Hemel & Aarde Marathon (Leap year running)

[MARATHON #239 / Unique Marathon #139 / 29 February 2020]

For the last few years, my daughters’ mid-term break had provided the opportunity for the family to have a short holiday (and for dad to run a new marathon). This year it was down to the Fairest Cape for the inaugural Hemel and Aarde Marathon, run between Caledon and Hermanus.

For those unfamiliar with Afrikaans, ‘Hemel’ means Heaven and ‘Aarde’ means Earth. Despite what Belinda Carlisle sang in the 80s, Heaven is not a place on Earth, but the Hemel and Aarde is a marathon in the Western Cape.

Heaven might not be a place on earth but Hemel and Aarde is a marathon (and a valley) in the Western Cape.

Since this was advertised as a fast downhill marathon, I figured that Heaven was at the start in Caledon (although I think some people who’ve lead pious lives might be a bit pissed off if that is the case) and Earth was back at sea-level at the finish in Hermanus. I was wrong through – but more about that later.

For an extra R75 on top of your R225 entry fee you could get a ‘luxury’ bus ride from Hermanus to the start at Overberg High School. The busses were efficient but the luxury was debatable. The poor guy a couple of rows in front of me got a “business class lie flat bed” – every time he leant back, the chair would collapse into the person behind him. The busses were however warm and comfy and once we arrived at the start (after our driver stopped to ask for directions a couple of times), I was very reluctant to get out into the cold morning air. The temperature was taken down a further few notches by an ice-cold gale force wind so I sought shelter and emerged just before the 6am start.

1600 Marathon runners get ready to start at the Overberg High School fields.

I’ve finished many marathons on school fields and they always treat you like a kid and force you to do a lap around the field to earn your medal. I found out that if you start on a school field you can expect the exact same thing.

A mandatory lap around the school fields

However, there was no rush since we all had to exit through a tiny gate that could fit two thin or one hefty runner through at a time. Once through the gate we could enjoy a prolonged period of uninterrupted running around Caledon which included the novelty of running uphill on the N2 highway.

Early race highlights included squeezing through a school gate and running uphill on the N2 highway.

Although the sun was steadily rising, it was eclipsed but a bright floral shirt in the distance that hippies would call “over the top” combined with a pair of pants that would be too funky even for George Clinton. I put on my shades, sped up and pulled alongside the colourfully clad figure, greeting him with, “Aren’t you worried about getting attacked by a swarm of bees?”

Turns out that the flower child is Michael Brink and he told me that the real reason he dresses like this is, “So people shout at me when I walk”. His flower power strategy seemed to work well because I didn’t see him doing much walking during the race.

Michael Brink likes to run in costume and ride au natural.

Michael likes to run the odd marathon as part of his IronMan training. He also likes running in colour and riding au natural, although he told me that biggest risk when running in Hulk-style torn-off jeans is getting horrendous chafe (and still has to ride his bicycle side-saddle as a result).

I have no sense of direction and was therefore very surprised to see the same NG Kerk spiral popping up in front of us again, only then realising that we had run the first five kilometres in one big circle.

Caledonian déjà vu.

The agricultural town of Caledon and ‘fishing village’ of Hermanus are only about 34 kilometers apart so we made up the difference with thorough townrun exploration of Caledon before heading back to the coastline.

Completing the Caledon townrun and about head back towards the coastline.

One of the intriguing sites as you leave Caledon are the massive wind turbines on the horizon. It is encouraging to know that, despite what the senile old men who run the country tell us, sustainable energy is indeed viable. I always find it strange that my Scottish aunt is able to sell solar energy back to the grid but in sunny South Africa we’re told that coal and nuclear power are the only feasible options?

Caledon’s wind farms provide proof that sustainable energy is viable.

Having escaped the confines of Caledon, the runners got to enjoy the natural beauty of this part of the Western Cape as we undulated over the Overberg.

Undulating over the Overberg, a Hemel and Aarde Valley montage.

Much of the route is run on the recently-tarred R320. I can’t help chuckling when I see Hermanus road signs. I am not sure what the statute of limitations is on graffiti so let’s just say that about 25 years ago a group of very naughty schoolboys, armed with a can of spray paint, allegedly removed the “M” from every Hermanus road sign five kilometres both sides of town. They also allegedly increased the speed limit of certain sections of road from 60 to 69 kilometres an hour and the guy from the accommodation sign was allegedly pitching an impressive tent the next morning.

I still allegedly giggle like a schoolboy when I see Hermanus road signs.

One of the corporate clichés I have heard thousands of times is that, “You have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water.” However, the recent water shortages in the Western Cape seem to have led locals to throw out the entire bath tub! It was good to see that the recently redundant bathtubs* can still serve a purpose.

* Coincidentally, the original name of Caledon was ‘Bad agter de Berg’ (Bath Behind the Mountain).

Recently redundant bathtubs are put to good use in the Western Cape.

The bizarre sightings continued along the route. I always thought that apples grew on trees but here free-range terrestrial apples roam the streets. Which begs the question, “How do you like them aartappels?”

“How do you like them aartappels?”

There was also a section of the route along which it appeared that giant mole hills were trying to give the surrounding mountains some competition. This was adjacent to the local stud farm so maybe some seed got soiled and an interesting hybrid creature has been spawned.

Giant mole hills next to the stud farm – many some seed got soiled?

But perhaps the most curious site during the marathon was the hair of the Moose. I had spotted this magnificent mop of hair during previous Cape marathons and had always wondered whether it was real or an elaborate attention-seeking accessory. After scrutinizing the hairline as closely as I could without actually doing the physical ‘toupee tug test’, I deduced that this was an authentic harvest.

Goodwood, better hair. Moose Burger sports the most distinctive crop of hair on the Cape flats and hills.

A conversation with the owner, Moose Burger, confirmed this and when I asked him if he does anything special he replied, “No, it just grows this way.” As someone with a rapidly reducing thread-count, I had definite hair envy! I wonder what will happen if I went into a Goodwood hair salon, showed them this picture and asked them to give me a “Moose Burger” (although I suspect I’d have a better chance of success if I asked the same question at a Canadian McDonalds).

I’m a rock up and run type runner and had not looked at the route profile beforehand. Even though we had a stiff breeze at our backs for much of the way, I found the going tough for a downhill marathon and there seemed to be an awful lot of uphills about. As we began another uphill battle at the 26 kilometre mark, my frame of mind was cheered up by another runner who announced, “Only two more kilometres until we reach the highest point on the route”.

For a downhill marathon, there were an awful lot of uphills over the first 28 kilometres.

Sure enough, looking at the elevation profile after the race, there are several devilish peaks along the route before reaching Hemel 400m above sea level at the 28 kilometre mark. From these heavenly heights we plummeted back down to earth over the next 14 kilometres (with the odd speed bump thrown in along the way to slow us down).

Some devilish peaks before reaching Hemel 400m above sea level at the 28 kilometre mark.

The good news for fermented fruit juice drinkers is that the ‘true downhill’ section of the route is dominated by wine farms. This is also the actual Hemel and Aarde Valley (from which the race takes its name) but even if you’re not into viticulture, the views over the vineyards are stunning.

Who needs to spend time watching Game of Thrones when you can run through the Place of the Gods?

Whilst sheltering from the cold before for the start, I was greeted by the familiar voice of Greenside Pirate David Case (who featured in the Golden Gate report). It was no surprise that David had also travelled down from the highveld since he is something of a downhill specialist, an absolute master of maximising Newton’s laws of motion and manipulating the earth’s gravitational pull when running marathons. He was with a team of Pirates and told me that he wasn’t worried about the distance but was concerned about the distracting temptation of passing so many wine farms along the route.

A few of the tempting distractions over the last 14 kilometres of the marathon,

In fact, Team Pirates had made sure each crew member carried a piece of paper with “rescue me” mobile numbers on them. David disappeared before I could clarify whether this was so they could provide a collection location to the designated driver or if it was a “If found unconscious or incoherent please call …” type message.

One of the first wineries we passed was closed. I wondered whether they were late starters or had just been plundered by a marauding crew of Pirates.

One of the first wine farms we past had a “Sorry we’re closed” sign up and I wondered whether they were just late starters or if the marauding Pirates Team had already polished off all the tasting wine. However, most of the other farms looked like they were open for business (and on checking the results all the Pirates seemed to finish in pretty good times).

If you do drink like a fish and want to up your game and drink like a whale then Southern Right Wine Estate is a must visit (funnily enough, we served their Sauvignon Blanc at our wedding and this went down rather well with my in-laws). Hermanus is one of the best whale spotting locations in the world with the Southern Right* being the most prolific whale sighted from her shores.

* Since the last race report I did covered Bielie Mielies in the Free State, it’s highly appropriate to point out that the distinguishing characteristic of the Southern Right Whale is a four metre long penis and the biggest testicles in the animal kingdom (weighing in at one ton and producing a gallon of sperm in a single shot). 

If you want to upgrade from drinking like a fish to drinking like a whale, Southern Right is the winery to visit.

I’ve covered several strange sights already but on the behavioural front there we some nuances as well, the primary one being that we were constantly shifted from running on one side or the road to the other and then back again. I assume that this is was for traffic calming but it did result in a massive traffic jam that wouldn’t have been there if we just stuck to one side. Fortunately, the drivers seemed pretty relaxed, although I did feel sorry for the Hearse and accompanying memorial procession that we passed – someone was definitely going to be late for their own funeral.

The bad traffic led to someone being late for their own funeral.

My own run was also prejudiced by the bad traffic. Earlier that morning Vicus van der Merwe had offered to “Rub me up the right way.” I told him, “I bet you say that to all the guys!” but he gave assurances it was just me. As part of his entrepreneurial enterprises, Vicus sells MyO2 recovery gel. I tried some during the Red Hill Marathon where it worked a charm and therefore readily agreed to let Vicus manhandle me. He promised further rub downs along the route but failed to deliver after the gridlock forced him to divert to the finish via Bot River.

Vicus van der Merwe is always ready to give a guy a rub down.

People don’t seem to mind queueing in this part of the world. Although the race organisation was excellent (especially for an inaugural marathon), the one glitch was the registration at the Whale Coast Mall. The race packs arrived 30 minutes late and the number collection process was very slow. However, the upside was that your race pack included some great goodies from the sponsors (a high-quality shirt and water bottle from Asics as well as some THRESHHold products).

Luckily gatherings of 100 people or more was still legal at race registration.

After the tough first 28 kilometres, I was doing some shoegazing over the last third of the marathon when I spotted a small sign saying “Ready to Jump?”. I thought this pretty strange since I could neither see any cliffs (I might have been tempted to jump if there was) nor could I hear any classic Van Halen tunes.

A short while later there was a second sign saying “50 metres to go” and I only cottoned on what was happening when I saw the final sign ordering me to “Jump now”, looked up and spotted the photographer.

Leaping into the leap year (photo credit Martyn Mulder Action Photography).

Since we were running on 29 February, it was very appropriate to leap into leap year. Action photographer Martyn Mulder captured some great shots (the header photo is also Martyn’s) which can be viewed here and you can follow his work on Facebook.

A skilled photographer can make a stuffed marathon runner look good. I wasn’t up for any jumping but did manage a thumbs-up (photo credit Martyn Mulder Action Photography).

The tables along the route were regular and all were well stocked with water, Coke and friendly helpers. There was a nice surprise for the runners four kilometres from the end when ice-lollies were added to the menu.

The ice-lollies at four kilometres to go were a nice touch. The West Coast runner on the right seems to be attacking his water sachet likes he shucking some seriously tasty shellfish.

A lot less nice of a surprise was the final hill which they snuck in just before the finish. I witnessed a lot of floundering on the final stages before the safe harbour of the Whale Haven Winery was reached.

There’s always time for one last hill.

In terms of numbers, entries were capped at 2000, there was a big drop-off with just 1601 starters but just 33 runners beached themselves along the route – with 1568 runners earning a stunning ‘Blue Crane’ medal.

I resisted the urge to soil the 2020 vintage by taking off my shoes and doing some wine pressing.

Normally I dash home straight after a marathon to spend time with the family, so it was a nice change to have my wife waiting for me at the finish line and the kids safely stowed away at Granny’s house in Cape Town. With the marathon complete, we could now relax and spend the rest of the weekend soaking up the sights, savouring the seafood and sipping on the splendid sauce produced by the Hemel and Aarde Valley.

Signing out from the Hemel and Aarde Marathon. Look out for the next report from the 50th edition of the Kimberley’s Diamond Marathon.

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

Header photo credit: Martyn Mulder Action Photography

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