Have you found your single-track soulmate? There is a lot to be said for a shared love of sweaty running kit and race goals, but it’s not all running romance and finish line high fives out there. We interviewed running couples from across South Africa. Their stories had us laughing and crying in equal measure, and their advice is absolutely golden.
Rory Scheffer and Michelle Glover are a Cape-based couple in their 20s. Rory is an up-and-coming professional trail runner and Michelle, a physio, is working on increasing her strength and distance in order to tackle some 30 to 50km races over the next year. They began running together in Port Elizabeth, a few years ago. A three-year long-distance relationship between PE and Cape Town resulted in the couple keeping the love alive by meeting at various trail destinations between their two homes. Now they have settled in the Cape, and run regularly with their trail hound, Jude.
Michelle admits that she used to become frustrated with Rory, as his easy pace was her fast pace. “He would literally run circles around me, or have to go out and back. That used to lead to a tense run… We have both loosened up a bit, and we communicate our intentions before a run begins.”
Compromise and communication seem to be the name of the couples-running game, but no other couple that we interviewed illustrated that more clearly than David and Lynda Heyneke.
Lynda (40) was born with her one eye severely and irreparably damaged, and the other with less than 20% vision. She was diagnosed with Congenital Glaucoma and Peter’s anomaly and was told she would lose all vision by 18. Her vision has deteriorated over the years, but Lynda still has about 5% vision in the one eye (she can make out colours and shapes within a 5m radius of her). With the birth of their son in 2008, the pregnancy reduced her vision to the point where she now has a guide dog. She also has an exceptionally supportive soulmate in David (47).
“We started to run together in October 2012 when Lynda wanted to get back into running. She had last run Two Oceans in 2005 and, due to the deterioration of her eyesight, stopped. We started running with me about 2-3 m ahead of her and she would watch my feet. However this got more difficult due to me running faster than her (my average 10km time at that stage was sub-45min and she was around 67 minutes). I picked up injuries due to having to constantly look behind me to see if I was running too fast. We moved to running with a band in 2016, and this has helped.”
Lynda is currently working on a sub 2h06min half marathon, and David has taken two years out of ultra-running to focus on shorter distances, but wants to line up for the Two Oceans 56km in 2019. Both David and the race turn 50 that year, and it will be the first in his permanent number. There are obvious challenges to their running schedules. Aside from juggling children, work and the usual elements, Lynda can’t run alone and sometimes worries that she is holding David back. They work hard at communicating each other’s running objectives, and recommend planning both training and race schedules well in advance.
Lynda and David have two golden training rules; don’t take anything said during a run personally… and never go for a run together whilst fighting! Easier said than done, and any running couple out there has probably experienced a moment, or a marathon, of less than ideal running vibes. Sarah and Iain, a married couple from Jozi with two young daughters, have learned a few things about each other out there.
“We’ve had the very occasional low blood sugar induced domestic (a cell phone might have been thrown in anger once, maybe…) but over the years we’ve learned to support as opposed to flash in these running moments”, admits Iain.
They started running together in the UK in 2003. Iain ran Sarah’s first marathon with her in 2005 in Nottingham in the UK, but has subsequently relinquished the position of family distance road running champ to his wife, choosing to pursue other running goals such as this year’s 100km Skyrun, a celebration of his 40th birthday.
“I’d advise some of the guys to quickly get over the fact that your female partner will probably be a better long distance road runner than you (and support this ability and ambition wholeheartedly)! When training schedules clash, try and look for alternative opportunities for training such as running or riding to your office, exercising with your kids while the other half does a harder session on their own. It’s important to get a bit creative with your exercise opportunities, and to have fun”, says Iain.
Sarah, with a primary goal of improving her sub-9hr Comrades averages each year, advises to “Just keep at it. Create a viable schedule and try your best to stick to the plan (even if your slot is at 04:30am)! You tend to see the best and the worst of each other during both training and races so take the time to use this to learn about how the other person responds in different situations”.
For some couples, running has been a shared love from word go. For Anneli and Andrew from Cape Town, it was a turning point in their relationship. They have been married for 21 years, but only started running 3 years ago. Andrew beat cancer 10 years back, and they realised they had become couch potatoes along the way.
“We love sharing our running or race experiences on the day (good or bad), and having a coffee or beer together afterwards. Buying birthday presents for each other is now so easy – running gear!” laughs Anneli.
It’s easy to wander off a shared path as the years go by, and running can be the time and space in which a couple reconnects. Genis (49) and Tanya Pieterse (48) from Pretoria, found that after their daughter was born, sport took a back seat. In 2011 their daughter, Arielle, completed school and Genis returned to running. He describes it as a shock, working his way from inactivity to his first ultra-marathon endurance event in small increments, losing 30kg along the way. The change in Genis motivated Tanya to join him.
“He was fitter, healthier and had much more energy. He went off to run the Kalahari Augrabies in 2012, and when he returned he made it all sound so adventurous! He sells things like this very well, and I decided to start running with him. After a while my body adapted, and now we support each other out on runs”, explains Tanya.
Genis describes what running is for their marriage, “Running didn’t bring us together, it just allowed us to spend a lot of quality time together again, and this renewed our relationship. I always tell people that when I met Tanya, I wanted to spend every moment of my life with her, which is why I asked her to marry me. Then life happens, work, a child and everything else, and I am very grateful for everything, but it does rob you of the quality time you could spend together. Now when we are out training it is anything between 90 minutes to 8-hours at a time, or when we race, we have 6 to 8 days of just us. I love that, because it allows me to live the life I always wanted for us”.
Having completed races such as the 2015 Marathon des Sables, Genis and Tanya have certainly clocked great time and distance as a running couple. In a few months they are heading off to the Arctic to participate in the self-supported 566km Arctic Ultra, an extreme event with temperatures as low as -65 degree Celsius and winds up to 160km/h. They only participate in races as a team and stay together throughout an event. As a couple their running goals are very much aligned.
Tayna believes that their participation in ultra-extreme races did much more than bring them together. “It became a physical demonstration of how much Genis loves me, how he turns his entire focus on getting me across the line and then how much he enjoys my achievement. We can talk about things, dream about the future together and just be who we are. I love the adventure, enjoy the victory but most of all I live for the times that it is just Genis and I out there”.
Jana and Prem Trojan (both 49), originally from the Czech Republic, are regulars at trail and road events in the Cape. They have three adult sons, and a shared love of exploration. The couple is currently preparing to run a 67km trail event in the Czech Republic, which they will run as a team. They have always enjoyed sport and physical activity, but only started running together 3 years ago, when, in his own words, Prem realised “that I could keep up with Jana!”
They have yet to experience any real negatives as a running couple, but both enjoy the quality time doing what they love. Jana enthuses about the special moments that they share during training runs; sunrises, helping each other, the laughter. Once in a while they argue about the day’s training programme, or the route. Their advice to other running couples is to mix it up, and train with other friends from time to time, too.
Most runners will relate to the kind of friendships that can emerge during endurance races. You begin as strangers, and finish having exchanged life stories. Mark Easter and Alice Da Silva met at Comrades 2016, so running literally brought them together. Since then, they have sealed the deal by joining the same running club, and supporting each other in reaching various running goals. Whilst their pacing is quite different, Mark has doesn’t mind waiting it out at the finish for Alice, and they advise continually celebrating each other’s successes.
Couples with young children become adept at tag-team training. Ellie (45) and Jason Court (43) who live and train in Newlands, Cape Town, have been married for 18 years. Ellie started running first.
“We lived in a small village in England with no gym or other means of exercise. A friend wanted to lose weight after our children were born, so the two of us started running in the evenings after our husbands got home from work. I started dragging Jason out to run in 2003 - a year after I had started. He hated it. I had entered a local race in West Down and unfortunately fell ill. Jason had to take my place in the race and won!”
Ellie and Jason have different training and racing goals, and have only raced together once; a Valentine’s Day trail in Kirstenbosch in 2012. The couple rises at 5am every morning to get their training in and their influence as running couple has successfully rubbed off on their children; they now have to juggle the kids’ races with their own on the weekend.
What happens when a running couple is competitive? Karoline Hanks and Filippo Faralla met during the inaugural Whale of Trail race in 2014. They race competitively as individuals, or as a team, and have graced a fair number of podiums in various categories.
Karoline outlines their running relationship, “We met at the Whale of Trail, and got on very well. I was drawn to his energy and passion for life. His love of running and wild places was infectious. Yes, I would say running and exploring beautiful pockets of our country brought us together. We spend time doing what we both love, sometimes harmoniously. We can take running with us everywhere we go. Since the beginning of our relationship we have run in some extraordinary places together; from the wilds of the Richtersveld, to the bush in Botswana and Zimbabwe, around Hyde Park in London, in New York and Central Park, in the eastern Cape, on the Wild Coast, finding nesting turtles along the remote beaches of Maputaland. We’ve done Oorlogskloof, Croatia, Provence, Canada….you name it, the man has an acute sense of adventure and wherever we go, we take our tekkies.
But, we are terribly competitive. We generally run the same races, and although in the beginning we used to run together (on race day), this has changed and now we realise that we both need to run our own race. We are not only competitive in races, even training runs can become a hotbed of dissent. I get upset when he runs ahead, or is stronger than me on the day and doesn’t want to hang around for me. He is not the greatest conversationalist on a run either! There is a competitive edge attached to any conversation around a training run. If I am going out to do 15km, he will inevitably announce (and then go out and run) 20km. That is just how it is, I am learning to live with it, but my advice to other competitive couples is… make sure you have the same objective. Ideally, try not to both want podium (unless you’re running as a team!) Be realistic about your expectations for yourself and one another. Don’t try run the same races always, but be supportive, always – especially when one is injured or going through a dark patch or lacks mojo. Keep it light, keep it fun and don’t race too much! That last little gem is said with great feeling.”
Another couple that appears regularly on SA trail race podiums and out at the sharp end is Caitlin Lewis and Cobus van den Berg. “Cobus and I love to run together as we are pretty well matched pace wise. He waits for me on the technical downs and I pull him on the flats. Because we train together all the time, we seem to have an unspoken understanding of how each of us is feeling without verbalizing it and we feed off that. Next up for us is SOX as a team, and then the Tahoe 200miler.”
Whether you’re doing a 5km loop with a baby jogger between you, embarking on a multi-day ultra, supporting each other’s racing goals or training in relay format, there seems to be a lot of magic happening between couples that run. And it would seem that a couple that plays together, stays together.
Thank you to the exceptional couples that agreed to share their stories with us.