[Marathon #213 / Unique Marathon #122 / 31 March 2019]
The Real Gijimas Ultra Marathon traverses 50 kilometres of rural Eastern Cape countryside through countless villages between Zwelitsha and Mdantsane. Every village needs an idiot and the following candidates applied for the vacant VIPs (Village Idiot Positions) on the last weekend of March: Bulela Sidloyi, Ernest de la Querro, Jacques Coetzer, Jeremy Knox, Nkul’leko Ntuli, Richard Birch, Stuart Mann and Zolani Twani.
You see, for each of the above applicants, the Real Gijimas Ultra would be their second 50k of the weekend as all of us had completed the Bruintjieshoogte Ultra Marathon the previous day.
I was the only out of town candidate. My excuse was simple, logical and ecologically sound: to minimise my carbon footprint – and figured the best way to do this was two ultras for the price of one airline ticket.
I expect that the local runners also had good justifications. The Border region of South Africa has a distinct running sub-culture, here Comrades is seen as a long training run for the Washie 100 miler in July* and back-to-back ultra marathons provide good grazing for these Buffalo City runners.
* The Washie 100 Miler is run on the Friday closest to the full moon each July. Interestingly, the origin of the word ‘lunatic’ is a reference to intermittent periods of insanity believed to be triggered by the moon’s cycle.
My logistics to get to the Gijimas start line were a flight to Port Elizabeth airport, two-hour drive to Somerset East, a 50-kilometre stroll in the Karoo heat to the top of Bruintjieshoogte (and back again) and finally a three-hour drive to East London.
Insanity loves company and I met up with Jeremy Knox and the rest of the Born2Run lunatics division on Sunday morning to get from Beacon Bay to the start.
Jeremy was the only person in the minibus who’d run the inaugural Real Gijimas 50k last year, so we deferred to his knowledge and expert opinion of the route. Jeremy assured us that Gijimas was significantly easier than Bruinjieshoogte – which was good news to us since Bruintjies is a fairly tough race with 717m of climbing along the way.
Jeremy told us that the Gijimas start was much higher than the finish and that we would “love the easy, downhill route”. However, he lost some credibility (and caused a great deal of consternation) when he declared that “there is a hill like Pollies” towards the end. This definitely set some alarm bells ringing – especially from whence this comparison came (Jeremy had to take a long nap during his only excursion up Polly Shortts to date).
Jeremy is a primary school teacher as well as an accomplished club-level rugby referee. Whilst the judgement of referees is always questionable, school teachers should be beyond reproach – but Jeremy would lose all credibility over the course of the next six hours. Gijimas has a whopping 889m of climbing and makes the Valley of a Thousand Hills look like Harrison Flats.
Unluckily, Jeremy would be the only one of us to not complete the double as he experienced some issues with his kidneys just after the halfway mark – his symptoms included shortness of breath, fatigue, confusion, nausea and weakness – and he sensibly retired from the race.
I’ve heard people reference ‘muscle memory’ many times but they don’t have a clue what they are talking about. My theory is that during Gijimas, Jeremy experienced a sudden onset of ‘true muscle memory’ – his body realised where it was, recalled what was to come, said “Oh no you don’t, you sneaky bastard!” and promptly simulated total renal failure. This theory is supported with the knowledge that Jeremy went to the doctor the next day – where he received a clean bill of health, test results that showed his kidneys were functioning perfectly and was back running again without any issues on Tuesday morning.
I’ll grant that on paper this does looks like a fairly easy ultra. You start at an altitude of 375m and finish at 275m – so this is essentially a down run; You do a steady warm-up climb over the first 15km, to reach an altitude of 530m, drop all the way to the 39km mark and then have 11km of ‘gentle undulations’ to the finish. Yes, on paper this looks like an easy ultra – but these days you can’t trust what you read in the paper and I’m calling out this route profile as “Fake news”.
How tough are those last 11 kilometres? I can’t recall a tougher finish to any race I’ve done. I can however totally understand why Jeremy’s body simulated renal failure to avoid running them again. The last section of the Real Gijimas Ultra makes passing kidney stones seem like an enjoyable recreational frolic. My own body had heart palpitations whilst writing this report and, lest you think I am some kind of sadomasochistic cry-baby who can’t handle his back-to-back ultras, I’ll point out that even though I was crawling along the home stretch I was still passing other runners all the way.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves so let’s head back to the start in the township of Zwelitsha, just outside King William’s Town, where 400 runners gathered in the dark on a cool Sunday morning oblivious to the pain, anguish and mental torture that lay ahead.
* Zwelitsha was the original capital of the Bantustan of Ciskei before it was moved to Alice and later to Bhisho.
The race started promptly at 5:30am, about an hour before dawn broke. There were no toilet facilities near the start so many runners used the cover of darkness to take a quick detour and fertilise the fields along the first few kilometres (but you did need to be careful not to step in any juicy patches that the abundant free-range cows had already fertilised).
I don’t do a lot of back-to-back long runs (I far prefer running a marathon on Saturday and then spending the rest of the weekend relaxing with my family). However, when I do, I’ve found that the toughest part is getting going on stiff legs and then holding on until around the 8km mark when the endorphins kick in (after which you feel fantastic and try to get as many kilometres done before the leg fatigue sets in).
The tough climb out of Zwelitsha made this a tricky proposition but I find that chatting to fellow runners is always a good distraction – and I found mine in conversation with Khaya from Buffalo Runners AC (BRAC). Khaya is a policeman in King Williams Town who had just finished his shift at 3:30am, after which he had time for a quick shower and a bite to eat before lining up at the start with the rest of us. He told me that he’s trying to get as many cops into road running as he can and that his bosses are very supportive of his running – even helping to schedule his shifts around his planned races.
The first 32km of the route follows the winding R102, which is a service road adjacent to the N2 highway. The scenic road crosses through many villages and townships. With isiXhosa being the dominant first language in the region, one passes landmarks like Phakamisa, Kwaklifu, Thubalethu, Ekuphumle, Ndevana, Ilitha and Berlin – the latter being the ‘easy to spot’ odd one out. Berlin reflects the German influence in the area from the 1850s, along with other nearby towns like Frankfurt, Stutterheim and Braunschweig.
The middle of the race provides some great country running with complementary views of the stunning rural Eastern Cape interior – and it was good to knock off a few easy kilometres over the gentle downhills whilst eating up the beautiful surroundings.
If you needed to feast on more than just the views, support tables were frequent and well stocked. Most had water and a cola drink with a few adding some additional food and beverages to the menu. The vibe and energy levels at all the tables was fantastic.
Every now and again the odd village or building would pop-up. One of these is the East London campus* of the Walter Sisulu University (WSU) which one passes just after halfway.
* East London hosts the Engineering and Business Science faculties, other campuses are dispersed around the Eastern Cape in Butterworth, Mthatha and Queenstown. WSU is one of six comprehensive universities in South Africa.
The university also serves as employer to long-serving Real Gijimas chairman and race director Alex Kambule who works in the Electrical Engineering Department. I chatted to Alex about the Real Gijimas, one of the most interesting running clubs in the country, and their struggle to get race sponsorship (which you can read the companion piece below).
As we got closer to Mdantsane (the second largest township in South Africa after Soweto), the rural countryside was slowly displaced by more urban scenery and the traffic got heavier.
After 32 kilometres on the R102 we hooked a sharp right onto the Golden Highway and spent about 4km on a dirt road adjacent to the tar, keeping out of the way of the morning traffic.
The road flattened out before suddenly disappearing from under our feet with a 3km freefall down to the Bridle Drift Dam – a plummet that smashes up your quads just in time for the toughest section of the course. At 175m above sea level, this is the literally the lowest point on the course. However, like an expert limbo dancer, the figurative lowest point of the race for this runner kept getting lower and lower as we climbed higher and higher over the final 11km to the finish line.
To begin the torture, the climb away from the dam is a murderous 2.5km with 115m of raw elevation gain. At least I had been forewarned about this hill, was mentally prepared for it and begrudgingly hiked my way to the top.
No one had warned us about all the other hills that were to follow – and it was whilst slowly crawling up each one of these Mdantsane MFs that I realised I really hate surprises.
Much of this section is run along Jiba Road. Whilst international readers will be familiar with the word, ‘Gibberish’ – as in “meaningless or unintelligible talk or writing” – they will probably not be familiar with two South African variants of the same word (spelt slightly differently but pronounced the same):
- Nomgcobo Jibarish – meaningless or unintelligible talk or writing in a legal sense; the opposite of telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
- Mdantsane Jibarish – meaningless or unintelligible talk, usually compounded with a great deal of profound swearing, from the mouths of runners trying to get to the top of Jiba Road, Mdantsane.
I keep alert and look out for interesting distractions whilst running marathons – and am generally pretty good at finding them (especially in the last 10km of a race when I tend to find a lot more reasons for a quick photo stop). I will have to return to Mdantsane someday to see what I missed.
I spent a good deal of the last section of the race staring at my toes through glazed eyes whilst slowly shuffling forward. I think that the only time I dared to look up, I spotted the below hairdresser/surgery combination – I can’t remember what I was thinking at the time, but it was probably whether they offered leg transplants and lobotomies.
Although mid-marathon leg replacements may be beyond the skills of the Mdantsane surgeons, you can pick up some spare shin bones at the side of the road for R10 a bakkie.
Those who doubt my version of the route may have taken a closer glance at the race profile and said, “but look at all the juicy downhills towards the end.” This is like saying, “I’m going to relax and unwind with a nice gentle sports massage whilst throwing in some acupuncture and dry-needling for extra comfort.” These weren’t downhills, they were mineshafts that required runners to engage in lowest gear – and I was running dangerously low on brake fluid. This crash test dummy probably should have been wearing a helmet!
The township hills of the Eastern Cape probably would have beaten me up even if I was running on fresh legs. If this route was a boxing match, there is no doubt that it would leave even the most hard-headed runner reeling as it delivers its final knock-out punch. Like Balboa vs. Creed (Hollywood, 1976) I was out on feet* when the bell rung for the final round, but the route came out swinging with another jarring downhill plummet that displaced my internal organs and followed this up with a lethal combination of blows over the last two kilometres – all of which landed way below the belt and caused me to double over in pain, gasping for breath.
* One minor difference, Rocky was looking for Adrian, I was trying not to collapse and fall down a drain.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If I had to follow this formula, I would simply type a word that starts with ‘f’ and rhymes with ‘duck’ – and then copy and paste it 999 times. Since my mother reads these race reports, I opted instead to let the pictures tell the story. Here is a blow by blow (or shot by shot) account of the final moments of this bout.
The Five Finger Death Punch at the end of the Real Gijimas Ultra
I must say I was very relieved to enter the Masizakhe Children’s Home and cross the finish line – satisfied that I had earned my ‘Village Idiot’ badge. The Born2Run guys, Ernie, Jacques and Richard, arrived a short while later as did the Old Mutual AC crew, Bulela, Nkul’leko and Zolani.
Those who wanted to push their pain threshold even further could join the queue for a complimentary post-race massage. The masseurs seemed to be taking particular delight in inflicting pain on a couple of SABC runners. I chose to have a quiet sit down instead.
Despite finishing at a lower altitude from where you started, this must be the toughest 50k race in the country. I think I’ve run all South Africa’s 50k races now and, as a point of comparison, Gijimas makes Om Die Dam look like a little puddle.
I was completely stuffed but managed to regain some energy and composure with a generous helping of beer and chicken wings at the Bidvest lounge before flying home. Perfect pacing ensured I’d consumed just enough to have a restful flight – and my main concern was to avoid sleep-drooling on the person next to me.
Individually, Bruintjieshoogte and Real Gijimas are fantastic 50k runs – both highly recommended and races that I will definitely be running again. As for running back-to-back ultras again – no way! I am glad that box is ticked but I don’t plan a repeat of this folly. However, as an environmentally conscious runner who tries to #runclean and minimise his carbon footprint, I really hope that the race organisers don’t schedule them on the same weekend in 2020 again…Follow Running Mann: