Voet van Afrika Marathon (Scratching the seven-year itch)

[MARATHON #228 / Voet #11 / 12 October 2019]

Before I started running there were three marathons that I wanted to complete: Two Oceans, Knysna and the Voet van Afrika. I’m pleased to say that I managed to place large green ticks next to each race in my first year of running in 2002.

After I started running there were three marathons that I wanted to complete ten times to earn a permanent number. No prizes for guessing that the same three entries made the list. I managed ten in a row at Two Oceans and Knysna but the arrival of my second daughter meant that my tenth Voet was delayed by one year*.

* When the gynaecologist pronounced the due date as being Voet Marathon day, a dedicated runner like myself politely enquires as to the accuracy of his predictions. A former runner himself, the gynae looked at me in disdain and said, “I wouldn’t book flights if I were you.”

The 2003 edition of the Voet – one of several that I ran with my dad.

In fact it is rather appropriate that my daughter was to blame for me missing my tenth Voet in a row since I blame my own father for my fixation with these races. Voet, Knysna and Oceans were the three races he ran year after year and, once I started running, I thought that instead of following in his footsteps it would be even better to run them together. I manged to run all of them several times with the Old Running Mann and subsequently inherited his permanent numbers in all three races.

Proudly inheriting permanent number 99 from the Old Running Mann after my tenth Voet in 2012 (he completed 20 epic journeys around the southernmost marathon in Africa).

After my tenth Voet I decided to see other people but, seven years later, this was an itch that needed scratching again and the time was right for another trip to the Southern Cape. Once again, I can lay the blame motivation on the Old Running Mann – my father was visiting us from England and purposefully timed his visit to cover the Voet (as well as his granddaughter’s birthday).

The journey south is a long one from Gauteng: Fight the Fourways traffic to catch a two-hour flight from Lanseria, collect the rental car from Cape Town airport and then a further two-hour drive to Bredasdorp.

The trip was largely uneventful until we stopped for lunch and the Old Running Mann realised that he was without his iPad. It turned out that he left it in the airport trolley but fortunately the good people at Europcar staff had found and safeguarded it. I realised that travelling with your parents is not that different from travelling with your kids – and I prevented any further mishaps by taking stock of all the peripherals my father took with him on each outing and followed this up with the “Have you got your phone? Have you got your shoes? Have you got your top? etc.” routine check before each subsequent departure.

A cool start for the 2019 Voet Van Afrika runners.

The race starts at 6am, just as dawn breaks, about nine kilometres outside of Bredasdorp on the quiet Elim Road amongst prime Overberg farmland. We were greeted with a cool, overcast morning which would make the gruelling journey over the Soetmuisberg, down into Napier and back to Bredasdorp slightly easier than the usual swelteringly hot conditions the Southern Cape dishes up at this time of the year.

Although the race starts on tar, it’s not long before you are on the dirt (the race markers count down at Voet).

I noted that sometime during the last seven years the road we start on has been tarred but in less than two kilometres we turned off onto dirt road – and would only see the asphalt again with about 16 kilometres to go.

Route profile and map from the race website.

However, there was enough time for several truckloads of exuberant half marathoners cheer us on loudly as they passed us on their way to their start. Being a point-to-point race, the race has unique method of handling transport logistics – using farm trucks to shuttle us like lambs to the slaughter* (or cattle into battle).

* I was told later that they were actually “Grain trucks” (but I bet they tell that story to all the naïve little lambs).

A truckload of runners: Like lambs to the slaughter, the half marathon entrants naively cheer their full compatriots on (the halves had close to 600m of elevation gain to contend with compared to 820m in the full).

We would pass the half marathon start a short while later ten kilometres into the race and, since they only start at 7:30am, it is a nice boost to get encouragement from them before we entered the business section of the Voet. Although the half is often seen as the ‘easy option’, I am told that pound for pound and step for step the half marathon at Voet is even tougher than the full marathon – the marathon has just over 800m of elevation gain whereas the half marathon gives you about 75% of the elevation gain within half the distance.

Unfortunately the route no longer goes through the local farms as runners kept tossing their sachets around (and the cows kept eating them).

One unfortunate change to the race is that we no longer run through the Grashoek farm. Sadly, despite polite requests, pleas and threats, runners kept throwing their sachets all over the farm and the cows would eat them – so there is no longer the opportunity to show off ones hopping skills over the farm streams and brooks.

Runners were asked to dispose of all litter in demarcated areas and most obliged.

However, running through pristine countryside, it was good to see that most runners did #RunClean and I spotted very few sachets outside the demarcated areas. Each table had plenty of bins and the “End of Litter Zone” was clearly marked at each table.

The first third of the race is easy running through farmland. However, those with triskaidekaphobia will fear what is to come at the 13 kilometre mark.

The first 13 kilometres are fairly gentle and your fresh legs should be able to easily handle the gentle undulations and odd hill during your tranquil farmland traverse. However, all the while the Soetmuisberg looms ominously in the distance and your peaceful morning in rudely disturbed with a right turn and the beginning of the trail section of the race.

Heading into the trail section of the race before the big climb begins.

Those who fear ferocious hills should look at this as an opportunity for some quality bonding time with your fellow runners as the conversation grows deeper and the gradient gets steeper.

If you’ve got any breath to give, the steep climb over the Soetmuisberg provides a good opportunity to chat to your fellow runners.

The good news is that the views just get better and better as you climb up the mountain track – and mortal runners like myself have plenty of time to appreciate the stunning vistas as the average pace drops as you slowly grind your way over the Overberg.

With great climbs comes great views.

About 500m of the race’s total elevation gain of 800m occurs over the two kilometre crawl as you approach the summit of the Soetmuisberg. It was near the top that I was able to bust the notoriously noxious gender stereotype that men have bigger running egos.

I’ve found that running photos look much better when runners are actually running in them so I challenged the group of walking runners in the photo below with a chastising call of, “Who’s going to run for the photo?”

“Who’s going to run for the photo?” was the challenge I threw down.

Siya Bashe was the only lady in the group and of course she was the only one to take the bait (and put us men to shame with her athletic prowess)!

Siya Bashe said “See-ya later” and showed the men how its done.

This is a climb that keeps on giving. There are several occasions when you think “This must be the top” before a twist reveals still more elevation to conquer. Eventually the post office tower comes into view and, after a short trundle around it, one can look forward to ten kilometres of glorious descent.

There are only two ways to get over the Soetmuisberg in the Overberg:
1) On foot (or voet)
2) On the back of a Bredasdorp Zimmer Frame
Option 1 is preferable.

During the mountain section you are engulfed by exquisite indigenous fynbos and the downhill gives one the opportunity to truly appreciate the beauty of your surroundings. This is one of my all time favourite running segments and it was great to get reacquainted.

Take some time to stop and smell the fynbos on the long downhill section to Napier.

One of the unique aspects of this race is that you can see both South Africa’s national plant (King Protea) and national bird (Blue Crane) during the race – whilst the more ambitious (and those who like things in threes) can go fishing and try to lure South Africa’s national fish, the Galjoen (black bream), for a land, sky and sea ménage à trois.

I made sure I took a bit of time to stop and smell the Proteas during the descent. Unfortunately, like the cricket side that went to the world cup, the bunch in the picture below was well past its prime (and it looks like it will be quite some time before they are in full bloom again).

Take some time to smell the proteas as well.

Some runners had wilted badly on the mountain climb, so it was pleasing to see that Angelo Adams and Esmund Van Wyk (in picture above) had revived themselves and looked a lot more comfortable on the downhills.

I had previously observed Angelo and Esmund spending plenty of quality time together as they slowly trudged up the mountain. They run for KENFAC – a running club combining the names of the two neighbouring communities of KENsington and FACtreton. Fortuitously, the club’s founders decided on this conjunction order – although I definitely heard Angelo and Esmund use the word FACKEN several times on the uphills!

As the hills get steeper the conversation get deeper. Angelo Adams and Esmund van Wyk made the most of their male bonding opportunities.

If the mountain hasn’t killed your legs, the drop down into Napier is by far the easiest section of the race.  However, after 25 kilometres along farmland, gravel road, jeep tracks and mountain paths, there is a shock to the system as you are dumped onto the tar at Napier.

A return to the tar as you enter Napier. Beware the subconscious effect that the retirement village can have on the mind of the weak-willed runner.

The succinct and best route summary is, “The first half screws up your legs and the second half screws up your mind.” With the most scenic part of the route complete and long-distance fatigue starting to set into the legs, the final section can pose too much of a challenge for faint-hearted: In the past I’ve seen several runners do a “planned bail” in Napier. Just before you hit the high street you pass the local retirement village so perhaps this subconsciously influences the weak-willed?

Strand runner Earle van der Watt wonders “van der WattTF have I got myself into?” but resists any thoughts of early retirement.

Although I didn’t spot anyone succumbing to an early breakfast in one of the quaint Napier eateries this year, I did witness one strange case of altitude sickness. The bright yellow and blue strip of Strand Athletic Club runners was prominent during the race. Strand is the flattest place on the planet (it makes the Vaal Triangle look hilly), so Strand AC runners should be applauded for even attempting Voet. However, after a slow ascent followed by a rapid descent, this runner below channelled his inner Michael Flatley for a quick Irish jig jog.

A Strand runner succumbs to a strange case of altitude sickness and channels his inner Michael Flatley for a jig jog (although the bloke from the Napier Interest Group looks totally unimpressed with his efforts).

The road to Bredasdorp lived up to my recollections of being a relentless slog. Those who’ve counted the undulations to the finish at the Bredasdorp Sport Grounds claim there are 17 hills over the last 16 kilometres. I’ve tried counting them myself but always lose track once I run out of fingers.

A route where the first half screws with your legs and the second half screws with your mind. Those who’ve managed to keep count swear that there are 17 hills in the last 16 kilometres.

One landmark I always keep a look out for is the local brickworks which marks eight kilometres to go and is where the half marathoners rejoin the marathon route.

I was wondering whether Bredasdorp had a major problem with vaping until we passed the local brickworks a short while later (Rookmis = Smoke Mist).

From the brickworks you know it’s not long before Bredasdorp comes into sight and you can look forward to a long downhill all the way to the edge of town. There is one last sharp hill to negotiate as you reach Bredasdorp but conveniently the last support table is at the foot of the hill providing a good excuse for a walk before attacking the final two kilometres through the town.

The last couple of kilometres through Bredasdorp.

This a real community event and the support tables are organised by everyone from the local police station to local businesses. With the end in sight, it’s natural for the mind to start thinking ahead to post race relaxation – which for a large chunk of the field would be a braai and a few beers. The Spar table was well-positioned to take advantage of this line of thinking – whilst I sampled their wares I overheard runners asking for butchery recommendations for the post marathon braai.

A real community event where the tables are organised by everyone from the local police station to local businesses (the runner on the right was double-checking whether the rump or sirloin was recommended for her afternoon braai).

One of the big tourist draw-cards in the area is a visit to Cape Agulhas – the southernmost point in Africa and the official point where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. This is a particularly rugged and treacherous section of coastline and several ships have been wrecked along these perilous shores. Likewise, the terrain is no less torturous a little inland – the Voet has wrecked many a fine pair of legs. Ship happens, but those who manage to successfully charter their way around this rocky route and navigate safe passage to harbour at the Bredasdorp Sports Grounds might want to pay respects to the less fortunate at the Shipwreck Museum one passes just a kilometre from the finish.

Ship happens on the rugged, rocky terrain at the southernmost tip of Africa.

Whilst some races rebrand their catch phrase annually, the Voet has stuck with “The toughest race with the warmest heart!” for as long as I can remember. Whilst marketing slogans are easy to dream up, actually living up to them is much more challenging. This is a race where the whole community gets involved and I’ve certainly felt the warmth of the local hospitality every time I’ve run.

I’ve also noted a tendency that some events seem to be getting too big for their boots. Therefor, it’s a pleasure to return to the Boland and experience the athletes’ Voet – a down-to-earth race at the bottom of Africa that puts its participants first and provides a unique and authentic running experience.

As an example of how they live up to their motto, last year the one-legged amputee athlete, Xolani Luvuno, completed the route but missed the six hour cut-off by just five minutes.

One-legged marathoner Xolani Luvuno is the race’s official ambassador (photo supplied).

Although he was not given an official finish, he was still awarded a medal and the organisers invited him back again in 2019 as the official race ambassador. Sadly the cut-off once again eluded Xolani by just a few minutes but I am sure he’ll be back for another attempt at becoming the first person with one foot to conquer the Voet!

READ: Heroes Deserve Medals: The Tale of Xolani Luvuno (#15620)

After scratching my seven-year itch, I’m pleased to report that the Voet is still one of the best marathons in South Africa (and the world). I’m often asked about my top ten marathons but am fairly non-committal with my responses as I want to run every marathon in South Africa before making things official. However, I can confirm that the provisional list does have at least one entry written in ink – the Voet van Afrika Marathon.

After a cloudy morning, it was sunny skies and braaivleis all afternoon. Signing out from the Voet Van Afrika Marathon – look out for the next report from the Run4Cancer Ultra.

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


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4 Replies to “Voet van Afrika Marathon (Scratching the seven-year itch)”

  1. Enjoyed your account of the run , paticulaly as I have run it many times myself. As a matter of interest that was the last ever marathon that I have run, and possibly the last ever race.
    Thankyou also for the mention and the photos.

  2. Really enjoy your blog posts. I’ve only recently laced up the tekkies again after a few decades of beer-abuse, and your posts have provided a timely reminder that running is about ‘stopping to smell the fynbos’ and not obsessing over km time-splits.

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