Running The World: South Africa

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.

SA 1
Helen on the  path below the Twelve Apostles with Lion’s Head in the background.

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.

Looking from Lion’s Head to the Twelve Apostles

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.

Hanging out on Hout Bay Beach after a 21km trail running event

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.

Cracking shot of Helen during the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge. Credit: Dylan Haskin.

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.

Gorgeous running over Chapman’s Peak, Noordhoek Peak and looking down onto Hout Bay

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 races, I’d start with Trail Running or Runners World SA.

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).

Across False bay to the mountain ranges on the Rooiels side.

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.

For more Running the World interviews, click HERE.

20 Comments Add yours

  1. Grace says:

    Oh, I’m so glad Helen got in touch! Miss you Helen!
    (We used to train with the same tri group when she was working in Singapore and she moved home earlier this year 😦 )

    1. Cathryn says:

      Yeah, thanks for helping make this happen!! How gorgeous does SA look?

  2. Angela says:

    Whenever I think of South Africa & running, I think of Tim Noakes (who wrote “The Lore of Running” & “Waterlogged”). He is awesome so I am not surprised that South Africa is awesome in general. 🙂

    1. Jen says:

      I always think of Tim Noakes too!

      1. Helen Mearns says:

        I didn’t realise people all over the world know of him. Have you tried his latest diet? I did for 3 months but its not for me. I felt like I never wanted to see another piece of meat in my life ever again lol. Maybe having been vegetarian for a quite a few years means I’m not quite the best candidate!

      2. Jen says:

        I own Lore of Running and have heard great things about Waterlogged. I think “run nerds” all over the globe have heard of Noakes! 🙂 As for the diet… I personally could never give up carbs. Also, I have to say that I kind of lost respect for him a little bit when I heard about it. I don’t think his intent was to evangelize and get others to jump on board, but he certainly added a lot of scientific credibility (based on his reputation) to the no sugar, no grain/paleo craze based on anecdotal evidence alone. If you’re interested in diet and nutrition, especially as it pertains to athletic performance, I recommend the new book Diet Cults by Matt Fitzgerald. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard him talk about it and it seems like a very well researched take-down of popular/fadish diets.

  3. OMG these views !!! I definitely LOVE these interviews. Thank you, Cathryn for this wonderful idea. I watched the video of Lion Heart… LOVE it. Now, my legs are itching to get outside.
    And, thank you, Helen for sharing all of that with us 🙂 I subscribed to your Instagram feed and I am already dreaming about South Africa (I never went) watching your pictures.

    1. Cathryn says:

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series!! This one made me really want to get on a plane – although they have all done that!!

      1. I know ! Me too ! Maybe we should organize a world tour of the running the world locations… just to check, in real life, if what they are saying is right. TRUE journalistic approach. I’ll be your assistant 😉

    2. Helen Mearns says:

      Definitely put it on the list! Stunning destination and this is only Cape Town! I will try be a bit more active on IG.

  4. Cathryn says:

    I like your style.

  5. Jen says:

    I want to join in on the world tour!!!

    1. Cathryn says:

      Pack your bags…we’re all heading off.

      1. GREAAATTT !!! … WAIT… there is one little thing to find : a millionaire to pay for the travel 😉

  6. NicJ says:

    Sign me up for the world tour too! I need an international event around the 7th March next year, to see in the big ‘Four Oh’ in style – all ideas welcome. At the moment, am kind of thinking something in the San Francisco area ;), but no decisions made as yet! However, the countries you’ve reviewed so far, any of them are possibles!

    1. Cathryn says:

      This is by far the most exciting email ever. Get your nearly-40-year-old bottom on a plane and come and run here for your birthday.


  7. Amazing! Thanks a ton! Zola Budd is a big favorite of mine & Comrades is on my list for sure for the future. I can’t wait to get to SA for a run!

    1. Cathryn says:

      Me too! You should def do Comrades, you’d be amazing at it!

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