Running High

Running High


The Addo Elephant Trail Run just outside Port Elizabeth is a gruelling 100, 50 and 25 mile race run through some of the toughest terrain in off-road running. It’s a race designed to test runners both physically and mentally. A young runner named Hylton Dunn has just conquered the Addo, winning the 50 miler (80km) in a time of 7:53. But running wasn’t always part of Hylton’s life. There was a time when drugs were his only high. Looking at a clean cut and healthy Hylton today, it’s hard to believe this is a man who once slept on the streets, spent time behind bars and stole to feed his addiction.

It was a time when nothing mattered to him. The only thing on his mind was his next fix, the feeling of euphoria that would make it all go away – the pain, the feeling of emptiness and the burden of life’s responsibilities. Hylton Dunn, a once promising sportsman, was a man possessed by drugs. And it all started so innocently.

Hylton never had any shortcomings growing up in the Dunn family home in Springs on the East Rand. He only knew the best private schools. He went to a good university and had the love of a churchgoing family who adored him. As a schoolboy, he excelled academically and his passion for sports earned him his Free State colours in squash. His father, Grenvil, a chemical engineer and his mother, Jennifer, a stay-at-home mom raised Hylton (29), the second of three boys and his siblings with an abundance of love. Life for Hylton could not have been more perfect. Or so it seemed.

Like most teenagers, Hylton caved in to peer pressure, joining his friends smoking cigarettes behind the pavilion of St. Andrew’s School in Bloemfontein. The ‘wildest’ thing he ever did was having a few drinks too many after the Matric exams. Slowly, Hylton was pulled into a vicious circle of drugs that brought darkness into his life. Friends introduced him to dagga, and by the beginning of his first year as a student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), he was hooked. Dagga became his regular companion. “I started losing interest in my studies and in life. Looking back today, I think it was induced by dagga. It made me feel lazy and lethargic for most parts of the day,” Hylton says.

As a 19-year-old student living in a flat close to UCT, he met a neighbour who introduced him to heroin. Soon, words like ‘scoring some H’ became all too familiar to this private-schooled, once promising young man. He would follow friends into Observatory in Cape Town, where they would snort or smoke heroin. He even started using mandrax, sometimes mixing it with dagga.

Drugs ruled Hylton’s life for nearly five years. “I would use drugs everyday and everywhere, sometimes in between classes and sometimes even in the toilets of shopping malls. That’s all I wanted to do,” says Hylton. Nothing mattered to him, not the way he looked, not the way he dressed and not the people who were close to him, the people he was hurting. After his brother, Kevin, walked in on him and a friend high on drugs, the Dunn family learned the awful truth of their son’s abuse. By the middle of his second year, Hylton decided to save himself the embarrassment of failing, and dropped out of varsity.

His father, who owned his own chemical engineering company, offered him a job in 1999 and he stayed in a cottage at his parents’ home. It was a period of lies, deceit and manipulation. Hylton would regularly take the train from Springs to Pretoria, where he met up with drug dealers. By then, he was so used to mandrax that he barely felt its effects and he moved on to cocaine. “Sometimes, I went to Pretoria twice a day, just to get more drugs. It was a mad lifestyle. I didn’t care about anything. All I wanted was to be high and forget about life.” There were torturous days when he couldn’t get hold of heroin. On these days, he couldn’t sleep or think properly, he felt weak and suffered from body cramps.

Hylton’s entire salary was wasted on drugs. On a quiet day, he would spend no less than R500 and on other days up to R2 000. “I kept missing work and my dad eventually threw me out of the house a couple of times.” He would sleep on the streets, in public toilets or in the flats of drug dealers and pimps. He started stealing from his parents, who had to change the locks on their doors. His dad eventually laid a theft charge against him in a desperate attempt to teach his son a lesson and Hylton spent a couple of days in jail. He got out but was soon back on his path of self destruction. His parents kept on taking him back, hoping their son would turn his life around. “I would promise not to do it again, but I knew I would. I lived for drugs.”

His drug abuse eventually culminated in his arrest in 2001. He would make his way into a block of offices pretending to look for work, but would steal everything he could, from cell phones to money. He got away with it a few times, but was eventually caught and landed up in jail. He got out on a condition – he had to undergo rehabilitation at the Noupoort Christian Rehabilitation Centre in the Northern Cape. Hylton agreed, but knew deep down that he wasn’t finished with drugs. He stayed at Noupoort for eleven months and although he didn’t touch drugs, he longed for them. His relapse came in December 2002, when he went on holiday. Hylton thought he could handle a few drinks over the festive season, but one thing lead to another. By February 2003, he was back on drugs, stealing and sleeping on the streets. Eventually, he was caught stealing a second time. Hylton was back in jail.

“I remember sitting in that prison cell just looking at the four walls and the bars. It was dirty and overcrowded and I was amongst criminals, being attacked and enduring threats of rape. That was a wake up call for me. I realised if I didn’t change my lifestyle, that was how it was going to end for me; locked up in a prison cell, on the streets or even dead.”

Hylton agreed to go back to Noupoort in February 2003, this time determined to change his life forever. One of the driving forces behind this decision was his love for running, an earlier passion that had faded as the drugs began to control his life. He knew he had the ability to run well, but realised if he wanted to make that dream happen, it would have to be without drugs and cigarettes.

Hylton has always been passionate about sport. He enjoyed running at school and as a 17-year-old, completed the Two Oceans Half Marathon in a time of 1:32. He also excelled at squash, something that fell by the wayside in his first year as the drugs took hold of him. During his first stay at Noupoort, he started running to get fit, remembering how good it made him feel in earlier years. At first, he wasn’t allowed to run alone and had to run with a staff member. “I remember my first run. It was going to be 6km, but after 2km I packed up and couldn’t run one single step further. I had to walk back. I realised then how damaged my body was from the drugs. That was the drive for me to keep going. I wanted to feel good.”

Getting fit was a slow process, but Hylton managed to run every day and completed his first marathon in May 2002. He ran with his dad, who has conquered the Comrades Marathon 17 times. Father and son finished the marathon in a time of 3:45. Hylton was so inspired, he started training for the Laingsburg Karoo Ultra Marathon in September of that year. He completed this 80km race in a time of 7:30, but not without some strong emotions. “I broke down around the 50km mark, thinking of what I was accomplishing after all the abuse I had put my body through.”

Unfortunately, Hylton relapsed three months later and was sent back to Noupoort. Only then did he truly commit to a clean life, in which running was to play a major role. On the undulating terrain surrounding Noupoort, Hylton found solitude and peace within himself. He rediscovered his passion for running and in 2004, completed his first Two Oceans Marathon in a time of 4:19 and his first Comrades Marathon in a time of 8:14. He became so hooked on distance running, he tackled the Addo Elephant 50 miler in 2005. It is run mostly on tracks within the Addo Elephant National Park and is known for its incredible scenic beauty, but also for its unforgiving terrain. “It was a beautiful race, but I didn’t expect it to be so intense. I finished in about 13 hours and was cursing out of anger for not being fit enough.”

Hylton went on to do a second Comrades in 2005, finishing in a time of 10:10, a run he describes as ‘a bit of a disaster’. His fighting spirit kept him going and he persevered. In 2006, he just missed a silver Comrades medal, finishing in a time of 7:38. “I was going up Polly’s and I remember the guys saying I shouldn’t walk, but I did. I missed my silver, but that just gave me stronger motivation and ambition to carry on.” That was Hylton’s last Comrades, as he is against the race being run on a Sunday, but he has put his heart and soul into other long distance runs.

He completed his second Addo in 2006, taking fourth place in a time of 9:30. In 2007, the route was changed and Hylton secured another fourth position in a time of 7:22. This year, the race, which was held on 2 May, was changed back to the original route. In the 50 miler race, 74 competitors entered, three did not start and eight withdrew. In the 100 miler race, 21 competitors started, 12 finished and the rest withdrew. The 25 miler had 48 competitors completing the race. “I set out to win and I believed in myself,” says Hylton. It was only after the 50km mark that he overtook fellow competitors Chris Antonie and Michael Hendricks, both previous winners. “When I passed them, I still felt good and said to them, ‘keep on going, you are going to do a good time.”’ Hylton reached the finish line in a time of 7:53, a course record. “When I crossed the line, I expected to feel emotional, but I was too tired and sore to think of anything.” Michael finished second in 9:13 and Chris took third in 9:53.

Sadly, Hylton is not the only athlete caught in the web of drug use. These five famous drug busts have been burned into the memory of sports enthusiasts.

Name                     Sport designation         Drug used             Date caught

Jennifer Capriati       Tennis player                  Marijuana               1993
Tim Montgomery     Olympic sprinter             Heroin                    2000
Wendell Sailor         Waratahs rugby player    Cocaine                  2006
Tom Booner            Cyclist                            Cocaine                  2008
Michael Phelps        Olympic swimmer           Marijuana                2008

Hylton believes running and his faith are what keep him going and free of drugs. “I’m doing it not only for myself, but also to show others there is a way out.” His biggest regrets are making the wrong choices, not finishing his varsity degree and not being the perfect son. However, he is not embarrassed about his past. He prefers to be open about it, hoping that other people can learn from it.

Hylton has set his eye on the Karoo Ultra Marathon in September and would love to win it. When he trains for big races, he does between 160km and 200km a week, including speed work and hill training. After big races,
he cuts down to 10km a day. The highlight of his day includes his two runs, one in the morning and one at night. Hylton, now a restaurant and kitchen manager at Noupoort, says it’s running that ultimately brings him happiness. “If I miss a run, I start feeling grumpy, as if I have missed out on something.”

His parents have been his greatest supporters and through running, he knows he makes his family proud. “The level at which I am competing now is enough to realise that with one small slip, all will be lost.” He sums up his outlook on life: “I have realised that nothing is impossible. Running keeps me motivated, confident and focused. Today, I am stronger because of my past.”