You saw Toni McCann on the cover of TRAIL 32. Get to know the young gun better with her full interview.
My best friend and I raced each other at Friday cross-country meets. We were always secretly-not-so-secretly competitive with each other. This rivalry followed us all throughout junior school, and my need-to-win mentality pushed me to train harder, work harder, run faster – even though it was mostly in my head.
That is until I got too cool to care in high school and I stopped running altogether. The friendship fizzled as a result of my ridiculous need to win (it’s all good, we are still friends), and so did my passion for running.
This was a hard lesson to learn as a child, and one that I am still getting to grips with. Competition is great and it pushes you to strive for more and to be the best version of yourself, but that’s where it should stop.
Comparisons and unhealthy competition with others to the point of it giving you anxiety and losing the people or things you love is never worth it. Be happy with your progress.
Toni McCann’s sporty origins
In junior school I was the kid who did all the sports. I grew up as my dad’s little boy, so we did the motorbike thing, fishing, running, cricket, netball, hockey. You name it, I did it. I even tried ballet – but my talents lie elsewhere…
I grew up in Durban, near Krantzkloof Nature Reserve. I only learned about this magical running haven in 2018, after 17 years of living just 3km away!
In high school I stopped running and focused my attention on hockey. I played for school, club, and provincial teams. In matric I made the national squad, and I had dreams of being a professional hockey player.
At university my interest in hockey waned and after two years I went cold turkey on it. After that I got really unfit. I did a few 5km road runs a week – maybe. I didn’t really get my act together until the honours year of my nutrition degree and decided to get healthy (too healthy).
I started running more (three times a week), gymming and eating ‘healthy’. I ran my first half marathon in 2016 and my first trail run later that year.
My boyfriend at the time was really into mountain biking, so I often tagged along to races and ran on the short routes while he rode.
In my postgrad years I found trail running and to me there is no better place in South Africa to run than in Cape Town. I miss my parents enormously as they are still in Durban, but rather than wanting to move back there, I’m trying to convince them to move down here. (The humidity in Durban does bad things to my hair, haha.)
Why is healthy in quotes?
I say ‘healthy’ because while I was eating healthily – vegetarian, no sugar, no chocolates, sweets, dairy, bread, pasta, carbs, treat of any form – I became obsessive about eating clean and cut out anything I deemed unhealthy (read: anything I thought would make me put on weight).It’s a condition called orthorexia.
Toni McCann writes more about orthorexia in TRAIL 33.
I am conscious of the pressure there is on athletes to have a perceived correct body, and so I ended up losing a lot of weight. And for a while it definitely resulted in me having a fairly unhealthy relationship with food. I think a lot of women go through this – especially women in weight-sensitive sports (like running, ballet, gymnastics).
I learned that if I want to be good (I’m super competitive so I always want to perform at my best) then I needed to fuel myself properly. Now my focus is eating whole foods, mostly plants, and enough! To be strong, not skinny.
I think the orthorexia was a combination of body insecurity, my studies and severe anxiety. I have subsequently rediscovered my love for all things sour, chocolate, and baked. And wine.
Nutrition, food, and all
After school I left Durban to study my undergraduate in Biochemistry and Human Physiology at UCT med school, and again for my Honours in Nutrition and Dietetics.
I’m more interested in the clinical side of nutrition, rather than the counselling side. But I haven’t done my community service year so I can’t register with the HPCSA, and therefore I can’t practise in SA.
There is so much confusion, pseudoscience, and many unanswered questions, that I find it difficult to give people advice about how to eat. I believe in intuitive eating: listening to your body. We are all different: what works for me may not work for you.
More recently I’ve become really interested in functional foods, and returning to traditional and ancestral methods of eating and making foods. Saying that – I’m scientifically geared when it comes to food recommendations and giving (non-professional) advice.
I would love to get back into doing some research, maybe pick up my Masters in Sports Nutrition again. Who knows.
Racing nutrition is a whole other beast! I haven’t quite got that down yet.
Every 30-45 minutes during a race I’ll have a small snack or gel (depending on how I’m feeling) and I’ll sip on electrolytes fairly consistently.
I really like to have gum as well. It keeps my mouth from drying out when I run! This probably isn’t a good idea, especially if you’re prone to bloating (or tripping) when you run.
I don’t follow any specific diet, but I lean towards a more plant-based diet. I very rarely eat meat and if I do I make sure it’s ethically sourced fish, or pilchards. (I love pilchards.) I also probably eat about 2kg of yoghurt a week.
I really do try as far as possible (and as far as my budget can extend), to buy local and organic produce. If I had even an inkling of a green finger I would grow my own, but it seems that everything I touch dies, so I don’t.
Who made you?
I am the middle child in a family of three girls to two loving parents. We always joked that my dad wanted boys, so that’s why he took us motorbike riding and fishing – he instilled a love for nature and the outdoors.
My parents are both athletic in their own rights – my dad played a lot of sports as a child and still rides enduro motorbikes. My mom was a dancer (and is now starting to get more into running).
My younger sister is an extremely talented ballerina (that gene clearly skipped me), and is currently dancing at the English National Ballet School in London (she’s only 18). And my older sister is extremely creative and artistically talented.
My mom has been through it all for me: trekking me to U10 provincial cross country meets in Newcastle, to Potchefstroom for hockey, back and forth, and all the other things in between.
I couldn’t have asked for a better cheerleader for all my endeavours, sporting or otherwise. She has given me the confidence to pursue running, and has always been a warm, loving, stable force in my life.
I would like for my parents to know how extremely grateful I am. No words could adequately describe it.
Run community I love how the running community has started the movement towards women empowerment. Altra have redone all their female athletes’ contracts, ensuring that it supports them through all phases of pregnancy and maternity.
Not that this applies to me (#singlelife), but I love knowing that I am part of a brand that supports its athletes through all phases of life, injury, and return to competition.
The trail running community makes me feel lucky to be around people who inspire me every day. Every person has their own story: their whys, their experiences, challenges, and how running has helped them. The community is definitely a large part of why I run, and inspires me to try be a less-shit person.
Toni McCann’s international debut
I was accepted to compete in the Golden Trail Series [seven international long distance trail events, largely in Europe, organised by Salomon] and ran Zegama in the beginning of June. My lead-up to the event was pretty terrible, to be honest.
I ran a total of 52km for the whole of May. The low mileage was due to a loss of concentration running some technical trail, resulting in a gnarly black, blue, and green bulging ankle.
It was no longer sore to run one week ahead of the race in Spain: my international debut and the first in the Golden Trail World Series. I’m not going to lie, I was more anxious about this than I’ve ever been.
Long story short, I ran, and it was really hard: harder than anything I’ve ever done. It was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. Zegama took everything I had to make it through the full 42km.
What got me through it was the crowds and support on the route. There were masses of people passionately supporting each and every runner – from the front speedsters to the back markers.
‘Venga, Venga, Vamos!’ is all you hear for 42km, and when they aren’t shouting it, you’re repeating it in your head. The crowds are really special. You can hear them before you see them. There were few kilometres I ran without seeing someone lining the trail, offering their support and encouragement.
Overall, I am happy with how I went, cramps and pain and all. To place 16th in a strong field of women with a shoddy pre-race lead up, I can’t not be happy.
It was an experience I will never forget. While it was the toughest thing I have ever done, I will be back every single year until I cannot run (and then I’ll still go back to join the supporters), because, well, Zegama is Zegama!
After Zegama, my other races in the Golden Trail Series are Marathon du Mont-Blanc (30 June), and then Dolomyths Race Skyrun (21 July).
The goal is to qualify for the Annapurna Trail Marathon finale in Nepal.
I’ll be training in Europe in between the two events, something I am privileged and excited to be able to do. Those big mountains are considered Disneyland for runners and I cannot wait!
Since TRAIL 32 went into print with this interview, Toni McCann raced Marathon du Mont Blanc (placing 18th in 5h57min) and Dolomyths Skyrace (23rd in 2h50min). She unfortunately didn’t qualify to race the final in the Himalayas, despite excellent racing in her international debut.
I have been invited to Otter African Trail Run and Whale of Trail this year, and I want to do at least one of them.
When I’m not running I am currently addicted to puzzles. The bigger and the harder the better!
It’s become a sort of meditation, and it allows me to turn off my brain for a little while.