Written by: Mark Mattson
The salt spray glows in the morning sun over the smooth sand, and the incoming tide in all its clear colours laps at our feet on a beach that curves away into the distance.
Milkwoods, gnarled and ancient, hug the beach and the sound of our footsteps softly splashing on the shoreline merges with that of the sea. Ahead of us lie three days of running on the Wildcoast Wildrun – 112km of beaches, rocky headlands, flower-strewn grasslands, secluded bays, rivers and forests that lie between the Kei River mouth and Hole in the Wall on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast.
Following recent rains, there is a profusion of plants. The soft reds of young myrtle leaves dot the forest margin and the dune crests support banks of strelitzias and scattered usundu palms.
Rushes, snake and arum lilies grow alongside the occasional red hot poker in marshy spots, while squat dune vygies carpet the slopes beneath wild irises dancing in the wind on slender stalks.
Rocky shorelines host the shells of whelks, oysters, sea urchins and barnacles, while offshore oystercatchers patrol in search of mussels and limpets on the tide-washed rocks.
Soldiering through this feast of natural history is 69-year-old Larry Claassen and his daughter Janine Mazery – as close a dad-n’-daughter team as you’ll ever meet, who for six years now, as they concur, “have been spoiled by the privilege of running together.”
Later we track along high hills overlooking the sea, where wind-pruned wild pomegranates cling to the slopes, and crane flowers crowd the banks of small streams. The beauty of the trail is transporting. Sometimes it feels so precious just to be where I am, that I am tempted to simply stop and call it a day.
Day three winds through isolated, pristine bays shielded from the outside world by steep slopes covered with dune aloes and river euphorbias nestled among rocky outcrops, while their summits are dotted with pink-flowered hairbells or grasklokkies.
Bounding past is 65-year-old Namibian John Cuff, who is “out on my own in free country,” as he puts it. Fifteen years older than me, his third place overall finish burns itself into my brain like a Blake etching.
The final kilometres of the run test us with some steep grassy ascents, before winding down to Hole in the Wall where runners sit on the pebble beach chatting and bathing battered feet in the cool seawater. There I find Rooken Podesta, who describes his seemingly chance discovery of trail running at age 52 as an, “incredible gift”.
After three days of sea, sky, sand, salt and sun, we runners feel reborn. For us, running wild is a lifeline to connection, renewal and sweaty solace. Long may we run!