Running on St Helena
The Beauty, sweat, and tears
By Megan Vass
I have been a “fun” runner for quite a few years, never competing in events as I am one of those lone runners that love being out there, enjoying my own company and exploring different places on foot. We travel a lot, and I always pack my running shoes first – my poor long-suffering husband has watched as I have disappeared into the distance in some unknown destinations.
I have run through remote villages in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi and other African countries. Almost got lost in Scotland, waded through the rice paddies of Vietnam and Cambodia, sweltered in Singapore and Antigua. I have dodged traffic in London, New York, Philadelphia and Ho Chi Minh City, to name a few. I have frozen in England and almost got blown away in Cape Town. Running has taken me on and off many a beaten track all over the world, but none of the places I have run quite compares with St Helena.
I arrived on this remote, isolated Island in May 2016 and soon realised that running here was truly unlike anything I had done before. To say it is difficult is a vast understatement! The hills are so steep that it is illegal to ride bicycles on them! I must admit that I spent more time walking than I did running. My solitary brisks up and down the picturesque hills, valleys, peaks and mounds opened my lungs to the crisp, clean air and my heart to the stunning island of St Helena. I fell in love with this incredible place, without a doubt one of the most arresting landscapes I have seen.
I was always in awe of her beauty, and it eased the pain of running. Every step presented a reward to the soul that far outweighed the ache in my muscles. After a few months, I decided that I would do my first ever marathon at the grand old age of 54 – I felt worthy of tackling this considerable challenge. I bought a Runners World magazine with a training program in it and stuck to it as best as I could to it. It was hard!!
The 19th of November turned out to be a perfect running day, cool and wind-free. Seven of us lined up to compete in the full marathon and seven in the half marathon. There were only two women and five men and to be honest, each of us was running against ourselves hoping just to finish. The route is said to be one of the toughest marathon trails in the world, and I can attest to that. I pretty much ran on my own for the entire time with just a short period spent running alongside a fellow sufferer. The organisers looked after us very well and made sure we were well hydrated along the way.
The route takes you from the school fields at Francis Plain through Dungeon, Lemon Tree Gut, Bate’s Corner, Diana’s Peak Road, White Gate, New Ground and to the very hilly area known as Levelwood – the name obviously intended as a sick joke on unknowing contenders. You will need to take brief moments to stare down at the beautiful vistas and most probably just to catch your breath after some of the trying ascents.
At about 35km I knew that if I pushed myself, I could break the women’s record, so I gave it a shot. I finished in 4 hours 24 minutes and 16 seconds, breaking the record and coming in second. I have no doubt an experienced runner will break this in the not-too-distant future.
The St Helena Festival of Running is a tough run, probably one of the toughest and certainly the most awe-inspiring. I am all the better for doing it and so proud to add to my repertoire that I ‘defied gravity on the slopes of St Helena’ too. Running the most remote marathon on earth should feature on every runner’s bucket list.