Kaapsehoop Marathon (The Sub-3 Quest)

[Marathon #78 / 8 November 2008]

Anyone who has ever had the (mis)fortune of running with me for any period of time will know that my primary running goal has always been to run a sub-3 hour marathon on an unassisted course. With my biological clock ticking away – the baby is due on 1 January, which I understand will result in some drastic lifestyle changes – there was a certain sense of urgency in achieving this goal before the year was out.

Picking a fast marathon towards the end of the year is quite challenging, as most of the “easy courses” are packed into the first four months of the year to entice Two Oceans and Comrades participants to use them as seeding qualifiers. Although there are some great marathons in the second half of the year, there are very few that scream out “PB,” so I would really have preferred to find an unassisted, circular course, but it turned out that the only option was a point-to-point downhill flyer in the form of the Kaapsehoop Marathon.

The Kaapsehoop Marathon is very much a downhill race, but there are still a few challenging uphills.

Getting ahead of myself, I was worried that I would feel slightly uncomfortable and embarrassed bragging about a sub-3 hour marathon on such a soft option, although I consoled myself that it would still be a lot more credible than people who call themselves “the beer bus” and drink Millers Lite! (They know who they are.)

Sounds Easy Enough…

And so, for marathon #78, the equation was really quite straightforward: To come within 56 minutes of Haile Gebrsellasie’s (then) marathon world record 2:03:59. (For the mathematically challenged, 2:03:59 + 0:56:00 = 2:59:59.) This would require running at an average pace of 4:16 per kilometre for 42.2km.

The hard part of attempting a sub-3 marathon is the training. In my opinion there are four facets of training, none of which can be neglected:

  1. Endurance: Easily enough achieved by running between 100km and 120km per week for several weeks.
  2. Speed: Easily enough achieved by a healthy diet of 8km time trials every Tuesday and hill repeats every Thursday.
  3. Mental toughness: This is a far harder discipline to prepare for, because what could possibly prepare one for three hours of pain, anguish and mental torture? (For anyone wanting to see how hard they can push this aspect, I would recommend a Fourways Road Runners bus trip back from Loskop after some members have had a few too many bottles of loudmouth soup.)
  4. Find yourself an ideal running partner: This might seem like a simple task, but many have fallen by the wayside. The qualities that one needs to look for in a running partner are numerous, but the most important include being of the same or (preferably) slightly better running ability, being mildly psychotic about their training, and having a propensity to drink a large volumes of beer. I was very fortunate to have Kirsten at my side (actually, normally just ahead of me) to share the journey.

Sidenote: If you thought that the name Kirsten was in the exclusive domain of the fairer sex, it is time to rectify that misconception. God only knows why someone would name their son Kirsten, but perhaps they did not like the name Sue, and/or were hoping that Johnny Cash would write a song about him. I have questioned Kirsten about the origins of his name, but he could only provide some very cursory information that he had obtained from his parents, along the lines that they decided on the name “whilst in Wales.” (If the name was indeed decided on “whilst in Wales,” I reckon Jonah would have been more appropriate.) It should also be pointed out that, although by no means effeminate, Kirsten does have less body hair than the average female, and recently caused some confusion at Mont Aux Sources after being listed as the “first female finisher.”

One has to dig deep to run a sub-3 marathon.

Lowveld Attraction

Having picked Kaapsehoop, further investigation into the course was necessary to ensure we knew what we were in for. This is probably best described as a ‘Paris Hilton marathon,’ because it is cheap (only R50 gets you in), easy (it goes down a lot, about 950m) and you will probably require a trip to the doctor the next morning. However, no metaphor is perfect, as only 200 people enter the marathon each year. (These days that entry figure is closer to 4800, with a further 3000 in the half marathon and 10km races. – Ed.)

The race is point-to-point between Kaapsehoop and Nelspruit, with loops at the start and in the middle to make up the marathon distance.

After checking into our B&B in Nelspruit and registering for the marathon on Friday afternoon, we decided to drive the route. The race is essentially a point-to-point between the little village of Kaapsehoop and the ‘metropolis’ of Nelspruit, but as the road distance is only about 28km they throw in a couple of loops to make up the difference. Although there was definitely a lot of downhill, we were rather perturbed to find that they had snuck in a few uphill sections, particularly in the last half.

With the race route driven, the only task remaining on race day minus one was to find an Italian restaurant to complete the carbo-loading. This proved a lot more difficult than expected, as it turns out there is only one Italian restaurant in the whole of Nelspruit, and it is stuck away in a hard to find outskirt. The rather cryptic directions from our hosts at the B&B didn’t help either. (How we struggled before GPS!)

The evening allowed some time for reflection on my two previous attempts at a sub-3 marathon. The first was in March 2006 at the Tarentaal Marathon in Naboomspruit, where I finished 26 seconds the wrong side of three hours. My excuse was that I had no-one to pace me, but I still finished fourth (and was the first ‘genetically disadvantaged’ runner across the line). I was also going for a PB rather than sub-3 that day, and the last 8km were the fastest I ran in the race when I realised I could get close.

The second was in January this year (2008), when I had my ‘Britney Spears run’ in Warner Robins, Georgia, USA… Life was fantastic until I hit the mid-20s, after which everything imploded and life went horribly pear-shaped. My excuse this time was an 18-hour flight the previous day, combined with sub-zero race day temperatures, as well as a howling wind and driving rain. So hopefully it would be third time lucky…

Nervous Tension

Some days you wake up and realise that it’s not going to be your day, so waking up with a sinus headache had me worried. On the positive side, the weather was fantastic for racing – cloud cover and mist with just a light drizzle. Having expected temperatures to rise quickly into the 30s, this was a real blessing.

Getting ready to go on a misty morning in Kaapsehoop.

Bus transport is organised for the runners and our trip to the start was made a little more interesting as the window next to us steadily disintegrated, spraying shards of glass everywhere. There was plenty of chatter and banter amongst most of the passengers, but Kirsten and I were largely silent, focussing on the task ahead. Behind us were a small herd of stallions from the Mr Price stable, who were talking about their 2:20 marathon plans – enough to unnerve anyone. We arrived at the Koek ’n Pan Pancake Den in the village of Kaapsehoop, which marked the start. Tea and coffee were on hand, but there was no time for beverages after awaiting my turn in the portaloo queue. The visit to the blue throne room proved uneventful, as I was unable to get rid of my pre-race nerves, and would thus be carrying some excess baggage on the journey back to Nelspruit.

Kirsten and I met up with Sunninghill Tiaan and Randburg Jaco before the start – all of us were hoping for our maiden sub-3 hour marathons. We set off together on a short, uneven dirt road stretch before hitting the tar and turning left onto a 3km uphill stretch towards Ngodwana. Although we were running at goal pace, I was feeling very sluggish and the first few kilometres felt far from easy, but I thought perhaps that was just a bit of nervous tension.

After 3km, we turned around and headed back towards Nelspruit. Knowing that there was a good 17km of downhill ahead, we settled into a relaxed rhythm and there was plenty of idle banter in our bus of four, which calmed any remaining nerves. Life was great as we went through 10km in 42 minutes, exactly according to plan.

Life was great in the first 10 kilometres.

Emergency Stops

Unfortunately, I am a man with a sensitive disposition, and my biggest worry for the race was that problems in the ‘engine room’ would stand in the way of achieving that 3-hour goal. In spite of a breakfast consisting predominantly of large white Imodium Plus tablets, my worst fears were realised when I needed to disappear into the bushes at about 12km. At this stage, I was not too worried, because I had built my race plan around a one-stop strategy, but the major frustration was that I knew I would not be able to catch up to our bus again, and would have to fly solo.

I felt a lot better after ‘unleashing the hounds,’ but just 4km further along the road, disaster struck as the hibernating bear began to stir once more – and it was back into the bushes again. This was a lot more worrying, because the top half of my body was starting to feel quite weak, I was now well behind goal pace, and the day was rapidly turning into the ‘Kaapsepoop’ Marathon.

The Kaapsehoop dung beetle community will forever fondly remember the weekend of 8 November 2008.

Careful not to try to make up time too quickly, I set off again and ran four-minute kilometre splits until the 19km mark, which heralded the second dog-leg loop – this time on an evil, undulating off-road section. After all that downhill, running slightly uphill on the dirt felt terrible and my legs seemed to grind to halt. The halfway point was reached in 91 minutes – and with it the realisation that I would have to run a negative split on the more challenging second half of the course. I was not enjoying the off-road and knew that there was still some way to the turnaround as Kirsten, Jaco and Tiaan (in that order) flew back past me, heading towards the safety of the tar. I feared that I would be the only one of the four not to break three hours.

Kirsten, heading back to the safety of the tar.

The situation became more dire as I lost a further minute off goal pace on the next two kilometres climbing up to the dirt track loop’s turnaround. The realisation was dawning that I was going to have to do some serious running if I was going to get anywhere close to that three-hour mark, but all I could manage for those two kays was 4:15s.

Going Off Script

Any remaining hopes of a sub-3 were dashed when I suddenly had to make my third visit to the bushes. I really hoped that this would be the last time I had to pull off, as my steady supply of ‘white gold’ – never leave home without it! – was now depleted. I work on trying to make these stops as brief as possible, and this final pit-stop would have put the Ferrari Formula 1 team to shame. Such was the speed with which I stormed through the shrubbery, that I managed to lacerate my legs on the thorny foliage in the quest for some privacy!

These impressive looking scratches saved some vital seconds.

Cleary, my body has now built up an immunity to Imodium, and I remember thinking I am going to need to find something stronger for future races. In my desperation, I also remember thinking that as SAB produces Carling Black Label in a ‘man-sized can,’ it was high time that Imodium starts producing the ‘Mann-sized tablet!’

As I hit the tar again, matters were made worse when I had to stop and retie a shoelace. It now all boiled down to running 16km with 64 minutes left – or exactly four minutes per kilometre. In my favour was that my legs were still feeling strong, there was still plenty of downhill running to do, and that I was several kilograms lighter than when I started the race! The problem was going to be maintaining the pace on the several pulls that they had snuck into the last part of the course… not to mention that I had to run the fastest 16km of my life.

Stubbornness or Willpower?

I started with a kilometre at just under four minutes, but the subsequent one was the toughest on the course, a solid kilometre of climbing completed in 4:30, and seemingly removing any last hopes of still sneaking in under three hours. Yet somehow, I managed to keep myself motivated and work the legs as hard as I could.

To be honest, I don’t remember too much of the next kilometres, other than that I was able to run the easier kilometres at just under 4min/km and the harder ones at just over 4min/km, but I was never confident of coming in under three hours. It was also some time during this period that I made a pact with God that, should I break three hours, Kathy would be the recipient of massages every day for the rest of the year. (It might seem slightly frivolous, but that was the best I could come up with at the time!)

With about 4km to go, it was bittersweet to go past Randburg Jaco. It is always nice to finish ahead of one’s compatriots, but I knew that anyone I passed was definitely not going to make three hours, because I was probably not going to get there myself. (Jaco eventually finished in 3:02, knocking a massive 30 minutes off his PB!)

I hit the 3km to go mark with just over 12 minutes left and then managed to run my fastest kilometre of the day (3:40) on a very easy downhill stretch, and suddenly I had the ‘luxury’ of being able to run at 4:15/km to achieve my goal. Another good kilometre followed, and now, with 1km to go, I realised for the first time that I could make it… provided that the board markers were correct, which thankfully they were. Not even the short, sharp heartbreak hill just before finish could halt my charge for the line.

Sweet Taste of Victory

Crossing the line in 2:59:24 was a fantastic feeling, and it was also great to have the ‘Old Mann’ at the finish line to watch me come in. That was definitely one of the contributing factors in keeping me focussed during the last 16km, knowing that this veteran of several sub-3s was hoping his son would be joining the club. By the time I came in, Kirsten had already cooled down, having blasted a magnificent 2:52, while Sunninghill Tiaan also achieved his goal, finishing in 2:57.

Sneaking in under three hours was truly a great feeling.

Making the most of being on the doorstep of the Kruger, I had organised a walking safari with my dad and his partner after the marathon – which is somewhat ironic, considering the amount of time I had already spent in the bush. According to Garmin, I was completely stationary for over five minutes! I can also report back that the safari part was nice, but the walking wasn’t… my legs were completely shattered from the downhill. On that, after the race I was offered some Myprodols to ease the post-marathon stiffness, but I politely declined… because I wanted to feel exactly how much it hurt to break three hours!

On the doorstep of the Kruger, the race provides an excellent excuse for a post-marathon bush holiday.

[Note: This article originally appeared as my monthly column in Modern Athlete Magazine.]

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5 Replies to “Kaapsehoop Marathon (The Sub-3 Quest)”

  1. I am about to challenge myself, today is the 5th of October 2023, exactly 29 days before my 42.2km Kaapsehoop, I am already anxious, when I think of this event, my body overheats already. I am not so worried to finish this race but more worried if I will make it at the starting point of SOWETO the next day, another 42km. Downhill Kaapsehoop is not for girls and I already feel sorry for my knees, will I make it or what? Shoo

    Closer to time, even my wife is beginning to lose hope in me, my club members, even worse

  2. Thanks for the great write-up Stuart. I’m doing my first Kaapsehoop and needed something more detailed than the really scary red route map on the registration page. An entertaining read and I’m now more convinced I need to squeeze in more strength training and hill-repeats.

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