Om Die Dam: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

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[MARATHON #181 / 10th Om Die Dam / 17 MARCH 2018]

Running Om Die Dam is a bit like having kids:

  • Some people have one kid and decide that’s enough;
  • Quite a few people have one kid, take a few years to recuperate before having another (and maybe squeeze out one more after that) – but then they’re done for good, knowing with certainty that that’s enough;
  • Some people stick to “recreational running”, deciding never to have kids after seeing the haggard and traumatised faces of friends with kids and hearing their tired tales of endurance;
  • But then there are those crazy people who just keep popping out kids year after year. I am one of those crazy people – having just popped out my 10th Om Die Dam.
Proud recipient of permanent #1295 after popping out my 10th Om Die Dam.

For foreign readers, Om Die Dam is Afrikaans for “Around The Dam” and, as you can see from the route map below, this is exactly what you do: One big 50km loop around the Hartbeespoort Dam.

Om Die Dam is just one big 50km loop around the dam.

Om Die Dam is the biggest inland ultra in South Africa with about 3,800 finishers (from what I’ve researched only SaintéLyon 72km in France with 5,800 finishers is bigger) and is the third largest ultra in South Africa (after Comrades and Two Oceans). It is one of South Africa’s great races and forms part of what I would consider our Big Four Ultras (with Loskop, 3,100 finishers, rounding out the group).

Aside: If anyone is aware of any ultra marathons outside of South Africa with more than 1,000 finishers please let me know. Based on the limited research I’ve done, South Africa holds a near monopoly on big field ultras.

There were many up and downs during the race (but it felt like more ups than downs – literally and figuratively).

A big race is worthy of a big report. To cater for the optimists, the pessimists and the curious I’ve split this report into three sections: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

 THE GOOD

The race closely associates itself with the African fish eagle – the medals and shirt always contain one of these beautiful birds. The fish eagle has a distinctive look and an even more unmistakable call (click here to look and listen) – so it’s fitting that the runners set off to this characteristic cry.

The African Fish eagle has a prominent association with the race – and runners set-off to her distinctive cry. Photo taken BC (before children) when we still had enough disposable income to visit fancy game reserves.

Getting to the start on time is the hardest part of this race – once you get going it’s all plain sailing… until you reach Saartjies Nek at 14km. Legend has it that Saartjie was a nasty witch who now haunts the pass (making this a real “hek’s nek” as was pointed out to me by @Chris211162 on Twitter). For the first time since the race started in 1990, the route was flipped so you hit Saartjies much earlier in the race (she was a much nastier nymph on the old route when you met her at 39km).

Saartjie is both talkative and tweetaalig (bilingual) – she says “Good Morning” (Goeiemôre) at the bottom of the hill and “Challenges You” (Daag Jou) a bit further up.

We had been promised a nasty cold front. Ominously, the driving rain decided to hit us at right the bottom of Saartjie’s. The climb has always been a highlight of the race (I normally look forward to a nice long, guilt free walk!). Water tables line the road with “mop messages” from Saartjie. In addition to the placards in the picture above, half-way up the climb you get “Saartjie het jou” (Saartjie’s got you) and at the top “Saartjie sê sien jou volgende jaar” (Saarjie says see you next year). When I first ran the race, Saartjie could only speak Afrikaans but she has learnt a bit of English over the years – maybe she’ll also start speaking another of our 11 official languages in years to come!

Take a quick breather to enjoy a dam fine view as you cross the wall.

Another lovely section during the first part of the race is the crossing of the Hartbeespoort dam wall – and directly thereafter going through the tunnel in the mountain to get to the other side. This part of the route is closed to traffic for the day and provides spectacular views.

With the route being reversed this year, it allowed the half marathoners to do a dam wall crossing for the first time (which was an overwhelmingly popular change with them).

Heading into the tunnel.

After Saartjies there is a long undulating slog past the Pelindaba Nuclear Facility and Pecanwood Golf Estate until the southern tip of the dam eventually comes into view. You can enjoy the scenery as it it coincides with a gentle descent, continuing all the way until you cross the eastern end of the dam.

The Pelindaba Nuclear Power Plant (hopefully not to be expanded anytime soon) looms over runners during the long, undulating slog in the middle section of the race.

From here it’s a steady climb up to the top of Kommando Nek where General De La Ray managed to cut-off the British supply lines between Rustenburg and Pretoria during the first Anglo-Boer War. Every good ultra needs a nasty hill after the marathon mark and Kommando Nek provides a good test as to how well your Comrades training is going.

I climbed the embankment to make sure I got right up to the highest point of Kommando Nek for this photo (getting down again was not as easy).

A lovely descent follows until runners cross the Crocodile River. This is another good spot to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and will distract you from looking up and realising that the last 2km are one long, brutal uphill battle. As far as I know this hill does not yet have an official name: I propose calling it Totwott Hill (an acronym as this vicious hill mountain pass is “The Only Thing WOrse Than the Traffic” at Om Die Dam).

Crossing the Crocodile River. Fortunately there aren’t crocs in this section of the river to pick off the slower runners (you need to go way downstream into Limpopo Province for that).

After a nice sprint down the finish line I was pulled aside by one of the officials – not normally a good thing – but on this occasion it was to be directed to the special chute for “milestone finishers”. Most of the big races in South Africa award runners their own “permanent” number once they’ve successfully completed the race 10 times – and I was very proud to earn blue #1295 with my 10th finish.

After running around a big dam, the rain left us a small “dammetjie” to run around just before the finish.

Other “Good” Snippets

The Ever-Present Eight

This was the 28th running of Om Die Dam – 8 runners went into the race having done every edition of the event (you can read about them here) – and 8 came out the other side with their perfect finishing record intact.

A Great Sponsor

Old Mutual has to be the #1 long-term sponsor of South African races. They’ve been with Om Die Dam since the early 1990s and are also the title sponsor of the Two Oceans and Soweto Marathons as well as a number of other high profile trail runs and mountain bike races – here is a full list of their events.

Old Mutual have been the biggest, best and longest sponsor of distance running in South Africa (photo from the race’s Facebook site).

Free Beer

I managed to finish in time to get a free beer this year. It was a free alcohol free beer. SAB have just launched an alcohol free version of their famous Castle brand – I will save this beer in the fridge in case my wife ever tries to serve me a soy burger (I think alcohol free beer would pair nicely with soy).

Medal and free beer from Om Die Dam ultra. But don’t you just hate it when “free” is on the wrong side of “alcohol”?

Courier Registration Option

In the past you had to register on specific dates at specific venues which I always found very inconvenient. Last year they introduced a “race number courier” option. For a nominal fee (cheaper than the petrol to get to one of the registration venues) you can get your race pack hand delivered – and I was a happy customer using the service again this year.

Goodie Bag

The race always provides a nice goodie bag (sadly my Kit Kat had turned into a Crunchie by the time it was delivered). A quality shirt is also included – although I tend not to wear mine too often since green is not the best colour for my complexion. In fact, I think the only South African sportsman who looks more awkward in green than I do is Farhaan Behardien.

A nice selection from the goodie bag including a high-quality running shirt – but the only South African sportsman who looks more awkward than me in green is Farhaan Behardien.

Charity

The race supports three local charities: Meerhof School (for learners with special educational needs), SAFV Hartbeeshof Dienssentrum (an old age home) and House Lesedi: House of Light (an orphanage for abandoned children). Runners have the opportunity of donating to these charities when entering and the race doubles the amount donated – resulting in hundreds of thousands of rands in support over the years.

In turn, these beneficiaries give back on the race day. Learners from Meerhof School assist at one of the tables in the latter stages of the race handing out traditional ‘melkterts’ to weary runners (I always enjoy mine!) and the residents from the old age home are integrally involved with the organisation and execution of the fun run.

Official Apology

Unfortunately, there were several issues with this year’s event – these are covered in the next section. On a positive note, an official (and sincere) apology was promptly emailed to all participants after the race and posted on the race’s Facebook page. Having chatted to race director Jaco Venter, I believe that they are taking the issues seriously and we’ll see a big improvement next year.

THE BAD

This year there were some three main issues: Traffic, (more) Traffic and Toilets.

1. Diabolical Traffic to the Start

There are many great aspects to Om Die Dam but traffic to the start is not one of them. The venue has moved around several times – each time with the promise that “traffic will be better”. Sticking with the opening analogy, every parent will tell you that one of the biggest impacts with having children is to your sleep – running Om Die Dam has the same detrimental effect. Unfortunately, the traffic just seems to get worse and worse each year – if I have to wake up any earlier to get to the start on time it will be on Friday morning to go to work! Getting to Hartbeespoort is fine but once you’re there, the small roads cannot handle 10,000+ runners converging on a single spot.

A trip to Hartbeespoort takes just one hour under normal conditions but can take over four hours on race morning. This year I left home just after 3am, got within 5km of the start by 4:15 and eventually parked my car 3km from the start at 5:50am (for the record I was one of the people who obeyed the rules of the road and stuck in my lane – many people didn’t which made the problem worse). A few years ago, I miscalculated and started the race almost an hour late (it’s a tough mental challenge starting a 50km race with a 55 minute handicap!) but there is now a rule that if you don’t cross the timing mat before 6:10am you’re disqualified. With this in mind, I did a speedy 3km warmup from my car and got to the start at 6:08am.

Gridlock in Hartbesspoort at 4am (photo courtesy of @Philajnr). A short video of the chaos from @MrsHattinghRuns can be found here.

Once there, I discovered that the start had been delayed by 30 minutes because only about a quarter of the registered field of 5,500 were ready to go. Although delayed starts do happen from time to time, as far as I know, it’s the first time that one of South Africa’s big ultras has had to delay their start.

Hopefully this year was “the worst it will ever be” as the traffic was exacerbated by roadworks on the main access road – the roadworks were  supposed to be complete well before Om Die Dam 2018 so let’s hope they make it in time for Om Die Dam 2019.

Potential Solutions

  • This year busses were available from several pickup points (for R190 return) – I understand that these were well utilised but some of the busses left late and many did not get to the start on time (having to fight the same traffic as the rest of us). The challenge is to make the busses easier and quicker to use than driving one’s car – I would suggest letting the official busses (and only the busses) have access to the blocked off roads.
  • Park and ride has been suggested as an option – I think it is a good idea but would double that with allowing the shuttles access to the blocked roads and/or a special lane. This would make it much quicker than using one’s own car and therefore a no brainer to use the service. This works really well for Knysna Marathon (who partner with the local taxi industry) – and the novelty of an authentic Hi-Ace delivery to the start could become a feature of the race.
  • Another practical option would be to consider having several different starting points around Hartbeespoort and then the runners merge together a few kilometres into the route (like London Marathon does).
  • Finally, the obvious. Reduce the number of entries to a level that the roads can handle. This year an additional 1,000 entries were added after the original limit had been reached (and these sold out within minutes) – it might be time focusing on quality first and, only once this is back to a suitable standard, start increasing the quantity. In a similar vein, holding the ultra on Saturday and the other races on Sunday would have the same effect.

 2. Traffic on the route

Om Die Dam was my second marathon and first ultra (all the way back in 2002). Back then the roads around the dam were still fairly quiet. Over the years there has been a huge amount of residential and recreational development in the area and these days the runners battle for supremacy on the roads.

Back in 2002, The Running Boy sets out on his first ultra at Om Die Dam (you only become a Running Mann after you finish your first ultra!).

Part of the rationale for switching the direction of the route this year was that it would allow runners to face oncoming traffic (a good change – I get shell shock when cars are constantly zooming past from behind). However, at a couple of points on the route, runners were running in the middle of the road sandwiched between cars and trucks (without a marshal or traffic officer in sight). Our traffic police are masters of concealment – so I did scrutinise the surrounding shrubbery in case they’d burrowed into the bushes.

Personally, I did not feel unsafe because the cars were travelling very slowly but there was a lot of unhappiness expressed by runners on social media about the safety aspect.

Solution

Get the traffic department to do their job. In their formal apology letter, the organisers acknowledged; “runners were placed in a situation we as a race do not condone”. Let’s hope it’s a once off and the issue is resolved next year.

Reports were that our friends in blue were more interested in wandering around the finish area finding rehydrating runners who’d strayed from sanctity of the beer (or their club) tent – and were taking great pleasure confiscating their beers and watering the grass with them.

The eagle-eye of the law was focused on ruining runners’ rehydration rather than their safety. This is the medal from the 15th edition of the race (a big birdy told me we can expect something special for the 30th edition in 2020).

3. Fouling Driveways

I don’t mind talking about bowel movements on my blog but, out of respect to unprocessed food, have refrained from posting the pictures of various unwanted driveway deposits that local residents shared on Facebook.

[If you have the uncontrollable urge to gawk at pre-race nerves, the graphic details can be found within the comments section of the “We are incredibly proud…” post on the race’s Facebook page.]

Solution

Whilst there is no excuse for runners fouling residents’ driveways, it’s going to happen and is something that needs to be dealt with. You can never have too many porterloos – and there could have been a few more on the way to the start and at the first few tables.

This is how the Japanese do it – a long line of loos (Running Mann @Tokyo Marathon 2008).

I would also suggest having a special poo patrol platoon, who could comb the neighbourhood searching for hidden landmines – and I would give local residents the hotline number for this “bomb disposal unit”.

Aside: In Hong Kong, a group of scientists collects DNA from discarded cigarette butts, gum and condoms and uses it to create renderings of the culprit’s faces for public shaming. Any budding scientists out there want to try this out? You’ll get rich pickings in the Harties driveways.

THE UGLY

Jack “The Black Matador” Nthlamu sits behind me in the office. Jack has been something of a reluctant runner this year…

His first marathon of the year was supposed to be Deloitte Pretoria but on race morning he “locked his keys in the car” (I assume he locked his phone in the car as well which was why he couldn’t call an Uber to get to the start like any normal marathon runner would).

Jack makes excuses on Facebook.

He was then supposed to run the Tzaneen Tuffy (a stunning but, as the name suggests, “Tuff” with two “F”s marathon) in the north-west corner of South Africa. This time he got as far as the outskirts of Pretoria before claiming that a warning light flashed in his new Ford. Fords are known to turn into fireballs on the highway at only the slightest provocation, so he took the prudent approach and went back home.

Jack expresses regret on Facebook.

The runners in the office were sceptical whether Jack would make it to the start of Om Die Dam. A few days before the race, Jack took to social media to publicly announce a bad bout of explosive diarrhoea – which only increased the speculation and spectre of doubt surrounding his marathon running future.

Jack talks crap on Facebook.

But it was third time lucky for Jack as he not only made it to the start but had a great race – until about 45km when he got a sudden bout of nausea and started cramping.

Ultra runners tend to keep their insanity hidden on the inside but with these guys you can clearly see their nuts! The cold front hit bashful guy on the left particularly hard. Guy on right must be wearing thermals so he can proudly display his package .

We are not sure exactly what caused the body of this finely honed athlete to become queasy and go into sudden shock – but it was shortly after seeing the guys in green in the photo above. This leaves us to speculate that Jack had a severe allergic reaction to nuts.

The good news is that Jack managed to push through for a personal best. As I slowly trudged back to my car after the race, jovial Jack gave me a friendly “hoot and hello” from the comfort of his luxury sedan. Jack is a considerate guy and, not wanting to put me at risk of incineration by Ford, sped off with a smile before I could ask to a lift.

Jack (in Orange) celebrates his first finish of 2018.

Brain vs Pain

Many runners have publicly declared that this will be their last Om Die Dam. Whilst I was sitting in the car for 90 minutes crawling towards start line on Saturday morning, I swore that this would definitely be my final Om Die Dam.

The human brain has the wonderful capacity to quickly forget pain, anguish and mental torture – I don’t think I’ll be having any more kids, but just a few days later and I’m already certain that I’ll be popping out a few more Om Die Dams in future years!

#RunSouthAfrica #SupportSmallMarathons

 

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