Strong African teams challenge for medals at World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Austria next week

Philemon Kiriago leads his teammate Patrick Kipngeno at the 2022 World Mountain-Running Championships Vertical Uphill race. Kipngeno and Kiriago took gold and sivler. Photo - iRunFar Meghan Hicks

Kenyan, Uganda and South Africa will spearhead Africa’s challenge next week among the world’s best trail athletes at the second World Mountain and Trail Running Championships, which takes place in the Tyrolian Mountain centre of Innsbruck in Austria.

An athlete runs the ridgeline along one of the Tyrol mountain ranges near Innsbruck. Photo – WMTRC Website

1600 athletes from 66 countries will be competing for medals and substantial prize money in five events in what is arguably the highest-quality trail running event on the planet.

While the sport of trail running has been largely dominated by Europe and the USA in recent decades, African countries are starting to making waves on mountain trails, as they have done in track, road and cross country competition.

In particular, they can be expected to feature prominently in the less technical mountain running competition and the 13,7km mountain classic, which takes place next Saturday on the fourth and final day of the championships, could see Africa dominate podium positions.

Kenya and Uganda participated strongly in the mountain running classic in the inaugural World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Thailand last November and if Uganda’s athletes can secure last-minute visas to travel to Austria, both countries will likely dominate again this year.

Leading ultra-distance athlete, Daniel Claassen, will be in action for South Africa in the Long Trail event. Photo – Stephen Granger

South Africa will be competing at this championship, which now falls under the banner of World Athletics, for the first time. They have brought a strong team, made up of experienced trail athletes and speedy cross-country and mountain runners.

The championship gets underway with the ‘Vertical Uphill’ contest from the event’s second hub at Stubaital, a mountain resort some 35km outside Innsbruck. Athletes will put their climbing skills to the test, ascending 1050m over 7km, with the race finishing at the summit of the Elfer Mountain.

The ‘short’ and ‘long’ (marathon and ultra-distance) trail races take place on Thursday and Friday over 45.5km and 85,6km respectively, before the mountain running race (juniors over 6,6km and seniors over 13,7km) closes the championship at Innsbruck next Saturday.

South Africa and Uganda have both entered 15 athletes, with 9 from Kenya, three from Algeria and one from Zambia making up the African contingent in Austria.

Kenya and Uganda have chosen competitive teams for the Vertical Uphill and the Mountain Classic, with Uganda having also entered four in the Mountain Classic junior (Under 20) competition.  South Africa have included strong athletes in these events but also have included several experienced athletes in the short (marathon-distance) and long (ultra-distance) trail races. Injuries, however, could shape South Africa’s fortunes in these events.

Kenyan athlete Patrick Kipngeno running strongly 10km from the finish of the 2022 Sierra Zinal 29km. Kipngeno placed second. Photo – @GoldenTrailSeries / @SierreZinal / @Philipp Reiter

Kenyan athlete Patrick Kipngeno, currently the top ranked athlete in World Mountain Running, leads the African charge and it will take an exceptional performance to prevent him defending the Vertical Challenge title he won in Thailand last year. The Kenyan boasts a 10km road best of 29:22 and half marathon of 62:42 (at altitude) and won several high-profile trail races in Europe in 2022.  But it was his second place in the Golden Trail Series Sierra Zinal in Switzerland which really brought him to prominence.

Kipngeno’s teammate, Philemon Kiriago, took the silver medal in the climbing event in Thailand and will again be competitive, while the speed of the rest of the Kenyan team could prove decisive in the 13,7km mountain classic.

Sipho Mbanjwa in action in the 21km in the Ultra-trail Drakensberg. Mbanjwa finished second to book himself a ticket to Austria. Photo – Stephen Granger

Josaphat Kiprotich, who won Kenya’s National Mountain Championship on Mt Kenya last year, has run 59:35 for the half marathon, significantly quicker than any other athlete in the field, with South African Mbuleli Mathanga’s 60:17 the next best.  Hillary Kimaiyo, third in the Kenyan Mountain Championships, has run 28:18 for 10km and with Kipngeno and Kiriago in support, it would take a miracle to stop the Kenyan’s from taking the Mountain Classic team title.

Levi Kiprotich won this year’s Ugandan Mountain Running title and will lead his country’s challenge in the Mountain Classic, with leading Ugandan steeplechase athlete, Leonard Chemutai, and 28:22 10km athlete, Dismas Yeko also likely to challenge for podium places.

With Sipho Mbanjwa, Llewellyn Groeneveld and Siboniso Soldaka providing strong support for this year’s Two Oceans Half Marathon winner, Mathanga, in the Mountain Classic, South African will have some hope of stealing a podium position in the team competition ahead of the European nations.

Ugandan Annet Chelangat on her way to second place in the 2022 World Mountain Running Championships Mountain Classic race. Photo – iRunFar Meghan Hicks

Last year, Ugandans Rebecca Cheptegei and Annet Chelangat showed a clean pair of heals to American wonder-woman Allie McLaughlin in the Mountain Running Classic in Thailand and the pair could again be to the fore in the women’s contests in the Vertical Uphill and Mountain Classic. 

With the support of Immaculate Chemutai, who represented her country in the Olympic Marathon in Japan, and their national mountain running champion, Joy Cheptoyek, Uganda could prove too strong for Kenya, who will be relying on double World Mountain Running champion, Joyce Njeru, and runner-up at the 2022 Sierra Zinal, Philaries Kipsang, to take the game to their Great Rift Valley neighbours.

Philaries Kipsang running in third during the 2022 Sierra Zinal race. Kipsang will be in action for Kenya at the World Championships next week. Photo – @GoldenTrailSeries / @SierreZinal / @Philipp Reiter

Leading South African marathon and ultra-distance trail athletes, Bianca Tarboton and Meg Mackenzie, will focus on the shorter-distance Mountain Classic at these championships and with trail newcomer, Nwabisa Mjoli, the trio could challenge for a top ten position in the team competition in an event where the likes of Switzerland, France, Spain and the USA can boast some of the world’s top athletes in their line-ups.

Competition will be intense in the individual contests in the marathon and ultra-distance races, with the world’s best from the traditionally strong European and American nations expected to dominate.

Africa’s hopes for breaking into the top twenty to thirty in these races lie with South Africans Johardt van Heerden, Kane Reilly and Landie Greyling in the marathon-distance race and Daniel Claassen in the Ultra-marathon.