top of page

Miles Together In South Africa.

utct runners cape town
Image: K. Trautman

It is late November and the Northern Hemisphere is approaching the darkest part of the year. Global warming is manifesting itself again. Some areas are frozen. Others are warm. The trail running season is over. The American races shelter in the desert circumnavigating cactuses. The European athletes put their skis on. The so-called off-season started. What should I change in my training next year? Which races should I sign up for? Shall I stop running completely and start again in the new year? This is the time to reflect on how the year went. If you live in South Africa, this is the time to race. Summer is starting, the days are longer and the sun warms your skin while you watch surfers fighting for the best wave. The trails are getting busier and runners are faster.

On a Tuesday afternoon around 200 people gather at the Kloof Nek parking lot, right between Lion’s Head and Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town city center. Imagine that view. The two mountains are covered in clouds, but an orange sun shines over the Ocean. This is the start of UTCT (Ultra Trail Cape Town) Week: the season finale of Cape Town trail running. This week the crowd includes a mix of locals and foreigners who traveled to South Africa for the race. Among the runners, there are some faces we usually watch during live streams while dreaming of running as fast as them. Ruth Croft, Anthony Costales, Thibaut Baronian, Ryan Sandes, Leah Yingling. Who is the same as every other week is the man behind the megaphone: Stu. Stuart McConnachie. He is among the ones who started Tuesday Trails and founded UTCT years ago. He was here when there were only 10 runners. He will be here next week when things are back to normal and Tuesday Trails go back to a local affair. Stu briefs the runners about the different routes and paces. We’ll be back in one hour to share a cold beer, while we enjoy the sunset over the city.

Cape Town is a city like no other. It combines two Oceans, the Atlantic and Indian, one massif mountain, Table Mountain, and a modern city. Its history, together with South Africa’s, is associated with colonialism, apartheid, and Nelson Mandela - we won’t cover these topics here but you click here to learn a lot in less than 10 minutes. If you are into running there are some chances you have some other buzzwords in your head: Comrades, Two Oceans, and UTCT. All these seem too far from the epicenter of the sport, or at least what we consider it to be: Europe and North America. Cape Town is South Africa's trail running epicenter.

runner beach utct
Image: K. Trautma

The past 15 years saw an explosion of trail running globally and Cape Town was no exception. “I never expected the sport to grow this much. Even looking at South Africa, when I first started running in 2007 there were few races. [...] Now, every weekend something is going on. The sport took off.” Ryan Sandes reflects during our interview. He was an active part of this growth through his international successes and involvement in the local community. He eventually became the director of one of the many races in the Cape Peninsula, the Cape Town Trail Marathon.

Here the sport grew differently from Europe and North America. It retained its peculiarities. “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.” the photographer and adventurer Damien Schumann explains while we drink our coffee in Muizenberg, one of the small towns around the peninsula. He recently moved here from the city and he is eager to explore the trails in the area. “I committed not to live further than 1 kilometer from a trailhead”. The definition of a trail is the same around the world, but here everything is different. The trails are steeper, harder, rocky, and merciless. There is no time to switch off your mind and just run. You must be always aware of where you put your feet. Locals consider the European trails paved and made for runners. Here trail running is different.

South Africans love the outdoors. Surfing, cycling, or running, it doesn’t matter. A huge adidas Terrex billboard waits for you right outside the airport. In the two weeks I spent in the country I stopped counting how many people ran on the streets, the seaside, the trails, or the highway - yes, you read it right. Sometimes alone, but more often together. Going for a casual stroll on the top of Table Mountain? Why not. Catching the sunrise from Lion’s Head? Yes, sure. Running by the sea from Muizenberg to Simon’s Town? Yes, I’ll join. The Cape Town area is filled with running clubs. From Tuesday Trails and Muizenberg Trail Dawgs to Community Track Club and the random guy you meet at the pub who invites you to an early morning run. “People wanted to connect and running is such a beautiful way to do it. [...] The culture of running together is amazing” the professional trail runner Toni McCann tells me after her win at UT55 and an incredible 2023 season. Running is a social activity before anything else in South Africa. While I was in pain on a bench in Hout Bay after my DNF at UT100, I got invited to two community runs the week after. “Just come by. Maybe you run, maybe not. We’ll have fun!” Is there any other place where this happens?

What is UTCT then for trail running? It is the moment of the year when all the running communities around the Cape Peninsula come together. The event elevated itself as the biggest trail race in not only the country but the continent. It evolved hand in hand with the local communities over the past 10 years. It started as an expression of the running scene celebrating itself in a big season finale at the beginning of the summer. Ten years later, it is one of the biggest races in the world with the best runners competing against each other - Dauwalter, Wamsley, D’Haene, and the list goes on forever. Stu’s vision is not just about making the event bigger but also allowing local runners to compete with the best worldwide on their trails. Why is this so important? It is simple. How many South African professional trail runners are in the world? Not many. Building a professional career for athletes outside Europe and North America is extremely hard. They are forced to travel abroad to compete in the big races if they want a chance to get a brand deal. Competing locally is not enough to attract sponsors. For this reason, athletes need to invest a lot to pursue their dreams. In a country where the average income is €15,000, it is a journey and hazard that very few can attempt. “My objective is to find a sponsor. I need to win here locally and then go abroad to get more eyes on me.” Kat, a local runner, confesses while picking his bib for the 35k race.

tuesday trails runners cape town
Runners at Tuesday Trails

This leads to another recurring topic: running is not a mass sport in South Africa. If for us, Europeans and Americans, running is the most accessible and affordable sport, it is not for most South Africans. “We need to make trail running more accessible for people who don't have the funds to run and be involved in the sport. Life is becoming more and more expensive. The cost of a pair of shoes is one month of salary for some. People should work to change things. The sport should remain accessible to everyone.” Stu tells me while thinking about the future of the sport in the country. Through UTCT he supports both an environmental and development runners fund. Toni collaborates with Trail Taxi, an organization providing access to the trails to people in disadvantaged positions. Ryan is a Laureus Foundation ambassador and mentor for young runners. Damien embodied social justice themes in his outdoor-related works, with projects like the UNFOLD and RunWest. This is how self-aware and strong the local trail running community is. But these issues go well beyond the sport. They are a result of society and its inequalities. 

When you are in Sea Point, Camp’s Bay, Llandudno, Hout Bay, Constantia, or Noordohek you might forget being in Africa. The coffee shops are not that different from the ones in East London - apart from the sunny weather. Mostly white people are around. Teslas parked on the streets. For how Cape Town can resemble Europe or the US, colonialism, apartheid, and their ends shape a different vision of society. The apartheid is legally over, but the majority of white and black people live in different countries. You can observe it while simply driving south from the airport. “Do not stop your car. Dangerous area.” the sign on the highway warns you. People walk on the side of the road, waiting for someone to pick them up, or begging for money during a red light. Across the fences, you can see the Townships. The Townships were built after the end of the apartheid in the '90s when black people left the areas where they were segregated and moved to the big towns in search of a better future. Despite the end of apartheid and social policies aimed to decrease the gap between white and black people, the latter are still confined to the Townships because of social immobility. Black South Africans are more than 80% of the population but their income per capita is one-fifth of white’s. South Africa’s tale is about inequalities and the social conflict continues to be alive. “I don’t leave my house at night if I see some black guys in a car passing by. You can see them just going around all day and doing nothing.” the owner of a small restaurant in Muizenberg told me while we exchanged opinions about her country and Europe. 

lion head cape town
The view on Lion's Head from the trails.

Trail running is not exempt from these social issues. Locals discourage you from running by yourself on the trails because thieves are common. People in need and with bad intentions consider tourists or lone runners as targets. As Europeans or Americans we often see the mountains as places where we should only worry about nature and not the people. For South Africans it is different. The mountains are not sanctuaries. They are aware of what can happen there and they take action to stay safe.

For how much the country appears to be split in the eyes of a foreigner, the trail running community is a safe space where inequalities are leveled and everyone is welcomed no matter their color or social class. The South African community is about coming together, sharing some miles, and a beer afterward. Everyone has a smile for you, Everyone is ready to help you if you are struggling on a steep descent. The most famous runner in the country takes a coffee with you. The local run club cannot wait to have you there. The volunteers do everything they can to help you finish the race. Running is a shared journey in South Africa.


bottom of page