Kim van Kets is adventurer, role model, gladiator, mom

Posted by Mishqah Schippers on 30 August 2021

From her Tri the Beloved Country adventure in 2011, where she covered 6 672km running, cycling and kayaking the perimeter of South Africa, to the 10th year of Wild Women, the multi-day trail running adventure on the Wild Coast, Kim van Kets is running at full speed with no plans to slow down.

Interview by Lauren Dold | Photography: Jacques Marias, Peter van Kets,gallo/getty images

To my extreme amazement, I’m nearly 50. I have no idea how that happened. But I still feel like I’m on an upward trajectory. I’m excited about being this age because I’m interested in how endurance is something that just gets better and better – maybe not when I’m 80, but certainly for now.

I’m a lawyer, not that that’s of any importance at all; in fact, I think I’m not a very good one. That’s not how I define myself. I’m a wordsmith, a storyteller, an adventurer. I’m basically just an ordinary person who’s had time and opportunity to do things that maybe other people haven’t.

I’ve been running since I was 17. The only sort of ultra running was road running and I loved it. I kept trying to run further, run longer. I have two older brothers and I’ve spent an enormous amount of my life trying to prove to them that I’m not a girl. Back then, there were no safety precautions or anything for the races I entered. Things were done with a cavalier attitude. We were kind of told: ‘Okay everybody, keep the sea on your left and make your way to East London. See you at the finish… seven days later.’ I’ve not run another road race since then. Trail running just felt like play. It became less about the actual running, and more about the running being a vehicle to take me to these amazing places that I wouldn’t normally be able to access.

I’m not an amazing runner but I am a kind of tank. I don’t break. Any normal person who had started running ultra marathons so young and had continued doing that would have probably got an injury and that would have been the end of that. I just never did. I have these German, peasant genes, I think. My ancestors must have laboured in fields for 18 hours a day. They probably weren’t very clever, but they didn’t break.

My husband, Peter, is also an adventurer, but when I met him, he wasn’t. Shortly before he lost his marbles, he was a teacher. So these adventures that I go on are not really crazy within the context of my family.

When I had my daughter (now 16) I imagined I would model my values to her, not just speak them. And I really sort of believed that she saw me as this powerful, capable independent athlete, this hardcore lawyer. One day when she was about four we were lying on the trampoline and I asked her: ‘Hannah, what does daddy do?’ She said: ‘Daddy’s an adventurer!’ Then I asked her: ‘What does mummy do?‘ And she responded: ‘Oh shame, you’re a servant.’ I realised that I was telling her one thing, but demonstrating another. I had been in a support role basically since she’d been born, but that wasn’t really my deal. I wanted to be Gladiator, not Gladiator’s girlfriend.

It may seem selfish of me to go off and do these things, but actually I was just showing my daughter that moms could be heroes, too. Setting amazing goals and going out there and achieving them is not the exclusive domain of men and fathers. My initial plan before Tri the Beloved Country was to run the whole way; then I did the maths and realised running the whole way would take too long and that’s where the triathlon idea came from. So many things could have gone wrong but that experience was one of the greatest of my life. To experience South Africa like that, the places, the people, it was extraordinary.

My favourite part was the Wild Coast section. I know it like the back of my hand. I have connected every dot on that coast. I’d been rambling on about its beauty to Lucille van der Merwe, and not long after that Wild Women was founded. We’re now celebrating 10 years of this empowering, fun, multi-day trail run. At the start we knew we wanted to support other women, and we wanted it to be a long-term commitment. We’ve been raising funds – R1 million to date – for African Angels independent school and Busfare Babies birth centre, both based in the Eastern Cape. This year we hope to #Match1Million with the kind help of sponsors.

Kim’s six mental
strategy nuggets

1. I make a Note to Self: This hard thing that I am doing is a choice and a privilege – I chose these miles of inevitable pain (while sound of mind) so suck it up and focus on the JOY.

2. My ‘in-flight entertainment’ is critical!
I choose or make up a selection of rousing speeches, poems, songs (from Pink Floyd to ‘When you’re happy and you know it clap your hands!’) which I learn in preparation for long runs.

3. I break down the time or distance into manageable chunks and reward myself with peanut butter sandwiches, socks, great thoughts and phone calls.

4. I try to practise a sense of the ridiculous, maniacal smiling (even at no-one) and power posing. These are good ways to trick your body into believing it is having fun (they are also utterly silly and always make me laugh at myself, which is most helpful).

5. I play war games with myself – I often pretend I am fleeing a hostile army that will harm my child if they catch me (it is an excellent motivator).

6. I try to manage expectations and expect significant suffering. Although optimism is an excellent thing in everyday life, it should be shunned in real endurance events.

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