Steep volcanic gradients make for compelling and competitive trail running in The Azores. Photo: Stephen Granger

Horta, Faial Island, Azores

Rain is regarded as an African blessing so the weather may have been tipping a cap to the region where the sport of trail running originated centuries ago, on Thursday (October 29) as the Golden Trail Championship kicked off in earnest on The Azores.

After four days of sunshine – rare at this time of year – the heavens opened for Day One of the four-day stage race, a course challenging enough in dry conditions tricky and treacherous in the rain. The first day of the main event saw runners line up on the Azorean Island of Faial in the mid-Atlantic, to take on a course that was everything Golden Trail founder, Greg Vollet, could have hoped for.

Trail running is at its best when the elements are as challenging as they were on Thursday, with winds gusting up to 70 km per hour on top of the volcanic caldera in the centre of the island, which the athletes summited shortly before the half way mark in the race. And while the cloudburst occurred after most runners had completed the race, there was enough rain to turn the trail into a mud-bath for stretches of the race.

Few escaped without a fall or two and several incurred injuries which could rule them out of further participation in the championship. The testing course and variety of gradient and terrain played to the strengths of those skilled in orienteering, and it came as no surprise that both of Thursday’s winners are superb trail athletes as well as orienteering champions. 

Frederic Tranchand wins Day One of the Golden Trail Championship in The Azores, Oct 29, 2020. Photo: Stephen Granger

French athlete Frederic Tranchand held off a strong challenge from Polish trail athlete Bartlomiej Przedwojewski (winner of the Otter African Trail in record time in 2018) to earn the ‘yellow bib’ for the fastest overall in the championship, taking it from Swiss athlete, Joey Hadorn, who won yesterday’s short section prologue.

Moroccan athlete Elhousine ‘Hassan’ Elazzaoui had an excellent outing on terrain not best suited to his skills, narrowly holding off Norwegian’s Stian Angermund-Vik to complete the podium, four minutes adrift of the top two.

Elhousine ‘Hassan’ Elazzaoui finishing third in today’s 26km opening stage in the Golden Trail Championship. Photo: Stephen Granger

Super-Swede and ten times world orienteering champion, Tove Alexanderrson, came through the field after starting at the back of the pack, to smash the course and her rivals, finishing almost seven minutes ahead of Swiss athlete and prologue winner, Maude Mathys.

Tove Alexanderrson wins Day One of the Golden Trail Championship women’s race in The Azores, Oct 29, 2020. Photo: Stephen Granger

While Tranchand and Alexandersson would score full marks for commitment, they could be marked down for strategy for a four day event. Both suffered falls while speeding along slippery routes, which could impact on their chances of winning on Day Four or worse, not making it to the start line tomorrow.

“I always strap my ankle to stablise it, as I find I turn it over a lot in orienteering,” admitted Alexandersson. “It’s a bit stiff, but I’m hopeful that I will be at the start tomorrow.”

Unable to run the prologue, as the results of her second COVID test were not available until last night, the Swede had to start at the back of the pack, but soon made up ground on the climb and was lying fourth after 5km behind a fast-starting Mathys, current world champion, Blandine L’Hirondel (France) and American Rachel Drake.

Alexandersson took the lead from Mathys on the technical section through s forest on the final ascent to the caldera and ended with almost a five minute advantage over Mathys, winning in 2 hr 10 min 00 sec. L’Hirondel took third in 2:18:11.

South Africa’s Meg Mackenzie ran a disciplined race, holding back in light of the challenges to come. “I was very controlled today – perhaps too much (Mackenzie finished 26th), but I have tons of time to make up for it!”

Tranchand was content to bide his time on the ascent before taking the lead from his Polish rival shortly before the summit.  The two ran together for much of the second half and it needed an orienteering skill to decide the race.

“Bartlomiej was running just ahead and missed a marked turn, which gave me the chance to take the lead and open a gap,” said Tranchand. “Although he only went a few metres off course, it proved enough for me to run to win today. I think my training to observe small details helped me to stay on course!”

Tranchand won in 1:53:14 – just over 30 seconds  clear of Przedwojewski – with Elazzaoui third in 1:57:51.

Stephen Granger