The Little Engine That Could

For Émile David, photography and videography are powerful storytelling tools. As a filmmaker and Director of Photography, his work focuses on the relationship between humans and land. He's currently based in the Saguenay to be closer to untouched, pristine natural spaces.

The Little Engine That Could

Ilan is part of the Marketing team at Altitude Sports. He is an avid – if newer – runner and loves to nerd out over training methods, gear, and the science behind the sport. Though he focuses on trail when he can, the Montreal winters force him to keep his road legs sharp. 

The Little Engine That Could

Words by Ilan Abikhzir and Emma Dixon-Cahn

The Little Engine That Could

100 kilometers of perseverance in Cape Town with Marianne Hogan

Marianne Hogan—tanned from months of training and racing in the French Alps, China, and now South Africa—is waiting for me in the lobby of our hotel. She greets me warmly and from behind her large, round glasses her smile exudes the excitement and joy I’ve come to expect from her. I’ve never met Marianne, but I feel like I know her well, having followed her journey as a Salomon global trail runner. She introduces me to several icons in the sport that consumed me for the past three years; Thibault Baronian—a Salomon Global Athlete—and Vincent Viet—the Global Athlete Trail Running Manager—are here for the same reason as Marianne: the Ultra Trail Cape Town. A mythic, technical, and arduous course through the Mother City’s rocky plateaus and white sand beaches.

Youtube Video

In a rare moment of calm, Marianne meets me at a trendy vegan café to chat over a couple bottles of locally-brewed kombucha (her drink of choice). I’m dying to quiz her about her recent injuries and how she’s managed to bounce back from a serious psoas tear and high-ankle sprain to a win at China’s Tsaigu Ultra Trail just a few weeks ago. 

“It hasn’t been easy,” she tells me between sips. “I’ve had to completely re-evaluate how I approach my training. For example, I never had a coach in my trail running career, but this season I decided to start working with one. He’s really been able to rein me in and insists that I listen to my body more and maybe lower my volume a bit. I’m someone who wants to go, go, go all the time, but I’ve had to learn to slow down in order to stay healthy. 

“I had ambitions of racing in 2023 that were completely derailed by my injuries,” Marianne continues. Her injured psoas, a muscle running from the groin to the lumbar and a key player in hip mobility, had very publicly sidelined her from the world’s most competitive races, in which she would have been a top contender. “I was hard on myself at first, almost embarrassed to have suffered an overuse injury as a professional athlete. But I’m feeling stronger every day and looking forward to training for 2024 with a renewed control of my mileage and understanding of my body.” 

We make our way back to our hotel where she has one more important step to prepare for tomorrow’s race; soon, her crewer and friend Benoit will be coming by to go over her aid station strategy and pick up everything we’ll need to be her closest allies on race day. 

Crewing is an integral part of ultratrail racing; aid stations along the course allow runners to refuel, change gear if needed, and access their crews. In order to give top runners every advantage possible (even over 100 km, races can be decided by minutes), crewing has evolved from simply refilling bottles into veritable Formula 1 pit stops. 

It’s 3:30 am when our alarms go off. Though we’ve beaten the sunrise by hours, our day is already beginning. Breakfast, specially served at this unsavoury hour by the hotel, is waiting for us downstairs, and though I normally struggle to eat before a race, Marianne and her Salomon teammates methodically fill up on the fuel that will lay the foundation for the long day ahead. They’ll ingest massive amounts of calories throughout the race (each with their own nutrition plan and habits), but this is their final “real” meal until after the race, so it’s crucial they get it right: white bread, juice, oatmeal, and no coffee serve as easily-digestible, carb-rich staples. 

 “How are you feeling?” I ask Marianne through the chaos of the start line, getting her tracker from the race organizers (a privilege reserved only for the top 10 runners in each field). 

“Good!” She responds with a huge smile beaming back at me. “Between you and me, the race plan is to compensate for my lack of fitness on the uphills by starting off really strong while it’s still relatively non-technical. We’ll see!” 

With her left ankle tightly taped from a recent sprain, having only returned to serious training a few months ago, she’s planning on going out strong, amid the lead pack of women. I’m impressed by her tenacity and optimism. 

Suddenly, ready or not, we’re counting down from 10, the starting horn goes off, and I’m cheering Marianne at the top of my lungs as she sprints away from the start line. We hardly wait long enough to see her disappear around the first bend before Benoit and I run to the car. 

We race off to aid station after aid station, seeing Marianne an impressive 11 times throughout the day (most 100 km races only allow you to see your runners a couple of times at best). Marianne is immediately in second position and holds her own fiercely for the first 50 km. Somewhere between aid stations on the inaccessible Table Mountain plateau, though, Benoit anxiously refreshes the live tracker to confirm what we fear: Marianne has slowed down considerably, and is losing ground to first place. More worrisome is the third place woman closing the gap to Marianne quickly.

At one aid station, sunny and picturesque on a white sand beach, Marianne comes in and throws us a curveball. 

“Scissors,” she calls, “I need scissors!”. 

Everyone crowding around us holds their breath as we scramble to find one of the few things we hadn’t prepared. Thankfully, a helpful onlooker—one of the top male runner’s crewers—has a spare pair that she thrusts into my hand. Marianne quickly cuts the ankle tape that has begun to dig painfully into her skin, re-laces her Salomon Ultra Glides, and runs out of the aid station on a mission to catch up to first place. 

Benoit and I repack the cooler and tote bag, and head back to the car. We push ahead to catch Marianne farther along the course. At Constantia Nek, sitting on dirt steps amid rolling vineyards, waiting for the first women to run by, we make our predictions on how the race will unfold just beyond the hill. We imagine the battles we can’t see and the rolled ankles we can’t quite help. 

Fourteen minutes after the first woman passes us, we see another woman running towards us, but our hearts sink as we quickly understand that it’s not Marianne; the previously third-place runner has passed Marianne in a technical uphill just a few kilometers before us, and is now in second place.

When Marianne finally appears, Benoit and I run alongside her, crowding her with our inquiries. “How are you feeling? How’s the ankle? Will you need anything specific at the next aid station?” 

Marianne, feeling our preoccupation, trots ahead happily and calls over her shoulder a phrase that will stick with Benoit and I until the end of the day, encompassing her persistent attitude perfectly: “Petit train va loin!” She smiles as she runs ahead. I later explain to Caitlin Pipfielder, Marianne’s Salomon teammate and good friend, the meaning of the phrase; tough to translate directly, but essentially meaning “the little engine that could.” It’s the perfect window into the determination that has brought her to Cape Town.

10 km from the finish line, with Marianne still in third place, we watch her dot approach the final aid station on the live tracker and see that the distance between her and second place is reducing quickly. I’m nearly jumping in place when I tell Benoit that they’ll be coming into the aid station at the same time. We both know that this will be a make-or-break pit stop; the seconds gained or lost at this station could very well set Marianne apart from her competitor, for better or for worse. 

Marianne races in, a few seconds ahead of her competitor, swaps flasks, and in less time than at any other aid stations, accelerates to the final climb of the course. I start a timer on my phone. When the previous runner finally leaves the aid station, Marianne is a solid minute ahead of her. I tentatively tell myself that second place is in the bag, especially if our Québécoise can maintain her current pace and carve out her lead. 

Twelve and a half hours after the starting gun, I’m hugging Marianne at the finish line, congratulating her on an incredible second-place finish. There’s still work to be done until she’s satisfied with her recovery, but I know that I’ve just witnessed the official return of an ultra trail legend.

Shop the collection

Loading spinner

  • Your Cart is Empty