Diamond Marathon (Roughing it amongst the diamonds)

[MARATHON #240 / Unique Marathon #140 / 7 March 2020]

The chance to run a golden jubilee marathon happens once every 50 years. The chance to run the golden jubilee of the Diamond Marathon is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Therefore, when it came to planning my 2020 race schedule, the first race that went down in ink was the Northern Cape’s oldest marathon.

Congratulations to Kimberley Harriers Running Club on your golden jubilee (and thanks for the wonderful hospitality). (Photo from Kimberley Harriers’ Facebook page)

I love running in Kimberley but hate getting there. It’s a five hour Seagate (that’s a hard drive) with plenty of trucks, roadworks and stop-start sections that make progress slow and tedious. Although most of the country was heading into autumn, no one told Kimberley that summer was over. The temperature gauge steadily rose from the mid-20s in Johannesburg to 34°C (93°F) by the time I reached Kimberley late afternoon.

I was fortunate enough to be offered overnight accommodation courtesy of Kimberley Harriers Running Club (who host the Diamond Marathon). As a self-funded runner, this was highly appreciated as was the air conditioner in my room at Bishop’s Lodge.

After a cold shower, I made the short drive to registration and collected my race number from the friendly and efficient club members on duty. I met Race Administrator Ria Janse van Vuuren and asked her, “Is it going to be nice and cool like this tomorrow?” Despite my deadpan face, she picked up the sarcasm in my voice and flat batted me back with, “Yes, exactly the same weather is in store for us tomorrow.”

Quick and efficient registration with plenty of friendly Kimberley Harriers club members on duty.

The race starts and finishes on the St. Patrick’s school cricket field. On the way back to my car I bumped into Ockie from the neighbouring Vodacom Kimberley Running Club. He gestured to the field and asked me, “What to you think the pitch will be doing tomorrow.” I replied, “I’m not sure but I expect it will get slower and slower as the day progresses!”.

Okkie organises the Meerkat Marathon, a very enjoyable race that I had run the previous year, and he had managed to get President Cyril Ramaphosa (then on the campaign trail) to fire the starting gun. With #1 unavailable, Kimberley Harriers managed to secure the Northern Cape premier, Zamani Saul, who was celebrating his birthday that morning. However, the birthday boy let Comrades Marathon General Manager, Keletso Tlhotanyo (in attendance to hand over six special Comrades late entries to qualifying runners at the finish), fire the starting gun.

READ: Meerkat Marathon (The One With A Presidential Sendoff)

A record field of just under 600 runners across the marathon, half and 10k get ready for the 6am start. Bonitas are the race’s title sponsor with Sebata Holding Solutions also providing generous support.

A record field of just under 600 runners across the marathon, half and 10k congregated in front of the school for the 6am start. The marathon route is basically a figure of eight where you do a 21k loop of the south western part of Kimberley, drop off the half marathoners back in the centre of town and then do a second loop covering the north eastern part of the city.

The face you make when you’re faced with 42 hot and dusty kilometres around Kimberley (Photo from Kimberley Harriers’ Facebook page).

The runners made the most of the luke warm conditions before the Griqualand sun rose and turned the oven on. Whilst Kimberley is definitely not the most beautiful of cities or terrains to run around, there is a distinct charm to her marathons that’s difficult to explain without actually running in this old mining town.

There is a distinct charm to running marathons in Kimberley.

Over the first half of the race I got a bit of marathon running déjà vu. It was a case of same time, same place, same face, different race. The Diamond route shares a short section with the Meerkat Marathon and the face was that of Louis Massyn.

It had been a year since I’d had the privilege of running a few kilometres with Oom Louis, who was running “only” his 17th Diamond Marathon (to go with 44 Two Oceans & 47 Comrades finishes – sadly, it looks like he’ll have to wait until 2021 to add to his record tally). During our discussion, Louis neglected to mention that he is a past winner of the Diamond Marathon (1983 in a time of 2h41).

A case of marathon running déjà vu: Same time, same place, same face, different race.

Sports Lawyer, Farai Razano, pulled up alongside me a short while later. Farai is part of a group of runners (most of whom are originally from Zimbabwe) who are on a mission to run 100 marathons before turning 40. Farai has been lagging behind his compatriots after being laid low with a back injury – and, after a year’s abstinence, this was his comeback marathon.

We chatted away covering a diverse range of topics, one of which was me throwing out a bit of Kimberley trivia – namely that Kimberley was the second city in the world to get electric street lighting. The first was Philadelphia. It turns out the Farai has run the Philadelphia Marathon so when he crossed the finish line a few hours later, he probably became the first person in the world to run marathons in the first two cities to have electric lights (a very modest but nevertheless commendable claim to fame that not even Eskom can dim).

Kimberley was the second city in the world to get electric lighting (the first was Philadelphia).

The running community in Kimberley is small but exceptionally friendly – making their marathons feel more like long club runs than races. In Kimberley marathon field sizes do well to hit triple figures. This year Diamond had 152 finishers, in 2019 it was 156 (which is the biggest Northern Cape marathon I have on record in recent years*) but just 50 runners completed the race in 2018.

 * Back in the 1990s, when there were far fewer Northern Cape and Free  State races and the mines would pay the entry fee and bus their employees to race, there were significantly larger fields. However, no Northern Cape marathon has ever broken 300 finishers.

Kimberley Harriers was founded in 1969 by Sarge Ball, George MacCallum and Jimmy Glover as they needed club affiliation to run the Comrades Marathon. Whilst most humans learn walk when they are one years old, Kimberley Harriers celebrated their first birthday with a marathon.

The first edition in 1970 had just 12 finishers – and only because eight Bloemfontein runners were imported to give the 4 local runners some competition. The first winner was founding member Sarge Ball in 2:45:00 (Sarge ran 23 Comrades in the colours of Kimberley Harriers with a personal best of 6:58:00 on the 1980 Down run).

Kimberley Harriers founding member and winner of the first Diamond Marathon, Sarge Ball, during one of his 23 Comrades (photo supplied).

The race also has one of the longest standing men’s records in the country: 2:19:05 set 30 years ago in 1990 by a very young Gert Thys who was running as a junior! Thys went on to have a distinguighed athletics career with a number of international marathon wins, the highlight of which was a 2:06:33* in 1999 at the Tokyo International Marathon (the forerunner to what is now a marathon major).

* Gert Thys is good at setting long standing records. His 1999 2:06:33 is still the South African marathon record (and was the African record when it was originally set).

Local hero, Gert Thys, set the course record of 2:19:05 in 1990 as a junior. The record has never been broken (photo supplied).

The women’s record is 3:07:06 set by Wendy Shaw in 1988 – I would be surprised if there is a bigger difference than 48 minutes (and one second) between the male and female marathon records in the country. I’d also be surprised if there a marathon that’s achieved a 50 year golden jubilee with fewer total finishers (5,213 runners over the race’s history).

Chatting away with Farai, the first half flew past. Just after the half / full marathon split we past the appropriately named Halfway House Hotel with their accompanying ‘The Half’ pub which dates back to 1872. The watering hole has the distinction of having the only licensed “drive-in” bar in the world, the origin of which is Cecil John Rhodes’ insistence on being served beer without dismounting his horse.

Exactly 21 kilometres into the Diamond Marathon you pass the Halfway House Hotel and accompanying The Half pub.

Fortunately, I am not someone who likes to approach life in half measures – but I did have to show great resilience by resisting the temptation to add a few hundred metres to the route by doing a run through of the drive-in service. Instead, choosing to push on and work up a proper thirst with another 21km in the Kimberley heat.

A flat ‘figure of eight’ route around Kimberley but definitely not plane sailing.

The second half continued with a thorough exploration of the city centre. There are many beautiful old historic buildings to break the monotony of urban sprawl.

You run past many beautiful old historic buildings during the city section of the race.

Farai and I were both starting to tire but, since we were both armed with phone cameras, kept our sharp eyes peeled for anything picture worthy – knowing that stopping for a snapshot would allow a brief period of running respite. Farai pointed out a building that was probably a 5 out of 10 on the interest scale but I was happy to oblige a photo stop for a quick rest. After seeing that the name of the church was “Potter’s House”, he tried to up it to a 6 out of 10 mumbling something about “Harry” – and we confirmed it as being worthy of a stop with the chirp that, “I don’t know why they didn’t just call it Gryffindor*?”

Potter’s House Church – I don’t know why they didn’t just call it Gryffindor?

* In my house humour is rigorously scrutinized and swiftly evaluated by my daughters. Anything that does not pass their stringent quality control measures is labelled an ‘uncle joke’, which I understand is an even lower form of wit than a ‘dad joke’. I am pleased to say that the Gryffindor joke is one of the few that has passed the grade.

Whilst the old mining city of Johannesburg is reportedly the largest manmade forest in the world, there are very few large trees (and subsequently very little shade), in the old mining city of Kimberley. Johannesburg trees have recently been decimated by the invasive shot hole borer beetle. Kimberley’s lack of foliage is perfectly understandable when you compare the size of the common shot hole borer to the borer beetles they get in the Northern Cape.

* Indigenous to Southeast Asia, it’s not the holes it drills into the tree that kill them but the fungus the beetle deposits during the process.

If you thought we had a problem with borer beetles in Johannesburg, check out the size of the bugs in Kimberley (insert photo Shot Hole Borer from George Municipality).

Things started getting hotter and Farai and I got a lot quieter. It wasn’t that we had run out of topics of conversation, just that the heat was evaporating the idle chit-chat. During our now stilted dialogue, I mentioned that I Jedi-mind trick my marathons into ten kilometre chunks always getting fresh legs every 10 kilometres – but that I find my legs are the least fresh between 20 and 30 kilometres. Farai replied that he normally has a mental meltdown between 25 and 30 kilometres.

Aided by the sweltering conditions, Farai proved his point by having his meltdown exactly at the 25 kilometre mark telling me to continue as he was going to have a long walk (he actually only finished a few minutes behind me in the end).

If you’re heading towards a meltdown, running these long, flat, straight roads in the Kimberley heat will speed up the process.

The long straight roads formed a shimmering mirage that disappeared into the distance. The only thing flatter than South Africa’s GDP growth are Kimberley Marathon routes – and the only hills in Kimberley are railway line bridges. Whilst we crossed the railway line a few times on the route, the organisers took pity on us and kept things even flatter towards the end of the marathon with a quick trail detour directly over the tracks.

Keeping the route as flat as possible.

This was followed by a short off-road section before we were back on the tarmac next to the mine dumps.

A short trail followed by a long trial alongside a mine dump.

When I was single I always relied on alcohol rather than pick-up lines. I’ll admit that this was never a particularly successful strategy but I did come right in the end. Apparently, the cougarish women in Kimberley are the biggest users of pick-up lines. If you make any comment about “diamonds lying around” within earshot of a ravenous feline, you’re likely to get a return comment along the lines of, “You’re looking at one of Kimberley’s finest diamonds right now!”

However, when picking up diamonds in the rough, one does need to remember that you might pick up more than you bargained for – after all, diamonds are forever.

Whilst the streets might not be paved with diamonds, if you do a trail run over an old mine dump you may well end up with diamonds on the soles of your shoes. As we headed back towards the city, a massive informal settlement was pointed out to me. The residents are all “artisanal diamond miners”, known colloquially as zama-zamas, who eke out a living but sifting through old mine dumps looking for arterial diamonds.

Running past the zama-zamas (or artisan diamond miners) who eke out a living sifting through mine dumps for arterial diamonds.

Rather appropriately, the final few kilometres of Kimberley marathons all tend to include a run past the Honoured Dead Memorial. The memorial commemorates those who died during the Siege of Kimberley (14 October 1899 – 15 February 1900) during the Second Anglo-Boer War. The monument was financed by Cecil John Rhodes, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and features a Rudyard Kipling inscription that was commissioned especially for the memorial.

Watch out runners, the Honoured Dead Memorial is ahead.

The monument also features “Long Cecil”, a canon used by the British, and shells from “Long Tom”, the Boer canon that shot at the British during the siege. The monument is surrounded by schools and I felt sorry for any schoolboys named Cecil or Tom because they would have unrealistic expectations to live up to (which would likely be combined with very unsubtle nicknames).

The Long Cecil canon points the way to the Free State and the finish line whilst shells from Long Tom form the border of the monument.

I’m certainly not fast enough to win a gold medal – so when a marathon celebrates its golden jubilee, the most appropriate method that I can use to toast to their success is with my favourite golden liquid. Unfortunately, the school forbids the sale of alcohol on their grounds but luckily I received an invite to join the Vodacom Kimberley Running Club for a quick beer after the race. An offer which I gratefully accepted (as is often said in Kimberley, “We’re only here for De Beers”).

Were only here for De Beers.

Having completed the Kimberley marathon trilogy of Diamond, Meerkat and Groot Gat, I’m not sure when I’ll next find the excuse to take out the one wood and make the long drive west again. The diamond jubilee of the Diamond Marathon in ten years’ time is a definite must do but I’m not sure I can last until then.

Diamonds might be a girl’s best friend whilst, according to Norman Bates, “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” A dog is supposed to be man’s best friend but I’m more of a cat person myself – so perhaps another Meerkat would be fitting. A probing report is still overdue on the Groot Gat Marathon as I ran it before starting this blog.

Bringing home something more valuable than diamonds – the special 50th edition medal and badge.

However, when your alter ego is The Running Mann, marathons all around the country are without doubt the best way to make new friends and meet up with old ones. You don’t need a fortune teller to tell you that it’s highly likely there’ll be a return to the City that Sparkles in the near future.

Signing out from the Diamond Marathon. Look out for the next report from Welkom’s Anco Ultra.

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

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