[MARATHON #237 / Unique Marathon #137 / 9 February 2020]
I was viewing the Hillcrest Marathon as something of a grudge purpose. Big field, big city, double-lap routes are my least favourite marathon type. Once a year is more than enough to ingratiate my legs on the Comrades route – and my muscle memory still hadn’t forgotten their last visit in June. Needless to say, my legs were happy to wait another few months before setting foot in Hillcrest again. What is more, during the Red Hill Marathon in Cape Town, barefoot runner Peter Taylor told me that Hillcrest has the roughest roads on the Comrades route.
Drinking Lite beer and running sensibly in December had left me injured but I got the all clear from my biokineticist the Thursday before the race that my legs would be good for a Sunday marathon. I gave it one more sleep to see whether the bio session had broken me and, still being relatively mobile on Friday morning, ran out of excuses and had no option but to book my flight to Durban. Luckily my accommodation was sorted since my mate Campbell “The Great” Nel offered me his son’s room for the night (thanks Daniel!).
Although Eskom ruined my arrival with a pitch-black welcome, Campbell made things right with a cold quart of Lion Lager. He apologised for a lack of mugs to serve the beer in, explaining that his former running club had looted his house during a club function with the net result being that he now drinks straight from the bottle and runs for Hillcrest Villagers.
Campbell also produced a tasty Steers burger (take-away restaurants are one of the few beneficiaries of rolling blackouts) and a large luminescent sack – which turned out to the race goodie bag. With an entry fee of R270 ($16/£13), this has to be one of the best goodie bags and value for money races in the country. Maybe it was just the beer coursing through my veins but I was starting to warm up to the Hillcrest Marathon.
The race is held just before Valentine’s Day and I noted that the Goodie Bag was crammed full of items that could potentially make for an eventful Valentine’s evening* (like deodorant and a giant tub of Vaseline) as well as post-romance recovery (like natural anti-inflammatories and “down boy” calming Chamomile tea). The only item that caused me some consternation was the “Orlando Pirates” branded deodorant (since surely this would reduce your ability to score).
* I have no idea how you’d use half a kilogram of mayonnaise for a memorable Valentine’s date but I am sure that the French have found a way.
Founded in 1977, Hillcrest Villagers are one the great South African running clubs. The legendary Graeme Fraser was one of their founding members and, under his leadership and leg speed, Hillcrest became the eminent Comrades club in Natal. During the Comrades glory days of the 1980s, Villagers extended their fame countrywide by dominating the prestigious Gunga Din trophy (the men’s team prize which is awarded to the fastest four runners from the same club).
Graeme ended his Comrades career with six golds amongst his 12 medals and Green Number 666 (he also twice finished second behind Bruce Fordyce at the London to Brighton Ultra Marathon). Sadly, he passed away in 2014 from Motor Neuron Disease. However, his legacy at the club remains in the form of the club’s emblem (leonotis leonurus – better known as the “wild dagga plant”, which grows prolifically in the area*) as well as the club colours – which are “healthy diet, number two” brown.
* Perhaps it was the Ganja Din trophy that Graeme was after?
I am told that brown was Graeme’s favourite colour but, since his goal was for Hillcrest to win the Gunga Din trophy in the days before portaloos, there might have been a competitive advantage reason behind the choice of colour as well (you can’t hide any mishaps in the white pants of Rand Athletic Club).
This year was the 41st running of the Hillcrest Marathon, making it by some way the oldest standard marathon in the province. Entries are limited to 3,000 (split across the marathon and half) which club chairman Marc Allen told me, “is the maximum we believe we can have to ensure a safe, enjoyable, personal and top-class experience for our runners and walkers. We don’t want to be the biggest – we strive to be the best.”
Hillcrest Villagers pride themselves on their road race being a club organised event and all the club members play various roles in the lead up to the race and on race morning. Campbell is infamous for destroying his previous club’s gazebo (after leaving it out during a tornado) and his wife Jolene doesn’t let him carry anything heavy, so one of the challenges the committee faced was finding a suitable role for their new club member to play. They ended up putting him on parking attendant duties which meant he had to be up at 2am to fulfil his club responsibilities.
Durban can be incredibly hot and humid in February so the race has a 5am start (only the Hippo Marathon in Richard’s Bay has an earlier 4:45am start). Despite the influx of 3,000 runners and Campbell directing traffic, parking was efficient and for a R10 donation I parked in the grounds of a neighbouring school.
5am starts are great for avoiding the heat. However, they are a problem if your stomach only wakes up at six. As a regular runner whose stomach enjoys a bit of a lie-in on the weekend, I was very pleased to see that if you needed to go Code Brown, there were plenty of aBluetion Solutions along the route. These blue beacons of beauty are to the runner on a high fibre diet what safety nets are to the tight-rope walker in gale force winds.
We headed out on the main road through Hillcrest and I quickly realised that I needed to readjust my perception of Durban. Whilst Comrades slowly processes 20,000 runners through Kwazulu Natal’s colon, you get to see the fresher, unprocessed side of the suburbs during the Hillcrest Marathon. This is one of the most scenic city runs I’ve done and, whilst I am not one to rush into definitive statements, Hillcrest can definitely lay claim to being the most beautiful double-lap, urban marathon in South Africa (a slogan that is unfortunately far too long for a Twitter hashtag).
If you ever wondered what a real avenue of trees looks like, Hillcrest is the place to find out. And regardless of whether you like to hug trees or just prefer to look at them, the Hillcrest Marathon is the place to do it.
I was also impressed by how much passion the environmentally conscious people of Hillcrest show for their trees (regardless of whether they are dead or alive). Inspired by the tree climbing lions of the Serengeti, the limited local artistic abilities were stretched to the limits in creating this exquisite piece entitled “Two Lions up a Tree” (artist unknown*).
* I did make enquiries as to whether, inspired his daughter’s kindergarten artwork, well-known Lion Lager quart drinker Campbell Nel was the unidentified artist. However, it’s extremely unlikely as he would have needed a long step-ladder to create this masterpiece and he would not have been able to carry a step-ladder and two quarts of beer at the same time (since his wife doesn’t let him carry anything heavy).
The environmental overtones continued along the route. This is a #runclean race and there were plenty of bins in the clearly demarcated litter zones. I also enjoyed the accompanying motivational messages like the friendly reminder not to ‘be a tosser’. After the race, all plastics used were collected and sent to a company that manufactures items out of recycled plastics with the result that nothing ended up in a landfill – definitely something to be proud of!
There were even subtle environmental messages that managed to work in the Code Brown theme by using the funniest of the planet names* with the message to, “Keep Earth Clean. It’s Not Uranus.”
* I’m hoping some Cape Flats astronomers discover a new planet and call it ‘Urmase Planet.’
Placard writing is a popular pastime amongst the local ladies. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, this Kloof lady was looking to get ‘verloof’. Who needs Tinder when you have several thousand magnificent marathon runners to choose from? She was still there on the second lap so was obviously keen to see just how hot and sweaty things got (but did look a lot less sure about her life choices by this stage).
In fact, it was no surprise that Kloof Athletics Club were trying to lure some men into their lair. Hillcrest Villagers’ dress code brown has led to a serious imbalance in the gender diversity at the club since many ladies refuse to join Villagers “because of the brown kit”. Men are not so fickle, they know that beauty is on the inside (which usually means the inside of the club bar for Hillcrest Villagers*).
* If anyone is looking for a doctoral thesis topic, a hypothesis worth testing is that men pick their running club based on the quality of the bar whilst women on the aesthetic appeal of the kit.
Dress code brown has resulted in Hillcrest Villagers being a bit of a sausage fest (they even celebrate this fact with an official monthly bring and braai on the last Thursday of the month). However, a plethora of small running clubs have sprung up all-around Hillcrest to cash in on the niche market of female runners who refuse to wear brown running kit.
During the marathon, I only saw female runners representing all the other neighbouring clubs like Kloof, Kearsney, Forest Hills, Get Fit, Running Kin and Highway Athletics. Ironically, fickle female fashion sense means that most local ladies would rather run as a DHS Old Boy than as a Hillcrest brownie.
There are however benefits for those who brave the brown. Club Chairman Marc Allen explains, “Hillcrest Villagers get by FAR the best and most vocal support on the entire Comrades route – it actually becomes hard work to thank each supporter individually as you go along! Look, when I joined the club in 2015, I also made a snarky comment about the brown but all that is forgotten when you just ran one major race in those colours. Even at Oceans the locals know exactly who we are from a mile away.”
It looked like a lot of people are looking for love in Hillcrest. Towards the end of the lap there was the curious sight of a lonely gentleman settling down to romantic breakfast for one. The poor guy was flying solo and told whoever asked that he was waiting for his Valentine but gets stood up every year. He was gone by the second lap so I wondered whether maybe he came right (or went home to do some handwashing).
However, it later turned out that the joke was on us, the runners – you can read more about Julian Draai and his lovely tradition of the Valentine’s Champagne breakfast table here.
As for the route itself, the first half of the lap is almost all downhill and the second half returns the favour by being almost all uphill – with your introduction to the climb being a hairpin bend known as “Mother-in-Law loop”. Whilst the climbing is not that steep, there is one fearsome section in Tunzini Road just before the end of the lap that Hillcrest runners use for hill repeats (and the surrounding flora and fauna has had to adapt to a salty saturation diet of sweat, tears and the occasional escaped breakfast).
I was told by many Durban runners that Hillcrest is one of the toughest marathons in the province and is “more of a training run that a qualifier because it is just so hard”. Life is cushy when the climate is sub-tropical. Durbanites bring out the jackets and thermal underpants when the temperature drops below 25°C – and this route is the equivalent of pleasant spring morning, 24.9°C in the shade. With a total elevation gain of just over 500m, this may be a hilly, “jacket, scarf and beanie” marathon route for Natalians, but it would be considered relatively flat anywhere else in South Africa.
Although the second half of the marathon was a little painful with my misfiring glute (the lazy glute was fine but all the other overworked muscles ached worse than Anastasia Steele that time she forgot the safe word). Fortunately, my journey was made a lot easier by Campbell who had given me a handful of Maurten caffeine gels to get me around the route. They worked a charm and I felt fantastic from the waist up.
Aside: Unpaid, completely authentic and totally non-gratuitous Maurten endorsement
One of Maurten’s sponsored athletes is Mo Farah and I have it on good authority that the gels are so memorable that they are one of the few supplements forgetful Farah recalls taking before, during and after major athletics events. On top of this, when he’s expecting a new batch of Maurten to arrive, he’s waiting at the door and opens on the first knock.
On a serious note, this stuff really is good. It is only available via online order and select retailers. Because the name sounds like “more than ten”, I suggested that Campbell gives Comrades Green Number holders 11% off (on the grounds that those who’ve run ten or more Comrades should get a “more than ten” discount). He said that was a great idea so Green Number holders, hunt down the Maurten stand at the Comrades expo, show Campbell your Green Number and tell him you want your “more than ten” discount and see what he says.
As for what makes Maurten different, here’s local Maurten peddler Campbell Nel in his words, “Maurten has a technology called Hydrogel, which no other product has. When entering the stomach, the hydrogel encapsulates the carbs. This means the stomach no longer needs to process and break down the gel or drink. Instead it then leaves the stomach immediately and is transported to the small intestine where it is broken down into the carbs you need for fuel. Because of this, you do not have any GI distress and nausea often caused when the stomach cannot process the gels it has been given. Hydrogel technology also allows us to take in a lot more carbs than was first thought physically possible. Which is why the Drink Mix 320, allows athletes to take in 80 grams of carbs with no issues.”
So basically, if you want to take in a stack of carbs without going Code Brown all over the place, Maurten is the best product on the market.
I often get bored on the second lap of a marathon but not with this one. Aside from several stunning sections, there is also great crowd support along the route (something of a rarity at South African marathons as everyone saves their support for the big ultras).
Many residents set up their own support tables along the route – something you definitely wouldn’t see in Sandton. In fact, the people of Hillcrest are so friendly you almost forget most of them are Sharks supporters!
And speaking of rugby, the Hillcrest Marathon does gives you its own version of a “Hospital Pass” one kilometre before the end of the race. A tempting option whilst waiting for the hills to finally crest (which they only do a few hundred metres form the finish).
Actually, if you are hurting it’s probably a better option to hobble through to the finish line where the title sponsor, ThreshHold, will take all of your aches and pains away with their natural anti-inflammatory pain relief and recovery products.
ThreshHold came on board as title sponsor last year and have helped turn a great race into a truly exceptional event. They also support several up-and-coming athletes including the men’s winner of the half marathon, Nkosikhona Mhlakwana. Those who don’t recognise the name, might remember one of the dramatic moments during Comrades 2019 when a debutant runner provided television viewers with some heart-wrenching visuals as they watched him slip from 9th to 11th position over the last few hundred metres in Scottsville.
Nkosikhona, a final year Bachelor of Education student at the University of Kwazulu Natal, credits ThreshHold with elevating his running to the next level – and has been injury free since incorporating the supplement into his daily routine, using them to “help with recovery of muscles and protecting the joints from getting injured”. Look out for this talented athlete in the newly formed Mr. Price team kit at Two Oceans and Comrades this year!
After crossing the finish line, there is one final fringe benefit for runners in the form of ice-lollies – another lovely touch courtesy of the title sponsors ThreshHold.
I had timed my flight home to ensure that I had enough time for a couple of post marathon beers at the infamous Hillcrest Villagers bar. I received a message from Campbell to meet him at the tog bag tent*. I asked someone where I could find the tog bag area and was told “It’s next to the bar.” (which made a lot of sense).
* Don’t worry Jolene, I didn’t see Campbell lifting any heavy tog bags – he just stood around drinking beer.
I definitely need to work on my pace since by the time I finished the Lions were long gone and the freshly restocked Hansas were lukewarm (which didn’t seem to deter Campbell). I settled for a cold Castle Lite and hoped that this wouldn’t make my injury worse.
The post-race hydration put the finishing touches on a superbly organised event. The only downside of sitting with Campbell and his fellow Hillcrest Village people being that our conversation was constantly interrupted as random runners kept approaching to say thanks for a fantastic race.