Knysna Heads Marathon (The Return of the Jetty)

[Marathon #210 / Unique Marathon #120 / 17 March 2019]

In cinema there are many ‘trilogies’ but just one set of three is known as ‘The Trilogy’ – a term which is of course reserved for the original three Star Wars movies. ‘The Trilogy’ movies are universally appreciated as timeless classics. They offer an exciting visual extravaganza from the very first scene to the closing credits, are stuffed full of interesting characters and continuously stimulate your ocular nerves with scintillating special effects in spectacular settings – in fact they provide such a riveting ride that you can revisit them once a year and never get bored.

If I was forced to only run marathons in one region of South Africa but allowed to pick the place, it would be an easy choice – the Garden Route. Having run ten Knysna Forest Marathons and completing the Outeniqua Marathon last year, I was really looking forward to concluding the marathon running ‘Trilogy’ with Knysna Heads. With a spring in my step and eager anticipation in my legs, I arrived at OR Tambo airport for the flight to George.

A random jetty.

A good plot needs a villain and the green monster, Darth Kulula, are always happy to oblige. Flying Kulula is a bit like running Comrades – after every flight you swear “Never again!” but somehow find yourself standing back at the check-in counter. With Kulula, departure and arrival times are always ‘alleged’ and I’ve learned the hard way never to make lunch arrangements even when catching their early morning, red-eye flights.

I dutifully arrived at the airport in good time but 30-minutes before scheduled departure, instead of a nice green “Boarding” message we got a sith red “Indefinite Delay”. No other communication and lots of confusion.

The revenge of the sith: forcing customers to while away their time in airports around the country.

Kulula did eventually SMS their passengers (five minutes before the original alleged departure time) and I managed to get a reply to my initial Tweet but silence to the suggestion that when they know well in advance that their planes are going to be heavily delayed, it would be good practice to let their customers know ahead of time as well.

The Running Mann strikes back (but is totally ignored by Kulula).

* One of the most traumatic experiences a young child can experience is finding out that his or her father is a Kulula pilot. However, those poor kids that do get to experience this absent father ‘Vader’ moment can at least console themselves that the abandonment they suffer has a rational explanation as their father tries in vain to get back on schedule at airports around South Africa.

After eventually arriving at George Airport, I collected my rental car and shot through to Knysna – just making it in time for dinner with keen marathon runner Corneli Lambley and her somewhat begrudging half-marathon husband, Garrin, at a burger joint opposite the race start.

Aside: A Running Romance

The silver lining to the long registration queues at Two Oceans is that you might just meet the love of your life whilst waiting to collect your race number. This is exactly what happened to Corneli (who was running the ultra) and Garrin (who was running the half).

Theirs was a courtship nurtured by parkruns and fuelled by ice-cream*. Before they met, Garrin had a strict ‘DSTV’ running schedule where he would repeat the same few races every year. However, Corneli has been able to introduce some running variety into their life.

* Garrin is the Editor at Sport24 but when he says he has a ‘big scoop lined-up’ it usually has nothing to do with journalism but rather a visit to his favourite ice-cream parlour, The Creamery.

Just three weeks after they started dating, Garrin declared that they would marry. Young men in love say stupid things and Garrin rashly declared he would propose on the finish line of the Peninsula Marathon. Corneli runs faster than Garrin (who considers running to be a “solo sport”) and they even discussed finish line logistics (like whether Corneli had time to collect her tog bag and shower before Garrin arrived with the engagement ring).

Whilst many young men dream of having a father-in-law who owns a brewery, the female equivalent is having a mother-in-law who owns a bakery. When Corneli discovered that Garrin was the son of Norma of Norma’s Homebakes (whose confectionery graces the shelves of grocery stores and farm stalls across the Western Cape) she counted off the days until the Peninsula Marathon.

Some men get cold feet but Garrin was worried about getting sore feet. February came and went – and with it the Peninsula Marathon – but Corneli knew there were other marathons on the calendar. However, Garrin’s training program did not indicate that a marathon was in the near future. Corneli dropped the odd ‘marathon entry hint’ but Garrin stoically stuck to parkruns.

Realising that he had probably bitten of more than he could chew, Garrin chewed-up as much as he could bite: on a long weekend away (after getting intoxicated on pizza and ice–cream), Garrin ‘accidentally’ proposed (the things some people will do to get out of running a marathon!).

Pizza and ice-cream has a nice ring to it – pre-race fuel before a 15km.

Garrin’s specialises in the nutritional side of running – especially post-race nutrition – following a modified F. Scott Fitzgerald mantra “the victor finisher belongs to the spoils”. According to Corneli, he is the ideal husband to a marathon running wife, “Garrin is very supportive of training and racing and is absolutely amazing on the races where I do longer distance.  He gets up early with me, goes to the start with me, runs his race and then comes and supports on my route… with hydration, nutrition and motivational quotes!  He always waits at the finish with a smile, a warm top and salt and vinegar chips.”

Garrin makes sure Corneli has adequate nutrition to get through the last few kilometres at this year’s Two Oceans Marathon.

Even though the nuptials have now taken place, the running community believes Garrin should make good on his promise. We have it on good authority that he replied “#challengeaccepted” to a Valentine’s Day competition to enter the Cape Town Marathon – but then gave the Cape Town Marathon booth a very wide berth at this year’s Two Oceans Marathon Expo (where Corneli ran the ultra once again and Garrin the half).

Personally, I think that a marathon entry makes a fantastic wedding anniversary gift – and would suggest that Corneli waits at the finish line with some ring doughnuts for her hungry husband!

The happy couple relax before a 15km race. The road running community eagerly awaits Garrin’s marathon debut.

Those familiar with the Star Wars universe* will know that, after a rule instituted by Darth Bane circa 995 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin), the sith always (and only) operate in pairs – one master and his apprentice.

* The Star Wars online encyclopaedia is known as ‘Wookiepedia’.

Whilst the apprentice Darth Kulula causes major inconveniences and likes to keep its customers in the dark, the impact is limited to South Africa’s major cities. Unfortunately, no one in South Africa can escape the clutches of the sith overlord, who has been wreaking country-wide havoc – gridlocking traffic and bringing the country’s economy to a standstill. Like the Emperor Darth Sidious, Darth Dark Eskom rules its regime under a cloud of gloom, melancholy, and murk – and sporadically shooting bursts of electricity from its fingertips*.

* If I was starting a natural energy company, I would call it ‘Han Solar: A New Hope’.

I awoke on race morning to complete darkness as Dark Eskom’s malevolent touch gripped Knysna. I catch up on my writing whilst travelling for marathons and luckily had enough battery power left to get ready by laptop light (the biggest risk when getting ready in the dark is pinning on your ASA license number incorrectly and getting disqualified after being spotted by an officious stormtrooper).

Whilst the load shedding was a minor inconvenience for me, it was a major headache for the race organisers who had to scramble around to ensure that there was enough lighting to fill out entry forms at race registration and start the race safely – but they did a great job and even managed enough back-up generator power to fire up a PA system.

A dark start.

I am a creature of habit and my peanut butter and honey sandwiches did not go down nearly as well without my pre-dawn cup of tea. This was the first of my 210 marathons not powered by tea and I found that the absence of a morning cuppa in my bloodstream meant that I had a very sluggish start.

The race starts and finishes on Thesen Island, which was originally South Africa’s timber hub. In South African schools, Dalene Matthee’s best seller, “Kringe in ‘n Bos” (Circles in a Forest), is a standard Afrikaans set work book. The book provides rich detail about 19th century Knysna life through the eyes of woodcutter Saul Barnard. Most of the marathon takes place over roads on which ox wagons hauled timber to the Thesen Island sawmills (and with no electricity you didn’t even need to close your eyes to imagine what it would have been like to walk these streets a couple of hundred years ago).

The Force Awakens as the lights came back on just as we headed off Thesen Island and back onto the mainland.

This year’s field trebled in size from the 2018 event with 323 full and 237 half marathoners setting of by candle and generator light. The first kilometre takes you off the island and back onto the mainland. From there it’s a right turn onto the paved brick pathway alongside Knysna Lagoon. Those familiar with the old Knysna Forest Marathon finish and/or the Knysna parkrun will be well acquainted with this section alongside the Knysna Lagoon. At the end of the red brick path, you turn right into George Rex Drive and head towards Loerie Park.

The red brick road next to the lagoon. I don’t want to overdo it so rest assured, this picture contains the Last Jetty.

We shot passed Loerie Park and on toward Leisure Isle. The 5k loop around Leisure Isle is one of the route highlights – you are flanked by the lagoon, multi-million rand homes and a small nature reserve (reclaimed from a 9-hole golf course). On this section of the course you also get your first glimpse of the Knysna Heads – a notoriously unpredictable and treacherous stretch of water where the fresh water estuary meets the Indian Ocean (and many vessels have meet their doom).

Race day conditions were cool and misty – great for running but lousy for photos.

With the island circumnavigated, it was back onto the mainland and another right turn where we traversed the hilliest section on the first half of the course – and one rises to the lofty heights of 25 metres above sea level.

The flat route is run almost entirely next to Knysna’s famous water features.

Just a mile later you can run no further as the Heads are breached and one turns around to bounce back to the Leisure Island turn-off. I’m always one for making the most of an experience and therefore took a quick detour past the turnaround point to the prime viewing spot, sat back, relaxed and enjoyed my Knysna Heads experience.

Question: What’s got two thumbs and likes Knysna Heads?
Answer: This guy! (I’m sure there’s a dirty joke in there somewhere but you’d have to be a cunning linguist to pull it off.)

From there, it is back to where you came from – and a chance to say “Hi” to everyone in the field who is still heading towards third base. I spotted Garrin in the distance and shortly thereafter managed to capture a once in a lifetime photo.

As I’ve already mentioned, Garrin is something of a reluctant runner. His prolific Facebook posts consist of three main themes:

  1. Pictures of Caesar salads (he’s about to eat).
  2. Pictures of ice-cream (he’s about to eat).
  3. Moaning about runs (he’s about to do).

Coelacanths were thought to have been extinct for 65 million years until Knysna-based ichthyologist JLB Smith* identified one. Photos of Garrin running are rare. Photos of Garrin smiling while running were thought not to exist. That is until this ‘one in 65 million years’ shot – even better than the one Luke made to take out the Death Star!

* William Smith, the celebrated mathematics teacher who recently received the National Baobab order for his contribution to teaching, is JLB Smith’s son. William Smith inherited the Knysna Featherbed Reserve from his father. The reserve includes the western cliffs of the Knysna Heads (he sold the land in 2004).

Garrin of course insists he was merely thinking of the rich and substantive supply of chocolate products and other confectionery he had stashed away in his hotel room for post-race energy replacement.

Garrin’s post Knysna Heads half marathon recovery plan – enough goodies to bring a smile to any runners face.

However, the lucky shots disappeared as we observed some aged golfers over the next section which was a detour around the Knysna Golf Club. This segment provides the only break from the water over the entire route and the lagoon quickly appeared back into view as we ran back up George Rex Drive, along the red-brick road and returned to Thesen Island.

Heading back up George Rex Drive.

Back at Thesen Island, the Wookies were separated from Ewoks (and the lionesses from the Lambleys) – with the half marathon runners disappearing back onto Thesen Island whilst the full marathon runners made their way around the other side of Knysna Lagoon.

How do you like you pancakes? The Knysna Heads Marathon serves them with a lagoon.

The marathon costs just R65 ($5/€4) to enter* whilst the half marathon costs R50. The extra R15 earns you an out-an-back second half dominated by seven pancake flat kilometres along the N2 heading towards Sedgefield (with the Knysna Lagoon once again your constant companion).

* This is the second cheapest marathon in the country, the cheapest is the Gert Sibande Marathon in Ermelo which will set you back a mere R60.

More of the lagoon.

Remax Coastal are to thank for the incredibly cheap entry fee. According to race director Gavin Bezuidenhout, after being approached, Remax Coastal readily came on board as title sponsor and, “Have been amazing partners to the event. They help with organizing, support and anything that comes their way. Without them the event would not be such a success that it is.”

There is a monster of a hill as you leave Knysna and head toward Sedgefield but the organisers tactfully steer you right onto Brenton-On-Lake just before you reach the incline. This is another 4km out-and-back section of dirt road known as the Phantom Pass (built by Sir Thomas Bain in 1862, named after the Phantom Moth and one of the seven famous passes between George and Knysna). After all the flat running it feels like you are climbing a mountain but this is merely an apparition as you actually only ascend to 24m above sea-level.

The Phantom Pass has some menacing dirt road running.

This section provides great views of the Knysna River (which is feeds – and is the staple diet of – the Knysna Lagoon) and some stunning indigenous forest.

Enjoying running on he Phantom Pass surrounded by indigenous forest.

Your reward for reaching the final turnaround point is the best refreshment table on the route. When you run a marathon on 17 March, you hope someone remembers it’s St. Patrick’s Day – and the team at the Phantom Pass turnaround table certainly did. Apart from the regular Coke and water they were also serving potatoes and stout (when I queried why it was Castle Stout and not Guinness or Kilkenny, I was told very matter of factly, “This is the Garden Route, we couldn’t find any Guinness in the shops – this was the best we could do!”). It was however perfect fuel to get one through the last 10-and-bit kilometres back to Thesen Island.

Luck of the Irish – making the most of the St. Patrick’s Day table.

Towards the latter end of a marathon one’s mind can wander, become philosophical and go into a state of heightened consciousness postulating, “What the hell am I doing this for?”. On the path to enlightenment (otherwise known as the flat stretch of road back along the N2), I saw the sign below which promised that the ‘Point’ of marathon running was ‘Close’. However, I prefer to meditate over beer and therefore avoided the minor detour to investigate, choosing instead to press on to the finish.

Ever wondered what the point of marathon is? You come close (but no cigar) to finding out during the Knysna Heads Marathon.

The last kilometre is back onto Thesen Island and, having exited in complete darkness, it was nice to see the views in the daylight.

Nedbank Running Club George’s Riaan Cronje checks whether he’s run fast enough to shop, eat, stay & play after the marathon.

As you can see from the photo above, there is plenty to keep one entertained on Thesen Island but I had a flight to catch (it actually was on time for once!) so there was not much time to enjoy the festive finish area – and I did envy those who were staying for the weekend (but got over it whilst meditating over a discounted craft beer).


So how does this compare to the other Garden Route marathons? Star Wars connoisseurs (and IMBD ratings) concur that, whilst still a great movie, the Return of the Jedi is the least critically acclaimed of The Trilogy. The same is true of Knysna Heads – an excellent, scenic marathon that is well worth the visit but not quite in the same league as the Knysna Forest and Outeniqua Marathons.

However, “fast, flat and beautiful” is a combination you’ll seldom find on South African marathon route descriptions – and the Knysna Heads Marathon delivers this unusual combination in style with spectacular views of Knysna town, the heads, lagoon and forest. But don’t take my word for it – run The Trilogy for yourself and make up your own mind.


By a fantastic coincidence, this year’s the Outeniqua Marathon will be run on May the Fourth – Star Wars Day.

Signing out from the Knysna Heads Marathon. Look out for the next report from the Great East Marathon in rural Mpumalanga.
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