[MARATHON #184 / UNIQUE Marathon #99 / 7 April 2018]
I’ve spent three nights in Polokwane.
There are three marathons in Polokwane.
You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce the reason for each visit!
Having now run all three of Polokwane’s standard marathons, I can confirm that the Mall of the North Marathon is my favourite.
Polokwane is the capital of the Limpopo Province and South Africa’s largest city north of Gauteng. Polokwane translates from Northern Sotho as “Place of Safety”, which is ironic considering that the Enterprise factory in Polokwane was ground zero for the recent listeriosis outbreak (which led to over 180 deaths).
Polokwane is an easy 3-hour double-lane highway drive along the N1 from Johannesburg – your only delays are having to stop at each of the four toll booths along the way.
I arrived late on the Friday afternoon and headed straight to registration which, as logic would dictate (this being the Mall of the North Marathon) is inside the mall itself. The race is organised by the Polokwane Athletic Club and they were out in force at the registration tables. This ensured that I quickly parted with R180 ($14/£10) to enter (there is no additional charge for a late entry at this race).
Malls are designed to handle large volumes of traffic, making race morning logistics very simple for the marathon runner who likes a lie-in. To be honest, I was expecting a very low-key starting area and was really impressed by the spectacle that presented itself as I wandered across after parking!
Paris* Marathon is run on the same weekend – other than sharing the same first letter, Polokwane is unlikely to be compared to Paris in any shape or form but the starting area gave the race cosmopolitan feel one seldom associates with Polokwane.
* The festive little free state town of Parys has a couple of races but no marathon. If anyone has Free State running connections, there must be a great opportunity to organise the Parys Marathon on the same weekend as Paris – this would be a great alternative for the cost conscious marathon runner!
Country marathons normally get going with a prayer – and this was no exception. We also received a short speech from the Limpopo Health MEC, Dr. Phophi Constance Ramathuba. During races (especially when there are no noisy cars around to drown out the sound), I frequently have to apologise for making “political speeches” (a lot of hot air with no substance).
However, her speech was both short and inspirational. The main message being that the Limpopo Health Department spends R150m a year on medicine for unhealthy people: If people lived a healthier lifestyle (for example by running more), then the government could spend less on healthcare and more on other upliftment projects like housing and education. She was running the half marathon herself – so she must be one of the few politicians that actively (pun intended) practices what she preaches!
I was also expecting a fairly boring route through to the town – and once again my expectations were exceeded. After negotiating a few hundred metres around the mall parking lot, you head straight into pristine savannah and have 42km of Limpopo’s finest bushveld to enjoy on an out-and-back route.
Having spoken to many race directors since starting this blog, liaising with the local traffic authorities can often be very frustrating – and getting a road closures is near impossible (unless you are organising races for two-wheeling drug addicts). However, the organisers seem to have worked some magic with the local authorities as there is full road closure during the race and the relaxed traffic officials pass on some friendly banter as you pass them (there was plenty of Coke available at the support tables so I didn’t see any of them asking for “cooldrink money”).
Unless you are agoraphobic, this is a brilliant route to enjoy wide-open spaces surrounded by the traditional bushveld landscape of acacia trees and termite mounds along the R81 towards Modjadjiskloof.
The absence of cars means that there is not much general spectator support on route but there is the odd vendor to cheer you on as well as some curious villagers from some of the small towns you pass on the route.
One constant at races in and around Limpopo is Rocky “King of the Mountain” and his bus of merry marathon runners singing and chanting all the way along the route (you can see a video of them at it in my Potties Marathon report). Mall of the North was just before South Africa’s bus drivers embarked on a long-term nationwide strike – I have made a mental note to ask Rocky whether this impacted his Comrades training (or if he is granted special dispensation as a critical service)!
As one comes to expect with small races, there were some great support tables. My picks of the race were the Polokwane Observer and Talisman Tool Hire tables (Talisman were also responsible for most of the start line decorations).
As one returns towards Polokwane, I was struck but how sudden urban turns to rural – there is pretty much a straight line between the countryside and the the city.
There are no major hills on the route so it is “good time” course, although there is one sting in the tail with a long pull over the last two kilometres as one heads back to the Mall of the North.
The race’s main sponsor is Jaguar. Land Rover is owned by the same company. A long time ago I used to run like a Jaguar. Unfortunately, these days I run more like a Land Rover (I tend to leak almost as much but don’t need to be rescued from the side of the road nearly as often)!
I did however volunteer to do some modelling shots in front of the Jaguars to help sell a few more cars. I offered to do a driving shot but they weren’t too keen for me to sit down on their shiny leather seats. Can’t say I blame them, I wouldn’t want a sweaty marathon runner stinking up my fancy new cars!
If you like sunshine, space and termite mounds then this is a great race to run (and I’m glad I chose this as my penultimate marathon towards #100UniqueMarathons).
Having ticked off all of Polokwane’s marathons is there any reason to go back? Other than plenty of tourist, heritage and wildlife reasons, the good news is that the Run 4 Cancer Ultra Marathon (48km) was launched last year so there is a good chance I’ll be making my fourth visit to Polokwane this October.
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