Rachel Manyathi interview

Rachel Manyathi is an ultra runner and high school teacher whose life centres around kindness, and mountain adventure.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Balancing full-time teaching with running around South Africa, Rachel lives a life of fun and gratitude.

Rachel descending from Lion’s Head. photo Fahwaaz Cornelius

Becoming a runner

I became a runner back in my varsity years. This was by default as I needed a distraction from tension headaches, maybe from studying. Running used to cure them. At least I used to feel better after running.

Becoming a trail runner started with me losing my love for road running. However, because I knew the benefits of running and how running in general had saved and changed my life, I still wanted to continue running. But it was really becoming a ‘have-to-run’ vibe. And honestly, I found it monotonous and boring. I was looking at a challenge in running and on a personal level.

While on the mission of searching for fun and meaning again in my running life, I stumbled upon a hundred miler which stated that it would be an on- and off-road race. Due to the excitement, I must admit that I misread the distance as 100 kilometres, not 100 miles. So I thought (being a Comrades Marathon finisher): “I just need to add 11km, then that’s it.”

Safe to say, this was the beginning of several 100 milers and 24 and 48 hour circuit races, and other not so typical road running races.

My first trail running experience was with The Big Five Marathon. Amongst other people I met on these circuit races and on the Big Five Marathon was Mazu Ndadani. He was totally hooked on trail running and knew pretty much all races in the country.

I caught the trail bug and travelled to races with trail gods like Lucky Miya and Thabang Madiba. It was enough to make me dream about trail running everyday.

Rachel’s favourite route near her home in Cape Town. photo Fahwaaz Cornelius

Mountain exploring

I went for a trail running adventure with Tim ‘The Road Less Travelled’ Smith on the Atlantic side of Table Mountain. Towards the finish, the route goes through the famous Pipe Track. I was running behind Jacques Ackerman, and a couple of friends were about 300m behind us. At a certain point I took a detour as nature was calling. While in the bushes, I could see all of them passing.

To my surprise, they all thought that I got lost and they were ready to get the entire mountain rescue team to go on a search for someone who got lost 2km away from the finish!

My running friends often think I get lost on the mountain, but they don’t know that I often go on an extended adventure to explore. My fellow adventurers Mmama Kubjane and Shane Murray would attest to our multiple mountain explore adventures.

The three of us often get teased a lot about taking a wrong turn on the mountain which many times ends up in a discovery of a new route that could be incorporated into the usual route. 

We coined the term mountain explore adventure to describe the experience. Most people refer to it as getting lost.

Rachel navigating the Grotto-Fountain-Cairn Traverse on Table Mountain.
Rachel navigating the Grotto-Fountain-Cairn Traverse on Table Mountain. Part of the extremely technical Three Classics route, Rachel is grateful for the guidance of Tauriq Gamildien. photo Fahwaaz Cornelius

Rachel’s memorable events

Molweni Trail Run in Kloof Gorge, Durban, sticks out in my memory. Johardt van Heerden, Mazu Ndandani, and I drove there together.

It was the 2015 South African Trail Championship. This was Johardt’s debut long trail run of 32km, if memory serves.

What stands about this event is that Johardt won the race, and Lucky Miya and Thabang Madiba went on to represent SA at the World Champs. This was also my debut long trail race where I also got a category podium. That was a long time ago, but I can remember everything about this race like it was yesterday.

The Lesotho Ultra Trail (LUT) is still by far my favourite trail race. I have done this event three or four times but there was never a year where I found it easier.

I’ve always managed to be in the ladies top 10 and a couple of category podiums at LUT.

Otter African Trail Run is another one of my favourite trail events where I always suffer. But I have managed a category podium finish. I still need to finish this race in under seven hours though…

UTCT (Ultra-trail Cape Town) is at the very top of my list. It will stick in my memory forever.

The spectator gees in this race is unique. That’s why maybe we keep on going back each year. I have done all the distances: 21km, 35km, 65km, and the 100km.

There are other events like the Wolkberg Trail Run stage race and Drakensberg Northern Trail I have done repeatedly because of the vibe and the outstanding race organisation.

I am so grateful for the pleasant journey of no injury and six years of pure love, laughter, and joy in nature.

Trail running has done wonders for my spiritual, mental, physical, and social life. I’m immensely grateful for this journey.

Joy and relief after her 2019 UTCT 65km.

Work-run balance

Our goal as teachers is to instil passion. We mentor young people. We learn so much from them, and about ourselves through them. In sport (running in particular) longevity comes through passion. 

Also in sports or running, there are people who mentor us directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly. It might be other runners we look up to, or other sports people who inspire us.

So as a teacher if I can get my learners to be passionate about something, anything at all. Then I would know the chances of them excelling in it are increased.

I’m a high school teacher at Parklands College where I am lucky enough to teach the most phenomenal learners from grade 8 to 12.

Any high school teacher will attest to the need for flexibility when it comes to teaching at an independent school. So I teach (and have taught) Business Studies, Accounting, Economics and Management Sciences, as well as Mathematical Literacy.

Beyond the mainstream subjects, I’m involved in robotics and technovation for girls. This subject exposes young women to unlimited opportunities in the world of technology. In 2019 my team managed to compete in the World Robotics Championships in Uruguay.

Influential people

In my early years of trail running, my close friend Pedro Calderon – who was way above my league – used to invite me to all his training sessions, even though I was extremely slow for him. He was hardcore in all his training sessions. His dedication and discipline left a positive mark in my life. He taught me technical descending skills. 

I think it was in 2015 when I joined the Coach Neville team. That was the dream team. That’s where I met and ran with fantastic young runners like Marzelle van der Merwe who dominated and quickly made a name for herself in trail running at a very young age.

She’s still by far one of my favourite runners, even today when I think of how fearless and how much grit she has. I mostly admire how through her never-ending injury challenges she quickly transitioned to MTB and within a short period of time has made that space hers.

There are so many athletes I can mention, like Toni McCann and Nicolette Griffioen, who are amazing runners that inspire me.

Other than runners, I draw my inspiration from ordinary people who go about with their lives and silently doing extraordinary things.

Who is Rachel Manyathi?

The most important thing in my life is kindness.   

To me, kindness is the centre of and encompass everything a human being ought to be.

I find it to be the simplest thing and the most fulfilling value. 

iPad cover Otter African Trail Run issue TRAIL 38

This interview was originally published in TRAIL 38.

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