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Africans are triumphing in trail running; here are the 2023 African Trail Runners of the Year

KNOWN to produce the biggest names in the running world, Africa is experiencing a rise in athletes shining in mountain and trail running. Sports Network Africa has unveiled a list of Africa’s most successful trail runners for 2023.

FROM distance running and cross-country to short races, there is a long list of African athletes who have staged record-breaking performances in running. Today, the world’s fastest sprinters have their origins in West Africa, while the world’s greatest distance athletes live at high altitudes in the Great Rift Valley to the east of the continent.

The continent is now producing some of the biggest names on the world stage in trail and mountain running—running on paths that are not surfaced, paved, sealed or asphalt roads. It involves running on rugged terrain.

In particular, African athletes from the north and east of the continent have excelled in shorter-distance trail and mountain running competitions, collecting titles and medals at high-profile races and international championship events. Athletes from the south of the continent are starting to mix it over longer distances with the Europeans and Americans, who have traditionally dominated this sector of the sport.

SPNAfrica, the African sports news platform of Sports Network Africa, has unveiled a 2023 African Trail Runners of the Year listing, highlighting the nominees and winners of trail running in 2023 in the men’s and women’s trail competitions.

Men: Short Distance

Trail runners in Africa have proved themselves world leaders in this sector, dominating the top positions in both the Vertical Challenge and Mountain Classic 15,5km at last year’s World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Innsbruck, Austria.

Nominees:

Leonard Chemutai
The 20-year-old 3000-meter steeplechaser raced mountain trails infrequently last year, but it was quality rather than quantity that earned Chemutai his nomination.

Just seven months after winning gold in the Men’s Under 20 Mountain Running competition at the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Thailand, Chemutai went one better at the 2023 Championships in Austria, winning the senior race over 15,5km against a stacked field of the world’s best.

Elhousine Elazzaoui
The 31-year-old Moroccan has been Africa’s most consistent performer in the highly competitive Golden Trail World Series in recent years and enjoyed his best season to date in 2023.

Running in the Sahara Desert in support of his grandfather’s camel train proved an ideal foundation for competing on the mountain trails of Europe. Elazzaoui’s win in the 27km GTWS series final at the Golfo dell Isola in Italy, ahead of top Kenyan mountain runners and Swiss trail star Remi Bonnet, was the cherry on top.

Another 2023 triumph for Elazzaoui was an excellent victory in the 23km GTWS Dolomyths Sky Race in July over some of Europe’s best mountain athletes.

Patrick Kipngeno
Apart from taking the World Vertical Challenge title with ease, Kipngeno placed 5th in the World Mountain Running race four days later.

Kipngeno was the clear winner ahead of countryman Philemon Kiriago in the highly competitive 19,5km La Montee du Nid d’Aigle Mountain Running World Cup event in the French region of Saint Gervais in July, before placing second to Kiriago in the ultra-competitive Golden Trail World Series (GTWS) Sierre-Zinal 31km three weeks later.

Kipngeno destroyed the field in the Spanish leg of the Mountain Running World Cup at Canfranc in September before returning to the GTWS in the USA, where he placed second to a record-breaking Remi Bonnet at the 22km Pikes Peak Ascent.

Through most of the season, Kipngeno held a slight advantage in the World Mountain Running World Cup over his countryman Kiriago but was beaten into second place by just 29 seconds by Kiriago at the Cup Final on the Canary Islands and again at the GTWS final at the 27km Golfo dell Isola in Italy, when the Kenyan pair took the minor podium places behind Moroccan Elhousine Elazzaoui.

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Kipngeno placed a close second to Kiriago in the final WMR World rankings and second to Swiss athlete Remi Bonnet in the final GTWS rankings, with Kiriago third. Kipngeno was also the second-ranked athlete on both the ITRA and UTMB-index rankings.

Levi Kiprotich
The Ugandan did not race in Europe outside the World Championships and was not part of the World Cup Mountain Running series. He won his country’s national mountain championship over 12,5km in Kapchorwa in late April to clinch his place in this country’s team for the World Mountain and Trail Championships in Austria in June. Kiprotich chased Kenyan Patrick Kipngeno to the top of Elfer Peak near Innsbruck to take the silver medal in the gruelling Vertical Challenge.

Philemon Kiriago
The other ‘K’ in Kenyan mountain running after Kipngeno, Philemon Kiriago, enjoyed a stellar European season, beating the best in the world on his day but also recording some less favourable results on occasion.

But he came to the party when it mattered, winning the final race in the Valsir Mountain Running World Cup series at Sky Gran Canaria ahead of Kipngeno in October to top the overall World Cup rankings for the year, edging Kipngeno by the narrowest of margins, with British athlete Joe Steward trailing some distance back in third.

Kiriago’s two top performances were his 1 min, 23-sec victory at Sierra Zina over a powerful field of track, road, cross country and trail athletes and his silver medal, just 8 seconds behind 20-year-old Ugandan Leonard Chemutai at the World Mountain Running Championship over 15,5km.

Italian trails appeared to suit Kiriago, with his impressive World Cup Mountain Running win over German Filimon Abraham at Malonno, Italy, in July and his second place behind Moroccan Elhousine Elazzaoui at the GTWS final at Golfo dell Isola.

Category Winner: Joint winners – Patrick Kipngeno and Philemon Kiriago; they were inseparable.

Women: Short Distance

Women from East Africa were not far behind their male counterparts in shorter-distance trail and mountain running through the season, although their medal haul of one silver (Philaries Kisang) and one bronze (Joyce-Muthoni Njeru) fell short of what the African men achieved.

Nominees:

Valentine Jepkoech Rutto
Jepkoech was a convincing winner over strong rival Kisang at the Mt Kenya Mountain Running Championships in February, booking her ticket to the World Championships in Austria, where she twice narrowly missed out on an individual medal. Nonetheless, her fourth position in both the Vertical Kilometre and Mountain Running Classic represented an impressive championship return.

Philaries Kisang
Kisang was a frequent visitor to the podium in mountain running during the 2023 season, but seldom on top, as she mostly played second fiddle to Njeru and earlier in the year had placed second to Jepkoech in the Mt Kenya Mountain Run.

Possibly her strongest result was clinching the silver medal at the Vertical Challenge behind Austrian Andrea Mayr at the World Championships in June, four days before placing 7th in a stacked field at the 15km Mountain Running Championship, behind winner Grayson Murphy of USA and fellow Kenyans Njeru (3rd) and Jepkoech (4th).

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Another strong performance was her third-place finish at Sierra Zinal behind American Sophia Laukli and Njeru and she placed third on the final World Mountain Running rankings behind Njeru and British athlete Scout Adkin.

Joyce-Muthoni Njeru
Njeru enjoyed her best year to date on the mountain trails, dominating international mountain running while also excelling at the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships.

Topping the overall World Mountain Running rankings courtesy of victories at Malonno, Italy, and Montee du Nid d’Aigle, France, in July, Canfranc, Spain, in September; and Sky Gran Canaria in October, set Njeru apart in mountain running in 2023.

A second place to American Sophia Laukli at the SierraZinal and a bronze medal behind another American, Grayson Murphy, in the Mountain Running 15km race at the World Championships in Austria added to the lustre of this top Kenyan athlete’s season.

Lucy Wambui Murigi
The former World Mountain Running Champion may have slowed a little, but she still competes at a high level. Her strong running and fifth position in the Valsir World Mountain Running ranking earned her a nomination.

Murigi’s highest placing in the World Mountain Running series was second to Joyce Njeru in Canfranc, Spain, in September. She twice placed fourth, at the Montee du Nid d’Aigle in July and at the Skyrun Gran Canaria in October.

Category Winner: Joyce-Muthoni Njeru

Men: Marathon and Ultra-Marathon Distance

Africans rule the world in road marathons but have some way to go to close the gap on the world’s best over-trail marathons and ultra-marathon races.

However, in Moroccan Elhousine Elazzaoui and Kenyan Robert Pkemboi, Africa can boast athletes who have the talent and determination to challenge the world’s best over longer-distance trail races, as they demonstrated in 2023.

Nominees:

Daniel Claassen
The strong-running South African came within seconds and one position of breaking into the top ten, placing 11th behind winner, American Dakota Jones at the ultra-competitive Transvulcania 72km in one of his finest ultra-marathon showings to date.

Residual tiredness in his legs from the Canary Island race likely impacted his performance at the World Championships, just a few weeks later. Typically, Claassen came through strongly in the second half after a difficult first half, running into a top fifty position in the ‘Long Distance 85km’.

Elhousine Elazzaoui
Elazzaoui lost out to Spanish athlete Manuel Merillas by just 27 seconds in one of the closest finishes of the year at the Golden Trail World Series season opener at Zegama, Spain. The Moroccan gave notice of things to come when he tackled the longer trail races with serious intent, with an impressive performance at Zegama – one of the world’s most competitive trail marathons, finishing well clear of Briton Jonathan Albon and Swiss athlete Remi Bonnet in 3rd and 4th. Robert Pkemboi was in fifth.

Robert Pkemoi
Pkemoi reigned supreme at the 47km Transgranaria in February, while many Europeans were still in their ski- boots, enjoying winter sports. Pkemboi beat the impressive Swiss athlete Roberto de Lorenzi by a full 8 seconds over the testing course and the two continued their rivalry later in the year when Pkemoi swept to victory in the Salomon Ultra Pirineu 42km in Spain in September, this time finishing almost four minutes ahead of the Swiss athlete in second.

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Earlier in the year, Pkemoi had returned to Europe, where he engaged another top Spaniard, Antonio Perez, in the MaxiRace in France (May 28)), losing out in the battle for line honours by just 15 seconds, just two weeks after placing fifth at Zegama.

Category Winner: Robert Pkemoi

Women’s Marathon and Ultra-Marathon Distance
Women from the southern part of the continent have carried Africa in this category, with Toni McCann (South Africa) and Emily Hawgood (Zimbabwe) excelling on the longer trails in 2023, the Adidas TERREX teammates proving that they can take on and beat the best in the world and setting a standard for their fellow-Africans to follow.

Nominees:

Emily Hawgood
Ranked 3rd in Ultra Running Magazine’s Ultra Trail Runner of the Year for 2023, Zimbabwean Emily Hawgood got her year off to a strong start by winning the Salmon Falls 50km in the USA in February (8th overall behind winner Cody Lind), before heading south to compete in the Valhöll Ultra-trail over 80km, where she placed a close second to American Helen Faukner, finishing 4th overall.

Hawgood threatened to podium at the prestigious Western States Endurance Run 100 miler in California, USA, in June, but struggled in the final stages to finish a solid fifth, just 17 minutes outside the final podium position, before placing second to top Norwegian Yngvild Kaspersen in the high profile 100km UTMB CCC in the French Alps in her strongest race of the year.

Meg Mackenzie
Mackenzie’s strongest result came early in the season, with an excellent third place, just 20 minutes behind in-form Italian Martina Valmassoi in the Transvulcania 72km, after being forced to a 15-minute halt for a medical evacuation along the way while the race leaders were not effected.

Between placing 27th at the competitive UTMB OCC in August, Mackenzie showed impressive speed over shorter distance trails, placing 3rd at the Marathon du Mont Blanc 22km in June and 2nd at the Ultra-trail Cape Town 23km in November.

Toni McCann
McCann’s year was mixed between frustrating injuries (which kept her from racing for the World Championship title) and brilliant successes, with her victory at the highly competitive UTMB OCC 55km the highlight of her career to date. McCann finished eight and nine minutes up on American Katie Schide and Chinese athlete Miao Yao.

Apart from collecting a number of smaller titles, including a record-breaking win by almost twenty minutes in the 43km Davos X-Trail race in Switzerland in late July, McCann won another high-profile race when she came out on top at the Transvulcania 48km in May against a strong field. She rounded out her year in impressive fashion on her home trails at the Ultra-trail Cape Town 55km in November, finishing third overall and first woman ahead of top Kiwi, Caitlin Fielder.

Category Winner: Toni McCann

By BIRD NEWSROOM

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