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Most of what I remember, I remember with my nose. I grew up with dogs, and I remember the smell of them on my clothes. I remember the smell of litchis, and how we’d have them on the verandah every Christmas, and the smell of apples, and oranges, and how I used to eat a lot of them, whole pockets on my own, until my hands were yellow. And I remember the smell of our saltwater pool, and how I’d throw my little sisters into the deep end, and how they’d scream, Again again.
Turns out I’m not alone. Studies show smell is the oldest of all the senses, and the most direct. This is called the Proust Phenomenon, named after the author Marcel: the theory that smells trigger deeper, older, more detailed and evocative memories than, say, sights or sounds. This can work two ways, stimulating good memories and bad, but they’re always subjective, and deeply emotional. In his book In Search of Lost Time, Proust writes how the smell of a madeleine sends him on a trip into his childhood: “this new sensation having the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.”
This past Saturday I ran up the Pipe Track. It’s a pretty technical trail that starts at Kloof Nek Corner and tracks past the Twelve Apostles. It’s named after a long pipeline, built back in 1887, that used to bring water from the dams on top of Table Mountain through to reservoirs in Camps Bay and Sea Point, and these days lies unused, half covered by rocks and sand, and disappears deep into the mountain. This was my first time up, and Maryse Pretorius, a biokineticist-slash-mountain goat who organises a running group called Elemint, kindly offered to show me the way. There were eight of us, and it was supposed to be a communal run, 5km from the parking lot to the waterfall and another 5km back, and halfway down I stopped running and thought, Wait, I know that smell.
Most of what I remember, I remember with my nose. I grew up in Kommetjie, right near the beach, and now it seems we were there every day, but at the time we couldn’t get enough of it: the sand, and the water, and how it smelled. Long Beach is not the tidiest, and there’s kelp everywhere you look, and often a dead seal or two as well, and the dogs used to roll themselves in all of it, and come home and stink up the house for days.
Running on the Pipe Track I remember the sunrise and how it was framed with the smell of the fynbos; I remember looking up at the sky and the smell of the water as it fell onto my face. But most of all I remember when the the wind came up and brought the air off the sea and I started feeling at home.
This will be the fifth week of the 2016 Men’s Health Staff Challenge, and it’s an important one. Trail running is very different from normal running. For one thing, it’s not about the numbers. You’re going slower, over rocks rather than road, and because you’re moving in a different way, jumping from side to side, speeding up slowly then quickly slowing down, your splits are wonky and you can’t really focus too much on your pace. It’s also not about your legs: even without massively uneven terrain, you’re dodging puddles and jumping over roots, swinging your arms and taking short strides then long, then long again and short, and all of that adds up into a full-body workout. And it’s really, really not about what’s in your head.
I ran 10km up the Pipe Track and not for one second did it feel like training, or a challenge, or work. This was my first time up, and it was supposed to be a communal run, but when I ran back into the parking lot at the end I realised I was all on my own. Halfway down I smelled the sea and it made me feel like a kid again, and for the next five kilometres I didn’t think about how fast I was going or how to stagger my pace or even where I was going. I forgot about who was with me and where I was and I just went. Like a dog running on the beach, like a kid going head first into the family pool, I just followed my nose all the way home.
After I got home I put up a pic of the view on Instagram and Chris commented, Welcome to the rest of your weekend life, and that made me happy, to think that Proust was right, and that I’d do it again and again.
Elemint offers group-based hiking and trail running courses, open-water swimming training and specialist exercise advice. Find out more about them at www.elemint.co.za