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Not all exercises are created equal. And in the great outdoors, neither are the humans doing them.

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Isn’t hiking just the best? It’s the only true cardiovascular endeavour that rewards you while you’re actually doing it. Some folk will tell you that exercise is a joy in and of itself, but they are deranged. All that heavy breathing gives them too much oxygen, causing them to confuse the euphoria of a gym workout with the awful feelings they have while actually doing the working out.

Hiking does not abide that sort of carrot-and-stick constitution. It is benevolent, proffering up beautiful distractions the moment you set foot in the wild. First it draws your attention outward, to the majesty of your surroundings. Then it coaxes you inward, igniting your forgotten pioneer. You regard yourself with your mind’s eye, a modern explorer with purpose and appreciation, conquering the well-marked footpaths like the greats before you.

The problem with regarding oneself with the mind’s eye is that the gaze often tends towards the navel. ‘Look at me go!’ you think. ‘Look at my foot, and how well I put it in front of the other one. My feet are great. How’s this fresh mountain air? Best! Look at all the non-hikers down there breathing the stale stuff. Worst.’

Now I’m not suggesting our journalist Melanie van Zyl was basking in this kind of introspective glory while walking the fourth day of her first Otter Trail (full story on page 74). But it often happens that during such moments of self-absorption, the universe likes to remind us that there’s always someone doing it better. And it was then that two trail runners fizzed towards her, sending shivers through the foliage like capuchin monkeys, barely touching the ground. In the brief moment that they stopped, Mel learnt they were scrutinising the route for the Otter African Trail Run, a challenge so ambitious it attracts some of the fastest bipeds in the world.

I met one of these elite blitzpeds, Thabang Madiba, when I was sent to write about, and run part of, a five-day trail race in Madagascar last year. Actually I had ‘met’ him earlier, on social media, where he posts images of himself training beneath the hashtag #IfICanYouCan. Loathe as I am to admit I was motivated by a hashtag, it worked. In training for that race, ‘If he can, I can’ became a mantra that I’d huff and puff like The Little Engine That Could on rocky trails and dark, wintry streets.

And then I was in Madagascar, at the start of day four of the race when the dumbest thought I’ve ever had popped into my mind. I was going to try to keep up with Thabang. I don’t want to exaggerate but I’m going to anyway: after 30 metres I was dead. My lungs, soul and will to live left my body in unison, a holy trinity of pain followed by a singularity of reason: he can. But I, most certainly, cannot. Moving slower than the Internet in Oudtshoorn, I was swallowed up and spat out by the chasing pack like a zombie-attack victim, just enough energy left to collapse under a tree, and nap.

I finished, eventually, and Thabang was the first to congratulate me. Then he asked me how it went. Embarrassed, I searched my brain for an excuse
and mumbled something about how I hadn’t trained all that time just to come here to get it over with as fast as I could, which is the very definition of a race. I also told him I had a nap.

I didn’t think he’d heard me through all the wheezing, so imagine my surprise to find that at the 2016 Otter African Trail Run, three months later, after challenging for the lead, Thabang did exactly the same – he stopped and had a nap. And then finished the race in his own time. Official medical reports will probably tell you it was because he was grievously ill, having pushed past boundaries that would have killed mere mortals, but I think there was another reason. In the same way that he inspired me to train for that race, I think I inspired him to take more naps. Hey, if I can, he can.

 

This story first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.

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Our April issue features a guide to the Otter Trail, the sunniest roadtrip in SA, and 12 awesome farmstays.