From Road to Trail


When, where, and how to get there!

Road running in South Africa remains one of our favourite sports, for many reasons. It is relatively affordable, accessible and the legacy of races such as the Comrades marathon creates a road running culture that is built on history, pride and some iconic running names. If you are a runner in this country, you will be asked if you have a Comrades medal – this cliché is quite unavoidable!

And yet, in this diverse and sports-mad land, we are surrounded by mountains and other wilderness spaces that offer endless opportunities to those who have found freedom and peace on the trails. The two genres of running need not become mutually exclusive, in fact the one feeds the other, but how do you cross over from a diet of pure tar, to trail running?

Apart from the obvious need to run in different shoes, and, for longer distances, and adding a belt or hydration pack to your kit, what else should you take in to consideration before hitting the trails?

First, consider that your “eye” must be given time to adjust. Some trail runners have an enviable ability to traverse even the most technical trail on pure talent and instinct, but those converting from road running will find that it takes a while to master the uneven terrain. Looking 2 to 3m ahead of you on the trail is preferable to looking straight down at your feet, say the pros.

Road runners will also, initially, have an undeveloped ability to judge pace for hilly terrain. There is no conversion table for road to trail based on distance or elevation, because your pace on the trails will be determined by these elements in conjunction with the level of technicality, river crossings, soft sand and more. This is why trail races generally carry grading levels, and it is worthwhile to familiarise yourself with terms such as “single track” and “scramble”. These will make a route very different to a trot on jeep track, although both will be deemed off-road running in the broad sense. It is this inability to judge pace that often catches runners out. Insufficient water or kit carried for the time spent on a particular route. When in doubt, carry a little extra.

Lack of muscle development for the long uphill and downhill running on trail is another element that requires time and training to correct. Strength training for trail runners is quite specific and worth researching. Stairs, box jumps and endless core work assists enormously in the transition.

Psychologically, trail runners should be prepared for long periods of time spent alone on the trail during long distance races. For the most part, these events have a small number of entrants, so the field becomes spread out and there are no aid stations every 3 to 6km… A good measure of self-motivation and basic navigational skills will come in handy.

But more than anything, a crossing over to trail running requires a simple decision just to do it. Gather friends, or a family member, choose an entry level trail run in your community, and venture fearlessly, but well informed, off the tar.

Nerina Bester shares her tar-to-trail story with some motivating insight!

“We were 3 siblings of which I am the youngest. My brother is 5 years older, and my sister 8 years older than me.

My brother, Riaan van Zyl, did his first Comrades at 18 years old. We were glued to the television, and we were lucky to see him finish just before the cut-off. He almost didn’t make it that year due to injuries. I was mesmerized. My mother and I would decorate his room each year when he went to race, with all sorts of trimmings!

Somehow I knew my life was impacted, and I started running shortly after I finished school. I started doing half marathons, and it was important for me to report every race to my brother!  I never seemed to impress him, so I continued on. Eventually I got married, and even my husband said that longer distances would never work, since my knees always got a bit sore.

After many years, I decided it was time to move on. I did my first 28km as a club run, and thought to myself, why did I wait this long?! I did my first Winelands Marathon, and got completely hooked on distance running. After that it was the Two Oceans Marathon every year. I did my first Comrades in 2014, but took a break to have my second child in 2015.

Eventually trail running started booming in South Africa. At first I was reluctant, but being a farm girl and from a small town, I naturally found it much more enjoyable running in nature with a lot less people around.

Again I followed my brother’s lead, and entered the African X Trail run. Myself and a few friends entered the Wildrunner Silvermine XL route, and decided it would be good training.

Now this is where the penny dropped……it was a 34km PROPER trail run, and for a novice, I didn’t even notice the grading on the route!

I was in way over my head, and this realisation only surfaced when I was completely alone in the mist….somewhere on a mountainous area… wishing I could phone my husband to send a helicopter to fetch me.

That day, I swore never again!  In my opinion road runners can get away with being lazy. You don’t have to lift your feet as high, and don’t even have to concentrate where you put them! Suddenly I had to do ALL of the above, and that was EXTREMELY tiring. I stopped counting after 10 falls.

But, runners are very head-strong, and seems to forget way too easily….. After finishing my first African X with a partner that made the route fun all the way, I thought well, maybe I can improve? 

In 2016 a few friends in our local town, Moorreesburg, decided to enter Ultra Trail Cape Town 35km. I decided to ‘put my money where my mouth is, and enter as well. We did a few races as training, and the Mont Rochelle route in Franschoek was another epiphany. The UTCT route of 35km with almost 2000m elevation was no joke. It was extremely technical, and with my horrible knees, descending is NOT my strong point. We took it easy in the hot weather, but the relief to finish almost matched Comrades. I had another go in 2017. My time improved with a huge margin, since I managed my strengths and weaknesses better.

As runners I believe we are all different. I will never be a fantastic trail runner, but I have gained invaluable experience of myself. I love long distance, so my dream will be to finish UTCT 65km in the future and maybe a stage race abroad.

After my brother finished UTCT 100km last year completely shattered….I know I will never be good enough for that, but I can aim within my means.

Trail running has also improved my road running immensely. I am a lot stronger today than previous years. Mentally, you have to experience it for yourself. It changes you in ways you may never have thought possible. I am a different person today because of trail running. I admire mountains nowadays. Always looking to see if I can spot a path somewhere.

These days I mix my road running and trail running. This year my brother, sister and I will be running the Comrades. I think that is something quite special.

(If you are considering a conversion to trail running) all I can say is…go out there…experience it for yourself.   Life is too short not to.”

If you are one of the converted, you’ll probably be familiar with the Wildrunner Trail Series®. It is the ideal place to try entry-level trail running, or to get faster on short-course trail. Entries for the Cape and Gauteng Winter Series®  are currently open. Enter early as they are selling fast. Bring a friend who needs a little less tar and a little more dirt in their lives! 


Words by Kim Stephens