All trails lead to the Underberg region of the Drakensberg this weekend (28-30 April), as the country’s leading trail and mountain runners make the journey to race HQ at Premier Resort Sani Pass for the sixth edition of Ultra-trail Drakensberg (UTD).
The three-day running festival on the trails of South Africa’s largest and most impressive mountain range – uKhahlambha or the ‘Barriers of Spears’ – has become one of the continent’s premier trail racing competitions.
Five races over 100 miles (160km), 100km, 62km, 32km and 21km take place within the southern area of the internationally renowned Maloti Drakensberg World Heritage Site, incorporating such iconic features as Sani Pass, Twelve Apostles ridgeline, Khanti Ridge and Thabana Ntlenyana (at 3482m the highest peak in southern Africa) and the event has become a highlight for trail runners seeking adventure.
And the naming of UTD as the selection race to finalise a South African team to take part in the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Austria in June has added to the significance of the event this year.
UTD has made waves through the farming community of Underberg and beyond, and the event is evocative of the never-say-die farming spirit. The welcoming refreshment stations along the routes are mostly planned and staffed by local volunteer organisations.
And UTD brings in benefits even beyond the undoubted increased consciousness in health and physical well-being the trail running festivities deliver.
“Our passion extends beyond the events to the environment in which we work and live,” says race director Spurgeon Flemington. “We work closely with event beneficiaries Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Wildlife ACT and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) helping to raise funds which are directed at projects benefiting our local area, helping to improve the surrounding environment and its wild inhabitants.
“In addition, we have been fortunate to be able to assist and support several schools and other institutions in the surrounding region.”
UTD has attracted runners from 26 countries and is creating increasing number of jobs both in South Africa and Lesotho, given that much of the 100 miler takes place in ‘the Mountain Kingdom’.
Flemington leans heavily for Lesotho-based organization and infrastructure on ‘wonder-woman’ Mapaseka Makoae. The 34 year old tour guide has an enviably diverse set of skills, which include monitoring bearded and Cape vultures at her home town of Motlokhong.
“Basically everything to do with UTD in Lesotho has to go through me. If anything goes wrong, I’m the one in trouble!” But nothing ever seems to and Makoae has given it the thumbs up for this weekend. “Everything is in place for a great race. Our local teams have been hard at work preparing trails for runners and checking on long-standing cairns and markers.”
A special spirit appears to set UTD apart from any other races. Sometimes hard to define, this spirit is often revealed in unexpected moments, including
– the majestic souring mountain peaks that make up this extraordinary range,
– the commitment from the farming community, braving elements to staff refreshment stations for hours, lending physical support and emotional encouragement to exhausted runners
– the competitiveness of trail athletes, always mixed with care for fellow-competitors
– and perhaps most profoundly by the diverse life stories of participants who have risen to the challenge of tackling some of the Drakensberg’s most challenging trails, none more so than amputee, Travers Warwick-Oliver, back to tackle the 100 miler after being forced to quite after 120km last year.
Last year saw some of the finest racing in the history of the event, with an ultra-marathon novice, Doug Pickard seeing off the challenge of leading athlete, Simon Tshabalala in a titanic battle in the 100 miler, finishing inside Ryan Sandes’ previous course record.
American Cody Reed and New Zealand-based South African, Naomi Brand, raced to 100km records but the most intense racing came in the 62km, where Johardt van Heerden overcame the strong challenge of Daniel Claassen, both finishing in record time and under the incentive target, with a similar outcome in the women’s race, where Meg Mackenzie edged out Landie Greyling.
This year, the fact that athletes are competing for places on the World Championship team has upped the ante even further and in particular, the Sundowner Run (SDR32) is likely to provide intense racing up front. Run over 32km from Castleburn to Premier Resort Sani Pass, the race is a potential entry to the World Championship ‘Short Trail’ 44km.
Kane Reilly is one of eight pre-selected athletes for the team, but has opted to race anyway and the Cape Town Trail Marathon champion will be the one to beat. Robbie Rorich, Mvuyisi Gcogco, Jacques Buys, Siviwe Nkombi and Sinovuyo Ngcobo are all contending for the world championship team and will be chasing Reilly all the way to the finish of the SDR32.
In the women’s race, Landie Greyling, Sume van Heerden and German Marion Leiberich will be contesting the podium places. All three have the ability to win and there is likely to be little separating the leaders.
In previous years, the early morning 21km race on Saturday has been seen as an entry-level event, more for novice runners. No longer. Some of the country’s leading athletes will be in action trying to qualify for the World Mountain Running Classic 13,7km.
Johardt van Heerden has been pre-selected for the World Championship 44km, but will be racing the 21km for speed-training preparation.
But the presence of Phantane’s Sipho Mbanjwa, 8th in the Two Oceans Half Marathon two weeks ago, Siboniso Soldaka, winner of Monday’s 3000m steeplechase at Green Point in the season’s fastest time of 8min 39 sec and Underson Ncobe, winner of this year’s AfricanX trail race, will ensure the pace up front is white-hot. Brandon Keeling won last year but may find this one of the more difficult title defenses.
Last year’s 100 mile champion Doug Pickard steps down to the 62km in order to qualify for the world championship ‘long trail’ 85km and will up against strong competition from two legends of the sport in Simon Tshabalala and Christian Greyling, all striving for team selection. Another top 100 miler from last year, Kennedy Sekhuthe, will also challenge strongly for podium honours.
A close contest can be expected in the women’s 100km, where Nicolette Griffioen is favoured to outlast the strong running Emily Djock and Nadia Jooste.
The 100 miler gets underway from the traditional start at ‘Africa’s Highest Pub’ at the Sani Pass Border Post at 10am tomorrow and with many past top runners competing in shorter distances this year, appears wide open for a newcomer to take line honours.
Schedule of Racing: Ultra-trail Drakensberg 2023
Friday 28 April 10h00: UTD160 – Starts at Sani Pass Lesotho Border
Saturday 29 April 05h00: UTD100 – Starts at SA Border Post on Sani Pass Road
Saturday 29 April 07h00: GCU62 – Starts at Bushmen’s Nek Hotel
Saturday 29 April 13h30: SDR32 – Starts at Castleburn
Saturday 29 April 07h00: DRJ21 – Starts at Premier Resort Sani Pass