[MARATHON #233 / Unique Marathon #133 / 23 November 2019]
Part I: Tracey Trolls the Internet
You couldn’t miss the Magoeba Plunge Marathon, there was a constant barrage on social media publicizing the event. This was Tracey van den Dool’s baby and she was a proud expectant mother. I am not sure where she found the time, but it seemed like every free moment was spent thinking of innovative ways to promote the event in the lead-up.
Tracey trolled the internet and every time someone asked a question about “recommended marathons” there was an almost immediate response from one Tracey van den Dool saying, “Come to Tzaneen and check out the Magoeba Plunge”. She also had plenty of engagement with her potential customers, for example when someone said, “Will there be watermelon?”, watermelon was added to the shopping list.
New events usually start off small and slowly grow over time. However, Tracey’s efforts clearly paid off with all distances (except the fun run) being completely sold out before race day – unheard of for a new race, especially one that is out of town.
Four months before the starting gun fired, I received a phone call from Tracey who excitedly told me about the recent conception of her ‘baby’, the Magoeba Plunge. Although not a runner herself, Tracey is married to one – her husband Bernard is, “one of those crazy Comrades runners.” Every year they were forced to “trundle around the country looking for a marathon for him to qualify.” During one of these running trips Tracey asked, “Why isn’t there a qualifier here on our doorstep, how difficult can it be?”
Insanity is contagious and being married to a Comrades runner leads you to do crazy things, “He smiled, I smiled, but the seed was planted. I put the idea to our Millennial (Rotary) Club and they all agreed it was a brilliant plan to raise funds. I think either I was pickled or had heat stroke.”
Aside: Don’t run Comrades when you have a pressing engagement
Some people are famous for what they do, whereas others are better known for what they weren’t quite able to do. In the case of Bernard van den Dool, it is the latter.
Bernard was the first person over the line AFTER the 2017 Comrades cut-off. It was unclear whether he was dragging his feet or weighed down by the gold in his pocket along the way. The combination of disappointment of missing out on a medal and exhaustion of spending 12 hours and a few seconds on the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg meant that Bernard collapsed over the line and was rushed to the medical tent.
A frantic Tracey found Bernard recovering on a stretcher in the medical tent after the race. However, her concerned commiserations were drowned out by a loud rustling sound emanating from under Bernard’s silver space blanket. Whilst most men favour the “going down on one knee*” technique, Bernard went for the “flat on my back” approach – producing the engagement ring he diligently carried all the way up from Durban.
* After getting divorced from Heather Mills, Paul McCartney was asked whether he would, ‘Ever go down on one knee again’. He replied, ‘No, and I’d prefer it if you called her Heather.’
Who says you need to finish in the top ten at Comrades to win gold? Although Bernard left Comrades without a medal, he did gain a fiancé!
Part II: Relegated to the Back Seat
I travelled through with Julian Karp and Tobie Reyneke. I was definitely the junior partner in this triage since Julian’s road marathon and ultra count was on 799 not out and Tobie holds the South African record for most 100 milers completed (65 – to go with 274 additional marathons and ultras). In this crowd of three, I relegated myself to the backseat.
The journey was quiet until Julian and Tobie got into a heated discussion about Eben Etzebeth. By this stage of the journey, the battery on my laptop was dying so I kept this new source of entertainment going by channeling my inner Jerry Springer and throwing a bit of fuel on the fire every time things seemed to be dying down.
The Etzebeth debate was finally put to bed later that evening after collecting our race numbers at the shopping mall. One of the locals gave Julian an admiring gaze and ‘complimented’ him on his standard attire (Polly Shorts and tight tank top vest) by calling him “Fris Meneer”. Julian has a lot of different nicknames all around the country but “Fris Meneer” is probably the one that suits him best.
The entry fee is R250 ($17/€15) and includes a bus ride to the start as well a goodie bag and shirt (for the early entrants). Tzaneen can get incredibly hot so the race started at 5:30am which correlated to the busses leaving at 3:30am. We arrived in Haenertsburg (a quaint, arty little town with no restaurants but plenty of bistros and delicatessens) with enough time to enjoy a cup of craft coffee and conduct the regular morning weight loss routines.
Part III: The Rollercoaster Ride
The simple way to describe this route is that it is the toughest and most brutal downhill marathon you’ll ever run – an absolute rollercoaster of a route that slowly rises and rapidly plummets as you make your way between Haenertsburg and Tzaneen.
On paper, the route looks easy – who can complain with a finish that is 700 metres lower than your starting altitude? On tar, it’s a totally different prospect – with 574 metres of elevation gain to conquer and most of the downhill occurring over six short quad crushing kilometres that absolutely annihilate your legs before you even reach the halfway mark.
All good rollercoaster rides start by slowly building up your apprehension and fear. The Magoeba Plunge achieves this effect by slowly winding you up the Haenertsberg road grid before flinging you down the main road to Tzaneen.
As we rose to the highest point in Haenertsburg, those that had enough breath left to talk mumbled something about, “I thought this was a downhill marathon” and we all appreciated that first downhill when it eventually came. Little did we realise just how bumpy a ride it would be the finish line in Tzaneen – but that was still a long way off as we concentrated on getting through a gut-jostling series of ups and downs all the way to the 14 kilometre mark.
In fact, Magoebaskloof is a long series of valleys named after a tribal chief who had his head chopped off by rival warriors. One thing is true with all downhill marathons: If you lose your head and go out too hard, you can say ‘Goodbye’ to your goal time. Fortunately, whoever was in charge of naming the adjacent valley ‘Cheerio’ (famous for its azalea blossoms in spring), had the foresight to remind runners of this peril.
Much of the race is run along the R71 which is completely closed to traffic. It’s always fantastic to have a stress-free run in the country – the sounds (and even smells) of other runners are always preferable to those of cars and trucks. As it was, the rhythmic thud of runners’ feet on the downhills (and heavy breathing on the ups) harmonised nicely with the melodies of the local insects and birdlife*.
* One thing I did notice was how much louder the insects and birds were when running past indigenous forest (and how silent it was when running past plantations).
Although the morning started brightly, a thick fog suddenly descended upon us and got steadily denser as we progressed. In some places visibility was only 20 metres. I did my best to keep my eyes peeled as we headed through Clearwater’s Cove Corner, Stanford College Dip and Blueberry Hill but I have no idea what trinkets, charms and beautiful vistas I missed in the mist.
However, I was satisfied to spot what was no doubt the most important offering along this stretch. Many people ask God for a sign. Most people don’t look hard enough. Marathon running is thirsty work and not even the thick fog could cloud my vision when cold beer is on offer.
My ears raised their game to compensate for the loss of vision. A strange sound was emanating from the dense grey curtain in front of us and gradually got louder and louder. Out of context, it sounded almost mechanical and I wondered whether the new Garmin has a feature that plays tunes aligned to your heart rate. I gradually identified the tune as ‘Scotland the Brave’ and the sounds as coming from bagpipes. It was a surreal – or should I say unfogettable – sight as the piper suddenly comes into view.
The piper is local headmaster Ian Huston. He is an absolute master of his craft – and was able to acknowledge the appreciation of each passing runner without missing a beat.
It also seemed like his bagpipes have a vacuum cleaner-like ‘demisting’ function. Whilst the Pied Piper lured Hamelin’s infestation of rats into the Weser River, Ian Huston lured an infestation of runners to the Tzaneen Dam – and the day was crystal clear and sunny shortly after we saw him again later on the route.
However, Tzaneen was still a long way off. There were still a few heavy showers and the rest of the Magoeba Pass, the 20th steepest in the country, to endure. The Pass takes you from the highveld to lowveld with a rapid 500m drop over five jarring kilometres. If your internal organs are still in the same place when you reach the 20 kilometre mark at the bottom, you probably didn’t try hard enough.
Just as everyone was complaining about the cold, the clouds lifted, the sunshine powered through and the temperatures rose – and the immediate response from us fickle runners was to revert to moaning about the heat! It was amazing just how rapidly the change in temperature occurred. My (allegedly) waterproof sunscreen had long since worn off and I was nice and pink by the finish.
Whilst the terrain, topology and temperature varied a great deal over the race there was one constant – the superb support tables. Each one was vibey and stocked with whatever runners had requested from Tracey on social media. This included Coke, Cream Soda, Energade, bananas, baby potatoes, watermelon, peanut butter sarmies and jelly babies.
The tables ensured we were well watered and fed whilst we enjoyed the easiest stretch of the race – a gentle downhill to get from the early to the mid-30s – and that we had enough energy to overcome a series of long climbs to get into Tzaneen.
I’ve seen plenty of signs during marathons offering “Fresh Legs” but this was the first time I’ve seen a completely “Fresh Start” advertised. At 40 kilometres into a marathon, you might just be tempted to jump the fence and take up Tzaneen Correctional Services’* “Place of New Beginnings” proposition.
* I think that “Correctional Services’ is also where the Grammar Nazis hang out.
Although the hills were now over, there was still one frightening experience to endure as the rollercoaster ride turned into the house of horrors. If you are prone to mild bouts of nausea at the end of a marathon, the one thing that will push you over the edge is Heinz Winckler’s sickening smile radiating from a lamppost. The boyish grin is still there (and the airbrushers certainly earned their salary) but time has not been kind to the career of the original South African Pop Idols Winner*.
* Heinz Winckler featured in my report on the Music Marathon (where singing at a Bloemfontein high school seemed to be his only gig for the foreseeable future).
On social media I noted that, “Meanwhile in Tzaneen… it looks like churches still worship their Pop Idols.” I considered this is a skilful play on words – relating the biblical instruction “cast out your idols” to the long-forgotten winner of Pop Idols finding a career resurrection in a place of worship. My intention was certainly not to blasphemously suggest that members of the Tzaneen Christian Family Church literally “Worship with their winckler’s out*”.
* That’s the Pop Idol equivalent of ‘Rock with your rooster out’.
However, someone did take offense. Now I do purposely (and purposefully) tread a fine line on social media and despise political correctness (although my own thick skin occasionally borders on an Asperger’s-like level of ignorance). However, when I am not deliberately trying to be offensive, I do get rather perturbed to receive negative feedback.
The temperature in Tzaneen is about as hot as I can take so, not wishing to commit the mortal sin of blasphemy and condemn myself to an eternity of fire and brimstone, I enlisted the help of a few friends who are much more pious than I am. They could not find any fault with the “Worship your idols” post. I therefore assume that it was in fact the Winckler bit that was found to be offensive. Unfortunately, I don’t have any friends who are Heinz Winckler fans so I cannot confirm this theory.
Moving on from digging my own grave, there was one final nail in the coffin: A nasty last pull past the local cemetery before reaching the finish straight on the rugby fields. I guess life is slow in Tzaneen since the sign before the cemetery gate was labelled “Exhibitors Only” (I would have thought “Long Term Parking Only” would have been more appropriate*.
* Or Keith Levenstein’s suggestion of ‘Warning – No Exit’
Part IV: The Incredible
Hulk Julian Karp
I had hoped to take a picture of Julian crossing the line for an incredible 800th road marathon finish. However, like a camera-shy Tarzan, Julian had sped off into the mist during the indigenous jungle section of the run so I had to be content with this post-race photo instead.
Completing 800 marathons is an incredible achievement. The count includes ultra marathons but excludes trail ultras which he reckons number over a hundred. I queried the omission of trail ultras in his count (I certainly count mine) but he insists that only “official ASA-endorsed” races make it onto his official list. Julian is a stickler for his rules and, if a marathon records slightly short on his GPS, he’ll run a few laps to make up the official marathon distance on his watch.
Julian is the most incredibly consistent runner I know (you also won’t find a nicer and friendlier person on the roads). His first marathon was Cape Town’s Peninsula in 1990 as a 29-year-old – so he has taken just 30 years to crack the 800* mark. Julian usually runs two marathons a weekend, traversing the country in order to do so. One year he ran 62 marathons (50 standard + 12 ultras as well as a solo 100-miler route tester for a friend). He’s still got plenty more in his legs and his current objective is to crack 1,000 (which he should do within the next four years).
* As far as I know 800 is the South African record for marathons completed. There are a few international runners who claim over 1,000 marathon finishes but they boost their numbers with ’10 marathons in 10 days’ type events (officially measured and timed events with no prize money that are basically created for people who want to rapidly boost their marathon count). As far as I know, there is no one who has done more than 800 official ‘athletics organisation endorsed’ marathons. If anyone has more information on this please get in contact as I might write an article on the topic in the future.
Part V: Two Weddings & (almost) my Marathon Funeral
My brother-in-law was getting married in Johannesburg later that afternoon. To get permission to participate in this marathon had involved intense negotiations, estimations and calculations with my shop steward. Whilst I might push the boundaries on social media, at home I know where the line is – and I stay well inside of it. My wife had made it very clear that, should I fail to arrive in time for her brother’s wedding, I would be grounded indefinitely.
Whilst Julian might still be fleet on his feet, he is starting to slow down behind the wheel. My home time calculations had already been challenged by Tobie who decided to walk the marathon for the prize money (he was the only walker) and in order to save his legs for the ‘really’ long races. I had to do some serious backseat driving to cajole Julian into sticking to the 120km/h speed limit instead of regularly dropping below 100. It was a nerve-wracking four hours that felt a lot like chasing the Comrades cut-off.
Tracey and Bernard might have got engaged after he just missed the Comrades cut-off but I was likely to get divorced* if I arrived home a few seconds late after the Magoeba Plunge Marathon. It was hard work pacing Julian all the way back to Johannesburg but I managed to do it with minutes to spare (and am therefore pleased to confirm that this will not be my last race report).
* Divorced from marathon running that is – or a forced separation if you prefer.
Having survived the bachelor’s party directly after the Great Lake Marathon the previous weekend, the wedding was a piece of cake (plus of course entrees and a buffet for mains). It was a spectacular evening where the beer flowed like wine and the marriage of Glynn and Tarn Allen was suitably celebrated.
The marriage of Bernard and Tracey van den Dool resulted in the birth of the Magoeba Plunge Marathon and the #allenwedding bookended an eventful day. Therefore, at the risk of sounding cheesier than a Heinz Winckler treffer, I thought it would be appropriate to conclude this article with a suitably profound message for the newlyweds.
Since they are both very accomplished runners themselves (with 20 Two Oceans, 8 Comrades, over 150 marathons and a sub-3 hour marathon between them), it is fitting to wish that their marriage is as strong as the legs of Julian Karp (and since this is an article about Magoeba’s rollercoaster route – may you ride the love rollercoaster as frequently as Julian runs marathons)!