There are two kinds of athletes in the world. The ones that prime themselves for success by training hard, prioritising nutrition and focusing on winning, and then the ones who succeed almost by default. These are the athletes that partake in their sport for a sheer love of it, they get out there to have a fun day out, they never think about winning and they eat and train as their hearts desire. They were created with an inbred ability to be the best at their sport.
Tracy Zunckel is the latter. This mom of three from KZN describes herself as a mom, wife and swimming teacher (in that order). Notably absent from her list is trail champion.
In the last few years she has dominated the trail running scene with a string of wins and top three placing’s in races that make Comrades seem tame. She has won Mont-Aux-Sources six times, the Sani Stagger Marathon three times, The Mnweni Marathon, four times and the Mutter three times.
Last year she most notably won the Mutter finishing only three minutes and three seconds after the men’s winner, Steve Black, heavily decreasing the gender gap in ultra-running finishing times – yet she very quickly brushes this off with a very refreshing perspective. In a day and age where many women are obsessed with blurring the gender line in sports, achievements and life, she takes you back to a simpler time.
“I don’t think the women will ever really be stronger than the strongest men and I don’t have that point to prove, it is how I live my life, men are men, women are women, we can respect each other with our DIFFERENT strengths.”
Winning the 65km epic mutter in 8:40:07 is something she describes more as an experience than an achievement. “The Mutter is a special race, it has no frills, it is tough and the people who run it are people who love the mountains in the most natural form.”
It’s the people that add to the experience and make it what it is and she fondly speaks of that aspect when talking about the win. “Steve is great, he knows the mountains well so we stick with him, I did want to pass him and go ahead quite often but that would have risked me getting lost. Besides, who wants to run out there alone? That is why these understated races are the best, it is not actually a cut throat, win at all costs attitude. We are there to enjoy the day out in some of the most untouched areas of our country.”
For Tracy Zunkel, running is love. “I run for enjoyment; it is my love, [but] Motherhood is my priority.”
She started running at the age of eight and has been doing so ever since. “I was at a convent in Kokstad and we used to run around the school knee deep in frost on a cold winters morning, in our school clothes! I ran from then on, as each year rolled by I loved it more and more, it became integral to my existence. We all ran, we all rode horses, we all grew up doing the simple things in life, on the farm, running was a natural part of being a kid.”
Despite it being such a huge part of her childhood, she puts no pressure on her children to follow her footsteps. “I have never made them run so I don’t know if they are ever going to. Watching me is enough. I never want them to feel they have to do what I do; they have their own unique talents and enjoyments. I never really talk too much about where I come in a race. I never want my kids to feel that they have to achieve anything exceptional; they can be content and happy as individuals. I try not place any emphasis on winning and rather share with them the experiences during the race [and] If they ever want to join me one day they can.”
That isn’t to say she doesn’t encourage the joy of being active that she experienced growing up. “We do a lot of hiking and camping as a family so they have a good understanding and love of the mountains. As long as we are active and enjoying life as a family, that is the important thing.”
She does most of her running when her kids are at school, and doesn’t enter many races outside of Natal so that she isn’t away from home too often or for too long. “My running fits in with being a mom and a wife, I have peace knowing I do my best for my kids and running does not take preference. Running does make me a better mom and wife though!!”
Tracy Zunkel makes it sounds so easy, leaving us a little envious. She doesn’t strategize, she doesn’t overcomplicate anything and just goes. “Strategy is definitely not my thing. I like to fly beneath the radar, so no theories, no strategies. I never have expectations of a race, I just run how I feel, walk if I am tired and run if I am not! I think it has worked for me, only because I don’t have the energy to overcomplicate my life, my running is pure enjoyment.”
It’s more because of this mantra, as opposed to the magnetic field that pulls her towards winning and placing, that had Racefood signing her up to be one of their Trailblazers.
“Racefood are the best sponsors, their whole outlook fits the brand. It is all about being out there and having fun doing what you are doing. I think in general if you live by this you will go far. I love representing them because of this, their fun loving; enjoyment at all costs attitude goes a long way. Their product is amazing and works so well for me. I battle with anything other than water, coke and a bit of game so racefood provides all the energy I need, I have run ultras on racefood and water. It tastes so good, I never feel nauseous and never get sugar highs or lows.”
For a woman like Tracy who loves simplicity so much that her training nutrition plan consisted of an apple and water to publicly punt and use Racefood is a pretty big deal and speaks volumes for the brand.
“I train on very little, water and an apple and a couple of Racefoods and off I go. Simplicity at its best!” When it comes to her diet, she is as no fuss as every other aspect of her life. “My diet is what every average mother would eat – leftovers and a couple of glasses of wine. I drink a lot of water especially as I wake up and I love me tea and honey – Wedgewood’s honey is the best.”
Tracy’s love of simplicity leads her to downplay her achievements to the extent that before her win at the trail champs she viewed Landie Greyling and Chantelle Nienbaar as the untouchables. (she went on to beat them out with a 15 minute lead). “I had heard about Landi and Linda, they were like the untouchables, girls I only read about in magazines. So when I came up behind them at 12kms, I got such a fright thinking I was running this race all wrong, what was I doing!? Linda and Landi became tangible after that! They are amazing athletes, so dedicated to the sport, wonderful people and good friends.”
No matter what run or race she is tackling, she takes is so effortlessly in her stride. “I never really think about coming first. With a family you go off on your own, run a race, arrive back home the next day and bang you’re a mom again!”
She places the experiences she has with people higher up on her totem pole than any win. “My proudest moment in trail running was when I fell at the Richtersveld and got horribly lost. It was the girls I met from the back who forged their way over the next mountain ranges with me (the hardest terrain I have ever navigated). Their resolve and the fact that I witnessed true grit and determination and could be part of that, made me proud.”
When it comes to trail running it is clear that Tracy is where she is at and achieves what she does because she has the talent and a love for what she is talented at.
“I have not secret to speed and strength, it is a God given talent and it is only nurtured through enjoyment. Trail running is my chance to be myself with my own thoughts, it is the peace, the beauty and the freedom I love when I am out there.”
Want to experience some of what Tracy Zunkel sees? Try out some of Tracy’s favourites…
- My favourite place to run is definitely the Drakensberg Mountains.
- Ultra runs are my favourites, because they are not so flippin fas. I get to see my surroundings and chat to my friends on the way!
- My favorite trails are Monties, Mountain Mutter, Umgeni river run, Golden gate, Three Cranes, Mnweni (favorite) and most definately Richtersveld!!!
Feige is the co-founder of Nutreats. She likes to code things, design things, and all things beauty.