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Pushing the threshold… Ultra Trail Cape Town Interview

Pushing the threshold… Ultra Trail Cape Town Interview

Pause, and look around…

This has got to be the most beautiful, hard, technical race I have run.  Sea, mountains, forest, fynbos, quaint towns. Darkness, mist, drizzle, heat, wind and then more darkness!!! A soul-searching, sublime, raw and real experience!

Tracy Zunckel – 2014

Ultra-trail Cape Town takes place in one of the world’s most popular destinations on the pristine trails of Table Mountain, a World Heritage Site and one of the new Natural Seven Wonders of the World.

Race options

100km Ultra-trail 4400m elevation gain

The 100km race covers the iconic landmarks of Table Mountain, Lions Head, Signal Hill, Hout Bay, Llandudno, the Constantia Winelands, Kirstenbosch Nature Reserve and Devils Peak. The route, is 90% on mountain trails and is occasionally diverted into the city tying together Cape Town’s varied cultural-, built- and natural heritage. The 100km Ultra-trail has a permit for 15 hours and will be for advanced runners.

65km Mountain-trail 3000m elevation gain (solo, team or relay)

The 65km Mountain-trail is a point-to-point Ultra that takes place on Table Mountain, the iconic natural world heritage site and one of the new Natural Seven Wonders of the World. The start point is in Cape Town City Centre- Goes through the Bo Kaap, runs along the length of Signal Hill and Lions Head, traverses Table Mountain before descending into the Constantia Wine Valley, returning along the lower contours of Table Mountain via Newlands Forrest and Devils Peak for a final descent into the City Bowl. The 65km Ultra-trail has a permit for 15hours.

20km Urban-trail 900m elevation (solo or team)

The 20km Urban-trail is a point-to-point hybrid trail race that loops the City Bowl. The start point is in Cape Town City Center. It then moves through the Company Gardens, Greenmarket Square, Bo-Kaap, the length of Signal Hill, Lions Head and the lower contours of Table Mountain with a final descent into the City Bowl. Runners will have access to two aid stations. The route can easily be walked at a leisurely pace to be completed within the 6 hour cut-off time.

It is the second running of the star-studded UTCT in October 2015.  Ultrarunner had the privilege of catching up with Nic Bornman, race director at Summit Events.

What’s your background and how did you decide to organise an event like UTCT?

I grew up in Cape Town under the shadows of Table Mountain and graduated from the UCT School of Architecture (architecture being my day job). The last five years I spent working in Hong Kong which is a very intense city with a fantastic trail running scene, especially Ultra distances, more than six 100km races in one city!

Initially I used running to escape the city, going from overweight and not being able to do 5km, to a road half marathon, marathon and then a 100km single stage race within a year. Running transformed from being a chore to the one thing that centered me in what was a high-pressured lifestyle.

Its here that UTCT was born, from a simple desire of wanting to enter a 100km race in Cape Town my hometown. I mean what better place to run 100km than over Table Mountain.

After some research and finding no such race I started to sketch a route just for fun- possibly the most interesting part was learning how close places are to each other when you take a direct route. It was an interesting investigation that quickly took over all my spare time and the one day the decision was made that it’s too good a thing to not pursue.

There were about 20 major route revisions each of which had about five variations and close to 10 submissions to SANParks. The submission phases were not easy, from the third submission onward I believed this time I’ve nailed it… but the answer back was always ‘NO its not working’. There was however one thing in my favour- in our profession we get plenty rejection for proposals, so I was hardly fussed and think the SANParks team realised I was probably not going to go away until I got the approval. It was an incredible day when Table Mountain National Park approved our route and Environmental Management Plan.

We heard about some serious swearing at last year’s inaugural UTCT race.  Are we talking ultimate brutality, some trail fun or somewhere in between?

 The route was designed very carefully to match what is happening internationally in terms of difficulty. We obviously have the issue where the 100km only has a 15hour permit. This impacts how much elevation gain can be added in, because climbing through the 4500m mark would have made it super hard to finish even for top elites. Ideally if we could get more time for the race one day, I would love to dig up some older drawings to add some other parts to the route, that means more climbing, single track and swearing!

But I think we all sign up for these races to push the threshold, with that comes the moans while on the route, but when you cross that finish line the temporary pain is trivialised by an extraordinary sense of achievement. We always maintain that finishing an ultra is for the everyday person who chooses to do something extraordinary.

Obviously the 100km is the flagship of the UTCT.  How about the average Joe that runs a sub 11 hour Comrades? Is the 65km an option to consider or not?

Yes and its a very challenging distance considering the terrain and time spent on the route will be similar to Comrades times, possibly a bit more, even though it is a good 20km shorter. It brings a different set of criteria in how you approach the race as you will be doing a lot of hard hiking and not be going at a constant speed which is ideal in road running. But one constant remains, you need to put one foot in front of the other to get to the finish. Trail and mountain running comes with a real sense of adventure and therefore should be on every Comrades finishers list to one day tick off a trail ultra.














From a runners point of view the run is great and physically demanding, with lots of trail time. However if you are a spectator it is mostly like pulling teeth.  You guys will introduce live tracking this year.  A big thumbs up. Tell us a bit more.

The introduction of Live Tracking is a very exciting way to make accessible the races’ most remote parts for all to see., who do live tracking for the world’s most famous ultra, the Western States Endurance Run, will be sending a team down to Cape Town and kitting all the 65km & 100km runners with a GPS device which broadcasts their position on the route, every minute which can be viewed by anyone on the website. It’s a great tool for family friends and fans to follow the race live.

This unique system allows us to monitor each runner and if there are any problems on the day, we can pinpoint and coordinate with the mountain rescue team- Wilderness Search and Rescue (WSAR).

What makes UTCT different to the smorgasbord of extreme trail runs out there?

This may come from my working background where I felt instinctively that it was important for the race to reflect its context and not to be exclusively within the confines of remote wilderness. In some ways it’s a project about the city in as much as it’s about giving people an epic adventure in a pristine wilderness which there is no shortage of.

Cape Town, because of Table Mountain and how it shaped the city, has many communities and ‘villages’ with different identities- it’s what makes the place so colorful.

Designing the route was therefore like threading a needle where runners are weaved between the fringes of the cities’ various communities to interface with family, friends and fans and then back up to the mountain trails- if you are doing an ultra for extended periods of time it’s aspect is revitalising and keeps the runners motivated.

We are confident in saying that UTCT for that reason is a completely unique experience.

What is the single thing that makes this a bucket-list race, in your opinion?

 I would say because it happens in one of the world’s most iconic locations and the race ties together the most famous built and natural landmarks.

If somebody was thinking about taking part in UTCT but wanted that extra bit of encouragement to get them to submit their entry, what would you say to them?

The three races each bring their own challenges and attract a broad spectrum of runners out for an adventure. It’s what gives UTCT such a great vibe because everyone needs to be a little crazy to do it, and it’s not only the runners that make up the race but the volunteers, supporters, friends and families that come together for a moment of solidarity to appreciate what Cape Town has to offer.


How fit do you need to be to take on the 100km and 65km challenge?

This may get me into trouble but much less than you would imagine, because it’s mostly about having a strong mind. But putting in a great performance will require a great deal of training.

A good rule of thumb is to take the distance you are racing and linking your weekly mileage for 4-6 weeks, eg. for a 100km race if you did 50% the mileage- 50km every week it would be considered at the low end. 100% of a 100km race =100km per week is a good amount. 150% of a 100km race is 150km per week- this is for the very serious people. But there needs to be a build-up and taper at each end of this with some variation in speed training, hills, terrain etc. This is a big topic; main thing is to keep it interesting and fun so it is sustainable.

 Do you think the 20km is suitable for first-time trail runners?

Yes, last year we had a group of friends doing the race with basically no training and having spent most weekends on the beach or the pub and that’s what makes races so great. Somehow the solidarity from a collection of like-minded people switches on the chemicals in our mind and body where we are able to do more than we think we can. If you want to not run at all and walk it you can be done before lunch time and tell your friends I just did 20km on Table Mountain – not a bad way to start the weekend.

With a race of this size, you surely have a team of cracking volunteers?

Last year we had over 150 volunteers to help runners each step of the way and received so many messages saying that they could not believe the support along the route, how they would come into an Aid Station totally destroyed and leave feeling like a human again.

I have been on both sides of the fence and the volunteering side is very rewarding.  Some runners need gentle care in an ultra when they come into the aid station while others need some tough love to get them going again, either way you do what you need to help them get that finishers medal.

We really value the character and community spirit volunteers bring to UTCT- it’s an old cliché but no race is possible without the selfless acts of kindness volunteers give us.

Race start and finish of all races is at Gardens Tech Rugby Club.  Do you have any other entertainment planned for the day?

We will be hosting a Q&A with some of the elite runners the Thursday evening after registration and screen a few trail films related to UTCT.

During registration and on race day self, there will be various exhibition stands by our sponsors, stuff for kids, massages, plenty food and drink options (including alcohol).

Then there is of course the World Cup Rugby Game: South Africa vs. Scotland, which starts at 4pm.  We will be screening it on a big screen. We encourage people to bring along a group of friends to watch the game and cheer on the runners!  It’s good timing because it’s around the time when the 65km mid pack and 100km leaders will be arriving.

Share some facts and figures with us?

Currently there are 28 nationalities signed up to UTCT 2015.

Aid Stations Staff 70, Marshals 30, Search and Rescue + Medical 40 people

Drinks: 3000 litres (approximately 1 liter per person per hour)

Lots of food! From oranges to Nutella pancakes in 2015

Route Markers 2000 (20 per km average or every 50 meters)

Route Arrow Signs 500

Are they any other “surprises” or anything else that you can tell us about to whet our appetites?

We managed to get some exciting elite runners form South Africa and internationally for this year’s race. The one name which stands out is this year’s Comrades winner Gift Kehele, purely because of his sheer speed and the prospect of how he will crossover from road to trail is always interesting.

It’s a part of the race we are actively focusing on to attract the countries’ elite road endurance runners who are world class and to hopefully see them in future challenges for the top spots at races like the Western States and Ultra-trail Mont Blanc. 

Knowledge is a massive advantage. Tell us about your recce runs?

There will be 7 recces starting mid-July and ending in September. It’s a chance for anyone to get some exposure to racecourse and its varied terrain that makes up UTCT. The recce runs are open to all, free and social affairs, BUT comes with some T’s & C’s… them being, you must bring along a sense of adventure and a sense of humour are mandatory.

A penny for your thoughts… who do you think will dominate the 100km this year? (male and female)

I really think the ladies race will be super tight with up to 5 ladies in with a shot… but naming names it’s possibly a toss-up between Landie, Sally Mcrae (USA) and Devon Yukon (USA).  We could see Gift Kehele and Eric Ngubane run each other very close.

Lastly, tell us the one thing that gives you sleepless nights as organiser?

There are a few but two in particular stand out. Myself and Stuart McConnachie (who is also an organizer) always discuss how we have these nightmares relating to the route marking. It’s an incredibly tough job under extremely stressful conditions.  It involves very little sleep and plenty physical strain, mainly because UTCT is a complex route that crosses multiple jurisdictions and landowners.

It is a delicate balance, you can’t mark the route too early because things will go wondering, so it has to be left to the last minute so the marking is ‘fresh’. For example last year we had reports at Rhodes Memorial of kids during a wedding party running around with route markers. Now considering the context for the runner, its 90km into their race and chances are they will undergo a HUGE sense of humour failure if lost, unprecedented levels of moaning- we don’t want that, it’s where that swearing part comes in.

This is why we never use only one marking method but three in parallel (ribbons, direction signs and ground marking), in case the one fails temporarily. To be double sure the route marking is fresh we send in a forerunner team of 8 people who set off 2 hours before the race to cross check everything and do any needed touch-ups.

Then, we always worry about the runners out there because it gets pretty remote but with the tracking devices on each athlete, the Wilderness Search and Rescue, SANParks Rangers and Mediclinic teams in place we know the runners are looked after by the best.

Thanks for your time Nic. We are looking forward to this epic adventure.









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Zelda Coetzee

Media Manager & Blogger at UltraRunner ZA
Really crazy lady with a passion for trail running and photography. She is often referred to as the "Ultra Mommy" because she takes good care of everyone on the team.
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About The Author

Really crazy lady with a passion for trail running and photography. She is often referred to as the "Ultra Mommy" because she takes good care of everyone on the team.

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