[Marathon #216 / Unique Marathon #123 / 27 April 2019]
On the 27th of April 1994, 20 million South Africans exercised their right to vote in our first non-racial democratic elections. Twenty-five years later, on the 27th of April 2019, 214 runners exercised their legs and enjoyed their freedom to run marathons in the small Zululand town of Pongola.
Pongola (or uPhongolo as it’s known in Zulu) is a Kwazulu Natal town famous for its production of sugar cane and subtropical fruit which are harvested in the 50 km² of plantations that surround it. The town has a long history and hosts the grave site of the Zulu King Dingane.
Dingane is probably best known for his assassinations – he eliminated his half-brother Shaka with the help of another half-brother (whom he got rid of quickly thereafter). Dingane also deposed of Piet Retief (after whom the neighbouring town is named). This set off a series of skirmishes that ultimately resulted in the Battle of Blood River on 16 December 1838 and, after he had fled across the Pongola River, Dingane’s death at the hands of the Swazi King Nyawo. Since 1910, the 16th of December has been a public holiday in South Africa. It was initially called the Dingaan’s Day, was renamed to Day of the Vow in 1982 and finally became the Day of Reconciliation in 1994 at the end of apartheid.
The first Selati Pongola Sugar Cane Marathon was organised in 2018 and had 90 runners. The race went off brilliantly and I had it on good authority that the race offered the best goodie bags in the country – if you look at the impressive haul below, we weren’t disappointed this year (and neither were my kids when I arrived back on Saturday afternoon and they divided the stash up between themselves).
The marathon is a double-lap route run in a clockwise direction through Pongola town and the surrounding sugarcane fields traversing tar roads, dusty farm boulevards and concrete pavements. A feature of the town (and the marathon) is the 265km of canals and aqueducts which provide constant irrigation, allowing the agricultural community to reap the benefit of the fertile soils. The canals were originally built by hand under the instigation of Richard Rouillard during the Great Depression of the 1930s when there was no work available. The canals boosted sugar cane farming, allowed the local community to prosper and ultimately led to the establishment of the sugar mill and much of the resultant industry and growth of the town. The other major industry in Pongola is dentistry.
The route is fairly flat with a high point of 310m (reached 1 kilometre into the lap) and a low point of 230m. There is only one ‘real’ hill – the testing Riet Spruit climb which is a 1.5 kilometre ascent from the 8km mark. However, the lowest point of the race is at four kilometres to go so there is some nastiness built into the route with a long slow poison pull to the finish. Apart from the Riet Spruit (which gives their hill its name) you also cross the Nochane River early in the race – and these two streams merge into the Pongola River which you cross 6km from the finish at the Sugar Mill Bridge.
The race starts and finishes at the local caravan park which provides plenty of space and facilities for the runners – and those with the right equipment can roll out of bed to the start line. However, the organisers ensure that the tentless and unsoiled are also accommodated – by working with many of the local guesthouses to offer discounted runners’ rates.
I ran another Zululand marathon, the Hippo, earlier in the year which was really hot and humid. Pongola is much later in the year so I was not quite sure what to expect weather-wise. By late April, the temperature was already plummeting on the highveld but the thermostat remains unchanged in Pongola and it was still t-shirt weather in this part of the world. If you want a last chance to show off your summer bod, Pongola is the place to do it!
The marathon started just after 6am just as the sun started to rise and we enjoyed a stereotypically spectacular African sunrise.
Much of the field (there were 650 in total across the 5, 10, 21 and 42km distances) was made up by running clubs from the surrounding towns, one of which is Vryheid. Vryheid translates from Afrikaans as ‘freedom’ and I think the town definitely missed a trick in not beating Pongola to claim rights for a “Vryheid Freedom” marathon on the 27th of April.
Although the race started in bright sunshine, we turned into a thick blanket of mist halfway through the first lap. This cooled things down for a while until we popped out into extreme sunshine again a short while later.
After unsuccessfully hunting for “Grillers in the Mist” at the Loskop Marathon, I thought I had another shot in Pongola but once again came up short. The braais only came out on the second lap once the mist had been burnt off.
This is another country race with exceptional refreshment tables. The tables were every two kilometres and each were brilliantly staffed and stocked. The local businesses and organisations line-up to support the race – there are actually more table sponsor volunteers than table sponsor spots so several of the tables doubled up with two companies!
My three favourites tables were:
- The Pick ‘n Pay / Deli Spices table where you could get some magic spray, a quick rub down and enjoy some biltong, droewors and plenty of other eats. They even had a bottle of extra spicy sauce on hand in case you wanted to ‘run against the clock’ and see whether you can beat your digestive system to finish on afterburners (or get badly burnt in the sugar cane).
- The Vodacom / Tony’s Tool Hire table who made sure you’d finish on a sugar high. The man in the picture below was absolutely insistent that I took his pineapple ice-lolly.
- However, the buck stopped at the Impala Water hole (as did the warthogs). I’ve experienced some brilliant tables at the various races I’ve run around the country and this table was right up there. Zululand support tables rarely disappoint – my all time best table is the Charka table at the nearby Assegaai Marathon in Piet Retief/Mkhondo.
Kwazulu Natal is known for her beautiful blue flag beaches. Unfortunately, we were a long way from the ocean but the Impala Water table did their best for the runners by constructing a homemade beach.
There was no lifeguard on duty (if we were running in Australia I imagine this would have violated health and safety laws) but there was an ambulance on hand in case anyone got into trouble.
The Impala Water table also precedes what was my favourite segment of the race – a five kilometre section through farmland on the soft, smooth dirt road that cushioned one’s step and we headed back towards the N2 highway.
However, a photo on this dirt road did get me some dirty comments from a local club chairman. As frequent readers of this blog will know, I keep my eyes alert for photo opportunities of anything interesting and unusual – and the photo below definitely fit these criteria.
I posted the above photo on social media with the following caption (a rhetorical conversation with a race referee): “But ref, the rules said ‘no earphones’ so I especially wore my headphones!” (whilst noting that he might struggle to argue away the ‘license number to be worn on front and back’ rule).
Unfortunately, the Ulindi runner had shut himself off from the outside world so I was not able to ask him what he was listening to or whether there was a specific reason for the high-fidelity aural accessories – I did however contemplate several possible reasons afterwards.
- Ear muffs (although warm by my standards, the misty section was probably icy cold for local runners)
- Hear no evil (runners are often prone to use very naughty words towards the end of a marathon and he did not want his ear drums tainted by colourful language)
- Bieber (when your friends listen to Gangsta Rap but you want to rock out to Justin Bieber’s latest beats without incurring ridicule from your friends)
- Ears pierced (having recently got his ears pierced they are still sensitive and needed protection from the sugar cane dust)
- Ear prophylactics (there are some nasty creepy crawly bugs in this part of the world and he was protecting himself from brain-boring beetles)
Aside: Getting an earful from Colleen mcNAlly
To be honest I am not a big one for following silly rules so I chatted to everybody’s favourite race referee, Colleen McNally, to clarify the “no earphone” rule.
Colleen explained that the rule was originally brought in to prevent athletes from being coached during a race but these days it is much more about safety considerations.
Your annual provincial or temporary license number includes insurance coverage should you get injured during the event. However, “Every race flyer in South Africa states that the event is held under provincial and ASA rules which includes no earphones. A claim to any insurance company will be turned down if you are in contravention of the rules.”
I’ve personally seen the impact of a few head cases recently:
- At the top of Ou Kaapseweg at this year’s Two Oceans, myself and another runner had to flag down a guy who had just been given a DQ warning from a race official but (rather ironically) couldn’t hear her and carried on obliviously.
- At the Hippo Marathon in Richards Bay, a local lady was warmly greeted and loudly cheered by some of her friends but she plodded on in ignorant isolation (I told her supporters I was happy to take their applause instead).
However, sometimes the results are more serious. Colleen relayed this worst-case scenario that happened during the Wanderers half marathon a few years ago, “A Jeppe lady was knocked over by the lead vehicle on the second lap. She was running in a Jeppe bus and didn’t hear the siren of the lead police vehicle, her clubmates calling her to move over or me (I was behind the police car on my scooter) yelling at her to make way for the leader. She was hit by the lead car and broke her ankle (and later had more complications). The driver, a longstanding member and helper, was so traumatised that he has refused to drive a lead car again and had to have counselling.”
Local Zululand runner, Rialine Steyn, provides a succinct summary of the issue noting that he wouldn’t have heard a cane tractor until it drove right over him!
And cane tractors were a real factor on this course as you can see in the photo below (although this and all the other tractor drivers we saw along the route waited patiently until there was a gap between the runners before busting any moves).
Most of the last six kilometres are run along the N2 (the road that eventually connects with Durban 380km away). This does not sound that exciting but the national road is quiet in this part of the world and you get some great views of the Lebombo mountains and surrounding valleys as Pongola town slowly gets closer.
The slow steady pull through to the finish ground, ground a few runners down. Warthogs were mentioned earlier but you are more likely to spot their domesticated brethren hiding in the bushes with a camera along this stretch of road. The camera paradox is that, whilst a speeding car will slam on brakes at the sight of a camera on the side of the road, a walking marathoner will start running again when one whips a camera out. This was certainly the case for Sambulo Ngema from Ulindi, whom I was able to cajole into running again with a friendly, “Don’t let the world see you walking!”
As an out of town runner, you’re made to feel very welcome at the finish line back at the caravan park. Most people had decided to stay for the weekend and brought the family along – and this is definitely a consideration for future years.
The town is in close proximity to a number of excellent game reserves as well as the Swaziland and Mozambique borders. Pongola is 270km from the southern gates of the Kruger National Park and they also have Paul Kruger to thank for their very own Pongola Game Reserve which, proclaimed on 13 June 1894, is the oldest in the country and predates the Kruger National Park by some 32 years.
When I spoke to race director Pierre van Vuuren after the race he mentioned that they are hoping to negotiate special runners’ rates with the reserve for future years – enjoying a sundowner cruise whilst watching hippos and crocs in the reserve’s Jozini Dam is certainly an attractive proposition. The Jozini Dam is also the only place in South Africa where you can see (and catch) Tigers in the wild (albeit the stripy fish rather than the stripy feline).
This is the third marathon that I’ve run in Zululand and each one has had flawless execution. The Pongola Marathon is a great way to keep the t-shirts on for a little bit longer, an excellent excuse for a quick family getaway over the Freedom Day long weekend and a reasonably flat course at the end of the Comrades qualification period for those who’ve left it late or want a shot at improving their seeding.
When I asked Pierre what differentiates Pongola from all the other marathons on the calendar he replied, “We’re much friendlier than everybody else!” – and I can validate that they certainly go out of their way to give the runners an exceptional experience. After sweating it out around town, there is one final way that they’ll sweeten you up: Following a friendly finish line chat, a couple of bankies were pressed into my hands. You’ve got to be careful when people in Kwazulu Natal hand you a bankie of the local produce – however, the bankies contained a few sticks of raw sugar cane that can be sucked to prolong one’s sugar high.
I left Pongola positively buzzing and there was no need for any Red Bull on the 5-hour drive home. I always sleep well after a marathon but that night, after completing the Selati Pongola Sugar Cane Marathon, I enjoyed particularly sweet dreams.