As a rule, most athletes are quite community minded, but there’s something special about Trail Runners. It might be that we spend so much time alone in nature that we become more acutely aware of the value of community support. Or it might be that Trail Running is unique, in that our big events tend to be remote, away from cities, and more directly exposed to the local communities in the area. Or it just might be that as a Trail Runner I like to think we’re special.
In the early stages of putting together the inaugural Runtheberg event, circa 2013/2014, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the Northern Drakensberg. Enough time to stop seeing everything through the starry eyes of a transient tourist, to experience some of the gritty reality beyond the pristine mountain splendour, and to meet and become friends with some of the wonderful local running personalities.
Here were people who loved to run, had heaps of talent, but could often not afford the most basic resources required to run. Like running shoes.
In an earlier blog I spoke about some of the financial barriers to entry for Trail Running, such as higher entry fees, the costs of specialised kit and equipment, and the expense of transport and accommodation to run faraway destination races. Add to this the fact that city dwellers are wealthier than their rural counterparts across the board, and it became clear very quickly that we were extremely fortunate and privileged to be able to pursue our passions as we do, and that it would be wonderful to try and give something back.
In putting together the original race format we did two things. First, we engaged the two main local running communities and provided entries and logistical support so that representatives would be able to participate in their local mountain race (spoiler alert: every year the local community athletes take up a big chunk of Runtheberg podium places). Second, we asked runners coming down (or up) to Runtheberg to bring and donate any previously loved pairs of running shoes that they might have had lying around.
Initially we thought it would just be nice thing to do. We were sure we’d get at least a couple of pairs of running shoes donated by runners, and that they’d probably be put to good use by at least some of the community athletes. Why not?
We were blown away!
When the 10th runner arrived at Registration asking what they should do with the shoes, we realised that in all of the manic preparation around trail marking and Safety Plans and water tables etc that go into ensuring a fun safe event, we’d forgotten to specifically cater for the Shoe Drive. We quickly grabbed a big box, made a big label, and positioned it very visibly by the Registration Tables. A little while later we had to get another box. And a little while later, another. We were swamped with shoes.
It was a wonderful experience to be able to incorporate into that inaugural Prize Giving a ceremonial handing over of boxes of shoes to the Community Runner representatives, and to know that so many shoes had been given a second lease on life and so many runners were going to run so many great miles as a result.
Initially many runners, myself included, were a hesitant and almost a bit embarrassed to include what we thought were shoes well past their prime. We soon realised this was wrong. One year I donated a pair of retired road running shoes. I did hesitate, thinking that they were only really good to be thrown away. I’m not a princess (I like to think) and I don’t discard running shoes until they’re well and truly done, and these fit the bill. There were holes, there were things missing, stuff was broken…. To me they were un-wearable. Anyway, I knew the local community runner that picked them out, and I saw my old road running companions a couple of months later. Not only did they LOOK as good as new, but he went on to run a silver Comrades in them that year! Lesson learned.
Obviously with the success of the Shoe Drive in Year One, it became a popular annual Runtheberg feature. It has since expanded beyond just shoes to any running kit or equipment that might have been retired from active duty. A favourite of both donors and recipients are hydration packs, which can literally change the life of an up-and-coming young mountain runner.
Sometimes it’s the small things.