Jackie Gibson Marathon (Where The Hills Have No Name)

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[MARATHON #185 / 3rd Jackie Gibson / 15 April 2018]

People are very liberal dishing out advice when you’re 21. When I was 21, I migrated upcountry from a small cliquey, seaside village called Cape Town to the metropolis of Johannesburg – and received plenty of unsolicited advice. Most of it I either completely ignored or quickly forgot. However, the one piece of advice I took to heart and still apply 20 years later (probably because of the gravity with which it was delivered) was, “Stick to the north of Johannesburg. You can’t go wrong in the north of Johannesburg. But whatever you do – stay clear of the south!”

Two decades is a long time to survive in Johannesburg – overall I have come through relatively unscathed, I’ve only had one car stolen and have avoided most of the pitfalls one associates with life on the highveld (like being hijacked, mugged or becoming a Lions supporter). I attribute much of the success of this survival strategy to heeding the above advice – and, other than for weddings and marathons, I have avoided the south of Johannesburg like KPMG avoids due diligence. Just like in Game of Thrones, people of the north need to limit the amount of time they spend in the south if they want to survive!

If you survive two-laps of the steepest hills Joburg south can throw at you, this is the great medal you’ll earn.

However, people with addictions do stupid things: To feed my marathon running addiction and give Gauteng an opportunity to see my race face at least once in 2018 (the last Gauteng race I did was Soweto over 6 months previously), I decided it was time to make my first early morning foray south of the CBD since 2011 for my third Jackie Gibson marathon.

This is a race that is steeped in history – at 73 it is officially the oldest race in Johannesburg and standard marathon in the country. Johannesburg Harriers (the organising club) is also the oldest club in Johannesburg: The story goes that in January 1904, a bunch of guys got together in the Carlton Hotel lounge on the pretence of discussing recreational activities to alleviate big city boredom. Twenty of them made it to the end of a very long evening and proudly emerged onto the street – loudly proclaiming the foundation of the “The Johannesburg Harriers and Athletics Club” (proving that some drunken ramblings can indeed have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences!).

Rissik Street 1946. 18 runners set off on the first Jackie Gibson Marathon. The race was eventually won by Wally Hayward (Photo supplied by the Ferguson family).

When I last ran Jackie Gibson it was a tough one-lapper. Four years ago, the combination of sponsorship struggles and logistical challenges meant the race was converted into an even tougher double-lapper. I am not a big fan of double-lappers (and there are now only three single-lap marathons left in Gauteng) but I would rather run two-laps than see another historic marathon disappear from the calendar. However, it was reassuring to see that finisher numbers were significantly up in this year’s marathon (from 1200 to 1650) and there were increases in the half and 10km numbers as well.

Running a marathon is always a tough mental challenge and double-lappers add to the cerebral workout as one approaches the half/full marathon split. This is further exacerbated by the psychological damage done to one’s ego as half marathoners fly past you as they surge to their finish.

Decision time at the split (actually this photo was from the second lap – didn’t want to stop at this point on the first lap in case I had a psychological meltdown!).

At this race, completing two-laps is the Jackie Gibson Marathon and one lap is the Allan Ferguson Half. Both are South African running legends but I must admit to knowing little about either of these gentlemen before writing this article. I suspect that most of the running community is in the same boat so thought I’d share what I learned.

Who was Jackie Gibson?

Jackie Gibson represented South Africa at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin where he finished 8th. He managed a 3rd place finish at the Empire (today’s Commonwealth) Games in Sydney in 1938 where another South African, Johannes Coleman, was the winner (Gibson also finished 6th in the 6 mile race at the same games). His greatest run was at the South African Championships in Bloemfontein in 1937 where, at altitude, he won the race in an Empire Record of 2:30:45 just a few minutes outside the world record (at this stage it was Korea and Japan who were trading world bests). He won a further two SA marathon champs and also finished second to Johannes Coleman twice in what was the great running rivalry of the day.

Both photos are from the 1938 Empire Games Marathon in Sydney. Jackie Gibson (on the right) dices with his long-time rival Johannes Coleman. Coleman would eventually win the race whilst Gibson secured bronze (Credit: Getty Images).

During World War 2, he was an “observer-navigator” in the Air Force but sadly died in 1944 (at the age of 30) after a plane crash on a military reconnaissance operation. He ran for Johannesburg Harriers and, after the war ended, they honoured his memory with a marathon bearing his name.

They don’t make race flyers like they used to! The programme from the first Jackie Gibson Marathon (supplied by the Ferguson family).

Who was Allan Ferguson?

In 1946 a young man called Allan Ferguson picked the inaugural Jackie Gibson marathon to be his first race. He was one of just 18 participants and finished 6th in a time of 2h59 – the race was won by another South African running legend, Wally Hayward. Allan went on to run the marathon another 49 times to hold what I believe is the South African record for marathon finishes in a single event.  He was obviously a man who liked his routine, also running the Naval Hill 10km in Bloemfontein 62 consecutive times (also a South African record for a single event). The race is now known as the “Allan Ferguson Naval Hill Race” making him the only person to have two races honouring his name!

Allan Ferguson crosses the line for a 50th Jackie Gibson finish – and incredibly rare feat that only a handful of runners have achieved (Photo supplied by the Ferguson family).
Aside: Running the same race 50 times

This appears to be a very rare feat. From the research I’ve done, no one has run an ultra-marathon more than 45 times and only four people have run the same marathon 50 times or more. A list of what I’ve found is below (please let me know if you have additions to the list).
Ultra Marathon: Louis Massyn / Dave Rogers / Barry Holland 45 Comrades finishes (Durban & Pietermaritzburg, South Africa)
Marathon: Johnny Kelly 58 Boston finishes (61 starts, 2 wins, 7 x second place); Bennett Beach 51 Boston finishes; Colin Smythe 50 Rotorua finishes (New Zealand); Allan Ferguson 50 Jackie Gibson finishes (Johannesburg, South Africa)
30km: Roger Antonsson / Sune Eriksson / Lars Nordin 53 Lidingöloppet finishes (cross-country race in Sweden)
Overall: Jack “the Dipsea Demon” Kirk 67 Dipsea 7.1 mile finishes (cross-country race in California, United States); Allan Ferguson 62 Naval Hill 10km finishes (Bloemfontein, South Africa)

There is a great interview with Mr. Fergie (as he was affectionately known) on the Modern Athlete site. Some of his other feats include 36 Comrades with three golds (earned in the days when they were only awarded to the first six finishers) and he smashed a 2h52 at Peninsula Marathon as a 60-year old. One of his Comrades was run together with his son and grandson (which was the first time three generations completed the race together) and he concluded his Comrades career with a very respectable 10h16 at the age of 73.

The Allan Ferguson half was introduced in 2013 to honour its namesake who passed the previous year. The first medal included a picture of the legend (Photo credit: Johann du Plessis.

The race starts at the Kibler Park Recreation Centre – there’s ample parking and the guys herding the cars in could teach most other races how to get their runners parked quickly and efficiently without causing a pre-dawn traffic jam.

Jackie Gibson is one of the few Gauteng marathons that still does late entries but I pre-entered to ensure I got another t-shirt to add to my collection. Whilst other runners prance around in their glamourous, luminescent, figure-hugging, hi-tech moisture management race shirts; I find that training in your loose-fitting, cotton Jackie Gibson shirt gives you a lot more street cred (I firmly believe that if Vanilla Ice had worn a Jackie Gibson Marathon shirt he could have been the first Eminem).

A race shirt that gives you some serious street cred (if Vanilla Ice had worn a Jackie Gibson shirt he could have been the first Eminem).

Race entry fee is just R160 ($13/£9) which I make as the cheapest marathon in Gauteng – and although the race does not have a title sponsor they still manage to donate an average of R10,000 each year to local charities. This is an old school race and it’s nice to see that they still apply old school rules with free entry to grandmasters and blind athletes (nearly every race used to do this but these days it seems that a 50% discount is the norm for the old and the blind).

We got going on a bitterly cold Joburg morning (winter is coming!) but the warm tops were quickly removed as we hit the first hill. I asked local runners and support table personnel what some of the many hills were called but they all seemed to be nameless. When I checked with race director Cathy Munn after the race she responded to my question, “Do any of the hills have official names?” with “Nothing official for the hills.” This is a race and a place with so many hills no one has bothered to name them yet!

A nameless hill early in the race quickly warms the runners up on a cold morning.

In the absence of official titles, most runners seemed to resort to the very simple naming convention of AFH – where A is for ‘Another’, H is for ‘Hill’ and ‘F’ can be filled with the adjective of your choice. Unfortunately, marathon runners are not particularly imaginative and there seemed to be a lot of duplication with the choice of ‘F’ used to describe each hill (and strangely words like ‘Fun’, ‘Fantastic’ and ‘Frivolous’ didn’t feature at all).

Runners struggle up AFH.

The simple way to describe this route is that you start about a mile above sea-level on a hill. You then run 12km of AFH after another. If you haven’t yet burst a takkie, you can cash in on your investment with an easy 8km of downhill with just one more FH thrown in over this section (to make sure you don’t get complacent). Of course you can’t finish on a downhill, so they fit one final FH into the last kilometre and you’re back where you started. Rinse and repeat – and you have completed Jackie Gibson.

Route Profile: AFH after another.

Although there is a lot of “gritty” running, there are also some very pleasant stretches on the outskirts of the Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve. It should be noted that in most game reserves, special fencing is used to protect humans from getting hurt by wild animals. However, in Joburg south the fencing around Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve is there to protect the wildlife from the locals!

On the outskirts of the Klipriviersburg Nature Reserve. Here the special fencing is used to protect the wildlife from the locals!
The Safari is a local pub. Visit them on a Friday evening for the best sightings of local wildlife in their natural habitat!

There is quite a bit of traffic on the roads – but the route is exceptionally well marshalled so, other than noise pollution from 3 litre car engines and souped-up exhausts, you have nothing to worry about.

There’s quite a bit of traffic on route but dedicated running lanes and good marshalling make it a non-issue.

This is a race that you need a good reason to run – and that reason is Comrades. If you try to run a PB at Jackie Gibson you are either exceptionally talented or an idiot. But if you just stick to flat East Rand marathons ahead of Comrades you’ll definitely find out that you’re an idiot in June.

The expression says it all. A runner from the Benoni flatlands in Johannesburg’s East Rand gets some hillwork in before Comrades (photo credit: Jackie Gibson Facebook Page).

This is not a race that is likely to make it onto anyone’s top 10 marathon list. However, it would definitely make the shortlist for the “Top 10 toughest marathons in SA” (and therefore, by association, the “Top 10 Comrades training marathons” shortlist).

There are probably not enough arrows in the quiver of South Africa’s version of cupid to fall in love with Jackie Gibson’s hills.

For many years Allan Ferguson ran in CGA license #1. These days, it is very rare to see a single digit CGA license number on the road. I assume that they have all been snapped-up by non-running administrators (I have contacted Central Gauteng Athletics for confirmation but have not yet received a response).

I would propose that the CGA license numbers 1 to 10 are given to the active Central Gauteng runners who have completed Jackie Gibson Marathon the most times. This would give the province’s oldest race and club the honour and prestige that they deserve – as well as give the next generation of running legends a great reason to run Joburg’s toughest marathon year after year.

Just finished Joburg’s oldest and toughest marathon. Look out for the next report from Unique Marathon #100 at the Bruintjieshoogte Ultra.

Note: Thanks to Riël Hauman, Cathy Munn, Derek Ferguson and Christopher Ferguson for their contributions to the content of this article.

#RunSouthAfrica #SupportSmallMarathons

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