CAPE TOWN - The Ultra-Trail Cape Town 100km showdown between South Africa’s leading ultra-distance road athletes and some of the best in the world over rough terrain is coming to a head, with just two days to go before the start of the final Ultra-Trail World Tour event of the year.
Whereas trail and road athletes usually remain in their separate disciplines in marathon and sub-marathon distance events, they often come together over ultra-distances, in particular races over 100km or further.
The fame of the Comrades Marathon has spread to all corners of the globe, with the race attracting athletes from disciplines as diverse as track, cross country, road, trail and triathlon. The UTCT is just getting started at international level, but is likely to grow in profile in future years and can be expected to entertain increased numbers of Comrades competitors.
This year, the race boasts the participation of three Comrades gold medallists, including the 2017 champion, Bongmusa Mthembu, eighth-placed Comrades Marathon finisher this year and winner of last years’ UTCT 100km, Prodigal Khumalo, and former gold medallist and 2014 UTCT winner Eric Ngubane.
While Ngubane is an experienced trail runner, having represented South Africa in international competition, and Khumalo proving himself in last year’s race, Mthembu is something of an unknown quantity on the trails. But will any of them be able to contend with some of the world’s leaders in ultra-trail, including Cape Town’s Ryan Sandes?
“Absolutely,” stressed leading Comrades coach and Khumalo’s personal mentor, John Hamlett. “I’m not quite sure about Bongmusa - I don’t think he has raced much on trails and is probably looking at Saturday’s race simply as good Comrades training. Eric is of course an experienced trail athlete, but Prodigal is the guy to watch.
“He also has an eye on Comrades on his favoured 'down' course this year, but he is a man with a mission and is very jealous to defend his title on Saturday. He is such an improved athlete since last year - he is better prepared in every respect including speed endurance, strength and everything. He is so well balanced.
“His eyes are wide open - he is expecting a fight with the field a lot stronger than last year. He knows he will have to run much faster than his 11 hours seven minutes last year. But he is so much stronger this year. Yes, some of the top technical guys may get away in the first section of the race, but watch Prodigal as the race unfolds in the second half.
“And I can tell you if he is in contact with anyone with 20 kilometres to go, it will be a tough race for whoever is there. My money would be on Prodigal.”
According to Hamlett, size does indeed matter in trail racing, hence the difficulty 2015 Comrades champion, Gift Kelehe, experienced in the 2015 UTCT. “Gift is just too small and simply lacked the strength to tackle such a tough trail race. Eric, Prodigal and Bongmusa are more heavily built and have the strength to do so. But then again there are always exceptions. Look at the incredible run by Kerry-Ann Marshall in 2015. That makes it interesting!”
Diminutive Marshall, who also boasts a Comrades gold medal, raced to victory in the 100km in record time of 11hr 53min 03sec, less than half an hour behind men’s winner, Christiaan Greyling, but a combination of injury and pregnancy has ruled her out this time around.
Sandes himself is doubtful that the Comrades stars can make it to the top of the podium against world-class trail athletes, but Hamlett is backing his charge and thrown down the gauntlet, making for a mouth-watering contest, likely in record-breaking time on Saturday.