THE ACCIDENTAL RUNNER

This is an adapted version of a feature that appeared in a local running magazine recently.

'Just shy of her 40th birthday, science writer Leonie Joubert stumbled upon trail running. Now, a few years after her 'peak', she's heavier, slower, and has dropped to the back of the pack. But she's still convinced that we really are all born to run.'

The torn muscle didn’t come with an epic battle cry somewhere on top of a folded Cape mountain. It arrived mid-way through a 20m jaywalk across an intersection, trying to beat a red light. Something in my right calf went supernova. A searing pulse blossomed out from the middle of the chunky side (the gastrocnemius). It’d been a bit tight after the previous Sunday’s dash up the front face of Table Mountain, but it hadn’t felt any more dramatic than the usual 48-hour muscle stiffness. 

Thwap…! 

It literally felt as though something went ‘snap’. 

I hobbled home, locking my knee and swivelling my hip through a Python-esque 90-degree pivot to keep the pressure off the ball of my foot, which would explode through the calf again.

Damnit…! 

After a few months of running hiatus (stress, work overload, self medicating on the social scene), I was finally getting back out there, whittling away the excess padding, and salvaging my lost confidence up on those summits. I couldn’t afford a setback now. 

***

I learned to run at 39. Before then, any attempt at more than a kay or two, ended in tears: basic heel striking meant I lifted my front foot, which seized up the outer shin muscle (the tibialis anterior), which squeezed off the nerves, leaving me with exquisite pain and numb toes. Classic compartment syndrome. 

A chance encounter with an effervescent barefoot fundi on Lion’s Head on a pre-dawn, blustery winter’s morning changed that. 

‘I can’t run,’ I told him, in the kind of banter you make with a stranger on a summit when you’re junked up on endorphins. 

‘Rubbish. You can, and I’ll prove it.’ 

He gave me a pair of running shoes and six informal lessons. In return, I wrote an article for a running magazine.

Switching to a forefoot strike was like taking flight. It started slowly: walk-walk-walk-run-walk-walk-run-run-walk-run-run-run… run… run… run. I ran my first ‘race’ on my 40th birthday (a mere 15km, but epic for me); it peaked with the Bat Run (a late-night, three-peaks dash up Devil’s Peak, Platteklip Gorge to Maclear’s Beacon, and Lion’s Head); and even had a few surprising podium moments (on some of those shorter races, when the pack was thin and the competition zero, I took a few thrilling ‘first woman vet’ slots). 

This started a giddy adventure into a world I could never have imagined was available to someone like me, and now feels like a basic survival strategy.

*** 

Way before we became the computer-tapping, car-driving Homo sedentarius (meaning to ‘sit or remain in one place’), early humans were veld-roaming pack hunters with two tasks that were essential to our survival, but were pretty dangerous to do: we had to eat, and we had to shag. 

Local psychiatrist Dr John Parker from Lentegeur Hospital described it to me like this once. Wooing a mate, he said, could mean fighting off an aggressive rival; tracking down food could land you in battle with other predators, or skewered on the wrong end of an antelope’s horn. Both involved effort, risk, and physical discomfort. If the body hadn’t evolved a way of trick us into pushing through the pain barrier, we wouldn’t have bothered, and we’d have died out. Our reward on the other side: a mind-fizzing cocktail of hormones that light up a pleasure centre in the brain with every orgasm, or every mouthful of fatty, or sweet food.

Born to Run author Chris McDougall outlines the idea of how we adapted as long distance runners: we were bringing down antelope for food long before we had the weapons to do so. Our evolutionary edge, he argues, was our ability to sweat. Having shed our early primate pelts, our mostly hairless, two-legged ancestors were able to regulate their body temperatures through sweating, even during a long, hot run. The antelope they were trotting after, though, steadily overheated and had to slow. 

We all talk about the runner’s high. I’m speculating here, but the feel-good hormones we get from running must be part of the same evolved reward system, something that would push us through the hours of discomfort that were needed in order to run that buck down.

If this is the case - and having discovered running at ‘the mid-life’, I’m convinced of it - what does it mean for us as a species, now that our bodies have evolved to experience this kind of hard-earned pleasure, but we are mostly sedentary and don’t need to run in order to survive anymore?

How many runners say they do it because it keeps the ‘black dog’ of depression at bay? How many people say that exercise is the first line of defence in the broader lifestyle approach to managing the doldrums that occasionally come with being human? 

My first two years as a trail runner were thrilling. For a complete novice, at 40, I was amazed at how fast and strong I was. Five years later, I’ve tailed off. I’m heavier, slower, distracted by the busyness of life. But it’s in the thickets of this recent mayhem that I realise why I still have to run.

It’s not to be first, or fast, or lean. It’s not about my rank in the pack, or personal bests. 

It’s because in those moments where my breath and feet slip into perfect rhythm, I’m able to shed the rags of the day’s cabin fever, the work stress, the relationship drama, the self-loathing, and all the other toils of being human.

I think for all of us, it’s that thing that happens when we slip into a flow state. It’s just about us, alone, running towards ourselves, to find ourselves. It’s about the crunch-crunch, breathe-breathe, crunch-crunch, breathe-breathe