Dorothy Nyembe Marathon (Surviving the battlefields)

[Marathon #219 / Unique Marathon #124 / 21 July 2019]

The first Dorothy Nyembe Marathon was supposed to be held on 16 December 2017. The race was well advertised, took plenty of entries and was then ‘postponed’ on short notice. Runners who’d entered were told it was “against the rules” to provide refunds (not sure what the Consumer Protection Act would say about that) but that their entries would still be valid next year when the race was held.

2018 came and went without any further mention of the race and it looked like the event had been postponed indefinitely. However, the 2019 race calendar surprised us by including the race on the mid-July program. I was somewhat dubious about whether the race would actually go ahead (with the cynic in me wondering whether someone needed to raise funds to do maintenance work on their firepool) and therefore I waited until the last minute before entering.

Although the Dorothy Nyembe Marathon was a bit of a shambles, I decided not to make a mountain out of a mole hill (but no one said anything about termite mounds!)

Based on previous experiences, I approach inaugural races with extreme caution but superbly organised first time marathons like the Hippo in Richards Bay had lulled me into a false sense of security.

The warning signs were there but I failed to heed them.

Lots of unhappiness on social media after the Dorothy Nyembe Marathon.

The race was on Sunday but number collection was listed as being on the Thursday and Friday only. I asked whether ‘sensible’ Saturday collection (for those travelling) would be added and was told they would get back to me (they never did but there was an online announcement that numbers could be collected on Saturday from 9am to 5pm).

The early bird might get the worm but the early runner won’t get their race number until well into the afternoon in Dundee: The organisers eventually pulled in after 1pm with the race numbers.

I arrived about 15 minutes before the registration closed and there was still a massive pile of uncollected race numbers – I suspect the majority of these were from the original batch of entrants in 2017.

Silver linings playbook: Your R180 included a shirt and the race numbers had been very professionally printed.

Aside: Who was Dorothy Nyembe

Running marathons all around South Africa has drastically improved my geography knowledge – these days it’s helping with my history knowledge as well. Those of us who graduated high school under the Apartheid schooling system were presented with a rather skewed version of South African history – and races named after struggle heroes provides the opportunity to get acquainted with other perspectives on South Africa’s past.

Dorothy Nyembe was born in Dundee in 1931 but her life was disrupted when her peasant farming family were forced to become farm workers and give up their livestock. Dorothy became involved in activism as a 21-year-old and played a distinguished role in the African National Congress and various Women’s organisations. She was arrested, detained and imprisoned several times, spending a total of 18 years in prison (the longest period for any female activist).

I took particular pleasure in reading that she stood up for the right to brew beer, protesting government-controlled beer halls which were designed to remove traditional beer brewing as a source of income from local women (who performed most of the brewing).

Dorothy lived to see democracy in 1994 and was a founding signatory of the constitution as well as a Member of the National Assembly in the first democratically elected parliament. Dorothy Nyembe passed away on 17 December 1998.

My email enquiry about transport to the start at Ncome/Blood River is also still pending a promised response*. However, at registration we were told that there would be taxis that would leave 3am from the finish venue for R50. Three hours to make a 40km journey seemed like a bit of an overkill (especially considering that velocity is the most important metric for South African taxi drivers).

* There has also been no reply to my post race query emails.

Dundee is absolutely freezing in winter and I did not fancy spending over two hours waiting around aimlessly in sub-zero temperatures before the 6am start. My follow-up interrogations revealed that the last taxi would leave at 4:30am so that was the one I aimed for. I duly arrived at 4:25am and caught the first taxi to leave at 4:45am.

Luckily the lead car arrived at the start at the same time as the lead taxi – or there would have been no indication that a marathon was about to take place. I assume that the original idea was to honour the Battle of Blood River (16 December 1838). However, the start is nearby but not actually at the Ncome/Blood River heritage site (and you also don’t get to see either the Ncome Monument and Museum Complex or the Blood River Monument and Museum Complex that commemorate the battle site).

There was still about an hour to go until the scheduled start and we were completely exposed to the bitterly cold elements. How cold was it at the start? Not quite cold enough to freeze your nuts off but I definitely dropped several cup sizes.

My wife has been nagging me to clean out my clothes cupboard and I figured a win-win solution was to arrive at the start wearing several layers of clothing which I planned to discard along the route. I had five layers of clothing on but my body was still rapidly spiralling into hypothermia as the sub-zero temperatures, combined with a light breeze, took their toll. Just before the battlefields claimed another victim and my body went into complete anaphylactic shock, my brain fired a last gasp survival manoeuvre in the search for shelter and I barged my way into the lead car to take refuge in the passenger seat.

Another benefit of my seat inside the lead vehicle was getting inside information on the behind the scenes shenanigans. All signs pointed to a very late start as messages were relayed about late arriving runners still on their way through to the start. Luckily Brian Jarmey-Swan was on race referee duty and, not wanting to have blood on his hands or frostbite on his fingers, insisted that the race get started as quickly as possible. Thanks to Brian’s efforts, we eventually got going around 6:20am just as the sun was starting to rise.

Silver linings playbook: The delayed start meant we did not have to run along the dirt road in pitch black darkness and risk an injury.

The lazy winter sun slowly rises about one kilometre into the race.

There could not have been more than 50 runners at the start so I was surprised to see afterwards that the race had 103 finishers survivors – even with a late start there were many even later starters (I heard afterwards that “on the radio” and via other communications some runners had been told various different starting times). Several runners also seemed to have emerged along the route and race referee Brian was kept busy after the race with disqualification discussions and decisions.

No more than 50 runners lined up for the start of the inaugural Dorothy Nyembe Marthon, 103 finished the race.

The first 18km are all on dirt road heading away from Blood River towards the R33 (the main road connecting Dundee with Vryheid). The scenery was stunning as we tried to warm-up on the undulating track on a perfectly still morning under the cold African sun*.

* Everyone talks about the warm African sun but the cold African sun can be equally harsh.

Our attempts to get the blood circulating were aided via a monstrous four kilometre climb from 9km to the 13km mark which also marked the highest point on the route (just under 1,300m above sea level). From there it was a five kilometre downhill plummet to the lowest point on the route (just under 1,150m) followed by a return to the tarmac as we hit the R33 and turned left towards Dundee.

Route map and profile.

From 24km there is another monster three kilometre hill followed by a four kilometre downhill cruise. A short flat section leaves you with just ten kilometres to go – normally a piece of cake for a hardened marathon runner. What I would have given for a piece of cake (or refined sugar of any kind) over that last ten kilometres.

The last ten kilometres of one’s first post-Comrades marathon should be a piece of cake (I would have given all my beer money for a piece of cake – or refined sugar of any kind – at this stage).

I had been warned about the torturous climb into Dundee. However, no one bothered to mention that it is not one climb but three major hills that one needs to negotiate before finishing. My hill negotiation skills were severely lacking – in fact they made the British government’s Brexit manoeuvres look positively skillful. I cast a hunched and pitiful shadow as I slowly ground out those last ten kilometres on the lonely and desolate road to the Dundee Oval.

Coca-cola and Willie Mtolo featured prominently on the race flyer. Neither had any actual involvement with the marathon.

Although the race flyer promised us Coca-Cola (and they were listed as one of the sponsors), the support tables had no coke*, no tables and many of them did not even have a human to hand water sachets to us.

* There is no confirmation that Mark Batchelor was to blame for the missing Coke.

Dump and pump water stations.

Most races provide “Stand and Hand” seconding. The Dorothy Nyembe organisers decided to cut costs and trial the “Dump and Pump” self-service technique. I can’t say that I’m a fan of this new innovation and my quads were violently protesting as I bent down to grab sachets at the last few stations.

Silver linings playbook: The tar was like a thick slab of ice so at least the water was nice and cold.

With only water on offer, my sugar and energy stores were totally depleted over the second half of the race – and I was rapidly sliding into acute glycaemic meltdown. I always carry a bit of money on me, ostensibly to buy beer after a marathon, and my distress got to the level where I was willing to sacrifice my beer money for a soda or some sweets from a spaza shop. Sadly there was nothing around.

I was hoping to milk it (but they weren’t those kind of cows).

I was desperate for anything other than water – just before the final climb into Dundee I spotted a herd a cows and asked the elderly cowherd if I could try my hand at milking his cows but was told “they’re not those kind of cows”.

The party was over by the time I reached this point.

I had also come across the remnants of what looked like a good roadside party and lamented that I was too late for any Russian Bear* vodka or Castle Lite quarts.

* When I was much younger, Russian Bear was pretty much the cheapest and most effective way to get drunk without the risk of going blind (or wasting a good loaf of bread). A bottle of Russian Bear cost around R5 and one would then proceed to “wrestle the Bear” over the course of an evening. The wrestling match involved drinking (or trying to drink) the entire bottle of Russian Bear unassisted whilst keeping your dignity, footing and supper over the course of the night. The Bear always won.

When I finally emerged from the Kwazulu Natal Battlefields and stumbled into finish venue at the Dundee Oval, I counted myself lucky to be amongst the 103 survivors.

I was completely finished at the finish.

Silver linings playbook: The final race distance was 43,2km but the organisers gave us the extra kilometre free of charge.

With Biggarsberg AC Chairperson, Lani van der Mescht, and Vryheid’s fastest granny, Cathy de Beer, at the finish.

Although there was no Coke (or medals for the surviving soldiers) at the finish, Biggarsberg Athletic Club chairperson Lani van der Mescht, was on hand to support her athletes and I gratefully accepted a couple of cups of Coca-Cola from the Biggarsberg cooler box. The previous evening I’d had dinner with Lani as well as Vryheid’s fastest granny, Cathy de Beer, at the local Ingudlane Lodge*.

* Ingudlane Lodge looks like a good place for a family holiday and offer game drives where you can see zebras, giraffe, hippos, mongooses, warthogs and a large variety of antelope. Unfortunately, reptiles cannot handle the cold winter weather so the one thing you won’t see is crocodile Dundee.

Cathy scoops up most of the lady’s grandmaster prizes at local races – she won her category in the 21km at Dorothy Nyembe (if you think we had it bad, the half marathoners had to wait two hours in the freezing cold for their start). Cathy is fast on her feet, but even faster on four wheels – her other hobby is drag racing and she regularly podiums on the race track.

Whether in a pair of takkies or behind the wheel, Vryheid’s fastest granny is Cathy de Beer.

I always find the first marathon after Comrades to be really easy mentally (after all it’s “just a marathon” compared the brutality one has recently been subjected to on the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg). However, I found this to be the toughest marathon I’ve run this year. I’m putting it down to lack of sugar and the icy cold conditions rather that post-Comrades lethargy and over-eating.

Silver linings playbook: This race helped me to respect the marathon distance again.

Not sure why but I had Joy Division’s ‘Isolation’ stuck in my head on the road to Dundee.

After a marathon like this, one might be inclined to get philosophical but I resisted the urge. Instead I’ve decided to take some poetic license by plagiarising and (slightly) misquoting Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade*’

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Someone had blunder’d:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Dundee

Ran the one hundred.”

* The poem was written about the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. When I posted my version of the poem on social media my ex-running friend Steve, who is prone to even worse punnery than I am, announced his lack of sympathy for my plight with, “Crimean river”.

‘Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die’


As a family, we’ve been enjoying watching the Marvel ‘Avengers’ movies. I arrived back home just in time to settle to the next instalment which, rather appropriately after enduring freezing cold temperatures, was Thor. Defrosting with a couple of beers and a good movie is definitely my recommended way to warm-up after a Loki marathon*.

* Ok, I’ll admit those are bad – but they’re still better than “Crimean river.”

The Running Mann runs his marathons in shoes supplied by the Sweat Shop Broadacres and Asics South Africa

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