[MARATHON #186 / UNIQUE Marathon #100 / 21 April 2018]
Prudent South African runners only plan their running year BC (before Comrades). When you’re running Comrades in June, it is presumptuous to plan anything for the second half of the year. Having ended 2017 with 89 unique marathons, I realised that I could reach my goal of 100 unique marathons in 2018 BC via a combination of three factors: good health, extensive travel and a very understanding wife.
Everything went perfectly to plan: After 13 consecutive marathon running weekends all around the country (with just three repeat races: Om Die Dam, Two Oceans and Jackie Gibson), it was now time to conclude the 100 unique marathons goal. When picking a milestone marathon, many people would pick a large, flashy and prestigious marathon – but there’s a big risk of getting “Phantom Menanced” and the hype not living up to expectations.
If you want to celebrate an important life event over a memorable dinner, you’re not going to choose McDonalds. You want something that’s small, personal and intimate. You don’t want to rush through your evening either – and may well prolong the festivities with an extra course or some side dishes (in running terms the best way to prolong the experience is to run an ultra!).
Somerset East may not offer much in the way of fine dining options but they do offer the smallest and most personal ultra marathon in the country – which is why I chose Bruintjieshoogte to be unique marathon #100.
Most people have heard of Somerset West, the prestigious Western Cape town that boasts historic wine farms and signature golf courses, but few have heard of her eastern namesake where Autumn Harvest “Crackling” is the wine of choice and a lonely 9-hole golf course means that the town’s doctors only get every second Wednesday afternoon off. It’s rare to find a traveller who has visited this isolated Karoo town – and even rarer a runner that has managed to summit the Bruintjieshoogte (Brown’s Heights) and conquered the 50km beast from Somerset East.
Bruintjieshoogte is the Eastern Cape province’s oldest ultra (2018 was the 41st running of the event) but it remains a hidden gem, highlighted by the fact that only 35 runners have received a permanent number after 10 ultra finishes (which must be the lowest “times run / numbers awarded” ratio in the country). Seven permanent numbers have also been awarded for the 25km “half ultra” (other than Two Oceans half, this is the only race I know of under 30km that awards permanent numbers).
Dinner for one makes for great New Year’s Eve viewing but when celebrating major life achievements you want your family around. I had pencilled in Bruintjieshoogte and Outeniqua (scheduled the following weekend) for the end of April as they were conveniently timed over school holidays and were both in the “same general vicinity” (only 500km apart) – ideal for a road tripping family holiday! All that remained was to present a successful sales pitch to my wife.
Luckily, it was an easy sell with a holiday itinerary that included the world-class Addo Elephant National Park (only an hour’s drive from Somerset East), Oudtshoorn (with it’s spectacular Cango Caves and Ostrich Show Farms) and Wilderness on the Garden Route (where Outeniqua Marathon finishes – one of the best holiday destinations in the country).
I fired a few questions off over email and quickly received a reply from the race director, Henrico Marais, confirming dates and details. He had seen my blog and social media postings about the plan to 100 unique marathons and wished me well on the journey.
Henrico is also Somerset East’s local attorney-at-law. Therefore, for the remainder of this report, I thought it appropriate to present a prima facia body of evidence that will prove beyond reasonable doubt that Bruintjieshoogte is the best race in the country at which to achieve a personal milestone.
Exhibit A: Free Accommodation
In early February, I received a follow-on email from Henrico. The 4-star Angler & Antelope B&B had offered the race a night’s free accommodation and Henrico thought that I would be the most deserving recipient on the basis that, “Knowing that you have to travel a lot and far for all the races and that you promote the towns where you were running, we could not think of a better person to offer it to”. It’s not often that a lawyer offers you something for free – so naturally this was an offer I couldn’t refuse!
Exhibit B: Back Page Exposé in the Local Newspaper
Note: For those people that read “those kind of papers”, Somerset East is a conservative town and the “Hartland Nuus (Mouthpiece of the East Cape Midlands)” is a classy publication whose back page features sport. Besides which, when I run I prevent wardrobe malfunctions (and preserve my nipple dignity) using Star Wars, Hello Kitty or Disney Princess plasters (just depends what gets pulled out of the communal family plaster box).
After confirming that Bruintjieshoogte would be unique marathon #100, I was asked to provide some information for a report in the local newspaper. The article is a great new addition to my (small) running scrapbook (but the under-12 Craddock Netball team must have been really disappointed that they got bumped-off the back page).
Somerset East is a quaint Karoo town that is a two-hour drive from anywhere else (our two-hour drive was from Port Elizabeth airport). I could only find one famous person who was born here – the abstract artist Walter Battiss (there is a museum and a large collection of his work in town). The Afrikaans name of the town is Somerset Oos and it is a real pity that a prominent politician (of any denomination) has not come from this part of the world as “The Doos from Somerset Oos” is a nickname that is just waiting to be owned. [Note: I do my research thoroughly and even Google returns zero hits on this phrase!].
On arrival at the Angler & Antelope we received a warm welcome from Alan but a wide berth from his wife Annabelle (who had flu and considerately kept her distance to avoid infecting any runners – I certainly didn’t want a mistrial at this late stage). Fly fishing is one of the big tourist activities in the area and you can book your trips directly at the lodge – Alan is an enthusiast and is helping to put Somerset East on the map as an angling destination. The accommodation was great and the location even better – just 200m from the start/finish (so the rest of your family can enjoy a traditional home cooked breakfast whilst you pound your way over some hills).
Exhibit C: A personal tour of the race sponsor’s factory
Rather uniquely the race’s title sponsor is a taxidermist, African Wildlife Artistry (AWA), and Henrico had offered to arrange a tour of their studio. After explaining the concept of taxidermy to my daughters (and verifying that they would not be freaked out), we set off on a family outing.
A WhatsApp message let me know he was parked outside and Henrico emerged as we walked towards his large bakkie (even the attorneys drive bakkies in Somerset East). As we had only communicated electronically (and based on my perceptions derived from interactions with other race directors), I was expecting an elderly “Matlock with a moustache” type attorney – and was surprised when a young man in his early 30s stepped out to greet us (they breed them young in Somerset East).
The short guided tour by Rudolph (the AWA owner) was intriguing and gave me an appreciation of this often derided art form. There is a lot that goes into making a dead animal look lifelike! Rudolph only works with wild animals and does not do pets because “that’s just weird”!
Most of Rudolph’s customers are foreign hunters. I am not a hunter myself (and if you have too many Facebook friends, posing in front of a dead animal with a rifle in your hand, will drop that number significantly) but was interested to hear about the social responsibility side of the industry. The pressure from (in particular American) hunters that is placed on taxidermists to do more in the local community directly resulted in AWA becoming the title sponsor. Rudolph was already providing full running sponsorship to some of his staff so stepping in to fill the race’s vacant sponsorship slot was the next logical step. And I guess that if anyone does object to taxidermy as profession they will be told to “get stuffed”!
Exhibit D: Home-Cooked Carbo Loading
Registration is at the local bowls club and includes a pasta party comprising home-cooked lasagne, potatoes and a couple of vegetable dishes. According to my daughters, the accompanying bread was the best they’d ever tasted! And the good news (especially for those of us who like to wash our pasta down with a beer) is that you can “approach the bar” at any time.
Exhibit E: A Special Bib
Although one can register on race morning, the lure of the pasta party brings in the crowds and I joined the short queue to collect race number #100 – a lovely touch for my centurion race.
Exhibit F: Minimal Damages Conceded
Race entry fee is just R160 (which I make as the cheapest ultra in the country). You can also buy a distinctive high-quality race shirt for R130 (which I did): A great memento and most likely the shirt I will wear to this year’s Comrades registration (I like to stand out from the masses wearing their Oceans, Om Die Dam and Loskop ultra shirts).
This year saw a route change, previously the race was point-to-point from Pearston back to Somerset East. This required catching a 4am bus from Somerset East to the start and meant runners from nearby towns had to overnight in Somerset East. The race has slowly and steadily grown since 2013 and the town’s accommodation had reached capacity. The new out and back route allows more local runners to drive through on race morning – and frees up accommodation for runners from further afield.
The race date fluctuates depending when Easter (and Two Oceans) falls. Most of their runners do both events so they try to schedule the race at least three weeks before or after Two Oceans. Because you are running in the semi-arid Karoo Desert it can get really hot (high 30s) when the race is run in early March – and I heard many war stories about the heat from other runners during the race.
In late April you have the opposite extreme with a really chilly start in the morning. I regretted not bringing and old shirt to throw away once the sun got up and huddled in with the other runners for a bit of warmth and company.
Exhibit G: Start Line Fame
A race announcer was on hand to run through the race logistics and local by-laws. He was very strict and warned some runners who were not listening to his briefing that they would be held in contempt of court. His last words to the 200 eager athletes before firing the gun was to wish a certain Stuart Mann well on his 100th unique marathon! The novelty of hearing my name called out gave me a nice adrenaline boost and I proceeded to bounce out of town.
The Scene Of The Crime
The first stretch of the race is through the town but it’s still very dark so one concentrates more on the road than the scenery. After about 5km, the sun was rising and someone asked one of the local Somerset East runners when we could expect the first water table. He jokingly answered that water was scarce in the Karoo and we should be grateful for whatever we get! It turned out that the first table did not get the memo that they needed to provide runners with water both on the way out and the way back this year – but, other than that small hitch, all the other tables were present and accounted for.
Once out of town you are in the semi-arid Karoo with aloes, termite mounds and prickly pears dominating the foreground and the Boschberg mountain range dominating the background.
The By-Laws (and the In-Laws)
The scenery was beautiful and unspoilt so it was good to see most of the runners complying with the no litter rule. Every table had a number of bins with the last one 200m from the table, clearly marked as the “End Of Litter Zone”.
Race organisation was impeccable – you can definitely see the benefits that the power of attorney brings! Somerset East Athletic Club has less than 30 members with six of them forming the core of the organising committee. Henrico conducts his job under close scrutiny from the High and Supreme court judges (his wife and mother-in-law are also on the organising committee and I suspect that many of his decisions are “taken under review”).
The Murder Weapon (A Massive Dose Of Slow Poison To The Legs)
The turnaround point at 25km is also the highest point on the route. One climbs steadily all the way with the most pronounced climbing happening over the last 10km.
Most of climbing is of the slow poison type (rather than steep inclines) but, after running 14 marathons in a row, I seem to have built up an immunity to slow poison – I didn’t realise how much climbing we’d done until the turnaround point and witnessed the delicious sight of downhill for as far as the eye could see.
I was on track for a decent negative split until about 12km when I hooked up with Jeremy Knox – and ended up with a massive negative split instead! I passed Jeremy several times over the course and noticed that he would take a few swigs of a special jungle juice concoction when he started to slow down. A few minutes later, the juice would kick in and he would come bounding past me again.
On the sprint back into Somerset East, Jeremy relayed the gruesome story of his first Comrades. An American running friend recently asked me, “What makes Comrades great?” There are many factors but the runners – and the courage they display on the day – is a major factor (let’s hope the organisers of our major races remember that in their future decision making). Jeremy’s story was still fresh in my head and it bears repeating:
Aside: The Trial of Jeremy Knox (Comrades vs. Knox, June 2017)
Jeremy had a great time over the first 60km of Comrades. In fact, he was having such a good time that he missed his club’s seconding tables (and his special jungle juice concoction). The novelty of one’s first Comrades starts to wear off after 60kms and, although this was the “Up” run, Jeremy’s day started going steadily downhill from there. Faced with the heat, cramps and prolific vomiting, he did the sensible thing and declared defeat – he even went so far as to remove his shoes before walking over to one of the bailing busses.
Luckily for Jeremy, this was an experienced bus driver who gave Jeremy a once-over and told him to put his shoes back on as he’d “seen much worse on the day”. Jeremy was too tired to argue and decided to think about life over a quick 20-minute power nap in the shade of a nearby tree.
On waking he calculated that he had 4 hours to do the last 30kms and got going again – but took almost 2 hours covering the next 10kms. His body slowly accepted the idea that he wasn’t going to quit and pulled itself together. But then came Polly Shortts – the last and most brutal of the Big 5 Hills on the “Up” run. Jeremy managed to summit Little Pollies and celebrated the achievement with another snooze on the side of the road.
He Gets Knoxed Down (But He Gets Up Again)
This time he was woken by one of the water table volunteers who was raking discarded sachets. A young spectator whispered “You can’t quit now” which gave Jeremy the motivation to dust himself off and have one last crack at getting to Pietermarizburg before the cut-off.
By now his watch had died and the sun had set so he was running blind, hoping to still somehow make the cut-off. It wasn’t long before another bus driver came to his aid in the form of Buks van Heerden, driving the “last chance saloon” 12-hour bus, which was packed with a couple of hundred runners (but there’s always room for one more). Jeremy climbed aboard and got his copper Vic Clapham medal with 5 minutes to spare. Whilst reclining in the comfort of a stretcher on the way to the medical tent, he reflected that the race’s slogan “Zinikele. It will humble you.” certainly wasn’t false advertising!
Jeremy summed up his story with, “It was tough but fantastic. I wouldn’t change the experience for anything in the world. And I can’t wait for this year’s race.” Like most Comrades novices, Jeremy’s plea bargain resulted in a one-year suspended sentence which means he will be returning to Pietermaritzburg for a retrial (and claim his “back-to-back” medal) in a month’s time.
Jeremy is a junior school teacher from East London. Most chefs dream of opening their own restaurant one day – I’m not sure if teachers dream of opening their own school but, if Jeremy ever does, I hope he calls it the “School of Hard Knox” and bores the kids to tears with tales of his ultra marathon adventures!
Update: Jeremy is running the 2018 Comrades for an amazing NGO called St Bernard’s Hospice and who provide home care and assistance to people who are suffering with terribly painful diseases like cancer. If you would like to donate to his cause (and make sure he doesn’t get caught napping at this year’s Comrades) you can do so here.
Exhibit H: Live Progress Updates
It was a very good thing that I had Jeremy pulling me along for a fast finish – if I had run slowly the whole town would have known. Unbeknownst to me, the race announcer at the finish line was giving live updates every 10 minutes on my progress. My wife said it felt like she was married to a celebrity!
Exhibit I: The Post-Race Interview
The finish is at the local primary school over the lush, green grass of the school fields. I spotted my family, choked back a bit of emotion and crossed the line with my daughters. There was little time to catch my breath before a microphone was thrust in my face and I did my first post-race interview. I must admit to having a new found respect for those that do them frequently as I was a bit at a loss for words (which is rather unusual for me!).
Posted by Kathy Allen Mann on Saturday, 21 April 2018
Judgement Is Passed On The New Route
The verdict from the runners was that the new out-and-back route is slightly tougher than the original but, as such, provides even better Comrades training than before. To bear testament to this is that female winners of the race have a habit of following up a Bruintjieshoogte win with a Comrades gold. Lindsay van Aswegen set the women’s record in 2010 – which was the year she got her highest placed Comrades finish (7th). This year the record was broken by another Comrades gold medallist, Stephanie Smith, and it will be interesting to see if she can repeat the trend on June 10.
What makes someone a “real runner” is a controversial topic and one that is likely to result in a hung jury. Nevertheless, I put it to you, that in order to qualify as a “real marathon runner” in South Africa you have summit the Bruintjieshoogte (and make it safely back to Somerset East) at least once in your running career.
You might think that I would rest my case on this point. However, an adjournment is the more appropriate legal term since I’ll definitely be returning to Somerset East for another run through the evidence (in case I missed something) – and I think I might try to earn the most elusive permanent number in the country before I finally do rest my case!
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