Hylton Dunn 2019 interview

You may know Hylton Dunn as the owner of Alpine Swift Trails, or as the winner of ultra endurance trail races like Addo Elephant Trail Run, Rhodes Run, KAEM, and Giant's Cup Trail Run. He was on the cover of TRAIL 31.

Few of us will have a tale with the same dramatic comeback from addiction as Hylton Dunn. This is a story that inspires.

Hylton Dunn by Brendan Cole TRAIL 31
This photo of Hylton Dunn by Brendan Cole appeared on the cover of TRAIL 31.

I had the perfect upbringing as a youngster, enjoying idyllic primary school years in Springs, my birthplace. High school was at Saint Andrew’s in Bloemfontein. I adapted to the boarding school environment, balancing sports and academics. From there I did a post matric year at Bishops Cape Town. Then I was off to UCT, and things changed.

Hylton Dunn stats info box TRAIL 31Shift to bad

The change shift from good to bad happened fairly rapidly. I had a curious fascination in the dark world. I was attracted to all those things that we were taught not to do. It is difficult to pinpoint what caused this. I had never befriended anyone with similar interests and it certainly did not stem from my family. I just wanted to know what happens in nightclubs and on the streets after dark.

Amongst other evils, this led to experimenting with drugs. This already began with the odd drink and smoke in my high school years, then to dagga in my post-matric year. I started enjoying this and soon experimented with mandrax and heroin.

After my first hit of both, I was hooked. I was not sober again for the next three years. Missing lectures, class assignments and sports commitments became the norm. Then, in my second year, I drank moonflower tea one evening. This is a very toxic drug that can be lethal. I only recall making the tea with my girlfriend, and from thereon I don’t remember anything only. I found out later (from my parents) that I ended up in Valkenberg Hospital. This is when they found out about my addiction. I quit varsity and returned to Gauteng.

Into the abyss

Despite relocating, I wasn’t ready to quit drugs, and things just got worse. This is when I started using crack. I was now riding the rollercoaster to and from the dealers, public toilets, streets of just about every city in SA, brothels, prisons, you name it. I became so addicted that when I was really down and out, I would resort to glues, thinners, and benzene just to escape the realities and emotion of life.

The feel good induced by drugs is temporary and is followed by the torment of craving. I would do anything to get my next fix. Yip, anything. And when I did score, the heroin was good enough just to make me feel normal again. The initial heroin high was the feeling I was chasing and because one can never emulate it, the torment increases despite the quantities of the drug consumed.

Despite knowing the dangers of drugs, I continued. I wasn’t really thinking about my future during this time and selfishly, just continued using. I wouldn’t care how I looked and lost self respect. Why did I continue knowing that OD (overdose) is a reality and that I could die? There was no way that I myself would be able to get myself out of this mess.

My mom was attending counselling and preparing for my imminent death from heroin. My aunt in Cape Town kept praying for me. My parents applied tough love, yet were always there for me. I needed some serious intervention, but what?

The world told me that once an addict, always an addict, and that less than 1% of all heroin addicts would ever come right. Now if you are living in the world this would be true, but I was not prepared to accept that.

Hylton Dunn goes from sardine to athlete

Hylton Dunn running by Brendan Cole TRAIL 31
photo Brendan Cole

My craving for heroin and crack led me to steal anything of value. This would be cellphones, handbags, money, or anything I could resell just for a few grams of heroin. Eventually another addict and I were caught shoplifting in a building in Pretoria. We were looking for cellphones, found none and raided the building’s tuck shop instead. After our arrest, we were sent to Pretoria Central holding cells and from there to Newlock Prison. Here, on a hot summer’s day in 2001, I lay like a sardine between hardened criminals, awaiting trial for theft. A family lawyer arranged for me to serve my sentence at the Noupoort Christian Care Centre Rehab in the middle of nowhere. I jumped at the opportunity and soon was cleaning sheep kraals by day and washing dishes in the kitchen by night. After some time I was entrusted to move into a separate house on the farm, out of the main hostel.

Being out in the open was good for me, and it wasn’t long before I asked my supervisor to join him one morning for a run. I was broken after 2km and couldn’t go on, but I wasn’t prepared to give up even after a subsequent drug relapse which led me back to the streets of Pretoria. After attempting to steal whatever I could in an office block, again I was arrested and sent to prison.

This was my rock bottom moment. Looking at four walls I yearned to get into the courtyard just to kick a soccer ball like some of the other prisoners could. Still I couldn’t do it on my own. Knowing that I needed to change was hard. I agreed to return to Noupoort provided that my mom took me to the dealers in Sunnyside just for that last hit that would get me through the long bus ride to Noupoort.

Hylton Dunn’s rebirth

This time I would need to complete two years at Noupoort and start the programme from scratch. I had been using heroin for three years, which had started with cigarettes, dagga, and alcohol. I accepted the Lord Jesus into my life, quit smoking cigarettes after being baptised in a pastor’s swimming pool and started to run through the farm whilst on sheep watch. We had to move in groups of three at all times, and since the other two were content to sit and watch the sheep, I took some risks by running alone through the farm camps!

Noupoort was tough, confrontational, and very disciplined. I needed that. It was here that I found the Lord Jesus and have never let go. At Noupoort the church services were real and would carry on for hours, where addicts had the opportunity of making a change.

Hylton Dunn results podium win table TRAIL 31

The good thing about Noupoort is that there is no compromise. You are either hot or cold – not lukewarm. You either go in huge or you’re going back to your former playgrounds. I chose not to run away back to the streets. I chose to finish my programme. I also chose to stay on after my two year programme had finished. I knew I wasn’t ready to face life again.

The staff at Noupoort is comprised mainly of those who have successfully completed the programme themselves and who have chosen to stay on and help others get through the programme. By helping others I was helping myself further. I worked alongside Noupoort’s founders Pastor Sophos and Gladys Nissiotes, who taught me everything I needed for life. I became one of the many successfully recovered heroin addicts.

I saw that I could conquer addiction and make something of my life by doing it God’s way. In the past, I had tried everything else and had failed repeatedly. Doing it God’s way is by no means a bed of roses, however due to results and confidence in this, I have not looked elsewhere since. By doing it God’s way you have a 100% chance of recovery. The Bible tells me that once you have been set free, you are free indeed. I left Noupoort with a solid foundation after having been there for nearly 10 years.

Becoming a Comrade

It is only God’s grace that I was rescued from this pit of torment so early that culminates in OD, death, Aids, or being sentenced to prison. Despite health damage, I could still run. In 2004, five of us were granted permission to train for the Comrades Marathon. We worked hard, and we qualified for Two Oceans, and then two of us successfully completed the Comrades that same year.

hylton dunn skyrun 2016 TRAIL 31
In action near Avoca Peak during the 2016 Salomon SkyRun. Hylton placed fourth, in 14h 21min. “SkyRun is always brutal. You’ve got to dig deep to get to the finish as quickly as possible. That day was no exception, being very hot.” photo Craig Kolesky / Red Bull

Running became a means to help stay focused on my recovery. With races and goals in sight, I knew that if I compromised, I would not achieve. Life happened properly in rehab and despite being competitive, there were many times where I could not train or race due to work commitments.

This was the perfect test and I am so grateful that running never has and will never become the most important thing in my life. To get up and train takes discipline and I very rarely feel that I need to run to get through the day. In fact, I don’t really know what the runner’s high is all about. What I do know is that every time I train, although enjoyable, it hurts!

Having said that, I look forward to setting race goals and training towards these so that I can enjoy the race and still compete. I have now also learned to be completely natural in my approach to races. I don’t use any supplements or stimulants, and prefer good clean food. I believe the race is there to test yourself against the trail and after having done my homework for the race, I don’t rely on seconds (unless it is permitted for that race) or any other method that would provide an unfair advantage. Just me and the trail!

Finding love through injury

Three years after leaving Noupoort, I was training on the Skyrun route with a group of friends after the Lammergeyer Mountain Challenge in 2012. Coming down Skiddaw, I twisted an ankle which left me feeling very sorry for myself just five weeks before the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon.

I had to limp to Balloch and from there got a lift to Aliwal North in search of a physio. Had I got there five minutes later I would have missed the physio who lived 200km away and only came to Aliwal every Wednesday.

Hylton Dunn and Sunelle cosmos TRAIL 31
“Sunelle is always in the garden. My real job is to ensure the flowers always have water!” says Hylton.

She looked at the ankle and silently laughed when I spoke about the 250km desert race in the Kalahari. But due to my persistence, she referred me for a sonar in Bloemfontein. The result was a grade one tear, which was an absolute miracle. There was still a possibility to run in five weeks, provided I completed the prescribed rehab, and did no running. I remained positive to tackle the Kalahari.

The ankle held out and the gorgeous physio, Sunelle, was there on the finish line to watch me cross victoriously. We got married in 2013 and were truly blessed with a mountain farm just outside Rhodes Village.

We have subsequently developed the farm to include the full package for any sportsperson wanting to better their game by training at altitude. Athletes have access to the highest mountain passes in South Africa, hiking trails, gym, Pilates studio, 25m natural pool, and tennis court.

We live on the farm, and despite the harsh climates and terrain, we enjoy the challenges that this remote lifestyle offers. I believe that this is the best and most natural training grounds that any sportsperson can ask for. We can sleep up to 40 persons and have a well-stocked coffee and tourist shop.

Running my own race

In 2016 we started our own race here in the mountains. It’s a proper and brutal mountain run with lots elevation gain. The 44km race has just under 3,750m elevation gain [and the new 100 miler has 16,000m – Ed]. We named it the Heaven & Hell Mountain Marathon.

Here you will go through absolute hell to summit the multiple peaks and from there you may have a quick glimpse at heaven until you go through hell again on the steep descents.

Hylton Dunn Alpine Swift TRAIL 31
A view of Alpine Swift farm and surrounds, including part of the Heaven and Hell route. The Bell River is famous for trout fishing. The road leads to Naude’s Nek Pass, the third-highest pass in South Africa.

The idea is to overcome the challenges that are thrown at you within a very tight cut-off of 12.5 hours. This is by far one of the toughest races that I have ever done and to date only two of us have completed the 44km race successfully. The race is indicative of what I have been through. I have learned that there is no free lunch in life and to overcome you have to continually work and work hard.

Visit Alpine Swift Trails on the web, on Facebook, or join him for a run, if you’d like to get to know him better! You can also join his annual race, the Heaven & Hell Mountain Marathon, which includes a 100 miler for the first time in 2021 (with 16,000m of vertical ascent!).

This interview was originally printed in TRAIL 31 where Hylton Dunn appears on the cover, shot by Brendan Cole.

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