Imbube Marathon, Eswatini (Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only A Marathon Runner)

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[Marathon #195 / Unique Marathon #107 / 7 October 2018]

I’ve been trying to get more proactive about running marathons in neighbouring countries. One of the countries I have been scouting is the small, landlocked, mountain kingdom of Eswatini (Swaziland) and my investigations uncovered the Imbube Marathon. Run on the first Sunday in October, this proved the perfect opportunity to notch one more country onto the marathon list.

In Eswatini, everything revolves around the king – and the marathon is no different. The word ‘Imbube’ means ‘King’ in the local siSwati tongue and the event is personally signed off by King Mswati III himself.

Getting ready to start the King’s marathon.

Aside: About Eswatini

Eswatini is one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world. The current ruler, King Mswati III became the youngest reigning monarch (as well as international head of state) when he ascended to the throne in 1986, just six days after his 18th birthday. Although he’s been ruling for 32 years, he still has some way to go before he catches his predecessor and father, King Sobhuza II. At 82 years and 254 days, Sobhuza II was the longest ever reigning monarch* (to put this in perspective, Britain’s Elizabeth II would need to hang around for another 16 years to break the record).

* He also has a long way to go to match his father in terms of wives married and children sired. Sobhuza II had somewhere between 70 and 121 wives and fathered 220 to 500 children (depending on your source). Mswati III has ‘only’ married 16 times and has between 23 and 35 children. However, he is losing wives who flee overseas and one very sadly committed suicide recently.

Earlier this year, the mountain kingdom celebrated 50 years of independence from British ‘protection’ which also coincided with the King’s 50th birthday. At the formal celebrations in April, King Mswati III declared that his country’s name would henceforth change from Swaziland to eSwatini (ostensibly to resolve an ongoing international issue that was causing confusion amongst the world’s diplomatic attachés: “Whenever we go abroad, people refer to us as Switzerland.”).

When you turn 50 and you’re the king, you make sure everyone knows about it.

Whilst I am sure that people who blindly follow GPS directions* appreciated the gesture, the official reason for the name change when it was formally gazetted via ‘Legal Notice No.80 of 2018’ was subsequently changed to “The name Swaziland was inherited from the British… and the time has come to give our country a name of its people.

* According to Google Maps, the driving distance between Switzerland and Swaziland is about 13,000km and will take you about 200 hours to complete (without traffic).

Eswatini is easily accessible from South Africa. The trip to the capital city of Mbabane is a 4-hour drive on good roads from Johannesburg. However, one needs to add some extra time for the border crossing (it took us 45 minutes on the way in and an hour on the way back – but we may have been unlucky since it was the last weekend of school holidays). Other than the queues, it is a simple enough process of handing over your passport plus R50 to get into Swaziland (and just the passport on the way back).

The local currency is the ‘emalangeni’ which is pegged at 1:1 with the South Africa Rand and you can use your Rand notes (but not coins) for all purchases, so no foreign exchange is required. The race entry includes a good quality shirt and costs just R185 ($13/£10) which, to my knowledge, is the cheapest capital city marathon in the world.

The route goes from the National Stadium in Lobamba to the capital city of Mbabane and back again.

The race starts and finishes at the Somhlolo National Stadium in Lobamba. This is the posh part of town where almost everything is prefixed ‘Royal’ and priced accordingly. Since I was travelling with my friend Julian Karp who is not a monarchist, we went with the less regal but better priced option of a B&B in central Mbabane. We were also lucky to get upgraded to separate rooms on arrival since they had not split the beds into ‘twins’. Homosexuality is still illegal in Eswatini so, instead of incurring the risk of two guys sharing a room, the separate rooms may have been a ‘cover your arse’ manoeuvre (pun not necessarily intended).

There was easy access, plenty of parking and a festive atmosphere at the start. The race officials were super keen to get going and were already trying to herd marathon runners into their kraal with over 30 minutes to go.

Ten minutes to go and most of the runners had been successfully herded into the kraal.

Getting into the starting area was a bit more of a challenge. Something had got lost in translation and one official was patting everyone down searching for ‘cellphones’ – and steadfastly refused to let anyone with a mobile device into the starting pen. I run with my phone to take photos* and joined the throng of runners disputing this ruling. The matter was referred to the head referee and, after the exchange of a few choice words in Swahiti, the matter was quickly resolved. I don’t speak Swahiti but if there were subtitles to the conversation I imagine they would have been, “Don’t be a #$@%ing idiot, cellphones are fine. I said no HEADphones!”

* Be careful of taking photos of fancy cars in Eswatini. Mswati III was subjected to severe criticism in 2005 when he added one of the most expensive cars in the world to his luxury fleet (a $500,000 DaimlerChrysler Maybach 62). Not wanting to be subjected to the same wrath when he acquired an even more expensive Mercedes S600 limousine shortly there afterwards, he ‘solved’ the problem by making it illegal to take photos of any of his cars**.

** In the old days you could trade your kingdom for a horse. These days it costs a fleet of luxury cars and an Airbus to sell your kingdom to the Chinese.

Good spirits at the start.

I’ve been at many races that have started later than advertised but this is the first that went off ahead of schedule. The organisers were so keen to get going that, after hassling us for half an hour to get into the starting pen, they fired the gun at 5:58am for a premature evacuation.

Just over 300 marathoner runners shot off, cheered on by a few thousand 21km and 10km runners who would be starting at 6h30 and 7h00 respectively. In addition, there is a special ‘free entry’ 3.3km fun run for the elderly and disabled.

Heading out while the half and 10km runners head in.

The first couple of kilometres are run on tar but this soon changes to dirt as one winds through the Ezulwini Valley, which means ‘place of heaven’. We were fortunate to have a perfectly clear, cloudless day and I can confirm that the magnificent Ezulwini Valley lived up to its celestial billing.

Ezulwini Valley

Although there are some decent pulls on this section, they are mere speed bumps compared to what lies ahead. The dirt road is easy enough to run along but the major challenge is to avoid standing in one of the landmines left by free-range livestock.

Free-range livestock look on with interest.

When people dish out marathon advice they tend to focus on the start and the finish – but this marathon is all about the middle. The Imbube Marathon has one standout feature, a feature that looms large in the minds (as well as peripheral vision) of every entrant, a feature called Malagwane Hill.

At Imbube Marathon, it’s all about the middle.

It is hard to do this hill justice in print (and when searching for adjectives to describe the hill my index figure mysteriously orientates itself directly towards the ‘F’ key). Malagwane is without a doubt the longest and steepest stretch of tarmac I have ever had the pleasure of running up. Almost six kilometres of unrelenting lowest gear grind while one steadily transitions from the lowveld to the highveld.

A warning for what lies ahead: Straight up, no chaser.

About Malagwane Hill

Malagwane has the dubious distinction of being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most dangerous stretch of road in the world.

According to Bob Forrester’s ‘A traveller’s guide to Swaziland’, “There used to be a sign board with moveable numbers that showed how many people had died, much like a cricket scoreboard. This was taken down after a number of years as it made tourists nervous.” One account I found had the death toll at 600 in just three years.

Malagwane Hil: Six kilometres of unrelenting lowest gear grind

The road was upgraded to a dual carriageway in the 1990s and is now much safer but Bob Forrester still advises “extreme caution… particularly at night, week-ends and the end of the month. If you get a combination of all three, watch out.” On one day alone in 2012, separate incidents saw five iron ore hauling Salgaocar trucks overturn on Malagwane Hill.

Slowly heading into the highveld.

Your reward for getting to the top of this treacherous hill is a 4km loop around the rarefied atmosphere of Mbabane, during which we ran passed the South Africa High Commission. A month ago, marijuana was legalised in South Africa* – so the ‘High Commission’ may soon take on a much more literal connotation (agriculture is already the biggest contributor to GDP and Eswatini’s fertile fields could result in a trade surplus with her largest export partner).

* If you start a marijuana business with a friend, would that be called a ‘Joint Venture’?

The High Commission.

On the topic of getting really high, the sadistic race organisers make sure that they take you right up to the highest point in the city before finally plummeting you back down Malagwane Hill again.

What goes up must come back down.

I proceeded cautiously since most of the accidents on Malagwane Hill happen on the descent. Whilst admiring the beautiful surrounding scenery, one needs to be needs to be particularly careful not to get distracted by Sheba’s Breasts.

These twin peaks are named after the Ethiopian Queen who supposedly seduced King Solomon 3,000 years ago (and then gave him massive amounts of gold and other treasures). The impressive rocky outcrops inspired J. Rider Haggard, who was staying in the area, to write his bestselling book ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ (in the book, the entrance to the mines is under the left nipple).

Left: Sheba’s Breasts inspired the J. Rider Haggard bestseller ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ (Photo: Afrotourism.com); Right: Sharon shows her stones to Richard Chamberlain in the 1985 film version (you can see Sharon’s jewellery box in Basic Instinct).

After completing six quad shattering kilometres, you once again find yourself in the lowveld and 30km into the race. The route home is slightly different to the way out as you return via the main road through the Ezulwini Valley. This road takes you into the main tourist hub – and past the fancy resorts and golf courses that characterise the district.

I am not sure what goes on at the Cuddle Puddle but it does not sound particularly sanitary.

I normally keep a keen eye out for distractions during the last quarter of a marathon (so that I have a valid excuse to take a few guilt-free breathers) and found plenty of reasons to stop for a quick photo or two.

Distraction #1: Having a quick browse through the curio shops in the tourist hub.
Distraction #2: Flame grilled chicken – good value at R25 a quarter.
Distraction #3: There are plenty of opportunities to play Game of Thrones in one of last absolute monarchies in the world. The race organisers very considerately provide the exact distance to each throne room on the route.

There are plenty of marshals and police officers to make sure the race runs smoothly and no one gets lost. I found the police officers particularly friendly – every time I said a “Thanks officer!”, I got a “How are you doing?” in return.

However, the marshals seemed to take their job very seriously. When I asked one marshal (who was on a straight stretch with no side roads) whether he could to take a quick photo he worriedly said, “But I’m on the job”. I assured him that I would keep a look out for any disorientated runners and ensure that no one disappeared down a driveway. He very hesitantly agreed and the result is the photo below.

Keeping an eye out for disorientated runners while a dedicated marshal takes this photo.

Another feature of the race are the welcoming water tables – all had ice cold water and Coke and most had different snacks for sustenance (everything from sweets to Bioplus).

Some of the great support tables on route.

The final section of the race passes the King Sobhuza II Memorial Park, National Museum and Houses of Parliament before the stadium comes back into view. The approach to the stadium is marked by a sudden increase in security. The soldiers looked pretty serious, so I first checked with the soldier below whether I could take his picture.

Making sure you don’t cut any corners at the end of the race.

After he obliged, I joked with him that he was there to make sure that no one cuts any corners. Ironically, I later found out that the first two men home in the marathon both did just that and were disqualified after ‘emerging from nowhere’ to try and grab the R25,000 prize for first place (South African runners dominated the participant numbers and podium positions – the men’s race was won by Sphamandla Nyembe in 2:29:36 and Thabitha Tsatsa made it three wins in a row in the women’s race with 3:04:32).

There was just the 200m ‘lap of honour’ around the athletics track to do and I had really enjoyed the race up until this this point. Unfortunately, the finish was a diabolical mess.

On entering the national stadium, I noted that they had put down special matting so that tired runners would not trip on the National Stadium’s warped athletics track. I was just about to bound around the final bend when an officer on duty told me that “The track is closed now, you have to finish on the field.” I double-checked the instruction since there was a lot of people but no demarcated running area on the field – and the order was repeated (a little more sternly this time). After just running past several soldiers with automatic rifles, I wasn’t going to argue and dodged around spectators and the large crowd doing ‘line dancing aerobics’.

I looked in vain for something that looked like an official finish line but there was just the surreal feeling of finishing a marathon and running into nothing. All I found was a growing crowd of fellow runners shrugging their shoulders and looking around in disbelief. A few race day helpers were pulled into the discussion but they had no idea what was going on either. Exactly what happened and why is still a mystery but I have pieced together what I can from several snippets of information I was able to obtain.

In correspondence with the organisers I was told that, “As the race’s patron the event is graced by His Majesty King Mswati III, it is one of the few events where you can get to join him during the aerobics session.” I combined this knowledge with the official explanation I received from the organisers about the finish line lockdown and resultant diversion of marathon runners onto the field, “It was very unfortunate that some of our runners were unable to finish the race due to security and protocol issues, it was due to unforeseen circumstances.” Although my follow-up questions went unanswered, the only explanation I have for the finish line lockdown was the imminent arrival of his majesty to do aerobics with his subjects.

There was also the mystery of the medals. We found some tables with empty boxes and large quantities of leftover 10km medals, but the marathon medals had disappeared or run out – as had the people who were handing them out. My conjecture is that the finish line lockdown occurred at exactly the same time that the medals ran out, resulting in the medal handout volunteers calling it a day and abandoning their posts.

The race is on official Comrades qualifier that is timed by Championchip, but many of the runners never got to cross the timing mat at the end and therefore didn’t get an official time. After ten minutes of trying to figure out what was going on and/or trying to find someone who could explain the situation, we spotted an ‘official looking’ bloke wearing Comrades regalia who was wandering aimlessly about. We accosted him and brought him in for questioning. Our interrogations determined that he was manning the Championchip finish mat and was on a recce to try and figure out why no runners had crossed the line during the last 15 minutes. He reaffirmed that we did indeed need to cross the timing mat to get an official finish.

Armed with this information and relying on safety in numbers, a group of us launched a fresh assault on the timing mats. We were able to use the Championchip guy as a human shield (he had the right body shape to hide behind) and exploited the power of the Comrades brand with the convincing argument that, “This guy with the Comrades logo has ordered us to cross the line.”

The guerrilla tactics worked – our detachment finally managed to breach the high security zone, plant our Championchips on the timing mat and officially finish the race without being gunned down. My official split for the final kilometre must have been around 20 minutes which is definitely my longest ever (and not one I plan on repeating).

The Swazi Slojos Running Club assisted with the organisation for the first two editions of the race but were uninvited from helping this year. I am led to believe (from a reliable source) that their uninviting was over a disagreement at last year’s race on this specific issue (the Slojos fought for the marathon runners). Anyway, hopefully this is something that is sorted out next year because it really does ruin what is otherwise an exceptional race.

Despite the finish line shenanigans, I would still recommend this as a race to do. For South African runners, it’s an easy away weekend excursion – and one you could extend with a visit to some of Eswatini’s famous wildlife parks. However, if you do like your race medals and want closure at the end of a marathon, I would strongly urge you to run a bit faster than I did to ensure that you make it to the finish line before the King completes his morning routine and gets his aerobics kit on.

Signing out from Eswatini. There were some beautiful Jacarandas along the route – look out for the next race report from the Jacaranda City Marathon in Pretoria.

Looking for some more out of South Africa, African running adventures?

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

Read: Two Countries Marathon (Musina in Action)

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