Stunning landscapes, farming hospitality and intense competition at Ultra-trail Drakensberg

Dawn light accentuates the beauty of the Berg as the 100 mile runners enter the second day. Photo - Zac Zinn

New champions were crowned, dreams fulfilled and hearts broken as the traditional ringing of the cow-bells by the 100 miler finishers signalled the close of the sixth edition of the Ultra-trail Drakensberg (UTD) at the Premier Resort Sani Pass in KZN South Africa over the weekend (28-30 April).

Early morning rays catch a runner ‘in the zone’ in the majestic Drakensberg mountains. Photo – Simon Pocock

The weather gods were kind to organisers and supporters, perhaps less so to the athletes, who suffered under the warm sunshine, but the weekend, filled with anticipation and surprises, was acclaimed by participants at this year’s event.

At the sharp end of the racing, UTD’s status as selection race for the South African team to travel to the World Mountain and Trail Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, in June ensured that the fields of the shorter three of the five events were stacked. 

And racing was intense as athletes strove for podium and team positions.

Spirits soured as the morning rays lit up the mountain slopes, runners savouring the delights of running in the Maloti Drakensberg World Heritage Site. Photo – Kelvin Trautmann

But for the most part, participants, supporters, and volunteers enjoyed the physical delights of competition in the southern area of the internationally renowned Maloti Drakensberg World Heritage Site and the social benefits of the warmth and generosity from Underberg farming community.

The economic benefits to the region were substantial. Accommodation within a wide radius from race headquarters sold out for the long weekend and restaurant owners and workers were run off their feet as trade boomed for four days.

‘One of the most challenging 100 mile races in the world’ – Photo – Simon Pocock

Highlights of the weekend included

–         High quality racing, led by a strongest-ever field in the half marathon

–         The never-say-die spirit of trail runners, fighting to overcome the impacts of altitude, heat and possibly poor pace judgement

–         The impressive organisation, ensuring a smooth operation with relatively few glitches

–         The exceptional commitment by community volunteers, most visible in the staffing of refreshment and aid stations along the routes

–         The world-class images, taken by some of South Africa’s leading outdoor photographers, perfectly capturing the beauty of the surroundings and the emotions of the runners

Popular race director and founder, Spurgeon Flemington – led an efficient and professional team. Photo – Stephen Granger

But UTD is essentially about the racing and  this year’s fare delivered a number of classic contests with several twists in more than just the route layouts.

In the Drakensberg Rock Jumper 21km (DRJ21), Johardt van Heerden gave a demonstration of quality trail-racing with a superb victory in the 21km.

Tightly bunched – Wano Katjiri leads Johard van Heerden and Sipho Mbanjwa approaching 8km in the 21 km race. Photo – Stephen Granger

Van Heerden had already been chosen to race the 44km at World Championships and used the 21km for speed preparation. Namibian, Wano Katjiri, set the early pace, leading Van Heerden and Phantane athlete, Sipho Mbanjwa, through 8km at the Trail Head of the Giant’s Cup Trail.

But Van Heerden took control from half way, racing clear up the substantial ‘Salt and Pepper’ climb and making use of his impressive technical skills on the fast but technical descent.

Sipho Mbanjwa enjoying a return to trail racing in the DRJ 21km. Mbanjwa finished second to book himself a place in the SA team to Austria. Photo – Stephen Granger

KZN athlete Mbanjwa raced to a top ten in the Two Oceans Half Marathon two weeks back but could only watch as trail specialist Van Heerden raced clear to win by almost three minutes in record time in 1:44:20.

Mbanjwa outran Katjiri in the final stages to take second and earn a call up to the Proteas to race the 13,7km Mountain Classic at World Championships.  And with Katjiri ineligible for selection, a strong finish by Cape Town athlete Siboniso Soldaka clinched a place on the team in fourth.

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

Nwabisa Mjoi’s natural speed and endurance compensated for her relative inexperience on the trails and Phantane athlete held off German-born Marion Leiberich for victory in the women’s race, while Lijan Burger joined her on the SA team with a competitive third.

Stellenbosch athletes, Jacques du Plessis and Landie Greyling, both raced hard from the traditional start at Castleburn in Sundowner Run 32km (SDR32), soon opening a lead on their rivals in their respective competitions.

Mvuyisi Gcogco chasing the leaders in the SDR32. The Eastern Cape athlete left his effort too late, his third place not enough to earn him a call-up to the South African team. Photo – Kirsten Oliver

Du Plessis held a 1 min 26 sec advantage over local athlete, Bongukwanda Dlamini, through the first check point at Mzimkulwana, with race favourite, Robbie Rorich, twenty seconds back.

In the women’s race, Greyling was three minutes clear of back-to-racing former triathlete, Carla van Huysteen, with Sumé van Heerden a further minute back in third.

Stellenbosch athlete, Jacques du Plessis upset some of the more favoured athletes to snatch victory in the Sundowner Run 32km. Photo – Stephen Granger

The two Western Cape athletes were still well clear in their respective competitions across the swaying footbridge at Cobham, 12km from home, as they began their final climb out of Cobham.

Dlamini and Eastern Cape athlete, Mvuyisi Gcogco, were making up ground on Du Plessis, but had left it too late as they had to settle for the minor podium positions. Gcogco made up 7 minutes on the leader over the final 12km to finish third, three minutes off the pace and narrowly missing out on selection.

Landie Greyling races the descent of the Gxalingenwe Gorge at speed, shortly before she cut her knees in a fall, before carrying on to win the Sundowner Run 32km. Photo – Zac Zinn

Greyling’s cheerful ‘high-five’ to a fellow competitor down the technically challenging gorge just 1,5km from the finish led to a ‘low-two’ as she cut both knees badly in a fall.  She nonetheless finished well to win comfortably and earn selection, joining Toni McCann in the line-up for the ‘Short Race’ over 44km at Worlds.

Simon Tshabalala, Christiaan Greyling, Doug Pickard and Cornelius Rall were aiming for selection for the ‘long trail 85km’ in Austria through racing well at the Giant’s Cup Ultra 62km (GCU62), but all suffered from the warm temperature and hot pace early on, as Pickard took the race to his rivals.

Simon Tshabalala cooling down at the Cobham refreshment station 12km from the finish. Photo – Stephen Granger

World-class Mauritian, Simon Desvaux de Marigny, had trained hard for the race, and tracked Pickard from a distance, before drawing level at Swiman Hut after 15km and racing through halfway at Castleburn 1:24 up on Tshabalala with Pickard a further minute back.

Rall was running strongly and took over the lead after 35km. But the Mauritian, running to his pre-set plan, took back control 15km from home and raced clear to an emphatic victory in 6:04:44 –  over 14 minutes outside Van Heerden’s record last year.

Simon Desvaux de Marigny’s daughter was on hand to escort him through the tape in winning the Giant’s Cup Uncut 62km. Photo – Stephen Granger

Rall tied up badly in the final stages, allowing Greyling and Tshabalala to race through to take the minor positions, Greyling a full 16 minutes behind the leader.

Marissa Groenewald won a less-competitive women’s race, winning in 8:30:59 well outside Meg Mackenzie’s record of 6:40:25 set last year.

Pierre Jordaan and Nadia Jooste were the respective winners of the 100km with a surprised Ross Lutsch taking the tape in the 100miler after KZN athlete, Lloyd Sithole, made an inexplicable navigational error just 11km from home and leading by 34 minutes.

Which way? Lloyd Sithole lost his lead in the 100 miler due to a navigational error. Photo – Kirsten Oliver

“I don’t know how it happened,” said a disappointed Sithole. “It was just one of those things that can occur in trail racing. I was pretty exhausted and for some reason took an overgrown path rather than following the clearly-defined trail. When I realized how far I’d gone wrong, it was a motivational killer and I felt it impossible to get back and chase.”

Lutsch won in 29:28:59 – more than 7 hours outside Pickard’s record run last year, with Sithole 35 minutes behind in second.

Intense emotion – Hannah Rickman’s experiences both elation and exhaustion after completing ‘her toughest ultra-maration ever’. Photo – Stephen Granger

Third place overall went to British doctor Hannah Rickman in 31:10:34, who ran the entire race unsupported, not making use of the rules which permit a companion pacer for 40km in the middle of the race.

Based at Blantyre hospital while completing her PhD in tuberculosis research, Rickman was proud to run under a Malawian flag. “Phew – I’ve run a few 100 milers, but that’s definitely the toughest!” said Rickmann at the finish. “But what a race – the views were outstanding.”

Part of the South African Team to take part in the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships – Johardt van Heerden, Landie Greyling, Jacques du Plessis, Nwabisa Mjoli, Lijan Burger, Sipho Mbanjwa, Christian Greying, Jazz Mnyengeza (ASA Board Member)

South African team to take part in the World Mountain and Trail Running Championship in Innsbruck, Austria from 6- 10 June

Mountain classic 13.7

Men: Mbuleli Mathanga, Sipho Mbanjwa, Llewellyn Groenewald, Siboniso Soldaka

Women: Bianca Tarboton, Nwabisa Mjoli, Lijan van Niekerk

Short Trail 44 km

Men: Kane Reilly , Johardt van Heerden, Jacques Du Plessis

Women: Toni McCann, Landie Greyling

Long Trail 85 km

Men : Daniel Claassen, Christian Greyling

Women: Meg Mackenzie, Naomi Brand