Maritzburg City Marathon (A Return To The Mainstream)

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[MARATHON #178 / UNIQUE MARATHON #95 /  25 FEBRUARY 2018]

As a marathon running connoisseur, I consider small town marathons to be the craft beer of the running world – they’re harder to locate, are a bit more expensive to consume and should always be savoured rather than sprinted. Having consumed five fantastic craft marathons already in 2018, it was with some trepidation that I approached a return to the mainstream for the Witness Maritzburg City Marathon, the biggest standard marathon in Kwazulu Natal.

It’s nice to stand in front of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall with just 15km left to run during the Maritzburg City Marathon. Will be standing here again on 10 June (along with 20,000 other Comrades) with a slightly more daunting 90.1km to go.

The race date timing was great as it coincided with our daughters’ mid-term school break. This meant it was an easy sell to the family – spending a relaxing long weekend in the Natal Midlands (5 hours drive from Johannesburg) does not need much persuasion.

This was the second year that the race used the Scottville Race Course / Golden Horse Casino as the start and finish venue (which is also where Comrades 2017 finished). It’s a great venue for a big event and helped ensure that registration was quick and efficient. Although this is a pre-entry event, they allow a certain amount of “late charity entries” in the half and full marathons (about twice the price of the normal entry) which is a great way to raise extra money for the race’s three official charities (Pietermaritzburg Community Chest, PinkDrive and More Balls Than Most).

Motivational running posters – Maritzburg-style.

In addition to the fund raising, the race gives a lot back to the community: The Wheatfield Mission benefits from all the leftover food and perishables and the race provides food and tents to 400 indigent runners who would otherwise spend the night before the race sleeping under the stars and start on an empty stomach. The runners would definitely have appreciated the shelter – nothing changes fast in the sleepy hollow of Pietermaritzburg except the weather – Saturday afternoon was scorching hot with an oppressive 98% humidity but a few hours later and it was freezing cold with rain, thunder and icy winds that persisted until race morning.

If you do run into any difficulties on race morning, it would be very difficult to plead ignorance as one receives seven pages of detailed instructions over email from race director John Hall who leaves nothing to chance. He also acknowledges and highlights the role that volunteers play – something us runners often forget about – the whole race is organised and run by volunteers, many of whom are in position at 4am and only stop working once the last runner has finished.

A more comprehensive set of race day instructions you are unlikely to find!

I noted that the race instructions included a few interesting words that have not been used in contemporary writing for many years like “tarry” and “muster” – so it is highly appropriate that the race starts in “Old England” road.

Sidebar – About John Hall: There is a great article here about John Hall and all he has done for running in Pietermaritzburg. When he’s not organising races, John has his own renovating business – building contractors are notoriously unreliable but if his race organisational skills are anything to go by, I am sure this is one of the most reliable renovators in the country! It also looks like he’s passed the skills down to his daughter if this recent article in Modern Athlete is anything to go by. 

The race is exceptionally well organised – it takes a lot to cater for 8,500 runners – accolades must go to race director John Hall and his team of volunteers for pulling off an annual event of this scale.

Race weekend kicks off with a free music concert on Friday evening, followed by 7km and 14km trail races on Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon has a series of MaraFun events for the kids: 4.2km and 2.1km fun runs, a 420m and 210m nappy dash and 42m and 21m nappy crawls – definitely something for everyone. Another great feature is the KidZone on Sunday morning where, for a nominal fee, running couples can deposit their children in a safe space so that they can both get a few hours of peace and quiet whilst running the marathon, half or 10km.

There’s something for everyone – the weekend also includes trail runs, fun runs, nappy dashes – and crawls! (photos supplied)

Sunday is the main event with 3,500 marathoners, 2,600 half marathoners and 1,500 10km runners descending on Pietermaritzburg. I was staying about 45 minutes from the 5:30am start which necessitated a 4am departure to allow for the expected traffic. I spent 45 minutes negotiating the drizzle and heavy mist to get within 1.5km of the start and then spent another 45 minutes creeping into the Golden Horse Casino and parking. I thought I would be starting 5 minutes late but the organisers kindly waited for me – as I completed my warm-up jog sprint from the parking area to the start line, I heard the last few lines of our national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, and slotted in at the back of the field.

8000 runners waiting to unleash their athleticism on a cold and drizzly morning (photo from the race’s Facebook page).

Runners get going not with a bang but with a “BOOM!” from the South African Navy’s saluting gun. The race was started over two decades ago by the Natal Carbineers club – who in turn are part of South Africa’s Senior Volunteer Regiment. A nice connection to the South African Legion that still prevails is that poppies feature prominently at the start line. This interesting article on the race site educated me on all the symbolism involved in the poppy’s design.

8000 runners cram the streets of Pietermaritzburg. (photo supplied)

The route is a double-lapper and incorporates running through the busy city streets (which I did not enjoy so much) and the suburbs (which was much more pleasant). I especially enjoyed the last third where one winds through the leafy suburbs and if you’re lucky you’ll see giraffe in the Bisley section (unfortunately they were hiding this year).

The route is designed for speed and from a qualifier point of view the route is ideal – several small pulls which culminate in six super-fast gentle downhill kilometres. If you are looking to run a good qualifier or PB the route is ideal – and this race is used by more runners than any other as their Comrades qualifier.

A great course for a fast time. Profile courtesy of well-known coach, commentator and blogger Norrie Williamson.

Most of Pietermatizburg’s highlights are taken in along the route including the iconic City Hall (where the Comrades down run starts), the Royal Agricultulral Gardens, Harry Gwala stadium and two crossings of the Dusi river (home of the largest and most famous canoe marathon in Africa).

Relaxing on top of the Msunduzi river. The Dusi Canoe Marathon is the biggest in Africa (but having “Dusi guts” does not mean you’ve battled through the tough 120km course but that you will be doing a lot of sitting, just not in a canoe).

I’m not a fan of traffic (to get to and during) big city races. However, one of the big marathon benefits is having plenty of people to chat to along the way. I noticed one poor runner with Western Cape license plates running barefoot and politely enquired whether Cape Town “has now run out of running shoes as well as water”. Turns out that “shoeless Graham” runs Comrades barefoot for charity – so he was busy toughening up his feet to get them ready for 10 June (unfortunately he had not picked this year’s charity yet so I can’t give them a plug).

The locals always claim that the cockroaches and spiders are bigger in Kwazulu Natal – here’s the proof!

There was a reasonable amount of spectator support on route but there could always be more (especially considering that there is not much else to do in Pietermaritzburg on a Sunday morning).

The race’s main sponsors are The Witness newspaper, Medihelp (a medical aid provider) and Khayelihle (funeral services) – if something does go wrong on race day it’s nice to know you’ll be well taken care of (but hopefully just by Medihelp and not Khayelihle)! There are a lot of other sponsors listed on the race site most of whom provide “sponsorship in kind” (like Thirsti who provide race logistics and mobile refrigeration trucks at all the support tables).

Runners pass the Royal Agricultural Society. (photo from the race’s Facebook page).

In the electronic chats I had with John Hall after the race, I was really surprised that there is no “profit” from the event – all the money that comes in is put straight into the event itself. I think many runners don’t realise the costs involved to put on a big race – that a race of this size and stature has the same sponsorship challenges that many of the smaller races has definitely changed my perspective. That being said, it’s a real pity that the city of Pietermaritzburg does not seem to get more directly involved in supporting the event. Having a great marathon in the city (and one of the few AIMS certified races in the country) is a major accolade and brings a lot of visitors (and their wallets) – often one does not appreciate what one has until it’s gone.

As the finish is on a horse racing track, you need to be careful that you don’t trip and break your leg in the home straight (or they might shoot you)! After crossing the line you receive a nice medal portraying the City Hall and there is also a “runners soup kitchen” with tea, coffee, Milo, sandwiches, biscuits and chocolate cake. Having enjoyed a quick snack, I headed back to a “Triple B” (Belgium chocolate dipping, Beer and Braaiing) afternoon in the Midlands.

Post race replenishment – coffee, tea, Milo, sandwiches and biscuits are available. The lady at the end is guarding the chocolate cake.

Many of South Africa’s big races give you a permanent number after 10 finishes – Maritzburg is unique in that you are awarded a permanent “blue” number after just 5 finishes. I am a sucker for permanent numbers (and will even run 20 laps around Benoni to get one!). Now that I am already 20% of the way there, I will definitely return to Pietermaritzburg to get the other 80% done!

Post race beer and braai. The Maritzburg City Marathon is a great excuse for a weekend break in the Natal Midlands.
Sidebar – The Five Fantastic “Craft” Marathons that preceded this one.
1. Finlime (in the middle of the Kalahari Desert)
2. Volksrust (high spirits in the highlands)
3. Bay Ultra (see the lighthouse at the end of the ultra)
4. Potties (a marathon in the bushveld)
5. Assegaai (can you judge a marathon by their shirt)

#RunSouthAfrica

 

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