[MARATHON #188 / UNIQUE MARATHON #102 / 1 May 2018]
A Running Mann Walks Into A Bar & Says, “Barman, I Want To Run One Last Marathon Before Comrades”
The first of May is Workers’ Day in South Africa – somewhat ironic considering it falls smack back in the middle of our annual period of protracted wage negotiations and national strikes. For the Comrades runner, May signals the culmination of many months of hard work and training – with 1 May being the last day one can qualify or improve your seeding for the largest ultra on the planet. The local running calendar revolves around Comrades – and South African marathon organisers also down tools after Workers’ Day, shutting the local running scene down until the end of July.
I’m not one to rest on my laurels (in fact I’m a “Yanny” person and can’t even hear “Laurel”!) – although it had only been a couple of days since the Outeniqua Marathon and we’d just arrived back from our Garden Route trip, I knew I had to squeeze in one last marathon to beat the post-holiday blues and get through the barren marathonless winter months.
There were a couple of options but I chose the JM Busha 54 “Peace Pledge” Marathon to keep the streak of unique marathons going. I did have a few concerns since (1) this was the inaugural event, (2) the organisers did not seem affiliated with a running club and (3) it was in the West Rand.
Spiking Your Drinks
The West Rand of Johannesburg is one of the hilliest places on earth. Many a naïve novice runner has been tricked into running Florida’s “Flat One” – expecting a nice easy PB course: These foolish foot soldiers would charge off to their impending doom over the hilliest 10km in the country. Wiser and more experienced runners understand the sadistic sense of humour that West Rand race organisers possess (the race has ‘one flat kilometre’, so instead of calling it the “Nasty Nine” they went for the literal “Flat One”!).
Sadly, the Flat One has subsequently disappeared. So too has the Glassfit Marathon – and it has been well over a decade since this section of Gauteng has seen a marathon – until the team from JM Busha picked Randfontein to host their race.
Know Your Bartender: Who are JM Busha?
JM Busha is an investment management company founded by Zimbabwean Joseph Makamba Busha. They branched out into social upliftment programs focussing on education, arts, culture, music and sports using the JM Busha 54 NGO as the mechanism to achieve this (54 being the number of countries in Africa). Their ambitious and worthy vision is, “To see and have a peaceful, prosperous and united people of Africa and the world.”
One of their specific drives is to host athletics events around the continent – in some cases introducing competitive marathon running for the first time. All proceeds raised from their events are distributed to education, arts and culture initiatives to promote peace in Africa.
Randfontein is an old gold mining town on the wildest western limits of Gauteng (if you go any further you’ll hit the North West province). Despite living in Johannesburg for the past 20 years, I had never ventured this far west but managed to successfully navigate the uncharted extremes of the Witwatersrand to find myself at the Greenhills Stadium in time for the 6:30am start.
There was a small group collecting their numbers and entering on the day. As I had pre-entered, I received a nice shirt and visor together with my race number – good value for the R200 (15$/£12) entry fee. I dropped them off at the car (the stadium is an easy access location with plenty of parking) and wandered off to the start.
I joined 300 other marathon enthusiasts on a chilly morning – the mild autumn temperatures were disappearing fast and winter’s bite was just starting to take hold. Being deep inside 1-2-3 country (1-litre brandy, 2-litre Coke, 3-litre Ford), it was highly appropriate that we set off to “1, 2, 3 Go!” and headed into the suburbs as the sun slowly rose and warmed the winter air.
After a few kilometres through the suburbs I had an uneasy feeling that something was missing. Based on my previous experiences of running in (or rather up and down) the West Rand, I was expecting to have encountered some vicious hills by now but the flat landscape was only broken by frequent church steeples.
Someone Orders Tequila
Just as we were starting to warm up, we entered one of the many industrial areas around town and the gloom returned as the Tiger Mills plant loomed large in front of us, blocking out the sun.
Making New Friends
A good technique for running through an industrial wasteland is to create a diversion by striking up a conversation with a fellow runner. I was busy thinking about my backlog of impending race reports (these days running marathons is easy – writing about them afterwards is the hard part!) when local Carltonville-based runner Chris de Beer yelled out, “Hey Running Mann, come over here and chat to my buddy – you’ve got to hear his story!” I gratefully obliged – and what a story it was.
Danie’s Story: You can knock a Comrades runner down but you can’t keep him there!
His buddy, Danie de Wet, has 6 Comrades finishes to his credit and was running JM Busha as a last gasp qualifier for 10 June. I am always surprised when people leave qualifying to the last minute and am usually sceptical of their excuses. However, I think Danie’s story about the time “(hy het) soos ‘n sosatie gevoel” (“became a human sosatie” – that’s a kebab of the skewer type for foreign readers) is a suitable exception.
In January 2015, Danie was helping to clean out some blocked drains 3.5km underground in one of the Carltonville gold mines when he slipped, fell and was impaled by a ‘gwala’ (a 1.8m long x 2.5cm diameter crowbar-like metal rod).
Two remarkable operations followed:
- The rescue operation to get him back to the surface alive before rushing through to the Milpark Hospital (3.5km is a long way underground and 1.8m of gwala is tough to get through tight spaces).
- The operation Professor Kenneth Boffard and his surgical team performed to successfully remove the skewer.
After two weeks in an induced coma, Danie woke up “deurmekaar” (confused) and minus one kidney but thanked the “Grace of God” for his life. It’s been a tough journey since then and last year he was back in hospital several times with stomach complications related to the original accident.
Danie finished 2017 feeling “very down” and his weight was “way up” (about 30kg heavier than his Comrades fighting weight). Luckily he knew of a great natural anti-depressant and weight loss program.
You can knock a Comrades runner down but you can’t keep him there! He talks fondly of “Ons Groepie” (Our Group) and the help and support that got him back on the road again. The JM Busha Marathon in Randfontein was Danie’s first since the accident and I am pleased to report that he got around the course comfortably under 5 hours to qualify for Comrades.
If you’re following Comrades from afar and want to track an authentic Comrades champion – his race number is 49470. If you’re standing on the side of the road and start to get weary after a long day of supporting, hold some energy back for a runner in a bright red Carleton Harriers vest sporting number 49470 – he could use an extra cheer as he approaches the Moses Mabida Stadium. And if you’re a runner and think you can’t go any further on the 10th of June, remember that three years ago one of us was about to wake up from a coma after surgery that few thought he would survive – and before you quit, remember that Danie will still be out there battling towards the finish line, proudly carrying number 49470 to a seventh finish!
Amazed, astounded and inspired, I wished Danie well on his qualifying marathon and we parted ways as a stump-tailed lion welcomed us into Randfontein’s retail hub.
Signs You Are In The West Rand
This poor lion looks like he’s lost his pride (as well as the end of this tail).
Running along the high street provided some interesting viewing illustrated by the photograph’s below.
Anythings goes in Joburg’s West Rand but I’m not sure I want to find out what goes on in a Fantasy Farmyard! I assume that it’s a kiddies party venue but it could also be a club for lonely farmers.
The devastating aftermath of the Fried Chicken Wars is another of the signs you’re running a marathon in the West Rand. It’s all Licken and no Chicken at this store – one point to the streetwise Colonel.
Massive Ford dealerships are another of the signs you’re running a marathon in the West Rand (3-Litre Fords take up a lot of window space).
We Don’t Serve Water Here
Randfontein is on the doorstep of the North West province which has recently been hard hit with violent service delivery protests – and these issues seemed to have spread to the marathon. There was no water at any of the support tables and I had flashbacks to the inaugural Platinum Belt Marathon (where we had no liquid of any kind until 17km). This is the Peace Pledge marathon and all entrants have to sign the official Peace Pledge – this probably helped maintain law and order on the road as the runners were remarkably relaxed about the lack of water. At least there was plenty of Coke available and having just heard Danie’s remarkable story, my perspective had been altered, so a lack of water seemed a minor inconvenience to endure.
The Peace Pledge
I commit not to be involved in any undesirable activity: – banditry, corruption, discrimination, unfair exploitation of labour and other people; and destructive exploitation of natural resources for selfish gain.
Further, I will not make or support any decision that may cause instability, social unrest, poverty and other social-economic and political problems in the country.
I am for Peace. I am Peace”.
I did hear of some runners who were really suffering as they are not able to drink Coke for medical reasons. Krugersdorp runners were similarly prejudiced as they adhere to a strict regional by-law (which comes into effect the day a Krugersdorper turns 18) that makes it illegal to drink Coke without first diluting it with liberal amounts of brandy.
At least there were fairly frequent petrol stations over the first half. Early rising Randfontein residents peering out from behind their curtains would have observed the curious sight of runners rummaging through their garbage bins to find old cooldrink bottles. At petrol stations, I waited patiently while the successful recyclers filled up their water bottles with the long lines for the tap resembling what one sees on a relaxed club run.
Breaking The Seal
There was no toilet paper in the bathrooms at the start (I never leave home without my white gold and had reduced my plentiful supply that morning by handing out some spare sheets to grateful runners). Hopefully those affected were able to hold out until they reached the Toilet Paper Factory Shop on the outskirts of town.
If you live in a house full of females (like I do), you’ll know that toilet paper is a major monthly expense (it has its own line item on my budget sheet such is the magnitude we go through) and I wondered whether it would be worth a making a special trip back here to stock up.
The West Rand of Johannesburg can be pretty rough. In fact, it’s so rough that when visiting Australian cricket teams play a tour game here, they can leave the sandpaper at home and still get reverse swing before lunch.
Sticking with sandpaper as a topic, I thought it a pity that they weren’t handing out free samples because my main concern about West Rand toilet paper would be its texture – I was worried that it would quite literally wipe you out. When your man cave needs to be cleaned, you want to give it a light dusting not a full refurbishment. I’m a sensitive (and regular) guy who has gone through life enjoying the comforts of two-ply toilet paper. I’ve heard of ‘deep tissue massage’ but a West Rand ‘deep toilet tissue massage’ is likely to involve a lot of exfoliation – and a very unhappy ending.
Barroom Chat: White Privilege as a Great Marketing Opportunity
We’ve talked about brandy but now I’d like to divert the discussion onto the branding of a sensitive topic.
I think that there is a great opportunity to create a new super-luxury brand of toilet paper. My vision is to produce a three-ply tactile sensation consisting of the softest, silkiest, spongiest material that money can buy and science can manufacture. Sensationally smooth and super absorbent – it would be so luxurious and effective that the first wipe is for cleaning, the second for pleasure.
In a world where others are forced to wipe their butt with the “The New Age”, this would be a paper that oozes sophistication, enabling those who value a quality sit down to spend it with a better class of paper – the Wall Street Journals of toilet paper if you like.
I would call this toilet paper: “White Privilege”.
Just imagine the adverts:
- An elegant lady (of any race) walking out of a bathroom with a smug, satisfied look on her face. She gives the camera a wink and seductively purrs, “I’ve just used some of my White Privilege”.
- Some poor guy (also of any race) proudly finishes up his morning routine; He looks over in horror to an empty toilet roll holder realising he’s stranded – and up flashes, “Make sure you never run out of your White Privilege”.
- A group of volunteers (of various races) are handing out free samples to desperate runners on race morning just as the coffee kicks-in, “Share some of your White Privilege”.
The nation building possibilities are endless – but if you’ve got a pocketful of White Privilege and another runner is caught short, pretending that you don’t have any is going to cause some messy shit!
Moving on from the toilet humour and back to the route, I was surprised that we had done about 15km and there was still no sign of a hill. However, I was even more surprised that, in the blink of an eye, we emerged from urban sprawl to the African savannah as golden grasslands unfolded while we ran through a charming avenue of trees.
Someone Orders Another Tequila
As we approached half way, there were still no hills but they did run us past the Lafarge Cement factory to remind us that we weren’t quite out of the city’s industrial limits yet.
All Mixer, No Chaser
I was confused about the missing hills. Everything I had been told and had previously experienced in the West Rand was that it was the hilliest place on earth – but the hills seem to have been mined out of Randfontein. Another thing missing in Randfontein was the kilometre boards – there were none on route so you had to rely on the accuracy of the GPS unit in your watch.
I went through what my watch made as halfway in just over 2h03 and wondered whether I should try to improve my Comrades seeding by sneaking in under 4 hours.
I like oxymorons (and generally prefer them to normal morons) and will freely admit to being a lazy marathon runner. I don’t worry too much about my time, pause for a walking chat at almost every table and take plenty of photos along the way (normally finding a lot more photographic opportunities and topical conversations over the last 10km). Figuring that photographic opportunities might be limited and that my best chance of getting some water was to speed ahead of the other runners, I upped the pace.
Assisted by perfect weather, unhindered by hills and inspired by Danie’s story – I made my move. By now I also had copious amounts of caffeine and sugar coursing through my veins. Water might be clear but Coke is cleary much better for this runner as I whipped around the pleasant green farmlands and smallholdings on the outskirts of Randfontein.
The organisers did try to make the best of a bad situation and emergency water supplies were driven around the course and handed to runners. The ambulance crew also multi-tasked and handed out water on top of the regular medical support they provide.
I’m not much of a clock-watcher but I was taking more frequent glances at my watch now as the kilometres ticked down, hoping that the GPS was calculating the distance correctly and that the route had been plotted correctly.
As we headed back into town for the final stretch, a couple more signs that you’re running a marathon in the West rand popped up.
Signs You Are In The West Rand (Part 2)
Specialist butchers are slowly disappearing but the West Rand bucks the trend with dedicated boerewors shops. Prime parking for the owner of the 3-litre Ford Ranger who will shortly be filling the back of his bakkie with boerie.
The West Rand is famous for introducing the concept of the “Drive Through Bottle Store” (the logistics are quick and easy when you’re only providing two products). I didn’t notice any Drive Throughs on the route but did spot the specials board for Pillay’s Bottle Store. And just to prove that I am not being Westist and taking liberties with unfair stereotypes, you’ll see that the only specials advertised were for brandy (R122 = $9/£7 for overseas readers). After running 40km with no water but gallons of Coke, I imagine that this must have been a bittersweet sight for Krugersdorp crew.
The Greenhills Stadium soon came into view and I realised that I still had plenty of time to play with. After a short lap around the grass, I paused briefly for a finish line photo, knowing that the “F” to a “D” seeding upgrade was secure. After the race, I checked my records and this was my first sub-4 marathon in three years – and would have been my fastest marathon in four years if I didn’t stop for the finish line photo!
Mixing Your Drinks
I really enjoyed the route – even the industrial sections – as it provides some stark contrasts and keeps life interesting. The race has the element of surprise and you’re not sure what will appear around the next corner – it could be a life-sized statue of a t-shirted lion, a stunning landscape scene or a cement factory! This is also a route that is conducive to running a great time (no major hills but just the right amount of gentle undulations so that your legs don’t go to sleep) and I would recommend it to anyone looking to upgrade their Comrades seeding or wanting a last burst of speed before the Comrades taper.
I’m optimistic that they will sort out the teething problems next year and am hoping that this becomes a regular fixture on the running calendar. I also hope it inspires one of the other clubs in the area to add a second West Rand marathon to the calendar.
Commitment From The Organisers
In the correspondence I had with the organisers they have promised that they, “will be overcompensating with water next year, and will ensure that there are 100 000+ sachets on the day.” It’s also good to note that after the race several of the larger West Rand running clubs offered to help with knowledge transfer, organisation and logistics for next year’s event.
The topic of brandy and Coke has been covered extensively in this article. If you ask a hardcore wild west cowboy (or an even more hardcore cowgirl), they’ll tell you that they take their brandy and Coke seriously in this part of the world. They’ll also tell you that beggars can’t be choosers – a flat brandy and Coke is better than no brandy and Coke – even if it doesn’t sit quite right on the palette.
Similarly, a flat West Rand marathon is better than no West Rand marathon but it still doesn’t sit quite right on the tarmac. It leaves the marathon running connoisseur feeling slightly deflated and longing to order ‘one more for the road’.
One More For The Road?
If you drink a brandy and Coke with a born and bred member of the West Rand 1-2-3 club, you shouldn’t be driving yourself home afterwards. And if you run a marathon in the West Rand you shouldn’t be walking around comfortably afterwards.
Enough of these flat, watered down drinks! I’m thinking we need the West Rand to pour us drink that better reflects the topography of the region. I’m talking about a proper ‘groomkiller’ – the kind you pour for your buddy when you want to finish him off. But, if he does polish it off and is still standing afterwards, he’s earned the undying respect of the surviving witnesses.
The South African running scene needs a run so rough that you wake up the next morning with a parched mouth, partial memory loss and legs that ache so badly you swear that you’ll never run another hill again! Only the West Rand can deliver such a marathon! Krugersdorp, Roodepoort, Florida, Fat Cats, Khosa, et al – the next round’s on you: I challenge you to put some gas back into West Rand running and host such a marathon!
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