Making waves – Tumelo Mokoatsi steps into a puddle shortly after the 14km refreshment station on the first day of the THIRSTI AFRICANX Trailrun on Friday morning. Photo: Tobias Ginsberg

It was a case of Formula One meets trail racing on the first day of the THIRSTI AFRICANX Trailrun, held over three days in the mountains and orchards of South Africa’s Western Cape.

Friday’s (26 March) run through the Grabouw fruit farms and Houw Hoek Mountains saw the KZN Nedbank team of Eric Ngubane and Juan van Deventer taking overall honours, crossing the finish line at Houw Hoek Inn in a speedy 1 hr 32 min 10 sec.

The first leg of this year’s event was run over 24 km through the apple orchards of Paul Cluver Estate and the lower slopes of the Houw Hoek Mountains in ideal running conditions, mercifully ten degrees cooler than the heat of the previous day.

Early leaders on Day One action at the THIRSTI AFRICANX Trailrun on Friday morning – FLTR Bruce Arnott (Salomon Eurosteel), Juan van Deventer and Eric Ngubane (Nedbank) and K-Way’s AJ Calitz. Photo: Tobias Ginsberg

A combination of the strongest field ever assembled in the history of the event and a super-fast course with few significant climbs or technical sections, saw competitors hit far higher speeds than in previous years. The winners recorded an average speed of just over 3 min 30 sec per kilometer, with some of the action taking place at break-neck,  sub-three-minute per km speed.

These speed factors made for top racing action, but it left the specialist mountain and trail runners, such as five times winner AJ Calitz and his Zimbabwean partner, Bernard Rukadza, and KZN pair Rory Scheffer and Bruce Arnott trailing in the wake of the blitz-krieg. They will be hoping to use the extra climbing sections and longer distance to close the gap on the 32km, second day.

Early leaders on Day One action at the THIRSTI AFRICANX Trailrun on Friday morning – FLTR Bruce Arnott (Salomon Eurosteel), Juan van Deventer and Eric Ngubane (Nedbank) and K-Way’s AJ Calitz. Photo: Tobias Ginsberg

The Big Box team of Cape Town athletes, Siviwe Nkombi and Lesotho-born Retsepile Khotle gave it their best shot, breaking away in the first five kilometres and holding a gap of almost a minute at the 14km refreshment stop.

But their early optimistic red-lining told. As they tired on the climb out of the valley, the chasers grew stronger with 2013 Ultra-trail Cape Town champion, Ngubane, and his track-star companion Van Deventer running down their ‘prey’ just over 6km from the finish.

Nedbank’s top team of Eric Ngubane and Juan van Deventer lead the chasing group on Day One action at the THIRSTI AFRICANX Trailrun on Friday morning. Picture: Tobias Ginsberg

The Southern Cape Nedbank team of Lloyd Bosman and Etienne Plaatjies were also moving up through the field, also overtaking the early leaders, but were unable to match the finishing speed of Ngubane and Van Deventer on the fast switch-back descent through a pine forest into the Houw Hoek precinct and were left trailing by 25 seconds in second.

The green-vested Nedbank athletes were to the fore, with Malusi Dlomo and Raoul Mabirimisa bagging fourth ahead of the experience Murray and Roberts duo of Thabang Madiba and Renier Grobler, with former Comrades champion, Ludwick Mamabolo, and Zimbabwean Collin Kanyimo sixth.

THIRST AFRICANX has drawn runners from across South Africa and abroad, many looking for any opportunity to compete in a real-world event. Photo: Stephen Granger

The K-Way pair of Calitz and Rukadza trailed by 8 minutes in 9th and the three times champions could struggle to make up the deficit. “Definitely the fastest track I’ve encountered at AFRICANX,” reflected Calitz. “Obviously that does not suit us, but we will just have to work harder tomorrow and hope some of the roadies come back to us!”

“Phew – the pace was hot out there,” Ngubane reflected. “But it went according to plan.  We went conservatively at the start, but even so I had to hold Juan back when the Big Box guys broke away. I told him they would come back to us, and so it proved!”

Early morning sun catches the orange vests of mother and daughter pairing – Carmen and Olivia Burger in the early stages of first day of AFRICAX 2021. Photo: Stephen Granger

The women’s contest was also hard-fought, although lacked the depth in quality of the men’s field. As predicted, the competition proved a close struggle between local Cape athletes, Danette Walley and Vicky van der Merwe, and their northern rivals, Deanne Horn Laubscher and Chrizell Roberts. 

In the end, the experience of the Cape duo told and they crossed the line first in 2:02:10 – just 67 seconds clear of their rivals. The third-placed team of Jeannie Henderson and Kate Rees were also the top veterans, finishing 6 minutes in arrears of Laubscher and Roberts.

But the fastest women of the day all competed in the mixed category, with the Pretoria-based husband and wife “AfricanX Sterkspan’ team of Natalie and Nico Sterk edging out Comrades star Charne Bosman and her partner Kallie Burger by just over a minute, winning in 1:51:16.

Teams start tomorrow’s second leg at Wildekrans Wine Estate at 7am.

Stort by Stephen Granger

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