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Everyone Knows Stu

Stuart McConnachie utct
Image: Zac Zinn

No one in trail running had a busier November than Stuart McConnachie. He was among the race directors who broke the World Trail Majors news on November 13th. Two weeks later, he hosted the ninth edition of Ultra Trail Cape Town, the biggest trail race in Africa.


Stu, as everyone calls him, is the UTCT Race Director. During the past 10 years, he was able to position the race as one of the most competitive in the world with thousands of runners at the start. He is behind Tuesday Trails: the world-famous Cape Town trail running club. He is one of the prominent figures of the Cape Town running community. Everyone knows Stu.


When we met at the Chardonnay Deli in Constantia, UTCT week was just over. He was responsible for thousands of runners hitting the trails around the Cape Peninsula, making sure they experienced the race at its best. While we sat down for a coffee, his face looked more relaxed than what I saw during the weekend.


Looking back at when you started UTCT in 2014, what is something that you did not expect to happen?

 

The race founder was a friend of mine, Nic Borman. He's still a partner in the race, but less involved. At the time, he was based in Hong Kong and he had seen the growth of trail running in Hong Kong. When he came to Cape Town he said This is how the race is going to be. Then, I got involved. What we saw was that all the races in Cape Town were local. Some of them were big but none longer than 40 kilometers. We wanted to create a global event. We knew it was possible because Cape Epic made it.


The thing I did not expect to happen was the buy-in from the community. At the same time, we started the race, we started Tuesday Trails. In the beginning, we were 15 people and slowly something happened, and it grew bigger. Other groups started in the area, like Muizenberg Trail Dawgs. UTCT became the end-of-the-season event for these communities.

 

The event was always supported by the local community, but UTCT spans beyond South Africa now. This year, UT100 was one of the most competitive races of the year with many international athletes. Was this part of your strategy to grow the race?

 

A big part of it was to bring international athletes to Cape Town so that local runners could have an opportunity to compete against them on our local trails. Contacting elites is almost a year-round process. It comes from the relationships I built through the years and the people. For example, if Anthony [Costales] comes to Cape Town, his experience is a vehicle to communicate how beautiful Cape Town is. Then, he will tell other athletes to come here. And so on. We have an Elite Manager who helps them with questions and problems or drives them around. When you land in a place that you've never been before, you need some help.

 

By this time, brands consider the race as a big event. We've been able to use past experiences to grow the race organically. The event is placed in a favorable part of the calendar. Athletes who want to race in November can come here and finish the season strong. Straight after UTMB, I usually contact the elites asking them if they feel like running another one. Many of them are up to it.


stuart mcconnachie
Image: D. Paisley

Was there ever a moment when you realized the event was becoming something big?

 

2019. Francois [D’Haene] was here. Cody [Reed] beat him. The field was deep and in the top 10 among men and women, there were only 2 South Africans. We had 350 international runners in total over 1,800 runners. Then COVID came and we skipped 2020. 2021 was another big year. People weren’t traveling much but Jim [Wamsley] and Courtney [Dauwalter] came and won. They became supporters of the race. 


Are there any events from which you draw inspiration for UTCT?

 

We look at UTMB because it is the queen of the season. I love the look and feel of downhill skiing. It is clean and professional. The gates, the poles, everything is thought of. Then Formula 1. I have no interest in cars, but I sometimes watch it. I just want to see what they're doing. Lastly, Red Bull events are always an inspiration.

 

What is the next big thing that you want to improve in UTCT?

 

We want to be able to broadcast all the races because each one is important. I was impressed to hear how many people said to me that they came to UTCT because they saw the broadcast. It is powerful. If you're not broadcasting, you're falling behind. You must keep evolving and pushing yourself into new spaces.

 

What we would like to do is partner with TV networks across the world. We want to show the race to more people because it is different from what you see in Europe or the US. Something we need to improve is the amount of information we show to viewers. The normal person needs to understand what is happening.

 

Do you think that the sport needs to change to land on TV?

 

It doesn't fit the current trend of short videos. But there's something that people are drawn to. Some of my friends who are not into running, still watch the live stream of the race. Because what they see is out of the realm of their frame of reference. They watch for half an hour. Then come back to check what happened. The event I followed the most during my life was the Tour de France. There you have cyclists racing 6 hours per day for 21 days. People watch it. So, I don’t think we need to change the way the sport is.

 

The sport is watchable but it needs to become more competitive. What will happen is that certain races will continue to elevate themselves and raise the bar. UTMB, Western States and, I hope, UTCT. Fans will consider those as the most important races. Similar to tennis where you have the Grand Slams. Tennis has been around for 100 years, trail running just for 20. It is a long process.

 

The sport will polarize around big events and you will have tier-2 events below. In a recent interview, Jim [Wamsley] stated that he wants to win UTMB and he is not interested in competing in the other races of the series because they are not competitive enough. Forcing athletes to compete in a series is bad for them and their bodies. Nobody should force them to run more than they should. If three or four races become the most competitive, their viewership will increase and then there will be more benefit for the athletes. This is how the sport can transition from a participation to a spectator model.


runners utct start
Image: K. Trautman

 

Where do the World Trail Majors fit into this future?

 

What we want to do with the World Trail Majors is to make it equal for elite runners and the local communities. We are independent race organizers who see the sport as an opportunity for elite runners and the community to run together. We can’t race if the community doesn’t support us. Sponsorships do not provide enough money to make a race successful. You need the community to support you. The races part of the World Trail Majors are well-established and with strong communities behind them. 

 

We feel like the World Trail Majors can influence the sport and help the races remain independent. The idea is that when you run a race in Cape Town or Wales you will have a truly local experience. We don’t want an organizer to set up a blue arch and use the same name everywhere. We want each race to remain an expression of the local communities.

 

With regards to the local community, in the days leading up to the race, there have been a lot of talks about what happened to Tom Evans while running on the trails. [Tom was robbed while running on the trails on Table Mountain and did not participate in UTCT]. How do you deal with the safety issue at UTCT?

 

It is a tough one to deal with. We believe that we do as much as we can for the runners in terms of making the race safer. The 100-miler is only at its second edition and what happened during the race was unfortunate [three runners were mugged by locals. None was injured and all finished the race]. At the same time, we don't feel that having the army standing there is the atmosphere you want to feel. Unfortunately, for people with bad intentions, tourists are an easy opportunity. They walk in the mountains and they're not aware of the situation. These guys come quickly, take your bag, take your phone, and then they run away. There are areas that I will avoid during certain times, or I wouldn’t go there alone. The mountain should be considered a space like all others. You don’t go to certain areas of the city by yourself after a certain time.

 

In the build-up to the race, muggings were happening. On Sunday, while the race was happening, there were muggings on Signal Hill. It doesn't make the news because it's just a mugging. It shouldn't happen. What we want to do is use this opportunity to keep raising the problem with public officials. Table Mountain is the jewel of the crown of the city. If we don't look after it, then we're going to lose it. I know it does keep people away. In many ways, we need people to come and be part of it. That helps us to put pressure on the city and on the national park to do something. I live in Cape Town and I run on the mountain by myself all the time. I refuse to let that happen.

 

In your opinion, what is the most pressing topic that needs to be addressed in trail running?

 

We face the risk of losing the connection to the roots of the sport because of professionalism. The roots of the sports are running on a mountain, being fit and healthy, and feeling that energy that you get from the mountains. I am worried that we might become too obsessed with the professional side of the sport and forget why we do this outdoor sport and the community that holds the sport true.

 

Many people come into the sport for UTMB right now. It is an amazing race and experience. But it shouldn't be the reason why you come into the sport. The mountains, the people, and the self-journey should be those reasons. Trail running shouldn’t be ticking a box and then move on. I see trail running very much in the same light as surfing and skateboarding. Those two sports were considered underground in the early 70s, and 80s. Then, brands saw the opportunity to make money, and everything changed completely. Trail running could be next. What we need to keep in focus is that whether you're running a race, whether you're training for a race, or whether you're traveling anywhere, the sport is about the people who run and experience the mountains. We need to maintain the connection to the community. If you are afraid of running by yourself, you should be able to tap into the community and find fellow runners.



runners supporters utct
Image: K. Trautman

What you have here in South Africa seems the community feeling you are referring to. What makes running special in South Africa?

 

You've seen it's a very strong community. During a race, if you fall over, the first person to get to you will help you. I think that the South African trail community is in a healthy space and people coming into the sport are exposed to that. I am seeing more and more young people coming into the sport. It is a great way to make friends.

 

We need to make trail running more accessible for people who don't have the funds to run and be involved in the sport. Life is becoming more and more expensive. The cost of a pair of shoes is one month of salary for some. People should work to change things. The sport should remain accessible to everyone. No one should be required to sign up for a run club or pay a fee to the government to access the mountains.

 

Another topic related to South Africa is that we've got thousands of good runners, but they don’t run on trails because they don’t know about it. At the same time, there needs to be prize money because to compete at the best level you need to dedicate many hours. At UTCT we try to give back as much as we can to athletes because they are not making a lot of money and their careers are usually short. Part of the sport hides behind the fact that trail running was never about earning money. The organizers behind the big races are companies making money on the backs of athletes, so this is not fair.

 

What would you give back to the next generation of South African trail runners?

 

I dream that fast South African runners will be invited to the big races in Europe and the US. Coming from a small country far from where the most important races are located makes it almost impossible to break into the sport.

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