Meg Mackenzie in action in the Dolomites Sky Run in Italy last month. Photo: Supplied

CAPE TOWN – South African star trail athlete, Meg Mackenzie, faces a new challenge on Sunday at one of America’s leading trail challenges at the Pikes Peak Marathon – the fifth race in the Golden Trail World Series.

Mackenzie has established herself as one of the world’s top mountain trailers, but largely on the basis of several impressive performances in Europe. The series now moves across the Atlantic to Manitou Springs in Colorado, USA, and the Cape Town athlete gets her first crack at a high-calibre trail race in North America.

Pikes Peak is steeped in history, with the first recorded race to the summit dating back to 1936. It is also the highest summit in the series, soaring above the cloud line at a lung-searing 4302 m. The half marathon to the summit has an average gradient of 11% but sections are much steeper, notably towards the peak, as athletes gasp and scramble to the turn before steep descent back to Manitou Springs. 

It’s not for the faint-hearted, nor for athletes who have had little exposure to altitude preparation. Which is why Mackenzie has spent several weeks training on high-altitude trails up to 3000 m at nearby Boulder.

“I’ve been working quite hard at Boulder, hoping for a good race but of course you never know how the body will respond,” said Mackenzie. “I’m aiming for a top five on Sunday, for sure! 

“I’m feeling good and positive, but It’s definitely the toughest course I’ve ever faced. It will be more about managing my effort and looking after my hydration and altitude and being patient to start with! I think a smart race is a good race in this situation!”

Until last year, Pikes Peak, boasted two of the longest-standing records in trail history. Matt Carpenter’s 3 hr 16 min 39 sec time was set in 1993, while fellow-American, Lynn Bjorklund, held the women’s mark of 4:15:18, set 12 years earlier. But another American, Meg Kimmel, grabbed the record by a whisker last year, shaving 12 seconds off Bjorklund’s time.

Kimmel will not be racing on Sunday, and in her absence, new Swiss prodigy, Maude Mathys, starts favourite, coming off a record-breaking run at Sierra Zinal two weeks back. Yngvild Kasperson of Norway, Eli Gordon of Spain, Armandine Ferrato of France and Mackenzie look likely to challenge for the podium places.

But most eyes will be on the front of the field, in anticipation of another piece of running history from the maestro, Kilian Jornet. Instead of tackling his usual heavy schedule of European summer races, the Spanish star opted to target two of the oldest trail records in the business.

After a warm-up victory at Zegama, Jornet took three minutes off Jonathan Wyatt’s 2003 record at Sierra Zinal in the fourth race of the series and will be out to eclipse Carpenter’s 26-year-old mark on Sunday. Few doubt that he can succeed, although the course is a very different challenge to that in the Swiss race.

Despite the strongest line-up ever in the race’s history, with athletes of the calibre of Norwegian Stian Angermund-Vik, Swiss athletes Remi Bonnet and Marc Lauenstein, Italian Francesco Puppi and local Colorado athlete, Sage Canaday in the field, the likelihood is that it will be Jornet against the clock in this epic race-adventure.

@StephenGranger3

IOL Sport