By Stephen Granger
They’re bold, brave and ballsy and stirring up a storm in trail running circles. And they’re in Cape Town to compete in the country’s premier trail running event – Ultra-trail Cape Town (UTCT).
Courtney Dauwalter and Mathieu Blanchard are poles apart in many respects, including their standing in the sport at the highest level (Dauwalter is at the very top of the tree while Blanchard is steadily making his way up to the canopy from somewhere above mid-trunk) but they share a penchant for long-distance running and a strong non-conformist trait, which makes them stand out from the crowd. They’ve mostly torn up the ‘trail-running rule book’, deciding to do it their own way.
Both move with admirable speed over tough terrain and gradients – in the end, the only criteria which matters in the sport – and both look set to finish near the front end of the formidable field assembled for the 7th edition of UTCT.
While not yet mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Jim Walmsley, Francois D’Haene and Kilian Jornet, Blanchard is fast gaining attention as a force to be reckoned with in many of the world’s top races and his arrival in Cape Town over two weeks ago to prepare for Ultra-trail Cape Town is an indication that he does not see himself in Africa simply to make up the numbers.
The French-Canadian athlete’s third position in this year’s Ultra-trail Mont Blanc 100 miler behind winner D’Haene caused many to sit up and take notice of one of the most committed and passionate trail athletes on the world circuit, who confesses to loving his life as a professional trail athlete and with it the opportunity to explore many of the world’s most beautiful places.
Mathieu’s insatiable appetite for racing sets him apart. While more favoured athletes opted out of racing after UTMB to rest up and prepare for UTCT three months away, Blanchard was just getting started. “I had to take advantage of the change of date for the Marathon des Sables,” Blanchard explained. “Normally it is held in April which is never a good time for me. Because of COVID it was held this year in early October, so I just had to take my chance this year.”
Blanchard ran impressively at the eight-day stage race across the Sahara Desert to place fifth behind some of the strongest desert runners on the planet, but it could have been a podium. “I fell victim to the stomach virus which swept through the camps this year,” Blanchard explained.
“I was well-placed after the first two legs ahead of the long-day 80km third leg, which was where I had hoped to move through the field. But I went down with the bug the night before and could barely finish the leg. I had recovered in 24 hours and came close to winning the final leg. All in all a great race and learning experience.”
Blanchard was still not ready to rest ahead of UTCT and a week after Marathon des Sables he ran and won the challenging Cappodochia 100km race in Turkey, before turning towards Africa and his date with Table Mountain.
“I enjoy my life as a professional athlete and I like to get to a race venue well ahead of time, both to prepare properly on the trails, but also to take in a new environment – the people and the place. Cape Town is certainly one of the best possible places. I started my outdoor sport career in the oceans as a scuba diver before finding my passion for the mountains and in Cape Town I can indulge both my passions in a single day!”
Never one to forego the opportunity of racing in a new part of the planet, Blanchard has made his mark in no uncertain terms, winning the Transmartinique 144km in France in 2017, the Transalpine GoreTex 280km Run in Europe in the same year, the Quebec Mega Trail in Canada in 2018 and Ultra-trail Guatemala 100km in 2018. He placed second in the highly competitive Tarawera 102km Ultra in New Zealand in 2020 before COVID curtailed his racing.
Undeterred, the French-born athlete set his sights on running longer and further and raced to the fastest known time (FKT) in the 650km Quebec Appalachian Trail in Canada – his adopted home country for the past eight years. “I finally past my last exam to become a Canadian citizen at the Canadian embassy in Cape Town last week,” said Blanchard.
Blanchard has planned his race strategy to suit his strengths and is optimistic of a strong outcome. “The guys like Jim Walmsley and Sebastian Spehler will likely go out fast from the start, but I think it would be best for me to stay cool and keep energy in the bag for the second half, when I hope I will be able to finish strongly.”
Her passion for running wild and long is legendary and she follows no standard rules in her race preparation. Dauwalter made history with her UTMB time in late August of 22:30:54 – 7 minutes inside her compatriot Rory Bosio’s 2013 race record on a course three kilometres longer than the one Bosio raced – good enough for a seventh position overall.
While the conventional ‘rule book’ may have advised Dauwalter to rest after UTMB and fit in some solid training prior to UTCT, Dauwalter’s love for racing long distances over-rode that and she returned to the Big’s Backyard Ultra in Tennessee, USA, just five weeks ago to defend the title she won last year by running 283 miles (456km) in 4 mile one-hour loops.
Dauwalter’s name and image are among the most-recognised in the sport, on a par with legends such as Kilian Jornet. Shunning the modern, tight-fitting dress code of most world-class athletes and the latest in trail running gear, Dauwalter appears more comfortable in her ‘old favourite’ large shirt and baggy knee high shorts.
“This year I was not feeling great and ‘only’ managed 175 miles (283 km),” Dauwalter reflected from her Cape Town hotel this week. “Perhaps that will help me have fresher legs for the race!”
Dauwalter’s presence this year fulfils her promise made two years ago, when an injury forced her into the role of spectator at the 2019 UTCT. “I’ll be back to race it one day,” Dauwalter vowed, and the 36-year-old Colorado resident is ecstatic to be back. “The trails here are amazing and we’re having such a good time meeting people from the local community.
“We have some similar trails in Colorado so I’m looking forward to some of the technical sections on Saturday, although I think these are a bit tougher than our ones at home. I’m not really sure what my strengths are – do I have any? We’ll have to see on the day.”
With no apparent race plan, target time or position, Dauwalter will rely a lot on instinct and on listening to how her body feels on the day to judge her pace, which in her case is usually far too quick for any of her rivals. And with British athlete and race record-holder, Beth Pascal, opting not to race this year, none of her rivals on Saturday appears capable of matching her on the trails.”
Dauwalter also broke new ground by opting to shun all solid foods in the second half of UTMB, which transformed her digestive problems in the USA Hardrock 100 miler in July into a winning recipe at Mont Blanc and the American could well opt to get by on gels and liquids for the entire race on Saturday.
Dauwalter has not met those tipped to be her closest rivals on Saturday but welcomes the opportunity to meet new trailer runners. “I’m very excited to meet them and get to know these special people. We will meet on the trail or after the race,” says Dauwalter. “Seeing new places and meeting new communities is what it’s really all about.”