On Saturday, 180 runners, including 17 internationals from 11 different countries, will line up at the start of the Lesotho Ultra Trail (LUT) for the sixth and final race in the hotly contested 2016 South African Skyrunner® Series.
Now in its fourth year, the 50km LUT is Africa’s original Ultra SkyMarathon® and by far the toughest in the region. Run in the Tsehlanyane National Park in northern Lesotho, the route starts and finishes at the host venue, Maliba Lodge, and climbs to the top of the Maluti Mountain Range topping out at over 3 200m above sea level. The race follows purpose-built trails up and down the mountain, but for a section along the top, runners follow the marked route along a network of shepherd trails.
Competition this year is expected to be stiffer than ever, with elites not only vying for the race’s podium positions, but jostling for the top three places in this year’s Skyrunner® Series. In the men’s race, Spanish elite athlete Gerard Morales, winner of the Spanish Championship of Ultradistance, is likely to give the locals from Lesotho and South Africa a run for their money. Predicted contenders are likely to be Quinton Honey up against top ultra runner but LUT first-timer Eric Ngubane and local speedster Tsokolo Mohavi, who knows the area well and will be running his third LUT.
Bruce Arnett, who claimed 2nd place in 2015, has confirmed his intention to compete – an interesting decision just one week after having raced the 100km Skyrun.
The women’s race will be extremely tightly contended, with defending champion Karine Bezuidenhout up against a host of international competition, including winner of the 2008 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc Krissy Moehl (USA), Hillary Allen (USA), Monica Ochs (USA), Manu Vilaseca (Brazil) and Holly Page (UK).
With LUT being the grand finale of this year’s South African Skyrunner® Series, the focus on current point standings is at an all-year high. In the women’s category, Marzelle van der Merwe, having scored 244 points in the series so far, will retain the top spot even though she won’t be running LUT. However with a finish of 4th or better at LUT, Rachel Manyathi (currently in 4th on the overall rankings) can topple either Lawrette MacFarlane [206 points] or Lorraine Boshoff [194 points] currently in 2nd and 3rd respectively – both also unable to make the race.
In the men’s Series, both 2nd placed Ruan van der Merwe [176 points] and 4th placed Mazu Ndandani [130 points] could cause an upset by finishing strongly this weekend. Should van der Merwe win LUT, a maximum points allocation of 100 would catapult him past Stewart Chaperone [214 points], who is not running LUT. Simply finishing the race will see Ndandani move into the top three on the rankings. However should Ndandani finish 4th or higher, and beat van der Merwe overall, he would finish 2nd in the Series overall [see 2016 Skyrunner Series page for full ranking details].
The long range forecast is looking good for race day, with no rain predicted and the chance of slight mist on the ridgeline.
Race director Andrew Booth of KZN Trailrunning.believes Lesotho is a natural and obvious place to host a skyrunning event.
“The mountains in the Mountain Kingdom are enormous and rugged, and the altitude of 3 000m plus plays a big role in how runners perform on the day.
“Three aspects make LUT so special: the venue in Tsehlanyane National Park, the purpose-cut trail that takes the route to the top of the Maluti range, and the herdsman trails along the top that can be tricky to navigate in misty conditions, despite the good route marking.
“It’s incredible to see how quickly the lead runners complete the course – Lucky Miya holds the record, 5:24, set in 2015. Everyone suffers while they are out there, but the sense of achievement of the finish line is profound, it infuses into even those who have not participated. Being at Maliba over race weekend is a special skyrunning experience.”
On Saturday the LUT can be followed via the race’s Twitter feed @lesothoultra and Facebook page using the hashtag #LUT2016 or #LesothuUltra