(Lormar Endurance Trail Run in Middelburg)
  • South Africa has some of the most brutal trail runs available.  
  • Some trails feature intense rock-hopping and shale slipping through a desert canyon.
  • Ultra-trail Cape Town has proven to be so brutal that the cut-off time is now 17 hours.


If running the Two Oceans with a group is too much of a buddy-commitment for your social phobia, you are probably better suited to the individualistic pursuit ultra-trail running. 

And with no shortage of mountains and walking trails, South Africa has some of the most brutal Comrades-distance trail running available.

Here are five events which will justify your extravagant trail-shoe purchase. 

Skyrun

Ryan Sandes participating in the Sky Run in Witteberg, KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: Supplied)

The name is not a misnomer. Established by former paratrooper Michael Tawse, the Skyrun routes across some of South Africa’s most inspiring big-sky country. Starting and finishing in Lady Grey, runners are expected to navigate their way for 100km, entirely self-supported.

International Skyrun rules stipulate that a route should preferably never dip below 2000m of altitude, and the South African one rarely does, so expect burning lungs if you are a coastal region runner. The elements can be brutal, with extreme weather enveloping the 2013 event, which nearly had tragic consequences for most of the field.

Credit is given to the winner each year, but anybody who finishes joins an elite club of endurance athletes. The race’s motto is telling: “running at altitude, without attitude.”

Fish River Ultra Challenge 

fish river ultra challenge
Fish River Ultra Challenge, 2017. (Photo: Windhoek Light Events)

The Grand Canyon might be visible from space, but Southern Africa boast an enviable collection of canyons itself. Mpumalanga’s Blyderiver being the deepest green one and Namibia’s Fish River the second deepest of all. If you need a digital detox that only the Richtersveld’s extreme desolation can only provide, the Fish River ultra is your event.

It’s 100km of intense rock-hopping and shale slipping through a desert canyon sure induce immense humility on the part of participants. The suffering has some incentive as you end this trail-running ultra at the renowned Ai-Ais hot water springs. 

The Otter African trail run 

Marc Lauenstein taking part in the Otter African trail run. (Photo: Terence Vrugtman)

With a waiting list nearly a year long, patience can be tested for those who want to walk the Otter Trail.

If you’re not a patient person, there’s a devilish trail run which routes along the Otter. Although the standard 42km marathon distance might not sound too daunting, there is the slight issue of 2600m of accumulated elevation gain along the route.

And don’t be water averse either, as the Otter trail run requires four river crossings. The route also reverses for those who desire a run from west-to-east as the Retto, Otter spelled backwards. It includes 7,000 steps, which can solidify even the strongest of quads with cramp. 

Table Mountain Ultra extreme 

trail run
Ultra Trail Cape Town. (Photo: Andrew King)

The Mother City’s iconic backdrop is a benevolent feature in many Instagram posts, but once a year it becomes a very unforgiving bit of rock for runners.

This event is perhaps only bested in toughness by the Skyrun and features similar distances (100km), a vertigo inducing elevation profile (4250m) and terrain that turns weak joints into candidates for surgery.

Ultra-trail Cape Town has proven so brutal that the cut-off time is now 17 hours. It sounds deceptively simple: run from the city bowl to Llandudno and then return for a finish at UCT. But whilst everyone else is enjoying their beach time or bistro experience somewhere far below, you’ll learn that the Cape Mountain floral kingdom can become Mordor at ultra-marathon trail running distances. 

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