(The runt of the litter at) The Wolfpack Warriors Marathon

[MARATHON #242 / Unique Marathon #142 / 18 September 2021]

“Good. A few kilograms too good.”

That’s been my standard response this year when asked the question, “How are you doing?”

I started off lockdown well, initially running over 1,000 kilometres in my driveway but the pandemic slowly ground me down – and the lack of events steadily curtailed my weekly distance until I was running just enough to earn my free Vitality coffee each week.

The term “won by a nose” is used to indicate a very close finish. Despite the fact that I have a rather prominent nose, in the unlikely event of a sprint finish, I am more likely to win by a belly than a nose as my stomach has steadily established itself as the most prominent part of my physique.

I was on the verge of trawling the dark web to see if I could find an Ab-Blaster when Tracey van der Dool (the brains behind the Magoeba Plunge Marathon) sent me a message that she was in the final stages of launching a new marathon in Tzaneen – provisionally scheduled for the end of September.

This was the catalyst I needed. I had exactly seven weeks to get myself marathon fit. I went out for “long run” later that day. Long runs are relative – and this long run was exactly 10.1 kilometres. However, this was significantly longer than any single run I’d done over the preceding months. That night I slept over 10 hours.

Clearly, I didn’t have enough time to get marathon fit but knew I could do just enough to survive the distance. A week later, I got an elated message from Tracey that everything was confirmed but the marathon had been brought forward two weeks to the middle of September. I knew I was in serous trouble. There was no way that I was going to even be remotely marathon fit by then but there was even less chance that I was going to miss the first authentic return to marathon running!

My training plan was a steady pattern of three consecutive days of running followed by a much-needed rest day and I managed to increase my longest long run distance to 10.5 kilometres. In a further effort to lose some weight I only drank lite beer on my rest days. I kept up this regime until the last week when I went back to my “lockdown taper” program of two 5 kilometre runs and was all set.

Somewhat ironically, I had said a Covid induced goodbye to marathon running in Welkom 552 days previously.

After 552 days between marathons, I arrived in Tzaneen feeling like a rookie runner. As such, I took additional precautions like only having a “Mild” instead of “Hot” Nando’s Burger as my pre-race meal.  As a self-professed marathon running addict, I looked forward to falling off the wagon and finally clocking up finish number 242. However, I did pray that in this age when all we hold to be sacred is continually being debunked by social media researchers, that “muscle memory” was not a myth.

I had travelled through with my friend Julian and met up with another distance running connoisseur, Tobie Reyneke, in Tzaneen. As you can see from the photo below, we were clearly very excited about a return to marathon running.

Three excited stooges look forward to a return to marathon running.

Race registration at the impressive Merensky School grounds followed the standard Covid protocols and there were additional temperature (but no sanity) checks on race morning. I caught up with an excited Tracey at the start. In five short weeks, she’d taken the “I think it’s time I organised another marathon” idea from conception to delivery – and had managed to enlist the full support and cooperation of the local Limpopo Athletics officials and the local traffic police for the cause.

On race morning, the tardy traffic police graciously allowed the runners ten extra minutes to catch-up with their mates and savour the pre-race vibe. But as soon as they arrived the starting gun fired, and it was back to business as usual. A surprisingly small field of just 40 runners got marathon running in South Africa going again (there were a total of 228 entries across all the distances).

The new normal for marathon running: Temperature (but no sanity) checks at registration and social distancing at the start. But once the gun fires it’s all back to business as usual.

The route starts with a ten kilometre out-and-back along the R36. Once back at the Merensky School, the remaining 32 kilometres are essentially a big loop around the Tzaneen Dam.

An out-an-back 10k followed by a big loop around the Tzaneen Dam.

Tracey had assured me that the route was relatively flat and nothing like the Magoeba Plunge – or the Tzaneen Tuffy (high on the list of toughest marathons I’ve ever run). “Relatively flat” is term that must be heard with caution. In this part of the world, you can rise and fall between the Lowveld and the Highveld during a parkrun. On the 18th of September I found out that the Warriors Wolfpack Marathon was indeed relatively flat compared to the Plunge and the Tuffy – in the same way that Scarlett Johansson is relatively flat when compared with Dolly Parton.

According to locals the Warriors Wolfpack Marathon route is “relatively flat”. This is true for Tzaneen marathons in the same way that Scarlett Johansson is “relatively flat” when compared to Dolly Parton.
Route highlights

Here are some highlights from the route.

If you need to rapidly dispatch anything to the boundary, the cricket themed bathroom at the start will inspire a productive innings.
A picture of the Merensky sky after the initial 10k out-and-back.
Hippos and cyclists are two of the biggest hazards on the Limpopo roads. There’s no swimming allowed but traditional wisdom says that if you did take on a Hippo in a triathlon, your best bet would be in the bike leg.
It might have been harvest time in Tzaneen but, with a longest run of 10.5km in the last year, I entered the Warriors Wolfpack Marathon severely under ripe.
The majority of the marathon was around the Tzaneen Dam but the only fishing I saw was at the water tables. [For future reference, the right lure to catch this runner is an ice cold beer!]
Plenty of enthusiastic support tables along the route.
The soil in Tzaneen is so fertile that you can even grow tyres. I spotted next season’s harvest – expect to see them on a tractor in a banana plantation later this summer…
The long and lonely road home

With such a small field, there were lots of long, lonely sections. In fact, I saw only one runner the entire second half – 62 year old marathon debutant, Lesiba Letaha, with whom I had a very pleasant but brief conversation before he steamed off into the distance.

Potties runner Lesiba Letaha about to leave me in solitude again.

I am glad to say that muscle memory is in fact a thing (although I did experience mild bouts of dementia over the last ten kilometres). Most people seem to use the “rand per kilometre” metric but I am moving to a “rand a minute” cost plan. On this scale, I achieved fantastic value for money with my R300 entry fee costing slightly (very slightly!) less than a rand a minute (which is much cheaper than MTN’s data charges)!

Some happy runners at the end of the Warriors Wolfpack Marathon. From left to right: Rene Viljoen from the Warriors Academy; race organiser Tracey “The Queen of Tzaneen” van den Dool (who pulled together the first real post-Covid, South African  marathon in under 5 weeks!); yours truly with marathon #242; King Julian Karp with marathon #820 and Tobie Reyneke with marathon #371.

I was concerned about getting my first last placed finish. In the end, I was not quite the runt of the litter at the Wolfpack Marathon – finishing 33rd out of 37 finishers. The four-hour drive back home was done with very stiff legs.

I hope that Tzaneen can act as the catalyst for other race organisers, particularly those in small towns. to get road running back to pre-Covid levels. Personally, I am looking forward to getting myself back in decent shape with my standard marathon-a-week running diet – and a return to being able to run marathons faster than it takes to drive to Tzaneen.

Signing out from the Warriors Wolfpack Marathon.
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