[Marathon #214 / 11th Loskop Ultra Marathon / 6 April 2019]
It is rather perturbing to wake up at the feet of Dawn* for one of your favourite ultra marathons and find that there is a 4am text message saying, “URGENT NOTICE: Due to public violence en-route both race starts will be delayed by AT LEAST an HOUR – Police are evaluating the situation. Next update 5:00”.
* That is really, really early; it is only much later that you get to see the crack of Dawn.
However, this is exactly what I woke up to in Middelburg ahead of my 11th Loskop Marathon. I normally drive through on the morning of the race (about 1h40 of highway driving) but this year decided on the luxury of an overnight stay in Middelburg instead. I was ruing the decision the previous evening whilst driving through with my friend Julian Karp as the normal heavy Friday afternoon traffic, compounded by a massive thunderstorm, meant much of journey was done at a crawl and the 100-minute journey ended up taking almost four hours.
However, the decision to overnight meant that we could wait for further news and developments from the relative comfort and warmth of the B&B whilst the kettle produced a steady supply of tea.
Julian features regularly in these race reports but, for the uninitiated, he is the Keith Richards of marathon running and has the physique to prove it – abusing his body by running two marathons a weekend (and sometimes three if the opportunity presents itself).
To Julian, the threat of a cancelling a marathon on race morning is like crushing the bouncy, unbridled enthusiasm of an energetic four-year child by telling them that Christmas has been cancelled at 5am on 25 December.
In a situation like this there is very little one can do so I climbed back into bed with a book. However, I found it very difficult to relax as every couple of minutes a visibly agitated and obviously distressed Julian would alternate between these two questions:
“Do you think this is an April Fool’s joke Stuey?” [Me, “No Julian, April first was two weeks ago.”]
And “Do you think the race is going to happen Stuey?” [Me, “I don’t know Julian. I know as much as you do.”]
This went on unabated for the better part of an hour until I eventually treated Julian’s continued tormented line of questioning as a rhetorical form of Tourette’s Syndrome.
At 5:10am we got an update that the “Earliest start time will be an hour late” at 7am. I kept abreast of developments on social media and established that the residents of Doornkop (near the halfway mark on the point-to-point route) were lighting tyres in the road and stoning busses (that were on their way to the finish at the Loskop Dam to collect and transport runners to the start). In most countries people ‘vote with their feet’ but this is just your normal run of the mill election year shenanigans in South Africa. Here, people prefer to ‘vote with their arms’ applying a ‘smash and burn’ strategy (which involves igniting stuff that burns and throwing rocks at stuff that doesn’t).
The police managed to calm the situation and the race received the go-ahead. Although we got going an hour late (and were staying just a few kilometres from the start), I still managed to start seven minutes late (I struggled to circumvent the road closures to get to the parking area and it was a bit of a walk from there to the start line). Anyway, there was no rush since Loskop has full road closures and everyone is stuck at the Loskop Dam until after the final cut-off.
As ultra marathons go, this is one of the easiest. The route is run point-to-point from Middelburg to the Loskop Dam on wide roads completely closed to traffic. You start at an altitude of roughly 1,500m and warm-up with a gentle downhill over the first 4km. After a short pull there is another gentle drop to the 8km mark. You are now at the lowest point on the first half (1,420m) before beginning a long but gradual climb for 14km, hitting the high point of the route at the post office tower (1,601m) just before the 22km mark. Putting most of the hard grind in the first half means that those prone to going out too fast have the brakes put on in the beginning, and one should be able to run a big negative split. The second half of the route drops you to a low point of 1,012m and has two hills to keep you honest (Bugger’s and Varaday’s which we’ll cover later).
Aside: On the Loskop Dam and damn loskops
Construction of the Loskop Dam began in 1934. Good rains at the end of 1937 meant that the dam was already filled to overflowing capacity in January 1938. The dam was something of an engineering marvel because it was a world first with the invention and successful implementation of the Roberts splitter system. Devised by Lt Col DF Roberts, this allowed the overflowing water from the spillway to dissipate as it ran down the face of the dam wall so that the water’s kinetic energy would not erode and the destroy downstream rock structures. The Roberts splitter system has subsequently been used in many dams locally and internationally.
Loskop translates literally from Afrikaans as ‘loose head’ – meaning someone who is very scatter-brained or absentminded. One of the farms which was flooded in the damming process was named Loskop and it is almost certain that this is resulted in the rather unique name for the resultant dam. However, there are a couple of other more interesting theories.
The first one is that the Loskop was ‘Loose Ground’ – a small island that disappeared after the dam wall was raised from 45m to 54m between 1974 and 1980 (thereby increasing the capacity of the dam to 362 million m3).
The second theory is more macabre. The remains of the dam’s chief engineer, Lt Col DF Roberts, were buried on the small island mentioned above. Before the wall was raised and the island submerged, Roberts’ ashes were exhumed and placed in a specially created niche on the left flank of the newly raised dam wall. However, local tour guides will tell you that it was just Lt Col DF Roberts’ head that was removed, buried and forgotten on the island – and this is why it is called Loskop.
That covers the Loskop Dam. As for damn loskops, I would have to say that the race organisation / media team falls into this category. I must have sent over a dozen ‘requests for information’ to the various email addresses, social media accounts and contact details I was provided (both before and after the event) but have yet to receive a single response. Not idea the reason for the media blackout – it would have been nice to at least have been told to, “Go jump in the lake”.
I sauntered up the Middelburg* main street in splendid isolation and it took me some time to start overtaking the back runners – and shortly after spotting them, they suddenly disappeared into a massive bank of thick mist on the outskirts of town.
* I always wondered what this town was in the middle of – it turns out it was named in 1872 and reflects the town’s location between Pretoria (then the capital of the Transvaal Republic) and the gold mining town of Lydenburg.
The mist engulfed us for most of the climb up to the post office tower (the highest point on the route) – which, I suppose, was an aid to runners as it hid the unrelenting slow poison uphill that we were busy undertaking.
However, there was another way to screw with the heads of the runners – after about 10 kilometres, (into a 50km race to the Loskop Dam) a road sign pops out of the mist sign informing you that it’s just 50.4km to go (to the Loskop Dam)! Although this may be the creation of a particularly malevolent road agency employee, it is more likely the work of the DNA (the National Dyslexics Association) and it should have been 40.5km to go.
The thick mist persisted and just as I was wondering whether I had wasted my time putting on sunscreen that morning, we suddenly popped out into bright sunshine – and got to enjoy the views and wide-open spaces of the rural Mpumalanga landscape.
Although the weather in this part of the world can be unpredictable, the one constant on the route are the brilliant water tables. They are spaced about 3km apart over the first half of the race and every 2km over the second half. The tables are all well-staffed by local businesses and organisations who put in a huge effort to make their tables stand out – and each one is fully stocked so you can eat and drink to your heart’s content.
In particular, this year the Columbus Stainless Steel table went the extra 88 miles per hour featuring a DeLorean at the side of the road. As a kid who grew up with Marty McFly and his time-travelling adventures, this was a definite “Great Scott” moment and I took a good few minutes to admire this idiosyncratic classic.
When I ran my first Loskop in 2002, Columbus was the title sponsor and, if you ran the race on your birthday, they gave you a stainless steel tankard as a present at the finish! Columbus also always present every finisher with a stainless steel tossing coin which features the head of a South African animal – this year it was the Southern Ground Hornbill.
I had my own “Back in the Future” moment earlier in the race when I swore I heard the sound of the Cape Fish Horn (which would get the following weekend’s Two Oceans Marathon started) resonating from somewhere within the thick mist. Just as I wondered whether my ears were playing tricks on me, the answer emerged from behind the grey curtain of mist – the man below playing the kudu horn.
Whilst we are back in the early stages of the race (and before we return to the future), during the misty morning section I kept my eyes peeled for someone braaiing at the side of the road. You see, I had this killer joke lined up about “Grillers in the Mist” but couldn’t even catch the whiff of charcoal during the early stages of the race. However, I was able to spot these “Grillers in the Sunshine” a little later on (and the boerewors they were supplying the runners gave a fantastic protein-packed boost during the last half of the race).
Despite two very cool firsts – kudu horn playing and an actual DeLorean – the “first time” highlight for me on the route was finally meeting the nicest person on Twitter, @SusanBasson, in person. Susan and I have been Twitter friends for a long time but kept missing each other on the road. The uphill kilometres over the first half flew by as I enjoyed the company of Susan and the Germiston Callies ladies.
Shortly after the halfway mark we came to Doornkop, the township that played host to the early morning “public violence”. There was a large police presence making sure that the runners were safe. However, by this stage everything was very relaxed and the local residents were out in force cheering the runners on. Were it not for the burnt out tyres and rubber bullet shells littering the road (remnants of the early morning festivities) one would not have known anything untoward had occurred a few hours previously. Just another one of the nuances of life in South Africa – which tends to get especially bizarre in the build up to National Elections.
I learnt after the race from Mathabo Setlawane (whose Sepedi is a lot more fluent than mine) that, “One lady was saying ‘Fetšang go kitima renyaka go tšwela pele ka strike’ meaning ‘Hurry up and finish running, we want to continue with the protest.’”
I mentioned earlier that there were two tough hills in the second half, Bugger’s and Varaday’s, which are Mpumalanga’s version of Sodom and Gomorrah. Bugger’s is just a short one kilometre climb to the 37km mark, but the previous 14km of downhill make it seem much tougher.
Whilst there is some debate over who is the ‘weaker sex’, the naming of this hill proves who are the ‘weaker exercisers’. I always wondered how this hill got such a punishing name when it’s really little more than a small speed bump. It turns out that the peddlers are to blame. A regular training route for the Middelburg cyclists was to the Loskop Dam, but our free-wheeling friends would come to a grinding halt when they hit this point on the route requiring them to drop all the way down to ‘donkey cart’ gear. One day a comment was made about ‘The Bugger’ who forced them to start peddling again and the name stuck.
However, one thing is for sure, it’s not the uphill you need to worry about but what follows – the five kilometre plummet down the Kranspoort Pass that has a tendency to nail you from behind. Despite all the running I do, I am fortunate enough to be the proud owner of ten toenails but they go into ‘endangered’ status whilst heading down the Kranspoort Pass. The drop is almost 300m in altitude, most of which occurs over the first 3.5km. Throw in a nasty camber and you have what is undoubtably the toughest, toenail killing downhill in the country*.
* The only possible comparison is the backside of Ou Kaapse Weg which, funnily enough, we got to run the following weekend with the late Two Oceans Marathon route change (thanks to the Hout Bay Taxi Association who jumped onto the ‘public violence’ bandwagon). So far as route position goes, Ou Kaapse Weg is tougher (with longer to go in the race and a much longer climb to the summit), but as an isolated quad-for-quad shattering comparison Kranspoort is the worst downhill stretch of tarmac.
How bad is it? You’ll hear runners wincing with each step as their hamstrings take an unmitigated beating. You’ll see the pained expression on the faces of runners who’ve decided to turn around and ease down backwards rather than get Buggered by the downhill. But it’s the nauseating smell of burning rubber permeating that air that destroys the ambiance of the Olifants River Valley. The Kranspoort Pass is quite literally sole destroying – overzealous runners who disregarded the “engage lowest gear” warnings career out of control as they try to negotiate the nefarious turns; the tread from the bottom of their shoes disintegrating as they frantically apply the brakes in a valiant effort to avoid faceplanting into a cliff face.
At the bottom of the pass the road flattens out and, out of context, the four kilometres from the marathon mark to the foot of Varaday’s hill would seem pretty easy. However, after running so much downhill and coupled with unyielding exposure to the noon day sun (which drains all remaining energy from your body), it’s a real struggle to keep going on the flat terrain.
Whilst plodding along this section I thought I recognised a couple of wispy, waif-like white boys doing a ‘show-off’ run* in the opposite direction – but they wafted by way too fast to confirm facial recognition.
* A show-off run is where you finish a race and do some extra mileage by running back along the same route with a big smile on your face and a spring in your step to torment the poor bastards who still have to finish.
I always pride myself on pushing through this long, dreary flat section knowing that there is the reward of a guilt-free two kilometre walk just around the corner when Varaday’s Hill comes into play. Varaday’s, named after Des Varaday who had a cheetah sanctuary here in the 1980s, is a really nasty piece of work to cross at this stage of a race. The elevation gain is precisely 100m over exactly two kilometres – compulsory walking for a sensible, middle-of-the-pack runner like myself with nothing to prove and no one to impress.
I was just stocking up on supplies (basically as many jelly babies as I could comfortably carry) at the Mr. Clean table and settling into a nice comfortable walk when I was tapped on the shoulder by the two show-offs who’d breezed past earlier – and was now able to confirm that the familiar faces as belonged to David Ashworth and Neil Massey*.
* Neil was doing extra training in preparation for a sub-6 hour Comrades whilst David was doing extra training to try and run faster than his wife Ann at Comrades**.
** Ann Ashworth won this year’s Loskop Marathon ladies race convincingly in 3:24:37.*** David and Ann achieved the fastest combined time for a South African husband and wife at last year’s Comrades (Ann 6:10:04 + David 6:24:07 = 12:34:11). Only the Baks (Kaziemierz 5:58:44 + Maria 6:00:28 = 11:59:12, Comrades 1997) have a better combined time. If David is able to pick up his game, South Africa has a good chance to grab this record back from the Germans.
*** Ann’s winning haul included a brand-new, top of the range Sealy Posturepedic mattress. That’s definitely a prize the happy couple can both enjoy – a good night’s rest is a vital component of Comrades training.
In response to the IAAF Caster Semenya debacle, the World Medical Association (WMA) has urged doctors not to prescribe testosterone suppressing drugs. However, I really think I need to get my hands on a large consignment.
After running 46km and facing the hill that should not be run, I had just enough testosterone in my system to think that it was a good idea to try and keep up with David and Neil for a bit – just to ‘see how long I could hold the pace’. I made it to the top of Varaday’s in their company (but without much conversation) where the brilliant view of the Loskop Dam meant I had to stop and take the photo below and say goodbye (not that I was completely stuffed or anything).
When I looked at my splits after the race, those two kilometres up Varaday’s – by some way the two toughest kilometres over the route – were run significantly faster than any of the other 48 kilometres and, taken together, were over 90 seconds faster than any other two kilometre stretch. Amazing what the body can do when the brain stops working!
ASIDE: Showing off the show-offs
I always happy to provide authentic endorsements of runners – as well as their causes and offerings. Both David and Neil definitely fit the ‘shout out’ bill.
Neil is a long-term charitable athlete. He’s been involved with the Just The One Foundation since their inception 9 years ago. Neil has helped them raise over R1 million which goes towards providing a good quality education for deserving children from impoverished backgrounds. Neil sells top quality binoculars, head-lamps and other outdoor gear on his SafariSA.net website: If you sign up for the newsletter you can win a Jetbeam H30 Headlamp (worth R1,300) and he is also raffling off an 11 grand pair of Vortex Viper HD 8×42 Binoculars to try an raise funds to help get his mate, Haydn Corke, get to the ITU World Triathlon Grand Champs Final in Switzerland (R100 a ticket).
David on the other hand is looking to raise funds for the Beja people in Sudan through the Sudan 4 Jesus initiative – donation details can be found here. David is a qualified SSISA endurance coach with a great track record training athletes of all abilities and ages. A recent success at this year’s Two Oceans Marathon was Lizzy Ramadimetja, who beat off more fancied opposition for a Top Ten Gold Medal finish. You can contact David here for coaching enquiries.
The last two kilometres are a sharp downhill toward the Loskop Dam and into the Forever Resort which hosts the finish. At least I could console myself with having a good reason to hurry towards the finish line since I’d been invited to the ConSports hospitality tent after race with the promise of snacks, Easter Eggs, prego rolls and (most importantly) ice-cold beer.
This was a great way to relax after an ultra and, if you (or your supporters) want a VIP Comrades experience (including private loos!) check out the packages on offer at the ConSports website – Comrades Green Number 10557, Michael Taylor, and his team know exactly what you and your supporters need to get through a very long day on June 9. ConSports are also looking to put together some ‘out-of-town’ marathon travel packages to help support some of the country’s smaller marathons later this year.
Since everyone is stuck at the finish until the roads reopen after the 7-hour cut-off, it’s a good thing that the resort provides a great venue to unwind and relax. A firm favourite is always a swim in the pool – although the day time temperatures are hot, the nights are freezing so the ice-cold water helps your legs recover from the beating they took on the downhills.
The race is fairly expensive by South Africa standards at R350 ($24/£19) but this does include plenty of extras including a high-quality long-sleeved shirt, goodie bag and a large bag of delicious oranges (that enable you to give your upper body a good workout while you lug them around the finish area).
With just over 3,200 finishers this year, Loskop has overtaken Om Die Dam as the biggest 50km road race in the world (Om Die Dam had just over 3,700 finishers in 2018 but reduced their entry numbers this year due to lack of sponsor and traffic concerns and ended up with 3,170 finishers).
If there is ever a good reason to keep running the same race, the 1996 Olympic Marathon winner Josiah Thugwane (who still holds the course record he set in 2005 – 2:44:03), is usually on hand to award permanent numbers for those finishing their 10th Loskop.
The Loskop Marathon provides what is arguably the best ‘runner centric’ experience of any of South Africa’s big ultras. It’s definitely a race I’ll keep returning to – if only to work towards my 20th Loskop and another chance to shake Josiah Thugwane’s hand.
- Thanks to Middelburg Run/Walk For Life manager, Diana Jansen, for verifying route details and using her detective skills for the origins of the Bugger and Varaday hill names. Diana is running this year’s Comrades with the aim of raising R10,000 for CHOC (Childhood Cancer Foundation) – you can donate to her efforts here.
- Thanks to regular contributor of ‘Dam Fine Facts’, Independent Dam (and Dam Safety) Engineer Jan Brink for assistance with the information on the Loskop Dam. Jan tweets about dams, water, environment and sometimes running.