Modern Athlete Magazine Issue 164 December 2023 | Page 81

I have recently been called the ‘ Mountain Shark ,’ partly because I am a marine ( shark ) biologist who trail runs , but also thanks to my strategy of starting towards the back of races and sneaking up to overtake other runners the further we run . That strategy paid off in the recent RMB Ultra-Trail Cape Town 100km , where I also learnt a few things about myself along the way ! – BY LEIGH DE NECKER
On the MAXI Race 75km podium with Michelle Rolfe and Caro Jordaan
Leigh with Luna , her little Boon Shark
Training hard in Silvermine Nature Reserve in the build-up to UTCT

The UTCT 100km was my big goal for 2023 , and I trained my butt off ! There were many ridiculously early morning runs in the dark , in icy cold , pouring rain , in howling winds , or blistering heat ( and some really fantastic and wonderful conditions too ). I also managed to secure amazing sponsorship and support from an incredible brand , New Balance , where my love for ultra trail running and an active lifestyle , as well as working as a marine biologist and professional in nature conservation , made for a great partnership .

New Balance provides me with top quality shoes and kit that fit the brand ’ s Green Leaf Standard for sustainable production , which indicates that at least 50 % of the materials used in those products are sourced and produced as environmentally preferred , including reclaimed and recycled plastics . As a conservationist and a runner , I think it ’ s important to be aware of how much a brand is considering the environment when you ’ re buying clothes and shoes .
This new sponsorship and support helped me to unexpectedly land myself on my first ever women ’ s podiums this year – third at the 50km Table Mountain Beast , second at the 40km Hout Bay Trail , and second at the 75km MAXI race – while also securing top 10 positions in other events . So , all was going well , but then physically , I got knocked with a nasty injury – a suspected inflamed or torn labrum ( cartilage ) of my left hip – while emotionally the unexpected loss of my doggie , Luna ( a . k . a . Boon Shark ), was more than I could bear . I stopped caring about my 100km UTCT goal , and was going to pull out of the race .
With support from ( some ) friends , family and my ultra-runner of a physiotherapist , Juan Carstens , I ( we ) decided two weeks before the race that I should give it a go . ( The cost of the entry fee was a significant motivator too , with the key driver being the chance to run for Boon Shark ). However , I changed my approach to the run , from wanting to go all in and all out , to taking all the pressure off myself – to run the race , but not race the race , especially because it had such a strong elite field of local and international runners , so my hopes of featuring anywhere close to the top were zero . All I needed to do was get through 100km
Partner Ryan Stamrood , Leigh ’ s long-suffering but patient and understanding race second
of brutal mountain running , with 5000m of elevation , without needing surgery afterwards . How hard could it be ?
Pre-race Nerves
After making my partner , Ryan Stramrood , listen to my “ Jesus music ” on the drive to the start , and standing in a portaloo queue for my third nervous poo ( along with other runners who were already on their fourth or fifth ), I planted my now lighter self somewhere mid to back of the pack to start . The further back you start , the less people can overtake you . It also does not pressure me to run faster than I want to , too early on .
At no point were the first 40km easy or comfortable , but I also never felt absolutely broken either . By the time I got to Llandudno , I had overtaken quite a few people , including several friends who are phenomenal runners – much stronger than me – who were struggling with the heat , or cramping , and just having a difficult day . This got to me mentally … I thought , “ If they are crashing , my crash must be coming soon , too , then !” As a result , I was being unnecessarily mean to my wonderfully supportive and loving partner at the aid station . ( I was later forgiven , after receiving an equally mean foot massage .)
Images : Sportograf , Ryan Stamrood , Craig Kolesky , Sam Clark , Sue Miller
Leigh on her way to second place in the wet and wild MAXI Race 75km