If Anyone Can, Toni McCann Can

Writing History for South Africa with her OCC UTMB Victory

The UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) World Trail Series is often compared to the Olympics of trail-running. This event-packed week provides ground for athletes – who travel from around the world – to push the boundaries and write history. Among the multitude of events that make up this prestigious series, the OCC (Orsières-Champex-Chamonix) race stands out – a 55km race with 3423m vert. This year, Toni McCann, with unwavering determination and a dream she nurtured for years, achieved the unthinkable. Her journey to this triumphant moment is an inspiring story of resilience, growth, and the pursuit of a dream.

Photograph by Simon Dugue.
Toni at the OCC finish 2023. Photograph by Simon Dugue.

Toni’s fascination with the OCC began in 2018 when watching the race live on TV, the thought “Darn, I really want to be there and do that.” The allure of the race’s challenging distance, the rugged terrain, the prestige of the UTMB series, and the epic running experiences it promised were impossible to resist. 

True to the saying, “third time lucky,” Toni’s 2023 OCC race was a result of three years of trial and error. Her debut in 2021 saw her finish 14th, a solid start and introduction. The following year, she joined the adidas TERREX team, a decision that played a crucial role in her growth as an athlete. “The camaraderie, experience, and training opportunities within the team pushed her,” to new heights, resulting in a 5th-place finish last year and a remarkable improvement from her first attempt.

Last year, Toni harbored a glimmer of hope that she could win OCC someday. She positioned herself in France this year, training on the course’s trails and finding her footing within the French culture and local community. 

Her off-season after 2022, a snow-white winter, offered a much-needed mental break from running, and proved valuable in offering ample zone 1 and zone 2 training. Her transition back to running started on a high this year, as she claimed first-place at Trail du Grésivaudan (30km, 1700m) and secured her UTMB-running stone with a first at Transvulcania 2023 (50km, 2850m). While the beginning of the year included many highs, with McCann securely standing on first-place podiums; 2023 presented many lows and challenges for the TERREX athlete. 

Toni McCann at Transvulcania 2023. Photograph by Ian Corless.

McCann’ Transvulcania victory side-lined her with a psoas tendinopathy and bone oedema; an injury which was the debut to her bike riding chapter. Despite her injury setback leading-up to OCC, McCann’s resilience-to-race resulted in a gravel-bike purchase. While she enjoyed the many long but slower hours spent on the bike, a fall while supporting World Champs in June resulted in a broken collarbone and cracked rib, again leaving the athlete to re-pivot on her training-plans. In hindsight, “the transition from outdoor cycling to her indoor training was a blessing in disguise;” as Zwift’s workout programing functionality created a more intense, “sweat-fest,” cycling regimen. 

Given the greenlight to run after 9+ weeks off, McCann lined-up at Davos X-Trails to make an iconic comeback; not only crossing the finish line first but setting the new course record. Pain-free and having found her running-legs, “it was cram training from there,” as the countdown to OCC began. 

When race weekend eventually rolled around, Toni still had remnants of a lingering niggle which compounded to her insecurity and anxiety of racing; and subsequently, “the dream of winning was put out of her mind a little, as it felt unrealistic and unfair to put such expectations on herself to try achieve this goal.” However, removing this expectation and pressure to perform was the best thing she could have ever done; as she went into race week “very calm and ready to just roll with the punches.” 

McCann said that when it came to race day, “of course she was nervous, but she mostly felt excited to pin her bib on and run.” Adding that when any athlete takes to the startline they “always hope that maybe today will be their day…” And OCC 2023 really was McCann’s day –  from the start she felt great, and it was the defining moment of overtaking into first place that solidified her belief of victory. 

As she ran the French trails that have become a part of her now-home-training grounds, cheered by family faces along the way – a sense of comradery reminiscent of her South African trail community – bolstered her energy and propelled her faster, forward. 

The emotions following McCann’ OCC victory are still fresh and overwhelming. In awe of the surreal nature of her achievement, calling it a dream she had imagined countless times. The sight of people running alongside her during the final kilometers, sharing in her triumph, remains a poignant memory.

As for what lies ahead for the remainder of the year, Toni McCann’s return to South Africa is certain, but her next move remains uncertain. She’s excited to explore new opportunities and continue her trail running journey, fueled by the memories and lessons learned from her remarkable victory at the UTMB OCC 2023.

Toni McCann we salute you, congratulations on a career-highlight win and incredible race.