Trail Running in South Africa
“Is this the right way to where the running club meets?” The security guard waves me through the gate, pointing vaguely to my left. The sky is just starting to light up the autumn morning, and I am squinting to see the edges of the road as it winds through the park.
Most Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted in South Africa, but we haven’t had any road races for over a year. Some of the bigger, longer trail races have returned, boasting huge elevation gains and price tags to match. I’m not quite there, either in training or budget, so an event organized by a local running club caught my eye.
A chance to run through a beautiful nature reserve on a quiet Sunday morning, with the company of other runners but flexible start times to avoid crowding. An 8km loop on flat jeep tracks, mostly packed dirt with the occasional patch (or at one point, half a kilometer) of soft sand. No aid stations or marshalls or timing chips, but clear direction and distance markers, and a cup of Coke at the finish. For less than $5 USD? I’m in.
I was one of the first to arrive. Several club members were setting up a gazebo and banners for the start/finish area. Others were inside the park headquarters building checking names and doing temperature screenings. I stood near the start with two other early birds. Noah, who appeared to be in his late 60s, was excited to be out running with other people for the first time in nearly a year. “I’m afraid I’m going to be stuck on 19 Comrades,” he sighs.
That’s the Comrades Marathon, a +/- 90km road race held in Durban, South Africa. Last year’s edition, which would have been his 20th, and this year’s, were canceled. Linda, also in her 60s and keen to get started today, commiserates: “Yes, I’m stuck on 9 Two Oceans.” That’s Cape Town’s 56km road race. Both races are my long-term goals, but I’m a few years away from that level. I’m in fit company this morning!
The sun comes up, more runners arrive, and after a friendly briefing (”the routes are marked, don’t get lost!”), we’re off. 1km on road, then around the first pond. Linda points out a pelican in the water. I can’t remember ever stopping to take a picture during a race, and it’s rare even during a training run, but today is different. Soft trails are not conducive to PBs, and the vibe is a club run that anyone can join. A running party, if you will. Selfies it is!
I run on my own, but enjoying the company of runners shortly ahead and behind. I take in the sights — mountains, water, sand dunes, hundreds of birds. Around the 6km mark, I come up behind a woman who has a shaved head and marks on her skin that imply a health battle. She slows to a walk for a moment and I jog past, unconsciously speeding up, as if cancer caught her because she wasn’t fast enough and I need to put some distance between myself and the threat.
I realize my nonsensical thinking and slow down again. She catches up when we hit the soft sand, and points out a narrow path through the beach grass to the side where we’ll have better traction. Within five seconds I catch my foot under some long roots and fall on the soft plants. We have a good laugh and continue on together.
Just before the end, I see Linda up ahead. I decide to match her pace to the end, which is fine on the trail and then nearly impossible on the final 200m of road back to the start. Linda, you’ve got 25 years on me but you made me earn that Coke!
Friendly smiles and virtual high fives from the club volunteers at the finish, and I head to my car while some of the other runners start the loop again. Maybe next time, but today I have to get back to the kids. After a quick McDonald’s breakfast stop. I know, I know. Grease and salt, not ideal recovery food. It tastes perfect.
The whole way home I see runners — dozens of them, young and old, black and white, alone or in small groups, getting in their long-distance before the day heats up. The running scene in Cape Town is a big club, and everyone’s invited. I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world that I get to be a part of it.