Tronox Marathon (The Empangeni sugar rush)

[MARATHON #251 / UNIQUE MARATHON #148 / 29 May 2022]

It was a bleak May for marathons. After running the Seshego 50k on the opening day of the month, circumstances conspired against me. The 8th of May is Mother’s Day and I am absolutely forbidden from running marathons on this weekend (since accidentally missing Mother’s Day for the Gabarone Marathon in 2018); I’d run all the far-flung marathons the following weekend and thought I’d save the travel budget for runs I’d not done before; The resurrected False Bay Ultra on 22 May is on my “to do” list but my mother was visiting us in Joburg that weekend and she would not have been impressed if her eldest son disappeared to Cape Town for a day.

That just left the last weekend to salvage some May marathon pride. I had my eye on two options – the inaugural Midvaal May Marathon and the Tronox Marathon in Empangeni. The decision was made for me when the “Sold Out” signs went up for Midvaal and I booked my flights to Durban.

From King Shaka Airport, Empangeni is about 150 kilometres up the north coast of KwaZulu Natal. Perhaps the biggest drawcard with running a marathon up the north coast of KwaZulu Natal in late May is escaping the bitter highveld winter for 24 hours. I travel pretty light for marathons but I could have left my tracksuit top at home. Empangeni does not know winter.

I arrived late afternoon. It would have been tight for me to make race registration but one of the perks with small town marathons is that they’ll make a plan for the travelling runner – and Nitsa from the organising team promised to keep my race pack aside for special collection on race morning.

There were about 200 entrants for the marathon.

On race morning there was a happy buzz at the start in Addison Park. The race started promptly at 6am and within one kilometre we were out of the city and into the countryside. It wasn’t long before the sky started morphing from black to purple but in humid conditions, the sweating had started long before the lazy sun emerged.

Within a kilometre we were out of the city and into the countryside.

In this part of the world there are sugar cane plantations as far as the eye can see (and the legs can run). When it comes to spirits, Tequila is the popular drink to associate with sunrises but nothing beats an Empangeni Rumrise (well rum is made from sugar cane and you run past acres and acres of unprocessed rum during the marathon).

A beautiful rumrise (running past acres of unprocessed rum).

A short out-and-back section gets you to the 6 kilometre mark and lets you meet and greet the other 200 runners. From here there is a dirt road section deep into the sugar cane fields for another 6 kilometres of out-and-back running.

Having been stalked by lion-emblazoned meat wagons in Polokwane during the Seshego Marathon, I was pleased to see that the Empangeni ambulances have more friendly marketing techniques. Empangeni offers medical assistance with benefits promising that, “The patient always comes first.” Although the hospital is right next to the finish of Tronox Marathon, I didn’t pay them a visit as my happy endings involve beer after a marathon!

Medical care with benefits.

On the return of the second out-and-back, a short, sharp climb rewards you a nice view of Empangeni before 2 kilometres of steady downhill brings you back to the start at the 15 kilometre mark. Although you are constantly undulating over the first 15 kilometres, these are actually the flattest on the route.

You get a nice view of Empangeni on the back stretch of the second out-and-back.

Lest you are tempted to throw in the towel at this point, a long downhill shoots you past Addison Park and along the P425 service road all the way to the half marathon point – and this is where the real work starts.

The second half of this marathon starts with a long, steep 2.5 kilometre climb to the highest point on the route (an altitude of 135m). Your sole consolation for a the much tougher second half is that it is also the most scenic of the route. From the top of the hill you can enjoy a stunning view of the Okula River and Reding Dam. There’s 4 kilometres of very enjoyable downhill running through the countryside before the road flattens out for the last kilometre to the final turnaround point. The focal point of this section is an impressive rusty steel bridge.

Summitting the race’s toughest hill provides the reward of a great view of the Okula River.

Having seen the entire field three times over the various out-and-back sections, I’m confident that I was the only runner in out-of-province license plates. This usually proves to be a bit of a conversation starter and when curious compatriots asked if I came all the way just to run the marathon, I replied that I came to escape the icy Joburg winter and enjoy running in a vest again.

The route if made up of three separate out-and-back sections which allows you to get to know the rest of the field.

The iconic steel bridge and scenic Reding Dam section of the route came up in most of the chats I had with other runners. Most followed this up with the observation that old steel bridges like the one below are still standing after the floods but all the new ones are swimming with the fishes (I guess this highlights the difference between steel and steal).

The iconic steel bridge just before the final turnaround point.

The race started in 2003 and has been sponsored by Tronox since 2011. Tronox are a global mining and inorganic chemicals company who are one of the largest employers in the area. I didn’t see Tron riding his fluorescent green motorbike along the route but I did spot and ox or two. Running with the bulls is a lot more sedate in Zululand than it is in Pamplona (and for some reason I did have an intense craving for steak after the marathon).

Running with the bulls is a lot more sedate in Zululand than it is in Pamplona.

Traffic along the route is sporadic and relaxed – with the most common sight being fully laden sugarcane trucks on their way to one of the Tongaat-Huelett refineries or empty sugarcane trucks returning for a refill. Judging by the volume of trucks, some fellow South Africans are getting way too much sweetness in their diets.

Judging by the number of fully laden sugarcane trucks we saw, some people are getting way too much sweetness in their diet.

On the other hand, Madonna highlighted the main benefit of marathon running when she sang, “You can eat all you want and you don’t get fat.” Although Madonna may well have been talking about eating something else, I’ve always stated my main reason for running is to counter the effects of pizza and beer.

Sadly, I am finding that two marathons a month is not enough to stave off the post-Covid middle-aged spread. On that note, I think that there is a great marketing opportunity to replace the void left by the discontinuation of Redro and Pecks Anchovette fish paste with a new product called ‘Middle-aged spread’. Maybe Madonna could even endorse it – the slogan “Get a taste of Madonna’s middle-aged spread” would surely be a winner.

On the subject of marketing opportunities, there is an obvious partnership just waiting to happen between the host club, uMhlathuze Athletic Club whose motto is “Home of the Crocs”, and the most derided shoes of all time. With the hot and humid tropical climate, it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to wear closed shoes, let alone socks. Empangeni is a town that the fashion police steer well clear of so this would be an ideal partnership opportunity for Crocs.

Although this is the “Home of the Crocs”, I ran in Asics.

There are some really silly Guinness World Records for “Fastest marathon in a [fill in your choice of wacky outfit here]” but it appears no one has yet claimed the World Record for running a marathon in a pair of Crocs. From the internet searching I did, I could only find a pair of ladies who ran the Edinburgh Marathon in Crocs for charity in a time of 4h32.

However, Benjamin Pachev from Utah seems set to smash that when he upgrades to marathon running. Benjamin has clocked a 1h06 half marathon wearing Crocs. He’s from a large family of 10 kids and, not only are $20 Crocs a lot more affordable when you’re buying running shoes for 20 feet, but he reckons they also last a lot longer (over 3,000 miles compared to an absolute maximum top range of 1,000 miles with regular running shoes).

The Tronox route provides a constant assault on the legs.

Crocs are a constant assault on the eyes and the Tronox route was a constant assault on the legs. I was told that the hill at the half marathon mark was the toughest on the route but everyone who told me that was a liar. The return journey up the hill after the turnaround was much worse! However, I consoled myself that from the top there was a decent downhill that would get us into the mid-30s – and from there it would be plain sailing back to Empangeni.

The downhill did indeed get us to well past the 35 kilometre mark but the sailing back to Empangeni was as colourful as a sailor’s language. There’s no sugar coating it, the last 6.66 kilometres are the devil’s work – essentially just one long, steady pull on legs that have had all their energy sapped dry by the humidity and preceding ups-and-downs on the outs-and-backs.

One of the long, hot, steady pulls on the route.

On top of this, the devil was stoking his furnace and the temperature was now approaching 30 degrees. Luckily the support tables were frequent and well-stocked so I doused my smouldering skin with holy water at every opportunity. I’m not sure what kind of work the devil finds for idle hands in Empangeni but my idle feet found it tough going as I slowly ground my way back to the finish.

I guess the one benefit of mask wearing is that it would protect fellow airline travellers from my post marathon aroma but luckily I did not need to check mask efficacy on the flight back to Joburg. Small towns usually provide accommodating accommodation options. I can highly recommend Ian & Pam’s Flatlet to future runners. Apart from a clean, affordable and spacious place to stay, there was no problem securing a late checkout so that I could shower before the 90-minute drive back to King Shaka Airport.

After an ocular overload of sweetness over the Tronox Marathon route, this sugar daddy needed to shove something bitter down his throat and the Bidvest Lounge duly obliged. Whilst a spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, I can assure you that eyefuls of sugarcane (and Empangeni’s incessant rolling hills) make the post-marathon beer go down in a most delightful way.

Signing out from the Tronox Marathon. Look out for the next race report from the Timbavati Traverse.
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