Big 5 Marathon (Entabeni Game Reserve)

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Here’s a running trip down memory lane from one of my rare off-road marathons back in 2008: the Big 5 Marathon, run in the Entabeni Game Reserve in Limpopo Province.

WOW! That is the best way to describe this route, because 42km through a pristine game reserve in the Waterberg is about as good as it gets for this marathon runner. Throw in large herds of antelope (and the odd giraffe) for spectators, an incredibly tough course and excellent organisation and you have the recipe for one of South Africa’s great races.

As the name suggests the race is run in Big 5 territory with rangers out to ‘marshal’ the more dangerous animals away from the runners. (Actually, dodging rhinos seems to be the biggest challenge.) And one thing that you do have to be careful of is not admiring the spectacular surroundings too much, or you are liable to step in a large pile of elephant-style bran muffins!

The route is simply fantastic, and this was the second time in my life – the first was my maiden Knysna Marathon – that I enjoyed a course so much that I found myself half dreading each kilometre board passing (although I have to admit that relief definitely started to overpower this dread towards the end!)

The Entabeni Monolith Dominates the route.
European Invasion

When I explored the race web site (www.big-five-marathon.com) I found out that this event is organised by a Danish-based travel company, Albatross Adventure Marathons, and this explains the large Danish contingent in the field each year. Overall, foreigners probably made up at least 50% of what was a surprisingly small field of just over 100 runners split over the full and half marathons. A few seemed to have come over for a Comrades “holiday” and then stayed on for this race a fortnight later.

With the Running Mann hot on his heels, Claus didn’t have time to stop and wonder why the Blesbok crossed the road.

The reduced “local” race entry fee of R270 (remember, this was in 2008) still made it the most expensive standard marathon in the country, but the fee was cheap by international standards and definitely worth it. Proceeds from the race went to a good cause, the South African Red Cross Society, and that year they had an anti-Xenophobia campaign as part of it. The organisers also offered a reduced weekend package for locals to stay within the reserve, but at just under three hours’ drive from Johannesburg, many people chose to drive through on the morning of the race. The entry fee did include a buffet lunch, but ‘day trippers’ had to fork out R200 if they wanted the attractive Puma dry-wick race shirt.

Kathy and I decided to go with the weekend package, but we unfortunately arrived too late to take in the Friday afternoon pre-race route inspection. However, this was a good thing from Kathy’s perspective, because she would not have done the half marathon if she knew what she was in for. This is a tough half marathon to tackle when you’re three months pregnant – apparently it takes two hours just to drive the race route in a Land Cruiser!

My better half before running the half – Little did she know what she was in for!
Looking for Lions

The temperature on race morning was very brisk and the 10-minute drive from our lodge to the start in an open game vehicle was really quite unpleasant. My nose felt like it had just ridden through the Rocky Mountains on a moped! Tea and coffee were therefore a welcome relief to warm up the runners before the 8am start. The first kilometre was a gentle downhill before the fun started with a climb of about 350m over 9km to the highest point on the course (1714m, according to Garmin). After about 2km of climbing, the initial pacesetters were reduced to a walk, and I was very surprised to find myself lying in second position. I was definitely not planning on racing, and did not want to get caught up in the excitement and kill my legs two weeks before Knysna Marathon, so I stopped for a few photos and quietly slipped out of the top 10 and into a more leisurely pace.

Enjoying a leisurely pace through the Big 5 game reserve.

After negotiating the initial climb, there were a few easy kilometres of gentle downhill before a 2.5km plummet (the drop is about 400m) that completely annihilated the quads. At this point in the race, you cross paths with the half marathoners, who are on their way back up the hill, and my friendly greetings were returned with nothing but vacant-eyed stares of distress and horror. I hoped that I would look better when I made my way back up to the top, but first I had to negotiate an 8km loop in lion country…

There were 12 lions on the lower part of the reserve, and I suspect that part of the reason for the latish start was to allow the (hopefully well-fed) pride to settle into their mid-morning slumber. Apparently, one of the rangers spent 36 hours with the pride to ensure that their location was known and that they didn’t pick off the weaker runners. Thankfully, the only sign of lions that I saw were some (fairly) fresh tracks on the sandy part of the route, but fortunately it looked like they were heading in the other direction.

Fresh lion spoor… fortunately heading in the opposite direction
Questions of Speed

During this part of the course, I was reminded of the saying that, “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows that it must outrun the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows that it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It does not matter whether you are a lion or gazelle, when the sun comes up in Africa, you had better be running.”

Well, when you are a runner in Africa, you know that you can’t outrun a lion, but that is OK, because all you have to do is run faster than the next guy! Fortunately (for me), this part of the route was predominantly run on a soft, sandy surface. While this made running difficult for most people, my big, flat feet, normally clumsy over rocky surfaces, now gave me a distinct advantage, and I found myself overtaking several runners on this stretch before facing the monster hill again. There are segments of that hill that are at a 43-degree angle, and it doesn’t matter if your surname’s Fordyce or Gebrselassie, you walk a hill that steep!

This doesn’t do justice to the steepness of the hill which is at a 43 degree angle at the steepest points.

I managed to run the ‘flatter parts’ and a overtook a few Danish runners who were now looking pretty weary. To put things into perspective, the highest point in Denmark is 151 metres above sea level, and one climbs more than that over just the steepest 1000m of the hill. During the long and painful climb, the sadist in me got to thinking that, as this was a ChampionChip race, they should have put a timing mat at the foot of the hill and then award a “king (or queen) of the mountain” prize to the person who makes the fastest ascent. This would be pure evil, but there are probably a few idiots like myself that would rise to the challenge!

Podium Possibilities

After summiting, there was a pleasant 3km downhill before another nasty climb of the same distance, followed by another fast downhill section. It was at this stage that I was informed during a water table chat that I was in fourth place and should “hamba!” So, with the third-place runner within my sights, I decided to pick up the pace, and I soon found myself in third place and feeling strong. (The water tables were well stocked with Coke, water, electrolytes and bananas, and were frequent enough, although they could have done with one or two more over the last 10km, when the temperature starts getting quite hot.)

Well-stocked water tables out in the wild.

Just to make sure that you don’t get complacent, however, there was another lengthy climb, after which the lake (that gives Lakeside Lodge, the location of the finish, its name) comes into view far beneath you. With that view, you know that it must be all downhill for the last 2.5km, but even though you are much higher than the finish point, they somehow manage to sneak in one last, nasty hill before you fly through to a friendly finish!

This is one of those unique races where every runner is greeted by name as they come into the finishing straight and is personally handed their medal and given a handshake or hug by the race organiser, and this friendly vibe continues until the last runner makes their way across the line all the way to the seven-hour cut-off. (Note, if you want a more vocal finish, you should aim to finish before 1pm, as this is when lunch is served and much of the support disappears!)

A personalised welcome home.
The Toughest Marathon

Considering the time spent on photographic exploits, several water table chats and a handful of territorial markings, I was pleased with my time of 4:01, especially since this was good enough to hold onto third place. In keeping with the Big 5 theme, the first three men and women received a striking and elegant wooden carving of one of the Big 5, and I decided that my lion was going straight to the pool room back at home! I did, however, commiserate with my new Danish friend, Claus, who I had relieved of third place a few kilometres from the finish. We agreed that the organisers should have kept strictly to the Big 5 theme, and fleshed out the awards ceremony with the missing buffalo and leopard trophies!

The event concluded with a gala dinner on Saturday evening and there was plenty of spit-braaied lamb and impala to satisfy everyone’s protein replenishment programme. I sat there, content and well-nourished, thinking that this race definitely pushes the Voet of Afrika into second place on the “toughest standard marathon I’ve run” list, but what an incredible race!

Going straight to the pool room!

This article originally appeared in the July 2021 edition of Modern Athlete.

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