[MARATHON #230 / Unique Marathon #131 / 2 November 2019]
Where were you when the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup for the third time?
In an ethnic hair salon in Stutterheim is my unlikely reply.
How I got there was a result of bad planning and incredibly low expectations.
South Africa has three marathons on the first weekend of November – Soweto, Kaapsehoop and Bonkolo. Soweto and Kaapsehoop are two of the biggest marathons in South Africa whereas Bonkolo, with just 120 runners, is definitely the acutest angle on this running triangle.
However, since Bonkolo was the only marathon I hadn’t yet run on this weekend, I found myself on the jam-packed plane on a Friday afternoon headed for East London. It’s a two hour drive from the airport to Komani (formerly known as Queenstown) which meant that I arrived after dark, collected my race number at the Queenstown Harriers clubhouse and got a quick bite to eat before calling it a night. With a 5:30am start and the face that I was blessed with, I needed all the beauty sleep I could get.
The Bonkolo Marathon comprises two long out-and-back sections with a few loops thrown into the middle portion of the race, over a course that explores Komani and the surrounding countryside. The race takes its name from the Bonkolo Dam* that features as the start and finish of the race.
* Both the dam (and race) changed their name from Bongolo to Bonkolo a few years ago. The source of the dam is the Komani river but the source of the name itself remains unclear. According to Wikipedia (the only source I could find on the name’s origin), ‘Incidentally the origin of the name Bongola has caused some controversy, but it is believed by some to have been derived from the Xhosa language word mbongolo meaning donkey, as these animals were extensively used in the construction of the dam.’
Aside: Dam Fine Facts by Jan Brink
Jan Brink is an Independent Dam (and Dam Safety) Engineer who tweets about dams, water, environment and sometimes running. He runs for the Kapoen (Outeniqua Harriers) and we met for a beer after the Outeniqua Marathon (a definite bucket list marathon). I now frequently tap into his knowledge whenever there is a dam involved in a marathon (which is a surprisingly frequent occurrence). You can follow Jan on Twitter here.
According to Jan, “The Bongola Dam was completed in 1908, the wall was raised in 1935 and is now 21 m high. It is a gravity-arch dam, meaning that it relies on both its own mass and thrusting against the valley flanks to remain stable under the water pressure. The dam does have an interesting and rare syphon spillway. The syphon consists of a series of square concrete pipes or tunnels over the crest of the dam. When the water rises to a designed level, the spillway “primes” and start sucking water over the crest. This increases the spillway capacity, so a high capacity spillway can be fitted on the relatively short dam crest in the narrow valley. It must be some sight to see the syphon sections priming. The only other significant dam in SA that had a syphon that I am aware of is Shongweni in KZN (but the syphons were removed in the 90s) and the Swartrivier Dam in George (which is no longer used).”
Although the morning was cool, the forecast was for a swelteringly hot day ahead. I followed the sound of music to the startline. My just in time arrival meant that the music had stopped and the announcer was going through race logistics by the time I joined my fellow marathon runners.
I might have got the wrong end of the periodic table but it appears that they love their heavy metal in Komani. Whilst most cars are made from steel, they proudly showed off this “Lead” car at the start of the Bonkolo Marathon – I wonder what fuel efficiency is like?
The marathon begins with a 12 kilometre out-and-back warmup heading north. The first two kilometres are flat along the tarred R392, after which there are four kilometres of gentle climbing along a dirt service road. I particularly enjoyed the views of the exquisite Eastern Cape countryside along this section.
The return to the Bonkolo Dam provided the first proper look at this landmark* in the daylight. This part of the Eastern Cape has been ravaged by drought and the dam is currently little more than a puddle of mud (not enough room to swing a catfish in).
* Can you call a body of water a landmark?
The next four kilometres are probably the easiest of the day as you drop down into Komani – however, one’s enjoyment is tempered with the knowledge that your return trip to the dam is going to involve some nasty climbing.
More dirt road running follows before taking a quick detour around the Berry Reservoir (a popular local picnic spot), after which the route snakes you through Komani’s northern suburbs and past the impressive grounds of several prestigious schools.
I had been warned that there was a vicious off-road section during the mid-20s – and I can confirm that this next segment fully met expectations.
Anything with “Hill” in the title triggers an alert response in the sympathetic nervous system of the discerning runner. When it is “Longhill” followed by “Game Reserve” the result is a complete amygdala overload! Of course this was my favourite part of the Bonkolo Marathon.
Longhill Game Reserve certainly lives up to its name: Four kilometres of strenuous climbing on an unforgiving gravel track that is only accessible by 4×4 vehicles (and hardy runners). The view over Komani from the top is truly spectacular and well worth the calories burnt to get there.
I didn’t spot any animals in the game reserve but birdlife was prolific – and there was an ambulance lurking like a vulture as we exited the nature reserve.
The support tables were plentiful and must have averaged one every two kilometres. The motor industry is a cornerstone of the local economy and just about every make of car was represented along the route. Every single support table had a braai going except for one. The exception was the Ford table who were parked just as the dirt transitioned to tar as we headed back into Komani. Presumably they were waiting for one of their Kugas to spontaneously combust before bringing out the meat.
The lowest point of the route is reached at the 35 kilometre mark – and it’s all hard work from there to the finish. By this stage the temperature was into the 30s and the long, slow poison climb back towards the Bonkolo Dam took its toll on the runners.
The worst of the climbing is reserved for the penultimate kilometre – 50 metres of elevation gain over one very long kilometre as the dam finally comes into view again. The tough finish was made even tougher but one local runner who decided to really sweat it out by wearing the long sleeved “Twizza” race shirt.
By this stage, we were about an hour before kick-off and the Rugby World Cup pre-match build up was as elevated as the route profile. However, I couldn’t resist taking a quick breather at the final table (organised by 3% dot com properties), where I received some roadside assistance from the helpers. I was given the choice of having my Coke “skoon” (clean) or “vuil” (dirty) – and went with the “Vuil with brandewyn” option.
With renewed fire in my belly, I slogged out the final kilometre and was very happy to enter the grounds of the Queenstown Power and Yacht Club.
As if running a marathon wasn’t painful enough, Eastern Cape races have a habit of offering free post-race pain fests (aka rub down massages). The lady on the left in the below photo is telling her fellow torturers, “Push harder – I still can’t see any tears!”
I really enjoyed this marathon – it’s definitely one worth travelling to and highly recommended for running snobs who want to avoid the Soweto and Kaapsehoop mobs in future years. I also loved the balance between traditional tar and dusty dirt road running – even though I ate a lot more dust than I dished up.
As for how I ended up in ethnic hair salon in Stutterheim…
My planning for the marathon was centred around maximising family time for the rest of the weekend. Therefore, my calculations were primarily based on the time I needed to complete the race as well as the two hour drive back to East London in order to catch a flight back to Johannesburg. Call me a realist but not for a minute did I consider that that South Africa would be competing for the William Webb-Ellis trophy that same Saturday.
I was in desperate need of a shower after enduring the Queenstown heat and dust. As a considerate human, I did not want to inflict my post marathon scent on fellow passengers (besides which I probably would have lost the deposit on my rental car if I transferred two hours of post-marathon BO into their cloth seats). Therefore, I returned to my B&B for a polish. I did my bit for the water shortage by having a super quick wash, emerging from the bathroom as the national anthems were playing.
My calculations were that I could watch one half of the rugby and, assuming a smooth drive to East London, could still make it in time for my flight. Since I was naked and the rugby was about to start, I decided on watching the first half. I maximised efficiency by packing the car during injury breaks and, with an impressive post-marathon sprint, was in the car before the last blast of the half-time faded away.
‘Watching’ rugby on the radio is a nerve-wracking experience and I found the speedometer rising and falling in line with the tempo of the game. My timing was pretty tight to make the flight which further heightened the tension. However, the two quick tries from Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe put me into a far more relaxed frame of mind and, as I approached the town of Stutterheim, figured I could watch the last couple of minutes of the match and still just about make it to the airport in time.
I pulled into a free parking spot on the main road and headed for a bustling shop which happened to be an ethnic hair salon (as I correctly reasoned that the large crowd of people were attracted by a television set showing the rugby). I couldn’t see much but I did hear the final whistle blow. My post-marathon legs were still good enough for a short trot back to the car and I made it to the airport just in time for my flight. The flight ended up being delayed, so in the end I had time to properly get into the spirit of the day with a couple of beers whilst watching the match highlights.