On Sunday 18 August, rising South African trail running star, Siviwe Nkombi, ran the fourth fastest time on the Helderberg Mountain Challenge 24km race in perfect, clear weather. This brutal race has a total accumulative height gain of over 2 100m and includes summits of West Peak (1 003m) and Helderberg Dome (1 137m). Siviwe finished in 3:09:16, some 10 minutes off the record set by Duncan O'Reagan in 2014 of 2:58:56. The event is, arguably, kilometer for kilometer the toughest mountain race in the country and attracts a few hundred runners every year.
Presented by organisers, Wildrunner, as the second stage in the 3-stage BOS Sport Mountain Challenge Series, amplified by Jaybird, the Helderberg Mountain Challenge has earned its notoriety in trail running circles. Regardless, an enthusiastic crowd gathered below the Heldeberg Nature Reserve, prepared to do battle with the elements, and their inner critics.
In the 24km race, Siviwe Nkombi took an early lead after starting some 4 minutes after the official start and winding his way through the entire field of runners. He described his first half as tougher than expected, but he was not prepared for the brutal second climb to the Dome. At this summit, Oriole Bolus was just 3 minutes behind Nkombi, which was precisely what was needed to encourage a concerted effort to extend his lead and take the win in a time of 03:09:16. Only one runner, Duncan O’Reagan, has managed to run this course in under 3 hours. His 2014 record stands.
Bolus charged the finish line in 3:16:25, and Franz-Erich Streicher rounded out the podium in 3:33:09.
In the women’s race, the initial tussle between Kristen Heath and Liz Marshall ended in an emphatic win for Marshall, who came over the line in 4:13:04. Emily Djok was second in 4:17:13, and Heath followed in 4:20:30.
In the HMC Lite, the 15km route makes up in elevation, for what it might seem to lack in distance. With an ascent and subsequent descent of 1 013m, it packs a punch. The 6.4km climb to West Peak carries an intimidating 937m of vertical gain, and with it a record time set by Michael Bailey in 2010 of 45:45. After winning the Cape Winter Trail Series and taking second in the Boland Cross Country Champs over a 5 week period, Llewellyn Groeneveld lined up in great shape to give the record a scare. Some fatigue curbed his climbing speed, but he took the win in 1:28:36, the 8th fastest time in the event’s 10 year history. First woman in the HMC Lite was defending champ, Hayley Preen. Her time of 1:40:06 was not enough to break her own record of 1:36:00, which she set in 2018.
The 11km race was won by Sibongile Tshikitsha, in a time of 58:27. Future trail stars, and bothers, took second and third place. Both Callun and Liam Clarke are in the junior category. First woman in the 11km was Francini van Staden in 1:13:24.
As the morning light gave way to the afternoon finish line buzz, live music brought the runners home. Those out for a long day experienced an unpredictably cool mist rolling in across the top of the mountain range, whilst the sun shone down below. Prizes from Jaybird, First Ascent, Steenberg and BOS Sport were handed over, and the eco-friendly medals proved almost as much of a hit as the free Saggy Stone beer for the top 50 runners across the line. Brad Williams was a popular man, with free recovery massages for the participants.
As the Helderberg memories settle and the series results are scrutinised by punters, all eyes turn to Marloth on 5 October. With a new 10km race added to the Marloth Mountain Challenge line up, both locals and visitors to the Swellendam area are looking forward to the next stage in the BOS Sport Mountain Challenge Series, amplified by Jaybird.
Entries via www.mountainchallenge.co.za
Words: Kim Stephens