Malawi to Mont Blanc
Fast forward to 2018 and, with help from Suzette, Edson is standing on the start line of the 90 km Marathon du Mont Blanc – one of the world’s most prestigious races. While the dust trails of Mount Mulanje vary greatly from the snow-capped Alps, Edson was in his element. On his European ultra debut he finished 20th – a remarkable achievement.
Afterwards Edson did not return to South Africa, instead heading straight back to Malawi. Though his legs were still heavy from his alpine efforts, Edson couldn’t wait. He wanted to make it back to Mulanje in time for the Porter’s Race being held just days later.
“I just wanted to feel the emotion of my mother taking me to Mount Mulanje.” Edson explains. “She never saw me run with a bib number. I had run the race many times before, but I wanted to do it officially for the first time.”
Almost 20 years after his mother had first encouraged him to run the Porter’s Race for the first time, Edson ran the Porter’s Race as an official entrant. He finished the race in 14th place, but the ranking didn’t matter.
“I wasn't running the race to compete but to feel the spirit of my mother. To feel the happiness she got the first time I finished the race.
“Now, whenever I race, I feel that emotion. If you see pictures of me running I always smile. I give that smile to my mother again. That’s why, when I finish a race I always greet other finishers, just like she greeted me when I finished when I was nine years old, even though there was no one else there.”
Since then, Edson’s trademark high fives have greeted finishers at trail races in South Africa and far beyond.
He made a nostalgic return to his first ever official trail race, the Lion’s Head Challenge, and won the race. He went back to the Puffer race and won again, setting a new course record in the process.
Emboldened to take on new challenges, Edson moved back to Malawi to continue his development. To be a fearless runner, Edson required an environment without fear to train in.
“Life in South Africa was affecting my running. It’s not always safe to go out and run,” Edson explained.
"Someone pulled a gun on me and took my bag. I returned to Malawi, where there's little money but I live a peaceful life.”
“I needed that peace. My strength is a spiritual fitness. Whatever is in your head impacts your body. If you believe in weakness, your body will follow that weakness. If you're running up high and you think of falling, you can fall. It’s all about your heart and your mind.
“The most important thing to me is happiness. Whenever I race, I don't think about being competitive. I think about how happy I will be during this race.”
Alongside positivity, Edson counts simplicity among the keys to his success. After planting crops before the wet winter months, he feels lucky that he can grow enough food on his small farm to feed him all year. Once he has worked on his farm each morning, he’s free to run the Mulanje trails, measuring his training sessions by hours rather than distance. A six-hour session is a regular occurrence.
As well as optimizing his training, Edson has been establishing a network of trail-running contacts that bring him new challenges. Like an invitation to the 2018 edition of the four-day Al Marmoon ultramarathon in Dubai, covering 270 km through desert dunes.
It was like nothing Edson had ever experienced – “Every time you step the ground just disappears underneath you.”
By the final day, sand in Edson’s shoes had blistered his feet so badly he could barely walk, let alone run the final 50 km. He only listened to the organizer’s pleas for him to quit when they promised they’d invite him back the following year. It was the first time Edson has not completed a race he started.
“It was my first time and it'll be my last time.” he says, resolutely. “I am not a guy that quits.”
The warm heart of Malawi
It’s this spirit, his winning smile and relentlessly positive outlook that has made Edson such a popular member of the ultrarunning community. You can’t help but like the guy. The combination of his effortlessly affable nature, a clear talent for running big distances and a story that deserves to be told has seen Edson win friends the world over. And it’s this network that has unlocked the financial support needed to travel to races and get a bib.
With support from Marcus Smith, a friend of On and the founder of performance company Inner Fight, Edson has been able to race in the Ultra X series of races. In the Sri Lanka event in April 2019 he took second place. He’ll soon race again in the series in the deserts of Jordan and in Chihuahua, Mexico, which will be his first trip to the Americas.
Edson’s gratitude for such opportunities is what makes others want to help him. When he finished the 2018 Marathon du Mont Blanc organizers told him he was the “happiest finisher in the whole event.” Even after running 90km through the mountains, he took extra care to thank supporters at the finish.
“They were there for such a long time, waiting just to show they respect us, that we are not crazy. So I respect them by sharing gratitude, my experience. It’s a spiritual thing. This is the trail running community. This is like my family.”