CAPE TOWN – South Africans had mixed fortunes at the Salomon Golden Trail Series opener at Zegama, Spain, over the weekend, as world trail racing was sent into another orbit.
Many, if not most, of the top names in the sport headed to the small town in the Basque Country for an event which has earned the reputation as the most challenging and competitive trail marathon in the world.
Meg Mackenzie ran an outstanding race, with the Cape Town athlete and current Otter Trail champion placing 13th in an all-star cast, where emerging Swiss athlete, Remi Bonnet, and Swede Ida Nilson were crowned Zegama Marathon champions for 2018.
Competition for a top ten place proved fiercer than ever before on a 42km course running at its toughest, with significant prize money and international racing opportunities opening up to those athletes making the grade.
Days of continuous rain transformed the already challenging course into a mud-bath with slippery rocky sections adding an advanced examination in dexterity to the significant challenges in strength, endurance and mental tenacity.
“That was the hardest race of my life,” admitted Mackenzie at the finish. “I gave it all I had - it’s an incredible race and it was great to be a part of it.”
The top ten aspirations of Kane Reilly and Christiaan Greyling foundered in the mud, both experiencing difficulties in the second half of the race, which took its toll on many of the world’s best, including American favourite, Megan Kimmel and local star, Maite Maiora.
To their credit, the South African pair pushed through to the end, Reilly placing 40th and Greyling 72nd, both committing to re-adjusting to better outcomes in the remaining series’ races.
Last year’s world-beater and Zegama champion, Stian Angermund-Vik, found himself outrun by the world’s latest super-star, 23 year-old Bonnet, who started fast and stayed ahead throughout to hold off the Norwegian’s strong second half to win just 90 seconds.
Last year Angermund-Vik won the Vertical Kilometre race two days before the main event before setting a record for the marathon.
Few of the leading athletes chose to take on the double this year, but Bonnet did so in impressive fashion, comfortably winning the VK, before triumphing in the longer race in 3 hrs 53 min 55 sec - 8 minutes outside Angermund-Vik’s race record, set in dry conditions.
Running in seventh and eighth at half way on the ascent of Aizkorri and the high point of the race at 1500m, Angermund-Vik and Otter Trail record-holder, Marc Lauenstein of Switzerland, began to move through the field and were second and third on the final climb 10 km from the end.
A combination of Bonnet’s strength on the day, Lauenstein’s bad cramping and Angermund-Vik experiencing a rare power-failure saw Bonnet race home in fine style to claim the plaudits.
The women’s competition proved as absorbing, with talented Spanish athlete, Laura Orgue, setting the early pace, before being overhauled by former Swedish 3000 m steeplechase track star, Nilson, in the final quarter.
Using her well known speed on the descents, NIlson opened a significant gap on her rival, with the 37 year-old racing to victory in 4 hrs 38 min 37 sec, just 4 minutes outside Maiora’s course record of last year.
The results were:
Men: 1 Remi Bonnet (Swi) 3:53:55; 2 Stian Angermund-Vik (Nor) 3:55:25; 3 Bartlomiej Przedwojewski (Pol) 3:56:16; 4 Marc Lauenstein (Swi) 3:59:15; 5 Oriol Coll (Spain) 4:01:01
RSA: 40 Kane Reilly 4:31:58; 72 Christiaan Greyling 4:47:42
Women: 1 Ida Nilson (Swe) 4:38:37; 2 Laura Orgue (Sp) 4:45:45; 3 Ruth Croft (NZ) 4:48:40; 4 Dragomir Denisa-Ionela (Rom) 4:51:40; 5 Sheila Aviles (Sp) 4:53:44
RSA: 13 Meg Mackenzie 5:16:47