Durban City Marathon (Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink)

[MARATHON #248 / UNIQUE MARATHON #146 / 10 April 2022]

In writing my monthly marathon articles, I normally find that there is high correlation between the responsiveness of race organisers and the overall organisational quality of their race. When I get no response to my enquiries the alarm bells go off.

The organisers of the Durban City Marathon are the Durban City Multi Sport Club. This club seems to have successfully avoided leaving any digital footprint, with a Google search producing zero hits. The club had no entrants at this year’s Two Oceans Marathon and only three finishers at the last Comrades Marathon.

On face value this does not seem like the kind of club that would be given the organisation rights to the flagship marathon in South Africa’s third largest city. However, this is the club that most of the technical officials in KZN Athletics belong to. I am not sure if they have a club motto but if they do, I would not be surprised if it’s, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Things you don’t need to bring to the Durban City Marathon: Fishing rods
Things you do: A straw to suck up some delicious rain water (#CarryYourOwn KZN-style)
There was definitely something fishy with this race…

There was no reply from any of the listed race contacts to my “April Marathons Article” email enquiries, there was no reply to the web form enquiry I submitted on the official race site and most of the information on the race website was still from the Covid-cancelled 2020 race. The alarms bells were ringing loudly. My expectations for this race were low. Let’s just say that that if Durban City Multi Sport Club entered a limbo competition they would comfortably slide below the lowest rung on the expectation bar.

The bad omens continued when I arrived on a dark and stormy Durban evening and realised that there was no record of the rental car that I thought I’d booked. A long an expensive Uber ride later (but kudos to my driver who got me to Kloof in one piece despite the torrid conditions), I arrived at the residence of  Campbell the Great.* He had offered me his favourite son’s room for the night which, for the cost of a couple of Easter eggs, was much better value than the hotels I’d found within walking distance of the start.

* As to the origins of the title, and the derivations thereof, you’ll need to read this article.

The rain continued unabated overnight and on the drive to the start, but the weather gods eventually turned the taps off for the start of the race. Having had a late start at the Best of the Best Marathon in February with traffic issues, the good thing about hanging with the locals is access to local knowledge – in this case in the form of back routes to open parking bays and the location of a “secret toilet”.

A 5:30am start to the backdrop of the impressive Moses Madhida Stadium.

With 1,500 half and 1,300 full marathoners, there was a good buzz at the start and we set off at 5:30am in the dark to the backdrop of the impressive Moses Madhida Stadium. The first few kilometres were run in darkness as we headed north towards the Umgeni River, before looping around and heading back south along the promenade.

Heading towards the city lights.

Running along the promenade towards the lights of downtown Durban was enjoyable and there was no chance of overheating as sporadic bouts of drizzle showered down. You can usually expect a spectacular ocean sunrise at Durban races. However, as the morning progressed, the heavy cloud cover meant that all we got was 50 shades of grey – and if your safe word during a marathon is “water” you were shit out of luck.

There was water everywhere – except where it counted during the Durban City Marathon.

Having run past the lagoon, Umgeni River estuary, Indian Ocean and constantly dodging large puddles, there was water everywhere except where it counted. Each water table we passed looked like it they had been looted and not restocked after the July riots. Actually that’s a lie – to be looted you have to have sufficient stock to actually loot but the water tables looked as empty as the Manchester United trophy cabinet.

As we progressed through the first lap, it became increasingly clear that it was unlikely that we’d get water at any of the tables (and even those running 3-hour marathon pace reported afterwards that they ran water free). Cape Town is very big on the #CarryYourOwn movement to reduce plastic use and I joked with some Chatsworth runners that no one told me about Durban’s version – #CarryYourOwnStraw (so that you can suck up some delicious puddle water*).

* I received reports of runners filling up their bottles with puddle water!

Other than the chatty Chatsworth runners, everyone else was surprisingly quiet. Apparently, this race has a perennial water problem so I guess it’s a case of fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me thrice and go full on Trappist monk and run a marathon in complete silence without water.

They take their rules and regulations seriously at the Durban City Marathon. With the race being organised by senior ASA technical officials, there’s no feeding the wildlife or hydrating the runners.

There were a few other out-of-town runners and most of the other in-race conversation I had was with them. All of those I chatted with had come down a week early for a family Easter holiday and were making a down payment on their Easter eggs with a marathon. However, with zero chance to consume any calories during the race, they were probably making a much bigger down payment than they originally planned.

The early bird gets the worm but the slow runner gets some water at the Durban City Marathon.

I did run into a bit of luck at the 19k mark. The early bird gets the worm but the slow runner gets some water at the Durban City Marathon. As I was going through the Illovo table towards the end of the first lap, a Coca-Cola truck pulled up and a few crates of water were offloaded. I gratefully slugged down the 500ml bottle in one gulp. The supply however was short-lived, on the second lap the table was completely devoid of all liquid substances other than three bottles of Illovo golden syrup (I was not thirsty enough to drink any).

Often the second lap of a marathon can be challenging but in this case it was slightly easier as some of tables, like those of the Phantane and Hollywood Bets Athletic Clubs, went and bought water out of their own pockets for the runners.

This is what the Phantane Running Club table were given to support 3,500 runners (they went out and bought water from their own pockets for the marathon runners on the second lap).

I had a quick chat with the Phantane crew whilst I savoured some much-needed H2O. I empathised with them for giving up their Sunday morning only to get sucker-punched with three crates of Coke, a handful of cardboard cups, no trestle table to serve anything on and no bins to dispose of rubbish in. It’s a tough morning when you’ve got to deal with 3,500 disgruntled full, half and 10k* runners. On top of this, many runners don’t realise that the table volunteers are not to blame for the water situation so the Phantane crew had to bear the brunt of verbal abuse from frustrated runners.

* Amongst the other issues raised by runners was that the 10k race started 15 minutes earlier than advertised without any notification.

It can be difficult to summarise a marathon in a few paragraphs but the below photo dies a good job of capturing the Durban City Marathon.

Summarise a marathon in one photo.

I only spotted this graffiti on the second lap so not sure if this was done by a thirsty frontrunner or after a previous edition of the race (the weather is a variable, the lack of water at this race is not). I’d be interested to see the post-race financials and, in particular, the amount spent on refreshments. If the line item is more than I spent on drinks at my daughter’s birthday party last year then I’d alert the SIU.

I managed to speak to Steve Mkasi, KZN Athletics chairperson, shortly after the race. He referred me to the race organiser, Celi Makhoba, an ASA level 3 technical official and Comrades Marathon Association board member. Mkasi, who is an active runner himself, said that he “cannot understand how he [Makhoba] can start a race with no water.” On the apology that was ciriculated on social media from the water supplier (Splash Distributors), Mkasi said, “It seems to me it’s a staged response. I can’t fathom as to how you make such a mistake.”

The apology letter from Splash Distributors was met with much scepticism from the KZNA chairperson and runners alike.

Mkasi was prompt in issuing an official statement from his office (see below) about the poor organisation. When I asked him what the next steps would be he replied that there would be an official investigation and, based on the outcome, next year’s race would be run by a KZNA appointed organiser, organised under the supervision of KZNA or a joint team appointed to organise the event.

Official letter from KZNA after the event.

When I chatted to Celi Makhoba, he was quick to apologise saying, “A sincere and humble apology to everyone who was affected. To lose water is a serious problem. You cannot afford to run short of water.” He also thanked the Chillie Runners supporters group and the anonymous person who connected a hose pipe to a tap on the promenade for their help in supplying water to the athletes during the race.

Chillie Runners to the rescue. Whether you’re in Cape Town, Joburg or Durban – There’s been a Chillie Runners table at every marathon I’ve done this year.

On the lack of water he said, “I take full responsibility but it does not mean that I did it.” According to Makhoba, “We ordered 100,000 water sachets from the company called Splash. They wrote to me [to confirm the order]. The same company sponsored us with 60,000 energy sachets and 16 trestle tables. We were supposed to be driving around at 3am in the morning.”

As to why there was no water on race day, “I communicated with the owner of Splash on Thursday afternoon. On Saturday I phoned to double check and give a breakdown of quantities for each table. He [the owner of Splash] was not answering. I tried a number of times. I’ve done so many events using him and he’s never let me down. Thank God the weather was with us.”

I asked what he did on race day to try to rectify the situation. Bottled water had been ordered from Coca-Cola for the finish line, and this was redistributed to the tables. However, he seemed surprised when I told him that marathoners running at 3-hour pace did not get any water and the only water I had en route was where the tables had gone out and bought their own.

The organisation of this race by the local running administration is in stark contrast to the Best of the Best Marathon that I ran in February. The latter has the same start / finish venue, is organised by one of the local running clubs, Ama Ravens, and was flawless in terms of execution. Perhaps it’s time to leave the running of companies to actual businesspeople rather than politicians – and the running of races (literally and figuratively) to actual running clubs rather than to the administrators.

Speaking of politicians, there were some noteworthy participants in this year’s event. The deputy minister of health, Sibongiseni Dhlomo, completed the 10k in 1h22 and the premier of Kwazulu Natal, Sihle Zikalala, ran the half marathon in 2h18. Post-race, I wondered whether Zikalala had diverted all the water to his residence in La Mercy but, since the La Mercy residents association didn’t capture video footage of a Splash Distributors truck outside his house the day before the race, I don’t think we can pin this service delivery issue on him.

A pancake flat double-lap route with the highlight being the long stretch along the promenade.

As for the route, it’s pancake flat and, as an out-of-towner, I enjoyed the novelty of the lengthy 7.5k section along the promenade. The added bonus being that there is no traffic to worry about and the bad weather kept the peddlers away, so we had the promenade largely to ourselves. Below are some highlight shots from this section of the race.

At the 10k mark, you do a short dog’s leg up the last pier on the promenade and then venture in the backside on Durban (pun intended). This is the most boring part of the route but it goes by quickly as you do a 5k inland loop before heading back oceanside towards the Suncoast Casino.

Heading through Durban’s backside.

The one point of interest along the industrial section is the Lion Match Company headquarters at 20 Mahatma Gandhi Road where an impressive lion statue guards the front entrance. The lion also comes with sound effects, as I found out to my surprise when I approached the beast and a canned “MGM movie-style” roar erupted*.

* I thought it was on a motion detector but it looks like it was a case of perfect timing as I’ve been told the roar only happens every hour on the hour.

The power of subliminal advertising.

If anyone doubted that subliminal advertising works, after finishing the race I headed over Campbell who was diligently guarding the Hillcrest Villagers cooler box. Campbell, being the gracious host that he is, offered to buy me a beer – and after a marathon sans water, that was an offer I was not going to refuse. I genuinely reached into the cooler intending to grab a small lite beer but when my hand came out I suddenly realised that I had a large Lion in my hands. I’m blaming the Lion Match Company for that one!

Another King’s Park finish.

Although there were plenty of clouds at this year’s Durban City Marathon, there were a few silver linings amidst the doom and gloom. This is a flat, attractive route that could turn into a major event in the hands of competent organisation. Until that happens there are better marathons to run and travel for. However, if KZNA does stick with Durban City Multi Sport Club as the organisers for future years then a catchy race slogan would be, “All slaughter, no water!”

Slaying the king of the beasts in King’s Park athletics stadium. Look out for the next report from the Seshego 50k in Polokwane.
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3 Replies to “Durban City Marathon (Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink)”

  1. Another good read. I cannot comprehend how difficult it must be to run a marathon without any water. You could do long term damage to your body or even die as a result. There needs to be some sort of oversight to ensure that it never happens again. You tried to make light of it, but as a former marathon runner myself, it should be regarded as a very serious matter.

    1. I agree with that and I have found this to be a problem with these small out of town marathons. In 2019 at buffs in East London they ran out of water at the 30 km mark , ( the temperature that day was 32deg) I had to go into someones garden to drink from a tap. This year at hemel en Aarde in hermanus there was no water at the first 3 stops , then at 12 km they filled a bucket of water and used cups , there was water at 15 but nothing at 18, thereafter the tables had water. Had there been no water at the 12km I was ready to pull out.

      It upsets me as its not just the marathon cost but getting there and accomodation etc.

  2. I will be interested to read your observations about the subsequent race. It seems to me that the administration of these races has allowed some confusion and there is perhaps an infringement of Intellectual Property law regarding the branding of these events.
    This race you report on was branded The Durban City Marathon
    and the later event organised as the ASA Marathon Championships. I have come across this website which appears to be on the Durban City’s website?
    All very strange and confusing.
    “The Durban International Marathon”

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