Gaborone Marathon (The Most Expensive Run I’ve Ever Done)

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[MARATHON #189 / UNIQUE MARATHON #103 / 13 May 2018]

With the South African marathon running scene on Comrades hiatus from 1 May until the end of July, I had to look further afield to find a marathon to keep my “marathon-a-week” training program going. Luckily one of our sub-Saharan neighbours obliged with the Diacore Gaborone Marathon on 13 May.

Although I’ve run 188 marathons and 159 of these have been in Africa, I am rather embarrassed to admit that this was my first African marathon outside the confines of South Africa’s borders. South Africa is marathon running bedonerd (crazy) and we have hundreds of local marathons to choose from. However, when we travel to run we tend to fork out huge sums of money to run marathon majors and seem to neglect the opportunities on our doorstep.

The drive from Johannesburg to Gabrone is about 4.5 hours but you need to factor in a border crossing which will add another 30 to 60 minutes to your journey. The Saturday morning departure was slightly delayed as my GPS malfunctioned and I had to coordinate a technology-unassisted recce to collect my wife’s GPS unit at a mystery location in Morningside (my daughter was at a party there).

The rest of the journey was event free and we arrived at the border for a cordial crossing: Although you’re told bring a long list of artefacts and documentation (including the original and certified copy of your vehicle registration papers, ZA sticker for the back of your car and various other things), the only items border control are interested in are your money and passport (you need 182 Pula – cash only – to pay for car insurance and entry into Botswana).

It’s one of the friendlier border crossings I’ve done – frequent travellers around Africa will tell you the Batswana are the friendliest people you’ll find and we were warmly welcomed. I was travelling with my friend Julian Karp (which halves the costs but quadruples the hair) and they were even too polite to question or comment on his choice of Polly Shorts.

Gaborone is just a short drive from the border post but progress into town is slow as there are anti-synchronised traffic lights every few hundred metres. We eventually arrived at the Peermont Grand Palm Resort which is where the race starts and finishes – and enjoyed the five star accommodation at significantly discounted runners’ rates.

Race registration closes at 6pm on the Saturday which we made with 30 minutes to spare. As the race number was handed over we were proudly told that if we ran under 2:08 tomorrow we would take home 1 million Pula (R1.3m/$100k/£75k)! I reassured the young gentleman that their money was safe and that I would be lucky to crack 2:08 on the first lap.

Race entry works out to about R700 ($50/£40) which is fairly expensive compared to South African marathons but does include a high quality shirt and goodie bag.  The goodie bag is quite literally a bag. There were a few different designs all from local artists and the shoulder bag I received is below. I reckon even I could pull off walking around town with this Mann Bag!

The lure of a million Pula was obviously a big talking point around town and, while checking-in, the hotel receptionist observed our athletic prowess and also asked if we were “going for the million?” After enjoying a room service T-Bone steak dinner and dealing with the disappointment that they had run out of the local draught brew (St. Louis Lager) we got a decent night’s sleep.

It’s a pleasure staying so close to the start – no traffic, no toilet queues and no time pressure. By the time we made it down to the start area, a large crowd had already gathered around the elegant fountains that encompass the Grand Palm Resort. There was a buzz of activity – complete with thousands of flailing arms and legs. It appears that the warm-up technique of choice in Botswana is a ferocious aerobics routine. I refused to be intimidated and faced down the sub-Saharan version of the Haka (albeit from a very safe distance) until the announcer told us to take our starting positions.

We set off at 6:15am as dawn broke. After exiting the resort , we headed back towards the South African border on the A1, the main road through town. After that there are a few twists and turns as one winds around town before you head into the central business district of Gaborone and back to the start for your second lap.

Heading along the A1. If you’re tired of Kanye West, you can take the A10 to Kanye East.

Gabrone is about 1000m above sea level and incredibly flat –  the only elevation you do are a couple of bridge crossings. I spoke to a few local runners after the race and they said that if you wanted to do any hill training you have to drive out of town or find a long flight of stairs.

The traffic was well controlled over the two-laps – there was plenty of space to run and the marshals and traffic police were everywhere. Although the run causes a lot of gridlock the motorists seemed unperturbed and waved at the runners who were to blame for their delays.

Route Highlights & Points Of Interest

The city streets of Gaborone are remarkably clean – I can’t remember seeing litter anywhere. Instead of the normal graffiti and tagging you see in most cities around the world, the paintwork here is the light blue, black and white of the Bostwana national flag.

This bridge heading into the CBD is one of many examples along the route (but is the only example of a “hill” on the course). I learned from Bonang Gwampi on Facebook that they were painted as part of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of independence in 2016.

Usually it is my mind that is in the gutter but for this photo it was just my feet! Another example of the colours of the Botswana national flag proudly displayed all over the route.

The streets were both clean and quiet in downtown Gaborone. It was also interesting to see that there were lots of new buildings going up.

Botswana is a good example of an African success story and has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. When Botswana gained independence in the late 1960s it was one of the poorest countries in the world – but the annual GDP per capita has grown from US$70 to $18,825. Surprisingly, very few politicians seem to reference Botswana as a model to follow.

Zebras feature prominently on Botswana’s coat of arms as well as along the route of the marathon. The animal itself symbolises the importance of wildlife and tourism to the economy – and the black and white stripes symbolise the equality of all their people. The orange plant on the right is sorghum – which is used to make traditional beer!

I took a quick diversion to go and check out the 5.4m bronze sculptures of the “Three Dikgosi” (Chiefs), Sebele I, Bathoen I and Khama III. The monument was built to commemorate their trip to Great Britain where they convinced Queen Victoria to place the Bechuanaland Protectorate under British rule (where it remained until independence was gained in 1966). Now this might seem a strange thing to commemorate but the alternative was being under the governance and rule of Cecil Rhode’s British South Africa Company so they went for the route of least exploitation.

This support table promoted fitness and promised “Sexy Bodies Under Construction”. I realised that, after 17 consecutive marathons,  I may well be overtrained and in dire need of getting my sexy back. After this marathon it would be Comrades taper time – and I’ll be working on getting my curves back!

The most prominent shirt around the course was from team RunWidIt who have “Run Gabs” prominently emblazoned on their black shirts. Advertising standards are obviously lax over here because they clearly stipulate on their Facebook page that they are “NOT A RUNNING CLUB!” but are a “CRU of like minded people doing life together!”. They have the noble objective to promote fitness as a means to connect and create positive energy.

Gaborone can get really, really hot so I was surprised that they chose black shirts to run in – I can only assume that the shirts double as solar panels and this is how they generate even more “positive energy” when running.

The race starts and finishes at the impressive Grand Palm Resort – but I never quite figured out why they decided to call it that.

Some Interesting Statistics

This year, there were over 7,300 entrants across the four distances (4km fun run, 10km, half and full marathon).

  • 10km is by far the most popular with 5,300 entrants but there is a massive drop out as only 2,139 finished (I’m not sure how many started but would assume most of the drop outs were non-starters).
  • The 21km gets about 1,000 entrants and just over 600 finishers.
  • Of the 7,300 entrants only 285 were for the marathon. Of these, 230 are from Botswana and South Africa (about equal in number) and nearly all the marathon entrants start and finish the race (232 finishers this year).

I was amazed at how few people run the marathon – especially since this year’s field was double that of 2017!

The difference is most notable at the half/full split at the end of the first lap. The half and full runners merge with the 10km runners – the full marathon runners go left and you go from packed streets to complete isolation in a matter of metres! These two photos were taken about 50m apart!

A Successful South African Invasion

The men’s division of most of South Africa’s big races are usually won by runners from neighbouring countries (notably Lesotho and Zimbabwe) so it was great to see South African men mounting a foreign invasion of their own.

South Africa’s Nedbank Running Club completed a clean sweep of the men’s marathon podium positions with Subisiso Nzima beating compatriot Isaac Mpofu by two seconds for the win. Sibu’s time was 2:16:57 so the million Pula question remains unanswered.

Although the route is very flat – running in the heat at altitude probably means that the million Pula are safe for now, especially considering that 2:08 has only been broken twice on African soil.

Aside: The Fastest Marathon Times in Africa

The top two times on African soil for an IAAF accredited course were both set at the 2013 edition of the Marrakech Marathon in Morocco by Kenya’s Stephen Tum Kipkemei (2:06:35) and Ethiopia’s Girma Beyene Gezahn (2:07:41).

In South Africa, 2:10 has only been broken four times. The first was Kagiso (David) Tsebe who ran 2:09:50 at the SA Marathon champs in Port Elizabeth all the way back in 1990. This does not appear to be on the “official” lists – I assume because it was run when South Africa was still in sporting isolation. Amazingly, the remaining three were all at Cape Town Marathon in 2016 where the race was won by Ethiopian Asefa Negewo’s in 2:08:42 followed by the Kenyan pair of Emannuel Tirop and Baranabas Kiptum in 2:08:47 and 2:09:21 respectively.

It is ironic that the continent that produces most of the fastest marathon runners has had very few fast times run on her soil.

A list of fastest marathon times on African soil (note: the list may be incomplete and includes some assisted courses like Mombasa). Credit: Rassie Pretorius

Would I recommend this race as a destination marathon?

The pluses are that it’s really well organised, an easy route and the event itself is cultural extravaganza with stage performances and fun family activities – and even provides a platform for young entrepreneurs to showcase their skills, products and talents. The marathon is also a great excuse to explore Botswana’s world famous wildlife parks (discounted runner rates are available).

The downside is that it’s a double-lapper and some stretches can get monotonous – I would have loved to have seen a bit more of the city. The support tables are frequent but marathon runners should be aware that there is only water on offer over the first lap (Coke comes out on the second lap). Some of the tables are quite vibey and a few offer some snacks (like marshmallows) but they could probably also do a bit more to add to the atmosphere one expects from a capital city marathon.

In summary, I would definitely recommend this marathon as a once-off but would probably not return to run it every year. Actually, that is a moot point because I am not allowed to ever run this race again.

The Expensive Part Of This Marathon

This Gaborone Marathon has ultimately turned out to be the most expensive race I’ve ever run. It costs R700 to run the marathon, you’ll earn one million Pula for finishing the race in under 128 minutes – but arrive home 16 hours into Mother’s Day and you’ll pay for the rest of your life.

In my defence, I did get my permission slip signed early in the year when I was doing my marathon planning. My wife will argue that I failed to disclose that the Gaborone Marathon was to be held on Mother’s Day. I pled ignorance – and to back this up, when I suggested we just move Mother’s Day to be one week later (very sensible suggestion in my opinion), my wife countered with, “But it’s your birthday the next Sunday”. Personally, I thought this was the clincher and totally exonerated me – if I didn’t know on which day my birthday fell, then how could I be expected to know the exact date of Mother’s Day months in advance?

Lady justice looks down on Gaborone’s marathon runners. Justice was served severely on this runner for missing Mother’s Day.

I thought I had a solid defence but my judge, jury and executioner did not agree. I was found guilty without leave to appeal. Let’s just say I have a new found appreciation for the significance of Mother’s Day. My plea bargain has resulted in me waiving the right to ever again run a marathon on Mother’s Day weekend. I also received a lifetime suspended sentence which basically means that the, “Like the time you ran a marathon on Mother’s Day” trump card will be brought up intermittently in awkward situations for the rest of my life.

And lest I should ever forget, my wife booked out my calendar for next year’s Mother’s Day a year in advance. I’ve been married long enough to know that the suggestion of a romantic trip to Botswana is right out of the question. At least I can console myself that there are 51 other weekends in the year on which to run marathons!

Signing out from Gaborone. Look out for the next reports from my first adventure race, the Hollard Jura, and Comrades Marathon.

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