I have completed 31 international marathons amongst my current total collection of 251. The vast majority of these were front loaded into my running career when I was fortunate enough to do a substantial amount of business travel and managed to work in a marathon or two around the actual work.
The first was Prague when a week of work conveniently coincided with the weekend of the Prague Marathon – a city full of beautiful Gothic architecture and Bohemian culture but for me the biggest significance was that this was the city where Pilsner was invented. Thirsty marathon runners will also be pleased to note that beer prices in Prague are roughly equivalent to those in South Africa.
Likewise a work trip to Rome was conveniently timed to overlap with their marathon. Having done Latin at school (I was originally planning to be a lawyer as I enjoyed arguing with people), an on-foot tour around ancient Roman landmarks was definitely a highlight of my running career.
Perhaps the most romantic thing I’ve ever done (as a point of reference my wife recently bought her own bunch of flowers, using my credit card, to celebrate our anniversary) was use some airmiles to fly her over to Italy so that we could run the Rome Marathon together. I would point out that, despite the flight and hotel room being “free”, this did turn out to be a rather expensive endeavour since my wife went shopping every day while I was in the office and I would return to a hotel room full of that day’s high street fashion purchases.
However, most international destinations did not time their marathons around my arrival on their shores. Gary Player once said, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get”. I misappropriated this to, “The further I look, the more marathons I’ll find.” If there was a marathon in a 1000 kilometre radius of wherever I was, then I would hunt it down and run it.
Whilst on the topic of running mantras, one of Francis Bacon’s essays famously states, “If the Mountain won’t go to Mohammed, then Mohammed must come to the Mountain.” This is the number one Running Manntra to live by if you want to level-up as an authentic marathon hunting tourist.
The rigorous (some would say fanatical) application of hunting down marathon start lines around the globe resulted in many marathon running adventures. Examples include:
- Routing my flight to Cleveland to run their marathon, followed by a 4-hour drive around Lake Michigan directly after the race to Detroit for a week of work – and then driving via Canada and then back into USA at the top of New York State to run the Buffalo* Marathon before flying back to Joburg straight after that marathon (I did have a shower before getting on the plane though and slept for most of the 18-hour flight).
* As far as I know, I am the only person who has run a marathon in Buffalo and Buffalo City (East London) as well as in Frankfurt and Frankfort (unfortunately Parys does not yet have a marathon).
- Driving across the length of Holland to run the Leeuwarden Marathon in Friesland on the Netherlands’ northern extremities.
- Booking a flight, hotel and marathon in Little Rock, Arizonia only to arrive in Little Rock, Arkansas (luckily I was consistently wrong and the marathon was in fact in Little Rock, Arkansas).
- Whilst on long-term assignment in the United Kingdom I would drive up and down their island every weekend for a marathon and ended up running as far south as Brighton, as far north as Edinburgh and pretty much everywhere else in between.
- Using air miles to get to some far flung reaches in Europe like Helsinki, Finland (the most memorable part of this marathon was having a naked sauna with 100s of Vikings after the race – I was careful not to bump into an Icelandic).
I ran big marathons, I ran small marathons and I went to extreme measures to ensure that I did not just see the inside of airports, offices and hotel rooms on my frequent travels.
One day I realized that whilst I was going to extraordinary lengths (and often expense) to run international marathons, I was not doing the same back home in South Africa. I was sure that there was more excitement to be found within our borders than running two-laps around Benoni every January. Jolted by this realisation, I decided to get out my mapbook, explore and find out for myself.
I realized that if I applied the same effort to run marathons in my own country, I could run a lot more marathons at a fraction of the cost. It was also around this time that I set the goal of running 100 unique marathons (i.e. not counting repeat finishes of the same marathon). I was on about 60 unique marathons at the time so I knew I had at least 40 great weekends ahead of me.
Johannesburg is the best place to live if you want to be a running tourist. There are tons of marathons within a reasonable drive – and two airports to easily reach the further flung outposts of Mzansi.
Other than in Durban and Johannesburg, most marathons around South Africa are held on a Saturday. My weekly modus operandi was to leave work early on a Friday afternoon and then drive to whichever small town or dorpie was hosting a marathon. I’d roll out of bed (one of the beauties of small field marathons is that there’s no traffic at the start), run the marathon and then ride on home (Top tip: Try to find a B&B that will give you a late checkout for a quick post-marathon shower).
I often get asked, “How do you manage all this marathon travelling with a family?”. Perhaps this is an inditement on my personality but I get the feeling that my family enjoys having an occasionally break from me (the constant barrage of hilarious dad jokes might have something to do with it). If I haven’t done an out-of-town race for a while, my daughters start getting tetchy and ask, “Dad, isn’t it time you ran another marathon?” However, I have determined that the main reason is that they get take-out pizza and other perks while the cat is away.
Seriously though, I have found that I am a better father on the weekends when I’ve run a marathon. I’m usually home fairly early on a Saturday afternoon and can then spend the rest of the weekend dedicated to ‘dadding’.
My family is well-conditioned to my marathon running obsessions (it does help that my wife has run several marathons herself). Whenever we go on holiday, the first question my daughters ask is, “What marathon is dad running?”
If your friends and family don’t ask you “Where are you running your next marathon?” you’re doing it wrong and missing out on the best way to explore our beautiful country.
Some Goals for South African Marathon Runners in 2024
Here are some running challenges to consider building into your 2024 new year’s resolutions.
- Aim to run a marathon in every province.
- Run at least three marathons you’ve never run before.
- Run a marathon in all 17 South African athletics provinces* (e.g. Gauteng has three ‘athletics provinces’ – Central, North and the Vaal Triangle).
* As far as I know, I am the only person to have run all 17 although there are a couple of people on 16.
- Run the most northern (Two Countries if it’s on or Shikumba Filling if it’s not), eastern (Hippo), southern (Voet van Afrika) and western (Weskus) marathons.
- For good measure, add a marathon in the dead centre of South Africa (any marathon in Bloemfontein will do).
- Draw up a budget to run an international big city marathon like London but don’t enter (or get rejected in the ballot) – then spend the same amount of money travelling around South Africa running marathons.
Top Tips for South Africa Marathon Tourists
- Move to Gauteng (it’s the best base to run lots of marathons from) but make plans to get out of Gauteng most weekends.
- Find a running buddy to travel with (if our running plans coincide, I often travel with Julian Karp whose running obsessions make mine pale into insignificance).
- Find an affordable B&B that will allow you a late checkout to shower after the race (I’ve found small town accommodation remarkably accommodating).
- If you’re travelling with your family, let your spouse choose the accommodation (Note: lesson learned the hard way one this one).
- Is a holiday without a marathon really a holiday? Make sure every holiday is front-loaded with a marathon and then spend the rest of your vacation in guilt-free debauchery.
- If you’re on Discovery Vitality with 75% local flight discounts, use them on expensive flight routings like Mthatha and Upington.
- Aim to have a good time, not a fast time. If you run your marathons well within yourself, not only can you mingle with the laid-back country folk but you can run a lot more marathons!
- Check out the full year marathon and ultra calendar on my blog (I will add a 2024 article once the schedules are out but most marathons are on the same weekend every year).
- Beer cans are much easier to transport than beer bottles.
Top Tips for International Marathons
- Run with a camera and forget the running time. Unless you are getting paid appearance money, leave the PBs for home soil and make the most of the experience.
- Embrace the local culture along the route (see photographic examples below).
- Run with South African flag clothing – other runners are more likely to strike up a conversation with you (and you can do your bit for the South African tourism industry by telling them about our great races).
- Is a business trip really a business trip without a marathon? Get creative with your flight routings. You are almost certain to find a marathon within a 1000km radius of wherever you are going.
- Last minute travel: marathon entries already closed? No problem, email the organisers and tell them that you are a South African marathon running enthusiast on a last-minute business trip and would love to run their race if there’s a chance. Other than the really big races like New York, most marathons have a more personal touch and will make a plan for you (I’ve entered Amsterdam and Helsinki after their entries were long closed).
- Worried about having no supporters no route – look for a sign!
- The rand is weak but the need for beer is strong after a marathon. Look for opportunities to drink free beer.
This article was adapted from a talk a I did on the “Best 10 Marathons in South Africa (and how to run them)” at Sunninghill Striders Running Club to help Mike Sewell and his MAD2Run team with their fundraising. They’re running a 1520km relay from Joburg to Cape Town (followed by the a warm down trot at the Cape Town Marathon) to raise money for children’s education. You can donate to their cause here.
If you’d like me to repeat the talk at your club or event just give me a shout (firstname.lastname@example.org).Follow Running Mann: