[MARATHON #235 / Unique Marathon #135 / 8 December 2019]
Running a marathon in the Vaal Triangle for the views, is like watching a porno for the storyline.
As they say in the classics, “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes”. I’m not one to judge anyone for what they do in the privacy of their own home – and you shouldn’t judge those who choose to run in the Vaal Triangle (not until you’ve run a marathon in their shoes anyway)! And speaking of classics, Debbie might already have done Dallas – but Stuart still needed to strut around Sedibeng.
After the sweltering conditions during the previous weekend’s Riana van Niekerk Run 4 Bibles Marathon, I was pleased to see that the break of dawn unveiled a grey, miserable morning. I managed to park in the furthest possible location from the start but still managed to collect my race number and join 1,300 other runners (728 for the full, 372 in the half and 222 for the 10k) just in time for a 6am send off.
The race starts and finishes at the Vaal Show Grounds in Vereeniging and the dull, grey conditions blended beautifully with the dilapidated, ramshackle buildings as we made our way down the high street. We received some loud but rather incoherent support as a few curious endurance athletes of another kind emerged from their favourite hangouts (most of whom were precariously clutching their ‘one for the road’).
The thumping music from the night clubs (or maybe they call them morning clubs in the Vaal Triangle) died down as we headed north along the R82 towards Duncanville before turning left into Houtkop Road. Soundtracks provide the vital element of ambiance in the movies one chooses to watch. In the Vaal Triangle, the soundtrack of life is doof-doof treffers.
The runners had one side of the road to ourselves but every now and again the doof-doof of runners feet was drowned out by the doof-doof a passing car on the other side of the road, whose owner had spent more on his sound system than the Kardashians spend on collagen.
I saw a sign advertising the “Vaal Teknorama” and was curious as to what this was. A short while later it became clear when a subsequent sign indicated that this was a museum – which I assume is to preserve the musical heritage of their doof-doof beats.
I researched the Vaal Triangle in my race report on the 2018 Vaal River City Marathon writing, “The industrial towns Vereeniging, Vanderbijlpark and Sasolburg make up the Vaal Triangle. My rigorous research could not uncover anything that the towns are famous for but, according to Wikipedia, the Vaal Triangle is “infamous for its air pollution and respiratory disease” and is colloquially known as the ‘Vuil’ (Afrikaans for ‘dirty’) Triangle.” A year later and nothing had changed.
I also found this beautiful quote about life in the Vaal Triangle, from a 2006 Benchmark Foundation study, “There is pollution of surfaces and groundwater with phenols, iron, oil, fluoride and other hazardous substances, causing health problems, such as respiratory problems, skin irritation, kidney failure, blood in their urine, tiredness and lack of concentration.” It appears that if you don’t achieve your goal time during Vaal Triangle marathons, you certainly have a valid excuse.
One of the biggest contributors to the hazardous airspace are the coal fired power stations that characterise the area. However, power struggles in South Africa are different from those in the rest of the world. These days when someone writes BYOB on an invitation it usually means “Bring Your Own Battery”.
Many towns have been renamed in South Africa. It’s probably time that Powerville joined the list, lest we get nostalgic and reminisce on a time when South African citizens and businesses were able to enjoy uninterrupted electricity supply.
I would suggest that Eskom Board Members and Ministers of Mineral Resources & Energy (past and present) are punished with a banishment to the Vaal Triangle and that Powerville is renamed Powervillain in their honour.
One company that does have their head office in the area is the Rand Water Board. They also have what was by far and away the most attractive building along the route.
We passed their impressive offices in the mid-30s and I noted an adjacent building denoting their “Analytical Services” – which might have come in use a few kilometres earlier. Being an inaugural marathon, there were a few logistical issues including the 30 kilometre support table running out of water (rather ironic considering the proximity to Rand Water’s head office).
Water was however available at the other tables but Coke only appeared from the 18 kilometre mark onwards. There were some conspiracy theories bandied about by the runners. 32Gi are one of the race sponsors and I have been told that they hate sugar even more than Greta Thunberg hates plastic straws – so conjecture is that they tried to ensure a sugar-free run.
The half marathoners also got an early Christmas present with a bonus two kilometres added onto their race courtesy of some missing marshals. Other than that, everything was good on the marathon and the organisers seemed to take accountability for the teething issues on social media after the race.
Whether the missing Coca-Cola was the result of sugar-hating saboteurs or not remains unresolved. However, like the Bermuda Triangle, the Vaal Triangle also seems to be responsible for many mysterious disappearances – like these gents on a giant billboard who were missing their shirts (and frantically held onto their moobs*).
* that’s short for man-boobs
My Afrikaans is not great so, without the assistance of Google translate*, I figured that “Rot en Kaal” meant something like “Stripped Naked”. I wondered whether these guys were the talent at the Vaal Triangle’s version of Teasers or if they’d lost the shirt off their backs at whatever passes for adult entertainment in Vanderbijlpark.
* I was subsequently educated on the origins and correct translation of the terminology after the race by Deon Ehlers and Deirdre Hewitson.
Short term insurance to protect one’s assets is big business in the Vaal Triangle. An earlier sight, highlighting the extreme measures that locals have to take to protect their vehicles from car thieves, now made more sense.
I guess when car theft is at an all-time high, you need counter-measures that rise above crime’s clutches. The ingenuity of anti-theft solutions in the Vaal Triangle is unsurpassed (although it looks like the tsotsis still got the tyres).
Some places use smoke and mirrors to market themselves as something they’re not. The Vaal Triangle makes no such pretences – it is just smoke (with no mirrors around for self-reflection).
Inspired by the smoky chimneys of the various factories we past, I observed the curious site of Alberton runner Philip du Plessis* pulling off to the side of the road, digging deep into his running shorts and pulling out a cigarette from a plastic bankie. Like a hyperventilating asthmatic sucking back on his inhaler, he desperately had a few heavy pulls on the cancer stick, fused the smoke from his lungs with that of the surrounding environment and was back on his way again.
* Philip was running on his birthday with the objective of achieving a sub-4:50 Comrades qualifier. He snuck home with a 4:48:33 and told me after the race that he normally has two smoke breaks during a marathon. He is trying to cut back and managed a smoke-free marathon PB a month later at the Johnson Crane Marathon.
One thing is for certain, you can never take anything for granted in the Vaal Triangle. One would normally assume that the sign above is advertising ceiling fittings but it’s more likely that they’re selling frozen mielies!
With little to look at in terms of natural beauty, a set of highway flyover bridges provided the most impressive aesthetic highlight on the long straight road back towards Vereeniging.
Bridges form the cornerstone of décor and design in the region. Since advertising boards get stolen and sold for scrap metal, local businesses have taken to painting the underside of bridges to market their enterprises. An example is below.
However, I was left wondering whether “Rim-N-Trim” was some kind of weird Vanderbijlpark sex act or a legitimate business*. I went with the assumption that this was the Vaal Triangle’s version of “Cut-and-Blow” (also a legitimate business practice at the barbers I frequent). I was later informed that “Rim-N-Trim” have two offerings – “Standard” and “Lip” service (and rely heavily on word of mouth advertising).
* With the directions reading ‘Turn left at KFC’, I did deliberate whether ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ has a completely different meaning in the Vaal Triangle**.
** A sage piece of advice is to avoid eating Nan’doos in the Vaal Triangle. This is similar to the Nando’s: smells like fish, tastes like chicken and is likely to leave you with a burning sensation when you go to the toilet the next morning.
Tyre and automotive parts retailers, without the luxury of a nearby bridge to advertise on, are particularly innovative in this part of the world constructing roadside sculptures featuring their products.
It was a long year of running, this being my 34th and last marathon of 2019, hence the captions to the above photos. Back into Vereeniging and I rued that the shops were still closed and it was too early to ‘regas’. Although anyone who’s had the misfortune of running behind me for any length of time would be thankful.
I like a good pun as much as the next guy and managed to spot one of the finest I’ve ever seen on the home stretch. Not only is ‘bees’ the plural of ‘bee’ but it is also the Afrikaans word for ‘beast’. Since very little English is spoken in Vereeniging (in fact when spoken, the dialect is more accurately described as ‘Vaal Tringlish’) so I read this nursery school’s name as “Little Beasts” – and I am sure that those of you enduring lockdown with young kids would agree.
You definitely need to keep your wits about you when running in the Vaal Triangle. Watching your footing takes on an elevated level of importance at the end of the Sedibeng Marathon. Whilst many marathons slip one nasty final climb into the last kilometre, Vereeniging has no hills so the race organisers resorted to a cruel test with the sign below.
The Sedibeng Marathon clearly favours runners with a forefoot gait strike – as you really need to be on your toes the whole time. One wrong turn and instead of a medal it’s mincemeat – pleased to say that I kept straight thereby avoiding going under the knife! Although, as Simon Hammond notes below, they added an additional “B” to the traditional spelling of “Abattoir” so perhaps torture by Abba karaoke awaited those who turned right.
Fortunately, my re-entry into the Vaal Show Grounds wasn’t delayed by frisking for guns and knives (see cover photo). The route looped us around the perimeter of the grounds before turning right towards the motor racing track. I revved up my engine and was eager to put my lap-speed to the test, when suddenly I had to apply the brakes to take a photo of the sign below.
I am fully aware that efficient pit stops can make or break your goal time (especially since I once ran a sub-3 hour marathon on a 3-stop strategy).
However, especially in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, I’d suggest adding to their rules:
4. Please Flush &
5. Wash Your Hands
And having smelt some pretty bad odours at race toilets over the years, I was rather perturbed about rule #2.
I hit the race track and sped towards the checked flag. Regardless of what type of movies you like to watch and what type of races you like to run, the climax is always the most important part. Everyone loves a happy ending and I got mine from the guys at Meyerton Athletic Club who were awaiting my arrival with a cold quart of Lion Lager. If I ever did a circuit race on the Vaal Race Track I’d definitely get Meyerton Athletics Club to handle my refueling stops!
As the credits rolled on a great year of marathon running comprising 26 standard and 8 ultras, my legs looked forward to six weeks of school holidays before the 2020 marathon season opened.