Cape Town Marathon (Give trees a chance)


The Sanlam Cape Town Marathon recently announced that they are on the inside lane to become the first Abbott World Marathon Major in the southern hemisphere. I thought I’d take a ‘pictorial’ look back at the two Cape Town Marathons I’ve completed in 2017 and 2019, with a heavy focus on the later when I ran with a tree on my back as part of a moving forest.

Two’s company, tree’s a crowd – and any more than that’s a forest!

I met Siyabulela Sokomani during the 2017 Soweto Marathon when I saw the odd sight of a bloke running a marathon with a tree strapped to his back. His mission in life is to green the townships and create food and employment via urban farming. The seed was planted, we kept in contact after the race and when he asked if I’d run with the moving forest at Cape Town 2019 I jumped* at the chance to run with the ultimate branch manager.

* I tried to think of a really good tree-related pun to include here but was completely stumped.

There is very little shade during the Soweto Marathon – that’s how I struck up a conversation with the #TownshipFarmer. I remember being inspired by guy running with a tree on his back who would then dig a hole and plant it at the end of the race!

The route is very flat to meet the IAAF’s requirements (the event is the only Gold-label marathon in Africa). Flat routes are often boring but the spectacular backdrop of Cape Town’s iconic mountains offsets the lack of gradient tedium. 

Always good to get a bit of Lion’s Head.

They say that if you think the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach you’re aiming too high. But if you do need a new heart you can pop into Groote Schuur Hospital early on during the race – where Doctor Chris Barnard performed the first successful human heart transplant 3 December 1967.

Check your heart rate as you run past Groote Schuur Hospital.

The race does however make sure your stomach is well taken care of at the feeding stations. A marathon running myth is that you lose weight running a marathon – not if Woolworths has anything to do with it. I spent about five minutes stuffing my face with Woolies’ finest at this table. I needed to run another marathon the following weekend to work off all the extra calories.

Taking stock: I end up heavier at the end of this marathon largely because of the Woolies support table.

The organisers do their best to cater for all tastes and diets – a difficult task considering the fickle nature of the typical Cape culinary connoisseur – which includes having Coke Zero for Banting athletes.

Close but no sugar: The race caters to the fickle taste buds of the typical Cape culinary connoisseur with Coke Zero for the Banting athletes.

Although I’ve lived in Joburg more than half my life now, I still consider myself a Cape Townian living in Johannesburg. My heart belongs in Rondebosch and I always love running through the suburb which is home to the best boys’ school in the country, Rondebosch Boys’ High School, as well as many great girls’ and coed schools like Rustenburg, Westerford & Bishops (if we moved back to Cape Town I’d definitely send my daughters to Bishops).

Heading through Rondebosch – home of the best boys’ school in the country.

The organisers offer plenty of innovation like the complementary sunblock stations along the route and at the finish courtesy of CANSA (The Cancer Association of South Africa). Fortunately, I didn’t need much as the Wild Olive on my back provided ample shade. Beating cancer is a battle I hope I never have to face, but I did manage to beat 4503 runners and 5069 runners beat me – the most finishers in any standard marathon in South Africa in 2019.

For those without shade on their backs there’s free sunblock on the course.

If you get tired of looking at Cape Town’s impressive scenery there are sure to be some interesting runners like the #ReadingRunner, Advocate Marukgwane, to grab your attention. During our chat he complained he’d only read 12 pages of “The Longest March*” as the course was too fast and flat for good reading. He does most of his reading on the uphills – so hopefully he got a chapter or two done on the nasty climb up Strand Street towards the end of the race. Very sadly Advocate Marukgwane lost his battle with cancer earlier this year.

* The Longest March by Fred Khumalo is the story about 7,000 Zulus who walked from the Johannesburg gold mines back to Natal 120 years ago. 

A face and a sight that will be sorely missed on the roads. RIP Advocate Maru – the #ReadingRunner.

There are a few “good reading” hills on your return into the city centre. As you can see there were plenty of hunched backs trundling up Strand Street to the Bree Street turn, although Siya (on the left) and his sapling are unbendable!

You can bend us but you can never break us. As steep as it gets during the Cape Town Marathon. Setting the pace for the forest was Cindy Nkomo (Acting Boxing SA CEO).

One of the great novelties of the race is running past the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon start line in daylight (and with slightly less crowds) before turning onto Campground Road past my childhood home and Newlands Cricket Ground.

Newlands: the home of cricket and the start of the Two Oceans Marathon.

I watched many great international games at the cricket ground and it was great to see so many foreign runners at Cape Town Marathon. From a distance I thought these shirts below said, “Incontinent Greek Marathon Runner” and assumed that “Piperis Ssioutis” was a mysterious disease of the bowels (causing long bouts of the trots). However, once I got closer I realised it actually said “5 Continents” (and I’ve been assured by a Cypriot friend that Piperis Ssioutis is non-contagious).

There are many international participants – fortunately these two were in continent and not incontinent.

On that note, the biggest risk when running a marathon with a tree on your back is accidentally soiling yourself. Fortunately I didn’t have to disappear into the bushes. Second to “Run Forest Run”, “Nice woody” was the most common chirp from the numerous spectators along the route (my standard reply was, “That’s nothing, you should see my bush!” although no one took me up on this – and a few people recoiled at the offer).

Plenty of people tried to show off their woodies but we did it best; The supporters were impressed with our girth and stamina!

If you’re wondering what happens to the trees once the race is done, Township Farmers plant them at Abaphumeleli Place of Safety in Khayelitsha (which ensures a good upper body workout after spending all day on your feet).

A man with a plant: The ultimate branch manager, Siya Sokomani, plants another tree after the race to help green Khayelitsha.

It’s always a great day out at Africa’s major – the Cape Town Marathon. Running with the #MovingForest made this one of the most fun and memorable marathons I’ve done. It’s much better to run with a tree on your back than a chip on your shoulder! 

Tree Hugging after the race: Better a tree on your back than a chip on your shoulder. Thanks to 2018 South African Marathon Champ, Nolene Conrad, for the photo.

Of course no marathon is complete without a beer at the end (for me anyway). I was fortunate enough to get invited to the hospitality tent and rub shoulders with the organisers and running elite. It was great to have a quick chat to race chairman Francois Pienaar and point out that he has more Rugby World Cups wins than marathons completed (perhaps a 2022 #CaptainsChallenge?).

Which chalice wears Francois Pienaar’s grip best? Mandela & Pienaar #RWC95 or Mann & Pienaar #CTMarathon2019?

If you do have any unfinished business in Cape Town, I hope to see you on 16 October but, failing that, entries for the 2022 event are already open – you can enter here

Unfinished business at Cape Town Marathon. See you this year, next year or some time in the future.

Final Thought: If you’re wondering what running a marathon with a tree strapped to your back is like, I can tell it’s really not that bad – I guess you could say that the bark is far worse than the bite.

Siya later: Signing out from the Cape Town Marathon. See you there on 16 October 2021 (or 2022).

Siyabulela Sokomani’s Biography

Siyabulela Sokomani is an environmentalist and green entrepreneur who has worked in the horticultural industry for more than 17 years. He founded Nguni Nursery, a plant production nursery in Cape Town, South Africa. The nursery produces high-quality plants and tree saplings and makes them accessible and affordable to organizations that work on land restoration and greening projects and to the horticultural industry as a whole.

He is passionate about growing trees and plants in large volumes to help scale up Africa’s restoration goals. Siyabulela is also a co-founder of Township Farmers SA, a community organization that creates small-scale organic farms and environmental awareness in disadvantaged areas. Township Farmers’ Running Tree Campaign holds marathons in which volunteers run with trees strapped to their backs to raise awareness about environmental and climate change issues.

Siyabulela is one of five youth ambassadors with the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, a partnership among 20 African governments to restore degraded forests, farms, and grasslands. After completing the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, Siyabulela plans to further focus on restoring degraded lands and to offer jobs and green entrepreneurial opportunities to those in his community. 

You can follow Siyabulela on Twitter and Instagram as well as Township Farmers on Twitter and Instagram.

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