From An Unhealthy Addiction To Getting High On Running

Today, Hylton Dunn finds his fix in the mountains – but he was once addicted to something far darker.

By Jess Nicholson | Photographs Craig Kolesky and Bruce Viaene |

This is the remarkable story of how Hylton Dunn kicked his heroin addiction and got hooked on a new healthy lifestyle.

A trot around the neighbourhood can lift your spirits. The Parkrun, where you destroy half the field can make your day. That goal achieved, the personal best; endorphins coursing through your veins. Runner’s high, we call it. Some people start to seek this out more and more often – they may even describe it as an addiction. Some then tackle races that, to many of us, seem like torture. And then you get those who take on a run so ridiculous that in 20 years, only 500 have finished.

Related: Here’s How This Man Beat Addiction, Bad Habits Lost 10kgs To Become A Better Man

The SkyRun is a 100km race along the top of the Witteberg mountains at an average altitude of 2 750m. Finishing it without being carted off the mountain on a quad bike with a drip in your arm, means getting a lot of things right. It means preparing for hail, snow and wind, or blue skies and scorching heat, for 30 hours. Each step, of which there can be 150 000, is a potentially twisted ankle, for this is rugged terrain. Athletes must watch their hydration: not sweat too much, or vomit too much, or cry too much. And the top contenders must not stop for too long. It seems like pure suffering until it is finished, but many Skyrunners say the euphoria afterwards makes it worth it. They say ordinary life just seems so easy once you’ve done it.

True Suffering

Hylton Dunn is one of those top runners. He has nailed the SkyRun four times, coming fourth in 2016. He also finished second just two months ago in the first leg of Wartrail, an adventure race that follows large parts of the 65km SkyRun Lite. “I have such a passion for these mountains. I have spent days and days up here. I have probably run the route about 25 times. I do what it takes to get up here as often as I can.” Hylton says he has never experienced the sensations of runner’s high or euphoria after finishing. But as for suffering and life? “What brought me to my knees was heroin.”

The pristine glory of these mountains, and the constant desire to be among them, could not be further from the playgrounds Hylton sought out in his youth when his passion was darker and his life was different. A concealed back street, a fast food toilet, a park, an alley – anywhere there was heroin. “I did whatever it took to get drugs. I would do anything. It was all I lived for.”

His gateway, as it is for many young men, was naive curiosity. “I started out smoking cigarettes, then dagga. That wasn’t enough for me, I basically went straight on to heroin, then crack cocaine. I lost everything. I prostituted my body on the streets of Pretoria and I stole things – anything. I lived in pawn shops. And then I started spending a lot of time living in prison. I went in and out of jail five times.”

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Eventually a lawyer got Hylton into a rehabilitation centre. “I was so out of it on the way to Noupoort, I can’t even remember the trip there.” Hylton was heading for one of the toughest rehabs in South Africa, one that has had its share of controversy. He was about to start a new life, with 300 other addicts: people he describes as some of the hardest criminals he has ever met. The chances of kicking heroin addiction are slim, but possible. Many studies say the chance of long term abstinence is less that one in three, perhaps less than one in six.

The Tough Road To Beating Addiction

“The reality of rehab hits you hard. It shocks you. And you just know, this is make or break now. I started to see that I had been living in a dream. Everything was false. That’s what heroin does. It takes away all the bad emotions. You feel lekker. You forget about life,” says Hylton. “There was no pleasure at rehab. No sitting around watching TV. You could smoke cigarettes, but if you wanted more privileges and to go further, you had to give them up too. You were given four months.” Hylton spent 10 years in rehab. It took him two years to give up smoking. Once he had done that he was allowed more time for recreation and he started running.

“Once I started to run and especially to work towards a race, I found there was no time for smoking and doing drugs. There was no time for jolling. I became motivated – focused and goal-oriented. I started taking running seriously and wanting medals. I knew that to be a top contender I had to behave myself and watch what I ate and get enough sleep. I started enjoying myself again. I had new goals.”

Related: How Exercise Saved This Man From Addiction

What also helped Hylton was working to help others in rehab. In 2004 he persuaded a group of guys to work towards entering the Comrades Marathon with him. “I was going to gym with some other guys and doing a bit of other exercise and I said to them, ‘Let’s go out and do a race. Let’s train.’ From there we did a marathon and qualified for the Two Oceans. Four or five of us did it. Two of us went on to do the Comrades.” Hylton has since run South Africa’s favourite ultra-marathon four times, with a PB of 6 hours, 54 minutes.

“Eventually they trusted us with a vehicle and I could drive to races and move around more. After Comrades I entered a couple of trail races and my love for trail running started growing. I sought out the most challenging – just going for a run doesn’t always do it for me. So I tackled The Kalahari Augrabies 250km Extreme Marathon; the Wild Coast Ultra, when it was all the way from Port St Johns to East London, the Addo 50-mile trail run, Racing the Planet Kimberley Ultramarathon 100km and of course SkyRun. The most amazing part was being able to help the other guys too. It feels good to give back.”

Hooked For Life

Now, out of rehab, Hylton is still giving back: training people to become better athletes, on his farm in the Southern Drakensberg. In 2013 Hylton and his wife, Sunelle, a physiotherapist, moved to Rhodes and started Alpine Swift Trails. This is a high-altitude training facility that will host anyone keen to up their game – particularly trail and mountain runners and cyclists. Visitors have included Olympic swimmers, rugby players and even water polo players. Hylton and his wife offer physiotherapy, Pilates, coaching, gym, swimming and a whole lot of advice – as well as guided running up the mountains.

“We live in a beautiful place. Even now after all these years, when I go back to the cities and the places I used to hang out, I get that cold feeling again. It’s easy to go back: like hooking up with an old friend. But here in the mountains of the Eastern Cape I don’t think about it too much,” says Hylton.

“Often, people say to me, ‘You’ve just replaced one addiction with another,’ but it’s not that simple. There is a big difference. Running is a means to stay focused, and I do it because I love it. In the past, if you put heroin in front of me, I could do it all day, no problem, but to go out and run all day is going to be one heck of a mission.

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“It takes a special type of person to excel at a trail running race like the SkyRun. You have to be able to maintain all aspects of yourself under extreme conditions. It is a purging of the soul – a physical challenge that tests you to the core.” It takes an even more extraordinary person to kick heroin. And unlike the emotional rewards for finishing the Skyrun, normal life is not easy afterwards. “But running helps,” says Hylton. “Other sports help, too. What is really rewarding in my life now, is to watch the people we help and sponsor achieve and become better athletes. It’s lekker to give back.”

Is running addictive? Find out here!

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