Jacaranda Marathon (Purple Rain in Pretoria)

[Marathon #196 / Unique Marathon #108 / 13 October 2018]

Opening Chords

Once a year Pretoria turns purple as 65,000 Jacaranda trees go into bloom and herald the start of summer. The impact of the trees on South Africa’s capital city is immense. They’ve resulted in Pretoria being nicknamed “Jacaranda City” and prominent purple branding adorns everything from the regional Tshwane municipality to the local radio station (which is of course called Jacaranda FM).

The Jacaranda City Challenge is perfectly timed to capture the trees in full bloom. Prince sang about Purple Rain – but if you really want to see the phenomenon in real life you should run the Jacaranda City Marathon. Running a marathon under a constant florid canopy is quite an experience. This year an overnight thunderstorm meant that we were also treated to a luxurious carpet of petals, whilst every gust of wind brought more purple blossoms raining down.

Liner Notes

Note For You, the reader: Having just completed the King’s Marathon in Eswatini (Swaziland), I thought it appropriate to try and stick with the royalty theme for this marathon report. I have therefore tried to work as many tie-ins as possible to Prince Rogers Nelson* (or the artist formerly known as Prince) for this report on the Jacaranda City Challenge (or the marathon formerly known as the SABS Jacaranda City Challenge). Some of the references are admittedly tenuous – but they entertained me and allowed me to try something different!

* For those with a Dirty Mind, Prince Rogers Nelson is The Artist’s full name, not a headline from the Daily Sun.

My name is Prince, if you don’t like the article please know that, “I never meant to cause you any sorrow, I never meant to cause you any pain, I only wanted to see you laughing [at this race report about running] in the purple rain.

The Album

Track One – Running in Pretoria

Sinéad O’Connor introduced herself to the world whining, “It’s been seven hours and fifteen days, since you took your love away.” (‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ composed by Prince in 1985).

For me, it had been two years, seven months and 14 days since I found my way across the boerewors curtain to run a marathon in Pretoria – and I wasn’t whining. In the runners’ space-time continuum, I had successfully avoided running around Pretoria for 61 marathons.

Actually, it’s technically incorrect to say that you run ‘around’ Pretoria – instead you run ‘up and down’ her hilly streets. Races in Pretoria are often named after their hills. An example is the Tom Jenkins Challenge: Tom Jenkins is a street that was built by Italian prisoners of war and goes straight up to the top of Meinjieshoogte – and you do the hill twice on the Tom Jenkins Challenge. The Sunrise Monster is another famous race which advertises itself as ‘running up every hill in Pretoria except Tom Jenkins’. There are many hills and very few flats in Pretoria – in fact the only flats I know of are the student accommodations around the University of Pretoria.

The Tswaneans like to combine their hills with double-lappers. Both the races mentioned above are double-lappers, the last marathon I ran in Pretoria (the Deloitte Marathon) winds you up Waterkloof Ridge and to the top of Klapperkop Hill twice. On reflection, I realised that since I started running in the early 2000s, I have not done a single one-lapper race in the nation’s capital.*

* The Tuks Marathon which was introduced earlier this year is the first single-lap race I know of in Pretoria. I haven’t yet run it but plan to do so before the reactionaries change it to a double-lapper.

Money Don’t Matter 2 Nights (or the night) before a marathon but a decent sleep does. Unfortunately, mine was rudely interrupted by a persistent and very loud thunderstorm. The Insatiable storm continued to rumble on as rain pelted down during the drive north – and frequent lightning strikes lit up the pre-dawn skyline.

Track Two – A Dark & Gloomy Ballad

We were warned to get there early to allow for the traffic. The journey should have taken 40 minutes in my trusty Subaru (slightly less if you drive a Little Red Corvette) but the congested last few kilometres doubled the commute time. Although the Thundershowers had stopped by the time I eventually parked, the conditions were still very gloomy and the thick clouds looked ominous.

A dark, gloomy purple dawn greeted the runners in Pretoria.

Track Three – Weekend Traffic

For those unfamiliar with the Gauteng running scene, there has been a longstanding agreement between the Northern and Central Gauteng regional athletics bodies to hold the Pretoria races on Saturday and Joburg races on Sunday. I understand that this is to do with traffic patterns and runner safety. For a large proportion of the Pretoria population, Sunday is a day of rest*. It is very hazardous to hold running races in Pretoria on a Sunday because the only thing more dangerous and impatient than minibus taxis on South Africa’s roads are old people late for church.

* My personal preference is for a Saturday marathon and a Sunday day of rest to avoid a Manic Monday (written by Prince for the Bangles when he was dating lead singer Susanna Hoffs).

Track Four – Late Starter

My tardiness necessitated a brisk 1.5km warm-up run to collect my race number and then another 1km dash to get to the start. Just over 4,000 full and half marathon runners had already set off on a 5h45 Emancipation. However, I was in good company as there were several hundred fellow late starters.

I wasn’t the only one who started late (this is about 10 minutes after the official start).

Track Five – Foreign Affairs

After the thunderstorm, conditions were Soft & Wet underfoot. The 21km lap passes through the scenic suburbs of Waterkloof, Groenkloof, Sunnyside and Hatfield. Pretoria is the diplomatic nucleus in South Africa and the route takes you passed several embassies* and under the odd Graffiti Bridge.

* An idea for race organisers – put together an orienteering ‘Around the World in a Day’ challenge where you get a running passport and have to get it stamped outside each embassy.

Track Six – Pirate Education

Pretoria has a reputation for being an academic city and boasts the largest residential educational institution in South Africa (Tshwane University of Technology), one of the largest distance universities in the world (UNISA) and the University of Pretoria (the course takes you passed Tukkies’ Hatfield campus). If you see students loitering under the Jacaranda trees, they are probably hoping that one of the blossoms will land on their head – legend has it that this will result in you passing all of your exams!

The route also tours you passed several of the prestigious schools responsible for educating the Cream of South Africa’s young talent like the Afrikaanse Hoër Meisieskool and the Pretoria Schools for Girls & Boys.

However, it was a nursery school institution along one of the Alphabet Streets where kids learn their ABCs that caught my eye. The Anton von Wouw junior school had a sign advertising that they educated children from “Grade RRR” upwards. I thought that maybe this was some kind of pirate school (but later realised that this would be advertised as Grade “Arrrrrrgh” upwards).

Track Seven – Art

Anton von Wouw (1862-1945) was a Dutch-born sculptor who is regarded as the father of South African sculpture. Most of his commissions were to sculpt Boer heroes like the statue of Paul Kruger in Church Square.  Although his lifelike creations were known for capturing “the rugged and emotional essence of his subjects”, a sculpture Could Never Take the Place of Your Man*.

* In most cultures, weddings are sealed with a Kiss. However, in traditional Afrikaans wedding ceremonies, the most important tradition is when the bride promises her husband, “Ek kon nooit jou ma se plek inneem nie” (“I could never take the place of your mom”).

Anton von Wouw’s sculpture of Paul Kruger watches over Church Square. [Photo from Wikipedia, user JMK]
Anton von Wouw’s work still manages to elicit a passionate response from South Africans and was recently headlining The Morning Papers: Although I doubt Sunette Bridges Would Die 4 U, she was happy to chain herself to Oom Paul to protect him from paintbrush wielding revolutionaries in Raspberry Berets.

Track Eight – Sport

There are hundreds of churches in Pretoria (and you run passed several during the race) but, as you head Uptown early in the loop, you skirt around the most sacred soil in Pretoria: A place where large portions of the local populace go Delirious on a Saturday afternoon – Loftus Versfeld.

The South African equivalent of People of Walmart are Bulls Fans at Loftus. This is a random sample from Google images.

Although the local team have had a couple of purple patches, the violent turquoise Blue Bulls jersey bucks the colour code and provides the notable exception to the ‘everything is purple in Pretoria’ rule. Perhaps they were worried that they’d be nicknamed the Purpleheaded Warriors*?

* There are very few teams in world sport with a purple kit but perhaps the Purpleheaded Warrions are just what is needed to re-erect the flaccid Super Rugby tournament. They would offer endless commentating innuendos and would inject new life in the standard commentating clichés (two minutes of unrefined thinking produced: squeezing through a small gap, standing tall in the lineout, stiff arm, penetrating move, early put in, straight down his throat, spraying it all over the field, illegal rear entry, a mouthful from the coach, slipped right through the fingers and a beautiful shot straight through the uprights).

The Blue Bulls have a long history and many traditional rivals. However, the fiercest of these rivalries is one that has arisen over the last few years. This is an intense rivalry between the Bulls players and their cheerleaders* over who gets the dressing rooms with the best hair dryers and most flattering lighting conditions**.

* The Bulls belles are allegedly known as the Blue Balls and prepare their Blue-jerseyed warriors for battle with a comBat Dance before each game.

** There is an incredibly high correlation between Bulls home games and load shedding due to the pressure that excessive hair-dryer use puts on the Tshwane electricity grid. In Afrikaans, they are known as the Blou Bulle but these days they are better recognised as the Blou-Dried Bulle

Gone are the khaki-clad stereotypes of old, today’s Bulls players are fine examples of Sexy M.F. millennium men who have taken metrosexuality to a level that the Stomers team of the early 2000s could only dream of. If a Bulls player was your Girlfriend you could spend hours talking beauty and style tips.

Bulls youngsters aspire to the soft and bouncy heights Wynand Olivier’s hair achieved at Loftus. This is a highlights package. Note: Bottom right – since getting married and leaving the Bulls for England’s Worcester Warriors, Wynand has really let himself go. (All pictures from Google image search).

I have heard unconfirmed rumours that the real reason John Mitchell quit coaching the Bulls was a clash of styles – hairstyles. Mitchell, who is completely bald, simply couldn’t relate to his players’ needs. Matters came to a Head (pun intended) when Mitchell called a meeting to look at ‘highlights’ – and most of the Bulls players rocked up with their personal hair stylist and a large roll of tin foil.

The Bulls players drew more inspiration from the hairstyles of Joni Mitchell than the coaching style of John Mitchell. The Bulls management team have looked at life from both sides now and are on the hunt for a coach with good hair.

Track Nine – The Profile

Like a skilled Tshwane stylist able to bring the best features out of their Bull, the route organisers have done a good job of making the course attractive – and not too hilly by Pretoria standards. Although there are plenty of undulations and the total elevation gain during the marathon is almost 500m (for a comparison, Soweto is just under 600m), there are no Mountains or massive hills that would make the Doves Cry. The good news is that the last two kilometres are downhill so you can finish like a Batman out of hell.

Jacaranda Marathon route profile.

Track Ten – Natural Invaders

Naturally, the highlight of the run are the Jacaranda trees. These beautiful trees provide a spectacular awning of purple plumes whilst their fallen blossoms blanket the ground to provide a 360-degree deep purple panorama along most of the route.

Purple blossoms everywhere.

Unfortunately, Jacarandas are not endemic to South Africa. Jacarandas comprise 16% of all trees in Pretoria and were declared a ‘category three invader’ in 2001. This means the existing trees can remain but no new trees can be planted. The investigative journalism show Carte Blanche caused an uproar when they exploited Pretoria residents love of their Jacaranda trees with a famous April Fool’s joke: Ruda Landman presented an elaborate segment (which included interviews with local officials and conservationists) ahead of a supposed new environmental law that would eradicate this invasive species from the streets of Pretoria.

Johannesburg also has some impressive Jacaranda. This is an aerial view Saxonwold, a suburb famous for its shebeen. [Photo from clivehassall.com]
The first two trees were planted in Pretoria by a Mr. J.D. Celliers in 1888 and arrived from Brazil. The trees live for about 200 years and you can still see the two original trees standing tall in what is now the Sunnyside School in Arcadia (you get to within a few hundred meters of the site on the run but surprisingly do not run passed the trees and commemorative plaque).

The commemorative park at the Sunnyside School where the first two Jacarandas still stand. (photo from thelouwkuls.com)

Track Eleven – Sponsors

It’s an unfortunate Sign o’ the Times that several races are losing their sponsors – and (for reasons undisclosed) this race lost SABS (the South African Bureau of Standards) as their major sponsor this year.

However, Fidelity/ADT, Brooks Gym and a few Christian organizations (Radio Pulpit, Pretoria Evangelical & Nurture and Trinity Broadcasting Network) stepped in to ensure that the event still went ahead (albeit on a smaller scale).

Track Twelve – Religion

The race is organised by the Agapé Athletics Club whose Love Symbol is the sign of the cross. Agapé is an ancient Greek word for ‘love’ that is found in New Testament manuscripts. However, this is not Lovesexy but rather the kind of love that “denotes an undefeatable benevolence and unconquerable goodwill that always seeks the highest good of the other person, no matter what he does. It is the self-giving love that gives freely without asking anything in return, and does not consider the worth of its object.” I Wanna Be Your Lover (in an agapé kind of way) is a worthy aspiration – hopefully Agapé AC are able to spread a bit more of this kind of love around South Africa!

Track Thirteen – Money

Despite losing their sponsor, the organisers managed to ensure that they were able to offer a decent prize purse for runners and walkers across the full marathon, half and 10km events (there is also a 5km Paisley Parkrun). Interestingly, this is the first race I’ve seen that has prize money for the great and greater grandmaster categories (70-79 and 80+ respectively). Across all distances, category winners get The Gold Experience, whilst the first 500 receive a silver medal and everyone else a bronze medal.

Gold medals and categories prizes go all the way to 80+ allowing the fast and the furiously grumpy to top up their pensions.

The women’s and men’s winners of this year’s marathon were Nedbank’s Cary-Ann Smith and Pretoria Military Marathon Club’s Thomas Ndlovu. They each earned R2,000 which meant that they could spend the rest of the weekend partying like they’d just won R1999 (and still have a tiny bit of change left over).

Track Fourteen – The Screw-up

It was ironic that after losing SABS as their sponsor, the one Black Album mark was a major measurement malfunction and resultant Controversy. The route was correctly measured but a marshalling error on the day resulted in the course being almost a kilometre short (so the half marathoners were able to finish like they’d just run 19.99km). The official explanation from the organisers, “The route is an accredited IAAF distance race, and therefore a Comrades and Two Oceans qualifier. However, a human error on the route, by an externally sourced marshal, lead to runners taking short cut, not following the lead vehicle.”

Aside: I’ve put some more detailed information from a race referee (that was circulated on social media), the official response from the race organisers and the Comrades Marathon Association decision to remove the race as a qualifier as appendices.

The net result is that, like Thieves in the Temple, the powers that be took the race away from many hard training runners as a Comrades and Two Oceans qualifier. I know a few runners were extremely (and understandably) upset about this – it’s really frustrating when you’ve trained hard for a PB and human error rains on your Parade. There are also some runners who have financial constraints and, although they do plenty of training, are very selective about which organised races they enter.

Ultimately it is the runners that suffer – and situations that don’t put the needs of the runners first should be avoided. I am not sure how difficult it would have been just to add six or 7 minutes onto everyone’s time for qualification purposes or just simply taken the view that the Jacaranda runners got a bit lucky with a short course (at most it would be a few hundred runners who score a better seeding).

That being said, there is still so much time between now and Comrades that it’s actually a fairly minor issue. However, I wonder what would happen if the same situation occurred at one of the final qualification races on 1 May? I expect we’d have a Revolution!

If you had a marathon bib and tried to Gett Off with just one lap, U Got The Look from this guy in black who swiped everyone right.

Track Fifteen – Perspective

When humans are involved mistakes will occasionally happen. I think we need to make some allowance for once off errors – especially for races like this that are planned and organised by volunteers who are sacrificing their time and energy to do so.

The Let’s Go Crazy all over social media attitude is usually counterproductive. I went digging for Diamonds and Pearls of wisdom were received from Modern Athlete editor Sean Falconer. He provides a good rule of thumb for runners to follow, “As a paying customer you have the right to complain, but you should still treat people with respect and basic decency.”

I’ve done races that were complete Chaos and Disorder, but in this instance there was one mistake and everything else was really well organised. It is also commendable that Race director, De Wet de Beer, took the time out of his day job to reply to individual complaints. The organising team will be looking to ensure that, Come 2019, the race goes off without a hitch (hopefully with a new title sponsor).

Track Sixteen – Dying Notes

One thing that is certain is that you can’t count this race as your PB but, if you take the same form to a flat course, you’ll probably run a better time in any case. The final question is an ethical one for those obsessed with marathon counts – can you count this as an official marathon? My view on this is a simple – it’s up to you! I know of some people who will cross the finish line and keep running until their Garmin shows 42.2 (mainly for Strava pride). Personally, I will be listing this in my marathon count since I more than made up for the missing 900m with my warm-up run to collect my number and from there to the start.

Another marathon done but the real endurance event was still to come.

The Encore

The marathon was the easy part of my day. The major endurance event was still ahead: my youngest daughter’s seventh birthday party. Not only is she The Most Beautiful Girl in the World (together with my wife and other daughter of course!) but she is also an extreme extrovert who makes friends wherever she goes – this means we had a massive entourage descending on our house.

That afternoon I was able to complete the ultimate endurance test: 42 kilometres followed by 42 kids. I was fine after the marathon but once the party guests had gone I needed some New Power Generation in the form of an afternoon nap (the first one I’ve successfully accomplished in over five years).

I have done many extravagant activities after running marathons like ‘Dad’s and Daughters Dance Days’ and full contact grocery shopping (usually accompanied by two irritable, fighting daughters) but the party completely flattened me. I am quite content to run an annual quota of 30 marathons but two kiddies parties a year are all my body can take!

For the detailed and pedantic, you will notice that there are ‘only’ 27 kids playing pass the parcel in the picture above. At any kiddie’s party, there are always at least five kids prioritising the sweet and chip bowls over party games, four kids in the toilet, three kids crying at their parents, two kids roaming around looking for mischief and one who is lost somewhere on the property (but is waiting until their parent eventually finds them before joining the crying kids category). Besides which, some kids are easy kilometres whilst others are equivalent to miles (and most of the boys are uphill miles!).

Hidden Tracks

Below are the referees letter, official Comrades Marathon Association decision and race director letter of apology.

Click here for: Apology Letter from Race Director

Click here for: Official Comrades Decision 

Click here for: Race Referee Letter

Prince Rogers Nelson (7 June 1958 – 21 April 2016)

Check out the vocal range and overall brilliance of Prince’s performance at the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show.

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