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Damien Schumann Adventure Mindset

damien schumann
Image: Zac Zinn

I think it is cool that you gonna interview Ryan Sandes, but the one you want to interview and that many won’t know about is Damien. Damien Schumann. He did the UNFOLD.

This was the first time I heard about Damien Schumann. I was at The Striped Horse in Muizenberg, the pub where the local trail running club meets every Tuesday afternoon: the Muizenberg Trail Dawgs. Damien is a local legend in the area and an omnipresent presence on the trails mountains above the small surfers' community on False Bay. He is a photographer and filmmaker with 20 years of experience. He spent the first part of his career working on social justice assignments around the world from Myanmar to Palestine, before coming back to South Africa and discovering his passion for the mountains. In 2018, he became famous in the trail running community for the UNFOLD project: the first known traverse of the Cape Fold Belt. The Cape Fold Belt is a 1,100 mountain range in the southwestern corner of South Africa and the most biodiverse place in the world, holding 20% of Africa’s flora in just 0.5% of its landmass. Damien ran the entire ridgeline largely off-trail and climbed 46,000 meters of elevation. For him it is not just about running, there is more. His projects in the outdoors combine social or environmental issues and his passion for adventure.

We sat down in front of coffee on a sunny afternoon while beginner surfers attempted to catch the first wave of their lives. Damien was still recovering from the UTCT weekend. He did not run the race. He led the live-stream camera team ensuring viewers from around the world can follow the races.

South African running and endurance sports culture is known around the world, but when I landed here I did not expect to see so many people running. On the seaside, on the border of the road, on the streets, on the trail above Cape Town. Why are South Africans obsessed with running?


I would be fascinated to know how it started. The Two Oceans and Comrades Marathon established running back a while ago. My grandfather was the 16th person to get a permanent number for the Two Oceans, meaning he ran it ten consecutive times. When first he participated there were 35 runners. Now there are tens of thousands of runners. I guess through these events and some good track and field athletes the movement grew.

damien schumann running mountain
Image: Simon Pocock

When it comes to trail running, Cape Town is a mecca for trail running in the country. We have this incredible and unique opportunity with this mountain [Table Mountain] in the middle of the city. It is easy to access natural spaces. Through the years people got more curious about hiking so progressively trail running also started. I embraced this mindset, and I decided that I would always live within 1 kilometer of the mountain.


What do you think is unique to South African running culture?


Here there is an element of adventure. Just looking at the trails you can see how they are different from Europe. They are more rough and rugged. This is the essence of coming into the nature. You test yourself. I like it more this way. I don’t like it when everything is well crafted for you. Whether it's self-navigating or knowing how to get yourself out of tricky situations. For example, when I did the UNFOLD project, most of the running was on self-navigating using GPS and paper maps. I had to juggle through the different methods to stay on track. I like this sense of adventure.


Interestingly, you mentioned the sense of adventure. While being here in South Africa, I have been advised by many people to not venture by myself on the trails because it is not safe. What is your point of view on the topic?


The episodes you refer to usually happen in waves. It relates to the tourist season that brings an influx of inexperienced people on the trails. Then it picks up again in winter because people struggle to face the rising costs of living. So, they are a bit more desperate.


I think you shouldn't live your life in fear. From my point of view, people interpret natural spaces as sanctuaries. They are places where you escape stress. If someone gets mugged in such a special place it is a big thing because we feel that this safe space has been violated. Because you are more isolated in the mountains, you feel more vulnerable but statistics prove that the mountains are safer than the city. There is a much higher risk of getting mugged in the city. This is my mindset. Nothing ever happened to me in over a decade and I am out there pretty much every single day.


There are different ways of experiencing the trails. If you don’t feel safe being by yourself, you can join one of the many hiking and running clubs.

damien schumann climbing
Image: Simon Pocock

Do you think the media attention around safety issues in South Africa is preventing more tourists from visiting the country?


I think step one is breaking the stigmas around safety. But this is not everything. We need to advertise just how incredible and diverse the country is. Everyone knows Table Mountain, but there is more. The Cape Fold Belt is an example. You can do multi-day hiking and discover the most biodiverse place in the world. You can come to South Africa for years and do something different every time.


During your life, you worked on social justice projects around the world as well as here in South Africa, both related and unrelated to running. Are you planning to explore more the junction between running and cause-driven projects?


The first 10 years of my career were devoted to social justice. Then, my love for the mountains picked up and I wanted to combine it with my camera work. It was an opportunity to learn something new. Now with the Run West project, I am raising awareness of the illegal mining issue on the West Coast in collaboration with Protect the West Coast,  and how fences are restricting the flow of animals and biodiversity with the Eden to Addo Corridor.


We should be aware that when you enjoy a place, you are using it. We should make sure it stays in good condition. We have a degree of responsibility. This theme is present in the trail running community and I feel I can help it with my work.

damien schumann mountain winter
Image: Simon Pocock

You have been part of the sport for many years. You saw it evolving and changing. What is something you would have expected to happen?


I didn’t anticipate the sport to grow this much. We're slowly seeing it become more of a commercial commodity. There is a chance it will become what road running is now. It'll be largely monetarily incentivized if it does go that way. But It's interesting because road running has higher prize money in races while trail running doesn't have that. Sponsorships make it financially viable for athletes, not prizes.


Compared to road running, trail running is more connected to runners’ personalities. People are easygoing and relaxed. It is like surfing in terms of culture. It is a lifestyle sport. The other day I was talking with a friend about clothing, and he told me that he can spot a trail runner just by the socks he wears. People want to be identified as trail runners even when they are not on the trails.


How do you see the sport evolving in the next 5 years?


I am scared that trail running will lose its sense of adventure. If you consider Europe the pinnacle of trail running globally, you can already feel it. The trails are fast and structured. They are made for runners at this point. 

The shoes’ development points in that direction too. Shoes now feature carbon plates and are not made for rough terrains anymore, but for groomed trails. I fear that the pursuit of high competition will change the mountains to accommodate that. South Africa isn’t part of that process yet. The trails are tough, and you must be aware of where you put your feet. Everything is super steep both on the way up and down.


You have been part of the UTCT team for years now. You led the live-stream camera team this past year. Where do you think the race stands in the sport at the moment?


What Stu [Stuart McConnachie, the race director] did is amazing. His dream was building an iconic international race and I think he has done that. He has been able to work with international athletes to have come here and compete with locals. This is important for local runners because in this way they can improve.

damien schumann climbing
Image: Simon Pocock

Live streaming has been one of the main innovations in trail running. If you want your race to grow you need to offer this service to spectators. What is needed to bring this service to the next level?


The biggest challenge now is the technology. Particularly in a place like Cape Town, the reception is not always good. Historically, the technology has also been heavy and, with the trails we have, it's impossible to get bikes or any vehicle on the trails. So, we are dependent on runners being able to keep up with the leaders. This year we worked with Pulse for the live broadcast production. They managed to incorporate the technology in a smartphone, from mapping and elevation to speed. Everything. This has been a huge improvement. Last year we had to run with a 5kg backpack radio transmitter, and it was almost impossible to keep up with the runners.


Do you think we are approaching a time when ultra-marathon races will be televised?


This year we had over 27,000 viewers tuning into the live stream on YouTube. 27,000 people is a lot. Right now, there is a lot of gonzo creativity in finding opportunities on YouTube. You see people thinking outside of the box. Broadcasting the races on television will come when advertising revenues increase a bit more.


I am not worried about the length of the event. Of course, the races are long, but people watch cricket for 5 days straight. Same with the Tour de France where nothing happens for hours. Then all of a sudden, the action begins. If you have the right mindset, you will watch it.


The media landscape is rapidly evolving together with the sport. You are an active part of this landscape. What are the main trends you see?


Historically the media focused only on who is the best and who wins races. People started to get bored with this, and a new phase started. We moved into the good messaging phase where athletes run for a cause. Running becomes a personal challenge. We look for a deeper reasoning behind why people run. I guess that the media will move to athletes’ personalities next. Nowadays, running fast is not the main thing anymore. You are not going to be appealing to spectators or sponsors if you are not multifaceted. You must be a 360-degree athlete.


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