Step, step, breathe

Sophie Oldfield1

In search of myself,
In search of this city,
I take a step.

I started running eight years ago as a way to be in my city, in Cape Town. Step, step, breathe (video above) shares how running gave me a way to move through Cape Town, to see it anew, and to participate in it. 

I wrote the story and drew the visuals in the Inside/Out Storytelling workshop in 2019. Run by Joanna Wheeler, a sociologist who specialises in narrative methodologies,2 the workshop drew on an experiential and participatory methodology through which we – migrants to Cape Town in some form and at some point – produced digital stories, which explored belonging in our city. The process pushed me to embrace the personal and the intimate directly in my writing, and, for the first time, to explore the visual and digital as a key part of storytelling.  

While Step, step, breathe is my personal story, it is also the foundation from which I developed a course entitled ‘Running the City.’ Rediscovering my city through running led me to imagine ways I might use running to teach urban studies in Cape Town. On the one hand, Cape Town is hard, unequal, divided, dangerous, a place where you have to be street smart, savvy, fast walking, strong. It is a city of texture, of surface and shine, of grit and graded zinc. On the other hand, it is a city of people, of languages, accents, styles and humour. It is a city of the known and unknown, neighbourhoods where you can and cannot walk, extraordinary vistas and views, as well as banal things at foot. Cape Town invites you in and spits you out; it demands something of you. The course has become a way to immerse my teaching in the city and its contradictions. It has proved a rigorous and joyous way to see the city, to engage running publics, and to theorise in creative embodied and participatory forms.

A course and pedagogy

A half semester course,3 part of a larger module called Experimenting with Publics,4 ‘Running the City’ explores mobilities and methods that work on the move. As our anchor into city running publics, I organise placements of students at local Cape Town, community-oriented running clubs. Running clubs hold practices in the evening and long runs on the weekend. As part of the course, students participate in at least one weekly evening training session, running with the club at night. We run races across the city on weekends. Through participating, reading, and writing,5 we experiment, tracking and participating in the buzz of the group run, interviewing to a different sort of rhythm. We encounter the city, running up and down, across a route, together. We integrate these parts through a weekly seminar and a joint exhibit at the end of the course. 

We run the city

Running together, in club colors,
the runner: swag, focused, fast and slow;
Together, friends, teammates, strangers;
spectators, passers by on the way to work,
neighbors, morning face in curlers.

Running clubs are a space in which new runners are ‘baptized’ into running, going ‘as fast as they walk’ when they start. A volunteer coach advises new runners to: ‘Run like a model. Now Smile. Smiling helps you breathe!’ Students with some running confidence join faster groups. Through the clubs, students are welcomed and immersed in training runs. They enjoy the freedom to navigate this unsafe city at night, together, in small groups of club runners. Fellow club runners become friends, those we meet at races on the weekends. 

Discussion sessions with the founders of new community running clubs give us a chance to discuss why and how they have built vibrant running clubs, in contexts where running has not been the norm. They share their inspirations, rooted in the city, in its apartheid segregated histories, in its inequities. For some, a running club is a way to reclaim the city, to take back public space, in the day and night. For others, it is a way to build community, to build a culture of exercise in a context without this tradition. Students embrace the opportunity to engage vibrant and welcoming moving, chatting, sociable, regular, and rhythmic publics.

We see the city

Its walls and fences,
designer sleek, armed,
functional, simple, rough, open.

Its sidewalks, brick, tar, gravel, dirt,
stepping up smooth and broken curbs,
over rock, in mud

We run races in different parts of Cape Town, events that are scheduled nearly every weekend. In the period of our course, some events are large with up to 10,000 participants, and some tiny, with just a few hundred. Races become for newbie running students an opportunity to run ‘5k here, 5k there’; students for whom running is more comfortable opt for the 10k and 15k distances. South African runs start early so our car pool aims for precision timing: 5:15 a.m. pick-ups in Rondebosch, 5:20 in Mowbray, 5:30 in Observatory; we’re off. 

Races take us in and around Cape Town. We head to Ravensmead, through and across one of the city’s key industrial areas and the working class township on its edge. We run the Voet of the Vine, a race in the far northeastern, peri-urban edge, where we run past new semi-affordable housing projects, malls, a still-productive cabbage field. We participate in the Central 5k and 10k Fun Run, in and around the wealthy southern suburbs of Newlands and Rondebosch. We skirt the mountain, below the University of Cape Town campus, running the roads we walk and drive to get to campus daily. We run in the Cape Flats Nature Reserve, a beautiful spot, situated next to a new state-built housing project, bordered by a large apartheid-era township. In the Reserve, we follow the laneways of the sewage works, the link between the sea and the lake, as well as a bird sanctuary on the coastal edge, adjacent to a extensive city garbage dump. Serene in the early morning light, this is ‘ugly/beautiful’ Cape Town at its best.

We run races that reflect on the South African nation, the state of its present, and its pasts. #FreedomtoRun celebrates democracy, marking the anniversary of the first elections in 1994. It takes us through Bridgetown, Kew Town, Athlone, down Klipfontein Road, working class formerly segregated ‘coloured’ areas of public housing, places we could not meander individually. We participate in the Slave Route, in and out of the nooks and crannies of the centre of the city, across its heart, a route, which commemorates slavery, the durable violent history on which Cape Town was built. We kick off the semester by running the 27 for Freedom, a race that commemorates Mandela’s release from prison. From 27 years at the start, each kilometre marks a year. We follow the route, a visceral, foot-by-foot way to remember.

Step by step, our rhythm,
foot forward,
shoulders relaxed.
Breath in, breath out.

Running becomes an embodied, relational, mobile way to know the city, at scale, over distance, on foot, intimate, with others. We see, sense and feel the city. We run, we talk, we focus. Together, we are a buzz, a bus, a constellation of energy, on the move. 

Suggested citation:
Oldfield, S. 2020. “Step, step, breathe.” AGITATE! 2: http://agitatejournal.org/article/step-step-breathe/.
  1. African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa (sophie.oldfield@uct.ac.za) and Urban Studies, University of Basel, Switzerland (sophie.oldfield@unibas.ch).
  2. For a sense of this workshop process, see Wheeler, Joanna, Thea Shahrokh, and Nava Derakhshani (2018) Transformative Storywork: Creative pathways for transformation. In Handbook of Communication for Social Change edited by Jan Servaes. Beijing: Springer.
  3. My teaching is part of two masters programmes, in Southern Urbanism at the African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town, (https://www.africancentreforcities.net/programme/mphil-southern-urbanism/) and in Critical Urbanisms at the University of Basel (http://criticalurbanisms.philhist.unibas.ch).
  4. My colleague, Dr. Anna Selmeczi, teaches an alternate section, ‘Sensing the City,’ focused on art and music-linked publics.
  5. The course draws on a geographical and anthropological literature on mobility and methodology. Please contact me if you are interested in the syllabus.

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