Actress scales fresh heights for the role of a lifetime

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2012, 12:00am


There is only one race that Vanessa Haywood hasn't finished in her life. She was mountain biking when her front wheel hit a rock, and she fell off - face first - while racing downhill at 50km/h. 'And I didn't finish only because I knocked myself out and had to be rushed off to hospital,' she says.

While the South African actress, TV personality and model-turned-fitness fanatic is better known for her role in the Peter Jackson produced film District 9 and her stint on Survivor South Africa Maldives - Celebs vs Plebs, many would be surprised to know that she is also a competitive trail runner and mountain biker. A 'DNF' (did not finish) is the last thing Haywood wants next to her name.

She was in Hong Kong last month with her professional athlete boyfriend and champion ultra marathoner, Ryan Sandes, who took out the Vibram Hong Kong 100-kilometre trail race in 9 hours, 54 minutes, smashing last year's record by two hours. While Sandes may beat her on the trails, Haywood would probably take him on a downhill technical mountain bike ride. She's training for the ABSA Cape Epic, a gruelling eight-day, 800-kilometre race in South Africa's outback, with around 15,000 metres of climbing - the equivalent of about two Mount Everests.

Haywood attributes her drive and adventurous spirit to growing up on a farm, riding horses and running barefoot through wheat fields covered in mud. She is now in training for the 250-kilometre trail race, Racing the Planet: Iceland 2013.

How long have you been a trail runner?

I was on the athletics team growing up, but I only started trail running two years ago, about the time I met Ryan. Before that, I didn't know what trail running was. I thought it was just glorified hiking. It was Ryan who really got me into it - we first met at a 15-kilometre trail race. I was amazed at him running uphill effortlessly while I was panting and wheezing behind. But he stayed with me the whole way.

What do you enjoy about it?

It's my release and a great way to de-stress. It's also technical. You are constantly thinking about where your foot is going next. If it's a flatter trail, then you are just enjoying the environment.

Did you enjoy your trail running experience in Hong Kong?

I absolutely loved it. One minute you are surrounded by jungle and the next you look to your side and there are skyscrapers right there. It's crazy. You really feel as if you're in an urban jungle.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into trail running or mountain biking?

Enter a race. It's a great motivator, as you have a goal to work towards. It doesn't have to be something crazy - it can be something as simple as a short run. Once you've paid your money and made a commitment, that's all the motivation you need. You don't want to not complete it because you didn't train. Plus, every bit of training you do beforehand makes the challenge so much more enjoyable and rewarding.

Do you have a favourite motivational quote?

Carpe diem ['seize the day']. I remember watching the film Dead Poets Society as a 16-year-old and hearing that Latin phrase, and it really resonated with me. You have to seize every day, as you never know if you're going to get hit by a bus, or, in my case, fall flat on your face off a bike.

What inspired the change to become a more serious athlete?

It was a very conscious decision. First, I wanted to up my game. I was finishing in the middle of the pack in races and it just wasn't sitting with my competitive nature. Second, I had been single for a few years and wanted to meet someone with the same love of the outdoors. I am very lucky, as I have managed to do both.

What's your diet like usually?

I usually eat very healthily - lots of fresh salads and free-range meats, such as venison and ostrich. When racing, I find it's best to race on real food such as salted nuts, biltong (a type of South African dried meat), a few Jelly Babies, bananas, baby potatoes and Hammer Nutrition products. And I try to avoid the junk.

What's your training regime like?

At the moment I'm training six days a week with a day off - about 15 to 18 hours a week. That's not all the time, only when I'm racing. Ryan is always training ... but then, I'm not a professional athlete.

What tips have you got for looking good both on and off the trails?

Stay out of the sun. It's difficult when I do so much sport, but I never tan. It's about having a balanced lifestyle: work hard, play hard, rest hard. And most importantly, be around people who bring out the best in you.

Follow Haywood on Twitter @VanHaywood and Facebook