Saturday’s (April 24) Ultra-Trail Drakensberg (UTD) 100 km race is a formidable challenge for any trail athlete, more so for a trail novice. That is exactly how 2018 Comrades Marathon champion Ann Ashworth will feel as she turns her back on paved surfaces for the weekend and lines up the UTD.
Billed as the ‘UTD100’, the actual race distance is 108 km, which includes no less than 4158m of vertical climbing at lung-searing altitudes between 1600m and 2865m. Much of the trail comprises a combination of both testing single track and more runnable sections through forest and farmland.
And if Ashworth had planned to ease her way into trail running with a friendly gradient in the early kilometres, she can think again. The start is brutal. While the terrain is somewhat forgiving – the dirt road from the South African – Lesotho border post to the top of Sani Pass – the ascent is as tough as they come with a climb of 1000m in the first 8km before the leaders crest the summit at sunrise.
Then follows a sharp descent, back the way they came, before runners join a stunning, scenic single track traverse along the Twelve Apostles before a fast descent down Khanti Ridge to an iconic waterfall at 36km, below the Premier Sani Pass Hotel.
Competitors have the option of picking up a pacer from the waterfall to help them through the next 40km through farmland and forests over rolling hills, around lakes and along the upper reaches of the Mzimkulu River. But Ashworth has the advantage of racing alongside husband David, a marathoner of similar ability over the distance who will be hoping to stay the pace with his wife for the full race.
Born in Zimbabwe, Ashworth moved to Howick, KZN, as an infant. She obtained a law degree at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, worked for several years an attorney and earned a Masters degree in law from the London School of Economics, before qualifying as an advocate.
Working full-time in law proved no barrier for Ashworth’s quest to succeed as an elite marathoner. She boasts an impressive 2:35:44 marathon best, set in Valencia in 2018, but it is her first and fourth positions in the 2018 and 2019 Comrades Marathon that set her apart as one of South Africa’s best ever ultra-distance athletes.
“I don’t really know what I’m in for,” admitted Ashworth. “But in the absence of road races, I’ve decided to invest in a change of pace and scenery! I’ve no expectations, I’m just going out to have some fun.
“I had plans to race the JFK 50 miler road race in the USA, but that did not seem to be working out with COVID restrictions. Then I received an invitation to run Ultra-trail Cape Town at the end of the year and after overcoming my fear of getting lost in the mountains, I accepted. Then I thought it made sense to run UTD to get started on trail.
“We moved back to KZN from Gauteng in September, and are now living in Hillcrest. That’s just about 90 minutes’ drive from the Drakensberg, so we’ve been getting in some solid training there.”
Unlike fellow-Comrades Marathon elite, Gerda Steyn, who does much of her training off paved surfaces, Ashworth is a confessed ‘newby’ on the dirt. “My former coach, John Hamlett, forbade me from running trails so training and racing off-road is new to me.
“I’ve been struggling with a chronic Achilles injury, but it’s a little less painful on trails than on paved roads, so perhaps this is good for me!”
Although new to trail running, Ashworth is no novice to ultra-distance competition, and will start favourite to win the women’s competition ahead of former UTD 62km champion Samantha Reilly, Nonhlakanipho Tau and Jess Barrow. “I’m going to go as quickly as I can,” said Ashworth. “Gerda Steyn and Irvette van Zyl have raised the bar in marathoning in South Africa so I will have to respond as best as I am able, on road and trail.
“But I believe in the power of the dark horse, so there is always the possibility of an unknown coming through to surprise the field.”
UTD last took place in 2019, where top Gauteng ultra-trail athlete, Nicolette Griffioen, smashed the women’s 100 km course record in 13 hrs 07 min 29 sec to win the race overall, finishing 28 minutes ahead of Martin Malherbe, first male athlete home.
While Griffioen’s record time (and finishing in daylight on Saturday) could well be a target for Ashworth, she will have her work cut out in emulating Griffioen’s overall victory, given the quality of the men’s field. 2019 62km champion, Rory Scheffer, top performer Robbie Rorich, former Otter and Ultra-trail Cape Town winner, Christiaan Greyling and Karkloof 100 mile record holder, 42 year-old Albert Phungula will ensure close competition up front.
Greyling could be tough to beat. He has shaken off the affects of a probable COVID infection following his fifth place in last year’s Otter African Trail Run and, by his own admission, has come through a solid block of training in recent months. “I’ve managed a total of 1300 km for the year and have felt fairly strong in the past month,” said Greyling, who won the UTD 62km race in 2017. “But as always, I’ll line up at the start more rested than trained!
“But I have achieved consistency and overall I’m pleased. I must now trust what I’ve invested and give it my best shot. I’m going for the win – that is why we race!”
Greyling recognises his path to the top of the podium will not be a an easy one, with the most competitive field ever for the ‘100’. “I think Rory (Scheffer) could be my toughest opposition. He is no longer a youngster and has completed a number of 100 km races.
“Albert Phungula is a local athlete who broke the Karkloof 100 miler record, so I’m expecting him to be strong, while Robbie Rorich and Martin Malherbe could also be contenders.
“I was tempted to enter for the 100 miler,” Greyling admitted. “I’ve never raced further than 114km, so it would have been a less competitive race with my friends just to see what it is all about. But in the end I’ve opted to go with my race distance and give it a full go.”
The record for the UTD 100km is a fast 12:37:25, set by French ultra-athlete Vincent Viet in 2017. This year’s race will be 8 km further but according to race director, Spurgeon Flemington, will be more runnable, the trail having been better prepared than previously.
With runners departing the SA border post at 05h00 and sunset scheduled for 17h34, the winner will have to better Viet’s record by three minutes to beat sundown at the finish at the Premier Sani Pass Hotel.
Story by Stephen Granger