign-based athletes who were unable to arrive early to adapt to conditions found the technical trails tough to conquer.

“Best trails in the world” were some comments from international trail runners. Here runners are dwarfed by Suther Peak in Hout Bay 7km into the Peninsula Traverse 55km. Photo – Stephen Granger

Safety on the trails proved the biggest headache for the organisers. Following a widely-publicised incident which saw race favourite Tom Evans return home a week before the race, three runners taking part in the 100 mile race were mugged on the trail near Oceanview in the southern Peninsula. All three continued with the race.

The incidents will be a catalyst for urgent and substantial action on the part of the authorities to put in place measures enhancing the safety of walkers and runners on mountain trails in Cape Town and to protect the regional economy.

The favourable weather conditions for the 55km ‘Peninsula Traverse’ run on Friday (November 24), deteriorated with increasing heat over the weekend, making attention to hydration critical and inevitably resulting in slower times than in previous years, as athletes adjusted their speed accordingly.

Toni McCann turned in a world-class performance in the UTCT PT 55km. Here a cameraman splits McCann and leading South African athlete, Mvuyisi Gcogco, on the Hout Bay Beach crossing. Photo – Stephen Granger

While most of the attention of multi-race events is typically on the longer distance races, the top performances in 2023 came in the middle-distance races over 35km and 55km, notably from South Africa’s talented duo, Toni McCann (55km) and Bianca Tarboton (35km), who continue to improve year on year.

Both finished third overall in their respective races, going head-to-head with some of the best male athletes. Both were around four minutes off the silver medal position, McCann after racing with top Eastern Cape athlete, Mvuyisi Gcogco, in the first half (as reported in SPNA on Friday) before finishing in 5 hrs 47 min 39 sec – over 35 minutes inside Landie Greyling’s record set last year.

Top two in the 55km Toni McCann and Caitlin Fielder with race director Stuart McConnachie. Photo – Stephen Granger

Tarboton’s time is 9 seconds slower than Olympic cyclist, Hayley Preen’s winning time in 2018, on a course thought to be approximately half a kilometre shorter. “I felt everything came together for me today,” said Tarboton. “I really enjoyed the run. My body felt good from the start and in control – it’s up there with my best races.

“The only part I didn’t really enjoy was the final ‘blockhouse’ section because it was just so hot. But outside that, it was beautiful. Running up on top of Table Mountain was amazing and the support from my team at the UCT aid station gave me a lot of energy.

Bianca Tarboton ‘in the zone’ through Newlands Forest, 10km from the finish of the UTCT EX 35km. Photo – Stephen Granger

“I drank more water than I usually drink and kept splashing my face when I had the chance. I filled up both bottles at each aid station then I also filled up twice from streams – so about four litres in total.

“This is my end of season. I’m going to take two weeks completely off running. Then I’ll start to build up again – I might do a road running block at the beginning of the year and possibly race Two Oceans Half Marathon before transitioning into trail again.”

Tarboton’s adidas TERREX teammates, Russians Aleksei Tolstenko and Dimitry Mityaev, were dominant in winning the ‘big ones’ over 100 miles and 100 km. Tolstenko moved up one platform on the podium after placing second to the extraordinary Greek ultra-runner, Fotis Zisimopoulos last year, this time around crossing the finish line a full two hours ahead of South African Doug Pickard.

Dimitry Mityaev crosses a bridge at the Alphen Aid Station 22km from the finish. Photo – Stephen Granger

And in one of the performances of the weekend, Mityaev improved by two minutes his time last year in the 100km, when he and German Hannes Namberger finished together. Mityaev recovered from a bad fall in the first half of the race and cramps in the second half to hold off a strong challenge in the final 20km from American Caleb Olsen to win by 19 minutes in 10 hrs 45 min 35 sec.

“I’m tired but really happy with my run,” Mityaev said. “After the fall I felt quite bad pain in my leg for some time. The pain eased after Hout Bay but then I started to get cramps. The weather got hotter, but that wasn’t a real problem for me.

“I love this race – there’s a good community and support from many friendly people. I’m very happy to be here a second time. It’s an amazing race and hope to be back next year.”

Olsen had closed the gap on Mityaev down to eight minutes through the Nursery Ravine checkpoint with just over 17 km to go, but suffered severe foot pain after UCT and was forced to slow towards the end of the race.

Salt Lake City athlete, Caleb Olsen, in second place through the Alphen aid station at 78km. Photo – Stephen Granger

“This is my fifth 100km and of all of them this has the coolest terrain and maybe the coolest views, alongside UTMB CCC. Definitely one of my favourites and I’d love to come back again to try to win it.

“I really enjoyed the diversity of the race,” Olsen remarked. “You run on virtually every kind of terrain – from vineyards which are smooth and fast through to the most technical terrain I’ve ever raced on and everything in between – even a beach and a water crossing. It had it all.”

The top-class field in the men’s 100km was replicated in the women’s. New Zealand’s Ruth Croft showed why she is rated one of the best in the world with a superb 12 hrs 12 min 20 sec victory, earning her 10th place overall. Canada’s Marianne Hogan was runner-up in 2021 and again this weekend, finishing 27 minutes back of Croft in a strong run, with Russian Ekaterina Mityaeva, third, five minutes further back.

New Zealand’s Ruth Croft leads the fields across Hout Bay beach near the start of the second half of the UTCT 100km. Photo – Stephen Granger

“The race was less technical than I’d felt when I’d recce’d it,” Croft said. “But it’s a beautiful course, super-tough and pretty hot today too.

“I was not really watching out for anyone else – I just wanted to run my own race. The last 18 months haven’t been great for me, so I just wanted to see how I went. My goals were to get to the start line healthy, feel good in-between and finish strongly, and I achieved that.

First South African home in the UTCT 100km, Samantha Reilly soaking up the joy and relief of completing the race. Photo – Stephen Granger

“Suther Peak was a challenge, but I was able to turn it around with eating and drinking and things started to go better after that.

“My favourite part of the race was the descent into Llandudno (Llandudno Ravine). It’s pretty epic and the scenery is beautiful. It’s a really special course and you can see the ocean for the majority of the race.”

Makhosazane Mhlongo, one of the beneficiaries of the sponsorship initiative for runners in the UTCT Ex 23km, running in third place through Nursery Ravine 6km into the race. Photo – Stephen Granger

A weekend highlight was the success of an initiative to allow talented runners, who could not otherwise afford to do so, the opportunity to race the 23km at RMB Ultra-trail Cape Town. Funds were raised to support the athletes’ flights, accommodation, transport and the compulsory gear and they were granted free entries for the race.

“Initially we proposed the idea to race director, Stu McConnachie as well as Jon Cornfield from RMB for us to get three male and three female athletes to partake in the 23km race,” said distance-running coach and initiator of the project, James Montgomery.

“Both were excited to get involved.

Brandon Keeling leads Sibuniso Soldaka, Tsielo Tsanyane and Philani Senqe 9km from the finish of the UTCT 23km race. Photo – Stephen Granger

“With the assistance of a number of prominent coaches, we managed to put together a list of nine athletes to race the UTCT 23km. Two of the athletes represented South Africa at the World Mountain Running Championships in Innsbruck earlier this year while others have been top performers in track, road and cross country.”

Despite inevitable ‘teething pains’ to those new to trail running, primarily navigational errors due to missed trail markers in the heat of the competition, something which likely cost athletes podium positions and prize money, the substantially changed demographic among the top twenty finishers in the race points the way to the future of the sport in South Africa and the success of the initiative.

A much-improved performance by local athlete, Brandon Keeling, having recently joined Nicholas Rupanga’s coaching stable, saw him take victory in the race ahead of Tsielo Tsanyane, with seasoned campaigner, Thabang Madiba, third. Lijan Burger took line honours in the women’s race ahead of fellow-Protea, Meg Mackenzie, whose best performance likely suffered from illness and navigation challenges.

Meg Mackenzie leads Lijan Burger in the early stages of the UTCT EX 23km. Photo – Stephen Granger

“Lijan ran really well today and deserved her win,” said Mackenzie, making no excuses and delighted to be back in Cape Town with family and friends for a short stay from her home base in the French Alps.

Video Interviews with the winners can be found here.

©SPNAfrica News

FINAL RESULTS FOR THE RMB UTCT:

UTCT 166km (Men)

Blue-berry farmer Douglas Pickard gets a welcome home from daughters Ava (left) and Bailey (right) and a friend Scarlet, centre, after finishing second in the UTCT 100 miler. Photo – Stephen Granger

UTCT 166km (Women)

Nicolette Griffioen leads the 100 miler through the Alphen aid station, running in fifth place overall. Griffioen fully atoned for her difficult race last year by winning convincingly in 26 hrs 11 min 08 sec. Photo – Stephen Granger

UTCT 100 km (Men)

Ryan Sandes and his world-class support crew, Vanessa and Max Sandes, run to the finish of the UTCT 100km. First South African in 8th place, Sandes was one of only two South Africans in the top 15 in the UTCT 100km. Photo – Stephen Granger

UTCT 100 km (Women)

Top three in the UTCT 100 – winner Ruth Croft with runners-up Marianne Hogan and Ekaterina Mityaeva. Photo – Stephen Granger

UTCT Peninsula Traverse 55 km (Men)

Top three finishers in the men’s competition – Winner Robbie Stewart is flanked by runners-up Mvuyisi Gcogco (left) and Josh Chigome. Photo – Stephen Granger

UTCT Peninsula Traverse 55 km (Women)

Matching strides – Toni McCann and Mvuyisi Gcogco leave Hout Bay beach near the half way point in the 55km under the guidance of a quartet of unicorns. Photo – Stephen Granger

UTCT Table Mountain 35 km (Men)

Top two finishes in the PT35km – Bastien Perez (France) and Collin Kanyimo (Zimbabwe). Photo – Stephen Granger

UTCT Table Mountain 35 km (Women)

Top two in the TM 35km, Bianca Tarboton and Holly Page. Photo – Stephen Granger

UTCT Explorer 23 km (Men)

Leading road and cross country athlete Sipho Mbanjwa at the start of the EX 23. Photo – Stephen Granger

UTCT Explorer 23 km (Women)

Top two finishes in the EX 23km LIjan Burger and Meg Mackenzie. Photo – Stephen Granger