Winning 22 major trail races, from 36km local events to 250km self- supported stage races, Salomon athlete Linda Doke is a consistent force on the trails. Several of those wins have been overall podiums, and even more have been record setting.
Linda has managed this success while balancing her life as an accomplished journalist, friend, and bonsai enthusiast.
How it all began
I took up running in 1994, when I was 25-years-old.
Truth be told, I took it up reluctantly. I’d played a lot of sports at school, but the only running I had done was holding a hockey stick or chasing a squash ball.
To me, running for running’s sake was boring. After varsity I took off three years, spent doing student jobs in Cape Town and the UK. During that time I did no exercise at all, and when I returned to South Africa, I knew I had porked.
And that’s how I found running. My then boyfriend told me that if I ran three times a week for at least 40 minutes at a time, I would lose weight. That sounded a fair deal.
A 5km seemed an eternity, and anything that even slightly resembled an uphill felt impossible. My lungs felt like they would burst, my breathing sounded like a hospital case, and my legs were like lead. But gradually it became easier – after a couple of weeks 5km became more comfortable, soon I could do 10km, then 15km.
Just six months after I’d started running, a friend told me that if I could run 15km, then I could run a half marathon. To me the idea sounded crazy, but what did I know? So I agreed.
The following weekend I completed my first half marathon. Then, I was told if I can do 21km, I can do a full marathon by my birthday in May. I had four months to prepare – and I was terrified. Me, a marathon? In my eyes I wasn’t even a runner!
I’ll never forget that first marathon. It was the Wally Hayward, in Midrand, and it was awful. Those final 12km went on forever, every inch of my body and brain hurt like hell, and I staggered from table to table. I finished in about five hours, and I was finished! I remember showering and going straight to bed, and my body went into a fever, sweating hot and cold as I lay there, from the shock of what I’d just put it through.
I didn’t realise then that the running bug had bitten me, and just how running would influence my life.
The next year I ran my first (of 16) Two Oceans. The following year my first (of 10) Comrades. In those days the Comrades cut-off was 11 hours, and I made it with minutes to spare. The crowd was roaring and the vibe was unbelievable. I’ll never forget the feeling of crossing that finish line – I felt like I’d won the race. After that I knew that
ultra distance was my thing. I became an Oceans and Comrades junkie – every Easter I would fly down to Cape Town and churn out an Oceans, and the end of May a Comrades.
In 2002 I moved from Joburg to Cape Town. I continued road running, but in August 2003, Steve Brouwer asked me if I’d be keen to second him on a race he was doing, called the PUFfeR.
I’d never heard of it. He would be running from Cape Point to the Waterfront, and he wanted me to run with him from Constantia Nek to the finish. Sure, I said – I knew that section of the mountain well, from hiking it virtually every weekend, but I’d never run it. It sounded rather fun!
It was that event that changed my running forever. That day, a new bug bit me. And it bit me hard.
I had found trail running, and I loved it – it was all about running free, surrounded not by tar and traffic but by nature, in all its shapes, forms, feels, sights and sounds. It made me feel alive!
My first trail race
My first trail race was the Old Fisherman’s Trail Challenge in 2004.
I ran it as a team with my (now husband) Craig – I ran Leg 2, and had told Craig we’d both have to really hurry as I needed to get to a friend’s wedding by midday.
The minute I crossed the line I dashed from the finish in Fishhoek to Hout Bay, showered and snuck in to the chapel in Cape Town city centre, just behind the bride. The next day we discovered we’d won the mixed category!
One week in 2011, I was running through the Namib Desert, up and down dunes, having the time (and race) of my life, and the next, I couldn’t even walk properly.
After a physiotherapist, sports doctor, and a bone scan, the results were in: a grade 3 stress fracture of the femur.
No weight-bearing exercise for six weeks, and no running for 12.
Twelve weeks? That’s three months! I’m not sure which sounds longer.
Rest is the fast – and only – way to heal bone. So rest I did, dreaming of when I could feel awake again.
So my exercise became walking as lightly as I could on my legs, and I had to make friends with a set of borrowed crutches for the 23 steps up to our house.
According to a crazy trail running mountain man I know, having crutches opens up a whole new world of sporting delights.
What defines you?
I am a trail runner. The sport is honest, down-to-earth, requiring minimal fuss but wholehearted application. That’s very much me – I’m not one for fuss or show, fancy fashion, or make-up; I like straight talk; I can’t bear superficiality. I regard honesty, fairness and integrity above all.
I have a passion for the outdoors, and feel most alive when surrounded by mountains, water, and rocks.
I’m passionate about trees. Ever since I was little, I’ve found trees special – their shape, texture, form, strength, their beauty.
Trees are magnificent. The natural hobby for me to turn to has been bonsai – I have a collection of more than 40 bonsai of all styles and sizes, some old, many young.
They’re time-consuming but so aesthetically rewarding.
Read more about Linda in TRAIL issue 17, where you can meet her trail running friends Sylvie Scherzinger, Chris Allan, and Tenzing.