Woolcock won a tight sprint with Nico Bell (Westvaal Bells Cycling) to claim the men’s title in a time of 3 hours 34 minutes and 45 seconds. The second-place finish was enough to give Bell the overall national marathon series title for 2013. Gawie Combrinck (Westvaal Bells Cycling), John-Lee Augustyn (TREAD 32GI) and Erik Kleinhans (Team RE:CM) rounded out the top five places respectively.
In the women’s race, Kleinhans, the current Swiss National Marathon Champion, secured a hard-fought two-minute victory over South African Marathon Champion, Robyn de Groot (Nike Vision) with Amy Beth McDougall (ASG) completing the top three.
With one of biggest prize purses of any one-day race in South Africa, the event attracted a strong field, which numbered over 2000 starters. With a total ascent of 1322 metres, the race route is, at best, considered undulating, but the heat, wind, lack of long descents and the prevalence of corrugations on the gravel road sections, make it a true race of attrition.
Woolcock and Erik Kleinhans executed a perfect example of teamwork in the men’s race, with Kleinhans chasing down an early solo break by Au gustyn, with Combrinck joining them shortly after. With teammates ahead, Woolcock and Bell were able to sit in the chase pack, which eventually began to crumble, leaving the two of them fresh enough to ride across to the lead trio, which they joined with 35km to go and setting up a five-rider title battle.
“John Lee was a dark horse, but he’d been away since before the halfway mark and it was really hot, windy and dry. Still, we knew we needed to watch him, which is why Erik went across. When Gawie went across after Erik, I wasn’t sure what do because Gawie is in very good form, but decided to watch Nico,” said Woolcock.
“Once Nico and I joined the leaders, Erik kept the pace high to consolidate our lead over any possible chasers but then he dropped off at the second-last water point. From my experience at this race, I know it’s not wise to stick your nose out front before the last 30 kilometres and that’s exactly what I did,” added Woolcock.
The conditions got the better of Augustyn and Combrinck, who stopped briefly to replenish their fluids at the last water point, leaving Bell and Woolcock out front.
“I was setting the pace at that stage and at one point I looked back and saw John Lee again and said to Nico that we have to work together to build a proper gap, which we did.”
The Team RE:CM riders had familiarised themselves with the new finish before the start, so Woolcock knew what to expect when he and Bell reached the final section.
“I knew I wanted to be in the very twisty singletrack first so that I could control the pace and not be put under pressure. I managed to do this and once we got to the last straight, I had enough in my legs to get to the bridge first. And first onto that bridge usually wins, although Nico and I were both cramping at the end,” smiled Woolcock, reflecting on his first ever ultra-marathon victory and his first MTN National Marathon Series race win.
Ironically for Ariane Kleinhans, her superior climbing ability ultimately secured her the women’s race win in one of the flattest ultra-marathons on the South African the calendar.
“There’s only one climbing section in the race. Our lead group split up on the first part of the climb, with only Robyn staying with me. I was keen to get the King of the Mountain prize and so pushed it up to the top and saw that the KOM wasn’t there, so I knew it had to be at the second summit.
“I pushed hard again and managed to get the KOM and in the process opened up a small gap on Robyn. Then it was a rocky descent followed by twisty singletrack and I think my mountain biking experience helped me build a lead there,” said Kleinhans.
From then on, for the second half of the race, the women’s field was splintered and the riders each faced a solo effort to the finish. Kleinhans finished in a time of 04 hours 01 minute 28 seconds to claim her second Crater Cruise crown.
“I forgot how hectic this race is. I did it in 2011 and really suffered, but today I was broken at the finish. Not much climbing but you have to work for every metre. With the hot and dry conditions, I made sure that I kept drinking and tried to pace myself to be strong for the last section, which is so hard. That makes winning it even better,” smiled Kleinhans.