by Stephen Granger
Table Mountain, Drakensberg, Magaliesberg and the Cederberg are iconic South African mountains which have hosted some of the country’s top trail running events. Another mountain trail paradise in the Southern Cape is fast growing into one of the hottest trail running meccas in the country with the fifth Discovery George Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) in the Outeniqua Mountains taking place on Saturday (18 June 2022).
At the heart of the Garden Route, George is an ideal centre for adventure sport and none more so than George MUT, which sees almost 1000 participants with multiplier family and friends in support descending on the city this week.
Mountain appellations such as Cradock Peak, George Peak, Tierkop, Champherskloof, Tonelbos, the historic Voortrekker, Montagu and Cradock Passes and conservation areas such as the Groenkop Nature Reserve and the Witfontein Forest Station have long been a part of the local hiker’s lexicon, beckoning Mountain Club members, Outward Bound venturers and hikers of the popular Outeniqua Hiking Trail to explore their secrets.
More recently, these names have become well-known landmarks for a growing body of trail runners migrating to George and its surroundings to live, work or simply to visit and run. And George MUT has become one of the region’s biggest calling cards, with runners and their supporters flooding in during the week for high-quality trail-racing, fun and adventure.
“The Outeniqua Mountains make George such an incredible place to run, they’re really big!” said Kane Reilly, who will be defending his MUT 60km title on Saturday. “The actual route is so beautiful. I’ve been going there for a while in order to simulate European conditions in my training. In many ways it’s like Chamonix (the French alpine town at the start of the Ultra-trail Mont Blanc). The mountains seem to rise right out of the town.”
A range of positive partnerships and sponsorships have been put in place by race director Zane Schmahl and his organising team, all of which ultimately contribute to a weekend top-quality trail running competition.
“George’s trail running community plays a massive role in making the event possible,” race director, Zane Schmahl, remarked. “Route preparation is currently being done by our GTR trail maintenance team and Halfway Toyota George has come on board by sponsoring vehicles to get our volunteers to the aid stations. Geronimo Spur are also getting on board and will be giving each finisher a free burger.”
While top trail races in Europe have drawn several leading South African athletes this year, George MUT has again attracted some of the country’s top names in the sport, with many previously ‘satisfied customers’ returning for more southern Cape action in one of a number of race distances offered. For the first time the event hosts a 100km for those who favour ‘long and strong’ over ‘short and fast’ with the MUT 60km, the MUT Marathon 42km, the MUT Challenge 25km and the MUT Lite 10km once again on the menu.
“We’re very excited to have some big names, as well as big numbers, taking part in 2022,” Schmahl continued. “There are 850 trail runners entered for the 100 km, 60km, 42km, 25km and 10km events thus far. Entries are closed for the longer distances but line entries for the 10km will still be available on Friday, at registration.”
The Mountain Marathon 42km is shaping up as the top race this year, with intriguing head-to-head contests promised in both the men’s and women’s races. Defending champions Jacques Buys and Landie Greyling will have their work cut out to hold off Christiaan Greyling and Kerry-Anne Marshall respectively for line honours and the outcome could be in doubt till the final kilometre.
Local athlete Buys saw off the challenge of strong-running Robbie Rorich in last year’s inaugural 42km, clocking an impressive 4 hrs 07 min 43 sec to win by 7 minutes, while Greyling had to ignite her after-burners to see off Knysna athlete Rebecca Pretorius in a sprint finish. Greyling won by 5 seconds in 5:30:13.
Former Otter African Trail Run winner, Christiaan Greyling, is known for his strength in the mountains but recognises Buys’ knowledge of the local course and conditions. “I’m feeling grateful to race just three weeks after having had COVID. I raced Jacques once at Otter, and beat him, but Otter is my race. This is his race, so I will respect his style!”
Greyling’s wife Landie also went down with COVID last month but has returned to her best form since giving birth to her second child last year, impressing with her close second to world-class Meg Mackenzie in the Ultra-trail Drakensberg (UTD) 62km in April. Whether she will have fully shaken off the effects of COVID – and missed training as a result – only race day will answer.
“I’ve only had two good weeks of training after UTD. But I’m just looking to get in a long run in preparation for the Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc OCC in August and to have a good race,” Greyling remarked. “I only recently decided to run after Christiaan’s parents agreed to baby sit, so we’ll have to see how it goes.
“I’m sure I’ll run faster than last year, which I ran just four months after Anzel was born! It’s hard to say with Kerry-Anne as I’m not sure where she is with her fitness, but she will certainly be a strong rival.”
Marshall is slowly regaining the form which made her one of the country’s best ultra-distance trail athletes, a winner of the Ultra-trail Cape Town 100km and Comrades Marathon gold-medalist but may not be sufficiently close to her top form to see off the challenge of a resurgent Greyling. But fresh from a notably victory in the Great Zuurberg Trail Team Run last week-end, Marshall is undoubtedly a threat.
Running with her X-Terra triathlon champion brother, Stuart Marais, the pair finished ahead of all rivals in the men’s, mixed and women’s categories in the three-day stage race in the Eastern Cape. “Phew – I found it fun but hard – my brother made me run fast!” said Marshall. “It was nice to explore a new area and the race was quite fast flowing and runnable. But I felt unfit!
“I was supposed to have run MUT last year but injured my ankle quite badly and in the end could not make the start line. I ended up just walking to a few aid stations to cheer on the other runners, so I felt I had to return this year.”
Knysna-based Pretorius, runner up last year, returns to do battle with Greyling, who has since become her coach, and will be pushing hard for a podium position ahead of strong runners including Kate Mapham (5th last year), Shafeeqah Gordon (6th) and Mia Uys (3rd), while in the men’s contest, it is likely that Matthew Burke, Iain Peterkin, Melikhaya Mzisi, Franz-Erich Streicher and Pieter Calitz will be contesting third position.
Reilly broke the record for the MUT 60km last year and is looking forward for another strong run on Saturday. Reilly gives credit to his record-setting time to one of his closest rivals, who ultimately was not even in the race! “I had heard Johardt (van Heerden) would be racing and assumed he was there at the start. But it was dark, so I wasn’t sure,” explained Reilly.
“So I went out quite hard, fully expecting Johardt to come past at any minute, as he is capable of doing! I had prepared well and ran quite strongly, but I’m sure it could be run a lot faster. Roelof (Mostert) ran pretty well too – we were running together for the first 10km.”
But Reilly faces a new challenge this year which has little to do with running – fatherhood. “I’m just hoping to get there with Finn (his month-old son). I’m feeling good, training well ahead of my August race at Ultra-trail Mont Blanc, but clearly the baby comes first, so not 100% sure I’ll make it.”
The contest between Cape Town trail athlete Lijan van Niekerk and impressive new talent, Rebecca Kohne from George, will likely be a highlight of the MUT Challenge 25km. Van Niekerk raced to a close victory in the Old Fisherman’s Trail Challenge over 24km last Saturday, while 19-year-old Kohne impressed at the Special Edition 25km last month, leading the race until she ran off the trail shortly before the finish, eventually placing second.
And at the opposite end of the spectrum, veteran road and trail ultra-runner Nic de Beer looks forward to the inaugural MUT 100km, where he will be up against experienced trail runner and George resident Bruce Arnett and Brandon Hulley.
“This is my first year at MUT, although I raced the Outeniqua Traverse 42km ten years ago and much of that race was over the same route as the 100km,” said De Beer. “I’m planning to race conservatively as I’m training for the UTMB 100 miler in August but if I’m feeling strong at around 60km, I’ll certainly move into another gear and give it a full go.”
All races bar the MUT Challenge 25km start and finish on Saturday at Witfontein in the Outeniqua Nature Reserve. The 100km and 60km get underway at 05h00 with the 42km off an hour later. The MUT Lite 10km starts at 08h30. The MUT 25km Challenge starts at Sputnik at the top of the Outeniqua Pass from 07h00.
A vertical kilometre race is offered on Thursday to the early arrivals to George, in the form of a testing 4km to the top of George Peak. Social runners depart at 08h00 from the MountCo FKT centre in Arbour Road, George, with elite runners underway at 10h00.