It’s (Class) War: Runners vs Cyclists

(With advance apologies to my friends who are cyclists, but I’m still not sorry. Not really.)

There’s a war going down in the fair parks of Joburg, on those sacred trails safe from cars and buses, natural predators of runners. Sometimes, the war spills out onto the roads, and it continues in our sportswear stores, on the weekends, at pavement cafes. There is no war so petty and yet so longstanding as that between runners and cyclists.

Sure, there’s a fifth column in this war, that strange hybrid known as the runner-cyclist, but these are odd people who are training for triathlons and Iron Man and who are the closest to superhuman we might get. They are also on the fence, and maybe it is hard on them to watch this bitter war being waged, but then pick a side, guys. And put away the compression pants.

This is my pet theory, but I stand by it. The battle between runners and leisure cyclists is, at heart, a class war. It is a historical war between an ancient clan and a bunch of helmet-wearing creatures who wear pants so tight that they should be banned from appearing in public spaces where children might see them.

When a cyclist comes tearing down a narrow little Delta path with no warning and nary a thank you to the runner that must dive to the side to avoid a collision, there is a response so deep-seated that it bears shouting to the heavens: we were here first.

“That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle–behold, the Running Man.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. – Christopher McDougall, Born to Run

But there’s another side to this – running has long been an underdog’s sport. It is a sport dominated by runners from two poor countries – Kenya and Ethiopia so dominate all race distances that it is assumed that the entire Western world will never produce runners to match their calibre. (There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon. There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.)

But then you get cycling. It needs money. Lots of it. Sure, you can start off with an entry-level bike, but the average bike used by a leisure cyclist (not people who actually use their bikes for transport) can cost more than what most people make in a month, and in some cases a year. It’s hard not to resent an asshole on a bike worth a year’s salary taking over a public path without having the decency to say ‘excuse me’. Cycling, like golf, is the domain of the wealthy. There are the special shoes, the bike racks, the tight, tight pants, the helmets. For running, it’s a pair of good shoes (which at most come in at R2800, but usually between R1600-R2000) and some decent socks. Everything else is optional. It will always be private school snobs vs plucky underdog team from the bottom of the league.

But then again, maybe there’s some common ground. Both groups get injured, often. There are pratfalls aplenty. Races that are expensive to enter and mean travel and suffering. Both sides need expensive bloody socks (R35 a pair, I ask you) and both are subject to the risks inherent to the road (though runners have an easier time of it, being able to mission along on the pavement.) And at races, all must face the horror of the porta-potty.



Also, I apologise for shirtless runners. I am sorry. I am so, so sorry.

But still. Go and train elsewhere in your tight, padded pants.

What I Read When I Read About Running

At some point in 2012, I started running, after my last run had been in, oh, primary school sometime. I had been strong-armed into joining cross-country for reasons still mostly unclear to me, considering how very, very slow and uninterested I was. In any case, I found myself running with my fellow karate-ka on a Sunday morning in September. It was 7kms long, it was hot and there were hills, and the next week I went and bought myself some running shoes.

Let’s fast-forward to today: I have done two half-marathons, five 10km races and many, many Zoo Trots. I hope to do Comrades next year, and at least finish it. This sounds like a humblebrag, but you have to remember that I didn’t do any voluntary sport until I went to university. I hated it that much, especially the teamwork (running and karate are blissfully free of that tedious nonsense). I didn’t want to represent anyone except myself – I was a public speaker, not a public sweater. It was only when I began doing martial arts seriously at university that I began to regret my attitude towards sports. And it is through karate and the benefits of a great dojo that I came to the land of running.

So, things and people do change, and now I find myself devouring everything there is to be read and known about running. South Africa is a country with a massive running culture, host of the world’s biggest and most famous mass-participation ultramarathon, and possibly the world’s most beautiful race in the Two Oceans marathon. There are so many clubs, all delighted to meet and help beginners. This is a great country to run in, to see and explore. I have run through Soweto and Sandton, the jacaranda-lined streets of Pretoria. I have seen my city at night, at sunbreak and sundown, I have known it in its secret hours and I have seen it at its liveliest. The health benefits are important but secondary to the experience: to feel the exhilaration of a race completed, of a body hard at work, the combined energy of thousands of runners chasing their goals. Until you have watched the sun rise from the top of a gruelling hill or run at the feet of skyscrapers in the heat of a Joburg summer’s night, then running probably seems like a crazy thing that crazy people do.

But it isn’t. I hope that if you have not experienced its joy, I hope you do soon. I hope you run a trail with birds chittering their support. I hope you know the kindness of a city’s people when they come to the edge of the track to cheer you on. I hope that you will discover that you are capable of more than you ever thought you were. That if someone like me, an uncoordinated, self-doubting, bandy-legged, badly-built Greek girl can go from nothing to half-marathon in 8 months, then you can too. You should.

And I really hope you do.

Born to RunThe Cool ImpossibleRunning with the Kenyans

Running is FlyingUnbrokenEat and Run

What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningRunning On EmptyMile Markers

To Be a Runner50 Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 DaysWhy We Run: A Natural History