[MARATHON #227 / UNIQUE MARATHON #130 / 5 October 2019]
In South Africa we are privileged to be able to run several marathons inside our National Parks and World Heritage Sites. I am always keen for the chance to add another National Park run to my collection and therefore jumped at the opportunity to enter the inaugural Clarens Golden Gate Marathon.
Having run Surrender Hill Marathon in Clarens earlier this year, I was familiar with the scenery (= stunning) and terrain (= gruelling) so I knew we could expect a run of unsurpassed beauty and unrelenting hills just down the road in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
The number one “Visitor Tip” on the SAN Parks web site is “The area is prone to sudden weather changes.” Whilst this might be the case, the morning temperatures are always predictable: Freezing cold. At an altitude approaching 2,000m, every morning is chilly in the Free State highlands. Of course, being high summer, I was dressed in only a vest and watched with increasing trepidation as the temperature gauge steadily dropped below freezing on the drive to the start (it was as low as -3C on the river crossings). At least it was a clear day so there was no chance of getting caught in a Golden Gate shower.
Fortunately, every day is braai day in the Free State – the fires are lit before dawn and provide sanctuary to shivering runners who huddled around the coals to keep warm. They also take Professor Tim Noakes seriously in this part of the world – it’s boerewors for breakfast 365 days a year and you could sample a taster before the 6am start.
If you don’t like the cold, the good news is that you don’t need to wait until the sun has risen above the Maluti Mountains before warming-up as the organisers have designed a route with what is probably the toughest start to any race on the calendar.
From a starting altitude of 1,938m you get one kilometre of gentle climbing to acclimatise before heading straight up into the clouds. Your runners’ high is reached at the five kilometre mark where you can gaze down at the world from the lofty heights of 2,151m above sea level. It was not long before my engine was overheating, I was surrounded by clouds of water vapour and nasty spluttering noises were emitted from my exhaust pipe*. I also urgently needed an oil change but there was not much cover at the top of the mountains so I would have to wait.
* Just to be clear I am referring to my mouth.
The consolation is that with great hills comes great scenery – and the Golden Gate National Park doesn’t disappoint. There were plenty of runners (myself included) who were induced into a strategic walk disguised (and dignified) with comments like, “With views like this you have to take a few moments to stop and appreciate them”.
After the initial ascent, we dropped steadily to lower altitudes where the terrain and foliage changed from rocky scrublands to grassy shrublands. Ironically, if you had a pressing engagement after eating too much boerewors at the start and needed a place to hide, the first chance to do so was in the long grass near the Vulture Hide.
Alternatively, if you need to leave more than footprints behind in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, large boulders later on also provide adequate privacy to create your own impressive rock formation.
Just as we completed the first loop around the 8km mark and dipped below an altitude of 2,000m for the first time since the start, another nasty one kilometre climb dominated the landscape and heralded the start of the long out-and-back section to the eastern edge of the park.
Those who’d survived the opening onslaught enjoyed a steady drop (and occasional plummet) all the way to the 16km mark, after which the course flattens out and gives one a chance to admire the spectacular surrounds whilst running in the shadow of the ancient sandstone cliffs that were formed when basaltic lava flowed through the area 190 million years ago.
During this section of the race I caught up with Greenside Pirate and downhill specialist*, David Case. David and three other Pirates Club members recently ran the 500 kilometres between the Kimberley and Greenside Pirates clubhouses in 10 days to raise R160,000 for Childline South Africa.
* From what I observed, David relies heavily on gravity and is unbeatable (and unstoppable) on the downhills.
Whilst this is an admirable feat, David needs to work on his technique if he wants to go into motivational speaking. When he saw Sandra (his much faster wife), already well on her way back after reaching the turnaround, David veered across the road and ‘motivated’ her with, “There are only four ladies in front of you but they all look much younger and stronger!”
However, the general consensus on social media was that “David wishes he was as fast as her” and was just trying to psych Sandra out in the hope he could pass her on the way home. The record shows that David’s manoeuvre was completely unsuccessful with Sandra finishing 20 minutes ahead of her husband.
There was a decent team from Pirates at the event. The club prides themselves in having the hilliest race in Johannesburg – and perhaps the best measure of toughness of this course was seeing bedraggled and marooned Pirates Club Runners staggering up the many hills that the course threw at us!
But the most gruesome climbs were still to come. Blissfully unaware of what lay ahead, I enjoyed a beautiful morning and soaked up the sunshine – and local culture.
The Golden Gate Highlands National Park borders Lesotho (the only landlocked country in the world with just one bordering country), and the marathon provides a golden opportunity to learn about the customs and traditions of the Basotho people. You can tour a traditional 18th century village which includes sampling sorghum beer and seeing whether the sangoma (traditional healer) has the right muti to heal any aches and pains after the marathon. I was very interested to spot a thatcher hard at work. Although I didn’t ask if her name was Margaret, I did ask how much the bundles cost – R35 ($2).
The turnaround point is reached just after the half marathon mark. Every ounce of energy would be needed to get to the end of the race and, before heading back to the Brandwag Buttress, I took the opportunity have a quick and comfortable buttrest.
Those that legitimately passed their learner’s driving license will recall that the “!” road sign denotes a general warning. There were plenty of “!” general warnings along the route. Although I am not prone to hyperbole, the signs in the park should in fact be changed to “!!!!” for Golden Gate Marathon runners – as in, the Free State highland hills will “!!!!” your legs up and eat them for breakfast!(!!!)
It is essentially a continual 14 kilometre climb all the way from 23 to 37 kilometres. Whilst some of the climbing is gentle, there are brutal climbs that rival the toughest second half hills of any marathon on the calendar.
The first starts just after the 27km mark and ends 3.5 kilometres later (and over 200m higher). It is made all the more difficult because you are winding up a switchback road which had recently experienced a fire – so you just have the stark, charred remains of trees for company whilst your mind subconsciously visualises your legs going up in flames.
Just when you think that most of the climbing is over, the second hill hits you with a sucker punch at the 32km mark. A little shorter at two kilometres but no less brutal with a 100m rise in a short space of time – and your only reward for summitting is three more kilometres of slow poison uphill before respite is finally reached.
Although there are plenty of antelope in the park (and many signs warning you of the hazards of low-flying antelope), I had not spotted much game. However, the Oribi Loop (between 36 and 39km) with its vast expanses of flat grassland provides the best game viewing opportunities on the route. I am not sure if it was just me but I felt that the galloping zebra and wildebeest I saw were rubbing it in my face by showing me what a real runner looks like.
Since the race starts with the toughest National parkrun out there, you will be pleased to hear that the climatic five kilometres back to the finish at the Glen Reenen Restcamp are mainly downhill.
Whilst there are many spectacular sandstone cliffs, mountains and rock formations along the route, the most famous and arguably most spectacular of them all is the Brandwag Buttress which comes into play with less than two kilometres to go.
I spotted a tour group getting a lecture in front of this impressive monolith and Golden Gate-crashed (or should that be “de-toured”) them with a few questions. The 84-year-old Geology PhD student (and NWU Lecturer), Johann Nel, who was conducting the tour told me that he’s a mere 179,999,916* years younger than the Buttress!
* I doubled-checked and this cliff is even older (but still in better shape) than Cliff Richard.
After exchanging pleasantries, I established that they were a group of vintage car enthusiasts called the “Wes Transvaal Ou Motor Klub” (I understand that the ‘Ou’ describes the 300 vintage cars in their collection, not the members). They go on tour from Potchefstroom once a month and the Golden Gate Highlands National Park was their October outing.
For those who appreciate ancient artefacts, the park is also famous for unearthing many fine fossil finds. Perhaps the most notable of these was in 1978, when the oldest dinosaur embryos ever found were discovered in the park. They date from the Triassic Period (220 to 195 million years ago) when the world was still a single continent. This was way before the Jurassic Period – so if Hollywood wants to make a Jurassic Park prequel, I would suggest that set it in Golden Gate.
I’d travelled through to the race with my friend Julian Karp. He scuttled past me like a velociraptor hunting the finish line as I emerged back onto the official course after an extended photo shoot at the Brandwag Buttress.
Speaking of reptiles, Julian’s approach to marathon running is like that of the proverbial tortoise in Aesop’s fables (although ironically Julian is more famous for his hair). Julian’s steady, determined, metronomic pace managed to once again eclipse my more hare-brained approach of frequent photo stops (and the occasional exploratory detour).
At R300 this is one of the more expensive marathons on the calendar but this is a small price to pay for the stunning scenery you get to experience within the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Support tables were also excellent all along the route with plenty of food available together with the normal drinks.
Golden Gate is the only National Park in the Free State. It was founded in 1963 and has been enlarged over the years to currently cover an area of 340 km² (84,000 acres). The park takes its name from golden glow effect produced by the sun’s setting rays radiating off the ancient sandstone cliffs. As the sun set on another marathon (and a golden glow radiated from my perspiring face), I was glad we only covered 42 straight-line kilometres of the 340 squares on offer*.
* The adventurous can explore more of the 340km² via various hiking and multi-stage trail runs available in the park.
The race has many upsides (and I’m not just talking about the incessant hills). The only downside is that the inaugural Golden Gate Marathon has left me with a bit of a dilemma. Before there was a clear winner for my favourite race in the Free State – Surrender Hill Marathon – but now it’s difficult to pick between the two. I guess that, at the risk of mixing my precious metals, the silver lining to Golden Gate is that there are now two brilliantly breautiful (that’s a combination of brutal and beautiful) bucket list marathons to run in the Free State highlands.