[MARATHON #192 / UNIQUE MARATHON #104 / 9 AUGUST 2018]
For those who weren’t stockpiling candles and canned food, the early 1990s was a period of unbridled optimism in South Africa: The times they were a changin’ and democracy was a comin’. It was in this spirit that a small group of 11 matric students from Amajuba High School and three of their teachers sat around a camp fire discussing the future.
The conversation meandered around innumerable topics until one student wondered whether it was possible to walk between the local towns of Memel (in the Free State) and Newcastle (in Kwazulu Natal). This proved an interesting topic, one thing led to another, the gauntlet was thrown down and a dare was unleashed.
Most schoolboy boasts and brags amount to nothing but in small towns your word is your bond (besides which there is not much else to do in Newcastle on a Saturday morning once rugby season is over). A few weeks later, the same 11 boys and three teachers made good on the challenge and successfully completed the 50km walk between the two towns.
They had plenty of time to talk over their journey – and enjoyed themselves so much – that they laid out the grand plans for an annual event involving both towns to raise money for charity. Flash forward 24 years and the ‘Memel Walk’ is a now a major local cultural and sporting event that benefits the South African National Blood Service.
This year was the 24th walking (and 5th running) of the Vlam Panelbeaters “Blood Buddy” Ultra. Most ultra distance races are organised specifically for runners (a few of them tolerate walkers) but this is one of the very few ultras that cater specifically for walkers and it was only five years ago they decided to allow runners to join in the fun.
In fact, it is the only event I know of where runners are in the minority. The most popular event is the walking relay which attracts 140 five-person teams. They are joined by 30 running teams, about 200 individual walkers and a 100 individual runners. The race date has fluctuated over the years but has now settled into Women’s Day* – and women have responded by making up the majority of the field.
* National Women’s Day is celebrated on 9 August in South Africa. It has been a public holiday since 1995 and commemorates the 1956 march of 20,000 women (of all races) to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the pass laws.
It’s an easy three hour drive from Johannesburg to Newcastle and, although I departed in bright sunshine, arrived to rapidly deteriorating weather – in fact it was so cold that when my friend Julian Karp arrived after his four hour drive from Durban, he reluctantly had to put a long sleeve t-shirt over his vest.
The start was just listed as “Memel Church” (no additional details or street names provided) but we weren’t worried as Memel is a tiny town so we just followed the lights as we approached the town and located the start easily enough.
This is one of those events where the whole town gets involved and the local families had each brought a plate of eats for the walkers and runners. As we entered the church hall a magnificent culinary exhibition unfolded and I liberally tucked into the homemade breakfast buffet that had been laid out.
Many people (including the national weather service) refer to the Northern Cape town of Sutherland as the coldest place in South Africa. However, the locals know better and sneer at winter weather reports since the temperature gauges in Memel are usually a couple of degrees lower than anywhere else in the country. Apparently, this is due to the geographic anomaly with the town being in a slight depression at high altitude (1,750m), combined with being the perfect distance from the surrounding Drakensberg escarpment and accentuated further by lying alongside the Klip River. Basically this means that for nine months of the year, you’ll never drink warm beer in Memel.
Luckily, I was warned about the cold start (it was -4°C/24°F in 2017) and raided the jumble shelf in my clothes drawer. I was able to retrieve several layers of warm tops that I planned to peel off and discard as the sun came up and we enjoyed a warm spring day.
Sadly, the warm spring day never materialised. Although the low cloud cover meant we had the warmest start in many years (just above freezing), it stayed at that temperature the whole way to Newcastle (with a few rain showers thrown in for good measure). In fact, I kept all four layers of clothing on most of the way to Newcastle and the main reason for eventually discarding the outer layers was that they were so waterlogged that they were weighing me down.
We started in the dark and I was looking forward to seeing the sunrise but unfortunately this also never materialised (in fact I didn’t see any sunshine until late afternoon on the outskirts of Gauteng whilst driving home). As the dark gloom slowly turned to murk and finally settled on a grey soup we realised just how bad the weather was. On some stretches visibility was a couple of hundred metres and the light drizzle was only interrupted by bursts of steady rain.
However, the water tables kept everyone in good spirits – and if you asked nicely they would share a glass of their good spirits with you, OBs (Old Brown Sherry) being my beverage of choice on this sodden morning.
The refreshment stations are a real highlight of the race. Businesses pay for the privilege to host a station with the money raised going into the charity kitty. Most of the businesses use the event for team building and put huge effort into their stands. Many have been involved since the inaugural event and are very attached to their favourite spot on the side of the road.
In 2017 the organisers decided to move the finish venue to cater for the growing number of participants so you now have the rather odd official race distance of 51.2km. This posed a bit of a problem since the marker boards count down, were located at the support tables and the support tables (attached to their favourite positions) did not want to move to the new kilometre to go points. But with a bit of trigonometry and calculus, this problem was easily solved: If you can’t move the support tables to the marker boards, move the marker boards to the support tables – and the boards were ‘adjusted’ to include two decimal points. If you want to check how accurate your Garmin is you can calibrate it with the most precise marker boards in the country!
Most of the run is on the R34, which is the main thoroughfare between Johannesburg and Newcastle. This does mean that there is a fair amount of traffic on the route but a big traffic police presence and a wide shoulder to run on avoids any issues.
I am glad that the 14 original participants had some sense when choosing the which direction to walk: The finish in Newcastle (1,200m above sea level) is about 550m lower that the start in Memel so you are doing a “down run”. However, the first 17km of the race through the Free State is a steady climb all the way to the Kwazulu Natal border until your reach Botha’s Pass.
This part of the country is known as the Battlefields Route because much of the first and second Anglo-Boer Wars occurred in this region. Botha’s Hill* (after which the pass was named) was a strategic position which was captured by General Redvers Buller (Anglo) on 8 June 1900, thereby opening the way for the British army to advance into the Free State. If you look carefully you can still see the remains of trenches dug by the Boers defending the hill.
* I was not able to determine who the Botha after whom the hill was named was and/or whether he had any connection to the Botha after whom one of the Big Five hills at Comrades is named. However, one thing is for sure – if you want to create a challenging ultra marathon route just look for a hill named Botha!
Aside: Although Botha’s Pass is commemorated, the most famous Botha to be born in Newcastle is not known for his passes but rather for his tackles and clean-outs. John Philip (to his family, teachers and church minister) aka Bakkies (to everyone else) Botha is a Newcastle native. Other famous people to born in the third largest town in Kwazulu Natal are the late reggae singer Lucky Dube and the English adventure writer H. Rider Haggard.
Although Bakkies has not yet done the official Memel Walk (legend has it that if Bakkies went to school in Memel he would have walked home to Newcastle during his lunch break), 1995 World Cup winning Springbok, James Small helped with fundraising in the early days of the race. Another former Springbok Henri Honiball has also completed the route and other notable participants include Bruce Fordyce, Nick Bester and David Vlok.
The downside of the misty conditions was that the brilliant views on offer over the 6km descent down Botha’s Hill were largely obscured. For a brief period the clouds lifted and I stopped to take a few photos whilst enjoying the silence of the Drakensberg escarpment.
The silence did not last long. I heard several voices in animated conversation and eventually saw a decent sized running bus emerge from the mist. I was surprised to see such a large group as sightings of other competitors had been sporadic up to this point.
The unexpected bus was explained by the presence of the slightly larger than usual Buks van Heerden (who was busy trying to burn off some baby fat). Buks is a man known for his impeccable pacing skills (many a runner around the country owes their Comrades qualifier and race medal to Buks’ pace-setting bus) and this was his first long run back after missing Comrades (his wife Carolien gave birth to their first child in the middle of the race).
Although he was not on official pacing duties, Buks always seems to attract a crowd. Also in the group were Julian Karp and Magnolia legend Nic Shelver. These three hard steppers (the running equivalent of ‘hard hitters’) must have at least 1,500 marathons and ultras between them, putting my meagre 190-odd into perspective.
After hitting the bottom of the pass, there are 5km of undulations to get through before another long gentle 7km downhill moves you into the mid-30s. Just in case you start to feel the cold, a nasty 2km vertical gets your blood pumping again – and it was at this point that I was finally able to remove my first layer of clothing.
This is followed by a flat section all the way to the marathon mark and then a lovely 4km downhill to get you to the lowest point of the route and within touching distance of Newcastle. However, there is still a long slow poison climb before you reach the “Welcome to Newcastle” sign.
But don’t let the sign fool you, there are still 5km to go as you wind through the backside of town and up one final hill to finish at the Tree Tops entertainment and conference venue. The temperature was still just on the positive side of zero when I finished at lunchtime. I needed to keep myself busy whilst waiting for my lift back to the hotel. This was achieved by conducting some investigative journalism after discovering a sign advertising a “Beer Challenge” the following day.
In my book the only thing that goes better than marathons and beer are ultra marathons and beer. Unfortunately, I was not able to participate as I was heading straight back to Johannesburg (after a warm shower) but it is good to know what entertainment options are available in Newcastle if you decide to spend the whole long weekend here (I suspect that watching the event was more entertaining than participating in it unless you were there chaperoning your other half).
In fact it turned out that the inaugural Beer Challenge was the tougher of the two endurance events. None of the participants managed to finish all six litres of beer*. A lot of beer was left on the table with the official ‘Beer King of Newcastle’ trophy being awarded to the evening’s best performer who managed just four litres before being dragged home (this is the equivalent of winning a marathon by default after pulling out at the 30km mark).
* The Blood Buddy Ultra raises money and awareness for the South African National Blood Service. Ironically a large male (which most of the Beer Challenge participants appear to be) will have about 11 pints of blood flowing through their veins – which is exactly equal in volume to six litres of beer!
Anyway, there’s no point crying over leftover beer so onto the conclusion…
All in all, this was (quite literally) a super chilled ultra run! Although the fog, mist and rain ruined the views, it wasn’t able to dampen the spirits of the supporters, runners and walkers.
Next year is the 25th anniversary of the event and I understand that there are some big plans afoot to make it an extra special one. I definitely plan to be lining up again to fulfil the youthful dreams of 11 kids in the 1990s.Follow Running Mann: