KNUCKLE DOWN: Bad weather! Pictures: Barry Washkansky
KNUCKLE DOWN: Bad weather! Pictures: Barry Washkansky

The mornings are now completely dark when I wake up for work, and the extra heavy blanket from the back of the linen cupboard has been hauled out and folded at the foot of the bed. Not exactly the best time of year to get outdoors, right? Wrong! There is a very special group of people who call themselves trail runners, and for these guys and gals the winter rains mean the start of a great season.

Trail running, as defined by the recently established Trail Association of Western Province (a grass-roots-level organisation developed to represent local trail runners and improve access to the sport), takes place on mixed terrain and includes the essential element of experiencing nature.

In Cape Town, that essentially means running all over “the Mountain” in all kinds of weather.

It is a sport that reaches its best and most extreme experiences in the winter, and a lot of the premier local races, such as the Old Fisherman’s Trail Challenge and the Crazy Store Table Mountain Challenge, are scheduled during the chillier months.

It’s wet. It’s dirty. It’s wild and unpredictable.

The weather is cool and good for running, and if it gets too hairy out there, the runner’s ever-present backpack offers a bit of warmth and protection. Wait a minute…

“What backpack? Isn’t this about running, not hiking?” you might ask. Well, yes, but trail runners usually carry a backpack full of goodies to be prepared for bad weather and other accidents that might happen while they are far from phone service and coffee shops.

When I asked Michael Ohlsson, chairman of a local trail running club and addicted trail runner, about weather problems while out on the trail, he chuckled and said that’s how you can tell the experienced runners from the newbies: “We always have some extra gloves, snacks and warm clothing for the unexpected.”

Even during races, participants are often required to carry compulsory gear such as plenty of water and food, extra clothing, whistles, space blankets, and first aid kits.

Trail running is a little different to road running in that the environment is a bit less polished and the experience a bit more adventurous.

It’s a wonderful way of injecting some fresh air and fun into your normal exercise regimen however, and more and more road runners are branching out to include some trails in their repertoire.

For those of you wanting to make the transition smoothly, read on to wise up about what you are in for. To begin with, it’s best to acknowledge that the new path you’re starting out on is going to be anything but smooth; there are always roots, streams, rocks, wash-outs and very strong protea plants to give your legs a surprise while running the trails.

It’s often happened that I’ve been happily running (shuffling) along a dirt road when suddenly the ground underfoot disappears and I’m soaked halfway up my shins in muddy rainwater.

Fellow runners have taken some serious tumbles when a foot gets jammed against an unexpected rock or hooks the odd, low-hanging branch of a tree.

These kinds of obstacles need to be handled with some equanimity though, as they are all part of the challenge and small amounts of smeared blood are considered badges of honour in this community.

Beyond the trials of staying upright, there are also navigational concerns that creep up on the unsuspecting.

There are very few signs on mountain paths, and you’d be surprised at how many of them look remarkably alike. Even trail stalwarts like “Sir Tim”, a volunteer organiser for group training runs, occasionally get lost and end up climbing an extra koppie or two while finding their way home.

Changing weather conditions can also make a trail look very different: old favourites are sometimes unrecognisable when dressed in a foggy white cloak with visibility at just a couple of metres.

If you have an adventurous spirit and you are interested in trying trail running, then take note of a few other points.

Firstly, the trail has a way of keeping you humble. Just when you think you’re getting into a rhythm – shoop! – something will spring out and give you a surprise.

It may be just a loose rock, but at times it’s a porcupine or even a puff adder; you’ve really got to respect nature out there. Environmentally speaking, trail runners also have an innate sense of gratitude for exercising in pristine and natural areas.

Don’t expect water tables or bins; you need to bring in what you need, and take out what you don’t consume.

Finally, trail runners are generally friendly folks – be ready to say hello and stop and chat about the huge spider web you just passed or hand out warnings about the slippery banks of the last river crossing. From a safety perspective, it’s also much smarter to run with a buddy, so trail runners tend to go about in packs.

Don’t stop exercising just because the rain clouds have rolled in; the surrounds of this city are well worth exploring even if the conditions are cool and rainy. - Cape Times

Tie on some sturdy shoes, a backpack full of safety goodies and hit the hills. See you out there!

l To get connected with other trail runners, e-mail [email protected]