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What I wish I knew about Trail Running

What I Wish They Had Told Me

Words by Kim Stephens

Crossing over to trail from road running, or taking up trail running as a brand new hobby can take some adjustments, and there are surprises beyond the odd snake spotting that you might want to factor in.  Did you know, that plants sometimes fight back? That trail "running" can include ladders, ropes and chains? That your road pace means sweet nothing on a mountain run? A few trail gems shared their gems with us.

The term “trail running” is broad. The textbook definition is pretty much anything off tar. This could include jeep track running, right through to arduous mountain scrambling. As such, you will need to accept that pace and effort are seldom comparable between routes of a similar distance, so leave your ego at home.

“A kilometre can take half an hour if it's up a mountain. Also, you don't just need to know how to run without falling, you need to be able to swim, and rock climb.” – Heloise Hunter, Durban

“Trail running involves climbing up rocks. It takes way more concentration than you expect and nimble steps with strong ankles.” – Mandy Hart, Stellenbosch

“A 20-something kilometre trail run cannot be equated with a half marathon on tar. It's more like a marathon.” – Sean Falconer, Stellenbosch

Adaption is key, particularly when you venture out on a new trail or route. Trail runners have a host of clever tricks, learned through trial and (expensive) error over the years. Waterproof pouches for phones, wet Buffs on your neck in the heat, ankle strapping, basic first aid items, extra food… you’ll need these items when you least expect it. Weather changes dramatically at the top of a mountain, so prepare for all the unknowns. The list of prerequisite kit for a race may seem both daunting and excessive, however…

“Compulsory kit will come in useful one day. It is not particularly for when you are running, it is for when you can't.” – Chris Goldschmidt, Cape Town. “Hopefully few will ever experience it, but it can take a LONG time to rescue someone off the mountain”, he adds.

Trail running is full of plot twists, so keep your eyes peeled and your navigation on point.

“The early bird gets a face-full of spiderwebs.” – Heloise Hunter, Durban

“At the briefing when they say "follow the orange tags" they mean "follow the orange tags" and not the person in front of you.” – Tommy Gibson, Gauteng

“Signage (at some events) can mean as little as a dirt smear arrow on a rock, or a tied (snagged) ribbon in a tree, so look hard, mkay?” – Kelly van der Toorn, Cape Town

It is also a good idea to keep your eyes on the path ahead, rather than checking out the trees and bushes alongside you.

“Buffs or the equivalent can be used as a good substitute for toilet paper” – Peter Moses, Cape Town

“Trail running has taught me that the earth is a woman's toilet too.” – Lloyd Goliath, Cape Town

Well, yeah for equality in sport, right?

You’ll learn that training runs are more like adventures, and the planned routes are a guideline, as trail runners are prone to taking the day as it comes. In other words, your trail running crew might lie to you, a little.

“Whatever distance someone says they're going to run that day is just an idea. You could run twice as far or for twice as long!”- Mitch Green, Cape Town

Gear is literally your make or break, so invest wisely and ask experienced trail runners for advice before you melt the credit card.

“Trail runners speak more about shoes than the Kardashians do” – Kerry Red, Cape Town

“Fynbos devours trail shoes” – Alfred Thorpe, Cape Town

“You’ll need an annual trail shoe budget” – Dalene van Staden, Stellenbosch

There are also secrets that will never be shared, and you’ll need to earn your right to the inner circle. Secret waterfalls, hidden paths, secluded rockpools or lessor known caves. Follow those in the know on Instagram or STRAVA for hints, but you’ll have to do your homework, and map work, to find the gems. And there is no doubt that trail running changes your perspective. One sunrise morning looking down at cars rolling slowly in a long line of frustration towards the office will validate your choice to choose mountains. Keep choosing them.

“From a spectator's point of view, there should be selfie prizes and view prizes as part of the trail competition... because it seems there is a great deal of running time spent on that, and stunning pics come off those trails” - Cheryl Sadie, Cape Town

“Trail running changes the way you look at the world. Mountains no longer look intimidating but rather, opportunities” – Chris Goldshmidt, Cape Town

“It’s addictive” – Pamela Paton, Port Elizabeth

Happy trails!