~ on working towards and not just dreaming of ~

The Start Line is a book detailing a very personal journey. It’s the story of how I made a stand against the life I was living, through running. It started as just another attempt on my part to prove a point to doubters – to fight against the spirit of unbelief. Along the way though, I discovered that running was a medium I could use to face my demons, to reflect on life lessons and to make a serious commitment towards becoming a man of integrity. In my struggle to be better, I am still failing and I am sure there will be many more start lines. I can only hope that in sharing with you a snippet of my journey over the past five years, these words resonate with those wanting to face up to their own challenges and defeat them – one painful but immeasurably powerful step at a time. After all, without work and a decision to change, dreams remain exactly what they are – just subconscious thoughts passing through our minds. The piece is written against the backdrop of having entered a one hundred kilometre trail run in the Drakensberg mountains. 


I heard a scientist conversing in an interview some time ago about the reason why he writes books. The reason, he said, was because once he had written everything he felt was necessary to say on a topic he could then leave that topic behind him and move on to the next one. If anyone then asked him about that same issue he now had a reference point for them and would not need to spend time readdressing the things he had left in his past. This chapter follows much the same train of thought – there are things in my life, things that have happened to me and things that I’ve done, which have served to shape me into the person I am today. So often I get asked why I am the way that I am and, for the most part, I will just shrug and smile awkwardly knowing full well that to explain my story to those asking in the manner I have done so here won’t really achieve any purpose. The person who does in fact give the time to listen might hear the full story or a filtered version of it depending on how open I am willing to be on that day. Ultimately though, I only share the full story with those who I can discern may take comfort from the knowledge that they are not alone in their struggles. Truth is, you really aren’t alone. My story isn’t profoundly deep – at its core is a tale of a boy who thought he had the answers when he was actually just plunging into a world of confusion. It ends with a man who is happy he knows so little and is eager to wake up and learn each and every day. Perhaps, with this in mind, these words can be my final shrug – the definitive answer to that question people sometimes ask about the ‘why’. To begin to unpack that question I need to tell a story about running and within that story there are one or two other stories about lost sons, failed dreams and misguided decisions. But there are also stories of love, compassion and belief and I hope that in some way or another it is these stories that speak out to you. 

There’s a parable that speaks of a lost son. As the story goes, a man had two sons.The younger son asked his father if he could have the part of his inheritance that belonged to him. He wanted to live and he wanted to see the world. And so, he gathered up his possessions and engaged in prodigal living in far away lands. In an all too familiar turn of events, at the exact point in time that he had burnt through all his father had given him, a drought came over the land and everyone began to struggle. The son, who now had nothing to his name, became a slave to another man and the parable tells us that he held a status so low he was valued less than the pigs his master forced him to feed. It was then at his lowest that he remembered his father and the manner in which he treated the people who worked for him. It would be nice, he thought, if he could journey home to beg his father’s forgiveness and ask for work as a hired servant there. And so, the son arose and came to his Father. When one reads these words in passing, they suggest that the son’s journey back to his father was an instantaneous one – that the son arose and the next moment he was with his father. But at the time in history this parable was told, the son would have had nothing but his own two feet and the vast expanse of land he’d spent living prodigiously in, to journey back through on his way home. Unlike his first journey with the inheritance in hand, he journeyed back not as a king with unlimited resources, but as a pauper having to face up to all the destruction he’d left in his wake. I can only imagine that the act of coming back to his father would have been a humbling experience like no other. Walking back through the life he had lived he would have had to face the guilt and shame for the things he had done. He may have had to face up to people he had wronged (and who had wronged him). This could only have been humiliating from his position of poverty. I imagine this parable as a journey of self reflection that stood in harsh contrast to the journey of unbridled self discovery he had set out on when possibilities seemed limitless. It’s with this juxtaposition in mind that this story of mine begins.

It was the evening of December 21st, 2018 and I was sitting at a window seat in an aircraft bound for Durban, South Africa. My home town. It’s a place that holds so many great childhood memories. Almost everything I wanted and needed as a child growing up in this beautiful country was given to me as close to freely as my parents’ financial circumstances would allow. As the aircraft neared in on home I couldn’t help but remember that time as a child when I was truly carefree. I still miss the days where my childhood innocence began to disappear. I can recall quite clearly the days when my interests in the world of micromachines were replaced by interests of the world. Competitiveness, popularity, money, girls and alcohol – the vices of adulthood had descended on an adolescent that was ill equipped to understand them. Peering out through the tiny rectangular window I couldn’t shake two opposing thoughts. The first was loosely linked to a concept I vaguely remembered from some academic essay I studied back in law school. It had something to do with owners controlling access. I don’t know why that resonated on the aircraft. Perhaps it was because ever since being introduced to the world my childhood naivety had hid from me, I had always been on the back foot staring out at the lives of those who had obtained mastery of some, or all, of those vices. What did they have that I did not have? What did they know that I did not know? How were they owners while I was always knocking at the door of social acceptance or financial security? I couldn’t answer these questions at the time. More so because I had just signed up for the biggest physical challenge I’ve ever faced in my life – a one hundred kilometre trail run through the Drakensberg mountains! As you might imagine, these kinds of fear-inducing decisions to take on something you’re not quite sure you are capable of doing have a way of narrowing your focus! 

When the aircraft made its final turn to come into land, I stared down at the city, shining with its brilliant orange hues embered against the blackness of the sky. My mind once again strayed towards the notion of acquisition. A view from the sky has a peculiar way of inspiring us and so often I find that looking down at the world from above gives one a complete, albeit brief, perspective on situations. On the ground we notice the things around us happening in the first person. We notice the chaos of life unfolding in front of us and it is here that we carry on living and reacting to life. Things happen to us and we interact with those happenings as best we can. In turn those happenings create things that we need to figure out how to interact with – it’s a world of confusion at the best of times! But, from the sky, when trucks are reduced to the size of those micromachines that dominated my childhood adventures, perspectives change. The smaller the detail the larger the picture that reveals itself. Which brings me back to my first thought. Owners control access. It’s a simple legal concept really – when we want something we do not own, we need to do something to shift our position from the outsider knocking at the door of opportunity to the gatekeeper controlling the access to that opportunity. As an owner, we can decide who is allowed to enter and who isn’t. If you want a quick lesson in the importance of the law of property, it is in figuring out ways to protect this position that the requirement of a set of rules and guidelines becomes important. The law of property is the tool which owners can utilise to ensure that there are consequences for those who disrespect the rules an owner has imposed about access. This said, ownership of material things is an easy concept to unpack. Ownership of the second thought I’d been mulling over is a little more difficult a concept to grasp. This is because the second thought was one of those ethereal ones that operate in the realm of ‘possibility’ and ‘dreams’. Those beautiful thoughts about destiny – the kind of thoughts that allow themselves, even if for a minute, to just believe that the things which exist outside of perceived limitations are in fact capable of being accomplished. It was one of these ethereal thoughts that got me to this particular one about acquisition and ownership in the first place. It started with a simple “what if?” or, more aptly put “what if I can also?”.

We all have our own reasons for arriving at the start line. We all have our own whys and our personal motivations. For most of us, the start line represents the end of something else. Putting old jobs to rest or closing the door on ex relationships is met by new job opportunities, new relationships or new purchases. Starting something new can have endless reasons and possibilities. It may be that a new adventure with untold possibilities brings with it renewed hope for increase, position or status, or, quite simply necessity and circumstance have left you no choice for your new direction. It could be that the start line is the consequence of being forced to move forward by the mouths you needed to feed or the employer who let you go. Perhaps you were given a directive from your doctors and you are starting something new because your happiness and health depends on it. 

For me, to be honest, I had arrived at the start line because I realised that most mornings I was waking up completely bitter at the world around me. Maybe bitter is a bit of a strong word. I woke up angry. And, even though that anger wasn’t directed at anyone in particular, I guess it revealed itself throughout the day in conversations and my mood. If I were confronted on the reason why, I knew where that anger came from. It was the culmination of spending the better part of my life falling short of my dreams daily. Daily I was falling well short of becoming the person I’d long hoped to become. I got angry at the promotions that I was passed up for. I got angry at the dates where I said the wrong thing or revealed too much of myself too quickly. I got angry at the training sessions where I stopped short of maximum intensity. I got angry at the control my vices had over me and the way they caused me to live like a prodigal. Most of all I got angry because I knew the path I was walking on wasn’t the path I’d dreamt of and dream of. The world of falling short is a horrible world. It’s a world of ‘what ifs’, ‘if onlys’ and regret. And it’s that regret that fueled my anger at the world. The anger stemmed from a moment many years ago when I made the choice not to change direction when I was presented with the narrow path and the wide one. The wide one was comfortable. But the wide one, as I have come to learn, is very far from easy despite what may seem to present itself. 

To relive that moment I have to journey back to 2004. Times were great back then. I had just been told I was to become a school prefect and I had been included in the first team rugby squad despite shattering my collar bone earlier in the season. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’ve always known I am somewhat smart – I could hold my own unprepared in most tests (that didn’t involve numeracy where I could not hold my own at all) and come out the victor. But my 2004 self, despite being able to bring down people double my size on the rugby field, was a skinny, insecure human being trying to deal with the metamorphosis of boyhood into young man. That skinny human was one of the smallest in the squad despite plying his trade as a lock (traditionally one of the positions left for the tallest and most sturdy of people – those seemingly carved out of tree trunks and not the twigs attached to the tree trucks as I was). Like any testosterone fueled little stringbean with slightly delusional aspirations of athletic glory, grades were to wait until after rugby season. I had the end of year holidays to train before the squad would be cut down for a pre-season tour to Argentina. Don’t cry for me yet – it really isn’t that sad a story – or not at least to you, the reader. In October 2004 the first team coach called me into his office to tell me what the situation was. I had two months to put on at least ten kilograms or else I would not be considered for the team. Fair enough. Ten kilograms wasn’t that much. I mean, It’s not as if it had taken me seventeen years to accumulate seventy five kilograms. To a young and impressionable teen who had banked the last five years of his existence on wearing a different rugby jersey to the rest of the school, this was a problem. I had been training religiously for two years already and although I had packed on some size I was still just a slightly top heavy disproportionate human with chicken legs where my human legs were meant to be. Nevertheless, I did not let the challenge bother me and I can confidently say that those two months between the end of my eleventh year and the beginning of my twelfth at school were the most physical effort I have ever put into preparing for something.

Fitness tests were to happen as soon as we got back from those holidays and I was going to ace them. I had trained like a dog every day, twice a day, swimming two odd kilometres in the morning and lifting weights every afternoon. And I ate. I ate and I ate and I ate. Fast forward those two months and the fitness tests went swimmingly. Highest strength to weight ratio in the forwards. Check. Passed all the speed and endurance tests. Check. Weight. Seventy two kilograms. Despite checking all the boxes fitness wise, the lack of physical presence I brought to the table meant that (in the coaches eyes) I was no presence at all. I was dropped from the squad. The owner of the squad had denied me access despite everything I had put my body through to be allowed to dine at the first team table. I was crushed – perhaps more than I had ever been. It was the first time I had given my all for a cause and it was the first time I had come up short. The lesson I took from that situation was a terribly simple one and it flowed into my choice to take the wide path. I learnt then and there, in the moment that my name did not appear on the first team list, that if you don’t invest in things you won’t care if you fail. Terrible I know.

Today, in almost every situation where I can rely on natural ability as my north star, I still have to fight against that self taught lesson of mediocrity that I taught myself in 2005. If you give your all and fail it hurts, so why try at all? This became my go to attitude for almost everything in life – relationships, friends, family and work – rest on my laurels and if I need to give more then figure out a way around that. I spent more effort figuring out how to give no effort than I would have if I just did things properly. In so many avenues of life I just adopted it as my standard and without even realising it, a dependance on doing what I knew I was capable of developed into an indifference to just about everything. Everything except physical challenges. I may have been the smallest kid in the first team squad at those trials but I walked away from them as one of the strongest – willing to have my body crushed under weights double my mass just to prove points. Proving points about my physical presence became my fix, whether people knew I had lined them up as competition or not. For the better part of ten years, I could never forgive that first team coach for telling me I was too small. Every day and every weight that I lifted was a big middle finger to the man who didn’t believe in me. A big middle finger to the gatekeeper of that squad. I don’t hold any resentment now though. In part one can call it forgiveness. In part one can call it learning to own my failures. Failures after all are what set me on the course I am on now. And for that selection failure I am in actual fact eternally grateful.

With hindsight, we learn that major concerns of the past can be miniscule in the present. Sometimes, like that first team story, we can learn to understand the stupidity of banking so much on something of so little consequence. At the other end of the spectrum, however, there can be small moments that are life altering. Almost five years ago to the day I lay on a hospital bed in one of those life altering moments. After having journeyed through a week of complete and utter confusion it’s difficult to describe exactly what went on during that week. For the most part it’s embarrassing to recount every detail – and some really are too personal to share. This was the prodigal recounting every detail of every decision he had made without the foresight or faith that life would continue. I guess the crux of this moment was that a number of events had led to my body and mind being so fatigued and traumatised that I was completely convinced I was going to die. I believe the modern world calls moments like these ‘burnouts’. For me though it was more of a damascus moment. I knew that if I ever did see my way through this downward spiral that led me into a confrontation with finality that I would never be able to be the same person I was before the event. I often hear that when people come face to face with death their life flashes before them. But this was not the case with me. What engulfed me was an overwhelming sense of regret. Reflecting on it brings back that same sense of loneliness I felt when I thought my remaining time on this earth had expired and that cold fear of finality and all the regret I had for not having walked a different path. It had only been seven years since I had left school but in those seven years worldliness had taken a firm hold of me. I had already decided in those moments that if I could come through the other side I would do things differently. I would be better and I would make my life story a miraculous one. It would inspire people and give them hope. I did come through that time. Relatively unscathed. But what I did not account for was reality – the reality of the world I was trying to leave behind and the strength of the grip it had on me. I’ve learnt since then that one needs more than just motivation to face the things that hold us back. Motivation is just the thought. Commitment, unconditional commitment is the action that forces change. 

It’s at this point that it’s necessary to revisit the notion of ownership. I had made a commitment to realise my dreams but I was met with an altogether new quandary. I wasn’t sure who had ownership of my ideas and dreams. I wasn’t sure who the gatekeeper of those dreams was and what type of rules that gatekeeper played by. After 30 odd years of dreaming and having hopes and expectations that seemed to always just exceed my reality ever so slightly, I’d become a bit tired of dealing with that gatekeeper, whoever he was. And yes at this stage, I was lining my sights squarely on being upset with God. If you allow me to unravel an argument just a tad, you may understand why. See, to me at least, it’s become commonplace in society to look for scapegoats when things don’t go as planned. I see it all around me in all areas of life and it affects all people. I won’t try to use that previous sentence as my own lyrical scapegoat. I too look for others to lump my shortcomings, woes and failures on. And, when things are going really bad and there isn’t anyone around me to blame I will often look skywards for that scapegoat. It gets worse because, whether a divine being is in fact interacting with me or not, God becomes the target for unachieved goals – if it was too lofty an idea, it wasn’t in God’s plan, you get the picture! 

Generally after that, when all is settled and I have found someone to direct my anger at or to ground another justification for a ‘misdirected’ hope that did not materialise, I can move on taking comfort in the knowledge that this event was either just not meant to be, or, that it really wasn’t my fault and I can revel in my shortcomings. Maybe its age, maybe its wisdom, but time has revealed to me just how wrong this attitude was. It doesn’t take any intellect or substance to realise that justifying yourself out of your own shortcomings is just a way of avoiding accountability and accepting that you have no ownership of your dreams. And if you aren’t the owner of your dreams you don’t control the access to them. It took 30 long and lonely years of battling with God and throwing tantrums about all things that did not go my way to realise this. God might enable dreams and empower and equip you but your success or failure turns on whether you’re willing to accept responsibility for the dreams He’s instilled in you and to walk in faith towards them. That might be the last time I use the word walk in this chapter – it’s high time I get to my point about running. And my point, quite simply, is that I believe God chose running as the tool for me to confront my demons.

To fully comprehend my new found relationship with running, we need to journey back again to Christmas day, 2017. My parents lived in a gated estate in the greater Hillcrest area. A beautiful piece of land nestled in the rolling hills of Kwazulu Natal. Around its perimeter is an eight kilometre trail (and a hilly one at that). As with most Decembers, I’d been engaged in an intense weight training programme ensuring that I had the right kind of physical prowess to get me my fix of summer attention. For those who don’t know, South African summers really are a good time to be feeling great in your skin because shirtless exercise and beach excursions on crowded beaches are commonplace and a good physique is the perfect billboard for worldly desires. That Christmas day I wanted to run mostly because I had stuffed my face with so much Christmas pudding that I felt ashamed (in a not so dramatic and self-defeating way but rather one of those sugar-binge-I-need-to-get-off-my-ass kind of ways). As I jogged, puffed, walked and forced myself across that short trail in the Durban humidity I began to ponder two things. The first was that all this mass I had was impractical and did not serve much purpose other than for the service of my vanity and ego. The second thought was that even though my surroundings were beautiful, I didn’t like running (or whatever I was attempting to do) much at all. It felt like an eternity traipsing around the estate and I was embarrassed. It’s not that my whole training life up to this point had been a lie. Rather, that my notion of toughness was a lie. I had (and possibly still have) aspirations of featuring on the cover of men’s health magazine – but I quickly learned the shape I had aspired towards all my life was certainly not the optimal one for the task of running!

Nevertheless, the run ended and as Boxing Day dawned, all the epiphanies I had on that endless eight kilometre trail quickly dissipated. My return to Cape Town was imminent and if early 2018 was to be anything like 2017 was, I needed that armour of muscle once again to help attract all the wrong kinds of attention that would fuel my ego! Running then, at this stage, was the enemy and in many ways it still is! On my return to Cape Town, a favour of sorts led me to host an old friend who had immigrated a year prior. In the confined space of my loft apartment, two young intellectuals with their own lofty goals and differing ideologies soon began to butt heads. I’ve always hated the idea of fitting in and the person I was speaking to sought to do just that. Opposing forces confined to the same space creates friction. And friction makes situations challenging. So challenging it became! Amidst all this tension, my mind moved back to running – maybe it was fight or flight at play, I’m not sure? But I felt the urge to run again. I’d also recently bought a fitness watch and the notion of tracking my calories and speed per kilometre had made the prospect of running marginally more appealing! So, after a run together, chatting on one of the final nights of hosting that friend he went to a place I’ve long despised people going – he brought limitations of potential into a discussion we were having and told me that to run a half marathon requires immense effort. Now before I get into trouble, I realise that a half marathon run for the first time or at a proper pace is a daunting prospect and that going too hard and gassing out can ruin personal bests and the like. But this was different. The way this was said was in a self limiting kind of way – that spirit of unbelief that we all have when facing something daunting that tells us what we are capable of doing and what we aren’t. I couldn’t cope with this kind of self doubt. This wasn’t my friend speaking. This was his gatekeeper. And I was angry with him because it reminded me so much of a time in my life when I was confronted with the same spirit of unbelief, albeit in a different context.

It’s this anger, or rather hurt, that reminded me of my failed boyhood dreams. And this makes me angry at people when they doubt themselves. Ironic I know because I spend so much time in that zone of unbelief as well. On this particular occasion arguing with my friend in my apartment was different. You see, that friend in 2018 unknowingly threw down a gauntlet to me that I’d been working towards overcoming for just over a year prior. It was then and there that my pride unwittingly led me into something that would help open my heart and mind to the possibility of becoming the owner of my hopes and dreams. So many times when we look back on how life has unfolded, we find ourselves saying things happen in God’s time, or that God’s timing is perfect, but on this occasion it really was. Only a few days after that friend left to go back overseas I entered my first significant running race (significant in that moment at least). I was going to prove my point. I had a twenty-five kilometre trail run in Elgin Valley to prepare for and was slowly ramping up for that at the end of February 2018. It was in the build up to this race that I listened to a man named David Goggins tell his story. I don’t want to pin my turnaround on a single person – there are many people, family and friends who have had the understanding and patience to support me in my turnaround (knowingly or not). But this man was the first who delivered a clear message to me that resonated, about adjusting my attitude towards life. Now Goggins may not be to everyone’s taste – his message is hard and uncompromising, but I truly believe God shared his perspective with me at that time because He knew it was a voice I would be willing to listen to. Goggins message was simple – I needed to learn to operate in a world that was hostile to making excuses.

I listened to Goggins tell his story, uninterrupted, for two odd hours straight. It was nothing short of mind blowing. For those who haven’t heard of him I won’t ruin the trip of sheer awe and amazement I went down listening to him speak. For someone who isn’t a fan of quitting and who likes ‘challenges’, his message flowed through my ears and into my brain like an audible heroine. This was a man who faced impossible – real impossibility – and shattered every barrier it had put up against him to rob him of his destiny! As I said, owners control access. And Goggins had learned how to own almost every challenge he faced. To give you just the tip of the iceberg of what this man accomplished through sheer willpower, he went from never having run to running one hundred miles (one hundred and sixty kilometres) in seventeen hours, on three days’ notice. Pause for a moment and think about that. Next time you go on a long drive, set the clock to zero and see just how far a journey that is! I know many will find his story completely extreme and crazy, but what I took from listening to him was a life altering lesson. Limitations, however great or small, are oftentimes just the constraints we place on ourselves to justify our own incompetence and accept the situation we find ourselves in. Limitations are the thoughts we entertain to deny ourselves ownership! And I had denied myself a beautiful life because my demons had kept me living in and believing that I belonged in that realm of incompetence.

I never really know when and how (and even if) God has spoken to me, but in the beginning of 2018, a wrestling match with the ownership of my destiny was well and truly underway. God was intervening in my life by challenging me. It makes sense – challenges were the language I understood (and understand). The difference this time was that the challenge was not for pride. It was simply a challenge to be better – to face addictions, laziness, financial ineptitude, insecurities and loneliness, and to conquer them once and for all. I got a sense that I was being challenged to care again, to be genuinely fearful of the task at hand and to once again work harder than I ever thought I could towards overcoming my demons. Most importantly I was being challenged to face up to and risk failure again. To once again risk the rejection and humiliation of not achieving the goals I had wanted to dedicate my life to but had chosen to flee from. This moment, unknown to me then, was me arriving at a new start line. Not of the race. That was to come later. But the start line of the slow and painful grind towards turning my life around. Addressing the part of my life that people didn’t see, the part that lived in the shadow! The one that made me believe it was ok to be the outsider and gave my demons mastery over me. The life I lived. For the second time in my life God was trying to grab my attention. To tell me there was a bigger picture and something worth fighting and living for. I didn’t believe it then. I do now. The first time, as I’ve already said, God tried to grab my attention by waking me up ‘violently’. It almost brought me to my death, but I guess I needed that near death experience to jolt me into waking up. This time round, the attention grabbing happened more like the running-in of a brand new pair of shoes. Ever so slowly, my foray into running was beginning to reshape my idea of personal limitation and fuel belief. Over time, the daunting task of running twenty-five kilometres became a childish accomplishment in my mind. Alongside it I felt the pull of my vices begin to lose their grip. In lining up at the start line of that particular race I recall having a quiet moment in prayer, “God, I don’t know why I am running? I don’t know why you want me to run? But I’m here and I’m ready to do this. I’m ready to go all in. Amen.” The buzzer went and two and a half hours later I was nearing the finish line. It was my first real racing experience and as people passed me I became more and more agitated. I’ve always been ultra competitive but this has also always been met with not being that talented. Seeing these people pass me (especially those who didn’t look like they were capable of passing me) really began to irk me. And so it came as little surprise to me that, despite my moment of prayer only a few hours earlier, close on the final bend a young woman ran past me, the distance she had already run seemed to have little effect on her and she passed me with an air of grace that really peeved me off in my time of suffering! How could she overtake me, with all my muscle and power, with such ease? Only a few strides after passing me she tripped. I could have stopped to help her up but, like I said, ultra competitive and not that talented so I just ran past her! While I left her in her injured state to recover and get back to her feet, I’d clearly also left the message God had intended for me at the start line behind! Thankfully the smile on my face could be explained away by the impending finish line. After this first race there was still a lot for me to learn! With no one around me at the finish that I knew, I got in my car and drove back to the city. I had no idea that that race set me on a course of self discovery that (from my experience at least) only endurance can ever really manage to do.  

AfricanX was to become my first foray into ‘proper’ trail running. Ninety odd kilometres of trail spread across three stages in the Franschhoek mountains. What makes this race unique is that you do it in pairs. In order to finish each stage you have to cross the line together with your running partner. This is a great concept if you and your running partner are evenly matched. I, however, pay glorious homage, each and every time I lace up, to the phrase “cart horse”.  My running partner on the other hand was more rock rabbit than worn out mule and this turned day one into a torrid affair. I was confident having done quite well (by my standards) in the twenty-five kilometre trail race a month or so before and we set out at a decent pace along the route. Though I was tiring faster than anticipated, I still felt alright until about the twelve kilometre mark. It was then that I realised there was a difference between trail running and trail running. The ‘hill’ (if I can call it that) felt completely insurmountable at that stage. Six hundred metres of ascent that took me about an hour to complete. Already I had learnt my first semi brutal lesson about enduring, on the trails. If you don’t train for the terrain you will get caught out! At the top of that mountain, I remember thinking to myself what honestly is the point of an activity like this? It’s freaking freezing, I’m disappointing my running partner (who had waited a half an hour at the top while I lugged myself up the mountain in a semi-delirious state) and quite frankly I don’t even like the view. Trying to run again after that endless ascent only led my dazed, misfiring legs to seize up and start cramping. This was great! Self reflection quickly morphed into an inner anger and resentment that I was familiar with but had perhaps not come face to face with in a long while. With ten kilometres to go another thought popped into my head – I hate this so much and (peering over the side of the mountain) if I just took a small tumble – maybe a metre or two – I might be able to retire injured instead of giving up. It would be my secret failure but I could tell heroic tales about how I survived a fall on the mountain. I am uncertain as to whether sense did in fact prevail but those thoughts of self harm transformed into my next argument against completing the race. This one was less creative. “Mark”, I said to myself, “throw a tantrum!”. It used to work as a child, it should work now. I held it back for a while, but when I came over a ridge to face what would be the last climb of the day it actually was just too much for me to bear. I sat down on that mountain. In the cold. And as I watched other competitors go past me I cursed myself for my incompetence. Nevermind ownership and access arguments, I had been owned in a bad way and all I knew to do was cry. If I ever thought I had a strong mind, this race revealed to me that at this stage of my life I certainly did not.

It later transpired that that moment when I was at my lowest turned out to become the beacon of hope that gave another participant the encouragement he needed to finish the first stage. He would later find me after stage 1 (now known as “the guy in the bright yellow jacket”) and tell me that he too was suffering and that at that moment I inspired him because he knew right then and there that there was someone who was having a worse time than he was. I guess the lesson here is that you never know from where moments of inspiration come. Him and I still keep in touch on occasion.

That was the first lesson I drew from the race. It’s not by accident that common phrases like fail to prepare, prepare to fail, exist. Endurance running is tough and it should not be taken lightly. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t throw yourself wholeheartedly into the challenge it offers. Day 2 and day 3 each had their own challenges and my legs progressively worsened and the pain intensified. But, at the end of those three days there was a sense of unity created which left me quite empty at the end of the race, for all the good reasons not bad. I couldn’t help but think that the race presented to its participants a warped form of utopia in which all the people there were one collective sharing in a common goal of pain and suffering that required grit, determination and a whole lot of laughter. 

This said, AfricanX will live on in my memory for an altogether different reason. At its core was not perseverance but rather love and commitment. At the end of the race organisers present an award to a competitor who inspires and epitomises the spirit of the race. This particular year the award was given to a lady in her seventies who is almost blind. She runs and stops along the way to take photos of the scenery to send to her husband at home (presumably so he can experience the trail with her). The old lady and her running partner may have been the last to cross the finish line but her story of enduring love will always be at the forefront of my mind when I need to draw on an example of what it means to love and be committed to someone. Yes, roses and chocolates and the like are cute. But I’ve thought about that couple alot since AfricanX, and what it is she does for her husband. I’ve thought about all they have endured together and that they still endure. Perhaps there was a time they ran races together and when he was no longer capable she made a promise to him to keep him with her in spirit – the reason doesn’t really matter, she knows it and I’m left to imagine it. Whatever it may have been, those two taught me a lesson about commitment – commitment to finishing a goal, despite your own physical ailments, or the views of others. Commitment to your partner, despite the distance between you. It was truly inspiring and also completely beautiful.

I was to complete my first (ultra) marathon a month or two later in the Franschhoek mountains as part of their annual Bastille Day fifty kilometre race. Something often discussed about these races is the sensation of all the seasons in a day and the experience of a lifetime’s worth of emotion. It’s peculiar that this is a common thread that filters through the running community. A lifetime in a day. I tend to agree. In the repetitiveness of placing one foot in front of another on varying terrain your mind does seem to drift to distant places and cycle through the emotion spectrum. It’s in these times that all the life lessons my parents taught me seemed to rise up from the depths that my adolescence had banished them to and make sense. Clarity of thought is such a rare gift in today’s age and I found running revealed those moments when the mind just focuses on what is necessary and dear. It isn’t continuously looking to unravel itself with the quick fix distractions of modernity. Through running I experience this at its best. There wasn’t much that happened during that day really, besides me living through it at a snail’s pace. I remember arriving at the first major climb of the day and being confused at all the people who had already turned at the top and were on their way back down past me. I kept thinking to myself that I must be close to the top and yet at stages along that climb I was convinced that that summit would never arrive. This was so distant from the comfort of my air-conditioned gym. The summit of that climb did eventually reveal itself and, owing to the pace at which I ascended, the hot chocolate supply they had laid out there for a motivational boost, had run out. I was met by two frozen marshals who recorded my name and a more able bodied competitor who had reached the summit and was now being treated for hypothermia (coincidentally it turns out that he did not have hypothermia and overtook me at about the forty kilometre mark). I found that ultra competitive, untalented self rearing its ugly head again cursing at him for getting the final cup of hot chocolate. His warmth cost me a place.

My lasting memory of this race was the finish. Not because I finished, but because, as always, my two most loyal supporters were there to greet me as I crossed the line – angry, bitter, cold and a touch exhausted, seeing my parents at the end reminded me of the person I want to become and not the person that I was. I think of all the times my dad made career limiting moves to be there on the sideline cheering me on even when the consequences of winning and losing meant nothing to anyone anywhere, except me. And in thinking this I’m overcome once again. For ten odd hours I had endured but more importantly, for ten odd hours they had waited to see their son. This, in a sense, was the moment the prodigal son had finally arisen and seen his father (and mother) in the distance. He still had a long way to go, yet, having lived a life so distant from them, crossing that line with them there truly felt like coming home. I was still grumpy as heck but in this accomplishment I began to understand what arriving at the startline actually meant. I was finally really beginning to address all the things that have held me back in this life.  

I’m sure there are a million self help books that talk about letting go of things. I don’t even know where I first heard someone tell me that being upset about something or someone gives that thing or person a space they can occupy in your mind. Ownership of a space in your thoughts that should be freed up for your own dreams and aspirations. I’m sure there are countless people who will say there is no capacity to the number of things we can absorb but I look at my brain (or at least the head housing that brain) and I think that because it has a size, it has a capacity. And I had freely given up so much of this capacity to my demons. I think of all the reflective moments I’ve had transitioning from the person who found fulfilment in things and who needed to acquire them to be happy. And the lasting impression I have is that if your core focus is on the act of acquiring you sometimes can’t control what it is you acquire. Materialism can become an addiction. A relationship can become toxic. Money can become your master. Today I am finding a certain liberty as I work towards having nothing – I’m not minimalist by any stretch of the imagination but I’m beginning to understand the destructive power of coveting things, both living and material. I’ve discovered the freedom I’d hoped to find in accumulating and living as I pleased, is to be found in the time I spend out on the trails. I’ve found understanding, compassion and peace by meandering along the road less travelled caught up in thoughts about the intricacies of this life. It’s in those moments when I have no comforts left and no company to keep where it’s just me and myself that I realise this journey of life, this return to the Father, is really just about learning that we don’t need anything other than Him to sustain us. We don’t need status, money and power. We just need our own two feet, those who believe in us and a road ahead of us that carries on it a hope or dream that seems too vast to obtain. It’s when that dream seems a bit larger than life that it may reveal to you the largeness of this life. 


It’s the night of 24 April 2019 and I’m once again travelling on an aircraft back to Durban. This time to embark on my first true test since I took the decision to become the best version of myself. I sit here wondering where all this running has taken me? I’ve witnessed my legs barely being able to carry me through a park run morph into a half marathon and then a marathon and then an ultra marathon. I’ve seen my character and resilience strengthen with each additional stride I take. I’d like to think, for the first time in my life, that I own my thoughts now. No matter how slow or fast I am on the trails, they remind me that the vices that haunted me for all of my adult life no longer chase me or have power over me. I can only hope I’ve finally figured out how to be the master of my fate and the author of my dreams. And yet, my overarching thought is that the only place all this running has taken me to is another start line. It’s not that what I’ve accomplished isn’t enough or that I’m not fulfilled by this journey my mountain adventures have taken me on. Rather it’s that I am learning that ownership of the things that really matter to me and the access to them comes with facing the obstacles ahead without imposing limitations and unbelief on myself. I’m finally equipped to line up to start the race of life no matter what mountains of addiction, hurt and loss I need to summit. Running has brought me closer than I’ve ever been to my family. It’s helped me understand my friends that much better. Through it I’ve rediscovered what it means to love. Running, through its monotonous dull thuds and stumbles, as shoe connects with trail, has been the way God reminded me to focus on a single task and figure out how to beat it. I carry all these lessons into this challenge I now face on the trails of the Drakensberg. As a final passing thought before the aircraft lands, I wonder what the most inspired moment of my walk back into my past has been. It isn’t the thousands of kilometres I’ve run in the last two years. It isn’t developing the strength to finally tell my demons they have no place in my life. It isn’t even the closeness I’ve felt to God. It’s a moment I shared with two people at the height of my training programme. My final big run before I tapered. Ten kilometres in I took time to rest on my overworked legs on a bus stop bench in Clifton, Cape Town, questioning everything and confronting the very real possibility that I may fail to achieve the goal I had been working on for so long now. I sat on that bus stop bench with my mom by my side and my dad looking over me – just like they always have. There in that moment when I had had enough I began to reflect. I realised that failure was irrelevant. That I could fall short even if I had given my all.  I knew then that this was the moment God had called me to understand – above finishing the one hundred kilometre, above all the times that my parents will be there during that race for me as my seconders. This was the moment I will always cherish and turn to in my journey as a man. Because it was here on a busy road on a day that meant absolutely nothing to anybody around us that they chose to come out and support me, despite my grumpiness and anger and fear of failure. This was my victory. It was my victory because it was shared with two people, without any passersby knowing what I was going through and facing. It was shared with the two people who have always been by my side and will remain there long after they have run through their life journeys. I will never be able to say it enough but it must be said. I love you mom and dad. Now let’s go face that start line, together. The prodigal is home.


Postscript: You may be wondering what happened to me when I finally arrived at the start line of the one hundred kilometre trail race. It’s a very surreal feeling trying to recall what happened over that weekend. So many of the ‘firsts’ in my life were ruined by clouded judgement and ill-considered actions. But, at this start line at the base of the legendary Sani Pass, with the clock at 05:00 am, I arrived in a state I’ve never really been in – true preparedness, a loving support base (near and far), a sober mind and a body under the impulse of no addiction. I arrived ready. I arrived equipped with self belief – I was ready, willing, and faithful. And I arrived comfortable in the knowledge that even if I failed, having given my all just to get there, I could be damn proud just in the journey.

The race was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It took me twenty-four straight hours to run, hobble, trip and crawl my way to the top of six mountains in altitude (something I had not trained for). A little over two hours into the race my lungs had already begun to struggle, so too did my legs. But my mind did not. I remember at lunchtime, after running for eight hours already, thinking to myself that I had at least another fourteen to run. I recall trying to process this thought and the magnitude of that timespan. And then I remembered the person I was two years prior – the person who gave nothing and was completely indifferent to receiving nothing in return. That person would have given up. That person would have made excuses and tried to justify his failure. But that person was now also the outsider and was knocking on a door to which he no longer had access. He no longer owned my dreams. The spirit of unbelief was not welcome here. I closed my eyes, said a quick prayer, gritted my teeth, kicked a rock or two and pushed on. Sixteen hours later, at 05:21 am the next morning I crossed the finish line with my parents there to witness. What had started as a dream and impossible task was now a reality I had conquered.

That morning I sat on a chair at the finish line, with a finishers medal around my neck, unforgettable memories of splendour, pain and suffering, and completely indescribable lessons about character. In particular I will cherish all the time I spent wrestling with the thought of giving up and the lessons I learnt about persevering. I will treasure this experience for all my days. Thank you Jesus!