Overnight success and women's record holder Toni McCann relives her race in pictures.
Words by Lisa Abdellah
Toni McCann is refreshingly normal.
The 26-year-old is a strong-not-skinny role model for young women runners and an inspiring newcomer who burst onto the trail-running scene in 2018 and has dominated the Otter since. What is her story?
Raised in Swaziland, Toni moved to Durban with her family, whom she describes as outdoor-sy, when she was five. Now, she lives in Cape Town, where she studied nutrition at the University of Cape Town. It was while she was at university that she dated a mountain biker and would run alongside him on the trails at wine farms. It was fun. She realised she was good at it. The rest is history.
She also started cutting out food
she considered unhealthy and became fixated on being skinny, a condition known as orthorexia. It is not uncommon for students to put on weight due to not eating right and exercising too little. But, in Cape Town especially, health culture is thriving and gluten, meat and dairy are demonised by many.
“When it got really bad, I was not allowed to exercise, and I stopped having my period,” she admits. “But I had fallen in love with trail running, and I realised that if I wanted to be strong enough to do it, I needed to eat properly.
“It was not an overnight fix. It is a battle I often struggle with, which is only natural when you are involved in a sport where being a specific weight is considered performance enhancing.”
Toni’s passion for trail running not only saved her from an eating disorder; it instilled a sense of responsibility for leaving popular mountain routes as pristine as she found them by picking up litter, as well as supporting local races.
The Otter, in particular, is where it all began.
WHY THAT RACE?
Races in Europe tend to feature one big climb, followed by one big descent, whereas the Otter is undulating, comprising of 11 significant climbs over 2,400m of elevation gain and super-technical, rocky descents on the Garden Route coast. It means local athletes like Toni, who have trained on similar terrain, have a competitive advantage.
“I remember crossing the finish line in third place in 2018 behind two of my trail-running idols, Ruth Croft and Holly Page,” she recalls.
“Looking back, I still get emotional about it because it was such an incredible experience. And how supportive the community was of my race was indescribable, almost dreamlike.”
She has since honed her experience and this year had a much clearer idea of what she wanted her splits to look like. The Retto starts in Nature’s Valley and follows the gruelling and challenging Otter Trail from West to East to the finish in Storm’s River. During her leadup,
Toni concentrated on increasing her leg speed as the first section is more runnable, so you can make up time.
She had an ambitious pacing strategy, broken down into manageable 5km segments, which
she had written on her arm. But by the time she hit Bloukrans, she was running blind, not quite hitting it.
Still, it helped to have something to work towards at times when she was racing alone.
Hot on her heels were Bianca Tarboton and Nicolette Griffioen.
HOW DID SHE FEEL ABOUT RACING THEM?
“Bianca is extemely fast, but it is only her second year racing the marathon distance, so in that sense, I had the advantage. But she has potential, and I love racing against her because she pushes me to be better. Nicolette had been training at altitude, which I am always wary of.
She had a strong race, but it did not go quite the way she wanted.”
Toni broke her record from 2018 and set the fastest South African women’s time by finishing in 4:40.30.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could run as fast (if not faster) than I had done two years ago and that it was not just a fluke. When you are racing people of that calibre [2018 race], you end up pushing
yourself harder than you think, so to be able to replicate that performance shows progression. It shows that two years of hard work has paid off.”