[Marathon #226 / Unique Marathon #129 / 28 September 2019]
Although South Africa is known for being “ultra mad”, in reality our runners only have sporadic bouts of insanity with a select few races. The two main delirium inducing culprits are Comrades and Two Oceans (the only two ultra marathons in the world to record over 10,000 finishers) – and there are just three other ultras (Loskop, Om Die Dam and Irene) that boasted more than 1,000 finishers in 2019.
Furthermore, the second half of the year is particularly lucid with just a handful of road ultras on the calendar – and all these races have to be content with a few hundred institutionalised patients participants. You’d have to be crazy to voluntarily check yourself into the nuthouse. Likewise, there are no rational explanations for entering ultra marathons in the desert, only justifications – here are mine.
At 80 kilometres, Laingsburg’s Karoo Ultra is the only race on the calendar between the Two Oceans and Comrades distances making it what long distance snobs call a “proper ultra”. As such, it is a race that any self-professed running connoisseur must have on his CV. I also love a bargain – and with an entry fee of just R100 ($7/€6), this is the cheapest rand per kilometre race in the country (the further you run the more you save!).
I’d had my eye (or should that be last few malfunctioning brain cells) on the Karoo Ultra for some time but had never quite mustered the stupidity to actually enter the damn thing. I was planning to run last year but was saved when the race was cancelled (due to lack of sponsorship). However, with the long-term future of the event in doubt, I jumped at the opportunity to enter as soon as the 2019 event was confirmed.
Logistically this is one of the hardest races to get to. From the highveld it’s a two hour flight to Cape Town or George followed but a three hour drive into the middle of the Great Karoo Desert. I travelled through with my friend Julian Karp – a veteran of ten Karoo Ultras.
The Karoo is known for being hot, dusty and dry and fully met expectations when we stepped out of the comfort of our air-conditioned car to check into the hotel. With temperatures in the high 30s it is important to hydrate properly – the locals take this to heart and the most popular pastime (and from what I could tell only recreational activity in this small dorp) is to spend the day dopping outside the local liquor store and get totally blotto.
Deserts are known for their extreme temperatures and it was a chilly walk to the start at the local sportsgrounds where a small brass band kept us entertained until we were sent on our way at 6am. At Comrades, The Last Post is played by a lone bugler after the 12-hour cut-off is breached but, facing a very long day wandering around the Karoo Desert, I thought it would be more appropriate to start the race on this sombre note.
The route starts with a thorough tour of the town: You run along the N1 to the town’s eastern limits, turn around and then exit at the western end of town as you cross the Buffels River. The comprehensive tour of the town provided an enjoyable first 800 metres and I wondered what the next 79,200 metres would have in store.
Like the animal after which it is named, the Buffels River looks deceptively docile. However, every now and again it will burst into a bad mood flood wreaking destruction on anything that crosses its path. Sadly, Laingsburg is probably best known for the 1981 flash flood which devastated the town leaving just 21 houses standing when the wall of water, 10 meters high at some points, subsided.
The magnitude of the disaster was such that 104 people died in the flood (72 of whom were never found). Bodies were found as far away as Mossel Bay (200km) and survivors were rescued from the Floriskraal Dam over 20km from Laingsburg.
The flood level is prominently displayed on several buildings around town to document the scale of the tragedy. Having looked at pictures from the 1981 disaster in the town’s Flood Museum, I was grateful that all the rivers we crossed during the race were bone dry. In fact the only thing drier than the Karoo rivers were the five missing water tables (more on this later).
Following the tour of the town, we got a quick desert appetiser when we turned into the very appropriately named Moordenaars (Murderers) Road before looping around and returning to the town’s main residential area. We’d get to spend a lot more time struggling to survive Moordenaars Road later in the day as this long and lethal lane forms a large part the route home.
We enjoyed great crowd support from the local residents who had all got up early to cheer us on. But the support was short and sweet – the end of civilisation is marked by an abrupt transition from tar to the harsh, unforgiving desert sands at the 5km mark.
Other than a brief asphalt interlude along the R354, crossing the N1 highway and the final kilometre to the finish line, the remainder of the route is run along well graded gravel road but there are a few soft “sea sand” sections and a couple of rocky patches to contend with (which keep you on your toes and gives your calves a good working over).
Although some runners ran with hydration packs and came prepared with their own full stocked “picnic baskets”, I am a minimalist and relied solely on the support tables. These were a mixed bag. Some of the support tables were five-star culinary delights, others offered no frills basic essentials and a few were sadly missing in action* (I don’t think they made it past the liquor store). With three tables missing between the 10 and 20 kilometre mark and another couple shortly after the marathon mark, we got the opportunity to enjoy endure an authentic “dying of thirst in the middle of the desert” experience.
* I guess you could say that they literally deserted their posts.
The Karoo is famous for her tasty lambs and warm Merino wool and I thought I would stay alert by counting sheep along the route. Although the signs were there, I did not see any actual sheep to count but there were plenty of rocks.
I diligently (and very slowly) counted 79 rocks. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade – and when life gives you rocks, make ultra marathon distance markers! The organisers certainly followed this mantra and every kilometre was meticulously spray-painted onto an available rock.
“Like driving through the Karoo” is often used as a simile for watching paint dry. However, there is a stark, arid beauty to this region and I never got bored of the scenery. I did however get bored of my own company. This race is an introvert’s dream. When there are more kilometres to run (80) than runners to run them (71), extroverted runners like myself were in for a long and lonely day. I didn’t quite get to the level of insanity where I started talking to myself but I did start talking to my phone when I recorded this “leftfield” promo video below for a forthcoming conference talk.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll save you a lot of reading time (and myself a lot of keyboard bashing) with the montage below of nine long, arduous hours of splendid isolation in the desert. As the day wore on you’ll notice that the number of running companions dwindles – I guess you could say this is what “being deserted” looks like*.
* All photos are in original format (no edits or filters applied).
The route starts at an altitude of 642m and slowly climbs to 922m at the 44km mark – I was told that the good news was that “it’s all downhill from there”. There are now four kind of lies: lies, damn lies, statistics and route profiles. There was a significant number of climbs over the last few kilometres as Moordenaars Road tried to claim another victim – and I was delighted to realise that the white rocks spelling “Laingsburg” on the mountainside was not a mirage.
Karoo Desert traffic police are highly skilled in the art of camouflage – you have to be when there are no bushes to hide behind. However, I was really glad to see them as we headed back into town and greeted them fondly as they helped this dusty desert wanderer return to civilisation.
I also found my sense of humour again when I noticed the “Random Breath Testing” sign on their car. I flashed them my winning smile and asked whether they would take it on trust that I had brushed my teeth that morning.
I was a very happy finisher – so much so that I managed to muster the energy to give my camera to a race official on the finish line and run back 100 metres make sure the moment was captured for posterity*.
* My Facebook posts on the event sparked extended spells of nostalgia amongst past Karoo Ultra devotees and I am told that in ‘the old days’ they put up tape for every finisher – so everyone was a winner.
Of the 71 starters, 51 made it back to the Laingsburg sports grounds to complete one of the last of the remaining classic* South African ultras.
* Based on my definition of being old, small and awesome.
There are just three ultra marathons in South Africa that have reached golden jubilee status with 50 events (Comrades – 94, Arthur Creswell Bergville – 54 and Two Oceans – 50). The Karoo Ultra is two years away from achieving this milestone – but a few more runners are needed to ensure the long-term future of the race.
Rightly or wrongly, the generally accepted South African definition of a “real runner” is completing Comrades. 25,000 South Africans will attempt to earn their “real runner” credentials in June 2020. That leaves plenty of space in the second half of the year for a few of these so-called “real runners” to level-up and take on 80 brutal, beautiful, brilliant kilometres in the middle of the Great Karoo. There are thousands of “real runners” out there but just a handful who’ve run Laingsburg’s Karoo Ultra and elevated their status to that of “surreal runner”.
Afterword: Which is tougher Karoo versus Comrades?
Other that the “WTF were you thinking?” rhetorical question, the second most popular query I was asked after this race was, “How does Karoo compare in toughness to Comrades?” Here is my opinion…
Terrain: Karoo is way tougher. Running on gravel and sand is a lot harder on the day. I never cramp but got “seizure-twinges” in my calves over the last quarter of the race.
Recovery: The good news is that the soft cushioning sand means your recovery after Karoo is much quicker than the unforgiving asphalt between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
Loneliness: At Comrades there are always fellow runners and spectators to cheer and goad you on; At Karoo you have only rocks and imaginary friends for company. The harshest punishment prison inmates are subjected to is solitary confinement – and even the most antisocial runners I know would struggle with the isolation you experience in the Karoo Desert.
Race day logistics: Comrades is much tougher on this score. Instead of waking up yesterday to get into your seeding pen at Comrades to run today, you can roll out of bed and amble over to the start at Karoo.
Hills: Here there is one clear winner, the long steady pull to the 44km mark of Karoo just can’t compete with Comrades’ famous hills.
Tapering: Comrades demands and deserves a great deal of respect. With all the hype beforehand and the total shut-down of the formal and social running calendar, you can’t help but give Comrades a full taper. Without more sensible runners to keep me check, I only took one extra rest day from my normal training week. Let’s just say I am still learning and definitely paid the price in race day pain for my much more casual approach towards Karoo.
Length: Depending on the year, Comrades is seven to ten kilometres longer. This might not sound like much but it can be the difference between life and death in the desert.
At this stage I would say Comrades is slightly ahead on the toughness scale. However, there is one final factor to consider…
The Heat: The heat in the Karoo is oppressive. It’s all good and well that meteorologists officially record temperatures “in the shade” but these rules don’t apply when there is no shade. The case study for understanding the effect of heat on the unprepared runner is the infamous 2013 Comrades Up run. The official high in Pietermaritzburg that day was 30°C (86°F) and resulted in only 55% of the starters finishing the race (as a comparison over 86% of this year’s Up run starters earned a medal). It’s normally well over 30°C by the time you’ve finished your second cup of coffee in the Karoo – and Laingsburg locals don’t remove their jackets until the barometer passes the 30 mark.
So does that final factor tips the scales? Not quite, I’m calling it a tie – or a dead heat if you prefer!