By Dibussi Tande
In March 1973, Guinness Cameroon S.A. organized the first ever Mount Cameroon race – a grueling 29 KM endurance race up and down an active volcano which takes athletes through a dense tropical rainforest to a frigid summit sometimes covered with snow, passing through a prairie-like Savannah region and a barren moon-like area covered with molten lava.
1989 - Britain's Jack Maitland crosses the finish line to become the new King of the Mountain
The first three editions of the Guinness Mount Cameroon Race were won by local Bakweri runners. By the time of the 4th edition in 1976, an aura of superstition had already enveloped the race. There was a widely-held belief, even among non-natives, that efas’a moto, the mountain god, would never allow a “stranger” to “conquer” the sacred lair of the Bakweri people who lived at the foot of the mountain. In fact, during the first three races, there were numerous stories of supernatural happenings up the fog-covered mountain which disoriented and frightened non-native runners into submission. This would all change in 1976.
Reverend Father Walter Stifter: The Man Who Came from Nowhere
When runners took off from the Buea Town stadium in 1976, everyone was on the lookout for the next local “King of the Mountain,” and the few foreign runners who were at the starting line were merely an afterthought. However, the unthinkable happened when Walter Stifter, a 32-yearl old lanky and bespectacled Catholic priest from South Tyrol in Italy who lived in a parish in Banyo, Northern Cameroon, not only beat all local runners but also shattered the ascent and descent records. Walter Stifter went on to win the 1977 and 1978 editions of the race, setting a record of three successive wins which remains unbroken to this day, 35 years later. Walter Stifter instantly became a folk hero, a humble and endearing figure who allegedly gave away his cash price to the first-runner-up, and only kept the trophy as a souvenir.
Rev. Fr. Walter Stifter, the Tyrolean missionary who remains the undisputed king of the Mountain
Locals explained away Rev. Fr. Walter Stifter’s victories with a number of stories. One version was that his supernatural powers rooted in his Catholic faith were too much for efas’a moto to handle. Another version was that efas’a moto, who was believed to punish arrogant and overconfident athletes including those who came up the mountain with magic portions, was taken in by the priest’s humility and purity, and therefore allowed him to dominate the race as an example to other runners. The reality was, however, much simpler. Stifter was simply a superb athlete, a life-long alpine runner with Olympic-Team trial behind him who dominated the race thanks in large part to his “Stick Technique” which, in 1976, was a novelty, if not an oddity that was originally scoffed at but which was eventually adopted by local runners. Stifter’s technique consisted of using two wooden poles, like a skier, for balance and propulsion as he sped downhill. This technique worked well with his small frame and allowed him to best less skilled athletes who ran solely on sheer physical strength and little or no technique.
Rev. Fr. Walter Stifter never had the opportunity to defend his title for a fourth time because Guinness Cameroon suspended the race from 1979 to 1981. By the time the race resumed in 1982, Stifter’s running days were over although his mystique and records remained intact. It wasn’t until two years later that another foreign athlete emerged to threaten Stifter’s revered status of King of the Mountain.
Mike Short: The Worthy Heir Who Fell Short
Prior to the 1984 edition of the Guinness Mount Cameroon race, focus was on the Crane brothers (Richard and Adrian) who had set a new record for crossing the Himalayas the previous year. Everyone expected them to make mincemeat of other runners. However, the surprise winner was Mike Short, a professional mountain runner from England, who broke Walter Stifter’s 1977 record by 12 minutes. A new mountain hero was born while Crane brothers shared 33rd place.
Mike Short, winner of the 1984 and 1985 editions of the Mt. Cameroon Race
Mike Short won again in 1985, setting a new ascent record and breaking his 1984 overall record by 10 minutes.
During the 1986 edition of the race, the question was whether Mike Short would equal Walter Stifter’s record of three successive wins and break his own race record for a second time. Locals swore that efas’a moto would not allow a Short victory. In the end, Timothy Lekunze from Lebialem in the Southwest province came in first, and Mike Short, second. Short complained of attacks and underhanded methods high up the foggy mountain that deprived him of a third victory. To the locals, however, the mountain god had simply decided that Father Stifter was an exception that would not be repeated. In fact, since Stifter, no other athlete has won the race three times in a row.
Jack Maitland: The Supremacy of “Science” over “Black Magic”
No foreign athlete won the race again until 1989, although in 1987, Christian Fatton, a former Junior European mountain champion from Neuchâtel, Switzerland, came in third.
The 1989 edition of the Mount Cameroon race was the most controversial ever. The winner was Jack Maitland, a runner from Scotland who had earlier won the Everest Marathon where he set a record that remained unbroken until 1999.The 1989 race was mired in controversy from the start when David Ngou Njombe, a local athlete who had won the race in 1974 and came in second in 1978, ascended to Hut One in a record 23 minutes, that is, 20 minutes inside Mike Short’s 1985 record of 43 minutes – a feat that many athletes considered humanly impossible. Locals claimed that Njombe had used an indigenous form of teleportation to transport himself up to Hut One without actually travelling the space between the Buea Stadium and Hut One. The more prevalent view was that he was a cheat who had most likely hidden himself close to Hut One the night before the race and was never in the Buea Town stadium at the start of the race.
1989 - Jack Maitland brandishes the trophy while Ngou Njombe (right) looks on
Whatever the real story behind Ngou Njombe’s “superhuman” run to Hut One, Jack Maitland’s athleticism and “science” eventually overcame whatever “black magic” Njombe allegedly possessed. Maitland caught up with, and overtook him to win the coveted trophy. After much debate, organizers decided to maintain Njombe’s second position but included an extra prize for the runner who came in fourth.
Maitland returned to Buea for subsequent editions of the race but never repeated his 1989 performance. He finished third in 1990 and fourth in 1992. He is now a triathlon coach at Leeds Met University in England.
During this same edition of the race, Helen Diamantides of Great Britain became the first foreign athlete to win the women's event which was launched in 1983.
Pierre André Gobet : The Last of the Mohicans
Following the controversy surrounding Ngou Njombe’s performance in 1989, race organizers decided to move the starting point of the 1990 race from the Buea Town stadium, which was virtually at the foot of the mountain, to the new Molyko stadium further south. This ensured that the first nine km of the race would take place on the main road to Buea Town under the glare of public scrutiny, thereby reducing, if not eliminating the possibility of an athlete taking cover up the mountain before the race. The Swiss alpine runner Pierre-André Gobet, another Everest marathon winner, came first. Gobet did not win the race for a second time although he went on to win other races around the world including a repeat performance at Everest and a record-breaking win of the Mont-Blanc race – a record which stood for 23 years until it was broken in 2013.
Waiting for the new “White Wizard”
Since Gobet’s victory in 1990, no other foreign athlete has won the Mount Cameroon race. Some believe that this is due to the caliber of foreign athletes who have taken part in the race since Guinness pulled out – more of adventurers and tourists than the world class athletes of the 1980s. Another explanation is that Cameroon is now replete with athletic clubs and (semi) professional long-distance runners who are as well, if not better-trained than foreign competitors. Add to this the local athletes’ familiarity with the terrain and you have a recipe for continued Cameroonian domination of the race. Will this dominance continue on February 15, 2014 or will the 24-year foreign drought come to an end?
Let’s wait and see.
Pictures courtesy of Ngoina Elive and Fako News Center.