One of my fondest trail memories is one early Saturday morning run on the contour path of Table Mountain, in a wild storm with lashing wind and thunderous rain.
I was out with Chris Sole, an early pioneer of SA mountain running who was all quads and abs - and smiles.
Running with Chris from time to time was a real treat for me because he was so knowledgeable, generous and positive. A humbler and more accomplished trail champion I’ve not met.
Also, he slowed to his walking pace to accommodate my sprinting pace.
No exaggeration there – Chris won the unforgiving Table Mountain Race (the first organised trail runs in SA) 13 times and still holds the record(55:22, which WPARR statistician Riel Hauman confirms he actually did twice, in 1986 and 1991).
He also won the Three Peaks Challenge in his age group in 2009, 2011 and 2014.
Harking from East London (the Sole Destroyer is named after him) Chris was running his own physio practice in Cape Town with a special interest in the relationship between footwear and running pain, injury and performance. He introduced me to the idea of minimalist, immersive running.
His understanding of how shoes impact our bodies led him to strongly advocate barefooting which was partly why I ran the NYC marathon sans shoes years later.
I never saw him wear a shirt either – regardless of the weather. All he would take when we set out on a run was an orange which he would peel and try to share as he jogged along. I couldn’t really eat any as I was breathless trying to keep up.
But what makes this particular memory so vivid, even 21 years later, was Chris’ relationship with water on the trail. He would throw himself down and slurp happily, directly from the streams.
On that particular morning, as we rounded a corner, we were greeted by the roar of a waterfall giving testimony to just how much water was on the mountain. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Chris flick his hip and dart off into the bush and up the gully. Like a proper mountain goat, he darted out of sight from rock to rock.
When I puffed up to the waterfall, I found him, standing in the fall, directly under the full downpour, arms held high, roaring in full-throated defiance at the storm around us and the city below us. This picture has remained in my memory of what can happen to a quiet, humble man once he gets out the back door and into the forest.
It has also remained an icon for me of unvarnished trail running. No colour-coordinated, mega-merchandised, over-organised, technology-timed trend. Just simply pure, deeply liberating, joyfully celebrating the most natural thing in the world – running a trail.
It was a watershed for my own approach to trail – make it as simple as possible.
Years later running the Marathon des Sables, it was glaring obvious to me again. The longer we were out in the Sahara, the dirtier we became, the hotter the sun felt, the happier I became. I observed the same trend in some minimalist others too. Less was more. A man with leukaemia told me he’d never felt more alive.
But the highly merchandised fellas seemed to falter more. I heard two young guys, carrying a combined kit I calculated at circa R200K, complaining about the heat and sand.
You’d think anyone entering the Marathon of the Sands in the middle of the largest hot desert in the world might not be surprised by these experiences.
The truth that ‘less is more’ has become something of an under-practiced cliché. So much so that Façade Book, one of the largest perpetrators of noise and clutter in many people’s lives, even has a ‘less is more’ group!
More and more my business coaching clients ask for help to get rid of the unchosen demands that compete for their attention and, more often than not, take over their prime time to the detriment of the things that matter most.
And private clients in my grief and divorce recovery coaching practice speak about the purifying effect of their pain and suffering. Somehow the devastation helps them reconnect with what really counts in their lives and they find the clarity and courage to strip away the relationships and activities that don’t.
It’s not easy. I often find myself tired from having answered plenty of peripheral questions while my ‘to do’ list of choice lies unattended to. I puff myself up with a sense of importance about how busy I am, while neglecting the things that are most important to me. Perhaps you suffer the same slide into the demands of what the world wants?
When this happens and I don’t handle it well, I berate myself, push harder and longer and get more lost in the clutter. The hand of my heart and mind balls into a fist and clings desperately to whatever direction I can find. But when I do handle it well, I shake my head, take some clothes off and get out the back door onto the trails of the Cooley Peninsula, Ireland.
There my heart and mind become like an open hand. The wind blows the clutter off.
If I’m fortunate, it’s raining and that washes the confusion away. I find a stream and throw myself down to drink simple, clean water. I get home with a clearer sense of who I am and what I am for.
Trail Running Friend, I don’t know what your own particular pressures and pains are. I don’t know how it is that you suffer, or who you are when you are alone.
But this I know – the clutter is not your friend.
When you’re swamped, please, take as little as you can and get out the door.
Grab an orange as you head out. Let the trail heal your sense of what really matters to you. Leave the rest out there to biodegrade. Come home to yourself.
And, if you’re so lucky as to find a waterfall, or a pool, get in there. Roar at the storm of life and the city.
We, your trail clan will hear you, from wherever we are, and our hearts will sing.