SA'S GOLDEN GIRL OF TRAIL

Runner's World South Africa - - FRONT PAGE - Words by Bry­ony McCormick / Pho­to­graphs by An­drew King

In a bid to race among the world’s best in the Golden Trail Se­ries, South Africa’s golden trail girl Me­gan Macken­zie re­cently gave up her job, packed her be­long­ings into a bag, moved to Eu­rope and bought a camper van. De­spite the chal­lenges, she’s prov­ing her­self on the in­ter­na­tional trail stage.

It’s dif­fi­cult not to use the age-old cliché about dy­na­mite and small pack­ages when it comes to Me­gan Macken­zie; it’s al­most as though it was writ­ten for her. Top­ping out at around five feet – and in­ci­den­tally, top­ping most podi­ums in South Africa – Macken­zie has ex­ploded onto the in­ter­na­tional rac­ing scene this year; specif­i­cally at the Golden Trail Se­ries, a five-event col­lec­tion of trail races in Eu­rope, the United King­dom and Amer­ica that has at­tracted the world’s best run­ners.

Opt­ing to give her­self ev­ery ad­van­tage pos­si­ble head­ing into the sea­son, Macken­zie left her part-time job as a re­me­dial ther­a­pist at Her­zlia School in April, con­vinced her hus­band to do the same, packed all her be­long­ings into a 20kg bag, moved to Eu­rope and bought a camper van.

THE GOLDEN TRAIL WHAT?

Yes, rewind a bit – what is the Golden Trail Se­ries?

World-renowned out­door brand Salomon had two main rea­sons for de­cid­ing to put on the Golden Trail Se­ries. The first was to cre­ate a sin­gle, fo­cused rac­ing plat­form – in a sat­u­rated rac­ing en­vi­ron­ment – that would ap­peal to and at­tract the world’s best shor­t­er­dis­tance trail run­ners. They have achieved this by se­lect­ing bucket-list races, and of­fer­ing some pretty gen­er­ous prize money – a to­tal of €100 000 (R1.5m), to be ex­act.

The sec­ond was to cre­ate a rac­ing for­mat

that was not only ex­cit­ing for run­ners, but for spec­ta­tors too. If you can’t make it to the event, not a prob­lem: Salomon have spent an enor­mous bud­get on re­sources to cover and stream the races live. At the Marathon du Mont Blanc, for ex­am­ple, they em­ployed the ser­vices of around 30 peo­ple on the day to suc­cess­fully bring a pro­fes­sional, TV-style pro­duc­tion to an on­line au­di­ence – a first in trail-run­ning his­tory.

In a nut­shell, the se­ries con­sists of five races, be­tween May and Septem­ber: the Zegama-Aizko­rri Marathon in Spain, Marathon du Mont Blanc in France, Sierre Zi­nal in Switzer­land, Pike’s Peak in Amer­ica, and Ring of Steall in Scot­land. Run­ners must run three of the five events to qual­ify for the grand fi­nale, and they earn points for each race they fin­ish.

Each com­peti­tor’s three high­est-scor­ing re­sults go to­wards an over­all points to­tal, i.e. a leader­board. Then the top ten men and ladies are flown, to­gether with a part­ner, to the roam­ing grand fi­nale, to race for the Golden Trail Se­ries crowns.

This year the fi­nale is tak­ing place on home soil, at the Ot­ter Trail Run – where, as it hap­pens, Macken­zie is the de­fend­ing cham­pion.

So how does opt­ing for a Eu­ro­pean gypsy sum­mer of rac­ing against the world’s best trail run­ners put her in a bet­ter place to de­fend her ti­tle? It turns out that in fact, the Golden Se­ries was just the cat­a­lyst Macken­zie and her hus­band needed to set an ex­ist­ing plan in mo­tion.

“Dave and I both knew we weren’t ready to set­tle down. We knew we wanted to go some­where with big moun­tains, so last year we started toy­ing with the idea of trav­el­ling South Amer­ica; but our plans stag­nated, and we got swept up in the daily ‘busy-ness’ of life,” says Macken­zie.

“Then the Golden Trail Se­ries popped up; and it seemed like a no-brainer to ad­just and reignite our plans, and in­clude a Eu­ro­pean rac­ing sea­son in our trav­els.”

Giv­ing up so­cial com­forts – reg­u­lar in­come, a flat, friends and fam­ily – isn’t easy; and Macken­zie makes no at­tempt to mask the re­al­ity that comes about when you make a de­ci­sion of this mag­ni­tude.

“There have been many fright­en­ing, freak­out mo­ments! The be­gin­ning was the hard­est, in fact. In the­ory, our plan seemed flaw­less: buy a van, travel, race, have fun, sell the van, come home. How hard could it be?

“It turned out that ac­tu­ally pulling the trig­ger on the van, and all the ex­penses that came with it, was to­tally ter­ri­fy­ing. We al­most called off the en­tire thing in the early hours one morn­ing in Lon­don, when go­ing over the fi­nances.

“There’ve been a few mo­ments of lone­li­ness and frus­tra­tion – and a lot of cramped and smelly post-run mo­ments in the van, when all I wanted to do was to have a shower and a de­li­cious meal – that have left me a lit­tle teary and home­sick. But on the whole, I have not one re­gret.”

And aside from mak­ing that dif­fi­cult choice, liv­ing in a van isn’t as all fairy lights and lake­side cof­fee stops, as the mil­len­ni­als on In­sta­gram seem to sug­gest.

“It’s been a lit­tle tougher than we thought. Well, put it this way – it’s taken longer to get into the groove than we thought. Some of the ev­ery­day chal­lenges in­clude pack­ing and un­pack­ing our bags, and find­ing wa­ter to do dishes and to drink and get semi-clean.

“Our van is pretty small. Ev­ery night we have to pack the bags in the roof in or­der to pull the bed out, and re­verse the process in the morn­ing in or­der to drive to places... But the high­lights are def­i­nitely the self-suf­fi­ciency, and be­ing so mo­bile.

“Also, the re­al­i­sa­tion that less is more. There’s a lot less stress in our lives, be­cause we have so lit­tle. We love our cosy din­ners of chick­peas and lentils, and fall­ing asleep to the sounds of the river or the for­est ev­ery night is so won­der­ful.”

Speak­ing of ‘less’, re­cently Macken­zie and hus­band were robbed, on the slopes of Mont Blanc in France – and not by or­di­nary thieves, but by paraglid­ing crim­i­nals.

“Dave reck­ons it was the guys from the movie Point Break. They pulled a crazy stunt, stole our camp­ing stuff, and left us stranded at 2 500m with only one cell phone.

“Gotta hand it to them though, it was im­pres­sive thiev­ing,” said Me­gan.

As South Africans, we might be able to re­late to be­ing robbed in ridicu­lous places by wild thieves; but af­ter chat­ting to Macken­zie, it’s clear we can’t re­late to the dif­fer­ent level of rac­ing and per­for­mance over­seas.

“The fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences are the level of com­pe­ti­tion, and the num­ber of peo­ple rac­ing and spec­tat­ing. And the amount of hype/vibe/live stream­ing that goes on dur­ing the race.

“Ev­ery sin­gle Golden Trail Se­ries race has at least 20 ladies who could win on their good day. The com­pe­ti­tion is deep, and fierce. And there’s no room for er­ror or hes­i­ta­tion, or for some­thing just be­ing ‘off’.

“With thou­sands of peo­ple out on the course cheer­ing and watch­ing, and hun­dreds of thou­sands watch­ing the live stream­ing dur­ing the race, it just feels so dif­fer­ent to what we’re used to in SA.”

So dif­fer­ent, in fact, that it’s also im­pos­si­ble to pre­pare for it while still at home, ac­cord­ing to Macken­zie. “In or­der to race against the world’s best, you need ex­pe­ri­ence at this level of rac­ing. I think South Africa has the tal­ent, but we don’t yet have the depth of tal­ent that we need to pre­pare us for rac­ing over here.”

Macken­zie can’t wait to bring her lessons home, and fig­ure out ways to share them with SA’s trail run­ning com­mu­nity – and po­ten­tially, pre­pare even more lo­cal ath­letes for up­com­ing Golden Trail Se­ries events. “Hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to take part in non-di­luted, world­class com­pet­i­tive trail run­ning has been an ex­pe­ri­ence sec­ond to none, and some­thing all pro­fes­sional trail run­ners should aim for.”

Aside from the typ­i­cal learn­ings you’d ex­pect to gain in rac­ing a se­ries of this na­ture, Macken­zie has also learnt how to take chances, to run with­out fear of fail­ing, to run with her heart; and fi­nally, she says, she’s re­alised that there’s al­ways more, if you dig deep enough.

LIV­ING THE DREAM Af­ter dom­i­nat­ing in South Africa, trail star Meg Macken­zie moved to Eu­rope with her hus­band and rented a camper van, to take on the best in the world in the Golden Trail se­ries.

honey, you left the doors open Giv­ing up the com­fort of a nor­mal home was tough at first; but for Macken­zie and her hus­band Dave, the abil­ity to travel and wake up in beau­ti­ful lo­ca­tions be­gan to make it all worth­while.

vert is cert (above) Train­ing in the moun­tains of Eu­rope al­most guar­an­tees lots of climb­ing. saf­fas vs the world (op­po­site) Ev­ery once in a while Macken­zie gets to share her runs with fel­low South Africans, such as Kane Reilly and Tha­bang Madiba.

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