Shikhumba Marathon (Back in the saddle up Dead Donkey Hill)

[MARATHON #252 / UNIQUE MARATHON #149 / 7 October 2023]

I had not run a marathon for over 16 months courtesy of sloth and a boring neural issue in my knee. Having received a complimentary entry to Cape Town Marathon, I’ve spent the last few months getting marathon fit (or as close as possible to it) again. Then came the inconvenient realisation that my daughter’s birthday was the day before Cape Town Marathon.

I have a newfound respect for government negotiators and their dealings with the trade unions. After a short but intense round of negotiations, I realised that there would be no compromise. Either I flew my daughter and her friends to Cape Town (and convinced the body corporate at my mom’s retirement village in Noordhoek to host her birthday party) or I would have to find another plan.

Another plan was found. The plan involved a 500-kilometre drive to the northern extremities of the Limpopo Province and was one week earlier (meaning one week less to train) but it would have to do. Luckily, a few old running compatriots had the same plan and I was able to tag along with Julian Karp, Don Rukando and Farai Razano (names listed in order of marathons completed – 915, 161 and 101 respectively) on their marathon adventures to the Shikhumba* Marathon.

* There are not many landmarks two hours north-east of Polokwane hence the “Shikhumba Filling Station Marathon”, started in 2014 as a 21.1. 10 and 5k with the marathon being added in 2018,  was named after the petrol station at which the race starts and finishes.

The Shikhumba Marathon team.

There is nothing else for miles around but in the last year a Spar (together with a Tops! bottle store) has been added to the local infrastructure – proving that there is indeed a friendly Spar wherever you are. Spar have also taken on title sponsor duties for this year’s event and we received our race numbers in a Spar shopping bag (made from recycled plastic) together with a shower caddy and soap dish (made from very cheap plastic) and some braai and grill spice. This was a rather strange combination. I did consider applying the braai and grill spice to my skin before the start so that I could tell people that I was a well-seasoned runner*.

* That one’s going straight into the classic dad jokes book!

A rather strange goodie back (I wonder whether it is plastic neutral overall)

There are no accommodation options in Shikhumba itself so Julian had organized lodging in Giyani, about 30 minutes’ drive from the start. We rolled in at about 20h30 and sorted out sleeping arrangements. The main feature of the rooms were the saloon style bathroom doors – it’s a good thing I know Julian well enough not to bashful about race morning weight loss routines.

The main feature of our accommodation in Giyani was the saloon style toilet doors.

It gets hot north of the Tropic of Capricorn and such was the latent heat that even a cold shower immediately before bed only provided temporary respite. I was never going to sleep particularly well before my first marathon in 16 months but when the lights went out, the mosquitos emerged and any hopes for a peaceful night disappeared. The scourge of mosquitoes (yes that is the correct collective noun) soon figured out that Julian’s tough and leathery skin was impenetrable and refocused their assaults on my more luscious and succulent flesh.

As the wheel of time turned, I sweated and slapped in the dark whilst the buzzing of mosquitoes drowned out the sound of Julian’s snores. I had the between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place choice of sweating profusely under the sheet or being totally exposed to the bombarding bloodsuckers (and sweating slightly less profusely). At some early hour of the morning, I decided that I had no choice but to wet the bed. For the record, this involved pouring water all over the sheet and then letting the cooling effects of evaporation do its thing. I don’t know how much sleep I eventually got but it was not a lot.

The Shikhumba start line.

Whilst getting to the startline of the Shikhumba Marathon requires plenty of effort and logistical planning, once the gun fires the route is simplicity itself. You run straight along the road to Giyani for 21.1 kilometres, turn around and then run home. Other than a few untarred village roads, there are not even any intersections to distract the Shikhumba marathon runner.

A simple out-and-back route with genuinely gentle undulations.

A slightly chaotic number collection process meant I started a few minutes late. Although the race has a sunrise start at 5:30am, the local shebeen was still in full force a few hundred metres down the road. I made a quick stop to chat to the early morning revellers and told them I would join them for a quart if they were still as full of energy when I returned. They assured me that we’d be drinking buddies later that morning.

Sunrise quarts – early morning revellers at the local shebeen.

You head out in a westerly direction so unfortunately don’t get to appreciate the sunrise unless you run backwards. Whilst it’s a pity to miss a bushveld sunrise, the sun rises fast in this part of the world as does the temperature which went from hot to sweltering in minutes. There is also not much shade so perhaps the organisers want to shield their runners from the sight of the sun for the first few kilometres.

The Two Countries Marathon seems to have permanently dropped off the marathon calendar which makes Shikhumba the most northernmost marathon in South Africa*. However, I did have a nice chat to Lufuno Musenwa from Musina Top Runners at the beginning of the race. He’s trying to get a marathon going in Musina which is even further north so I will be keeping an eye out for that.

* This looks to be a short-lived record as there is a new marathon scheduled on 27 December from the Elias Resort in Nzhelele Valley which is slightly further north.

A Shikhumba sunrise. Shikhumba is currently the northernmost marathon in South Africa but Lufuno Musenwa (in picture) is hoping to get a marathon going in Musina.

The scenery is your typical lowveld vista of thorny trees and dusty shrubbery whilst the route is genuinely gentle undulations with a total climbing elevation of 326m. There were a few curious villagers gawking at the crazy people running in the heat but the main spectators were free range chickens, goats, donkeys and cows.

Traffic jam Giyani-style. If you don’t hit your goal time at the Shikhumba Marathon, you can blame the locals!

Farai and Julian had run the previous year’s event where the highlight of the race seems to have been a dead donkey at the top of the biggest hill on the route which is a gentle but steady climb from 10 to 13 kilometres. In 2022, there was also a stiff breeze so you got full value for money with the pungent aroma of dead donkey filling your nostrils as you slowly worked your way to the summit and highest point on the route (467m above sea level).

A live donkey at the top of Dead Donkey Hill.

There was indeed another dead donkey along the route this year but fortunately it was more recently deceased and there was no wind during the 2023 event. The hill does not have an official name yet so I would propose that henceforth it’s known as Dead Donkey Hill (and for future runners if you do not spot some form of roadkill along this stretch of road you can feel that you’ve missed out on the authentic Shikhumba experience).

Whilst on the topic of naming rights. Farai Razano, attorney-at-law, runs a great YouTube channel where he records his marathon running adventures. It’s currently called “100 before 40” after his quest to run 100 marathons before turning 40. Shikhumba was his 102nd marathon and he turns 40 in November so he needs to do some rebranding. I was thinking the new name of his channel should be “The Law of Running” or “Running from the Law” but if you have better ideas subscribe to his channel and let him know.

Check out and subscribe to Farai’s YouTube Channel here:

Check point 1: The half marathon turnaround.
This is what the other side of the road looked like from the half marathon turnaround.

My first checkpoint was to get to the half marathon turn around. It was a fairly small field but after this point I was largely alone until I started crossing paths with the faster marathon runners on their return journey. After the race I was surprised to see that there were more full than half marathon runners (116 vs. 85) but the most popular distance was the 10km with 156 participants.

The local cops make sure no one turns early at the marathon turnaround point.

My second checkpoint was to get to the full marathon turn around and, once that was done, it was a case of slowly working my legs back to the filling station. The roads can get lonely in rural Limpopo so the Shikhumba Marathon organisers hired a mobile DJ to drive up and down the route blaring tunes that could be heard three villages away. It’s a good thing the mobile ice-cream vans in Joburg have not caught onto this idea (although I would have paid big bucks for an ice-cream during the marathon).

DJ Telkom on the road.

I was told that the DJ was playing traditional Xitsonga music and had read about the xibelani dance and accompanying skirt on the Giyani Wikipedia page, “Xibelani is an African skirt designed to make the wearer’s hips look bigger so that the hip movement during the xibelani dance can be more apparent. The Tsonga people have their own distinct music when the xibelani dance is performed.” This sounded interesting but I had no idea what this looked like until Wendy Nkata Mabongani Khalanga replied to my Facebook post with the clip below from her ABSA Run the City 10km race which she ran in her Heritage Day outfit.

Wendy Nkata Mabongani Khalanga shows how the xibelani dance is performed.

A short while later, I thought I our mobile DJ had reverted to a monotone techno on the side of the road. On closer inspection it was just that a man had given some cows a Bells. However, I do expect there’s an opportunity for someone to organise a cowbell-techno party (where one could of course party until the cows come home).

More traditional Xitsonga tunes with some cowbell techno (video courtesy Farai Razano).

My biggest fear was that the tables would run out of water on the way back – I reckoned that one missing water station and it would be game over for me. Fortunately, the water tables were excellent with plenty of ice-cold water, soda and various food items. And when one of the water tables did run out of water, the organisers made a plan and drove up and down the route to ensure that all runners were sufficiently hydrated.

Don and Julian on their return journeys (Farai was walking when we crossed paths and this is a running blog so no picture of him).

My third checkpoint was to get to within 10 kilometres of the finish – regardless of my state when I got there, I knew that I could crawl back to the finish from this position. I probably should have had a fourth checkpoint to keep my body and mind going because those last 10 kilometres did take a rather long time to complete.

My state of mind was not helped by some false advertising from Spar that causes double jeopardy to the Shikhumba marathon runner. As you can see below, the sign claims a distance of 8km to their oasis but in fact it’s 10 kilometres. So on the way out you are “cheated” of two of your hard earn kilometres and on the way back you know that rampant retail inflation will apply to the distance to reach sanctuary.

False advertising from Spar – it’s 10 kilometres to go from this point.

On the way out, I didn’t realise that most of the first 10 kilometres are largely downhill and you hit the lowest point of the route at this point. Even so, it did feel like a little extra altitude had been added to the hills for our return journey. I was resolute in walking anything that looked like an uphill and hoped my factor 50 sunscreen would hold out to the finish. At least the sun cauterised all the previous night’s mosquito bites.

The lowest point of the route is at 10 kilometres to go which means there’s plenty of uphill on the way home.

The problem with all the livestock (and deadstock) around is that when you walk, swarms of thirsty flies tend to use one as a landing strip. Some people run from lamppost to lamppost when they’re tired but I tried to balance been irritated by pesky flies whilst walking to running until I was just about to collapse on the side of the road and give the flies something to really feast on.

I did have half a mind to honour my promise earlier that morning by picking up a quick quart at the shebeen and walk the last kilometre home but unfortunately I took too long and my potential drinking buddies were all partied out by the time I came back. I don’t like to drink alone so decided to wait for an official finish before having a legitimate beer. I did however spot a new addition the Shikhumba retail experience and stopped to (quite literally) do some window shopping.

Doing some window shopping at the end of the Shikhumba Marathon.

I could find no further distractions and resigned myself to running the remaining few hundred metres home. Prize giving was already underway when I snuck over the finish line. It was sweltering 38 degrees at the finish – hence the immediate need for shade and beer. The shopping centre provided the shade and Don provided the beer. The beer was cold but you had to drink it quickly if you want it to remain so.

Shade and beer – the two most important elements after the Shikhumba Marathon

It would be difficult to find two marathons more different than Cape Town and Shikhumba. Cape Town would have been by far the easier option but after a gap of a year-and-a-half it felt more authentic to make a marathon running comeback at Shikhumba. Perhaps my daughter’s birthday was not so inconveniently timed after all.

There was also one other major benefit with the switch to Shikhumba. In an effort to shed the pesky Covid kilograms that would not be shaken, I had given up drinking beer during the week. My escape clause to end this drastic fasting technique was to complete another marathon. Shikhumba might have sucked all the sweat out of my body but it has earned me an extra week of school night beers. I am pleased to report that I am now properly rehydrated and looking forward to running my next marathon in a few weeks’ time in Potchefstroom.

Signing out from the Shikhumba Marathon – look out for the next report from the GoPotch! Marathon.
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5 Replies to “Shikhumba Marathon (Back in the saddle up Dead Donkey Hill)”

  1. What an amazing experience. Love how you describe the race, the landscape, the people and the culture of Shikhumba. One for the bucket list!

  2. “well-seasoned runner” is excellent. I will now spend days or even weeks engineering a situation where I can use the term…

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