Today’s Running The World interview comes from the beautiful city of Cape Town in South Africa. Grace, who I spoke to about running in Singapore knows Helen and asked if she’d be up for speaking to me about running in SA. She dropped me an email, which made my day. I replied with alacrity and so, with no further ado….meet Helen.
Tell us a little about yourself
Hey, my name is Helen. I am a Cape Townian by birth, although having recently spent some years out of the city, moving back has made me fall in love with it once more. I am a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cape Town working on Tuberculosis vaccine trials. I have a bit of an obsession with not letting work take over my life. I constantly look to head outdoors. Mostly I tend to do things in phases, like training for a long bike race or summer swimming in our beautiful natural mountain dam. I would like the next phase to include a whole bunch of long-boarding sessions. However all year round, I like to do a bit of hiking, running and yoga.
How did you get into running?
I got into running when I was in primary school. We had Athletics Day once a year and during the lead-up weeks, we used to run around the field barefoot early in the morning as training. It was cool but when I hit my teens, I was kind of shy and didn’t want to do sports in front of everyone so I focused on my horse riding and ballet. Then when I was about 17, my mom joined a local running club and I started going along with her. We entered a bunch of local road running events and I guess I just kind of liked it.
Every place I moved to, I ran a bit and met really great people along the way. Then one year I was hiking the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand and I saw a dude in trail gear running it. That image has never left my mind. What a brilliant idea. It’s like a sure-fire path to happiness. It has every happy box ticked – endorphins, dopamine, serotonin – haha, out comes the geek in me. But you get the picture… nature, sunshine, love, laughter, exploration and adventure. What more could anyone ask for from life?!
So how big is running in South Africa?
Running in SA is really popular. We have multiple local clubs, both road and trail, as well as people who just run by themselves or to catch up with mates. Honestly I have no idea as to whether running is growing or shrinking, but it would be my guess it is growing. There seem to be so many more race options than there were 10 or so years ago, plus trail running is definitely becoming bigger with well-organized races and super groups who meet and run around the peninsula. I cannot comment on running in other parts of the country. I am very much a local and, whilst I have run when visiting other places, I have never lived anywhere in SA other than Cape Town.
What kind of people run?
I run with both a road running club and a trail running club and occasionally bounce about,visiting other clubs or heading out with mates or alone. In the circles that I have been exposed to I would say it seems pretty evenly distributed between males and females. It’s hard to answer your question with regards to social classes. In SA we are still so segregated by the areas in which we live and work that the bunches of people you socialize with are pretty limited.
What about women? How many women run in South Africa?
I am uncertain of numbers of women running in SA or how this is distributed. I am not even certain where I would find this sort of information. I don’t feel like there are any particular biases against women running in South Africa. We have always respected our female athletes and have quite a number of whom we remain extremely proud. Of course, the first person that comes to my mind is Zola Budd as I grew up on stories of her incredible talent and her barefoot running style. It made me feel that even us little laaities running around the school field could one day be just like her!
How safe do you feel when you run?
I run in groups in SA for the specific reason that we have a huge problem with violence. This is such an unfortunate fact but it is part of living here. I do run alone too but I am very conscientious about where I run and when I do this. I probably shouldn’t run alone but you also have to live your life. Lion’s Head (see the first picture) is a 5k out-back route that is pretty safe to do alone and has some great steep climbing, the higher up you get.
How popular is racing?
Racing is massively popular in SA. In Cape Town, one of the biggest events is the Two Oceans Ultramarathon, a super race with beautiful views that people travel from all over the world to experience. It appears to me that races are organized by different facilitators, I am uncertain of the regulations with regards to organizing a race. However it appears that whilst most road races are affiliated with the Western Province Athletics, the trail races seem to be more individually organized.
Also my local run on Lions Head has this crazy knock out race. There is this awesome video of Ryan Sandes killing the track.The race is Red Bull Lion Heart. It’s sheer madness!! You have got to love it though, huh!!
Which is your favourite race?
This year, it’s been the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge, which was very well organized and in a beautiful location…if a little cold.
If you could encourage a traveller to do any SA race, which would it be?
On the road, I’d say the Two Oceans Marathon – you can do the half or the ultra and it even has fun kiddies options. Trail races can be hard to enter as the numbers are limited and they sell out really quickly.
What trends are taking off in South Africa?
Trail running is definitely becoming more popular in South Africa, especially when people like Ryan Sandes doing ridiculous things all over the world. Here’s a great list of some of the best trail races in SA.
What brands are popular in South Africa?
Hmm I am uncertain how to answer this. However on a personal level, I can recommend a store called Drifters Xtreme Sport in De Waterkant which, if you looking for a place with people who love outdoorsy stuff and just want you to have gear which will help you do the stuff that makes you happy, then these guys are the place to go.
Who are the running heroes in SA?
I am sure other people would put forwards different names but, off the cuff, for me I would say Zola Budd for her barefoot efforts, Bruce Fordyce for staying power (he’s famous for his Comrades running ,also a beauty of an SA run) and then, new on the scene, people like Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel who just recently ran an unmarked route of 220km through the Drakensberg mountains, which sounds impossible but clearly isn’t!
What do SA runners use to fuel and hydrate when running?
Hmm, I think the usual stuff, you know all those packets gels and bars and the like. I like to run with biltong (apparently it’s like jerky but I tasted jerky and I don’t think its anything like that?), jelly babies, banana, saamies (sandwiches), oat bars, naartjies (tangerines), water and some energade and the like. I guess people just find what works for them.
How big a role does social media play within the South African running community?
Hmm I think there are some blogs, I don’t know about Twitter, never got caught up in that. I look at the website of the Table Mountain Trailers because they break down nice routes to run and if you visiting, you can easily run with them.
If I landed in Cape Town, where would you send me to find out about the local running routes, group runs, and local races?
For group runs, you can run with the ORCS (the Observatory Running Club) from the Observatory on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Friday’s run is an easy 5-6km and always followed with a beer at a local pub Forex. So it’s perfect to meet peeps and enjoy Cape Town.
Or try the Wednesday Trail ‘Run, Shuffle or Walk’ with CRAG (Cape Runners Against Gravity).
On Saturday, you can run with the Table Mountain Trailers. (Cat’s note: the photos on their site are pretty wonderful).
What are the best and worst things about running in South Africa?
The best thing is definitely the mountains! There are so many trails, you never have to run the same route twice. Unfortunately, the safety factor means you need to be sensible and run in groups, which means limited timing options for runs as you can’t just lace up your shoes and head out the door, but this is a minor price to pay for a beautiful place in which to run.
Helen, thanks so much for your time answering these questions. You can follow Helen on Instagram HERE.
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