Heroes Marathon, Mthatha (Back2Back Marathon Weekend)

[MARATHON #171 / UNIQUE MARATHON #88 / 3 December 2017]

[Part 2 or my first back2back marathon weekend – click here for Part 1]

The best way to get really stiff legs after a marathon is a long car drive – and the 7-hour drive from Port Elizabeth ensured that rigor mortis engulfed the lower half of my body by the time we reached Mthatha. Not ideal with the prospect of one of the toughest marathons in the country ahead… but at least the drive provided stunning views for this first time visitor to the Transkei.

Heroes Marathon was my first visit to the Transkei. I made it to the start but would I make it to the finish?

Heroes Marathon is a point to point race from Mthatha airport to Qunu (pronounced [ˈk͡ǃuːnu]) – which is where Nelson Mandela grew up and is buried. The race route traces some of the steps the great man walked in the past.

The entrance fee is good value at R140 ($10/£7) and includes a great quality shirt. The purpose of the event is to help develop junior athletics in the area which is always a good reason to support a race.

There are busses from the centre of town to the start (last year the busses did not arrive so the organisers avoided a crisis by quickly phoning all their friends to shuttle the runners to the start). However, we didn’t need to play shuttle bus lottery as a friendly fellow runner offered us a lift to the start as we walked out the hotel door.

Late registration, Mthatha-style. Runners and cows intermingle before the start.

We arrived at the start with an hour to spare and settled in amongst a handful of runners and a herd of cows. In keeping with the laidback nature of this run, late registration was a lady walking around with a bunch of race numbers. The crowd slowly grew as the busses arrived. Being nervous about how my legs would handle their first back to back marathon, I was the apprehensive exception amongst a very relaxed bunch of runners.

Smack bang on top of a rock and a hard place: Not sure whether the hazy effect is caused by the pre-dawn lightning conditions or the nervous tension permeating my pores ahead of marathon #2 for the weekend.

Julian and I were the only white dudes amongst roughly 250 starters – leading one of the runners from the local Cheetahs Running Club to enquire whether our names were “Livingstone and Stanley”.

The start line was incredibly festive (see video below) with the whole field singing and dancing in harmony (well everyone except two rhythmically challenged runners). During one of the conversations I struck up during the run, I was told that this is a struggle song that translates to “Change is coming”. The context is intended to be political but can also be used when passing your mate on the road – i.e. “You were the leader – but I am the leader now”!

The race attracts a quality field of local runners as it has a total prize purse of R750k across all distances (42, 21, 10) and the R50k on offer for the male and female marathon winners must be the highest rand to runner ratio in the country (R50k/250 runners). I also noted in the results that, although it has a quarter of the field size, Heroes boasts substantially more sub-3 hour finishers than the previous day’s Aspen PE City Marathon.

Free range chicken shopping – Mthatha Style. R30 ($2) a chicken (cheep, cheep!).

The first part of the route is from the airport back into Mthatha town and then you have a brutal climb as you head out along the N2 towards Qunu. Although you’re running along the national road, there are plenty of traffic police present ensuring that the runners are safe and the drivers calm.

Heroes Marathon Route Profile – some brutal climbing!

The race provides spectacular vistas of the rolling hills that characterise the Transkei. The problem with looking at beautiful rolling hills during a marathon is that you also must run up and down them during the marathon! As you can see from the profile above, the route is  tough with several long, steep pulls and includes a final sting in the tail – a short, sharp and really nasty incline right at the end of the race.

Nearing the top of another rolling hill.

Heroes Marathon is in its fourth year and there and there are still a few areas for improvement. Water tables (with bagged cola) were every 3km (as were distance markers) but some of the tables toward the end ran out of water. However, if you slip into the friendly, relaxed Mthatha vibe the flaws are not an issue.

A friendly running bus – discussing struggle song lyrics and how they apply to marathon running.

So how did the legs handle two marathons in two days? Surprisingly, my legs actually felt fantastic after 8km (which must have been when the endorphins kicked in). The last 10km were tough but I followed a “walk every water table” approach and got to the finish line easier than I was expecting to.

Almost complete – the home stretch to Qunu.

If Comrades is 10/10 on the PAMETO Scale (Pain, Anguish & MEntal TOrture), I would rate back2back marathons at 6/10. Using twisted runners’ logic, one can therefore deduce that it is not the first two marathons of Comrades that hurt – but the last 5km that destroy you!

On the first weekend of December:

  • If you’re looking for a fast, flat, well organised Two Oceans and/or Comrades qualifier: Run Aspen PE City Marathon.
  • If you’re looking for a tough, relaxed and friendly marathon in the countryside: Run Heroes Marathon, Mthatha.
  • If you can’t decide and fancy a nice weekend exploring the Eastern Cape: Run both!
First back to back marathons complete for me; Just another day on the tarmac for local running legend Julian Karp (702nd marathon and umpteenth back2back complete).

Aside: Budgeting for the Marathons

South African runners often complain about the costs of races. A breakdown of the costs for the weekend is below:

2x Marathon Entry: R260

Flight: R1400

Accommodation: R1000

Car rental: R1000 (approx. 1000km driven)

Total: R3660 (+/- $270 / GBP200)

Note: I did take advantage of my Diamond Discovery Vitality status which reduced the flight and car hire costs.

I won’t pretend that this is not an insignificant amount of money (and for many people in our country this is great deal of money) but compared to other sports and the costs of participating in an international race this is great value.


Follow Running Mann:

4 Replies to “Heroes Marathon, Mthatha (Back2Back Marathon Weekend)”

  1. WOW!! Back-to-back marathons!? I can’t even imagine! But this looked like a beautiful course, with some pretty amazing history behind it! Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *