[MARATHON #245 / Unique Marathon #144 / 20 February 2022]
Running marathons is hard but organising them is much harder – and post-Covid events have additional challenges like reduced field sizes, staggered starts and a plethora of government regulations to comply with.
However, the Peninsula Marathon takes compliance one step further. Most marathons give you an actual map or road names and local landmarks to ensure that you make it safely to the start but Peninsula ensures that there was no danger of breaching Covid regulations on the maximum size of outdoor gatherings by only providing a suburb name (rather than a specific location within said suburb) as the race’s starting point.
Lest you doubt the validity of my conspiracy theory, above is a current screen shot from the race site showing the deliberately obscure start venue for the marathon being “Greenpoint*” and the half marathon as “Bergvliet”.
* I made the assumption that this was the suburb of ‘Green Point’ although the organisers missed a trick by not further obfuscating the marathon start by representing it with a simple “•”
Further scrutiny exposes the promise, “Exactly Start locations will be communicated closer to the time”. Anyone looking for proof that time is indeed relative just needs to observe Cape Townians* in action (or should that be ‘inaction’?). Several weeks after the event and the “Exactly Start location” has still not been published.
* As a Cape Townian living in Joburg who is married to a born and bred Vaalie, I can confirm that my wife’s sense of urgency for on-time arrival radically exceeds mine.
As for “Exactly”, I am working under the assumption that this is the colloquial Cape geographic-proximity equivalent to the general South Africa term “Just now” (which for foreigners translates as any point in time from “in the next couple of minutes” to “I’m sure I’ll get to it at some unspecified time in the future”).
Jokes Aside: Organising marathons is indeed a lot harder than running them and current conditions are taking this to the next level. When I chatted to Kevin Lodge, who has promoted the race together with his business partner Andrew Bell for the last 16 years, he told me, “This was undoubtedly the most challenging year organisationally in terms of complying with rules, regulations and requirements. There was a constant back and forth with the officials about the starting points for both races – and we even had to make several last minute changes the week before so that the race could go ahead.”
At race number collection in the Rondebosch Sportsman’s Warehouse the day before the race, I did manage to interrogate the volunteers on duty: Volunteer #1 consulted Volunteer #2, Volunteer #2 then consulted a WhatsApp group before phoning a friend and producing the final answer that, “It’s definitely somewhere near Green Point stadium”.
With a 5am start (which I make as the earliest in the Western Cape), staying on the other side of the peninsula at my mom’s retirement village in Noordhoek and the uncertainty about the exact starting location, it was a very early wake up. However, my Uber driver and I combined our navigational skills and successfully tracked the trail of runners to the start.
Since February is traditionally the hottest month in the Cape, I was not complaining about the early start. The sun only rises just after 6am so the first hour was spent negotiating the uncharacteristically quiet streets of the CBD before hitting Main Road – from where it’s straight onward to the beach (which you’ll eventually see just before the 29 kilometre mark).
This is the oldest marathon in the Western Cape and it seems like every other local marathon borrows bits of the Peninsula Marathon’s route. The first 12k are used in the Cape Town Marathon, followed by the first 22k of Two Oceans from Newlands to Fish Hoek and then it’s 5k of the Red Hill Marathon (in the opposite direction) until you finally have 3 ‘unique’ kilometres to the finish line at the Simon’s Town naval base.
There were a few out of town plates mixed up amongst the WPA licenses and I immediately bumped into a couple of them – Marc and Michelle from Hillcrest Villagers. I had a head start on them, having been given a first batch bib, but it wasn’t long before they caught me up. I decided to do some speed work and enjoyed a few kilometres of conversation before I switched my fuel tank back to economy mode and let them disappear into the distance. After that my cousin-in-law Jo caught me up, I caught up on the family news and then she too disappeared into the distance.
Although the first hour is run in the dark, there are plenty of streetlights and it’s easy running with Cape Town being the one place in the country where you don’t have to worry about disappearing down a pothole.
I had spent some of the previous day checking out the Cape Town Runners Community Facebook page. This is a very active group when it is up and running (although I’ve noticed on past visits that the admins sporadically shut the site down when absolute chaos breaks out after someone posts a selfie without a mask or allegations of errant sachet dropping emerge).
As for the pre-race conversation on the site, it seems that since Cape Townians don’t have potholes or incessantly broken traffic lights to moan about, they spend their time complaining about their races instead. The focal grievance ahead of Peninsula was that point-to-point marathons pose insurmountable logistical challenges, a problem further exacerbated since the local Metrorail service* was not working that Sunday.
* After requests from logistically challenged runners, one year the organisers did put on a special train service to shuttle athletes back to the start after the race. Four people bought tickets.
As am empathic runner, I was pondering the trials and tribulations of the Cape running community around halfway into the race. Whilst wondering whether there was a simple solution, the answer appeared straight in front of me – I saw a sign. Since you meet Retreat at halfway during the Peninsula Marathon, maybe an out-and-back advance-Retreat* course would solve this problem?
* An interesting social experiment might be to offer participants the choice of three route options and let runners vote with their feet.
Route 1: Green Point to Retreat and back with all the plastic you can throw.
Route 2: A plastic free, protect the ocean Simon’s Town to Retreat and back option.
Route 3: The traditional Green Point to Simon’s Town course with no plastic in the second half.
This was a 54th running of the event and it has in fact been run as a circular route from Simon’s Town twice in 2009 and 2010 when the Cape Town World Cup Soccer stadium was being built and roadworks necessitated a change.
The route from Green Point to Simon’s Town is flat and easy but the one factor to bear in mind is the dreaded Cape Doctor – the strong south-easterly wind that in many years does its best to blow the runners back to Green Point. In fact, such was the ferocity and consistency of the wicked wind from the south-east that runner pressure resulted in the 1984 event being flipped around to run from Simon’s Town to Green Point. However, you can’t mess with Mother Nature. She easily countered the route reversal by blowing a gale force north-wester that year. The experiment was not repeated.
As a kid, I can remember being dragged out of bed and driven to the bottom of Tokai Road to support my father. He completed the race over 10 times to earn a permanent number. A story I have been told on countless occasions (and now get to repeat for this article) is about the advice he received from Celtic Harriers club captain Alastair Walker to counter the wind, “Find the biggest chap you can and tuck yourself in behind him.” Fortunately for the Old Mann, Morne du Plessis was running that year and the bulk of former Springbok captain provided a very effective wind break.
The race was founded by Celtic Harriers stalwart, Alex Jones, all the way back in 1964 (which, for some perspective, is six years before the first Two Oceans Marathon was held). There was a scarcity of marathons in the Cape and Alex, realising that the distance between Green Point and Simon’s Town was exactly 42.2 kilometres, did the logical thing and organised a marathon.
Alex had a knack for making a lasting impression as he also founded one of the top ten oldest races in South Africa a few years earlier in 1960 (the Don Lock Memorial Run to commemorate the death of a close running friend who was hit by a motorist).
Alex and his wife emigrated to South Africa in 1954 from Liverpool. As a proud Scouser, he immediately joined Celtic Harriers so that he would never run alone, and remained a member until he passed in January 2019.
Alex’s first athletic achievement was as an 11-year-old when he and a group of friends decided to walk 4 miles to Anfield to see their first professional football match. The game had already started by the time they arrived but it was inconsequential as none of them had the 4 pence needed to get into the ground. However, they hung around outside absorbing the atmosphere and their perseverance was rewarded when the gates were opened 10 minutes from time. Those 10 minutes on the ”kop” watching Liverpool beat Wolves was enough to make Alex a Liverpool fan for life (much to the ire of the rest of his family who were all Everton supporters).
Alex was still completing parkruns at the ripe old age of 90 and celebrated this birthday milestone with the Rondebosch Common parkrun together with his 4 children and several of his 10 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren.
Alex finished his last Two Oceans ultra marathon at the age of 77 (making him the oldest finisher at that time) and was still running the Two Oceans half marathon well into his 80s. He ran the marathon he founded 31 times and is the holder of permanent #1 at Peninsula.
The highlight of the route is undoubtedly the stretch from Muizenburg to the finish in Simon’s Town with the Atlantic Ocean a constant companion on your left-hand side. For those who struggle with delayed gratification, the half marathon (that starts somewhere in Bergvliet) will give you exactly the same sea views with 21 fewer kilometres to get there.
My race plan these days is to walk the water tables in the first half of a marathon and then walk the hills as well as the water tables in the second half. This is not a very good plan if you are running Peninsula Marathon. There are no hills for 20 of the 21 kilometres in the second half and water tables were only every five kilometres* this year. However, this lack of hills and tables did result in a season best time for me.
* The Cape running community leads the way in water conservation as well as the #runclean movement. Although the 5-kilometre gap between tables was officially listed as a Covid measure, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a subversive method to further reduce water consumption and plastic usage.
When the wind doesn’t blow, fast times are on offer. The race brands itself as “The Fastest Marathon in Africa” – it’s not the fastest but it does have a long history* of fast times going all the way back to the first event in 1964 when all 13 finishers completed the route in under 3-hours.
* In 1983 Bernard Rose equalled the national record with a 2:12:10. The current men’s record is held by Ernest Tjela (2:11:47 in 1987) and the women’s by Monica Drӧgemӧller (2:37:19 in 1990).
However, doubt was cast over the legitimacy of 18-year-old David Wassung’s inaugural winning time of 2:27:28. Wassung, the Celtic Harriers club captain, had made a name for himself as a cross-country runner and was a marathon debutant at Peninsula. Wind is usually a factor at Peninsula and Wassung’s second wind was the deciding factor on the day.
I chatted to Dave Wassung about his memories of that first race. He recalled Oelof Vorster, the reigning South Africa Marathon Champion, being about 800m ahead with 6 kilometres to go. Wassung thought he saw Vorster slowing slightly on the short, sharp climb as you leave Fish Hoek and a spectator informed him that Vorster was asking how far back the second runner was. Like a great white shark in the adjacent Atlantic, Wassung smelt blood, gritted his teeth and hungrily went into attack mode. With 3 kilometres to go he reeled Vorster in and powered through to the Simon’s Town naval base for the victory.
When word got around about Dave Wassung’s winning time, it was met with scepticism and the general consensus was that it must have been a short course. Wassung was having none of it. He got hold of a measuring wheel and ran the same route again the following day with a group of Western Province athletics officials to confirm that he’d completed exactly 26 miles 385 yards (they hadn’t upgraded to the metric system back then).
* After finishing first in his first marathon, Wassung finished second in his second marathon (to Willie Olivier also at Peninsula) before reclaiming the Peninsula title with his third marathon in a new record of 2:26:41 in 1966. The hazard of potholes have already been mentioned in this article. Sadly, Wassung broke his ankle after stepping into a pothole whilst running which ended his competitive running career.
We were lucky to get a cool, cloudy day and even luckier with very little wind (by far the best running conditions over the last decade I am told). Other than having to run an extra two kilometres between walk breaks, I did not find any problem with the less frequent tables. There was also excellent support along the latter stages of the race with many clubs setting up support tables for their runners (and they were more than happy to dish out food and drink for those in need).
With just under five kilometres to go, Simon’s Town and the naval base which marks the finish, comes into view. This means that someone at my pace spends the better part of 30 minutes longingly naval gazing into the distance whilst grinding out each step towards the sanctity of the finish line.
After 41 flat kilometres there are a few nasty speedbumps before you veer left into South Africa’s largest naval base. From here it’s a few hundred metres around the sports fields to be welcomed home by the two most recognised finish line voices in the Cape – Sean Falconer and Harold Berman (the latter who has been on the mike at Peninsula for over 30 years).
Sean was keen to get an update on the progress of my column for the next edition of Modern Athlete (for the record I made the deadline cut-off comfortably enough with an article on the previous week’s Joburg North City Marathon).
Running marathons on three consecutive weekends is part of my post-Covid weight loss plan – and I was hoping that this run down the Cape coastline would make some inroads to my waistline! When meeting people in person for the first time, I have been told, “You look a lot bigger on the internet!” The camera does indeed add 10 pounds but the good thing about getting a finish line photo with Sean Falconer is that it adds 10 centimetres to your height!
Buoyed by the news that Two Oceans is a go for 2022 and with limited qualification marathon options in the Western Cape, 827 of the 984 finishers made safe harbour at the naval base in under 5-hours to secure their starting positions at the planet’s second largest ultra marathon.
I enjoyed this frolic along the Atlantic Ocean but decided that Easter was too long to wait for a second ocean – and immediately set my sights on next week’s trip east to the Indian Ocean for the Best of the Best Marathon in Durban (which of course will be the new race report on my blog).
For those interested in the history of the race here are some additional articles
A history of the Peninsula Marathon by Stephen Granger: https://spnafricanews.com/peninsula-marathon-the-real-deal-for-2022/
Newspaper article by Harold Berman on the early days of the Peninsula Marathon:
Newspaper article by Harold Berman about Alex Jones.
Newspaper article about the 1966 Peninsula Marathon.
Thanks to Harold Berman, Sean Falconer, Kevin Lodge and Dave Wassung for their contributions to this article.Follow Running Mann: