Two Countries Marathon (Musina in Action)

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[MARATHON #194 / UNIQUE MARATHON #106 / 22 September 2018]

There are marathons that are tough to get to and marathons that are tough to run. The Two Countries Marathons is both. The race starts 10km inside Zimbabwe near Beitbridge Town and ends back across the South African border in the sweltering furnace that is Musina.

Pay no heed to what they say about kitchens, if you can’t take the heat stay out of the Musina hotpot: The marathon ingredients are a gruelling drive to the far northern boundaries of South Africa, an early morning border crossing on one of the busiest roads in Africa and precisely 42.2km over vast expanses of heinous hills. Throw them together and cook for several hours in 35°C heat – and you have the recipe for a fantastic and unique marathon experience!

To tick this race off the bucket list, you must successfully conquer three arduous challenges…

Challenge #1: The Drive to Musina

To get to the small mining town of Musina, it’s a minimum five-hour drive due north on the N1 from Johannesburg but traffic, trucks, tolls and toilet stops will add another one to four hours to this journey. If you manage to escape the Friday afternoon Joburg gridlock, the first three-hours to Polokwane are relatively easy double-lane highway driving. However, from Polokwane the conditions are far more cumbersome, consisting of single lane mountain passes obstructed by hundreds of trucks and hindered by limited passing opportunities.

This is also a drive you want to do in daylight. The temperament of the average driver north of the Tropic of Capricorn is one of dangerous impatience and flagrant disregard for the rules of the road – requiring constant vigilance and concentration to ensure you don’t become another statistic of South Africa’s road casualties.

Challenge #2: Get to the Start Line

The marathon is pre-entry only and requires R160 ($11/ £8) together with a photocopy of your passport (for the organisers to vet and validate). The entry fee is great value as it includes a bus trip from the finish venue in Musina to the start, a high-quality shirt and an attractive race medal.

The standard joke when travelling any significant distance from the cultured confines of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs is ‘don’t forget your passport’. At this race your passport is the most important piece of luggage to remember and leaving it at home will result in a forced downgrade to the half marathon. Your passport is scrutinised on race morning before you receive your number and one final verification of your credentials is done before you are allowed to board the bus

The marathon has an advertised start time of 6am and we were told the busses would leave at 4:45am (we eventually left at 5am). The journey to the start is just 25km on the direct route. However, African border crossings are seldom fast or efficient and generally pride themselves on being the bastions of bureaucracy.

Although we were fast tracked (and were indeed lucky to have this privilege as we got through much faster than the queueing crowds we saw on both sides of the border), it still took a couple of hours to get from South Africa into Zimbabwe.

Apparently, the border crossing proceedings for the marathon change every year (I guess depending on who is in charge). This year the procedure on the South African side was to hand over our passports as we exited the bus and form an orderly line in the exact order in which we left the bus (so that the passports would not get muddled and could be quickly handed back to us in the same order). About half an hour later our stamped passports were returned – but they had been thoroughly shuffled. The orderly queue we had been standing in for 30 minutes disintegrated as the officer on duty tested her linguistic skills by shouting out the diverse array of names that typify the entrants of a southern African marathon.

Exactly what occurs on the Zimbabwean side of the border remains a mystery but we all handed our passports over, they were reshuffled, we got them back and then we handed them back over again for the final time with the promise that the organisers would keep them safe during the race (you don’t need to run with your passport but you do need to remember to ask for it back at the end of an exhausting marathon).

Although it took a long time to get through the border posts, no one got agitated or seemed particularly fussed. Those running the race in future years should be aware that the 6am start is definitely a stretch goal (and making plans for an early post-marathon lunch would be extremely optimistic).

The lengthy waits did provide an opportunity to get to know some of the other runners. Interestingly the vast majority of the 90 entrants were doing the race for the first time – and most of the repeat customers had last done it several years before.

After the final short drive to the start line, the bus parked at the side of the road and most of the eager runners did a quick warm-up sprint to find a thirsty tree. Meteorological records show the area gets just one day of rain in the three months from July to September, so the trees definitely appreciated our offerings!

On arriving at the start, the runners immediately sprint out of the bus to mark their territory (ladies to the left, gents to the right).

Whilst a handful of awaiting Zimbabwean runners were processed into the field, a television crew from the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation did some pre-race interviews with the race organisers and the local Zanu-PF politician.

The temperature was steadily rising and the start line (a Zimbabwean flag) was quickly erected. The runners gathered around expectantly. The Zanu-PF guy, fresh from the recent elections and seeing an enthusiastic crowd, couldn’t contain himself and launched into a quick speech (thankfully about running, not politics). He was so inspired by his oration that he decided to run with us to the border.

Challenge #3: The Heat and the Hills

We got going with a simple, “Ready, steady, GO!” (I assume firing a gun is not the wisest thing to do in Zimbabwe these days and bringing any kind of ammunition over the border is a definite no-no). After being awoken by my alarm four hours earlier, it was great to finally hit the ground running at 8am.

The Wikipedia entry for Musina claims that this is the busiest stretch of road in Africa (citation not provided but definitely needed). However, the traffic on the Zim section of the race was surprisingly light and the roads were in surprisingly good condition. Both are aided by a chronic fuel shortage which keeps most of the cars off the road and in long queues at every petrol station. The hopeful drivers waiting for fuel did however provide some good crowd support.

I was surprised when looking at the route profile afterwards that we were running steadily downhill as I remember huffing and puffing all the way back to the border. Rather than my conditioning, I lay the blame on the weather – the temperature was already approaching 30s and was rising rapidly.

Dependable donkeys provide the most reliable form of transportation in Zimbabwe.

There were frequent water tables filled with enthusiastic volunteers. The Spar table just before the border was a particular highlight (and proved that there is indeed a friendly Spar wherever you are).

Ten kilometres into the race and we were back at the Zimbabwean border. This time there was no hanging around. The queueing masses looked on enviously as we trotted through unhindered and made our way over the Limpopo River via the Beit Bridge (named after Alfred Beit, founder of the De Beers diamond mining company).

Running marathons all around the country is the best geography teacher and I took a bit of time to admire the mighty 1,750km long Limpopo River (meaning “gushing strong waterfalls” from the original Sepedi name). Many people know of the river because of the famous passage (repeated several times) in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Elephant’s Child – Just So Story’: “the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees”.

Once over no man’s water, things were slightly more formal on the South African side of the border with a rasher of policemen monitoring the runners and checking their race numbers off against a list to ensure that no illegal immigration was occurring.

My brain was still fully functional at this stage and I realised that Musina is much closer to the border than the remaining 32km of the marathon. Therefore, I was wondering how we would make up the distance. The answer quickly became apparent as we were directed back under the Beit Bridge and looped around to follow the border line (rather than the N1 road) back home.

The next 22km expanse along the border exposes one to the harsh, desolate, barren beauty of the arid landscape. With such a small field, much of the running is done in solitude but the race is far from silent. The drumbeat of one’s running shoes is barely audible over the symphonic cacophony produced by the African cicada beetles (at 106.7 decibels the loudest insect in the world).

Solitude on the route of the Two Countries Marathon.

The sounds of nature dominate the airwaves and mother nature is steadily claiming back the terrain as well – the border road is a pockmarked mess and one must tread carefully to avoid twisting an ankle. You’ve already crossed countries and now the uneven road provides testing cross-country conditions.

There are many collapsed sections and gaps in the border fence which will only stop spectacularly uncoordinated illegal immigrants. However, the threat of twisting an ankle in one of the numerous potholes is a much bigger deterrent.

The border road is also a ruthless series of undulating hills, most of which are short sharp daggers that drain the energy from your legs whilst the unrelenting sun sucks the life out of the rest of body.

If you look at the route profile, you’ll see that there is a particularly nasty hill just before halfway that gives you the middle finger. About a third of the starters drop out during the race and I suspect that this ego crushing hill has a lot to do with it.

My friend Julian (of 740 marathons and questionable route recall) told me that this course was flat, so I made him run up the hill in the 35°C heat (which he did with ease!).

Note: If the Gif does not play click the picture or watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/iO5Az5e7EsE

It is ironic that on a race with no shade, the highlight is the trees. I don’t normally get excited about foliage but the endemic Baobab trees are simply stunning. The big ones on the route are over 2,000 years old (the oldest one on record was over 6,000 years old before it collapsed – and a the large hollow in the trunk was used as a bar). The hollows in other massive Baobab trunks, which can get to 50m in circumference, have been used as shops, prisons, houses, storage barns and bus shelters.

Baobab flowers bloom at night and are pollinated by bats – producing a fruit known as ‘monkey bread’. The leaves, fruit and seeds of the tree are very nutritious, have various medicinal applications and can also be used to make both coffee and beer. There are many myths about the Baobab which is also known as the ‘Upside Down’ tree. One legend has it that the arrogant Baobab was taught a lesson by the gods who plucked it out and shoved it back into the ground head first so now the roots are at the top!

Baobabs are virtually indestructible under normal conditions. They will recover from veld fires and are immune to ring barking since their smooth, shiny bark regenerates (unlike most other trees). When a Baobab dies it does so slowly, rotting from the inside. One day it will suddenly collapse in a pile of dust which adds to the mystique as it doesn’t ‘really die’ but simply disappears. Unfortunately these ancient icons cannot escape climate change and, after surviving several millenniums,  nine of the oldest 13 Baobab trees in the world have died in the last few years.

With 10km to go, you finally leave the Limpopo River and veer right onto the road back into Musina. At this point the pockmarked tar road melts away and is replaced by a dry, dusty off-road track. Although you are 500km from the nearest ocean, it feels like you are running uphill on sea sand – and as thoughts of mortality fill one’s head, it was quite literally a case of asphalt to asphalt, dust to dust.

The Two Countries Marathon doesn’t grant any concessions over the last quarter of the race, which is a torturous and continual climb home. After three hours in the harsh African sun, I was now questioning my sanity and hoped that what I saw in the distance was indeed the next support table and not a mirage. At this stage of the race I needed respite, and this was provided by the best support table of the race from the Autozone crew. They had a fully stocked table and even a provided a paddle pool that one could wallow in for a few minutes to cool down.

As happy as a hippo wallowing in the Limpopo River – Rob Dawson’s creek provides relief before the a return to the tar and the climb back into Musina.

The dust eventually turns back to tarmac and, although this provides more traction, you now feel like you are getting double-grilled with the hot skillet of tarmac cooking you from below while the sun continues to beat down from above.

Eventually the oasis of Musina comes into view and a short while later one enters the finish area at the Hoërskool Eric Louw grounds. You are subjected to a final lap around the rugby pitch which is notable only because the trees around the edge of the field provide the first piece of shade on the entire route.

Only mad dogs and marathon runners go out in the Musina midday sun (where it’s 40°C in the shade – and there is no shade)! I tried my best to get some respite from the sun while crossing the Zim border but it looks like I missed the shade. A stray dog on the outskirts of Musina shows me how it’s done and grabs the only piece of shade on offer.

The finish line is as stark as the route with a small group of finished/faster runners huddled in the stands to the right and the race officials taking cover under the shaded sanctuary of their tent to the left. A marathon obsessive like myself can get a bit blasé about finishing a race but there is a true sense of accomplishment (and relief) when crossing the finish line of the Two Countries Marathon.

There is plenty of debate as to what constitutes a ‘real runner’ (I have my views but will wade into this controversial topic at some other time). However, I can say with absolute sincerity that this is a race that every ‘real marathon runner’ in South Africa should do at least once.

Once is probably enough for me. However, I did note that the Kruger National Park’s Pafari Gate (at the top north section) is a short drive from Musina. Running the Two Countries Marathon followed by a slow, leisurely drive along the 400km length of the Kruger National Park would be a great running holiday. Here’s hoping the race aligns with school holidays someday in the future!

Signing out from the Two Countries Marathon. Look out for the next report from the Imbube Marathon, Swaziland.
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5 Replies to “Two Countries Marathon (Musina in Action)”

  1. Not just a great read Stuart this was like a replay.
    One of the marathons that humbled me to the core. My first DNF As I had to defend myself to the locals and said: “I finished Comrades twice”.
    This race has taken me back to the drawing board in my social running life.
    One thing for sure I will be returning next year, I have a score to settle.
    This time running with a hydration pack is a must, not for hydration only but some basic race solid food. Taking that delay into account.
    That race is a good training for social runners, at time you find yourself alone only hope that you on track, if you see the runner ahead of you. I can only imagine how ladies feel running by themselves on that route.

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