[MARATHON #238 / Unique Marathon #138 / 15 February 2020]
This year I spent Valentine’s Day in Frankfort. By choice I might add. That is a scenario that needs some explanation so here is the backstory…
I’ve been told that the most romantic thing you can do in the Free State is take your lover to an agricultural festival. As agricultural festivals go, they don’t get much bigger than the VKB Bielie Mielie Festival in Reitz and, as luck would have it for Free State romantics, this year the festival fell over Valentine’s weekend.
The Bielie Mielie ‘Fees’ lasts four days and includes all sorts of festivities, sporting activities and evening concerts where you can listen to your favourite ‘kunstenaars’ belt out lekker lietjies and terrific treffers. Very considerately, the festival organisers have incorporated a marathon into the sporting side of the festival.
I look forward to buttering my mielie at least once a year but missed out on Welkom’s Mielie Marathon in January through injury and therefore adjusted my running plans to incorporate the Bielie Mielie Marathon.
However, I discovered that the opportunity to go for an all-weekend roll in the hay is a popular choice for lovers in this part of the world. Such is the magnitude of mielie buttering in the greater Eastern Free State that I could not find any accommodation within a 50 kilometre radius of Reitz.
And that was how I ended up in from Frankfort, the closest town to Reitz with a vacant bed, on Valentine’s Day.
Aside: About the Sponsor – VKB
VKB Landbou is an enterprise that specialises in supplying production inputs and value-added services to the agricultural industry. They are a cornerstone of the economies in the rural Eastern Free State and Limpopo, employing almost 6,000 people and investing heavily in initiatives that benefit the communities and areas in which they operate. VKB celebrated their centenary in 2019 and live by their (very appropriate considering the Valentine’s theme of this report) motto, “for the love for the land”, sponsoring both the Surrender Hill and Bielie Mielie Marathons ensuring that runners from all over South Africa can enjoy the beauty of the Eastern Free State.
The last time I was in Frankfort was for the Wilge Marathon in 2015 with the whole family. On that occasion we naively went out for dinner but soon realized that neither of the two restaurants in town were open on a Friday evening. I am not sure whether things have progressed in Frankfort or it was just because it was Valentine’s Day, but I found both restaurants open on my supper recce.
I picked the one that looked busier and asked if they did takeaways. They did. I asked what they recommended for a lonely marathon runner on Valentine’s Day. They recommended their burgers. Closer scrutiny of the menu displayed two options: a “Standard Burger” for R55 and the “Mega Burger” for R95. I asked what the difference was between the two. I was told that, “The Mega Burger is much bigger and comes with chips”. This sold me on the more expensive option and I ordered a “Mega Burger to go”.
When I got back to the B&B and opened my dinner I wondered if I’d got the right order. The smallest surprise was that the chips were in fact potato wedges. A bigger surprise was that the “much bigger” part of the mega burger consisted of two crumbed chicken strips (plus a side order of mayonnaise), two pork sausages and one rasher of bacon. The burger itself was served on an English muffin instead of the traditional bun. The customary burger garnish of lettuce, tomato and gherkin was replaced by heavy lashings of coleslaw and a few carrot sticks. However, the biggest surprise was that the burger itself was a piece of steak. After phoning to confirm that they had not given me someone else’s order and being reassured that the odd concoction I was looking at was indeed a Mega Burger, I tucked in and enjoyed my Valentine’s dinner immensely.
With a 60 kilometre drive to the start on what I’d been told was bad road I got up early, had one cup of tea and planned to eat my pre-race sandwiches on the drive. Aces are low in the Free State and the condition of the roads are generally shocking. Instead of distance markers, every five kilometres there was a sign saying “Warning: Potholes next 5km”. It was a harrowing drive in the dark – two hands held tightly on the steering wheel, eyes wide open, teeth gritted and bowels clenched.
Fortunately, I had honed my driving skills over the Christmas period by playing Super Mario Kart Deluxe with my kids and made it to the start in one piece. However, such was the immense concentration required to get there that I only got a chance to eat my first sandwich when I pulled into the parking lot of the Reitz Bowls Club. I also made a mental note to use a bite plate the next time I tackled the Free State roads to save the enamel on my teeth. Registration was quick (R250 for a late entry) and I had time to help myself to a complimentary cup of coffee, after which my sphincter finally relaxed enough to complete the morning routines and I joined the small group of runners waiting at the start.
While the drive to get there was stressful, everything else about running in the Free State is totally relaxed. There was a definite, “Don’t rush us we’re local” vibe at the start. Most races are a total bunfight up front but, as you can see from the photo above (taken 60 seconds before the gun fired), everyone is pretty chilled. This was well before Coronavirus but you are always granted plenty of personal space in the Free State.
Although the town of Reitz is small in size they are big on mielies – and have one of the largest maize silos in the southern hemisphere. The out-and-back route starts with a short circuit of the town but it’s not long before you pass the grain silos at the edge of Reitz and head directly into the countryside along a quiet regional road past mielie, sunflower and livestock farms.
If you think running in the Free State is boring you’ve probably never actually run in the Free State. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every race I’ve done here and the routes are usually packed with plenty of natural beauty. Bielie Mielie was no exception – here’s a sampling of some of the sights and scenery.
And if you think running in the Free State is flat, you’ve probably also never actually run in the Free State. Although Welkom is a bit of a pancake, my experience has been that everywhere else is crumpets with lots of toppings. This particular route had no flat sections. It was constant undulations the whole way for a total elevation gain of 620m.
Perhaps the nastiest sting in the tail is at the turnaround point itself. Post office towers earmark the highest point in a district and I figured that the tower we were gradually approaching would be the turnaround.
No such luck – there was enough time and space for the route to plummet us down a short mineshaft (which of course we had to trudge up again to begin the second half of the marathon).
The support tables along the route were exceptional and all had plenty of food along with the regular cooldrinks (which were ice cold). My favourite personal favourite was the Mecca Hardware table who had a full-on sound system with an announcer who greeted every runner on the way out as well as on the way back.
Under the sponsorship of VKB Landbou (as well as Total who inject some fuel into the marathon), the race is very well organised by Limodo Events who enlist the help of Bethlehem Marathon Club (this is the same team that brings you the spectacular Surrender Hill Marathon). I try to do some research for the race report while running the race itself and, as I approached the Bethlehem* Marathon Club table towards the end of the race, I thought I’d better find out what “Bielie” actually means.
* I did try to find accommodation in the neighbouring town of Bethlehem but there was no room at the inn – and I managed to find a B&B in Frankfort before resorting to Bethlehem stables.
All the ladies at the table were hard at work handing out water, Coke and offering rubdowns. I didn’t want to disturb them from the important job they were doing. The Bethlehem men however, in keeping with tradition, were all just sitting around drinking beer and braaiing.
Therefore, I asked these guys what “Bielie Mielie” means. They told me it is a “Big Mielie”. The guy sitting in the chair on the right combined his description with an extensive hand gesture. His friends told him to “Stop exaggerating” and that he “Wished he had a Bielie Mielie.” As a diligent researcher, I decided I’d better double-check that they weren’t pulling my bielie mielie so I asked race director Desiree Opperman as well as a couple of other ladies after the race what “Bielie” actually meant. All the ladies I spoke to told me it was “just a made up word” (created to rhyme with mielie).
I was now really confused and figured that either size really doesn’t matter for Free State ladies or they’ve never seen a really big mielie in real life!
Desiree did in fact get back to me the following day with a message confirming that “bielie” means “Big, huge, enormous” (I didn’t ask her how she found out though).
I do think that the organisers missed out on a trick, if I had a race shirt that said, “Ask me about my Bielie Mielie Marathon” I’d wear it all the time.
SuperSport rugby commentator Ockert van Schalkwyk gave me a thorough Afrikaans grammar lesson on the correct usage of “bielie”. He also told me that the opposite of “Bielie” is “Buksie”. I know a few runners called Buks but I don’t know any of them well enough to ask how they earned their nickname.
So, in short, if someone says “You’ve got a bielie mielie.” – that’s a compliment, but if someone says, “You are a bielie mielie.” – that’s an insult.
There were sporadic marshals spaced out along the route. They were very friendly but their role seemed largely redundant since there were no side roads to speak of. Perhaps their job was to ensure no one veered off into a cornfield and got lost (although the crops did provide good cover if you needed to “gooi some mielies” in privacy).
For those who’ve heard the term but wondered what “to gooi mielies” actually means, it’s an idiom for “party hard” or “throw caution to the wind”. From what I could gather the origin is that corn husks would be thrown onto the barnyard floor (some sources say it was mielie-meal for extra grip) indicating it was time to put on the dancing shoes, roll up the sleeves and bring out the ‘langarm’.
Aside: My research uncovered an entire corn themed album called “Gooi Mielies” by Bill Flynn. The only thing worse than the title track are the cover versions – and the only thing worse than the cover versions is the album cover itself. You can listen to the whole album here (only for those with a strong constitution).
My derivation is a lot more coarse. At the risk of people thinking I have an unhealthy fixation after the last report dealing with going code brown at the Hillcrest Marathon, let’s just say that if you eat popcorn (which is incredibly high in roughage) just before going for a run you are likely to “gooi mielies” a few kilometres down the road.
If I was prone to bad puns I would say that you definitely pay your Reitz over this taxing course. It’s a good question what happens to tax revenue in the land of missing milk and disappearing money*. Apart from the hills, the biggest challenge over this course is the risk of twisting an ankle in a pothole.
* Poker players need to watch that an unscrupulous opponent is not hiding an ace up their sleeve. It seems that the problem in the Free State is that at least 10% of everything gets hidden in Ace’s back pocket.
In terms of prevalence, windmills come a close second to potholes on the landscape. My Afrikaans has never been great but it always improves during a Vrystaat marathon. For example, even though I can’t understand most Afrikaans jokes, I managed to make up my own Afrikaans joke during this marathon…
The Afrikaans word for windmill is ‘windpomp’ so I figured that if you eat baked beans for supper on Valentines, your evening is likely to climax with an Afrikaans windmill. On the other hand, the Afrikaans word for watermill is ‘waterpomp’ (pronounced ‘wat a pomp’). When it’s time for after action satisfaction if, instead of lighting up with a cigarette, your partner calls you an Afrikaans watermill it means that you did a good job (regardless of how many baked beans you consumed beforehand).
Maybe not the best joke ever but not bad for a guy who only passed his matric ‘opstel’ exam by using words he’d picked up from Afrikaans cricket commentary on Radio 2000.
Speaking of bragging rights, for Free State farmers, it’s not enough to just drive the biggest bakkie, they also have to show off the size of their bullocks. In my humble opinion, if you’re a farmer in South Africa’s breadbasket having a bielie mielie is far more important than having a bielie bakkie or erecting a bielie big sign boasting about your bullocks.
With the small field, it got quite lonely towards the end of the race but three of the 75 finishers (Choaro Losabe, HJ Hattingh and I) still managed to cross the line together. The Bielie Mielie Marathon might be a small field event in terms of runners but if has big field charm in terms of the crops and farmland that one passes along the way.
For those that manage to book accommodation in time, I’d suggest you stick around and experience some of the local culture at the festival. Apart from hanging out with your favourite local soap opera stars, the energetic and competitive can take part in various ‘Boeresport-kompetisies’ later on Saturday afternoon.
If my translation abilities are correct, activities include eiergooi (egg-tossing), mieliepit eet (competitive corn consumption), sakresies (sack races), trekkerband trek (tractor tyre pull), baaldra (tossing bales of hay) and woldra (sheep shearing).
I am sure that as the sun sunk lower, the liedjies got louder and the mielies were gooied harder. The only thing missing from the Bielie Mielie Festival is a cute mascot. Although there are several talent competitions during the festival, I didn’t spot a “Grootste Bielie Mielie” competition. However, if you are the proud owner of a particularly impressive bielie mielie, bring it along next year and ask the organisers if you can display it in the show grounds. Even if you don’t become the Bielie Mielie mascot, you’ll definitely increase the vocabulary of many Free State ladies (and boost the sales of large bakkies).
Detailed race reports on other Free State marathons
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