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On Running Culture With Toni McCann

toni mccann utct 2023
Toni after winning PT55. Image: Sebastian Scholtysik

Transvulcania 50k. Davos X-Trails 50k. OCC. PT55. 4 on 4. Few runners had a better 2023 than Toni McCann. The Cape Town native stepped up to establish herself as one of the rising athletes in trail running.

Our research project on the South African running culture could not omit Toni. The past 3 years saw her climbing the sport’s ranks, from the local South African races to the biggest events in the world with no signs of stopping. Being one the few professional trail runners in the country, she brought her point of view on what is needed to see more South African talents rising internationally and what the local community is about.

Most professional athletes come from Europe or the US, it is not common to see pros from countries far from the sport’s epicenter like South Africa. What was your journey to become a pro athlete?

People think that we reach out to brands, and they suddenly sign us, but it takes a lot of work. People forget all the work that goes in when the spotlight's not on you. I invested my own money to travel and race in Europe. I've been travelling to Europe since 2019 and I got my contract with adidas TERREX at the end of 2021. A big thing for me was experiencing and understanding the European trails. The trails in Cape Town are different so I had to train differently. Since I moved to Europe, my performance improved a lot. It didn’t happen overnight.

If I could give any advice to younger runners from South Africa is that you need to get the results and you need to learn. The only way to learn is to put yourself in high-competition races where you will probably get your butt kicked. It happened to me the first year I raced in Europe. You must invest in yourself first before you can do anything else.

toni mccann robbie simpson ut55
Toni hugging her team mate Robbie Simpson after PT55. Image:Sebastian Scholtysik

Investing in yourself and researching higher competition is a recurring theme I heard on this topic from the locals. What is needed to have more South African runners in the sport?

At the moment, there is a lot of talent in South Africa, but there is a lack of understanding as to what it takes to compete at a professional level. We are not quite there yet. When South African athletes come to run in Europe, it is often quite a shock. So it works both ways. On one end, South Africans need to come to Europe and experience the level at which the professional athletes are running, and on the other, the more international we can get to race on our trails, the more the locals will start to step up their game and improve. 

The races in Cape Town are not always super competitive and don’t always feature many international talents. This means that they don’t have much visibility internationally. There is a lot of talent in the country, but it needs to be supported. Races like UTCT are a great way to raise exposure for these athletes and with many internationals competing they get a taste of what running internationally means. Other events could attract more internationals, such as Drakensberg, so they can compete with the locals.

Local companies and brands should support more athletes and their development. For example. The cross-country scene is hardcore in South Africa and it is the front door to trail running. I would love to see some of those athletes compete at the Trail Running World Championships.

There is this recurring myth about how cheap is to start running. In reality, the cost of a pair of running shoes sometimes is one month's salary for many people in countries like South Africa. Do you think the accessibility to the sport should be improved?

Absolutely. Accessibility and affordability are barriers for potential trail runners. Shoes are getting more and more expensive. Then you need a jacket and all the gear. Race entries are expensive too. In the end, it becomes quite inaccessible for a large part of the population. There is a gap to solve. There are a lot of different ways that can address the issue, from proving race bibs to loaning gear. But it also goes a lot deeper than just running. It is a complicated problem. As much as everyone loves to say that running is super easy you just need a pair of shoes, it is not the case.

adidas terrex shoes
Image: Sebastian Scholtysik

Now, you live in France for most of the year. How do you stay involved with the community back in South Africa?

I am involved in an organization called Trail Taxi, which is about getting kids to the trails in underserved areas. We provide kids with a shoe library provided by adidas TERREX from which they can pick shoes to run on the trails. These small initiatives are cool and can help more people come into the sport.

I am part of the Flat Rock Endurance community. I am one of their co-leaders and athletes. I stay updated on what they do and try to share their initiatives. It is hard to stay in touch when you are not there. The work I do with Trail Taxi and coaching keeps me excited about the trails in Cape Town. I still try my best to be involved even though I am not there.

South African’s love for endurance sports and running is well-known. In the Cape Peninsula, there are an impressive number of running clubs with high attendance. How do you think this happened?

Part of it is safety. People want to run with others for that aspect. Then, they also love being connected, especially after COVID. People wanted to connect and running is such a beautiful way to do it. You become an open book when you are running with people. You start talking about your deepest secrets and it is an easy way to have a quick break. I think it is because it is the easiest form of exercise. Road running remains where more of that community running is happening. In Cape Town, I would say there are 20 times more road runners than trail runners just because it is easier. You get out of your door and run.

The culture of running together is amazing. I don't understand why it happened, but if you have ever joined one of those community runs, it is massive. People get so excited. Last year, my teammates came to Cape Town for UTCT and were amazed by how many people showed up at the community run.

In the past years, you experienced the European running culture. How is it compared to the South African?

In South Africa, people love running together. I haven’t found the same in Europe, yet. When I run with other people, I learn so much. Whether it is on an easy run or going harder on a hill session. When I go back to Cape Town, every day I have someone asking me to go for a run together. People want to spend time with each other. Not just running but also having a beer and a pizza. It is a real community.

Then, the trails are different. You experienced them too. For example, I had an American friend visiting me here [Chamonix] and telling me that the trails are super hard. I laughed thinking about the ones in Cape Town.

toni mccann utct 2023
Image: Sebastian Scholtysik

You had a successful 2023 with wins at Transvulcania, OCC, and UTCT. How does your 2024 look like? You competed only in races up to 50k, will you test yourself on longer distances?

I haven’t planned my season yet. I won’t be attempting longer distances. I think there is a misconception in trail running that once you achieve a certain success in the shorter distances, you should go longer. I don’t want to play into that narrative. There is a reason why there are 800m and 5,000m specialists. They are different runners with different skill sets. Trail running is the same. If I succeeded in a 50k, there is no reason why I should do a 100k. I want to get better, faster, and stronger in the 50k distance. Also, there are many fun races I haven’t done yet.

The sport is growing and evolving quickly and what you have just described is one of the changes we are observing in trail running. What would you like to see in trail running in the next five years?

No matter what happens, I want trail running to keep its authenticity and respect the nature we run through. This is why we do it. We want to experience different trails, places, and cultures. There is no better way to experience a place than connecting with its nature and culture.

I don’t have specific issues with UTMB in the sense that they are trying to create a world series. But I do have an issue with how they are doing it. They stripped a lot of the races from their authenticity pushing out the local communities instead of joining in. They have a long way to go in these terms. They come with a specific blueprint of what they want it to be, but trail running is not like triathlon or any other sport. They will make more mistakes and face more pushback from the community. This is good because it means the sport will eventually grow in a way that retains its authenticity.

Women in sports need better representation and rights. We have a long way to go but it is getting better. For example, UTCT did a great job at splitting the broadcast.

 Another thing is that the sport is growing and with that comes cheating. I would like to see more anti-doping controls. With more money invested into the sport, people want a slice of that cake and they are willing to cheat for it.

This interview was edited.


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