[MARATHON #174 / UNIQUE MARATHON #91 / 27 January 2018]
The first marathon you run after Comrades always seems really easy (“just a marathon” / “almost short distance”). Similarly, after enduring a 7-hour drive into the sweltering Kalahari for the Finlime Marathon last week, getting to Volksrust – an easy 3-hour drive from Johannesburg – was an absolute doddle.
Volksrust was founded in 1889 – “Volk” means nation and “Rust” means rest. There is no truth in the rumour that the town was founded by a disgruntled car owner and was originally called Volkswagensrust.
The town’s origins go back to the Battle of Majuba, the final and decisive battle in the First Boer War, where Transvaal regained her independence from the British. It is also of historical significance because this is where Mahatma Gandhi was arrested and jailed several times during his campaign of peaceful resistance whilst living in South Africa.
I always look for accommodation as close as possible to the start. The previous week I did well to get within a 600m radius – On arrival I was pleased to note that this time I was even closer. The race starts at the local high school and my guesthouse was literally on the doorstep.
Many people would suggest that marathon runners have always pushed the boundaries of sanity. However, this year has seen lunacy grow to epidemic proportions in the South African running community: races that previously struggled to fill their entry caps are selling out in hours. With this in mind, the Volksrust Marathon organisers took the prudent approach and made the race pre-entry only this year. They might have lost out on a few entries but I think that this is a much better option than getting a nasty surprise on race day and not being able to cope – many races seem to chase the quick buck and have a disaster race (which destroys the credibility of their race for years to come).
The race is a 5-in-1 with a 42, 32, 21, 10 and 4km fun run – all are out-and-back and set off at the same time. This year there were about 600 runners across all distances with 120 entered for the marathon. I was surprised that the 32km was the most popular distance – the runners I chatted to at registration and during the race all claimed that “It’s a bit early in the year for a marathon.” To which my obvious (but definitely unconceited) response was, “I already ran a marathon last week!”.
The biggest challenge running a marathon in small towns (about 24,000 people live in Volksrust) is finding somewhere to eat before a run that won’t give you the runs. The restaurant (and I use the term loosely) choices in Volkrust are Wimpy, Debonairs, Steers and KFC. I settled on Steers.
Staying so close to the start enabled a nice “late” 5am wake-up but my lie-in was disturbed just before 4am as a massive thunderstorm pounded down on the tin roof of my room. Volksrust is part of South Africa’s breadbasket so I certainly did not want to begrudge the farmers their rain – but I did hope that things would settle down before the 6am start.
It was still raining steadily as I walked over to the start to observe the spectacle of the entire race field huddled under the school’s stadium waiting for the race to begin. Many were warming themselves up on the complimentary coffee and munching on the Ouma rusks that were available for the peckish.
The race announcer was obviously a bit of a sadist because he made everyone abandon the shelter of the stands and head out to the exposed start line in the middle of the sports field where we waited for about 10 minutes until the last runners completed registration. As the rain threatened to pick up to monsoon levels we finally got underway – but not before some long, drawn out (and largely arbitrary) announcements. The most important announcement was “If you’re doing the 4km Fun Run turn around at the first water table. If you don’t turn around at the first water table don’t blame us like you did last year.”
Any hopes we had of keeping our shoes remotely dry were dashed as we splashed through the waterlogged field. My new shoes were only one marathon old and any hopes I had of keeping them clean were dashed as we left the field and had to negotiate 200m of solid mud. My Afrikaans is not very good but I know that “modder” means mud, “moeder” means mother and “vader” means father. What was confusing to my untrained English ear was that amongst the loud warnings of “Modder!” there were also people indignantly screaming “Moeder Vader!” (or that’s was it sounded like) as their shoes disappeared into large puddles of mud.
Support tables are plentiful along the route – about every 2km. This race has some of the best stocked tables in the country and, in addition to the water and Coke staples, most had a wide variety of snacks to choose from.
The route follows the road to Vrede (in the Free State) which unfortunately has been making news headlines for all the wrong reasons (confirmed corruption at an alleged dairy farm). Vrede (which translates as Peace) is 85km from Volkrust – about the right distance for a challenging ultra marathon. If someone organised the “Long Run to Vrede” ultra, I would definitely be there! Although point to point races can be logistically challenging, there are hordes of unused Landrovers and other luxury vehicles just lying around in Vrede – and these could definitely be put to good use shuttling runners back to the start.
The route is tough – at no point do you drop below 1600m (a mile) above sea level and there are several long climbs to negotiate. After passing the 32km turnaround, I realised that there were other reasons why this distance was more popular than the marathon – you get to avoid one really nasty hill and 4km of muddy off-road which, after the rain, was like doing a tough cross-country course in the middle of a marathon.
Unfortunately, the rain and low cloud meant that we missed out on some of the beauty of the rolling hills that characterise the “battlefields district”. It also meant that the local farmers, who man nearly all the support tables, had to delay lighting their braais. [Another great run to do is the “Battlefields Marathon” in the neighbouring town of Newcastle. Definitely one of the most beautiful races in the country.]
There was plenty of Coke at the tables. There were also plenty of farmers at the tables. They say things come in threes – whenever there are plenty of farmers and plenty of Coke you can also expect to find plenty of brandy! The farmers were noticeably less attentive on the way home – leaving water sachet distribution duties to the children (see above picture) whilst they concentrated on braaiing and ensuring that there was not too much left-over Coke (which they liberally diluted with loudmouth soup).
There were some great tables but my pick of the lot was the Amajuba Engineering table at the 16 and 26km mark. They had lined the road with decorations and also had some fine AC/DC tunes playing as we passed through – this was a nice surprise because I seemed to be keeping pace with two runners who were being seconded in a car by their mom (who was loudly playing treffers and liedjies through the window).
The clouds cleared and the sun came out on the way back but, unfortunately, the music at my favourite table had deteriorated to Bon Jovi. What’s wrong with Bon Jovi you might ask? See sidebar tirade below.
SIDEBAR: Bon Jovi Rant
I have a friend who is a professional brew master. When Miller Beer (a “making love in a canoe” beer if there ever was one) launched in South Africa, he described it as “Beer for people who don’t like drinking beer!”. In the same way, Bon Jovi is rock music for people who don’t like rock music. When Justin Bieber fans mature and get edgier music tastes they graduate to Bon Jovi. The fan base gender demographic is also about the same – and my belief is that most men who “love Bon Jovi” are just pretending so that they can tap into that fan base. Every man male I know who likes Bon Jovi has turned out the be a douche bag. As for AC/DC… as far as I know only two good things have come out of Australia. The other is Tim Tams.
Volksrust is an interesting town, although they have no restaurants to speak of they do have a Mercedes dealership. The Mercedes dealership, Stucky Motors, is also one of the main sponsors of the race and puts on a great spread at the first/last support table – aligned with their quality brand, the lady who took the photo below insisted that she do a quick clean-up of the table before she was prepared to take a photo! I think that Stucky is the family name of the owner but I did remark that “Stucky Motors” might not be the best name for a car dealer (although it would probably be quite appropriate if they were selling Fords).
I had a really nice last quarter of the race in the sunshine and finished with a spring in my step (I’m not sure if that was from accidentally drinking some of the wrong Coke). At the end of the race one is awarded with a massive “hubcap-sized” medal – the largest I’ve ever received in a South African race (and second only to the Little Rock, Arkansas Marathon medal which gets you special attention from airport security – but that is another story).
South African runners have quite a few marathon choices on the last weekend of January. The most popular of these is Johnson Crane in Benoni. Johnson Crane is a well-organised marathon (it was the first marathon I ever ran and I’ve earned permanent number 241 after 10 finishes). However, Johnson Crane has got so big (and the traffic so bad) that you could probably arrive at the start in Volksrust (200km away) at around the same time. In addition, you must run two-laps around Benoni. Even Paris Hilton would lose interest after 10 Johnsons (and if you’re British, one Johnson is probably one too many).
Next year, do yourself a favour and take a trip to Volksrust to run their marathon. Just make sure you’ve got someone to drive you home after the race in case you drink too much of the wrong Coke!
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