How This Trail Runner Works Her Passion

Heleen Mills is at the forefront of a running revolution – using digital platforms to innovate your running experience.


by RYAN SCOTT |

‘Creative adaptability’ are the first words you’ll read on Heleen Mills’ website. Her business provides digital marketing and social media solutions to events and brands, and has already seen great success in the new world of non-event, ‘organised’ running.

But Heleen is not a sit-behind-a-desk-and-create kind of person; rather, she’ll be the one leading the pack up the climb, cell phone in hand, living the life of the sport she loves while promoting it too.

RW: In your chicken-or-egg scenario, what came first: your love of running, or working with running events and brands?

Heleen Mills: Wow – I really had to think about this one. I’m actually a swimmer and synchronised swimmer, and never used to do anything more than promenade runs.

Then in 2016 I was introduced to Mina Guli, and was asked to be the media manager for her 7 Deserts Run and 6 River Run expeditions. She uses her running to explore areas affected by the global water crisis.

I became so inspired by her story, her running and message, that I started running on the prom at night, and in the rain! I finally plucked up the courage to drive to the Run Store in Bree Street [Cape Town] and bought a running pack and toe socks – which I used to run laps around the 10km jeep track in Jonkershoek.

Working on Mina’s campaigns – especially on the 6 River Run – I came to understand the power of social media as a force for good to build community, to inspire people and to change lives.

RW: What was your involvement with events before you became a runner, and how has that changed now?

HM: Events are actually the latest addition to my work portfolio. The majority of my work before that was designing and executing campaigns for brands and NGOs.

The first event I took on was Ultra-Trail Drakensberg (UTD), in Feb 2019. My goal was to double the number of entries before they closed at the end of March – which I did, and I found the process incredibly rewarding. Then came race weekend & all the live updates… and I loved every second of it!

UTD was the first big trail race to be cancelled after lockdown was announced. It was a huge blow. But as soon as we realised that UTD’s original event date coincided perfectly with the last weekend of lockdown level 5, we decided to host a Lockdown Edition, and make everyone’s garden running worth it!

I wanted to send each runner a race number; although I knew it would be a huge challenge, I was dead set on doing it. Whatever it takes, I thought, every person will get a snazzy, personalised race number.

Enter Armand [du Plessis], my partner, who also happens to be an amazing software developer and problem solver. He casually mentioned to me that he could
create personalised numbers for everyone; and the ‘Numberator’ was born. To date, we’ve generated and emailed nearly 12 000 race numbers to runners!

I’ve learned the importance of creating a personalised, real-world experience for participants – whether it’s a virtual event or not. I’m currently working on a 6 000-person virtual event for World Water Day. People from over 60 countries are participating.

RW: How would you diagnose the current state of running in South Africa?

HM: Both trail and road running (as with many other outdoor and adventure sports) have been in a strong growth state since 2019; but the lockdown of 2020 really intensified and accelerated this growth. I think we’ve only seen the start of it.

You only need to spend 10 minutes scanning Strava’s 2020 Insights Report, or a few clicks on Google Trends, to see the increased interest and search volumes on keywords like ‘trail running’.

RW: You also teach digital communication, and created Africa’s first graduate Digital Quotient course, launched at Stellenbosch Business School in 2015. What’s your goal with this platform?

HM: I designed and taught the module for three years, from 2015
to 2018; and then handed it over
to an internal lecturer at the Business School, to focus on my own business.

I came up with the term DQ (digital quotient) during my time teaching at Stellenbosch University. As a lecturer, I was so inspired to teach students about the world of digital and social media – none which was actually in any of
the textbooks.

So I started giving talks at conferences about the importance of preparing MBA students for a digital world of marketing… and about the fact that students’ DQ is
as important as their IQ and EQ.

RW: The Gone2Gone campaign stood out as a fresh new way of running in 2020. What made it such a success?

HM: With Gone2Gone, over and above sending every person a personalised race number, I also made sure that every finisher had their photo taken at the finish line. And I made an Instagram Story with those pics, tagging each and every runner.

It took hours upon hours, and I was blocked by Instagram daily because of the volumes I was posting – celebrating runners at the finish line, like in a real event.

RW: When and how do you actually get out to run?

HM: Now that I have so many of my favourite local running events as clients… it’s tricky to race. Since I have clients in different time zones, I’m often working 12-hour days. It’s only on the weekend that I’m able to reach my running goals.

RW: Having promoted running all over the country, where’s your favourite place to run?

HM: My home stretch. From the front door in Llandudno, to Sandy Bay, to Oude Schip.

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