CAPE TOWN - Ryan Sandes versus Bongmusa Mthembu versus Dylan Bowman - it’s a mouth-watering prospect for tomorrow’s fourth Ultra-Trail Cape Town (UTCT) 100km and no one really knows how it will all end.
South Africa’s best ultra-trail athlete against the first SA double Comrades Marathon winner since Bruce Fordyce against one of the United States' best at the top of his game, while a host of other international athletes will also be in the mix for podium places.
SA’s trails have hosted some of the world’s best in recent years, with the likes of Kilian Jornet, Marc Lauenstein, Ricky Lightfoot, Ruby Muir and Stevie Kremer competing against the country's best. But never before has there been such depth of world-class talent from around the globe in a trail race in SA.
With more than half the 100km field from outside SA, a top-10 position will be an impressive achievement for any local athlete. And it is a stretch to imagine that anyone bar Sandes and the Comrades stars will contend for that honour.
“I always guessed that if we provided the canvas that the world’s top runners would compete in Cape Town and that is what has happened,” commented race director, Nic Bornman. “This is a race that has everything a trail runner could wish for and I’m delighted with the response from athletes in our first participation as an Ultra-Trail World Tour event.”
The eyes of the trail-running world are fixed on the contest between Africa’s leading ultra-distance road athletes and some of the globe’s leading exponents of ultra-trail over one of the most physically and mentally taxing courses on the world circuit.
“I’d love to watch Comrades guys in the UTCT,” admitted leading US trail journalist, Bryon Powell yesterday. “Obviously they’re a good bit fitter than any of the trail ultra guys... but the trail guys consistently beat the fastest road guys on the trails, at least in initial attempts... But, dang, those (Comrades) guys are strong.”
Powell’s opinion may well apply to Mthembu, whose inexperience on trails suggests he could be found wanting on the technical sections, but Eric Ngubane and Prodigal Khumalo don’t fit the “initial attempt” category.
Both Comrades gold medallists, 2014 UTCT champion, Ngubane, has raced extensively on trails, including representing SA in world competition, while Khumalo demonstrated his trail abilities by taking the UTCT title last year. And while this year’s competition is undoubtedly several notches up, Khumalo’s coach, John Hamlett, is confident that his charge has advanced by a similar degree.
And while the strong-running Mthembu may find the going tough, the current Comrades champion has prepared well for the race. “I would not enter a race like this for fun. I am serious about it and have prepared well. I feel confident and look forward to taking on this strong field in Cape Town,” Mthembu said.
Bowman has enjoyed a stellar year and is confident ahead of the race. “I’m feeling pretty good about my preparation for UTCT,” the San Francisco-based athlete reflected yesterday. “After the UTMB 100 miler in September, I took a long break. Overall, I feel fresh, fast and ready for the challenge!”
Several other athletes loom as podium threats and on their day are capable of challenging for line honours. New Zealander Scotty Hawker, Italian Daniel Jung, Spain’s Pau Bartolo, Swiss athlete Diego Pazos, French athlete Vincent Viet and the US’ Patrick Parcell are all likely to be there or thereabouts in the latter part of the race.
Otter African Trail record-holder, Robyn Owen, carries SA's hopes in the women’s race, although she faces a significant task to overcome two elite ultra-trail athletes before claiming the prize. Forty-three-year-old Andrea Huser of Switzerland and Lucinda Bartholomew at just 21 are on opposite sides of the age spectrum but appear equally capable of victory tomorrow.