Great East Marathon (The Kruger Park run)

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[Marathon #211 / Unique Marathon #121 / 23 March 2019]

It pays to have friends who are more persistent than you are. Last year the Great East Marathon was a new addition to the running calendar – but was cancelled without so much as a race flyer going out. I’ve been writing monthly articles detailing all South African marathons and try to make contact with race directors to confirm details but, after half a dozen emails and phone calls went unanswered, I assumed that the sun had already set on the Great East Marathon in 2019.

I was therefore very surprised when my friend, Julian Karp, gave me a call to ask if I wanted to join him running the Great East Marathon. Julian likes to run two marathons a weekend and, since this was the only marathon listed on Saturday 23 March, he doggedly hunted the organisers down – his tenacity paying off with confirmation that “the marathon is definitely on”.

We managed to get a copy of the flyer which contained a very thorough hand-drawn map detailing how to get to the start from Hazyview (the closest town). Hazyview is on the doorstep of the world-famous Kruger National Park and is about a 4h30 (400km) drive east from Johannesburg. The race start is another 30 kilometres away in the village of Kildare, but it’s a very slow 30-minute drive along the Kruger Park perimeter and rural village roads.

The verbal instructions we’d received from race director Musa Khumalo to get to the Njonjela Primary School for registration were “after turning off the main road, follow the tar road”. This worked well enough because, despite several twists and turns, there is just one tar road in the area. On arrival we received a friendly welcome (as well as our race numbers) from Musa and his team.

We received a warm welcome in the village of Kildare.

The race offered ‘bring your own bed’ free accommodation on the classroom floors of the school but Julian and I opted instead for accommodation in Hazyview – which proved difficult to find on short notice at affordable rates since this was over a long weekend and there was an influx of Kruger Park tourists.

Race morning arrived and a grand total of 18 of us (including a couple of sub-2:20 marathoners) collected on the dirt road outside the Njonjela Primary School for the start. I wanted to get a photo of the actual start and a bit of an impasse ensued until I realised that they were waiting for the idiot with the camera phone to join the other 17 runners behind the start line – I duly joined my fellow athletes and we set off.

The field waits for the idiot with the camera to stop taking photos so that the marathon can start.

I quickly took out my phone again for a few more pictures shortly after starting and was immediately in last place.

‘Wait for me!’ I stopped for a quick photo and was immediately in last place.

I knew that personal pride was at stake and was concerned that the fast pace meant that I would not be able to maintain my good standing as a “middle-of-the-pack” runner – however, I did manage to steadily pick off other competitors along the way to eventually finished 9th to maintain my ‘average Joe’ station in life.

My “I don’t want to finish second last*” concern was fuelled by the race flyer which had some Olympic Qualifying standards for medals. To earn a gold medal you needed to run under 2h10 (only achieved on African soil half-a-dozen times) and if you thought that the Two Oceans Marathon had the toughest silver, think again – you needed to break 2h15 to earn one in rural Mpumalanga.

* I was not worried about finishing last since I knew I could take Julian.

Some tough criteria for medals.

The dirt road quickly gave way to tar and thus began a series on undulations that lasted the whole marathon. The running felt like hard work and I was not surprised that, despite there being no major hills, the total climbing along the route was 723m.

No major hills but plenty of undulations on this challenging, circular course (the darker green section of the route map is the Kruger National Park).

The route is circular – looping you west to the border of the Bushbuckridge Nature Reserve, south all the way to the village of Mkhulu, back west along the R536 ‘Kruger Park’ road and finally north through a series of villages before ending back in Kildare village.

Running past a soccer field in the village of Ronaldsey – a typical rural South African scene.

The race provides a great opportunity to explore the local area and I did wonder if we should have been more adventurous with our accommodation search as there were some interesting looking (or should I say sounding) alternatives along the route.

Some of the interesting sounding accommodation options spotted along the route.

Although you are just a kudu’s jump from the Kruger National Park (and get some great Kruger Park vistas from high points along the route) you would need exceptional eyesight to spot any game. There were however, lots and lots of cows throughout the course. Cattle are a status symbol for many of the local Tsonga people and I’ve been told that you need a lobolo of at least 11 before getting married.

We were warned there would be cows and plenty of cows there were.

The only other game I spotted along the route was a donkey with low hanging fruit 🍒 loitering around the MadlelaTainMent Car Wash. It seems that there is no such thing as a simple car wash in this part of the world (but I have no idea how the donkey features in the entertainment).

A donkey waits for the next performance at the MadlelaTainMent Carwash

Aside: The June 16 Connection

Whilst walking to the start line, I got chatting to race director Musa Khumalo. I asked if there was anyone famous who hailed from the area and he mentioned ‘The June 16 Photographer’. I made a mental note to investigate this after the marathon and was intrigued by the photographer’s story – so much so that I thought I’d take a diversion in this race report and share it here.

In the 1940s a young man called Sam Nzima, from Kildares’ neighbouring village of Lilydale, was inspired by the beauty and animals of the Kruger National Park to start taking photos. In another time and different circumstances he would have received fame, accolades and awards but today few people recognise his name – and it was only recently that he received any credit at all for a photograph that shaped South Africa’s history.

Whilst the photo is internationally acclaimed (Time Magazine selected it as one of the 100 most influential photos of all time*) and is instantly recognisable to South Africans, it brought the man who captured it nothing but misery and frustration.

* It is the only South African photo on the list although the ‘Starving Child with Vulture’ picture that the much more celebrated and famous Pulitzer Prize Winning South African photographer, Kevin Carter, took in Ayod, Sudan is also on the list.

Masana Samuel “Sam” Nzima was born on 8 August 1934 in the village of Lillydale. Young Sam wanted to stay in school but there was a system on the local farm where boys who came of age needed to earn their keep by working on the farm. So, instead of starting high school, Sam was pressed into farm labour, which he hated. After a few months working the fields, he fled to Johannesburg. Here he found work as a gardener and managed to complete his high school education. He then found work as a waiter at the Savoy Hotel and was able to refine his photography skills after being mentored by a photographer he befriended at the hotel.

His photographic skills earned him some freelance work and eventually a full-time photojournalist position at The World (a black daily Johannesburg newspaper formerly known as The Bantu World).

It was in this capacity as a photojournalist that he found himself in Vilakazi Street, Soweto, covering the student uprisings to protest the decision that all mathematics and science school lessons would henceforth only be taught in Afrikaans. The date was of course June 16, 1976 and the image that Sam Nzima captured was that of a fatally wounded 13-year old boy, Hector Pieterson, carried by a distraught Mbuyisa Makhubu and flanked by Hector’s devastated sister Antoinette. Mbuyisa was fleeing the gunfire and took Hector to the closest vehicle he could find, which happened to be that of the press core. Hector Pieterson had been shot in the head by a policeman’s bullet and was pronounce dead on arrival at the Phefeni Clinic.

Sam knew he had captured a significant image and hid the spool of film in his sock. All his other rolls of film where confiscated by the police shortly thereafter. The next day the photo appeared on the front page of The World and shortly thereafter in the foreign (especially British) press. The photo is credited in opening the apathetic eyes of the international community to the horrors and brutality of Apartheid.

Sam received a R100 bonus for the picture. It was the last piece of photojournalism he would ever do. The security police started targeting students, journalists and photographers who had been at the June 16 uprising. Mbuyisa Makhubu disappeared without a trace a few months later. When Sam received a tip-off from a police informant that his life was in danger, he resigned from the paper, uprooted his family and fled back to Lilydale. His hopes of living a quiet life were in vain as a member of the local Nelspruit security police confronted him with, “We know what you did.” Sam was placed under house arrest for 18 months and was continually harassed and threatened.

Sam struggled for years to get the copyright to the picture which belonged to The Argus (who owned The World). He finally received the rights to his picture in 1998 after the Independent Newspapers Group bought the Argus Group. However, this still brought him very little recognition, fame or financial gain. When the Hector Pieterson Museum was opened in Soweto in 2002 it prominently featured his photos but Sam’s name was missing from any credits or acknowledgements. As recently as 2006, a Mail and Guardian article commemorating the June 16 uprising credited the photo to another (much better known) photographer, Peter Magubane.

Sam Nzima outside the liquor store he owned in Lilyvale holding the Pentax camera he used to capture the June 16 uprising photos (photo from The Citizen).

Sam Nzima eventually received some recognition for his contribution to photojournalism when he was awarded the bronze National Order of Ikhamanga from the presidency on Freedom Day in 2011 (17-years after South Africa achieved democracy).

Although Sam’s house arrest officially ended in 1979, he never left Lilydale nor took another professional photo. Masana Samuel “Sam” Nzima collapsed at home in May 2018 and died shortly there afterwards at the age of 83.

Antoinette Sithole (nee Pieterson) stands next to Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph outside the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto. Antoinette worked as a tour guide in the museum (photo by Gideon Mendel-Corbis via Getty Images).

One concern with running a small field race in a rural setting is getting lost but the race was well marshalled and I had no navigational issues. The race went for a minimalist approach with the marshals doubling up as water bearers.

The marshals doubled-up as water bearers.

Although there was plenty of water along the route, there was no Coke or other sugary drink options. However, if you did need some additives to your liquid intake, a quick visit into one of the village spaza shops would keep you (and the local economy) going.

There were plenty of Spaza shops along the route if you needed any supplements.

And if you got a little peckish, the local delicacy is boiled cow’s head available from numerous roadside chefs – a steal at R60 per head. The lady below told me I could take her picture for R20, I negotiated her down to “What if I put your picture on the internet and tell everyone you boil the best cow’s head in town.” She agreed so there it is – photo paid for!

The best boiled cow’s head in town.

I had bigger fish to fry (and bovine heads to boil) and pressed on.

With such a small field it was lonely for much of the race – and there was a stretch for about 18km when I did not see another runner at all. I kept myself entertained by checking out some of the homegrown enterprises and chatted to some of the proprietors. For just R20 ($1.40/€1.20) you can get a haircut in the village of Cork. I asked if they could make me “look like Snoop Dogg for fifty bucks” – but they said they didn’t have enough to work with.

Time for a haircut?

High street prices are significantly more expensive – you can get your hair done for only R15 just outside the village.

It seems that there is something of a hairdressing price-war in rural Mpumalanga.

I recently interviewed Frith van der Merwe for an article in the Two Oceans Marathon race magazine. She told me that part of her strategy when breaking the Two Oceans Marathon record was to promise yourself a reward at the end, “My best part of the route was seeing the word finish so that I could treat myself to lots of ice-cream.”

I realised that I follow a similar visualisation motivational strategy towards the end of a marathon – but instead of ice-cream, I start dreaming about beer. And my dreams turned to reality when the Vukosi Liquor Tarven* & Car Wash (once again – no such thing as a simple car wash in this part of the world) appeared around a corner near the finish. Unfortunately, my excitement quickly apparated back into a mirage when I realised that they were still closed.

* I figured that a ‘tarven’ is where dyslexics mix their drinks.

The Vukosi Tarven, where dyslexics mix their drinks.

We were lucky with plenty of cloud cover that protected us from the scorching sun for most of the morning. At points the cloud looked ominous but the rain held off until shortly after I finished.

Plenty of cloud, not many runners.

It was starting to get really hot over the last few kilometres and I was starting to get a little perturbed as my watch said the marathon distance was almost up – but there was nothing that looked like a finish line on the long, straight, desolate piece of road ahead.

But then I stumbled upon a solitary orange cone that appeared next to a small, concealed dirt driveway – and this proved the be the finish area and home of the Great East Marathon Club.

The end is in sight.

The club house facilities are a meagre permanently erected tent that gives their runners some shelter from the sun and thunderstorms – which really gives one an appreciation as to how lucky most of the rest of us are with our amenities.

The finish line and Great East Athletics Club facilities.

Julian arrived home a few minutes later and received a gold medal as the first master. This year is Julian’s 59th on the planet so I told him that if he ran a little slower he could have scored the first grandmaster prize as well. However, we couldn’t wait for prize giving as I had to get Julian back to OR Tambo airport to catch his flight to Durban so that he could run the Zululand 56km Ultra the next day.

Hopefully I’m wrong, but I have a feeling that this may well be one of those ‘once-off’ marathons. The Great East Marathon was a very enjoyable experience – and, with a little bit of promotion and marketing, could become a lot greater.

Signing out from the Great East Marathon. Look out for the next race report from the Real Gijimas Ultra from Zwelitsha to Mdantsane.
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3 Replies to “Great East Marathon (The Kruger Park run)”

  1. Great read indeed you know you and Julian just temp me with all your races.
    I hope this race will take place next year with same weather. I will definitely give it a try.

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