Finding Solace on the Trails

Only two people have earned national colours in both cycling and running. One is Graeme McCullum, the other is Jock Green, a man who went from the ultra-competitive world of international road cycling to the solitude of the ultra-trail runner. His most recent exploit, finishing eighth in the brutal Leadville 100 Miler in Colorado in the USA, running through the heart of the Rocky Mountains, shows just how well he has made the transition. – BY MANFRED SEIDLER


When talking sport and you mention the name Jock Green, many people will start talking about Jock the cyclist. And why shouldn’t they? After all, he was a multiple SA Champion, represented South Africa on numerous occasions, and raced with the best in the world on the hallowed roads of Europe. “It was an incredible time for me,” says Jock. “To travel around Europe, racing with the best was really special.”

Jock usually fulfilled the role of a domestique – a workhorse, if you would – for a number of teams. He started his career on the European circuit in 1998 with AIG, competing in the Tour of Britain and in the Tour de Langkawi. What followed over the next decade were Tours in China, New Zealand, Germany, Spain, Italy, Britain, Scotland, Denmark, Slovenia and numerous times in the Giro Del Capo. Jock raced for AIG, HSBC, Barloworld and Konica Minolta during his career, and in between those tours he also donned the Green and Gold of South Africa at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and the Africa Championships, amongst other races. Jock was also made captain of the SA cycling team, a big honour for one of the hardest working cyclists on the circuit.

All this competitive riding was hard work, he says, but at the same time exciting, and a wonderful opportunity to travel. “I did enjoy that time, but cycling is hard and my role was to work for others. I was never the leader, always the workhorse. But I did get to see the world and some incredible places.”

Hitting the Trails

When his pro cycling career came to an end, Jock decided to turn to trail running, having enjoyed an introduction to running through doing some duathlon events, where he would ride and run. Living out at ‘Harties’ – the Hartbeesport Dam – Jock has an abundance of trails on his doorstep, so it was only natural he would find himself exploring the area and start to love running the trails. Thus he soon began spending hour running around the Dam area, and it is rumoured he has run every trail in the Magaliesberg at least three times over.

As he explains, he thrives on challenges, and he was looking for something different to what cycling had to offer. “I was immediately attracted to the trails, because road running is too busy and just wasn’t for me. What I liked about cycling was the team element, but now I was looking for something a bit more solitary, and trail running appealed to me. There is something about being out there on your own, challenging yourself, with virtually no back-up.”

In typical Jock fashion, once he had made up his mind to do something, he went and did his homework. “Once I decided to go for trail running, I thought to myself, who is the best trail runner in SA at present. Well, that was easy, it was Ryan Sandes, so I found out who coached him, which turned out to be Ian Waddel. I approached Ian and he said yes. That was eight years ago, and we have been together ever since. One of the first conversations we had was that I wanted to run the Leadville 100 Miler in the USA. Ian took me on the long journey to get there.”

Jock has now been running trails for nine years, and says he still feels like he is learning, but one thing he has learnt is that the short, fast stuff is not for him – just as was the case in his cycling days. “You were the greatest cyclist in South Africa if you won the Cape Town Cycle Tour, or the 947 Cycle Tour, but the real cycling happened in Europe, where the first 100km were just warm-ups for the next 100km. Often when South Africans hit Europe, they wondered why they could not compete. For me in trail running, it is the same, and that’s why I prefer the ultra distances.” Also, while Jock does not enjoy road running that much, he did run the Comrades Marathon in 2016. He now jokingly refers to himself as a “real runner,” but mostly he stays away from the roads.

Overcoming Demons

When asked about his upbringing, Jock talks candidly about how difficult his youth was. His father left when he was two years old, his grandparents were alcoholics, and his brother became a drug addict. Jock did well in school sports, though, using a combination of athleticism and natural talent to excel at various disciplines, but being a working single parent, his mother had little time to watch him compete. That meant he had to rely on his own self-belief and an inner drive to do well. “Nobody inspired me. And nobody told me to train, or study, or even to get up in the mornings. Because no one was there,” he says.

This inner drive, and a constant need to prove himself, saw Jock become Head Boy at the private school he attended. He also admits that he is a compulsive perfectionist, which contributed to his striving for sporting glory. “I am incredibly driven. I am the guy who wants his shirts ironed just so. The creases have to be perfect, and the sleeves in my cupboard lined up.”

That same drive also took him all the way to racing some of the best cyclists in the world. While the roads of Europe allowed him to unleash the demons of his difficult past, it is the tranquility of the trails that now gives him peace. Within reason, of course, because Jock is still the same fierce competitor he always was. “I am now 45, and if I was younger I would be looking for wins. Make no mistake, I do want to be on the podiums of the trail races I run, but for me it is more about improving on my previous results and times.”

Green and Gold Again

Having already run a number of trail races, the then 40-year-old Jock really announced his arrival on the elite trail scene in South Africa in October 2014. The breakthrough came when he finished third overall in the Ultra-Trail Cape Town (UTCT) 100km, and a month later he again finished on the podium in the 100km Sky Run. This saw him earn his SA colours in trail running as he was selected for the 2015 IAU World Ultra Trail Championships in Annecy, France.

Having already donned national colours in cycling on a number of occasions, even captaining the SA team, he now became one of only two athletes ever to have achieved national team selection in both cycling and running. “That was a huge honour for me. I always felt immense pride when I was asked to represent my country in cycling, so to be asked to do so in trail running too was very special, especially as I had only been on the trails for around four years.”

The World Champs event in Annecy at the end of May covered a brutal 85km route with 5200m of ascent, with Jock finishing 59th after 10:16:36 of hard running. He then went one better at the UTCT at the beginning of October, coming home in second place, and just 23 days later was once again in SA colours as part of a national team sent to gain experience of overseas racing at the 78km Grand Trail des Templiers event in France. Here Jock finished 32nd in this huge, competitive race, and would perhaps have done still better if not for having raced UTCT that same month. A big racing year was then rounded off with fifth place in the Sky Run in November

Learning from Experience

In 2016, Jock once again followed a heavy racing schedule, with his appearance at CTUT bringing him a sixth place finish as well as a fifth place in the Sky Run. He withdrew from the 2017 Ultra-Trail Drakensburg (UTD), but was back in 2018 to win it, and also took third place in the Karkloof 100 Miler, but Jock was beginning to realise that he needed a new approach to racing. In top level cycling, riders commonly do huge mileage in training each week and race often, but running is less forgiving on the body, and thus Jock has had to learn over the years that he cannot race as much as he did in the peloton.

“I have had to start to be more selective in my races. I want to win every race I enter – I am that competitive – but I now pick my races better. I won’t race a 100km every weekend now.” That last comment was admittedly said a bit tongue-in-cheek, as there simply are not that many ultra trail races week in, week out, on the South African running calendar, but Jock’s point is well made. “I have also had to adapt my running. I would be very aggressive in the early stages of a race and would pay the price later. I am now a lot more conservative in my approach. I know that at some stage I will hit a bad patch, and have learnt to let the other runners go when that happens, trusting in my ability to get through the patch and catch them later.”

This new approach to racing is also applied in his training, says Jock. “I am a workhorse. The more, the better, so Ian has had his work cut out to actually hold me back. If the session is 30km, I will want to do 40km, and so on, so Ian really has had to hold me back. It has not always been easy, but we are getting there.”

A dream Come True

Nowadays Jock focuses on one big race a year and gears his training to build up to it, and he says that his focus has shifted to his bucket list races. “When I started in trail running, there were two races in the USA I always wanted to run, the Western States 100 Miler in California and the Leadville 100 Miler in Colorado.” He says the desire to run Western States came from being inspired by Ryan Sandes, who won the race in 2017.

However, Western States is considered to be one of the ultimate trail races in the world, so getting an entry requires not only running qualification races, but also going through a lottery system. “I tried to enter the Western States in 2018 and did not get in, so I set my eyes on Leadville instead. I still want to do both, but not being able to get into Western States meant I looked at Leadville for this year. They are also super strict about getting an entry, so as soon as entries opened, I applied, and I got in,” says Jock.

First run in 1983, the Leadville takes place each August and runs through the heart of the famous Rocky Mountains. With 4700m of ascent run at elevations between 2800m and 3800m, it is one of most gruelling trail races on the global calendar, and Jock needed to use every bit of the experience he has built up over the last nine years to get through it. This included starting conservatively and holding back in the early stages of the race. “It went against all my instincts, but I held back,” says Jock, but it paid off as he later reeled in one runner after another to climb from 24th to eighth place as he came home in 19:33:10.

In Leadville, Jock was ably seconded by his old friend from cycling days and now also a trail runner, Graeme McCullum, whose role was nearly as challenging as the race itself. For the first 11 hours he had to make sure he made it to all the feed zones in which he was allowed to second Jock, and then he acted as a pacer for Jock by running with him, as allowed by the event rules, so this was a big team effort. “Without Graeme things would have been a lot harder,” says Jock. He adds that Leadville has just made him hungrier for the next adventure: “Western States is still on my radar, but so is Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc in France.”

So… Which is Harder?

Inevitably, the question comes up which of the two sporting disciplines is harder, running or riding. Initially, Jock says he felt that cycling was harder, but quickly changed his mind, as the body takes less of a hammering when riding. “For sure, running is harder. And I say this because I can’t ever recall vomiting when pushing myself in cycling. In running, however, I don’t think I’ve done a race of 100km and more without vomiting!” he says.

“I’ve crawled into bed many times after a tough cycling race or stage, but I’ve never laid in a heap next to the road whilst still racing, as I have a few times whilst running. There is nowhere to hide in running, no wheels to sit on and no downhills to freewheel on. I got away with a lot racing a bike, because I was generally smarter than the rest, but that does not apply to running. There is simply nowhere to hide when the gas is on.”

Jock says the challenge of running is compounded still further by the need juggle a full-time job and family life with his highly competitive trail running, so time is something that needs to be planned to the T. “This is where my perfectionism and work ethic does help. I am very strict about allocating what time I have available to the maximum.” He heads up the Ford Fury branch in Fourways, a 50km drive from home, which means that at 4am you will find him out training. Then it is home, shower and off to work, before getting back home around 6pm, when he needs to find time to spend with his fiancé and five-year-old daughter. “They have been great in their support of me, but I do need to make sure that the time I spend with them is quality time.”

Another big difference between cycling and running is that he was paid to ride throughout his career, but he has to fund all his trail running himself, including his international trips. Of course, his sponsor, Salomon, does help, but by and large these trips come out of his pocket. That, though, is not a deterrent to Jock. His story has shown that when he puts his mind to something, he makes it happen.

IMAGE: Courtesy Jock Green