Ultra-trail Cape Town Race Director McConnachie realises life ambition in California while Zimbabwe’s Hawgood aims high

by Stephen Granger

Ultra-trail Cape Town (UTCT) Race Director, Stuart McConnachie, swops his clip-board and whistle for trail-running shoes this weekend as he fulfils a life ambition to race one of the oldest and most prestigious trail races in the world – the Western States 100 miler (WS) in California, USA. And McConnachie’s participation in the great American footrace could see a strengthening of relationships with UTCT – South Africa’s premier trail race.

UTCT Race Director Stuart McConnachie – racing Western States 100 miler on Saturday. Photo – Stephen Granger

It’s just over 80 miles along interstate highway 80 between Olympic Valley ski resort in Squaw County and the Californian gold rush town of Auburn. Estimated travel time is 1 hour 20 minutes.

Three hundred and eighty-five off-road runners from more than thirty countries will set out on Saturday to connect those destinations, only they won’t be taking the interstate highway and will take somewhat longer than 1:20.  They will be tracking the footsteps of  19th century gold-rushers through the ancestral lands of the Nisenan and Washoe indigenous peoples, across the majestic high country of Emigrant Pass and the Granite Chief Wilderness, through the heat-scorched canyons of California gold country before finally joining the historic reddish-brown trails to Auburn.

The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run is the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race.  It’s also one of the most prestigious. Since its inception in 1974, WS has come to represent one of the world’s crown jewels of endurance tests. Legendary stories abound, the division between myth and reality blurred by five decades of physical and mental torment and exhilaration.

The challenging Californian footrace, which includes 5490 m of vertical ascent, is known for its extremes of weather and it is not uncommon for its participants to be sweating in uncomfortable heat in canyons –temperatures close to 40 degrees Celsius are predicted for Saturday – not long after running through ankle deep snowfields in the early stages of the trail. 

McConnachie will realise a life ambition when he lines up on the start line at 5am local time on Saturday and should he finish, he will be the 12th South African to have completed the Western States. “I’ve long known about the race – this is the one I’ve wanted to do more than any other,” McConnachie confided shortly before departing for the USA.

“Perhaps it’s because it is more comparable with the Comrades Marathon – it’s more runnable and there is a long history behind the race. I really appreciate the fact that, like Comrades, it honours those that have gone before. I can’t believe that I’ll actually be on the start line this year.”

The emotions overflow as Zimbabwean Emily Hawgood wins the UTCT 100km race in Cape Town in 2018. Photo – Stephen Granger

A second African competitor, Emily Hawgood from Zimbabwe and former UTCT champion, represents Africa’s best hope of a top ten performance and will be looking to improve on her excellent debut last year, when she placed 7th.

“My training for Western States has gone so well,” enthused Hawgood from California this week. “I’m really excited to step up to the line with the work I’ve put in with my coaches – Paul Lind and Pat McCurry (strength coach). I am proud of the work and can’t wait to put it to the test on Saturday.

Zimbabwe pride – Emily Hawgood races the Western States 100 miler this Saturday. Photo – Stephen Granger

“It’s been an incredible journey and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet so many of the Western States community who have poured their love and passion into this race. They really make it possible. It will be a magic-filled day out there and I’m determined to put my best foot forward, having taken many lessons from last year’s race concerning pacing, nutrition and temperature control.”

Well-known ultra-distance road runner, Norrie Williamson, was the first South African to complete WS, having done so in 1985, but by for the most successful has been Cape Town trail athlete, Ryan Sandes, who placed second to a record-breaking Tim Olson in his first attempt in 2012, but who bounced back to win the race in 2017 follow a dramatic tussle against the great Jim Walmsley.

Ryan Sandes takes the tape to win the 2017 Western States. Photo – iRunFar

“Ryan Sandes has done great here, our second international winner after Kilian Jornet,” said former Western States President, current chair of the advisory committee and one of the all-time Western States legends, John Medinger. “He’s also probably one of our most popular champions, just one of those guys that everyone admires. He always has a kind word for everybody, fast and slow.”

Sandes is not in California this year and admitted yesterday to having a bout of ‘fomo’ (fear of missing out). “I definitely have a bit of fomo not being there!” said Sandes. “But I chatted to Stuart shortly before he left and told him he should really enjoy the atmosphere and soak it all up. Best to run smartly to Forest Hill at 100km, then run with your heart for the final 60km, leaving nothing out there.”

John Medinger – encouraging words for Stuart McConnachie. Photo -iRunFar

Medinger also has encouraging words about McConnachie. “We’re excited to have Stuart here this year,” Medinger said, “as we have a very close relationship with UTCT. It was fun to watch the video feed (of UTCT) last year, with former WS champions Jim Walmsley and Courtney Dauwalter doing so well.

“South Africa has enjoyed a deep history of road ultras in South Africa, with Comrades and Two Oceans Marathons to the fore, and Stuart and a few others (the Karkloof guys, especially) are at the forefront of the emerging ultra-trail running scene down there. I think it’s likely to grow really fast, with the element of adventure adding a bit of spice to the mix!

“I think Stuart should do well here, especially based on his UTMB performance last year, but it’s a tough challenge to train for summer heat in California during the winter months in Cape Town. We’ll be hoping for a good run by him.”

Stuart McConnachie in action in the 2021 Ultra-trail Drakensberg. Photo – Stephen Granger

While not in the running for a top ten position, former Ultra-trail Drakensberg 100 mile winner McConnachie has his sights set on winning the special silver buckle, awarded to athletes finishing under 24 hours? “My first goal is simply to run under 24 hours for the silver buckle,” said McConnachie. “If I have an amazing day and things go well, I’d like to look at finishing in around 20 hours, which could put me into the top thirty.

“It’s always been my aim in ultra-races to start cautiously and finish strongly, following the Bruce Fordyce formula which brought him great success in his ultra-distance running career. At Ultra-trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) last year I was lying 330th overall at 21km last year and finished 62nd!”

Stuart McConnachie at the finish of the Ultra-trail Mont Blanc 100 miler last year. Photo used courtesy of Stuart McConnachie

McConnachie has had to overcome a mystery ailment afflicting his quadriceps muscle in March and a bout of COVID in May, both of which have impacted negatively on his race preparation.  “I was doing about 100km per week but then got COVID in mid-May and had to manage my body more carefully. It hit me quite hard and I was down for a week. After that I felt fatigued and nervous about pushing too much too soon.

“But my background last year was good and strong and I know I can get there.  Sometimes the best way to go to these races is somewhat undertrained than over-trained.”

Given the extreme weather conditions which typically prevail, McConnachie has tweaked his training to try to replicate the heat he will likely experience in the second half of the race. “I did my long runs in the build-up over mid-day and would then go into the sauna for 30 minutes to acclimatise to the heat,” McConnachie explained.

UTCT Race director Stuart McConnachie congratulates Jim Walsley on his epic run at UTCT 100km. Photo – Stephen Granger

“Jim Walmsley (past winner and record-holder of both the Western States and Ultra-trail Cape Town) warned me that heat-control is one of the major challenges at WS and advised me to use every trick in the book to keep cool. He said to use ice collars as much as possible and to grab water from every puddle and pond and use it to cool my body.”

McConnachie was also fortunate to be able to tap into Sandes’ significant Western States experience. “Ryan’s always led the way for us and his performances in the Western States are such that he is so well respected in the States and particularly at the Western States 100 miler. It was good to chat to him and get some pointers.” 

Ryan Sandes on his way to winning the 2017 Western States 100 miler. Sandes ‘led the way’ for South African athletes at the Western States. Photo – Stephen Granger

Fortunately, McConnachie was able to arrive in California last Wednesday and has been running down into the canyons to experience the heat and feel his way along the trails in similar conditions. “It’s been good out here,” McConnachie said yesterday. “So far my nerves aren’t building! I’ve managed to get in some sauna sessions as the heat will be intense on Saturday. I’m living at 2000m getting acclimated to life in the high Sierra’s.”

Unlike many other ultra-trail races, including UTMB and UTCT, the Western States offers participants the opportunity to run with a pacer for the final 38 miles – something which can make all the difference when the going gets tough in the latter stages of the race. McConnachie is delighted to have the support of an experienced ultra-trail athlete and organizer, Jack Davis, race director of the Karkloof 100 miler in KZN.

“I met Jack when I raced the Karkloof in 2019 and I’m very fortunate that he has offered to pace me from mile 62 on Saturday.  It’s good to know I’ll see a happy and familiar face at the aid stations and to have someone with me through those dark patches in canyons in second half will be a great help.”

Stuart McConnachie – mental fortitude is a key aspect. Photo – Justin Galant

Mental fortitude is key for the Western States and appropriate preparation in that respect can be crucial to secure optimal performance. “I put a lot of score in using past experiences or inspirational stories of past runners,” McConnachie confided.

“With Comrades I always took heart that you’re running to honour people who fell in the great war – young soldiers who didn’t have a choice and had to run into the gun fire when the whistle blew. Unlike them, I chose to be in the race. So, when the going gets tough I remind myself of that. But you need to know you’ve put in the physical work in order to tap into the mental strength.”

McConnachie looks forward to cementing ties between UTCT and Western States to the mutual benefit of both events – Africa and America’s highest profile trail races.

Former UTCT 65km champions, French athlete Vincent Viet, puts Stuart McConnachie through his paces in California, USA, in preparation for the Western States 100 miler. Photo – Justin Galant

“I hope to have a barbeque with Craig (Thornley, the Race Director) and his team after the race,” reflected McConnachie. “Many of those running Western States this year have run UTCT in Cape Town, so I’m hoping there will be a positive UTCT buzz amongst the athletes at Western States this year.

“My twin goals at Western States are to go out and enjoy this experience but also to talk to runners and encourage them to come to Cape Town.  I’m hoping there will be an opportunity to speak about UTCT in my interview when I finish the race. Billy Yang, who is involved in broadcast and post-race interviews, is very interested in UTCT and wants to talk to me about our Cape Town race after I finish the race.”

Apart from that, McConnachie is also eager to learn as much as possible from one of the world’s top trail races, in particular how their community supports the event on race day. “I look forward to experiencing that as an athlete – I’m expecting that will be quite something,” added McConnachie.  “I’ve also heard so much about everything which happens during race week and hopefully we can gain some ideas for UTCT to use.”

The live webcast of the race can be followed at https://youtube.com/c/WSER100. Stuart McConnachie’s progress (bib number 62) can be tracked on https://www.ultralive.net/ws100#tracking/info.