The Story of the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge

The Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge was launched by Wildrunner in 2011, hot off the heels of the inaugural Helderberg Mountain Challenge in 2010.  The opening JMC offer consisted of 30km, 21km and 11km routes combining the best of Cape Nature & Cape Pine properties in the then relatively unknown Jonkershoek Nature Reserve.  736 runners entered the opening event and for the next eight years, this Cape classic has been a firm favorite on the trail and mountain running calendar - becoming infamous from the get go! From 2014 the JMC led the way in another pioneering step by Widlrunner with the formation of the Mountain Challenge Series - now the BOS Sport Mountain Challenge Series, amplified by Jaybird - the only one of it’s kind in South Africa.  A tough, pure mountain running series made up of three separate mountain races; the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge (JMC), the Helderberg Mountain Challenge (HMC) and the Marloth Mountain Challenge (MMC). Each event consists of a Lite, Extreme and Ultra distance race. To complete the series, participants must compete in the same distance category at each race.

The Jonkershoek Valley is a mountain scene to rival any across the world. Massive turrets and cliffs of orange-faced quartzite hold fortress over a collection of rambling mountain streams and waterfalls. It is a wilderness running experience that serves up a main dish of brutal climbs and gnarly descents, along with a side dish of unimaginable biodiversity and natural splendour. Participants are able to choose between three distances; 39km, 24km or 12km, with the longest topping out at 1273m above sea level.

This year we see a field of runners of unprecedented depth lining up for JMC. The likes of Bernard Rukadza, Lucas Adams, Siviwe Nkombi, Jono Black, Hayley Preen, Cana Peek, Naomi Brand, Bianca Tarboton, Timothy Chambers, Pete Calitz and Josh Chigome, to name a few.


Let’s take a look back at the history and evolution of JMC to set the scene for the 9th edition in 2019.

2011 and an eight hour rescue

Mountain events are seldom without their drama.  In the inaugural JMC year (2011) the weather at the start was pre cold front - being deceivingly warm but ‘moist’.  “I remember it like it was yesterday!” said Wildrunner MD and pioneer of the MCS events, Owen Middleton, “One of our Wilderness Search and Rescue volunteers, Paul van Spronsen, radioed into the start finish to give us an update on the weather at the top of the mountain.  His words were ‘If you sit down in this weather you will die’.  I duly passed on this message to the waiting 30km runners and urged those without mountain experience in bad weather to downgrade to the 24km.  You must remember that this was the early days of trail running, with lots of newbies and lots of misunderstanding on the necessity for compulsory kit.  My belief is still today, that you can run in any weather in the mountains and survive provided you have the right kit with you.  Anyway, the relatively warm conditions at the start, however, did one of two things - it created a false sense of security (i.e. how bad could it be) and caused some to cheat with their compulsory kit.  To cut a long story short, as a result of this, we landed a severe hypothermia case (unconscious) right at the top of the mountain that required an eight and a half hour rescue, using 48 volunteers and untold resource.  We had resources in place fortunately and VHF communications, but many don’t - so she was and is lucky to be alive! This was the catalyst to much stricter control of compulsory kit throughout professionally run trail & mountain events in South Africa. All told there have only been a hand full of rescues in Jonkershoek in the 8 years of this event running, which is quite amazing given the nature of the terrain.”

Those with all the compulsory kit dominated, with 42 year old legend Allan Benn smashing the course in 2:53:05 and in doing so putting 12 minutes between him and Bernard Rukadza.  Some mountain running legends followed in Andrew Hagen and Martin Kleynhans.  Robyn Ferrar won the ladies race, with Phia O’Kennedy and Tanya Rabie rounding out the top 3 ladies.

2013 SA Long Distance Championships

JMC was selected for SA’s inaugural SA Long Distance Trail Running Championships and was to be the final selection race for the SA Team to represent at the World Championships. It is to date the closest race in JMC history with JHB based Thabang Madiba going head to head against high profile Cape trail runners, Michael Bailey, AJ Calitz and Kane Reilly.  In the end just 4 seconds separated the top 3, with Thabang putting all that altitude training to good use to hold off the chasing three and take the win.  Bailey finished 2 seconds back and AJ Calitz took third, another 2 seconds behind Bailey.  Despite it being 35km - 5km more than the previous route - both Thabang and Bailey broke the magical sub 3 hour mark, proving just how hard the racing had been.  

2014 - Rukadza/Soggot take charge of the JMC & the MCS is born

JMC has seen no shortage of great SA trail talent. One of the youngsters to cut his teeth on the early edition of the 24km JMC Lite was Rory Scheffer, in 2014. Though shorter, this route is by no means easy. Scheffer followed up his third place at the Cape Summer Trail Series Championship earlier that year by winning his first Mountain Challenge Series Lite race in a time of 1:55:05. He was chased all the way to checkpoint 1 at 13.4km by Chris Strydom and Edson Kumwamba who were one and two minutes behind respectively at the CP. All three of these gents have gone on to specialise in marathon distance trails, or longer. Bernard Rukadza and Katya Soggot scooped top spots in the then 35km event that year.

2014 also saw the inaugural Mountain Challenge Series unfold, combining the three big mountain challenges into one.  Legend mountain strongman Dom Wills - fresh off an Otter trail performance the week before - took hold of the 55km and showed a clean set of heels on Derrick Baard.  Wills completed the 35km JMC, the 24km HMC and the 55km MMC in just 14:16:30! Only 15 people finished the MCS in 2014.

2015, the year of the great fire and we up the ante to 38km

This was the year of a great fire in March 2015, destroying 80% of the Cape Pine plantations. Cape Nature & Cape Pine were quick on the draw however, and repaired and recovered bridges and paths with unbelievable speed and the 5th edition of the JMC continued with minor route changes.

It was also the first year that we introduced the 38km and extended the 22 to 24km. This set the stage for new records and Bernard Rukadza made sure the bench mark was high with a commanding 3:27:33 - just under 3 minutes ahead of Nicholas Rupanga.

2016 course tampering & Rukadza secures his first MCS title

The 2016 edition of the JMC was marred by course tampering around the mountain bike trails within the last 10km.  This was quickly corrected but a number of runners ended up being affected.  Bernard utterly dominated all races in the MCS in 2016, smashing both the Marloth Mountain Challenge record (together with AJ Calitz) and bringing the fastest time to complete all three of the longest races in the MCS down to 13:15:48.

2017 Reilly 1min shy and the ladies record tumbles

The 2017 edition welcomed near-perfect race conditions and the largest JMC field of 1200 runners. In the 39km, Kane Reilly, arguably one of our country's top mountain runners, proved untouchable in the men’s race. He beat second place with a 16min lead and missed out on the course record by only 1min, finishing in 3:28:59. Carla van Huyssteen came flying across the line in first place in the women’s race, breaking the record by 17 seconds in a time of 04:11:09. Little did we know what utter domination van Huyssteen would show this year, going on to win the MCS title outright - the first of its kind in SA mountain running history.

2018 Unrest, Peek appears & Rukadza goes sub 3:30

In 2018, unrest in the Jonkershoek Valley caused some concern about race day safety. But the issues were mediated and resolved with assistance from the community, and another world-class crew of trail talent hit the mountains. It will probably be best remembered as the year that Edson Kumwamba tried to catch Bernard Rukadza in the 39km race, with both dipping under 3h30min. Rukadzas’ course time of 3:26:21 remains the fastest time on record  for the route. 

Perhaps it will also be remembered as the year that veteran runner Roger Dickson had to fight with all he had to hang on to top spot in the 24km, with newcomer Cana Peek finishing just 19 seconds behind him!

2019 New names, a stacked field and a new tail end

What we do know about 2019 is that the route will no longer go through the dam wall which has resulted in a modified tail end to the race course.  We also know that this is the most stacked field in the JMC since the SA Champs back in 2013.  Virgin JMC elite runners like speedster Siviwe Nkombi are yet to stamp their authority in the mountains, but one gets the sense that this day is coming.  So the question on everyone's mind is; will multiple reigning JMC Champion Bernard Rukadza - with his top 20 finish at Two Oceans Marathon - hold onto his trophy, or will someone manage to pry this from him this year?  We certainly wouldn’t want to call it!

This year, First Ascent joins the event as technical apparel partner. BOS Sport stays on as title sponsor, with Jaybird as presenting. Additional partners Steenberg and Saggystone round out a full house. With a number of strong elite contenders lining up across the various distances, and an impressive prize purse on offer, JMC social media and FinishTime tracking will be the space to watch - that is, of course, if you aren’t one of the fortunate participants heading out into these prized mountain spaces.

Limited entries are still available, but like Rukadza’s JMC crown, the question is for how long?