With its prodigious mix of mountains, forests, deserts and coastlines, South Africa shelters some of the finest trail-running terrain in the world … which makes this adventure sport an ideal excuse to travel.
Nothing really prepares you for your first encounter with an angry cobra. Well, I assume it was angry because, from the expression on its tiny face, it seemed to me to be spitting mad. Not only giving me a savage look, but apparently hovering above the earth, coiled up like some vengeful Medusa, spring-loaded and head bobbing back-and-forth in that ‘ready to strike’ pose you really only ever want to see on TV nature shows. Were it not for my own hysterical screams, I no doubt would have heard it hissing at me, its Voldemort lips uttering something dark, profane and slightly evil. It had legitimate cause to be upset, I imagine. I’d have been annoyed too if some gigantic two-legged creature were about to tread on me with a pair of spiky trail-running shoes.
Did I mention that the cobra was a baby? Possibly no bigger than a large earthworm, only greener and prettier. And much angrier. What’s scary is that its viciousness was coupled with a supply of venom that I later learned is far worse if delivered by a juvenile cobra because, unlike their adult counterparts, they haven’t yet figured out how to control the dosage. So the babies naively pump you full of poison, which is why, perhaps, screaming and backing away in a hurry was strategically my best move.Little did I know that a few months later I’d do myself an injury far worse than what that angry little snake had in mind. Galloping along a section of trail (a familiar path that I’ve been on countless times) I lost concentration for a brief moment, and for the next few days I was in pain – limping, hobbling and forced to rest.
Like a baby cobra, a sprained ankle comes out of nowhere, but whereas that snake’s self-defence motives were legit, there’s nothing about twisting your foot under the full force of your own bodyweight that makes much sense at all. Running on mountains – or through forests, deserts, rolling landscapes – is the most natural thing in the world. And, of course, that’s the problem. Nature, quite often, is out to get us. These are, after all, the elements that we’ve spent millions of years building resistance to, and yet for which we still need to suit up in thermals and rain jackets. In these raw environments there are wild beasts and low branches to bash into, exposed roots to trip over, as well as dastardly ledges, slippery rocks and invisible gaps in the group – all of which will happily take you out. And, of course, there’s the hardness and the jagged edges of the earth itself, something for which we’ve designed shoes that can take a hammering while protecting the soft flesh on the underside of our feet.
Thus protected, trail running really is a wonderful way to explore the world, to become a latter-day adventurer, to lessen the grip of civilisation and modern life’s attempt to coax us into patterns of stifling comfort. It’s a way of experiencing the full force of nature, allowing yourself to be humbled by the elements. And, if you’re less stupid than me and manage to stay on your toes, keeping watch for loose rocks, gnarled roots and slippery slopes, you will probably come away unscathed. If you mind where you’re going and keep your wits about you, the chances of stepping on a puff adder or perhaps annoying a terrified baby cobra are greatly reduced.
Much of trail running is about letting your body attune to the environment, not just marvelling at a view or a land-scape from a distance, but taking yourself into it, getting closer to that place in the distance that stirs your soul. Once in it, it is very real: Bushes slap against legs, mud squelches onto your face, thorns graze, gashes and bruises materialise after bumps and falls. Wooden stumps, rocks, and all those natural hazards compel you to skip, jump, scramble, or make a plan. On some runs there are rivers to ford, low branches to duck under, animals appearing out of nowhere. There may be a path, but getting lost is part of the deal, as is finding your way back before your need for water becomes too urgent. Part of the thrill, quite often, is carving out an unexpected route rather than hopping on a treadmill or pounding the sidewalk past too-familiar landmarks.
There will be some steep, calf-working gradients that you curse your way through, but when you realise that these lead to high ridgelines, perhaps with bird’s-eye views of the world you’ve left behind – that reward subdues the pain experienced in getting to the top. Trail running’s great payoff is that the scenery changes constantly and is entirely interactive; each route’s topographic fluctuations give your mind and body something to work through – it is an experience not even remotely related to running on tar.You feel the land underfoot rather than merely observing it – and, at the end of your adventure, there’s a sense of achievement, a sense that you have truly been there, that you have been touched by a place, and it has touched you.
‘Trail running is how I get to explore the world,’ says Ryan Sandes, the Cape Town trail-running legend who discovered his talent for distances during an unanticipated forest race in Knysna. Ryan says running is one of the most natural things people can do, that we’re genetically wired and physically designed to run. It’s a sentiment shared by many of us who’ve become addicted to running on mountains. Many of us are road-running converts who’ve fallen in love with the simple joy of exploring the world in the most natural way possible – by putting one foot in front of the other. Once you’ve discovered the thrill of running in this unencumbered way, it is like a drug. The best possible kind of high. And – if there are no snakes to freak you out – you can always scream with happiness.
Words by Keith Bain