A Year at the Races
29 Marathons started, 29 marathons finished (22 standards, 7 ultras); All nine provinces (plus three neighbouring countries) covered.
Below is a short synopsis of each (follow the links for detailed race reports).
Finlime Marathon, Lime Acres, Northern Cape: If you fancy running a marathon in the middle of the Kalahari Desert then make a plan to include the smallest Comrades qualifier in the country (just 22 finishers) into your running schedule. The route is fairly flat and the spectacular desert landscape is only broken by the odd diamond and lime mine. This is a truly unique marathon running experience and one I would recommend all South African runners make the effort to do at least once.
Volksrust Marathon, Mpumalanga: An up and down, out and back route with some of the best support tables in the country. A bit of dirt road running is thrown into the end of the loop for those that like to get off the tar for a bit. Make sure you leave room in your tog bag for the medal – it is by far the biggest in the country! Volksrust is an easy 3 hour drive from Joburg so it will probably take you less time to get to the start than it will to the Johnson Crane Marathon in Benoni.
Bay Ultra, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape: The first ultra on the South African calendar. A lovely 50km race with plenty of climbing over the first half before you get back to sea level and enjoy a beautiful run along the coastline all the way to the finish.
Potties Marathon, Mokopane, Limpopo: An interesting double-lapper (you don’t get too many of those) on a flat route that includes a bit of dirt road running along some game farms. If you like experiencing town and country on the same run this is a good one to do. I always thought this race was in Potchefstroom but it takes its name from the former name of Mokopane – Potgietersrus – which was the town’s name when the race started.
Assegaai Marathon, Piet Retief, Mpumalanga: An excellent race close to the Swaziland border. The out and back route takes you all the way down to the Assegaai River and you have to earn your finish with a long, steady pull for most of the second half. The race entry is worth is just for the Charka support table – the best table I’ve ever had the pleasure of frequenting.
Maritzburg City Marathon, Kwazulu Natal: A big field, double-lapper around Kwazulu Natal’s capital. I’m not generally a fan of big field double-lap races but this is a race worth doing – and is one of the best organised in the country. Comrades runners can enjoy the novelty of running past Pietermaritzburg’s famous City Hall without having another 90km ahead of them. Fittingly, more runners submit this as their Comrades qualifier than any other.
Uniwisp Fast 50, Nelspruit, Mpumalanga: The fastest ultra in Africa. A point to point, downhill quadkiller that starts on the R37 towards Sabie and finishes at the Mbombela Stadium. Although the last few kilometres are similar to Kaapsehoop Marathon, this race drops you into Nelspruit/Mbombela via a different road. Take time to admire the views as you descend from the highveld to the lowveld – and smell the local foliage and fauna.
Kosmos Marathon, Secunda, Mpumalanga: A flat marathon where most of the participants stick around to run another half marathon at lunchtime and a further 10km in the evening for a 73.3km total. Great support tables along the route. All races start and finish at the Lake Umuzi Waterfront so there is plenty for the kids to do while mom and/or dad run.
Om Die Dam, Hartbeespoort, North West: The biggest 50km race in the world (3rd largest South African ultra) that takes you on one long lap around the Hartbeespoort Dam. The route has been reversed from previous years so the toughest climb, Saartjies Nek, comes early on. Although this is a tough route with continual undulations, the hardest part of the race is getting to the start on time as race day traffic can be a nightmare. A reduced field size and the completion of roadworks should hopefully alleviate the traffic issue in 2019.
Umgeni Water Marathon, Midmar Dam, Kwazulu Natal: A beautiful marathon with stunning views that provides a great excuse for a Natal Midlands weekend escape. The race starts and finishes at the Midmar Dam which is also a KZN Parks Board resort so, for a very reasonable fee, you can stay within walking distance of the start and enjoy a braai with a dam fine view immediately afterwards. Be aware that there are some nasty hills on the second half.
Note: I have been told that the route has been changed in 2019, “With a change in venue for the Umngeni Marathon, you’ll be able to do it again. It’s no longer at the Midmar Dam, but on the Baynesfield Estate on the Richmond Road”
Two Oceans 56km Ultra Marathon, Cape Town, Western Cape: My favourite ultra (this year was my 16th voyage) and the second largest ultra in the world. After a flat first half through Cape Town’s southern suburbs and alongside the Indian Ocean, you get to climb one of the most beautiful passes in the world, Chapman’s Peak Drive. A drop into Hout Bay gets you to the marathon mark and this is followed by 4km of extreme nastiness called Constantia Nek. The last 10km are mainly downhill with a few bumps along the way until you reach the finish line at the University of Cape Town.
Mall of the North Marathon, Polokwane, Limpopo: Polokwane races are normally hot and not particularly interesting. However, this race bucks the trend and is the best I’ve done in Limpopo’s largest city. An out and back route that takes you almost immediately from the mall parking lot into pristine African savannah and keeps you there for over 40km.
Jackie Gibson Marathon, Johannesburg, Gauteng: Johannesburg’s oldest race. A tough double-lapper that has so many hills no one has bothered to name them. A great Comrades training run and an experience that epitomises what marathon running is all about – a gritty race, organised by people who love the sport, that gives your legs (and your mind) a great workout.
Bruintjieshoogte Ultra, Somerset East, Eastern Cape: A 25km climb out of Somerset East to the top of the Bruintjieshoogte and then back again is the recipe for another great South African 50km ultra. A hidden gem on the race calendar and a race I would recommend all runners add to their running CV. Top tip: Take some time to unwind afterwards in the awesome Addo Elephant National Park.
Outeniqua Marathon, George-Wilderness, Western Cape: If this is not on your bucket list add it now. A small field marathon in the heart of the Garden Route that is run point to point from George to Wilderness. Expect hills, dams, lakes, stunning sea views and indigenous forests.
JM Busha Marathon, Randfontein, Gauteng: This was the first year the marathon was held and hopefully it becomes an annual fixture. There were a few organisational issues on the inaugural run. This is a fast and flat single-lapper around Randfontein in the far west rand of Gauteng. If you’re looking to improve your Comrades seeding on the last weekend of qualification, then this is a good one to do it on.
Gaborone Marathon, Botswana: A flat double-lapper through Botswana’s capital city on closed roads. Not the most interesting route but worth doing for the experience of running in a neighbouring country. Warning for fathers who plan on running this event: Be aware that the race is held over Mother’s Day weekend so make sure your permission slip is signed and witnessed before entering or you will pay for the rest of your life (like I am).
Comrades Ultra Marathon, Pietermaritzburg-Durban, Kwazulu Natal: The oldest, largest and greatest ultra in the world. This year was the “down” run, a brutal 90km from Pietermaritzburg to the Moses Mabida Stadium in Durban. Like condensing Tolstoy’s War & Peace into a single paragraph, describing Comrades in a couple of lines would be sacrilege. I would recommend checking out Dave Jack’s route description and blog – the best resource for everything Comrades on the internet.
Riebeeck Berg Marathon, Riebeek Wes, Western Cape: A tough but magnificent marathon through the twin towns of Riebeek Wes and Riebeek Kasteel and the surrounding Swartland countryside. It includes a couple of climbs over mountain passes, plenty of gravel road running and spectacular views of the Western Cape’s breadbasket. Highly recommended for an away weekend. Relax after you’re run and replenish your reserves by sampling the produce from the local vineyards and olive farms (many of whom you would have just run passed).
Blood Buddy Ultra, Memel-Newcastle, Free State-Kwazulu Natal: A lowkey 51.2km race from Memel in the Free State to Newcastle in Kwazulu Natal. The race is run along the along the historic Battlefields Route and provides breath-taking views once the early morning fog lifts. Expect great support tables and plenty of small town hospitality along the way.
Vaal River City Marathon, Vanderbijlpark, Gauteng: Probably the most boring marathon I did this year but you expect nothing less when running double-lappers around Vaal Triangle. This was just the second running and it has already become a popular event that is very well organised. If you’re looking for a good time at an early qualifier this is one to consider.
Two Countries Marathon, Musina, Limpopo: A marathon that all running connoisseurs should do once. Catch a 6am bus from Musina and start running two hours (and two border posts) later after crossing the Beitbridge that separates South Africa and Zimbabwe. The start is 10km inside Zimbabwe and the route directs you back across the Limpopo River, into South Africa and then along the borderline. If you can survive the scorching heat, you’ll make it back to Musina in one very sweaty piece around lunchtime. Look out for the spectacular endemic Baobab trees – some of whom are several thousand years old (unfortunately they provide little shade for the overheating runner).
Imbube Marathon, Mbabane, Swaziland: An opportunity to run a marathon in the Kingdom of eSwatini. The race includes one of the toughest climbs I’ve ever done – 6kms of relentless climbing up Malagwane Hill (according to the Guinness Book of Records the most dangerous road in the world). After ascending over 500m from the low to the highveld, you do a quick tour of downtown Mbabane before plummeting back down again whilst admiring Sheba’s breasts. Overall well organised and great value for money (I make it the cheapest capital city marathon in the world). Unfortunately, this year’s race was ruined by a diabolical mess at the finish line.
Jacaranda City Marathon, Pretoria, Gauteng: A double-lapper timed to capture the capital city’s famous Jacaranda trees in full bloom. Flat by Tshwane standards (hilly by anywhere else’s standards). If purple is your favourite colour this is the race for you.
Sapphire Coast Marathon, Scottburgh-Amanzimtoti, Kwazulu Natal: 42 Kilometres of unrelenting undulations along Kwazulu Natal’s south coast from Scottsburgh to Amanzimtoti. If the hills don’t get you the humidity will (and if the Sharks win the Currie Cup the evening before the marathon you should bring your own water bottle). Enjoy the novelty of a Prasa train ride to the start.
Soweto Marathon, Gauteng: The best way to join the mile-high club: Run at an altitude of just over 1,600m and endure over 600m of climbing along the way. This tough marathon is the best way to tour Johannesburg’s South Western Townships. The route passes many points of historical interest and political significance before a special finish inside the iconic Calabash – which hosted the 2010 Soccer World Cup final. Crowd support is excellent as the local residents come out to cheer the 20,000 runners on (the marathon field is roughly 9,000 starters). For overseas runners looking to tick off an African marathon with a unique ‘big city’ experience, this is the race I would recommend.
Music Marathon, Bloemfontein, Free State: Run around the Tempe Military Base before exploring Bloemfontein’s northern and eastern extremities while regular musical interludes keep you entertained.
Josiah Gumede Marathon, Mazizini-Bergville, Kwazulu Natal: This year was the first running of the marathon. Your race fee includes a minibus taxi from Bergville to the start somewhere in the middle of the rural Kwazulu Natal. An attractive and challenging route through beautiful countryside and around the Woodstock Dam before you make it back to Bergville.
Prison to Prison Marathon, Brandvlei Prison, Western Cape: This marathon through the largest wine growing region in the country is a great way to end the year. The race starts and finishes inside the grounds of the maximum security Brandvlei Prison near Worcester. The route begins with a tour of the prison grounds before heading along the Brandvlei (“Burning Marsh”) Dam – so called because of hot springs that cause smoke on the water every morning. The rest of the route passes picturesque vineyards and farms before heading back to prison along the dam. Although you are constantly surrounded by mountains, the route itself is fairly flat.
A Challenge For You
I would challenge all runners to try and run at least one new, small town next year!
Toughest Marathon: Two Countries at Musina.
Hardest to get to (but most worthwhile) marathon: Finlime Marathon, Lime Acres (a 7.5 hour drive from Johannesburg).
Best support tables: A tie between the Volksrust and Assegaai Marathons.
Best from the bucket list*: Outeniqua Marathon
* Criterion: A race I’ve been wanting to run for a long time that lived up to expectations.
Best ‘first time running’ ultra: Bruintjieshoogte (see rationale below). Runners up: Bay, Blood Buddy and Uniswisp Fast One ultras.
Best inaugural marathon: Josiah Gumede Marathon
On a Personal Note
My goal for the last few years has been to run 100 unique (or different) marathons (i.e. duplicate finishes of the same race do not count). I managed to achieve this on 21st April at the Bruintjieshoogte 50km – and the organisers made the experience ultra special by giving me race number 100 to run in, an article in the local newspaper and even my first post race finish line interview!
I finished the year on 112 unique marathons adding 23 unique marathons to my list over the year. I also managed to notch up 200 lifetime marathons (136 standards plus 64 ultras) at the Josiah Gumede Marathon and finished the year on 201.
The new goal is to try and run every marathon in South Africa – and I hope to write an article detailing the ‘personality’ of each race that can be used as a resource for fellow marathon running connoisseurs*.
* My blogging objective is to encourage local running tourism for South Africa runners and encourage international runners to plan a running holiday in our beautiful country.
Having published my first race report, Reykjavik Marathon (and everything I learned about Iceland in 2 days), in September 2017 to a handful of reads, to having the 2017 Soweto Marathon report crack 1,000 reads a few months later, to now getting over 1,000 reads within a few hours of publishing (and most articles exceeding 5,000 reads) has been incredibly exciting and makes this time-consuming hobby worthwhile.
I hope to continue writing humorous, “middle-of-the-pack” perspective race reports as well as a few other running related articles as time allows in 2019 (I have a large backlog of stuff I want to write about!).
I still need to start working on achieving my lifetime goal of securing a beer sponsor.
Other Personal Accomplishments
- Winning the Chairman’s Award at my running club (Fourways Road Runners).
- Writing a monthly column for Modern Athlete (South Africa’s largest running publication) since May.
- Contributing marathon reports and other articles to Sport24.co.za.
- Writing an article on Two Oceans for the British “Ultra Mag”.
- Earning my Om Die Dam permanent number with my 10th finish.
- Having a blog post reach almost 20,000 reads*
* It was this one about the amazing Ann Ashworth – she would definitely get my vote for “Running Performance” and “Sports Personality” of the year.
- Relaying Danie de Wet’s amazing story and having it go viral on social media* after chatting to him during his last gasp qualifier at the JB Marks Marathon. You can read Danie’s inspirational story (from being impaled 3.5km underground to finishing this year’s Comrades Marathon) here. Danie was also one of the winners of this year’s Spirit of Comrades Awards.
** I follow back all sane, tweeting runners on Twitter and let the algorithms sort out the rest.
I look forward to another great running year in 2019 with as many unique races as possible – and hope to chat to several of you along the way. I am also hoping to earn my Comrades Green Number in June!Follow Running Mann: