In a short space of time, Kane Reilly established himself as one of South Africa’s top trail runners. But then disaster struck: just two weeks before he was set to compete in the 2014 Otter African Trail Run, the athlete was diagnosed with autoimmune arthritis in his ankles. His running career hung in the balance.
In this interview with Guest Editor Ryan Sandes, Reilly speaks candidly about the challenges he faced on his long road to recovery – and how the sudden removal of running from his life changed his perspective on life.
Ryan Sandes: What are your fondest memories of growing up, and how did you get into trail running?
Kane Reilly: A combination of nature (growing up in Cape Town) and nurture lead me to love the mountain and the sea. I once let my mom run the strongest leg in a family relay race – otherwise there might not have been any dinner that evening! That was my first experience of it, but I’ve been running for as long as I can remember.
Both my parents are outdoorsy: some of my earliest memories are of running in Newlands Forest, and around Wilderness, with my dad, who has also been surfing for over 50 years.
I started taking running seriously at high school, focusing on cross-country and track. I broke the record at an interschool 3 000m race called the Triangular, between Bishops, Rondebosch and SACS. That was a kiff day!
At the age of 16 I ran my first road race, which was also pretty special. It was only when I ran the Gun Run that I began to realise long distance was more my thing.
RS: You were the favourite to win the Otter in 2014, but couldn’t participate due to the arthritis in your ankle. Despite the huge disappointment you must have been feeling, you were out there supporting your teammates during the race.
KR: It was a different experience to the one I had envisioned during my months of training, but it turned out to be a fun weekend. Without the pressure of competition, I got to know the race crew and the runners who make the event rad. We shared a few tequilas and beers.
Mixed in with my hangover, watching the race, I felt a range of emotions. I was excited to watch it unfold as a spectator, but I was also jealous of the guys I should’ve been racing. That’s hard to admit, given the friendship I share with them, and the respect I have for them.
RELATED: 15 Awesome Treads For The Trail
Jealousy is toxic, and my time away from competition taught me a lot about it. Feeling stoked for the guys crushing it on the trail scene took a little time.
But at no point during my time away from running did I think I was done. The future was pretty blurry for a while, but I always tried to stay present and happy with what I could do, as opposed to focusing on what I couldn’t.
That being said, I never stopped working towards the goal of running again. When I returned, I could run better and more smoothly than ever.
Getting back to full health took a combination of medication, diet, unconventional training, and time. Mostly, it took a crew of epic people. I was lucky to have the help of family, friends and mentors.
RS: Low moments help us to grow. What did you learn from your layoff?
KR: My experience with autoimmune arthritis had a huge effect on the way I see things – running being one of them. When I was first told my running future was in doubt, it was pretty damn terrifying!
Not being able to run made me question my existence without it. That may sound melodramatic, but let’s be honest: runners are ridiculously addictive and obsessive people.
I’d spent two years striving to achieve things, get sponsors, and become something – the next big thing, another Ryan Sandes. I’d taken running so seriously that I’d forgotten about the other important things in my life.
But when I couldn’t run, I discovered there were so many other ways to find the ‘stoke’, and fulfilment – whether that was in a three- or four-foot right-hand point break, or a night out chasing girls.
I guess what I’m saying is that running may be a big part of me, but it isn’t everything.
Most importantly, the reasons why I run became clear. Being the best isn’t one of them. Not even close. Now, I don’t run to win, to enter the pain cave, or to inspire; I run simply because I love doing it, and I’d rather be in the mountains than anywhere else.
RS: You’re the SA record-holder for the fastest-ever Otter (4:17). That’s fast! In my opinion, the only South African who could go under four hours is… you. If conditions were perfect, do you think you could do it? What would it mean to you? And how would you spend your prize money?
KR: Thank you sir! I do think I could do it. The first half of the 2016 RETTO (the Otter, run in the opposite direction. – Ed) made me realise what kind of running it would take, and I’m super-excited about chasing that pace in the future.
To be honest, I don’t daydream about breaking four, or winning the race. Rather, I have a romantic idea of how I would run it. But seeing my name emblazoned on the trophy, alongside yours and Andre Gie’s, would be pretty rad!
RELATED: 10 ‘Do-Before-You-Die’ Trail Runs!
As for the money… I’d save some, then use the rest to spend as long as I could in the Alps, with a big bucket of gelato and some Skimo skis.
RS: You’ve been referred to as the Justin Bieber of running. Which pop star are you most like?
KR: …I’ll go with Bieber.
RS: We got to hang out last year in Chamonix, which is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. You’ll return this year to run the Chamonix Marathon. What makes Chamonix so epic?
KR: Andre Gie calls Chamonix the ‘outdoor Disneyland’, which I think sums it up best. The magnitude of the mountains there is epic. They are full of potential adventure – whether that means running on perfectly smooth singletrack trails, or hanging from an ice axe.
The town in itself is also pretty magical, brimming with people who are as psyched as you are about mountains. If you don’t have an ice axe sticking out of your bag, you look like a kook.
The locals live a simple existence: their toughest decision is which wildly rad singletrack they’ll run on, or which flavour of gelato they’ll choose (pistachio for the win!).
RS: You recently started a marketing job at trail-running brand Salomon. What would you change about how you’ve handled yourself as a brand? What advice do you have for young, up-and-coming athletes who are looking for sponsorship?
KR: Stay authentic. Try too hard to build a brand around yourself, and you risk going too far – becoming super-cheesy, and fake. Build good relationships with people and brands. Enjoy the journey.
RS: Where do you see yourself in five years?
KR: At the moment, I’m combining my passion for running with marketing. I’m super-excited about growing in this role, but also about continuing to run at a competitive level – I’d like to spend as much time in the mountains as I can.
Kane’s Training Tips For The Otter
■ Train the terrain.
The distance (42km) means nothing. Take technical trails, ascents and descents into account when you’re building your training plan.
■ Get strong.
Sacrificing a few kilometres a week for a functional strength session or two will do you the world of good.
■ Respect the balance.
Your body can only handle so much stress. If you’re having a gnarly time at work, or even problems with your girlfriend, you need to factor that into your training. Not many people are professional athletes; you need to balance training, life and rest.
Kane’s Top Three Things To Do In Chamonix
1. Run the Mont-Blanc Vertical Kilometre (a 1 000m climb. – Ed); and once you’re at the top of Brevent, enjoy an espresso.
2. Run the TMB – the route followed by participants in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) – which is a manageable hiking trail (roughly 170km) that takes four to five days to complete.
3. At lunchtime, indulge in a baguette loaded with Parma ham, followed by an afternoon nap on the grass outside the church in the centre of the village.