[MARATHON #187 / UNIQUE Marathon #101 / 28 April 2018]
I run a lot of marathons around the country. When local runners see the Gauteng license plates pinned to one’s vest they often ask, “Did you come here especially to run the marathon?” – and are suitably impressed (and often somewhat surprised) when you confirm that is indeed the case. When you run a marathon on the Garden Route, local runners ask a similar question from a slightly different perspective, enquiring “Are you here on holiday?”
You see, when you live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, your assumptions change and you know that even the most addicted marathon runner isn’t going to just ‘hit and run’ – it’s much more likely that they are going to ‘hit, run your marathon and stay for a few days’.
I am usually a ‘one night only’ or at best ‘weekend special’ traveller (primarily so that I can get back to my family for the rest of the weekend) but on this occasion the local runners’ assumptions were 100% correct – as we had indeed planned a family holiday around the Outeniqua Marathon.
Outeniqua had been on my bucket list for a long time. The big marathon on the Garden Route is Knysna (which I’ve run 10 times – and definitely one of my favourites). However, I had heard rumours of another superb but much more elusive marathon in the area (some would even say better) and it was time to see whether these rumours were true. As a marathon running connoisseur, the blank mark next to Outeniqua was a blemish that I urgently needed to rectify (a bit like David Attenborough saying he’d seen elephants in the zoo but never in the wild).
We’d just spent two days in Oudtshoorn and it took just over an hour to drive the short, historic hop over the Montagu Pass into George – where one witnesses the remarkable transition from the sparse, arid Karoo landscape to the lush, green forests that envelop the Garden Route.
The race is run point-to-point from George to Wilderness and I enlisted the help of former running club mate turned Garden Route travel guru, Rosebug, for accommodation options. We settled on the Fairy Knowe Hotel (a good, ‘value for money’, 3-star hotel with great riverfront views). This worked out extremely well as there was a last minute switch in finish venues – with the Fairy Knowe stepping in to accommodate the marathon after some “logistical challenges” at the regular venue.
A Lucky Catch
We arrived at the hotel on a Friday afternoon and I looked forward to settling in before having a gentle afternoon run along the river. I was now in fully relaxed holiday mode ahead of Sunday’s marathon when I noticed that there were some “Outeniqua Harriers” banners in the hotel parking lot. I thought that this was a little early to be setting up for the race and hoped that this was for a club or park run that I could join. Fortunately, I asked what they were for and was told “Tomorrow’s marathon.”
I was convinced I had seen the race date as 29 April so I double-checked online and realised that I had looked at last year’s race page which was indeed 29 April 2017 – but in 2018 the race date was definitely Saturday 28 April. Waking up on a Saturday morning to the sounds of the race announcer welcoming in marathon runners wouldn’t just have ruined my holiday but my entire year!
The afternoon’s plans were quickly adjusted around getting to the George Sports Club to register and find something other than (the originally planned) spicy seafood paella for dinner. Registration was quick and easy and my daughters enjoyed some of the home-baked cookies on sale.
The weather turned during the night and I woke to blizzard-like conditions and gusting winds. There is a free shuttle bus service from the hotel to the start which, according to the flyer, leaves “latest 5:30am”. I timed the short stroll from our room to the hotel reception perfectly, getting there at precisely 5:29 and waited.
Africa time is 15 minutes later than advertised, Cape Town pushes this to 30 minutes and Wilderness tested the pre-race nerves of their runners for a full 45 minutes before the bus casually pulled into the parking lot at 6:15. At least the delayed arrival did give plenty of time to chat with fellow runners over a cup of coffee that the hotel kindly put out for us.
The hotel had prepared me a breakfast pack consisting of thick slices of bread, stuffed full with ham and cheddar cheese, along with a side serving of two boiled eggs. I scoffed the lot figuring, since trees eat carbon dioxide and we would be running through a forest, that this was the ideal breakfast to do my bit for the environment and give something back over the course of the race.
The runners huddled together in the hall before being herded to the chilly start line in the street outside. After resolving some minor confusion over which direction we would be running, the gun fired at precisely 7am and 250 runners set off.
Eating your Vegetables
Many marathons have a boring bit and often slip in a few tedious “catch up kilometres” towards the end to cover the exact marathon distance. At suppertime, I always eat my vegetables first so that I can “get them out of the way and enjoy the rest of my meal”. The Outeniqua organisers have the same philosophy, getting two boring kilometres out of the way right up front with a quick out-and-back dog’s leg so that you can enjoy 40km of delicious meat and potatoes thereafter (or just potatoes for the vegetarians).
Veggies eaten, it’s a short climb through the Heatherlands before you get off the tar and onto the dirt through the Witfontein Forest. Over 10kms of gorgeous trail running, you climb up “Bobbejaans Draai” (Baboons Turn) on the contour paths until you reach the highest point of the route – a famous local landmark known as “Sampie Se Hoogte” (Sampie’s Heights).
Who Is Sampie & How Did He Earn His Hoogte
I had to do a lot of digging (luckily just metaphorically) to find out how Sampie got the naming rights to the highest point in this section of the Outeniqua Mountains. After some dedicated investigative journalism, I can now reveal a world exclusive that you won’t find on Google or Runnersguide.
Sampie Bezuidenhout is THE local running legend. He was a founding member of Outeniqua Harriers and has owned SWD license #1 for as long as anyone can remember. Sampie has done a lot of impressive things over the course of his life and running career. However, he is living proof that it’s not your collective works nor the great things you achieve over the course of your life that define you. Rather it is one specific misdeed they’ll remember you for.
Allan Donald had a great cricket career but it doesn’t matter how many wickets he took, South Africans will always remember him for the one run he didn’t take. Sampie had a great running career but it is the one particular run he took – and left more than footprints behind – for which he will always be remembered.
One afternoon Sampie was on a training run through the forest with his club mates. Whilst enjoying the nature, Mother Nature called out loudly to him. From personal experience, I know that when Mother Nature calls, you should answer pretty quickly or you could find yourself in a sticky predicament. Sampie was a top runner and threw caution to the wind. Ignoring the increasing urgency of Mother Nature’s demands for attention, he sped ahead of the group and flew up the contour path hoping to make it back to sanctity of the club house. By the time he reached the top of the pass, his pressing engagement could no longer be delayed. Mother Nature’s call was now a fire alarm siren ringing in his ears and he rapidly evacuated the building.
I am not sure whether he had baked a particularly impressive batch of brownies, was worried about starting rumours of elephants returning to the woods or was just concerned about spoiling the trail for other runners, but he decided to construct a rock-pile mausoleum to commemorate the occasion. Details are also sketchy as to whether he proudly presented the masterpiece to his club mates or they simply got wind of what had just transpired as they approached the summit but, from that point forward, this landmark became known as “Sampies se Hoogte”.
The philosopher, George Berkeley, once asked, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”. The comedian Steven Wright expounded on this theory with, “If a man says something in the woods and his wife isn’t there to hear him, is he still wrong?” Sampie brings closure to this scholarly debate by proving that, if you take an almighty shit in the forest and your running mates find out, that is how you’ll be immortalised!
I’ve had a few really impressive bowel movements in my time. I have even (successfully) pulled off a “Today I’d like to talk to you about my bowel movements” ice-breaker speech during a corporate training program. I’ve also run a sub-3 hour marathon on a 3-stop strategy (and claim to be the only person ever to achieve this). But I’ve never taken a dump so special that my running partners would feel the need to preserve the memory with a monument. I’ve always said that my lifetime ambition was to secure a beer sponsor but I think it’s time to reassess my priorities. Maslow’s hierarchy now has a new pinnacle – and it’s a pile of rocks with my name proudly displayed above it.
Getting To Halfway
I chatted to one support table who thought they’d got a prime position when setting up – tucking themselves into a cosy nook with spectacular panoramic views of the mountains and forest – only to arrive on race day and find it transformed into an isolated wind corridor with nothing to look at but thick clouds. It was still stunning to run through this part of the forest on a cloudy day so I can only imagine how fantastic it would be on a sunny day (I have been told you get a great view of Victoria Bay from the top).
To get down from Sampies, one needs to navigate a treacherous descent – nothing too technical but a few rocks and slippery sections keep you on your toes – before you pop out of the forest at 14km and are welcomed back onto the tar by the Cub Scouts table (earning their marathon supporters badge).
There is a short, flat 5km stint through the leafy suburbs of George with a couple of great support tables including The Cooling Company whose challenge on this chilly day was to keep warm in their thin spandex superhero outfits.
Saying goodbye to George, one heads towards the Saasveld Forest and you soon find yourself at the Garden Route Dam which doubles as the marathon halfway mark and start of the half marathon.
The Second Half
This first half of the route was great but the second is simply stunning. After running around the dam and over the wall, you head through the Nelson Mandela University (George Campus) grounds and into an indigenous Garden of Eden – full of vines, thick trees and local birdlife (if you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of a reclusive Knysna Loerie).
I had been running and chatting in a nice group which included Hendrik (who was in Mossel Bay for a wedding and stumbled across the marathon) and Corinne from Cape Town (who had to do a catch-up marathon after a family member inconsiderately arranged his wedding day to clash with Two Oceans).
A Photographic Frenzy
A combination of good conversation, natural beauty and gentle downhills meant that the kilometres melted away as we headed towards the Kaaimans River bridge. The view over the bridge is truly breath-taking but the natural ambience was rudely interrupted by the sound of screeching takkies coming to a rapid halt as the cameras came out.
When I posted the above photo on social media I noted that it was, “A photographic frenzy as the out-of-town runners cross the Kaaimans River during #OuteniquaMarathon. The guy running nonchalantly by is from the local running club: when you see views like these every day you tend to take them for granted!”
It turned out that the local runner is George’s resident carb-hating carnivore, Casper Schölly, who was tagged by club mates and quickly corrected my assumption with, “Hehe… think you just missed me taking this photo, before running nonchalantly passed the out-of-towners…” It’s good to know that even the locals can’t get enough of their views and still act like tourists amongst all this natural beauty!
The people of George are fiercely proud of their race and the, “Are you on holiday here?” question is normally followed up with, “Tell your friends to come down and run with us next year” (as per Casper’s dialogue above).
It does seem that there is a certain level of competitiveness between the Outeniqua and Knysna Marathons about which is the “best”. If you talk to local runners, you would swear that there are only two marathons in South Africa – “our marathon” and “the other marathon” (normally in the context of “our marathon is much better than the other marathon”. Jan Brink perfectly illustrates this point as he pipes into our Twitter thread with “(we have) a much prettier race than the other well-known one in July”!
Knysna Marathon vs. Outeniqua Marathon
Personally, I find it very difficult to pick a winner* (as you can see from my diplomatic response above) – they are both strikingly beautiful runs that traverse indigenous forest and cross crystal clear rivers. Therefore, I asked the Outeniqua organisers “What makes you marathon better than ‘the other marathon’?”. Based on the response, it seems that it all comes down to water features: Knysna only has a lagoon whereas Outeniqua sees their lagoon and raises them a couple of lakes and an ocean!
* I am happy to stick my neck out and say that the half marathon route of ‘this marathon’ beats the half marathon route of the ‘other marathon’. The Outeniqua half starts at the Garden Route dam and follows the marathon route – if there is a more scenic half marathon route in the country, I have yet to run it. In correspondence I’ve had with SA’s eminent running historian, Riël Hauman, he named Outeniqua Half as his favourite race.
Ironically much of the race is run on the Old George Knysna road. The road was built to connect the two towns but subsequently, laying claim to the Garden Route’s best marathon, has driven them (good naturedly) apart.
Case Study: What Do Marathon Runners Think About?
The road was built by Thomas Bain in 1867 and has been declared a national monument – it is also known as the “Seven Passes” road (you run two of the passes on the route). The Rainbow Athletic Club had their support table at the exact point where we joined the Old George Knysna Road. Sometimes people ask what goes through your head when you are running – below is an example of what goes through mine…
We are running through a jungle in George. Curious George is a cartoon monkey. Here is the Rainbow Athletic Club water point. Rainbow AC are proudly waving their banners all over the place. The banners look a lot like the Gay Pride flag. Ipso factum, if you are “bi-curious in George” you should join the Rainbow Athletic Club.
Note: Although I am sure that Rainbow AC welcomes LGBT members, their name is actually a reference to South Africa as the “Rainbow Nation“. I know that you shouldn’t make off-colour jokes about rainbows but, if there was a club created especially for bisexual runners, a better name would be Rainbow AC/DC.
All of the above occurred over the space of a few seconds so you can just imagine how many profound thoughts, observations and insights go through the mind of the average marathon runner over 42 kilometres!
On reflection, another big difference between Knysna and Outeniqua are the range of events on offer. At Outeniqua it is all about the running (with 42, 21, 10 and 3km running options) whereas Knysna puts on a whole festival where you can experiment with other disciplines including road cycle (115 & 50km) and mountain biking (80, 50, 30 & 15km) events. It would appear that if you are comfortable in your running shoes, Outeniqua is the best option – but, if you’re bike-curious, you should saddle-up in Knysna.
Mentoring A Comrades Novice
After a long photo shoot as everyone tried to capture the magnificence from every possible angle, we set off again. The Kaaimans River crossing was a good opportunity to catch one’s breath before undertaking the longest and toughest climb of the day – Strawberry Hill (named for the farm at the top) and the glamour Strava segment in this part of the world. Luckily a combination of Highveld lungs and the high-octane fuel I had consumed for breakfast boosted me up. It was at this point that I lost Hendrik and Corinne (it was my Joburg lungs, not the high-octane exhaust fumes, that led to us parting ways) and got chatting to another Joburg runner, Chris from Sunninghill.
Chris had also successfully planned a family holiday around the race. He is doing his debut Comrades this year and asked me for advice with an issue that plagues many marathon runners as they start increasing their mileage: how to get your running permission slips signed by your wife. I do coaching as part of my day job and hopefully imparted the necessary skills and knowledge over the last 12km of the race to ensure that Chris will have a long and illustrious marathon running career ahead of him.
The knowledge transfer on our journey to the summit was interrupted as we refuelled at the Rawson Properties table. Rawson stepped in as the race’s title sponsor this year and earned my “table of the race” nomination as well.
There is a short dip as you cross the Silver River before a last pull to reach the summit. As you approach the top of the rise, a brilliant vista unfolds. This is a compulsory stop as one tries to take in the ocean, lakes and winding Touws and Serpantine Rivers.
The Home Stretch
After putting the cameras away one enjoys a long, gentle drop into Wilderness Village via the Hoekvil Valley. The lure of the lakes pulls you towards the finish line as the scent of the sea slowly gets stronger.
At the foot of the mountain, the road flattens out and tar replaces dirt while you run alongside the Touws River before making the last turn into the Fairy Knowe grounds.
The Obligatory Beer
After the previous week’s ‘100th unique marathon’ milestone, complete with homemade banners and a finish line interview, this was much more low key: Just one harried looking wife (mine, not Chris’) who reported that my eldest daughter was not feeling well. After a quick kiss, cuddle and a “how was your race”, she returned to the hotel room to get out of the cold and resume nursing duties. I was granted leave to enjoy a post-race beer before resuming fatherly duties.
Darling Beer had a stand on the hotel veranda and I gratefully quenched my thirst with a tasty draught. Here I bumped into Jan Brink with whom I had connected on Twitter a few weeks before (I used his queuing photo in the Two Oceans report). Over a second beer Jan introduced me to another local runner, Koot Steenkamp, still looking fresh despite just returning from a 10km post-marathon warm down (42km is too kort for Koot).
There are some amazing people out there and Koot is one of them. Together with a handful of other runners, he will be attempting to run 20 Comrades in a row from Cape Town to Durban (via Pietermaritzburg) starting on 22 May. He is doing it for Children Of The Dawn (an AIDS orphanage): you can follow their progress on the Long Road To Comrades Facebook page and donate to their cause here.
Unfortunately, our conversation was cut short when I received a WhatsApp message from my wife confirming that my eldest daughter had progressed from ‘feeling sick’ to ‘being sick’ – and was now ‘vomiting all over the place’. I thought better of sending a reply along the lines of, “Be there in 5 minutes, just finishing up with my Darling.” and broke the ‘Slow Beer’ rules by quickly draining the remaining half pint. As I headed to the hotel room I realised that the easy part of the day was over and the hard graft was about to begin. Before entering into the unfolding carnage, I did have a quick wonder as to what adventures would unfold over the next 99 episodes* towards #200UniqueMarathons.
* Subscribe to ensure you don’t miss the next episode – The inaugural JM Busha Marathon in Randfontein (the wildest western part of Gauteng).
[Thanks to the Outeniqua Harriers Committee, especially Willem Haarhoff and Chandre Boshoff for detailed responses to all my questions & Corinne Geldenhuys for the group photos.]
Appendix: Outeniqua Harriers (and an even more detailed route description).
Outeniqua Harriers, known as the ‘Kapoene’ because of the colour of their vests, are the oldest club in the region. If you are in the area, let them know as they’d love you to join them on one of their beautiful club runs. Their long time club sponsors are Grasshoppers Shoes who enable them to host seven different running events over the year (which must be a record for a single club).
They are passionate about their flagship race – I understand that after sending off my questions, they held a special committee meeting to formalise a response (which was scrutinised and proof read by each member). For those who want to run the race in future years, I have attached the detailed replies and route description below. I have also attached an even more detailed route description with pictures from 2009 (the current route is largely the same).
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