Johardt van Heerden in action, setting a joint Fastest Known Time for the Six Peaks Challenge. Photo: Zane Schmahl

UCT graduate Robbie Rorich set South Africa’s “Golden Segment” trail run on fire with a superb run in appalling conditions last week, to set up a flurry of high-quality responses from some of the country’s top trail athletes.

Twenty-seven “Golden Segments” are currently being contested in various parts of the world, all building towards the 2020 Golden Trail Championship, an innovative four-day event in the Azores, from 29 October to 1 November.

The first month of the South African segment, as was the case with many others, resembled the cautious build-up to the final kilometres of a typical stage in the Tour de France with no rider wanting to make a decisive move too early. Although several runners went out to run the route following the formal segment opening by South African super-star Meg Mackenzie, few were competing in ernest, not wanting to show their hand too soon in the competition.

Rorich chose one of the wettest days of the year to lay down a marker, facing driving rain and strong winds in completing the challenging 27.4 km circuit over Table Mountain last Wednesday in an excellent 2 hr 47 min 45 sec to stake his claim to win the ‘golden pass’ to the Azores, up for grabs for the fastest male and female athletes on the segment come 1 October.

Robbie Rorich – “kicked open the hornet’s nest”. Photo: Stephen Granger

Rorich’s run easily eclipsed the time set by Johannesburg athlete Bruce Arnett the previous Saturday (3:02:29) and looked solid enough to stand for some time, but less than 24 hours later the South African segment boasted a new leader. Twenty-seven year old marketing professional, Daniel Claassen, who had held an early segment lead with a 3:11:14 ‘recce run’ a month back, chose the following day to get serious on the segment.

“I did not know Robbie had planned to run the day before but I checked the leaderboard the night before my run and saw the time he had posted. I couldn’t believe he had done that in the terrible conditions and I also noted he had made a slight detour on top of Table Mountain, which must have cost him around 45 seconds. But it gave me a target and although it was still quite wet on Thursday, I was able to improve marginally on his time.”

Claassen’s superb 2:46:05 tipped Rorich off the leaders’ perch by less than two minutes to take the segment lead going into the weekend. But if the top performances of Rorich and Claassen stoked the segment fires, the much-anticipated appearance of the best trail athlete in the country last year, Johardt van Heerden, on Saturday (5 September) sent the segment into orbit.  Van Heerden took eight minutes off his friend and training partner Claassen’s time with an exceptional 2:38:30.

Daniel Claassen en route to a record-breaking run with Johardt van Heerden at the Six Peaks Challenge in the George mountains in July. Photo: Zane Schmahl

“I don’t think that anyone will better Johardt’s time,” reflected Claassen. “The course suits him perfectly – he is fast and he is also a great climber.  I think there are still a few others out there capable of posting sub- 2 hr 50 min times, but Johardt’s is in another league.”

Claassen heads to the Drakensberg this week for a vacation and is aware that the higher altitude training afforded by South Africa’s largest mountain range could yield benefits in the final week of the segment challenge back in Cape Town. “I may well give it another go on my return,” said Claassen. “I think I can improve on my time but doubt that I’ll be able to better Johardt’s.”

Johardt van Heerden – tops the Golden Segment leaderboard. Photo: Stephen Granger

While competition is hotting up in the men’s division, not so amongst the women, who are clearly biding their time before tackling the segment with serious intent.  Only current Otter and Whale of Trail champion, Toni McCann, has recorded a competitive time and leads her rivals by a large margin, following her swift 3:17:58 circuit ten days ago – well clear of Hayley Preen’s ‘recce run’ 4:12:15, which held the early lead for several weeks.

McCann’s time was set in conditions arguably tougher than those faced by Rorich on one of the coldest days of the year. Two hard falls on iced-over boardwalks left McCann bleeding and bruised and ‘out of steam’. In addition, the high number of people on the descent down Nursery Ravine slowed her further.

There is little doubt there is plenty more in the McCann tank when she returns for a second effort, likely towards the end of the month, but she will face strong competition from two other young world-class athletes. Preen will undoubtedly run fast over the circuit, as will Bianca Tarboton, who has yet to test the circuit, and an absorbing contest between these athletes is in store.

“I had planned to run that weekend in order to allow me two solid bashes at the segment,” explained McCann. “So even though I knew conditions would not be ideal I wanted to go ahead and run. It was pretty cold up there, with sleet and ice on the ground.

“In the end I was not unhappy with my time, but I think it’s quite beatable and remains a low target.  I pushed quite hard in places, but there were so many people on the climb up Platteklip and descending Nursery Ravine, which  slowed me quite a bit.

Toni McCann on her way to a record-breaking win in last year’s Otter African Trail Run. Photo: Stephen Granger

“I think to set a good time, one has to be more strategic – to run in good conditions and not on weekends, so the trail can be reasonably clear. I’ll be looking harder at those aspects next time.”

Organiser of the South African Golden Segment, Kane Reilly, is delighted at the recent turn of events as athletes get serious at competing. “Robbie really kicked the hornet’s nest,” said Reilly. “Although a number of runners had been out on the circuit, it really needed a strong performance to get things going and Robbie did just that. Conditions when he ran were Baltic – and yet he was able to record a great time.

“And then Daniel posted his effort the next day before Johardt ran his great time.  I really think we have some of the best trail athletes we have ever seen in South Africa pushing each other on the segment, which makes for a great contest. We have athletes of the highest calibre – both men and women. It will be interesting to see how South African trail athletes fare over the next few years in the international playing field.

“Compared with the other segments around the world, the South African one has been one of the most competitive from the outset – even more so this past week”. But Reilly sees the ultimate success of the South African Golden Segment not simply in terms of elite performances but also in terms of participation.

“We hope that trail runners will come out in numbers during spring and enjoy some of the year’s best running conditions,” urged Reilly.  “We have great prizes to be won, many of them on a lucky draw basis. Apart from the main prize of the trip to the Azores for the leading male and female athletes, and the King and Queen of the Mountain for the fastest up Platteklip, there are ten lucky draw prizes for all participants and one “top to toe” prize of cap, shirt, shorts and shoes for the best instagram post.”

As the segment coordinator, Reilly faces twin goals – firstly to secure the success of the segment, both at elite level and in respect of mass participation. But secondly to give a good account of himself on the circuit. Along with Van Heerden, Reilly is at the top of the South African trail running talent tree and potentially capable of topping Van Heerden’s performance on the segment.  

Kane Reilly – twin goals for the Golden Trail Segment. Photo: Stephen Granger

The next three weeks promise some of the most competitive and absorbing trail racing ever seen in Southern Africa with the carrot of a Golden Pass to the magical four-day championship on two islands of the Azores archipelago set to draw optimal performances from South Africa’s best athletes.  

“The opportunity to be together with the world’s best trail athletes for a week on the islands is a once in a lifetime chance,” concluded Claassen. “The European athletes are ahead of us in trail running and we can learn a lot from them. It will be an amazing chance to build friendships and a network of contacts. And that prize will undoubtedly bring out the best in our athletes in the next weeks.”

Current Leaderboard: South African Golden Segment

Men

1 Johardt van Heerden 2:38:28

2 Daniel Claassen 2:46:05

3 Robbie Rorich 2:47:45

Women

1 Toni McCann 3:17:58

2 Hayley Preen 4:12:15

3 Pip Dickson 4:57:02