South Africa’s leading distance athletes nominated for Modern Athlete of the Year Awards

Landie Greyling, Sipho Mbanjwa, Toni McCann, Siboniso Soldaka, Daniel Claassen and Bianca Tarboton are just some of the nominees for the trail running component in the Modern Athlete of the Year Award for 2023, announced today (Friday 9 February) by the popular South African publication, Modern Athlete, while Glenrose Xaba, Precious Mashebe, Stephen Mokoka, Gerda Steyn and Tete Dijana are some of the athletes nominated in the road section of the awards competition.

Nominees for track and field and cross-country components are expected to be announced shortly.

Gerda Steyn and Irvette van Zyl in action in the 2022 Two Oceans Marathon. Both have been nominated in the Road Running sector of Modern Athlete of the Year. Photo – Two Oceans Marathon

The Modern Athlete of the Year Awards are based on a detailed breakdown and recognition of leading 2023 performances in the various athletics’ disciplines and follow the recent Athletics South Africa’s Athlete of the Year Awards, when Adriaan Wildschutt and Marione Fourie were announced as the respective winners.

Holywood Bets Manager, Manfred Seidler, (road) and SPNA’s Stephen Granger with Europe-based running coach James Montgomery (trail) adjudicated the nominations in conjunction with Modern Athlete editor, Sean Falconer.

TITANS OF TRAIL

Athlete or Sportsperson of the year contests are often controversial.  A range of factors from weather conditions to the quality of the opposition often clouding objectivity. How much more so for a ‘Trail Runner of the Year’ contest, when a range of distances, gradients and degrees of terrain difficulty need to be assessed.

How to compare performance over a technical 100 miler with challenging vertical metres to a short, runnable mountain running event, or the likes of a Jim Walmsley or Courtney Dauwalter with a Patrick Kipngeno or Joyce Muthoi Njeru?

Typically, ultra-distance trail races receive greater media coverage and athletes excelling at these events are more likely to receive votes in awards contests, as was the case recently, when Dauwalter and Walmsley were named Trail Runners of the Year by the impressive USA-based Freetrail organisation.

Freetrail Female Trail Runner of the Year, Courtney Dauwalter. Photo: Stephen Granger

An impressive aspect of Freetrail’s competition is its opening of the voting to anyone involved in the sport while allocating a weighted vote to certain cohorts with knowledge of the sport. What may be missing, is a rigorous assessment of the quality of the fields in various races and a careful examination of win – loss records against opponents.

Modern Athlete’s decision to include such a contest for trail athletes, together with its track and field and road counterparts, is likely to lead to lively debate and readers are invited to add their comments on the nominees before the final outcome is announced.

To avoid the pitfall of having to compare shorter distance mountain running with ultra-trail performances, the following categories were identified:

Short distance trail and mountain running (up to 32km)

Marathon-distance trail running (33km – 49km)

Ultra-trail running (above 50km)

Between five and seven male and female nominees have been named in each of these categories with the winners to be announced in next month’s edition of Modern Athlete.  An announcement on an overall trail-running performance of the year will follow.

These trail nominations take into account a range of criteria, including the national or international profile of races, race times in comparison with historical best performances, prevailing conditions during the race and the quality of the opposition.

Short distance trail and mountain running (up to 32km)

The introduction of ‘mountain running’ to the sport of trail running in South Africa has brought an exciting new dimension to the sport. Hosting mountain and trail running in a single World Mountain and Trail Championships in Austria in June 2023 provided an opportunity for some of the country’s leading road and track distance athletes to gain Protea colours at the highest level and compete for trail runner of the year.

Johardt van Heerden leads Sipho Mbanjwa in the UTD21km. The two athletes finished first and second. Photo – Stephen Granger

The fast-runnable (with some technical sections) Ultra-trail Drakensberg (UTD) ‘Drakensberg Rockjumper Run’ 21km in late April provided an ideal selection race for the national team to travel to Austria for the 15,5km mountain running event and the competition proved intense. In the end, experienced trail athlete, Johardt van Heerden, demonstrated that trail experience can triumph over novice talent and speed and raced through to an impressive victory in record time to secure his nomination in this category.

KZN’s Sipho Mbanjwa and Cape Town’s Siboniso Soldaka (2nd and 4th respectively) ran impressively and booked their flights to Austria, where the 15,5km Mountain Classic provided an opportunity for athletes from Africa to take the game to their Europeans and American counterparts.

Siboniso Soldaka races to a top 50 finish at the World Mountain Running championship race. Photo – Stephen Granger

While Kenya and Uganda led the way with several individual medals, South Africans found the going tough and the competition from the world’s best athletes from almost 70 nations intense. Mbanjwa and Soldaka did well to bag top 50 places in the men’s competition, Mbanjwa finishing in 1:03:51 for 41st and Soldaka 50 seconds back in 50th.

Oudtshoorn athlete, Underson Ncube, narrowly missed selection for the world championships after placing 7th in the Drakensberg but showed his form with a fine victory at the MUT by UTMB 25km in George in May, winning in 2:01:22, four minutes clear of the promising Christian van den Heever.

Underson Ncube leads Siboniso Soldaka across the first water crossing in the Ultra-trail Drakensberg 21km. Photo – Stephen Granger

Ncube secured his nomination in October, winning the 30km at the Cape Winelands Maxi Run, two minutes clear of Cameron Macintosh and finishing third at the Cape Town Peace Trail 22km behind Soldaka and German athlete Marcel Hoeche.

Short-distance trail took on a different perspective in August and September with the popular SA Skyrunning series offering athletes the opportunity to test themselves on some steep mountain slopes, often over technical terrain, in the Western Cape.

Robbie Rorich’s supreme skills on the technical descents secured him four straight wins in the Langeberg, Table Mountain, Genandendaal and Mont Rochelle Sky Races over distances between 22km and 26km, edging out Jacques du Plessis, who had raced the marathon-distance at the World Championships, by close margins in the first three races and securing his nomination.

Top performer in the SA Skyrunning seriers, Robbie Rorich (left) in action in the Mont Rochelle SkyRace. Photo – Stephen Granger

The 24km Four Peaks Challenge in the eastern Free State has a reputation as one of the toughest mountain races in the business.  Simon Tshabalala has dominated the race in recent years, and in September, he regained the title he had lost to Collin Kanyimo in 2022, winning in record time in 2:30:27 – 18-minutes ahead of Sifiso Buthelezi.  While better known as an ultra-distance athlete, Tshabalala’s Four Peaks win together with his 2:27:23 victory at the Walters Way 30km in Roodepoort earlier in the year, secures his nomination in the shorter-distance category.

Four Peaks legend, Simon Tshabalala. Photo: Fj Think – Agency

Navigational challenges influenced one of the most competitive short-distance races, Ultra-trail Cape Town’s ‘Explorer’ 23km. Soldaka and newcomer, Philani Sengce, ran off course while leading the race but Brandon Keeling’s 56 second victory over Tsielo Tsanyane in 2:10:42 was nonetheless one of the best in his career.

Nwabisa Mjoli enjoying every moment of her re-entry to trail racing in the DRJ21. Mjoli went on to win. Photo – Stephen Granger

In the women’s competition, Phantane’s Nwabisa Mjoli made her presence felt in her first high-profile trail race with an impressive last-gasp 9 second victory over German Marion Leiberich at the UTD 21km in April, booking her ticket to the World Championships and her Trail Runner of the Year nomination. While she found the 15,5km Mountain Classic in Austria tough going, this KZN athlete looks certain to be a force in trail in months and years to come.

Lijan Burger finished strongly at UTD to take third behind Mjoli before warming up for the World Championships with a 10-minute win in 2:25:57 at the MUT 25km by UTMB in George. Burger raced consistently at the 15,5km mountain running championship in Austria, finishing 67th (second South African behind Bianca Tarboton).

South Africa’s mountain running team at the World Championships in Austria, all nominees in the short-distance category, Lijan Burger, Nwabisa Mjoli and Bianca Tarboton. Photo – Stephen Granger

Young George-based athlete, Rebecca Kohne, took two SA Skyrunning titles at Langeberg and Mont Rochelle, with Taryn King and Landie Greyling sharing the other two. Emily Djock was a model of consistency in the series, bagging three second places and a third.

Earlier in the year, Kohne raced impressively in Croatia, winning the 20km at the Istria 100 by UTMB in record time, finishing 9th overall in 1:31:13 and securing her nomination.

France-based Meg Mackenzie also suffered navigational challenges while leading the UTCT 23km in November, handing Burger a two-minute victory in 2:29:16, but Mackenzie secured her nomination in this category with an excellent 13th behind Kenyan Joyce Njeru at the competitive 19,5km Montee du Nid D’Aigle in France in July.

Meg Mackenzie leads Lijan Burger in the early stages of the Ultra-trail Cape Town 23km. Photo – Stephen Granger

Bianca Tarboton was the highest-placed South African at the World Championships, leading the way with an impressive 1:13:54 for 34th position against the world’s best in the 15,5km mountain-running event in June before racing to 22nd place in 3:19:41 behind American Sophia Laukli at Sierra Zinal 31km in Switzerland in August, in one of the world’s most competitive trail races.

Nominees (alphabetical order)

Women: Lijan Burger, Rebecca Kohne, Meg Mackenzie, Nwabisa Mjoli, Bianca Tarboton

Men: Sipho Mbanjwa, Underson Ncube, Robert Rorich, Siboniso Soldaka, Simon Tshabalala, Johardt van Heerden

Close but no cigar:  Jacques du Plessis, Brandon Keeling, Taryn King and Emily Djock.

Marathon-distance trail running (33km – 49km)

The classic marathon distance of 42,195km commands prestige, profile and popularity on the roads and several of South Africa’s most prestigious trail races are held over ‘marathon distance’ , where less precise measurement governs this sector.

The marathon-distance races at Ultra-trail Drakensberg (UTD), MUT by UTMB in George, Hout Bay Trail Challenge, Otter African Trail Run, Cape Town Trail Marathon and Ultra-trail Cape Town, together with several prestigious international races provided the yardstick for this category.

Jacques du Plessis wins the Ultra-trail Drakensberg 32km. Photo – Stephen Granger

Jacques du Plessis clinched his place on the team to the World Championships in Austria with a pillar to post victory in the UTD 32km in April, and although he struggled with the competitiveness of the mountainous marathon-distance world championship race, his victory at the 45km Cape Winelands Maxi later in the year clinched his nomination.

The Otter remains the country’s premier marathon-distance trail race in respect of depth of quality and Kane Reilly ran his best race in 11 appearances along the iconic Southern Cape coastal trail. He crossed the floating finish on the Grootrivier Lagoon within 1 min 58 sec of the winner – world-class athlete, Robbie Simpson of Scotland.  Reilly’s 4:14:34 in slippery, muddy conditions represents one of the best performances by a South African in the race’s history.

Kane Reilly leads the South African charge in the 45km race at the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Austria. Photo – Stephen Granger

Reilly’s performance at the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships was impressive. With a staggering 3600m of vertical in one of the toughest 45km trail races imaginable and facing arguably the deepest quality field in any trail race on the planet, Reilly’s 72nd in 5:17:19 was a solid effort as first South African home.

Adding to Reilly’s 2023 CV was a solid 33rd position at the competitive Mont Blanc Marathon, shortly after the World Championships in June, a 22-minute win over Kyle Bucklow at one of Reilly’s favourite local races, the 40km Hout Bay Trail Challenge in July.

Daniel Claassen in 4th place at the top of Platteklip before moving through the field to take victory. Photo – Stephen Granger

Only a well-judged race from ultra-trail specialist, Daniel Claassen, prevented Reilly from retaining his Cape Town Trail Marathon title, once again just seven days after the Otter. Coming from behind, Claassen turned up the heat in sync with the thermometers in the second half of the race to beat Reilly by two minutes in 4:25:08 to clinch a nomination in this sector.

Marathon-distance specialist, Johardt van Heerden, ran his best races in the short and ultra-distance categories in 2023, but his third position at the Otter, four minutes behind Reilly, and 76th place at the world championships, just two minutes behind Reilly, earned him nomination in this sector.

Robbie Rorich’s third place in the 46km Cape Town Trail Marathon behind Claassen and Reilly narrowly clinched his nomination ahead of Greyling, who edged him by just 12 seconds for fifth place at the Otter.

The women’s marathon-distance category saw several outstanding performances by the country’s leading athletes at home and abroad in 2023.

Toni McCann wins at Transvulcania. Photo – adidas TERREX

While Toni McCann kept her fireworks for exceptional ultra-distance performances, she set her season rolling with a superb 4:49:23 victory at the 48km Transvulcania Marathon over Swedish athlete Emelia Brangefalt and Spain’s Julia Fort Gomez.

An injury niggle kept McCann out of the World Championships and her woes continued when a biking accident, while supporting her teammates in Austria, left her with a broken collarbone.

But McCann healed rapidly and raced to a record-breaking victory by almost twenty minutes in the 43km Davos X-Trail race in Switzerland in late July – a warm-up to the UTMB OCC ultra race in August.

Bianca Tarboton wins the MUT Marathon in record time. Photo – Craig Gerber

McCann’s adidas TERREX teammate, Bianca Tarboton, produced fireworks of her own in Europe, with an impressive 12th position in the competitive Mont Blanc Marathon in June and second place behind a record-breaking American, Dani Moreno, in the Eiger Ultra Trail by UTMB in July. Tarboton’s 4:05:11 at that race was also inside British athlete Eleanor Davis’ previous record.

But Tarboton left her best for home soil, racing to a superb 4:36:55 record at the George MUT Marathon in May, having made a last-minute decision to race.  Tarboton finished third overall, just five minutes behind joint winners Iain Peterkin and Jacques Buys, her time slashing a massive 33 minutes off Landie Greyling’s previous record.

Back home after her European sojourn, Tarboton sped to a superb 4:52 min win in the Otter African Trail run, 33 minutes clear of her Protea teammate, Lijan Burger. While 7 minutes outside her own record time for the classic east to west run, the excessively muddy conditions were worth at least ten. 

Tarboton’s last race of the year was equally impressive – an 18-minute win over British athlete, Holly Page, in Ultra-trail Cape Town’s ‘Table Mountain’ 32km, finishing third overall in 4:04:57.

Landie Greyling – blood, sweat and tears but still smiling. Photo – Stephen Granger

Landie Greyling and Sam Reilly both raced well over marathon-distance trails in 2023, deservedly bagging trail runner of the year nominations in this category. 

Greyling beat the heat and her rivals at Ultra-trail Drakensberg’s ‘Sundowner 32’, winning the 32km World Champs selection race by 20 minutes in 3 hr 29 min and a ticket to Austria, where her 37th position in the tough 45km ‘Short Trail’ World Championship was one of the standouts among the South African team.

Sam Reilly running strongly in the UTCT 100km. Photo – Stephen Granger

Reilly has long raced in the shadow of her brother Kane, but she stepped up to join him on the winner’s podium at the Hout Bay Trail Challenge in July with an excellent 32 minute victory in 5:20:23. She went one better than her brother at the 46km Cape Town Trail Marathon on Table Mountain, with an impressive win in 5:09:11 – 14 minutes clear of British athlete, Catherine Williamson.

Rebecca Kohne’s second place behind a red-hot Tarboton at the George MUT Marathon and strong finishing third place in UTCT’s ‘Table Mountain’ 32km saw her grab the final nomination ahead of Lijan Burger, whose second position at the Otter, 33 minutes behind Tarboton, was her only significant race in this sector.

Nominees (alphabetical order)

Women: Landie Greyling, Rebecca Kohne, Toni McCann, Samantha Reilly, Bianca Tarboton

Men: Daniel Claassen, Jacques du Plessis, Kane Reilly, Robert Rorich, Johardt van Heerden

Close but no cigar:  Lijan Burger, Iain Peterkin, Jacques Buys and Christiaan Greyling.

Ultra-trail running (above 50km)

Strong performances by many athletes in distances between 50km and 170km made the task of identifying five male and female nominees in this category proved challenging, if not impossible.

Toni McCann – sensational win at the UTMB OCC 55km. Photo – UTMB

Toni McCann’s remarkable victory in the UTMB OCC 55km race in August over a world-class field represents a high point in South African trail running. Over eight minutes clear of top contenders, American Katie Schide and Chinese athlete Miao Yao, at the finish, McCann’s win is still being savoured by trail running aficionadas around the world.

McCann didn’t stop there, however, opting to end her season at Ultra-trail Cape Town in late November. Challenging British athlete, Robbie Simpson for the overall lead in the ‘Peninsula Traverse’ 55km in the early stages, McCann was content to throttle back to finish third overall in 5:47:39, over thirty minutes inside Landie Greyling’s mark from 2022 and nine minutes clear of second woman home, top Kiwi Caitlin Fielder.

Meg Mackenzie leading the UTCT 23km. Photo – Stephen Granger

Meg Mackenzie delivered one of the best performances of her career with a superb third place at the Transvulcania 72km race in the Canary Islands in May and she might have finished even closer to race winner, Martina Valmassoi of Italy, had she not been forced to stop for 15 minutes early in the race while a helicopter race rescue took place.

At the other end of the ultra-spectrum, Nicolette Griffioen got back on the Ultra-trail Cape Town 100 miler saddle after failing to finish last year’s race. Griffioen ran strongly to finish 4th overall (first woman) in 26:11:08. Although over an hour outside American Hilary Allen’s winning time last year and 33 min adrift of Kerry-Anne Marshall’s second-placed 2022 finish, 2023 conditions were significantly hotter. Griffioen also raced to a 6 hr 29 min victory at the Magoeboskloof 50km in March.

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

Also in the UTCT 100 miler, Naomi Brand was unable to match her 2022 run and although she moved up one podium position to second, her time was over three hours slower. Brand’s nomination, however, is largely based on her strong showing in the Tarawera 100km in New Zealand in February, where she placed 6th, 34 minutes behind New Zealand Mountain champion, Nancy Jiang.

Sam Reilly added to her impressive marathon-distance races with a strong 100km performance at Ultra-trail Cape Town. Reilly placed fifth in a very competitive international field, won by world-class Ruth Croft of New Zealand, and was over an hour ahead of the second South African home, Kerry-Anne Marshall.

Landie Greyling’s comfortable win in the 53km Whale of Trail in July in 5:43:25 cannot be ignored and earns her a nomination. Simone Malan, who finished 12 minutes behind in second and who won the Skyrun 100km in the Eastern Cape later in the year in 16 hr 23 min, narrowly misses out as does fast-improving Rebecca Watney, who impressed with a solid 4th place in 6 hr 49 min behind McCann in the UTCT 55km.

Since trading his rugby boots for running shoes, Matt Healy has improved year on year and has established himself as a leading ultra-distance athlete. Healy has the potential to move up a level and mix it with the world’s best in ultra-distance competition.  Two top-five position ultra-distance races in Europe are the legacy of his best-ever year in the sport.

Matt Healy – constant improvement in ultra-distance running. Photo – Stephen Granger

In May, Healy finished a close second to French athlete, Guillaume Berthier, at France’s Trail Alsace Grand Est by UTMB, his time of 10:29:57 just 53 seconds off the top position.  Healy returned to Europe later in the year to place a competitive 5th in 11:41:10 at the Julian Alps ultra-trail race in Slovenia, just 16 minutes behind the winner, Polish athlete Alexsander Badowski.

Two quality performances in Europe also defined Daniel Claassen’s season. The Cape Town athlete placed an excellent 11th position in a competitive Transvulcania 72km field and he was one of the best South Africans at the World Championships with a courageous 44th position in the gruelling 86km ultra-distance race.

Daniel Claassen leading the South African charge at the World Championships 86km. Photo – Stephen Granger

Arguably Johardt van Heerden’s best performance in 2023 came at the George MUT 60km in May, where he smashed Kane Reilly’s record by more than 15 minutes in muddy conditions, clocking 5:55:18, 20 minutes clear of American TERREX athlete, Jeshuran Small.  Eastern Cape’s Mvuyisi Gcogco was a long way back in third.

Mvuyisi Gcogco wins the Whale of Trail 53km. Photo – Kirsten Oliver

Gcogco’s best racing came elsewhere, and his win at the Whale of Trail in July in 5:07:48 and his runner-up position to Robbie Simpson at the Ultra-trail Cape Town’s 55km earned his nomination.

Christiaan Greyling had struggled with illness for several months in 2022 and into 2023, but his second place at the UTD 62km behind race winner, Simon Desvaux de Marigny of Mauritius – to book his place on the South African team to Austria.  Greyling ran one of the toughest races of his life to finish 78th at the World Championship 86km ‘Long Trail’ race.

Christiaan Greyling in action in the 86km race at the World Championships in Austria. Photo – Stephen Granger

Back to the 100 milers, where impressive performances by Ryan Sandes and Doug Pickard caught the eye.  Sandes’ best race in 2023 came at the inaugural George MUT by UTMB 100 miler where he came in well ahead of the anticipated winning time in difficult, muddy, conditions, finishing over an hour ahead of second-placed Pickard in 21 hr 46 min.

Leading South African in the in the Ultra-trail Cape Town 100km, Ryan Sandes running in 8th place through the Alphen aid station. Photo – Stephen Granger

Pickard’s best race came at the end of the year when he saw off the challenges of several leading international ultra-distance athletes to finish second behind top Russian athlete, Aleksei Tolstenko in 23 hr 53 min, well up on the third-placed athlete.

Skyrun 100km winner Simon Tshabalala (in a time more than two hours off his best) and Cape Winelands Maxi 76km winner, Brandon Hulley, were unlucky to miss out in a competitive sector.

Douglas Pickard – 2022 winner at Cape Winelands Maxi 120km and second in the 2023 UTCT 100 miler. Photo – Cape Winelands Maxi

Nominees (alphabetical order)

Women: Naomi Brand, Landie Greyling, Nicolette Griffioen, Toni McCann, Meg Mackenzie, Samantha Reilly

Men: Daniel Claassen, Mvuyisi Gcogco, Christiaan Greyling, Matt Healy, Douglas Pickard, Ryan Sandes, Johardt van Heerden

Close but no cigar:  Simon Tshabalala, Brandon Hulley, Simone Malan and Rebecca Watney.

Modern Athlete’s announcement of the road and trail awards can be found in the following links:  https://joom.ag/vWAd/p39, https://joom.ag/vWAd/p40, and https://joom.ag/vWAd/p44.