[MARATHON #253 / UNIQUE MARATHON #150 / 28 OCTOBER 2023]
Although it was mid-term school break, I could not sell a weekend away in Potchefstroom to my teenage daughters. Therefore, I did the short trip along the N12 from Joburg solo. Two hours later I was in the North West province and checked into my accommodation for the night – an establishment called Beesdam. I had chosen it for proximity to the start which would allow me a slightly longer sleep the following morning. Potchefstroom is a university town and my room was adjacent to the main campus entrance. When booking, I noted that one of the rooms offered a “studding” desk – things have certainly changed since I was a student.
Upon arrival I settled into a beer and a few Friday afternoon emails whilst watching the Proteas cruising to victory against Pakistan and gloatingly posted to our family WhatsApp group about “enjoying the bachelor life”. I made the 500m stroll down the road to registration, which was friendly and efficient, hoping that Markram and Miller would wait for my return before knocking off the winning runs.
However, my optimism was misplaced and I returned a short while later to observe lot of wickets down and not many runs added. The Proteas did manage to hobble over the line for a one wicket win and I ruefully observed that their performance may well be an omen for my run the next day – crossing the finish line nine wickets down and surviving an umpire’s call.
Friday afternoon’s temperature peaked at 36°C so I was expecting a hot and heavy Saturday morning but was pleasantly surprised with some thick cloud cover on race morning. Further shade was provided at the start by the hulking figure of Roland du Plessis and his Meyerton cronies. I was hoping that there would be at least ten of them so that I could make a joke about the Meyer-ten but unfortunately the rest of the club opted for a shorter local run.
With it being World Cup Rugby finals day, the national anthem was sung before the start gun fired (and the organisers also threw in a smoke machine for good measure). I settled into a steady pace alongside Hybré Geldenhuys with whom I had interacted several times on Facebook but had not met in person. We ended up running the first lap together which also meant that I ran my fastest half marathon in over two years.
The inaugural LetsGo Potch Marathon was run in 2022 and they adjusted the route from an out-and-back to a double-lapper this year. However, you still start off with an 12km out-and-back to the Potchefstroom Dam which returns one almost to the start at Cachet Park before doing a loop around the local army base and then strolling through some leafy suburbs and the longest avenue of oak trees in South Africa to complete the lap.
The route profile is pancake flat. The only hills are the sporadic railway line crossings. I was slightly perturbed to see several “High Risk Area” signs. These were followed shortly afterward by a railway crossing so I am not sure whether this was to warn us about the traffic (which was calm and sedate with most of the student population sleeping off their Friday night revelry) or to notify us of the ‘hill’ that followed shortly thereafter. Potchefstroom is a sporting hub so perhaps the warning was for English rugby players who like to make mountains out of molehills*.
* Whilst the t-shirt manufacturers quickly capitalised on Kantgate, I think that Indian restaurants missed an opportunity to create a new side dish (or ‘kant kos’) called a “Tom Curry”. This would be a rancid but otherwise insipid and flavourless concoction served in a mug that leaves a bad taste in the mouth and results in tempestuous stomach eruptions shortly after consumption. I would call it “Storm in a teacup”**.
** On a slightly more serious note, one has to wonder whether we’ve progressed or regressed as a society when a white Englishman from an elite public (what we call private) school background can label a black South African racist without substantiation. The legendary British stiff upper lip appears to have gone completely flaccid.
Apart from the fantastic sporting facilities within the town, Potchefstroom has also been a fortuitous base camp for aspirant World Cup winners. The victorious Australian team used the town as their base during the 2003 Cricket World Cup and Spain earned their first ever World Cup Soccer trophy from Potch in 2010.
However, Potchefstroom has a rich marathon running history that very few people know about. Ken McArthur emigrated to South Africa from Ireland in 1901 at the age of 20. He ended up in Potchefstroom and this was where he started taking athletics seriously. He ran his first marathon in 1908 and ended up winning the gold medal for the marathon at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm.
The ‘toughest’ part of the route is the incursion into the military base. Here there is an incredibly gentle 4km pull as you recce round the army base. The climb from the lowest point (1345m) to the highest point (1380m) of the route would be almost imperceptible on a normal route profile but in Potchefstroom is looks like a mountain range.
Whilst the inside of the army base was unspectacular (and looked like it could use a fresh coat of paint), the entrance provided some confusion. Instead of “Keep out” notices, there were several eye-catching bright yellow and red ‘motivational’ signs whose meaning was rather cryptic.
This ‘casual observer’ was most perturbed by the “Kill the casual army” message but I reckoned that since we’d already lost the war on drugs, the war on corruption and the war on poverty, I was probably safe. The sign attributes the motivational mantra to a Lieutenant Colonel L. Yam – who I assume is a bit of a neat freak and, based on the pictures I found on Google, does in fact look like a bit of a sweet potato.
Whilst the battle stats for the war on the casual army are currently unavailable (so, dare I say, I have no idea who or what the ‘casualties’ are), the stats from the Letsgo Potch Marathon read:
Starters – 132
Finishers – 118
Casualties – 14
Aside: This is a great growth from the inaugural run which has 41 marathon finishers. There were just under 1,000 entrants across all distances this year and the organisers are hoping to grow this into a 5,000 person event in future years.
A short while later there was signage to the mysterious “School of Intelligence”. I am not sure if they’ve had any graduates as a Google search for “School of Intelligence Potchefstroom alumni” produces zero results (I guess that’s a case of both shooting blanks and drawing blanks). I would suggest that the best intelligence to apply when it comes to armies and fragile male egos is, “Just stop fighting with each other.”
During the course of the second lap, Frikkie Coetzer joined the conversation and we ended up running together all the way to the finish. This ensured that I did a lot less walking than I was intending to do. However, the downside of the combination of conversation and reaching the limits of my VO2 max (which resulted in survival shoegazing) meant that I missed some of the sights of Potchefstroom. Fortunately Roland was on backup cameraman duties and made sure that he captured what I missed.
One such sight were the rooms for the local urologist (based on the impressive signage, it does appear that size matters for urologists). Roland tried to get club mate Attie Brits to pose in front of the sign with a Michael Jackson-style groin grab but he was too bashful. This is a pity because it would have made a wonderful advertising slogan, “When you’re in Potch and have an ache in your crotch…”.
However, the doctor’s rooms look very large for a single urologist so there’s an opportunity for Dr. Botha to cover all bases and partner with a proctologist (whose rooms would of course be accessible via the rear entrance). This got me wondering whether there was a practicing proctologist called “Dr. A. Nel” and I immediately investigated this train of thought on Google.
There are several Dr A. Nels out there but sadly none of them specialise in the proctol arts. I did however uncover some intrigue in the form of a Dr. Chris Ellis whose tagline read “family physician and amateur proctologist”.
On further investigation the ‘amateur proctologist’ claim turned out to be tongue in cheek*. Nevertheless, I decided to explore deep inside this rabbit hole and was rewarded with a fruitful result (pun intended) in the form of a journal article about strange things people put up their bums.
* That’s an attribute you probably don’t want when visiting a professional proctologist (although it takes all tastes, some people might pay extra for this service).
The article, enchantingly entitled “The sign of the sparkling stool”, recounts Dr. Ellis’ experience with a serial salad tosser who arrived in casualty with an overripe avocado pear planted deep up his fertile valley* and also recounts tales of digging for diamonds (quite literally) whilst working as the company medical officer for a mine in Namibia.
* As per the article, “after finding his [the fruit smuggler’s] old hospital notes it was revealed that he was a recurrent offender with a variety of fruits to his name.” I would assume that over time this repeated practice must have rectum**.
** Here are a couple of bonus dinner time dad jokes inspired by proctology.
- What is a proctologist’s favourite puncuation mark?
- What is a proctologist’s favourite steak?
Rump (extra points if you tell this joke while eating rump steak for supper like I did)
You will be pleased to note that this diversion into proctology does have a purpose. It provides a totally non-gratuitous segue way into talking about arseholes – or one arsehole in particular, Owen Farrell.
After the World Cup Rugby semi-finals, I was planning to try out a new motivational running method that I call the Owen Farrell technique. It’s really simple: When you’re exhausted and feel that you can’t take one more step in a marathon, you just picture the smirking, entitled face of Owen Farrell throwing out petulant complaints and then the ref tells you to move forward 10 metres. Just keep repeating the ’10 metres forward’ process and, before you know it, you’re within kicking distance of the finish.
As it turned out, I did not need to apply the Owen Farrell technique because the conversation from Hybré and Frikkie during the race meant that the kilometres sped by. In retrospect, this was a stroke of good fortune because having to visualise Farrell’s smarmy sneer over several painful kilometres would likely have sent me to the psychiatric ward. If anyone does try to stare down the barrel of the Farrell technique at a future Potch Marathon, it’s worth noting that you run past Witrand, the second oldest mental hospital in the country*, several times during the race.
* Valkenberg in Cape Town is the oldest.
Frikkie also taught me his marathon method of breaking the route into days of the week where each ‘day’ is six kilometres long (i.e. so the 4km mark is just after lunch on Monday)*. He told me this at the 35km mark so I optimistically observed that the Springboks were just about to win the World Cup. In keeping with the spirit of this technique, I followed up my prediction by feeling like I had a nasty hangover over the last six ‘Sunday’ kilometres.
* As for the last 200 metres (or when your GPS says you’ve run further than 42.2), you can just pretend that you’re getting some ‘extra weekend’ time.
By this stage of the morning, the clouds had been burnt away by the scorching sun and the temperatures had risen into the low 30s. However, the route is well planned with plenty of shady avenues along the home stretch back to Cachet Park. Water tables along the route were also plentiful (there must have been one every 2km) and well stocked.
A combination of the good weather, great company and flat route meant that I arrived at the finish line 30 minutes faster than at my comeback marathon three weeks earlier at Shikhumba. However, I did have one big regret. When I started the race, my prime objective was to find a Pot, a Chef and a Stroom along the route. I found the chef (see photo below) and the stroom was the unmissable Mooi River flowing into the Potchefstoom Dam but a pot had eluded me.
Once again it was Roland to the rescue – if you’re looking to score some pot in Potch then Roland (a former Pukke) is your go-to-guy. In fact Roland scored a triple play with plenty of pots and chefs alongside the Mooi River. Not only did Roland spot the pot while running around the dam, he was also hungry enough after the race to go back for a closer inspection of the stampmielies and beef curry.
Despite the opening, I will resist the temptation to go back to the topic of curry and its aftereffects. Running a marathon before a World Cup Rugby final is a tradition that I was happy to continue in 2023 but I was pleased that this year’s plans were far better than those I’d made in 2019 (when I had to listen to the match on the radio while driving to East London airport and watch the last 5 minutes at an ethnic hair salon in Stutterheim after the Bonkolo Marathon in Komani).
Whilst the plateau of Potchefstoom kept the heart rates low for her marathon runners on Saturday morning, another one-point victory from the Springboks meant that this runner achieved the beats per minute of a 20-year-old later that night. Unfortunately, after waking up on Sunday morning, I realised that I am no longer able to behave like a 20-year-old. My legs felt really good but my head didn’t.Follow Running Mann: