[MARATHON #236 / Unique Marathon #136 / 25 January 2020]
After running like an idiot for most of the year, I took things easy with ‘sensible running’ over the festive season. Despite running 34 marathons in 2019, I ended the year four kilograms heavier than I was at the end of 2018. In an effort to curb additional gains to the midriff, I decided to switch to Lite beer but I should have heeded the, “If It ain’t broke don’t fix it” mantra. Lite beer and sensible running are a lethal combination to the serious marathon runner and resulted in my first injury in over six years.
Following the extended bout of end-of-year marathon abstinence, I look forward to mid-January when I finally get a chance to butter my Mielie again in Welkom at the first marathon of the year. Unfortunately, the injury meant I had to wait all the way until the end of January before consummating my running year. I did however, save my legs for someone special – the Red Hill Marathon in the south of Cape Town.
Since this was the only January marathon I had not yet run, I wanted to give myself the best possible chance to finish the race. Therefore, I spent the fortnight beforehand enduring as much dry needling, shock wave therapy and miscellaneous torture techniques as my pain threshold could endure. I would at least make it to the start line.
I was surprised at just how quiet the Friday afternoon registration at Fish Hoek Athletic Club was. People in Cape Town like to make plans at the last minute and 1,300 of the 2,400 total entries were sold on race morning (there were about 1,400 entries for the 36k and 1,000 for the marathon).
However, I was even more surprised to find the club bar was buzzing. I have an early memory of my father bringing his own beer to supper at the Fish Hoek Spur since it was a “dry” suburb. Back in the early 1800s, the original land grant stipulated that no alcohol could be sold anywhere in the area but apparently a few years ago the local sports clubs found a loophole* and managed to get themselves licensed.
* After two dry centuries an Appeal Tribunal finally granted a liquor license to the local Pick ‘n Pay in 2019.
The first Red Hill Classic was run almost half a century ago in 1973 as a training run for the Peninsula Marathon. No one could find a suitable short cut so, instead of a customary 20 mile (32 kilometre) marathon-prep course, the distance was set at 36 kilometres. In 1984, when the Two Oceans Marathon introduced qualifying marathon criteria for their event, a six kilometre loop was added for those who wanted to extend themselves from the 36k Classic to a full marathon (and has been a permanent fixture at the race since 1992).
The route has remained constant over all this time save for two exceptions:
- The start line and first three kilometres has shifted around the perpetual roadworks to upgrade Kommetjie Road and Ou Kaapse Weg. However, Fish Hoek AC has built up a good relationship with the construction company and this year they had a team working throughout the night to resurface the race track for the runners – finishing up and providing the clearance to run just ten minutes before the race started.
- In 2008, a massive veld fire swept over the route resulting in road closures. People joke about building aeroplanes in the sky but the Red Hill race committee did just that – organising a new route on race morning and only finalising the marathon route after the race had already started. There is an excellent account of just how everyone pulled together here.
The 2008 event was something of a defining moment for the club and since then the race medal and club logo were redesigned to include the three flames to commemorate the experience.
With the night shift construction crew downing their tools as dawn broke, the day shift got going just after 5:30am with our own version of road work. Overcast conditions and a light breeze greeted us as we headed off in a westerly direction towards Kommetjie.
Those familiar with the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon route will know that you turn right at Fish Hoek circle, head through Sun Valley and go up and over Chapman’s Peak. The Red Hill route allows you to explore what would happen if you carried on running straight at Fish Hoek towards Cape Point.
There was plenty of chit chat and a bit of singing during these early stages. I was worried about my hamstring holding out for the full 42 kilometres and therefore looked (or rather listened) for a potential distraction. There are always one or two loudmouths in every marathon field and a good tactic is to find one who’s got something interesting to say.
Fortunately, I was running at the same pace at local running legend Peter Taylor. Peter has run 32 Two Oceans Ultra Marathons, most of them barefoot with a “toss your spare change in here” donation rucksack on his back for the South African Guide Dogs Association. He has some great stories to tell and everyone within earshot was duly entertained.
However, he really grabbed my attention during a story from one of the seven Comrades he ran barefoot when he said, “Hillcrest has the roughest roads I’ve ever run on.” I would be running the Hillcrest Marathon (hamstring permitting) in two weeks time and interrupted his story to ask if I could quote him on that. He backtracked slightly but still conceded, “Maybe not roughest roads in the entire country but Hillcrest is definitely the roughest place on the Comrades route!”
After six kilometres of running along Kommetjie Road, you enter the coastal village bearing the same name and the Indian Ocean comes into view. The next eight kilometres alone are worth making the trip to venture deep south – you can’t beat going down on the exquisite Cape coastline.
It was still fairly gloomy and the Slanghoek Lighthouse warned us of the peril in store – the first climb of the morning rising from sea level to 100 metres above in just under two kilometres. The top of the Slanghoek climb is marked by a stone wall that was part of the World War 2 “Cobra Camp”.
From the top, there is a lovely drop to the Soetwater Resort and Witsand Beach followed by several flat kilometres through the very appropriately named Misty Cliffs – a surreal sight as the pearly-white sea sand blended with the swirly-white mist.
During this section, there were plenty of signs warning of the dangers of baboons. However, despite the signs, baboons are only the second most dangerous primate on the Cape roads. They are also responsible for less litter.
The next village along the route was Scarborough*, alleged to have more environmentalists per square metre than anywhere else on the planet, so it is no surprise that Red Hill was first race in the country to adopt the #runclean campaign. The race has also introduced the concept of “Green Marshals” who monitor the route for littering and stringently apply the ASA rule that any runner found littering in an environmentally sensitive area can be disqualified.
* Simon and Garfunkel** fans will be interested to know that Scarborough Fair is held every Sunday.
** The night before running the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Marathon in Cleveland (USA), I had ‘Simon and Garfunkel’ chicken for supper (it was made with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme).
The anti-litter campaign seemed to work well – and no one complained that they missed a seeding because they put their rubbish in the bin. It’s also nice not to have to worry about discarded plastic sachets ruining my race photos – there’s nothing worse than a piece of litter or a cyclist defiling what would otherwise be a fantastic running photo.
The race looks after the community and the community looks after the race. The main sponsor is a local law firm, STBB, who brand themselves as, “The Big Small Firm*” and other local companies like Komicx, Chip Base and Chapmans Hardware play a big role in the success of the race.
* Not to be confused with ‘Small – Big – Firm’ one of the discarded marketing slogans for Viagra.
Fish Hoek AC has 250 members and, with well over 300 volunteer positions to fill on race day, they enlist the help of the local Rotary chapter and Ommiedraai Friends (another local running club). If you’ve run Western Cape races, you can’t help but notice the orange Ommiedraai kit and their friendly runners and supporters wherever you go.
It was therefore no surprise when I got a friendly greeting from an Ommiedraai runner along the route. It turned out to be Fahmy Galant, the General Manager of SAIDS (South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport) who I’d chatted to whilst writing the “Drug Running at Comrades (and discrediting American ignorance)” article. It was great to meet in person and even better to know that the custodians of our sport are active participants as well.
At 16 kilometres you are diverted back inland and there is a steady climb all the way to the Perdekloof intersection just before the 20 kilometre mark. Here it is decision time. Red Hill is unique in that, regardless of which race you signed up for, you can do an in-race downgrade to the 36k Classic or upgrade to the marathon. This is a popular choice amongst Capetonians who are well-known for not being able to make up their minds!
Downgrading is usually the more popular option, especially in years with hot and windy conditions when there will be several hundred runners who change their planned flight pattern after burning up too much fuel early on. The cool weather this year saw just under 100 runners make a change, but many of them upgraded – including the ladies’ winner of the marathon*.
* The female winner was Nienke Pannekoek who, unlike her name suggests likes her courses hilly. I chatted to Nienke after the race and she was originally planning to use the Hemel & Aarde Marathon at the end of February as her qualifier. However, after running with a friend and chatting all the way to the split, Nienke felt great and decided to give the full marathon a go – and ended up winning it!
Those that turn left on the Classic route immediately tackle the perils of the Red Hill, those that pass right get to procrastinate with a six kilometre drag. Despite the increasing agony in my left leg, there was only ever one choice for me. I have mastered the art of delayed gratification and therefore avoided the immediate pleasure of climbing up Red Hill. Besides which, I wasn’t going to fly down to Cape Town and get up at 4am in the morning for anything less than a marathon.
The out-and-back dog’s leg* that makes up the marathon distance is probably the most boring section of the route. Whilst this is by no means an ugly stretch of road, it’s a psychological grind since you know you are only delaying the inevitable torture and torment that is to come up Red Hill.
* The grave of ‘Able Seaman Just Nuisance’, the only dog ever to be officially enlisted in the Royal Navy, can be found at the top of Red Hill. You can read his fascinating story here.
However, I was kept entertained by a few baboons who skittishly crossed the road in front of me. There are three troops in the area and they were closely monitored by baboon patrols on race morning. Apparently, we interfered with their normal early morning foraging route but they waited patiently for the last stragglers to pass before conducting their Saturday morning grocery shopping.
It’s always great being out in nature and a privilege to observe semi-domesticated beasts running free in their natural habitat. Speaking of which, I curiously observed the different approaches of CY* runners as they approached the turnaround point (see photos below).
* Durbanville and Bellville are to Cape Town what Boksburg and Benoni are to Johannesburg. Runners from the ‘Ville are easily identified on the Cape roads by their multi-coloured cars, souped-up engines, racing stripes, customised fins and spoilers, and number plates prefixed ‘CY’. If you want to see what makes them special, ‘Come to Belville and CY’.
As for me, I enjoyed a bit of respite, swapping places with a spectator and asking her to take over photography duties whilst I enjoyed the comfy chair (who says Joburg runners are less chilled than their coastal counterparts).
We passed the Perdekloof decision point again just before 26 kilometres and I pulled into the MyO2 ‘muscle oxygen’ service station. I thrust my worst foot forward and told them to “Give me everything you’ve got!” The Muscle Oxygen did seem to work wonders on my oxygen-deprived highveld legs.
I had bumped into and old school friend and Fish Hoek AC runner, Bruce Hallock, at registration the previous afternoon. He would be pacing his wife, Kathryn, for her Comrades qualifier and bounced race tactics off me. An integral part of his strategy was getting to the top of Red Hill, which he told me was at the 30 kilometre mark. My race strategy was also just to get to the 30 kilometre mark since I was confident that, no matter how sore my leg got, I could hobble home to the finish from there.
I turned my grimace into a scowl and psyched myself up for four kilometres of gruelling torture. Bruce was a great sportsman in his day but maths was never his strong point. I was therefore very pleasantly surprised when we ran out of hill two kilometres later at the 28 kilometre mark. I did however get a few dirty looks from local runners when I asked where the rest of the Red Hill was.
The race’s eponymous hill is essentially two very steep kilometres where you gain about 155m of elevation. From the top it is a five kilometre drop down Paradise Kloof and back to sea-level in Simon’s Town. Although there are hardly any out-of-town runners on the race, I bumped into fellow upcountry runners Faheemah Limbada at the start and kept bumping into RAC runner, Andrew van der Molen, along the route. Andrew makes Red Hill a regular visit and told me that I should have run last year when crystal clear conditions would have made for even more spectacular photos.
The next five kilometres from Simon’s Town are painfully flat. However, you can medicate yourself naturally by taking in the ocean views as you hug the coastline and pass beach after beach on the other side of the Indian Ocean.
Whilst some ultra marathons exaggerate the number of oceans one sees on their race, property developers this side of the mountain take liberties with housing estate names. Earlier that morning Misty Cliffs was suitably misty but Glencairn Heights is only a lofty 1.5 metres higher than Glencairn Beach (at low tide)!
You say your final goodbye to the Indian Ocean at 38 kilometres and head back into the suburbs, the most notable of which is Dido Valley – which the local newspaper infamously misspelt as “Dildo Valley” in a front page article about a new housing development a couple of years ago. No doubt the housing estate was a popular choice for people looking to escape the confines of the dry suburb of Fish Hoek.
I did a quick Google search and it seems that they aren’t the only ones to make this typo. A botanical site whose mission is to map the geographical location of all proteas in South Africa, highlighted that ‘Dildo Valley’ is the only place in the region that has properly satiated ‘Silky Needlebush’ infestations.
If Dido Valley leaves you with a smile upon your face, a quiet unassuming little road called Genoa Avenue will wipe it right off again. Genoa presents the final challenge of the race between 40.5 and 41.5 kilometres. It starts off as an ever so gentle incline but ends with a violent stinging barb. Actually, this would probably not even classify as a “real hill” on a training run but at the end of Red Hill Marathon it’s known as “Mount Genoa.”
There are some brilliant marathons to pick from in January. It’s difficult to select a “January best” but Red Hill is without doubt the most beautiful and scenic of the choices. Whilst I might have perpetuated some stereotypes about Capetonians in this article, it is pleasing to refute the popular myth that Cape Town people are unfriendly. Having run in pretty much every South African town that offers a marathon, I can confirm that the friendliest marshals in the country live in Fish Hoek and the surrounding suburbs.
As I made my way around the southern tip of the Cape Peninsula, it was amazing the number of times I was thanked for visiting and welcomed along the route. Local runners get it even better, I ran much of the last few kilometres within earshot of Fish Hoek AC runner Noel van Zyl (in the picture below).
Without fail every single marshal and spectator offered Noel a Savannah (I’m guessing that Savannah is popular in the dry suburb of Fish Hoek because, “It’s dry but you can drink it”). According to race director Marieta Stevens, “Noel’s well known for downing a Savannah around the 36km mark to fuel him to the end of a marathon – or at the 70km mark on Comrades.” However, much to the surprise of the Fish Hoek faithful, he declined every offer.
People of Fish Hoek, let it be known that I like beer (cold; any flavour) and I would never be so ungracious as to refuse the offer of a hospitality drink the next time I run the Red Hill Marathon. Because, yes, this is definitely a race I’ll be running again – and I am sure that I will enjoy it even more on two functional legs.