By Stephen Granger
Americans Jim Walmsley and Courtney Dauwalter are the best in the world when it comes to Ultra-trail racing right now and the two are strong favourites to win the 7th Ultra-trail Cape Town (UTCT) 100km tomorrow (Saturday 28 November).
Despite the strong line-up of local and international athletes, the rest will in all probability be running for minor places. Trail running, however, is never a perfect science, and pre-race predictions are seldom as sure a thing as a Usain Bolt 100m dash at the height of his career. Over long distances and varying terrain, many variables – including poor nutritional planning, falls and injuries, weather conditions and over-confidence or complacency – play a part in deciding the outcome of races. Nonetheless, the two are very much hands-on favourites.
“Jim is a great runner in top form,” said Walmsley’s one-time training partner, American Cody Reed, winner of the 2019 UTCT. “It’s difficult to see how he could be beaten, but over a long course there’s a lot which can go wrong and it appears that the favourite has seldom won at UTCT.”
But Walmsley is a keen student of the sport and would be aware that his compatriot, Rob Krar, like Walmsley a Western States champion and record-holder at the time, was unable to complete the 2018 UTCT after starting the race as an overwhelming favourite, leaving little-known German athlete, Janosch Kowalczyk, to take line honours. “It is hard to see the enigmatic Krar being beaten, unless he, too, falls victim to the testing tough UTCT course,” a mainstream media race preview predicted, not unreasonably.
And the following year Reed upset strong favourite and outstanding mountain runner, French athlete Francois D’Haene.
While the women’s UTCT contests have been more predictable, Dauwalter may have learned that top Swedish ultra-trail athlete, Mimi Kotke, who started as strong favourite in 2018, could only manage third behind Zimbabwean Emily Hawgood and local athlete Kerry-Anne Marshall.
French athlete, Maryline Nakache, appears most likely to take advantage of any Dauwalter stumble, following her solid fifth position at this year’s Ultra-trail Mont Blanc. She has been trying to get to Cape Town for some time and is overjoyed to finally be racing on Table Mountain this year.
2018 Comrades champion, Ann Ashworth, could challenge for a podium position if she can stay in contention during the first half of the race. Her speed in the more runnable closely kilometres could see her make up significant ground, while Annelise Scholtz will be looking to stay the distance after she was forced out of the UTD 100 miler in April.
Walmsley has both the speed and technical competence to excel on Table Mountain and rewrite the record books as he has done with many of the world’s top ultra-trail and road races. He has not raced since he was forced to retire from the UTMB in August, investing the time in solid training with a view to ending his year on a high. Few would bet against him doing so.
Dauwalter has followed a different path to Cape Town, having raced to a record victory at UTMB 100 miles, before running almost 300km in the Big’s Backyard Ultra in Tennessee, USA, just five weeks ago – far too close to UTCT for most athletes. But Dauwalter is clearly not “most athletes” and will unlikely be troubled tomorrow. And the relatively light women’s field compared with the men’s event, suggests that little short of a lightning strike will prevent the Colorado athlete from winning.
Three years ago, triple Comrades champion, Bongmusa Mthembu, failed to complete the challenging Ultra-trail course in his first introduction to ultra-trail. Since then, the KZN athlete has worked hard on his off-road technique and there is intense interest on whether her can be close enough to the leaders after the first, more technical, half to make use of his speed and stamina over the second half. If he can, a podium position beckons.
Walmsley and Mthembu apart, there is a strong line-up of internationals looking for strong year-end performances with hopes of a lion’s share in the prize money on offer. Italian Andres Reiterer led the 2018 UTCT race through 65km before being forced out with injury and returned a year later to set a record in the 35km event. He is back to race the 100km and is determined to make his mark at the finish this time.
33-year-old French athlete, Sebastien Spehler, has the second highest ITRA points ranking of those in the field, behind Walmsley. He boasts an impressive CV with wins and podium places in many of Europe’s top trail races and will certainly be competitive tomorrow.
Strong-running French-Canadian, Mathieu Blanchard, hopes to make his second race in Africa in 6 weeks, following his 5th place in the Marathon des Sables in Morocco, a successful end to his season.
One of the fastest athletes in the race is Swiss athlete, Pascal Egli, whose third place in the final Golden Trail World Series race in the Skyrhune, France, showed his ability on technical mountain races. But Egli is a marathon-distance specialist, who has never run further than 70km. Tomorrow’s 100km debut will likely be more of a ‘look and see’ rather than an attempt at a top placing.
Several leading South African trail athletes will be looking to make their mark on the country’s highest-profile trail race, although best known local ultra-runner, Ryan Sandes, will be absent this year following his 8th position at the Madeira Ultra last weekend.
Matt Healy’s superb solo run to set the second-fastest time behind Ryan Sandes on the 13 Peaks circuit this year suggests a top ten position could be on the cards. “I want to be light-hearted about things, really enjoy the experience … A great opportunity for me to measure myself against some of the best in the world. I’m sure I’ll learn a thing or two from these guys.”
Kane Reilly remains one of the country’s best and on his day he can mix it with the top guys. “I will have to see on the day how I’m feeling, but I won’t start too slowly – it makes sense to take advantage of my strength on the climbs early on.”
Joshua Chigome has upped his game significantly this year and won the Winelands MaXiRace 75km last month. His close involvement in the 16 days of activism campaign, however, has left him with little time to focus on the race. “I’m going to try to go into the race with no expectations, and just to remind myself why I love running. I feel privileged to be able to start with some of the best runners in the world.”
Daniel Claassen benefited from the experience of running in Europe for the first time this year and finished strongly in the UTMB CCC 100km.
“I am looking forward to sharing the trails with this incredibly stacked field. I am over my calf injury and was able to put three good weeks of training in leading up to the race. I really see this as a celebration run to end a great year.”
Robbie Rorich placed 24th in his 100km debut at UTCT in 2018 and will be looking to put his knowledge of the Table Mountain trails and his talent on the technical terrain to good use. “My body feeling quite sore so I will have to see how it goes. I’ve been wanting to run another 100km for some time. The new section of the course is a bit further and harder but a hundred times better – it keeps us on the mountain!”
2015 UTCT champion and 2018 runner-up, Kerry-Anne Marshall, is one of the most popular and competitive athletes in the game and returns to her favourite race after the arrival of her second child.
“My preparation has been different this time but the last couple of weeks I’ve been in the right space to run a bit longer and be able to leave my children for a bit while I train,” Marshall said. “But it does feel like I’m running my first 100km ever! I am looking to achieve a solid fun day out and run the race feeling happy and strong and confident in my ability.”
The announcement that next year will see the advent of a 100-mile race at UTCT notwithstanding, tomorrow’s race is largely about the 100km. But strong racing can be expected in the shorter-distance events.
Cody Reed is tipped to add the 65km title to his 2019 one over 100km with strong-running mountain athlete Karine Bezuidenbout a strong contender in the women’s race. German Marcel Hoeche looks to be too strong for local contenders in the 35km race, with leading South African trail athlete, Meg Mackenzie likely to win the women’s competition.
The 100km gets underway from the Gardens-Tech Rugby Club in Oranjezicht at 04h00, with the winner expected back at the same venue close to 14h00. The 65km starts an hour later with the 35km off at 08h00.