Marc Lauenstein head into the race as one of the favourites. Photo: Stephen Granger

South Africa trail athletes Kane Reilly, Christiaan Greyling and Meg Mackenzie are in the race of their lives when they line up against the world’s best in what is arguably the strongest field ever assembled in the Salomon Golden Trail Series season-opener in Zegama, Spain on Sunday.

The elite athletes competing in the Zegama Trail Marathon shows the enormity of the task facing South Africa’s three top contenders when serious racing gets underway from the Basque Country mountain village tomorrow morning, likely in wet and muddy conditions.

“I’m feeling good and love running in the rain back in Cape Town,” said Reilly. “But this type of mud is something different - we will just have to take it as it comes!”

Zegama’s name is synonymous with wild weather and testing mountain climbs, with the famed “Spiritu Sanctus” at 20km and the high point at 1500m at Aizkorra Summit in the final quarter.

It will be small comfort to Reilly and Greyling that Kilian Jornet’s name is missing from the list  the mountain trail legend and Basque hero has not fully recovered from a stress fracture.

Last year’s winners and record-holders, Norwegian Stian Angermund-Vic and Spain’s Maite Maiora spearhead the line-up and will again be tough to beat on a course they know well, although around thirty athletes in both the men’s and women’s fields will back themselves for a podium finish.

Angermund-Vic is the latest Scandinavian to set the trail world alight, with record-breaking wins in last year’s Zegama and Ring of Steall in Scotland - this year’s fifth race of the series - and opened his 2018 season with a half marathon trail victory at Transvulcania on Las Palma Island. 

He is currently the top-ranked International Trail Running Association athlete.

Swiss dentist Marc Lauenstein, the only athlete to have run under 4 hours at the Otter Trail, must be in with a chance of victory, having placed a close third behind Angermund last year. His skills on technical descents will stand him in good stead.

Two of Lauenstein’s compatriots also loom as threats to would-be winners, with the charismatic Remi Bonnet, winner of last year’s Pikes Peak Marathon in the USA  the fourth event in this year’s Golden Trail Series - and Pascal Egli, bronze medallist at last year’s World Mountain Running Championship and second behind Angermund at the Ring of Steall, completing the formidable Swiss trio.

In the absence of Jornet and three times world trail champion, Luis Alberto Hernando, look to Jan Margarit to lead the Spanish charge in search of a local winner. Known for his strength in the mountains, Margarit proved unbeatable on tough terrain last year, pocketing wins at the challenging Dolomites Skyrace and the Limone Extreme contest.

Running within sight of their country’s border, French athletes Nicholas Martin - second at the 2016 world championships and at the classic French 75km Templiers last year  and his compatriots Alexis Sevennec (7th at Zegama last year) and Thibault Baronian will lead the Tricolor challenge, while top athletes Max King and Sage Canaday will ensure American competitiveness at the front of the field.

Japanese athlete, Rui Ueda, leads the Asian challenge, while Moroccan Ismail Razga will join Greyling and Reilly as Africa’s elite trio in the field.

Reigning Otter African Trail champion, Meg Mackenzie, is in the form of her life but the Cape Town athlete will need to be at the top of her form to be competitive on Sunday against formidable opposition.

Maiora enjoys racing Zegama, will not lightly concede her title and comes from a solid race at the 85km world trail championships two weeks back, where she placed 5th. Whether she is in peak form or fully recovered from the championship event is doubtful and her compatriot and last year’s Ring of Steall champion, Laura Orgue, could be the one to lead the pack across the finish line on Sunday.

With athletes of the quality of current Skyrun champion, Sheila Aviles, last year’s third-placed finisher, Oihana Kortazar, and last year’s OCC winner at Mont Blanc, Eli Gordon, the “Spanish Amada” will be hard to defeat on home turf, even given the strength of rest of the field.

World mountain running champion and last year’s world trail championship bronze medallist, Italian Silvia Rampazzo, has been a fierce competitor in recent years and will be focused on victory at Zegama, while the Scandinavian challenge is as strong as ever. Swedes Ida Nilson and Emelie Forsberg boast impressive pedigrees on the world’s toughest trails while 2016 Zegama winner, Norwegian Yngvild Kaspersen, will be out to regain her crown tomorrow.

American Megan Kimmel was seldom beaten last year, winning at the Mont Blanc Marathon and at the Yading Skyrace.

Top German athlete Michelle Maier, New Zealand’s 2017 Templiers winner, Ruth Croft, Nepal’s National Geographic’s Adventure of the Year, Mira Rai, French athlete Anne-Lise Rousset and England’s Holly Page are just some of the contenders who will ensure that a top 10 position for Mackenzie will be extremely hard-fought - the trail running equivalent of making an Olympic final.

Weekend Argus

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