[Marathon #209 / Unique Marathon #119 / 9 March 2019]
The plan to run a marathon in Upington began at the Mokopane Spur the night before the Potties Marathon. My companions that evening were the two JKs: former international rugby referee Jonathan Kaplan (120 marathons and going strong) and current Tarzan / Michael Bolton impersonator Julian Karp (770 marathons and going stronger). I was just the Mann in the middle with around 180 marathons at that stage.
Naturally, dinner conversation was dominated by running talk – specifically various marathons around the country. For a group of hardened plodders like us, running a marathon in every province was passé but Jonathan explained his goal of running a marathon in every “athletics province” in the country (e.g. Gauteng alone has three athletics provinces – Central Gauteng, Gauteng North and Vaal Triangle).
When Jonathan set his goal there were 16 athletics provinces and the only one he had not yet run a marathon around was the North West Cape*. The Northern Cape is the largest, but most sparsely populated, province in South Africa and is divided into two athletics districts: Griqualand West (where Kimberley, the largest city in the province, has a good collection of marathons) and North West Cape (which has just two marathons, Spitskop and John Nugent – both in Upington).
* The Transkei athletics province was subsequently been added but, as many a player has found out, once a referee makes up his mind, the call will not be altered – so Transkei is still awaiting IRB (Irrational Running Banter) ratification before Jonathan pays them a visit. Transkei has two marathons – the Heroes (a lovely marathon from Mthatha airport to Nelson Mandela’s home village and burial site in Qunu) and the Elliot Madeira (still to do) Marathons.
Long story short, all three of us made a tacit agreement to get to Upington in 2019 for the John Nugent Marathon. Unfortunately, only two of us made it (a combination of family responsibilities, getting his hair done and trying to ensure he was able to run a Sunday marathon* on the same weekend meant Julian missed the trip).
* Julian likes to run at least two marathons a weekend if he can.
Having run all around South Africa, I can certify that Upington is the hardest place in the country to get to – it’s a nine-hour drive from anywhere civilised (and four-hours from Kimberley, the nearest neighbouring city). Only one airline, SA Airlink, flies to Upington but a ticket will set you back R6,600* at the lowest fare (which I make as the most expensive domestic flight in the country). One of the travel tricks I’ve learnt is that miles cost the same regardless of the route chosen (i.e. it costs the same amount of Voyager miles to fly from Johannesburg to Durban as it does to fly from Johannesburg to Upington) and luckily I had just enough miles to buy a ‘free’ ticket.
* The organisers are trying to negotiate a special “runner’s fare” with SA Airlink for future years.
The flight was uneventful although it was rather ominous to look out over the flat, barren wasteland that is the Kalahari Desert just before landing. Although the town’s new traffic lights rarely feature in conversations these days, Upington’s airport still has a distinct novelty factor for local residents. Through the glass windows of the baggage collection area, I noticed that there was a flurry of activity going on. Closer inspection showed this to be a photographic frenzy – I wondered how I hadn’t spotted the famous person on our very small plane. However, it turned out be a school outing and the unconstrained enthusiasm of the learners was to get action shots of luggage popping onto the carousal.
The marathon starts and finishes at the Desert Palace Hotel and Casino – who also sponsor the race. The hotel offered special rates for runners (incredible value at R450 for my room) and, according to race director Russell Nugent, the hotel was “absolutely brilliant” and “went out of their way to ensure the success of the event”.
Upington, named after Sir Thomas Upington (the first Attorney-general of the Cape Colony), was founded in 1884 when two settlements – a missionary and a police station outpost (where the police patrolled the vast desert expanse on camels’ backs) – decided to merge.
During check-in my eyes were drawn to the menacing weekly weather report pinned to the lobby wall. Not only is Upington the hardest place to get to, it’s also routine for the temperature to break 40°C. With an average annual daily high of 36°C, Upington is officially the hottest town in a very hot country.
Only slightly less concerning was the sign next to it warning hotel residents about the local pests – if the Kalahari heat doesn’t get you the snakes, spiders and scorpions will!
However, one of the hotel residents would read the above sign as a three-course culinary delight. The race enlisted the vocal talents of Carel “Raasbekkie” Bezuidenhoud for race day MC duties as well as for the pre-race quiz on Friday evening. Raasbekkie has many claims to fame, one of which is being the overall winner of the South African edition of Fear Factor where he got to enjoy eating various six and eight legged delicacies including live cockroaches, maggots and raw testicles (mutton and beef flavour).
I met up with Jonathan for a late lunch and we made plans to combine our intellect for the quiz that would be held in the hotel’s gazebo later that evening. Jonathan went to try his luck at the roulette tables, but I’ve got other heathier vices (primarily running marathons and drinking beer) so returned to my hotel room to work on race reports for the blog whilst enjoying a beer.
ASIDE: I did however hatch a plan to do my own big gamble in the form of ‘runner’s roulette’ which you can read about here.
The evening quiz (sponsored by Nedbank) had a great turnout – and with Raasbekkie as quizmaster it was a lively and fun-filled evening (although some of his Afrikaans jokes flew way below my belt). Jonathan and I thought we’d found the land of milk and honey – shortly after sitting down we were surrounded by a dozen young ladies who joined our table. It turned out they were all doing their healthcare community service year in Upington – and knew “The army that William Booth founded” (Salvation Army) but not the name of “The recipient of Chris Barnard’s first successful heart transplant”(Louis Washkansky).
What Jonathan and I lack in speed we more than make up for with guile – and managed to outsmart the finest minds in Upington to win the Nedbank floating trophy. After a victorious night we retired to see what dramas the next day would hold.
Staying at the start venue allowed me the luxury of a few minutes extra sleep. However, there was no hurry as the race start was delayed by a few minutes as the sound guy had ‘overslept’ – I’m thinking a wily non-running hotel guest wanting a lie-in slipped him a couple of notes (or casino chips) to keep Raasbekkie off the early morning mic!
Despite running a few minutes late, none of the runners seemed in any rush to get going. Running a marathon in the Kalahari Desert is not for the faint hearted and I was intrigued by the extreme trepidation at which local runners approached the start. The photo below if is just 30secs before the gun fired and the closest runner is 5 metres from the start line!
As dawn broke we headed out of the hotel grounds. After a short loop through the suburbs, it wasn’t long before we could see the irrigation canals and hear the rustling whispers from the Orange River.
The race is timed to start so that there is enough light by the time you reach the dirt track along the river – and a record field of 38* marathon runners got to enjoy a stereotypical magnificent African sunrise (whilst knowing we’d probably be cursing the sun when we returned for the second lap).
* There were a further 66 runners in the half marathon, 47 in the 10km and 24 in the 5km.
The big question during the race was which would be higher – the temperature or total number of marathon runners. I am pleased to say that we had a cool day (in the mid-30s) and this was the first year that the number of runners beat the temperature.
Aside: Who was John Nugent?
John Nugent was a prominent Upington optometrist who died of cancer 2014. He dedicated his life to eye-care in the region and his legacy is continued by his son with the John Nugent Marathon. All funds raised from the race are donated to the Keratoconus Foundation to fund corneal transplants for patients who can’t afford the procedure.
With the heat and venomous creatures against you, the good news is that the race profile is very flat, and the organisers do their best to include as much shade as possible along the way.
There is just one hill, known locally as “Hellfire Pass” – a short climb that is strategically positioned to be just 2km from the finish line thus ensuring that all finishers are worthy of their medal.
A flat, double-lap route with out-and-back sections might not sound like the most exciting prospect but I never got bored. The town sections are short and interesting enough, whilst the farm roads and jeep tracks that wind through vineyards and pecan nut plantations are lovely to run through – and the river section is simply exquisite.
The Orange River originates less than 200km (120mi) from the Indian Ocean in Lesotho (where it’s known as the Senqu River). The river flows westward, eventually spilling out into the Atlantic Ocean 2,200km (1,400mi) downstream between the South African town of Oranjemund (meaning ‘Orange mouth’) and the Namibian town of Alexander Bay. The longest river in South Africa (you get to see 0.2% of it during the race) was named by Dutch explorer Robert Jacob Gordon to honour his country’s ruling family, the House of Orange.
The hotel has a complimentary shuttle from the airport and I got chatting to the driver on the short drive. I commented on the abundance of “No Hitchhiking“ signs and was told that the traffic officer who put these signs up got fired for fraud and was himself spotted hitchhiking shortly afterwards. This was an interesting story but I struggled to verify this local anecdote with more credible sources, who told me the signs are to curb the truck driving sex trade on route to Namibia (just over 100km away).
However, the signs didn’t seem to deter the old dude above. I spotted him sticking his thumb up at the passing traffic during the marathon. I’ve no idea whether he was looking for a professional or recreational ride but when I asked him if I could take his picture he replied, “Sure, you only want to take it because I’m so sexy!”
My regular photographic pose is a “thumbs up” and I only realised afterwards that my horsing around could be construed as hitchhiking. I don’t know what it says about me that no one offered to pick me up (but obviously if they did I would have declined since that would be cheating).
The Kalahari soil is arid but incredibly fertile and, with perpetual irrigation from the Orange River, Upington is an emerald oasis in the middle of the desert – so much so that this small slice of the country is known as the Green Kalahari.
Vineyards dominated much of the route and we came within 200m of the Orange River Cellars tasting room. Orange River Cellars produce some fine red and white wine but it is their desert dessert wine that stands out (unfortunately the cruelty of the route designers mean you have to wait until after the marathon to earn your pudding).
In addition to the vineyards you also run passed fields full of lucerne (alfalfa) and a pecan nut planation on a section that the local runners call “The Energy Lab”.
And if any additional energy or nutrients are needed, all the support tables were well stocked with food and ice-cold drinks/water (very important when running a desert marathon). The tables also proved that you are what you eat with the Food Lovers Market table providing delicious watermelon and other freshly cut fruit whilst the concrete and brick manufacturing Poort Beton table laid down a 1kg slab of steak.
Although the river banks and irrigated areas are lush and green, the further you stray from the river the more you get the stereotypical succulents one associates with the Kalahari.
The local runners have taken to naming stretches of road after athletes who’ve passed – there is a section exactly one mile long from the site of the Fruit & Veg City table to the main road called the “Johan Fourie Mile” (to honour a young runner who died shortly after finishing matric) and the race ends with “Francois’ Fast Finish” (commemorating Francois Verdoes, a particularly talented athlete who was knocked off his bike and killed by a drunk driver).
As you can see from the picture above, the finish straight was very desolate and my lumbering trudge towards the line probably didn’t pay Francois the respect he deserves. However, as soon as you turn the corner and sight the finish line, the silent isolation is broken by a rapturous, red carpet welcome home from Raasbekkie (himself no stranger to red carpet finishes as a former IronMan and Comrades finisher).
It’s a long day for the runners but even longer for a race MC. From the first 5km runner to the last referee home, Raasbekkie was on top of his game with seemingly limitless energy levels and a constant stream of multilingual jokes. He’s a multitalented MC who can sing a bit, dance a bit and act a bit – pretty much the South African version of Dick van Dyke. Highly recommended if you want to add some energy to your event – Check out Carel “Raasbekkie” Bezuidenhoud on Facebook or contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org / 0769517096 for bookings.
I was done and knew I probably had enough time for a shower before Jonathan made his illustrious appearance.
If you’ve read your Old Testament, you’ll know that Jewish men like to spend long periods aimlessly wandering around the desert. It was in this spirit and with a light sprinkling of irony* that that Jonathan contacted race director Russell Nugent the week before the race to ask exactly how much time he would have to secure an official finish – and was thrilled with a reply back that, “You can take as long as you want – we’ll keep the finish line open until you arrive back.”
* Normally it’s the ref who gets asked, “How much time is left on the clock?”
Having found the land of milk and honey at the quiz, Jonathan eventually beat Moses’ desert marathon time by the better part of 39 years and SANDF’s Johannes Ditshenyegelo by a couple of minutes to successfully return to the Promised Land, thereby securing the penultimate finishing position and the completion of a life goal.
Having a record-breaking career that spanned 70 internationals, 4 World Cups, 107 Super Rugby matches (incl. 3 finals) and 161 Currie Cup matches (incl. 6 finals), Jonathan Kaplan is arguably* the finest rugby referee that South Africa has produced. He knows the importance of using technology to make sure you get the big calls right. Since the John Nugent Marathon has been a goal race of Jonathan’s for several years, I wanted to make sure that everything was 100% legitimate – and therefore referred the finishing footage below to a former colleague of Jonathan’s in the form Shaun Veldsman.
* Normally the only people to argue against this are bitter and twisted Sharks fans.
As you can hear from the audio clip below, Shaun (who had a great refereeing career himself and can still be found behind the screen on TMO duties) was happy with the grounding of Jonathan’s feet (and saw no reason not to award the medal).
In keeping with the race theme, all finishers received a unique medal in the form of a pair of spectacles (although I did reflect it was fortunate that the late John Nugent chose optometry and not proctology as a profession).
There is only one flight from Upington airport on a Saturday – and luckily for me this is a return to Johannesburg with the departure perfectly timed to allow for a marathon, shower, waiting for your mate to finish, short drive to the airport and the consummation of the coldest beer in the airport fridge before heading back to a more temperate climate.
The John Nugent Marathon is one of the unique races on the calendar – and one that’s definitely worth making the trip to Upington for. If you need some additional reasons to visit, Upington is the closest town to the majestic Augrabies Falls and magnificent Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Both of these are on my holiday bucket list – I just need to save up enough airmiles for another trip out here.
As far as I know, finishing John Nugent gives me a unique (and very minor) claim to fame of being the first person to have run a marathon in all 17 of South Africa’s athletics provinces. I have checked with all the other marathon sluts I know and all have at least one conquest outstanding. However, if you (or anyone you know) has already achieved this feat please let me know so that you can get the credit due!Follow Running Mann: