JB Marks Marathon, Ventersdorp

[MARATHON #172 / UNIQUE MARATHON #89 / 16 December 2017]

I visited Ventersdorp for the first time ever in March this year (to run a marathon).

I visited Ventersdorp for the for second time this December (also to run a marathon).

Running a marathon is a one good reason to visit Ventersdorp. You will be hard pressed to find a second…

About to re-enter Ventersdorp – twice in one year (voluntarily).

I thought that my first back-to-back marathon weekend (Aspen and Heroes) at the start of December concluded the 2017 marathon season. Luckily I spotted a flyer for a new race on a Facebook running group and gratefully grabbed the opportunity to squeeze one more marathon into 2017 (to finish the year with 23 marathons – 17 standard, 6 ultra).

According to the flyer the “JB Marks Marathon” was organised “to promote road running and raise funds for the purchase of stationery, school uniforms and sanitary towels for needy pupils.” An admirable goal and I always like to support races that are run for a good cause. The marathon entry costs R130 (very reasonable and includes a cotton shirt) and the event also includes 21, 10 and 5km options.

R130 entry fee includes a medal, cotton shirt and a bottle of “Isorade”. I thought that this might be the energy drink version of “beer googles” but it did nothing to improve the aesthetic quality of my fellow runners.

I made the easy 2-hour drive from Johannesburg to Ventersdorp on Friday with Julian Karp (check out the article featuring him on page 16 of the latest issue of Modern Athlete). Julian is a certified marathon addict (having completed over 700 marathons and ultras) and makes my marathon running OCD seem relatively normal (like if Ozzy Osborne is having a few drinks in a bar – he is pretty hardcore in isolation but would be made to look “recreational” when Keith Richards walks through the door).

The race was held on 16 December which is a South African public holiday (Day of Reconciliation). Despite being the start of the summer school holidays,  it was easy to secure accommodation within walking distance of the start (Ventersdorp is not a big tourist destination – in fact is seems that there is so little to do in town that the “Tourism” link on the municipality’s web site has no content!). 

The race starts in “Totpak Park” next to a Therapeutic Horse Riding centre (I suspect that therapy is big business in Ventersdorp). I did not get a chance to clarify whether the horse riding is therapeutic in itself or whether this is a physio practice for people who have fallen off their horse (like Ventersdorp’s most infamous son, Eugène Terre’Blanche, did back in 1992).

The athletes were clearly already in holiday mode because at 5:57am I was the only runner in the general vicinity of the start line. I was expecting a small field but was hoping it would be bigger than previous marathon I ran in Ventersdorp where only six other runners turned up. A quick round up was done and I was surprised to be surrounded by over 100 runners. However, when the race official clarified that the 6am start was just for the full marathon – the field was quickly culled down to 15 athletes.

5:57am on a Saturday morning. 3 minutes before the start of the inaugural JB Marks marathon. The other 14 runners have not yet appeared. The race official is busy loading his starting gun to the left of the picture.

The race is out and back –  you start with a few kms through the town but the majority of the route is past cattle and mielie (corn) fields on quiet roads (few cars and even fewer runners). The only animals I saw (and smelt) were cows but the bird life is prolific (if you’re into that kind of thing) – even if you aren’t the frequent sightings of the male Whydah birds in full plumage is something special.

The Whydah birds along the route at this time of year are spectacular (photo from Google images).

You run past the Schoonspruit Distillery just outside of town. Schoonspruit trade as “Totpak” and their notable contribution to South African society is the production and popularisation of plastic liquor sachets. This in turn has led to many a budget constrained student getting their first exposure to the noble art of smuggling – and speaking from experience, inter-varsity rugby games would not have been the same without Totpak! Totpak also seemed to own pretty much everything on the side of town we were staying so I guess you could say that they give the people of Ventersdorp their Venters-dop.

Schoonspruit Distillery provides Ventersdorp with their Venters-dop.

With such a small field, I was expecting to run most of the race experiencing the “loneliness of the long distance runner” but got chatting to Thino, the Rustenburg dentist, early on and we ended up running the whole race together. Dentists are well known for inflicting pain on their patients so it’s good see dentists inflicting pain on themselves by running marathons. Thino had some cool reggae music playing, a band called Culture that I had not heard before – so, in addition to a good run, I also got 4 hours of culture!

The wind was at our backs during the “out” half and I only realised afterwards (when looking at the route profile) that the turnaround point is the lowest point in the race so it was uphill all the way back.

Route profile. The turnaround point is the lowest on the route so it’s uphill all the way home.

The wind was light and breezy during the out half but suddenly reached gale-force strength (or so it felt) on the way back. Aside from the headwind making running conditions difficult, it also meant that we got strong smells of cow (well actually the by-product of their digestive systems) – the only upside to this is that you can break wind with impunity because nothing can compete with the smell emanating from large herds of well-fed cows.

More cows than runners on the route. From what we smelt along the route they are very well fed.

One thing I enjoy about and out-and-back routes is that you get to see and greet your fellow competitors. One thing I did not enjoy about this out-and-back route was seeing that there were only three runners behind us at the halfway point! However, Thino and I did manage to overhaul a few runners on the road home to secure a top 10 finish. As I’m an optimist, I can tell you we finished 7th and 8th (if I was a pessimist we would have finished 7th and 8th last).

Running is a great social sport. With a field of only 15, I was expecting a lonely run but got chatting to Thino the Rustenburg dentist early on – we ended up running the whole race together.

Overall this was a really nice race  – I normally have a bit of a December slump so hopefully the second JB Marks Marathon will ensure that I can delay my full-blown December debauchery again in 2018.

When most people die they push up daisies. When you die in Ventersdorp you push up mielies (corn)! Tombstones at the edge of a large mielie field on the race route.

Who was JB Marks?

John Beaver (JB) Marks has earned naming rights to both the marathon and the local municipality. In addition, he has a massive 6-metre erection venerating him on the outskirts of town.

The six-metre bronze statue of John Beaver Marks on the outskirts of town  – quite literally the biggest tourist attraction in Ventersdorp.

Therefore, a question I had to ask one of the race organisers was, “Is JB Marks any relation to Skid?” “Who was JB Marks?”. To this I received raised eye-brows and a slightly incredulous response, “He was one of the guys who died in Russia during apartheid and his body was recently brought back to South Africa.” Not wishing to further expose my ignorance, I responded by nodding my head knowingly and making a mental note to do some internet research after the race.

Having scoured the internet, I am still confused as to why JB Marks warrants having a significant chunk of the North West province named after him. He has the least impressive Wikipedia resume I’ve ever seen – the way it’s written makes it look like every time he made it to a senior leadership position he made a massive screw-up and was replaced quickly thereafter by somebody more competent.

There are a few news reports from the exhuming, reburial and statue unveiling but the articles and journalists only mention the “sacrifice” of the “struggle hero” – not what he actually did to earn hero credentials (and there are thousands of people who made great sacrifices in the fight against apartheid).

Maybe it’s just that he’s the most famous person to (admit to) be born in Ventersdorp? Perhaps I am being unfair having just returned from Mthatha who boast the birthing of a long list of major political figures (including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu).

If I am missing something about the significance of JB Marks, please let me know – I am happy to be educated!


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