Danette’s Dream Come True

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When the World Long Distance Trail Champs take place on 16 August in Colorado in the USA, at the Pikes Peak Ascent 21km, one of the most excited runners in the field will undoubtedly be recently crowned SA Long Distance Trail Champion Danette Smith. It will see her fulfil two long-held ambitions: Not only will it be the first time she is representing her country, but it will also be the first time she has travelled overseas.

Danette qualified for the SA team in June by winning the women’s title at the SA Long Distance Trail Champs, held as part of the Merrell Outeniqua Traverse 38km near George. Unsurprisingly, she says she still cannot believe that her dream has come true. “It still feels surreal to think I went from dreaming about representing my country, to actually winning the SA Champs and being selected for the team. I still feel I have so much to learn about trail running, and the other runners in the team are so talented and experienced, so just to see how they approach things is going to open up my world, and it is a thrill and honour to be running in SA colours.”

The Pikes Peak Ascent starts at 1800m above sea level and finishes at 4300m, and the organisers say, ‘There’s a reason trees don’t bother growing above 3600m on Pikes Peak. They can’t! Makes one wonder if trees are smarter than runners…’ Danette therefore has a realistic view of her upcoming run. “It’s all uphill and at high altitude, so I have no idea how it’s going to affect me, but I’m just going to give it my all. I will start easy and then work my way through it, because all of us need to finish for our team to score points. Whatever happens, it’s going to be an amazing experience!”

OVER TO RUNNING

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Danette (25) is the middle of five daughters and her family has lived in Stellenbosch most of her life. She says their’s is a very close, supportive family, with her parents Danie and Annette supporting all the girls in their sporting activities. Growing up, Danette played tennis and hockey at school, and only made the transition to running at varsity. “I made the inter-schools athletics team in the first term of matric in 2006, and began training with Johan Fourie’s group, and at the end of that year I decided to focus on running. That led to me doing my first road races, including a few half marathons, and I found that I was quite competitive amongst the juniors.”

After school she studied for a BA Sports Science degree at Stellenbosch University, and was then offered a position in the Sports Department at Bridgehouse Primary School in nearby Franschhoek. “I have three roles at the school. I do sport admin, I teach PE, ball skills and gymnastics, and I coach in the afternoons. I’m currently busy with my teaching diploma through UNISA, and also did a post-grad diploma in marketing, which I hope to use in the future.”

Meanwhile, her running was also going through a transition. At first, Danette had focussed on the road, but in October last year she finished third in the two-day Berg and Beach Challenge in Hermanus, then won a trail run in Knysna in January and did well in the Old Mutual Two Oceans Trail Run just after that. Then came four wins out of four and the series title in the Spur Cape Summer Trail Series, and she also won the New Balance Trail Run at the XTERRA in Grabouw. “I thought trail would improve my road running by making me stronger thanks to the climbing, plus I was looking for something different, but I not only found that I really enjoyed the trail running, but I was also successful, which was very motivating. As a result, I started to focus on trail, and even began dreaming of the SA team for the World Champs.”

NATIONAL CHAMP


Danette had heard that a series of races would count towards qualification for the national team, as well as the actual SA Champs race at the Outeniqua Traverse, so she decided to enter the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge in Stellenbosch. However, the severely cold weather took its toll and she could only finish second, which made her think her chance of selection was gone. “I was told that the route at Outeniqua would not suit me, as it is a very technical course, but I thought I would give it a try anyway, just to see how I compared to the other top women. Then a week before the race I got a cold, which I couldn’t believe, because I hardly ever get sick!”

By race day she felt a bit better and decided to start and just see how she felt, and found herself in the lead for the first six kilometres. However, she was still feeling a bit weak and thus drinking a lot of water, and was passed by Leilani Scheffer. She retook the lead at 10km and opened a two-minute lead, but at 20km she ran out of water. “It was actually quite scary, because I began to feel dizzy and felt I might fall off the mountain. Luckily I got some water from one of the men, and four kilometres later I filled my water bladder at the last water table. But then the race really became very technical, and I was drinking a lot again, and would you believe it, I ran out of water again! The whole time I thought Leilani was chasing me, but I didn’t know she had already dropped out somewhere around 18 due to an injury, so I kept pushing. I have never felt so physically challenged, but with 5km to go I reached a stream, could get a solid drink and then pushed for home.”

NASTY EXPERIENCE


The fact that Danette is still running is testament to her character. In 2009, she was doing a 16km training run with two clubmates on the ‘Bergpad’ trail above Stellenbosch, when she got separated from her training partners. “I was the slowest of the three at the time and they pulled about 100m in front of me as we went through a twisting section of the trail. I came around a corner and suddenly there was a man in the middle of the road with a knife. It happened so quickly – he grabbed me by my hair and dragged me into the bushes, then threw me to the ground.”

“I screamed, so he stepped on my face, but I kept screaming and he tried to put his hand over my mouth, but one of his fingers slipped into my mouth and I bit as hard as I could. He pulled his hand away suddenly and one of my teeth was pulled out, and then suddenly he ran away. I still don’t know what made him run, but I stood up and ran back up the trail to a nearby house, where I asked for help. The people phoned my parents and cleaned me up.”

Apart from a few scratches and the tooth, she was relatively unharmed, but the mental scars remained for some time. “At first I could only run on the track at Coetzenberg. Then a few weeks later I managed to run around my block, but as soon as I saw another person I would turn around and go the other way. My father actually followed me in the car for a few months, but gradually I began to regain my confidence, and I decided that I wasn’t going to let it ruin my outlook on life, or stop me running. Now I am just more careful and avoid overgrown areas or roads where I can’t see ahead.”

TOP RUNNERS


Danette was recently signed up to the Contego Trail Running Team, and she trains with Jacques Janse van Rensburg’s group in Stellenbosch, which includes Landie and Christiaan Greyling, Michael Bailey, Kane Reilley and Chantal Nienaber, who have all represented SA in Trail World Champs. “I really wanted to be part of this group and was incredibly nervous for my first session, knowing who I was training with, but they are all so motivating, because I can see how hard they work. Jacques also makes training fun and interesting, so a lot of my success is thanks to him.”

Naturally, Danette says she would love to turn professional as a runner – what she describes as the ultimate dream – but is not yet at that level. “It’s all still new and sudden for me, and you can’t plan too far ahead, because your body must adapt to the running. I would love to do trail running overseas and compete at a high level, but I think I must give myself time to reach all my goals here first, and if the opportunity then comes to race overseas, and see the world, that would be terrific.”

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