Ultra Trail Cape Town [A Runner's Guide]

This is the trail runner's guide to Ultra Trail Cape Town, an Ultra Trail World Tour event, and one of the coolest days possible on the mountain!
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What's Inside

Race Distances

  • 100km
  • 65km
  • 35km
  • 21km

Route Descriptions

  • 100km
  • 65km
  • 35km
  • 21km

Which One Should You Do

Visitors Guide

  • Tuesday Trails
  • Guided Tours
  • Accommodation
  • What to do in Taper Week

Kit Guide

🏃         🏃        🏃

The Ultra Trail Cape Town (UTCT) holds a special place in my heart.

It was my first 100K, and was the race that inspired me to take up running more seriously.

I am entered into the 100K again this year (2021) and hoping to give it a decent go.

As a Cape Town resident, and having run all of these trails a ton - this is the local's guide to Ultra Trail Cape Town.

Race Distances

100K

The grand-daddy!

The whole enchilada!

For the first time ever, the 100K distance has a cut-off time of 24 hours. For the last few years, the cut-off was 17 hours. In the first two years of the race (2014 and 2015) it was actually a 15-hour cut off. They now award a medal to the runner's who complete the 100K in less than 15 hours - the Originals Medal.

The 100k is the full tour of the Cape Town peninsula. The route has a little bit of everything thrown in. You'll likely experience all four seasons during your 'few' hours out there too.

Is It For You?

Looking to Finish

The 100K is a tough day out, make no mistakes about it.

With the new 24-hour cut off, it makes it much more accessible to more people. You're going to be in for a tough day, no matter how long you stay out there.

You will likely 'manage' if:

  • If you've done a few 60km+ races/runs,
  • Are comfortable with 2000m of elevation gain in one run,
  • Train consistently at 70km+ per week during your training 'times'.

Running 100km in 24 hours equates to an average per km pace of 14:24 min/km. (That's in mm:ss)

Looking to Go Sub-17

To achieve the Original's Badge, you will likely need to:

  • Have experience running 60km+;
  • Be accustomed to a lot of climbing, and power-hiking;
  • Be able to run on rocky and technical trails;
  • Be able to carry a 3kg backpack;
  • Have run 12+ hours a few times;
  • Have done a 60km+ training run in months leading up to the race;
  • Have maintained 100km+ training weeks in the training block leading up to the race;

Running 100km's in 17hours equates to an average pace/km of 10:12 per km. (That's in mm:ss)

Check out the route description below.

My UTCT 100K Previous Experience

Leading into the last time I did UTCT in 2018, I was still pretty new to the sport.

I'd been running 'consistently' for about a year. I was self-trained.

My longest training run leading up to the race was 45.5km, and most of my solid training happened way too early in the lead up to the race. My inexperience lead to over-eagerness and I got an injury about 2 months out. Not ideal!

My last 14 weeks leading up to race weeks looked like this:

  • 14: 117.5km
  • 13: 107.9km
  • 12: 112.8km
  • 11: 103.8km
  • 10: 63.2km
  • 9: 70.9km
  • 8: 55.7km
  • 7: 82.3km
  • 6: 79.9km
  • 5: 65.9km
  • 4:113.7km
  • 3:61.3km
  • 2: 80.7km
  • 1: 87.0km
  • Race Week:16.3km (not including the race, obviously)
Training leading up to UTCT 2018 100K

As you can see, consistency is not exactly the word to describe the training load.

No prizes for guessing when I got injured!

I arrived at race day feeling ready, unknowing, and super super nervous. Come 4AM though, and it was all excitement.

If I can say one thing about UTCT, the start is pretty spectacular. The red flares, the vibe, the energy - it's something I'll remember forever.

Crewing at the start of UTCT 2019 - experiencing some serious FOMO as the flares were lit.

My day overall was amazing. I had some high's, probably a few more low's, but the bug had firmly bitten. It was what hooked me to trail running, without a doubt. The only reason I haven't run the race since is because of prior commitments, and COVID.

Here was my race day:

In hindsight, probably an extremely lucky result.

Route Descriptions

I live within 2km of the start of the race and have run every single one of the trails that each of these routes covers. Below are some brief descriptions on where you will be heading, with some expectations for each.

All the races start and end at Gardens Rugby Club, which is literally at the foot of Table Mountain. See the view above, looking back towards Table Mountain.

100K

The 100k starts off downhill, on tar. You head down through town towards the base of Signal Hill. From there, you enter the mountain through the lower slopes of Signal Hill. Your first piece of trail is a contour path that runs from the base of Signal Hill all the way to the base of Lions Head. It is relatively flat. If you're a speedster - get to the front of the pack before you go in to this single track section. It is quite difficult to overtake and the pack tends to bunch.

You then take a sharp right and onto the first climb of the day. First, up to the tar road which goes to Signal Hill where you cross over and continue climbing up the Lion's Head jeep track. You take the back exit of Lion's head down some rocky switchbacks and make your way along the spine of Signal Hill to the first aid station on Signal Hill where you can get water.

Dropping down the back of Lion's head, looking towards Signal Hil. You won't see this, it'll still be dark!

From there you drop down a steep jeep track aiming almost directly for the Cape Town Stadium. You then go round the front of Signal Hill on some rocky trails and jeep track and come out on the popular Lions Head trail which does a loop around the base of Lion's Head. Another short climb up The Glen ravine and you're at the first main aid station of the day: Kloof Corner. It should be starting to get light now, depending on how fast you're running.

Stock up well at Kloof Corner - you've got a big section coming.

The Kloof Corner climb then starts immediately with a short super steep uphill in some gum tree's before the Kloof Corner switchback climb up to the Table Mountain Contour path. You then traverse the contour path on a flat, but rocky trail to the start of one of the main infamous climbs of the day: Platteklip Gorge.

A (partial) view of Platteklip Gorge - one of the main climbs of UTCT. You start the climb where the contour path meets the trail going up. The Contour Path is about at the level of the rock line.

You'll ascend around 450m on a spectacular climb of switchbacks. Lots of power-hiking. Take it easy, you'll need the legs later! If you're lucky enough, you might hear the bag pipes playing. It's a pretty spectacular part of the race, take a moment to absorb it.

Coming out at the top, you'll run the front face of Table Mountain to Maclears Beacon (the highest point of Table Mountain at 1008m above sea level. Just sneaking in the "Mountain" category!). The front face route is another breathtaking piece of trail. You run along the iconic 'flat table' silhouette. If you're lucky enough it'll be clear, and you'll catch a view that looks something similar to this:

The view back towards Signal Hill from the front face of Table Mountain

From Maclear's Beacon you have a very long downhill section which traverses the spine of Table Mountain. At first, it is quite technical and rocky running, but once you hit the dams on top of the mountain, it's pretty easy running for a km or two on some jeep track until you hit another technical downhill trail which takes you to Constantia Nek.

The view down the "spine" from Maclear's Beacon.

This is a timing cut-off point where runners are rerouted on to the 65km at a certain time. I am not sure what that will be now with the new 24-hour limit.

You're now entering the part of the route that only the 100km runners get to enjoy.

You now have a variable terrain section that runs along the bottom end and perpendicular to the Twelve Apostles mountain range, through some flat-ish technical trails, and also jeep tracks. This is a pretty slow-going section which I found it hard to get into a rhythm on. Maybe it was because we had been going downhill for so long until this point, or maybe it was because it was quite bushy and hard to see the trail ahead. You come out the end of a 4km-5km section atVictoria Road above Llandudno. Again, a pretty spectacular view as you look down onto the Llandudno bay.

You'll then begin a pretty steep descent directly into Llandudno, down Llandudno ravine, where another aid station awaits.

This is another important one. Stock up on plenty of food and drink here, you've got another long tough section coming. This is also the time of day where it's starting to heat up, and this section doesn't offer any protection from the sun.

You leave Llandudno across the beach, and follow the coast for a few km's, running towards a shipwreck. This is up-and-down technical trail, with some boulder hopping and sandy beaches. You also run across the (in?)famous Sandy Bay Beach which is a nudist beach. No doubt a welcome distraction. You'll then start a steep climb which is the start of the second main climb of the route. You'll head up towards a short piece of jeep track called Rocket Road, off which the steep climb up the Karbonkelberg starts. This is a long, hot climb to the top of Suther Peak.

The trail up to the top is all basically a hike, especially with 50-odd kay's in the legs by this stage. At the top you'll drop down the back of Suther Peak into quite a runnable descent. The top is a bit technical, but you're soon onto some sandy trails and then the lower jeep track over-looking Hout Bay. Keep some legs for this descent.

At the bottom you'll go into the main aid station where you have a kit bag waiting. A change of shoes and socks and a solid meal does wonders here.

The next 10km's is runnable. You go on a gradual ascent through the greenbelt's of Hout Bay back up towards Constantia Nek. You come back to the point you were at 30-odd km's earlier. Here you'll join the 65km runners on course.

This time you drop down into the Constantia Valley, through some vineyards, runnable jeep track and then nice, shady and soft-underfoot greenbelts. You end up at the Alphen Aid station which is in the heart of Constantia.

Then begins a slow climb out of the valley back up towards the mountain. You rejoin the mountain at the Contour Path - a continuation of the one that you were running on much earlier in the day in the section between Kloof Corner and Platteklip. The Contour Path brings some welcome respite from the sun, though the odd-climb and technical piece of trail. A challenge on weary legs, but a good break from the pounding of the hot African sun!

You'll then leave the contour path and head down (which will hurt, at this stage) to UCT. This is the final aid station of the day. It's always a vibe. When you pass through that Red Bull arch, you've got about 10km's to go.

Don't be fooled, it's a tough 10km.

Leaving the aid station, you'll immediately start climbing up some jeep track before taking a sharp left up one of the sharpest climbs of the day. This hurts the legs, but almost seems better than going downhill at this stage. You'll be exposed to the elements here. You top out at the King's Blockhouse, where you have just finished the last proper climb of the day.

The view from the Block House. The finish line is just around the corner.

From there, you're back on the Contour Path, to round the mountain and eventually land up looking down over the City Bowl. From here, you can see the start/finish line field down below. You've got a small matter of a few hundred vertical meters and about 2km's of technical descending to the finish. This starts with some switchbacks coming down from the mountain onto Tafelberg road. You run along the tar for a few hundred meters and then drop into Deer Park at Dead Man's Tree (aptly named).

From here, you should be able to taste the Jack Black Lager's waiting for you. You'll definitely be able to hear the announcer on the megaphone. So close!

Enjoy the last few hundred meters in the mountain before you snake your way through one or two blocks of suburbs to the finish.

Congratulations, you've just finished 100km of the most spectacular running Cape Town has to offer.

If you look close enough, you might be able to spot a smile.

65km

The 65km follows the same route as the 100km, without the loop through Llandudno and Hout Bay. Read the description above :)

35km

The 35km starts with a Bee-line straight for the bottom of Kloof Corner, instead of the loop around Lion's Head and Signal Hill which the other two routes do. You follow the same route until you hit the dams on top.

Did I mention it's pretty spectacular up there?

From the dams, you head down a technical, steep descent - Nursery Ravine. It's beautiful!

From there, you turn left, and follow the contour path and join the other two routes for the last 15-odd km's of the run.

21km

The 21km is a unique route, generally run on the Sunday. It's a great intro to the UTCT experience for a beginner trail runner looking for a challenge. And it is one!

The 21km follows an anti-clockwise direction. You start off heading up through Deer Park. You'll run up through a foresty section and then onto a long section of up-and-down jeep track which takes you around the front of the mountain with some views over looking the harbour.

You'll gradually climb up a piece of rocky jeep track until you branch off left and make a long descent on some rocky jeep track down towards UCT. From here, you climb... all the way up to the Contour Path. Once you're there, you head left for a small section of flat-ish respite. You'll run through some small ravines which might have water in them at that time of the year if you want to stop for another drink or splash of the face to cool down.

You'll run along some more wooden path sections until you hit the bottom of Newlands Ravine, where you start climbing again. You top out at the the Devil's Peak Saddle.

Look out for the famous Table Mountain Tahr's coming up Newlands Ravine

From the saddle you've got a rocky technical descent down to Dead Man's Tree and then the same descent as the other three distances down to the finish. All done!

Which Distance Should You Do?

A lot of trail races talk about a "trail factor" rating. It's supposed to signify the difficulty of running on trail versus road. So if the trail factor of a race is 2.0, and it's a 50km, the difficulty of the run is equivalent of running 100km.

I'm not sure it really directly translates, but I'll use the framework to try give some guidelines.

The 100km is for intermediate to experienced runners. You should be comfortable on your feet for 8+ hours at a time heading into the race.

The 65km is a challenging step for anyone looking to run their first Ultra Marathon. It is a very challenging route for an Ultra. If you can do this, you'll be ready for the 100km next year.

The 35km is a super challenging route for a 35km. Unless you're speedy, expect to be out there for 5 hours+. I'd guess its the equivalent of a 55km-65km road run.

The 21km is a challenge for any beginner looking to get into trail running. The first part of it is mostly jeep track, but quite rocky. The second part is basically a steep climb, and then a steep descent. Be sure to save some legs for that!

Visitors

For anyone travelling from overseas (or just not from Cape Town), there are some things you might want to know about visiting!

Tuesday Trails

Every Tuesday a big group of trail running peep's meet up for an hour's run at 6pm. Everyone has a Jack Black beer afterwards in the parking lot.

The vibe is super cool, and the people are even better.

Everyone runs in 4, sometimes 5 groups according to how fast you want to go.

The location alternates between Newlands and Town every week. In general, there's a pretty big crew that heads out for a shake-out run on the Tuesday before race day.

If you're planning a trip down, try get there for the week build up!

Guided Tours

If you're coming to Cape Town and feeling intimidated about the trails, finding your way around the mountain, or just route suggestions - give me a shout. Always happy to give a tour, or some recommendations.

Accommodation

Anywhere in town is a great option. Cape Town city bowl is pretty small, so you can't really go wrong. Here are some good suburbs to look for accomodation in which are within 5 minutes of the race start village:

  • Gardens
  • Vredehoek
  • Oranjezicht
  • Higgovale
  • City Bowl

If you want to stay closer to the sea (but also close to the start - generally no more than 15 minutes), here are some good options:

  • Camps Bay
  • Sea Point
  • Fresnaye
  • Greenpoint
  • Bantry Bay

What to do in Taper Week

Coming soon

Kit Guide

Coming soon

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