[MARATHON #182 / Unique Marathon #98 / 25 MARCH 2018]
After Om Die Dam the previous week and Kosmos (around Lake Umuzi) the week before that, I headed down to Midmar Dam for the Umgeni Water Marathon – in what was quite literally a case of just one dam marathon after another!
Umgeni is run on a Sunday, so it allowed a relaxed Saturday afternoon drive from Joburg. Although it’s a 5-hour trip, most of the route is double-lane highway along the N3 – normally an easy, free-flowing journey unless there is a truck-up on the highway (which unfortunately there was).
We eventually got into Howick around 8pm. Driving around Howick at 8pm on a Saturday night is like driving anywhere else at 4am in the morning. As we navigated the deserted streets looking for food, a Nando’s sign shone brightly out of the mist, and I was fortunate to get my chicken burger just before the lights went out for the night (there was a power failure as my order was placed on the counter).
For the record, mild is as intense as I go on my Nando’s chicken burger the night before a marathon – don’t want to get badly burnt the next day!
The Midmar Dam is near Howick in the Kwazulu Natal (KZN) Midlands – one of the many beautiful holiday destinations within South Africa – and is a fishing, boating and water sports paradise. Midmar Dam hosts a number of sporting events, the most famous of which is the Midmar Mile – the largest open water swimming event in the world with over 13,000 participants every year.
The dam is part of a 3,000 hectare nature reserve managed by KZN wildlife and they offer affordable, good quality accommodation within the park. I was travelling with Julian Karp and he had organised us a chalet inside the Midmar Dam resort. The self-catering chalet we stayed in was just R660 ($55/£40) for the night and had all the luxuries you need (except double-ply toilet paper). After several consecutive weeks of very early wake-ups to get to the start line on time, it was great to be just a few hundred metres from the start and enjoy a relaxed morning.
This was the 21st running of the marathon and the 21st year that Umgeni Water have been the sponsor. The race date is timed to coincide with National Water Week. Water is becoming an increasingly precious resource (Cape Town is likely to become the first major city in the world to run out of water) so it was fantastic to see that the dam was 100% full for the first time in many years.
The marathon entry fee is R260 ($21/£15) and includes access into the resort as well as a retro cotton t-shirt. Apparently the shirt design hasn’t changed in decades – I doubt whether Umgeni Water has ever sponsored a wet t-shirt competition but, if they did, the light-cotton race shirt is made from the perfect material to proudly show off one’s assets (even when the shirt is dry you can see your nipples through the material).
I thought my kids would like the cute cartoon design but when I arrived back home wearing the shirt, I was informed that it was “uncool”. The irony of a water droplet design being “uncool” was lost on them, but I can now threaten them with wearing the shirt around them in public when they misbehave.
The race options on offer are a marathon, 32km and 15km (run and walk) with the total participant count across all events limited to 1,600 – and I am pleased to report that it was another sell out year! According to race director, Les Burnard, the limit is set at 1,600 because “It is the most the resort can comfortably take otherwise the roads become too congested.” It’s great to see races that focus on the quality of their event for the participants rather than chasing record fields. From an organisational perspective the race was flawless utilising the combined skills of Collegians Harriers and Howick Athletics Club.
I was surprised that the marathon was the least popular option with just under 300 finishers (there were about 350 in the 32km but the 15km dominated with over 1,000 finishers). The Midlands is populated by laid-back country folk, however, the low marathon count is mainly because the race is sandwiched between two other big marathons.
- Many of the KZN runners would have done the Deloitte Challenge Marathon the previous weekend (a beautiful, easy marathon from Ballito to Durban with the Indian Ocean your constant companion).
- The following week, Cape Town one-ups KZN by adding an extra ocean (the Atlantic) into the mix at the Two Oceans 56km (the second largest ultra in the world).
We are just heading into autumn and there was a cool breeze coming off the water but runners kept warm while they waited for the start with tea, coffee and rusks (the only other race I know that still provides complimentary coffee and rusks is Volksrust).
The marathon and 32km runners set off together at 6am. After a short loop in the resort we headed out onto “Old Main Road” (the R103) and turned left shortly thereafter onto the Petrosstroom Road, ditching the tar for dirt.
You then plummet down to the Umgeni River (if you have a strong desire to run to the source of the Umgeni River you can do so at the 50km Mont Aux Sources challenge).
From here you have about ten picturesque kilometres past fields and farms and through some thickly wooded sections that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lord of the Rings movie.
You know you’re running a magnificent route when you stop counting kilometres because you’re so busy admiring the scenery – but I was brought back to reality when the Comrades table appeared at the turn around point (gaving us a subtle reminder of what we’re all training for in June).
At the half marathon mark there was some old school time keeping going on – an old bloke manually calling out each runner’s time as they passed by (which I thought was a nice touch). Shortly thereafter you hit the tar road for a short stint back into the reserve.
There was a nice drop down to the dam on the “yellow brick road”. I was expecting the waterside road around the dam to be nice and flat but quickly discovered that the last quarter of the race was by far the toughest. Umgeni has an elevation change of 495m, Om Die Dam (8km longer and a race that I would classify as “hilly”) has only slightly more than that.
I have a running friend and former Fourways clubmate called Campbell (a few years ago he returned to the land of his birth in Pinetown) and whenever I run KZN races I tap into his local knowledge.
Campbell is known as “Campbell the Great” to himself and “Campbell the Grey” to everyone else*. He went prematurely grey and his primary school friends with good memories agree that he looks better this way – likening him the running version of George Clooney. Campbell still runs pretty quickly (he has a sub-3 marathon in his future) and many an old codger vying for the grandmaster prize has had a nasty shock when a dash of grey flashes past them at high speed towards the end of a race.
* The exception are his fellow Pinetown Districts Athletics Club (PDAC) members to whom he is known as “Campbell the Careless” after leaving his club’s gazebo out during a tropical storm (PDAC members still need to BYOB – bring your own brolly – if they want to relax in the shade after a race).
I enjoyed Midmar’s scenery so much I classified the pulls as “gentle undulations” in my post-race social media pictorial commentary. However, “Campbell the Contradictory”, violently disagreed. Runners’ Guide describes the route as “moderately challenging with a few hills” but Campbell rubbishes this description and insists, “Next time ask a local!”
My photo of the Umgeni River bridge on Facebook resulted in “Campbell the Confused” questioning its legitimacy as he could not remember the bridge (although we crossed it twice!). He was however able to recount in excruciating detail each of the many hills over the course.
As I began the last tough out and back section, I spotted “Campbell the Cranky” slowly walking up one of the steep hills and we he had a passing chat. He took the time to explain what I had to look forward to and outlined the remainder of the route in great detail (seriously when Campbell gets onto the topic of hills you just can’t shut him up!). His route description was a lot more colourful than mine but unfortunately the only printable word from his lengthy tirade was “hills”!
Call me a masochist but I really enjoyed this section with its beautiful scenery on both sides. I normally find plenty of distractions over the last 10km of a marathon (stopping to take a lot more photos) and there was no shortage of strategic photographic breaks during the last 10km on Umgeni.
Surprisingly, there were only a handful of other Gauteng runners on the route. Depending on your stage of life, Umgeni is a great excuse for a romantic escape or fun-filled family weekend in the Midlands. If you’re looking for a great marathon in the first half of the year, this race trumps every Gauteng marathon (on both sides of the boerewors curtain).
This is a marathon I could easily run 10 times. In my post-race correspondence with race director Les Burnard, I cheekily enquired whether there was any plan to introduce permanent numbers in future. His reply, “It is something we have never considered but there is no reason why we should not. I will mention this at our next committee meeting.”
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