[MARATHON #254 / UNIQUE MARATHON #151 / 12 November 2023]
I ran my first marathon in 2002 and ended the year with 7 marathons completed (4 standards and 3 ultras). Until now, Covid years excluded, that was my worst year of running. Unfortunately, I will definitely slump to a new low score in 2023 but there was one silver lining – the lack of marathon travel meant that I still had one 75% Vitality discount return flight that needed to be used before the year was done. This justified an otherwise unaffordable flight to Mthatha for the Cheetahs Marathon by knocking R4,000 off the airfare.
The alternate way to get to Mthatha from Joburg at a reasonable cost is to fly to East London, hire a car and do the three-hour drive along the N2. This was the routing Julian Karp had chosen (after running the Jacaranda Marathon on Saturday morning) so I collected his race number for him. Cheetahs would be Julian’s 923rd marathon and 8th in 4 weekends. Based on his diet of ‘two marathons a weekend’, I noted that it was highly appropriate that Julian has been allocated race number 4242.
With his long flowing hair and open-armed running style, Julian is nicknamed “Jesus” by the Transkei running community and the organisers were very pleased when I told them not to worry as “Jesus was coming back again”. Julian has a variety of nicknames round the country but the man most likely to be the first South African to clock 1,000 official marathon finishes is definitely King of the Julians.
To get to start one needs to catch an authentic Transkei taxi (the fare was R36 – less than a rand a kilometre – and I am sure that there are runners out there who remember when marathon entry fees were as low as that). I am normally quite tardy in the morning but Julian and I ended up boarding the first taxi to depart. We were treated to some ear thumping local dance tunes on the journey to the start. I am not sure if this musical genre has an official classification but I would call it Trans music.
The early bird might get the worm but the first taxi goes to the wrong start (in this case that of the Elliot Madeira Marathon which starts about a kilometre further down the road). When it comes to road running in the Transkei, I was told that “Things work differently here.” For example, all the other athletics provinces have a formal process to agree and schedule events on their annual calendar (some are more efficient than others). Transkei Athletics just issues a press release telling the clubs to let them know when and where they want to hold races for the next year.
Whilst things might work differently here, they tend to work out well in the end. The organisers figured out that they were missing a few taxi loads of runners at the proper start and made arrangements to get everyone transported back to the official start and lined up before 6am. Whilst starting a marathon on a national road would raise eyebrows almost everywhere else, the temporarily shut down of the N2 to erect an impromptu sound stage and start banner was conducted without fuss or incident.
I had made one previous visit to Mthatha for the Heroes Marathon which also used the N2 (albeit in the opposite direction) for a large portion of the route and the one other marathon in town, the Elliot Madeira, follows a similar route to Cheetahs. I’m not sure why Transkei race organisers don’t consider other routing options but perhaps this is because the N2 is the only road in the area without major potholes*.
* The Amathole Marathon, also run in the Eastern Cape, was cancelled this year because the potholes were too dangerous to run on (let alone drive on).
However, it is a bit of a pity one does not get to explore the villages a little more. There were no toilets at the start (something that I am assured will be corrected next year) which meant I did manage to do a slight village detour along the route under the protective cover of an abandoned half-built house. Other than successfully completing this side quest, the route has no deviations off the N2 until the last few hundred metres when you veer right onto the Mthatha sportsfields.
The route is best described as rolling hills from start to finish. Two weeks ago in Potchefstroom, the only hills were speedbumps over the railway line. On the road to Mthatha, the only flat stretch of road was the bridge over the railway line.
The amount of rocking thrown in with the rolling hills does however vary. The first few kilometres are gentle soft rock and rolling hills, then there are a couple of hard rock and rolling tracks to get you to the 10km mark at Qunu (Nelson Mandela’s childhood home and burial site). Here the route goes full-on Spinal Tap and the electric guitars are cranked up to eleven on the amp.
I have no idea how many times a young Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela walked from Qunu to town but I wouldn’t be surprised if the five-kilometre ascent toward Mthatha was the subliminal inspiration behind his famous autobiography, The Long Walk To Freedom.
However, for this runner, there was still a lot of struggle to go before freedom could be found in Mthatha. The highest point of the route was still to come at 27km. From there one drops 200m over the last 15km but there are still plenty of uphills to counter one’s charge to the finish.
Although you are running on a national road, the scenery is picturesque with green valleys melting into mountain ranges. The landscape is broken by sporadic villages with the characteristic rondavels dominating the architecture.
The traffic is not bad on a Sunday morning and there are plenty of traffic vehicles playing defense for the runners. There was even a car that drove behind the sub-4:50 Comrades qualification bus almost the whole way. However, the traffic does get noticeably heavier as one enters Mthatha again.
The race is sponsored by one of the local businesses, Tyeks Security, and apparently so many other local businesses were lining up to help out on race day that you run with luxury of having water tables every two kilometres along the route and over the last few kilometres they were spaced a kilometre apart. This suited me perfectly since I was running table to table and, while I didn’t need much water with the cool weather, I did enjoy the frequent walk breaks.
The tables started with just the basic water sachets for the first 10km, then added Coke and Powerade and by the end many were offering a large selection of fruit and other food like potatoes and sweets. However, one particular table caught my eye – that of Titi Funerals. Their slogan is “Striving to render the best” but I wondered if there was a typo and “best” should have been “breast*”.
* If this is the case some alternate slogans would be, “When you want to leave this world with a smile on your face.” and “Putting the FUNbags back into FUNerals.”
Fortunately the Comrades qualification bus was just behind me and, not wanting to leap to Tom Curry-like conclusions with my Anglo-Saxon heritage, I decided to slow down and gain some local knowledge. I was told that Titi is popular surname but in isiXhosa a ‘titi’ is also baby’s bottle (and was indeed derived from the English word with the same phonetics). On that basis, it might be advisable to avoid potential future international incidents and inform the English rugby team that if a Springbok offers a ‘suck on my titi’ it might not mean what they think it means.
I had chatted to the bus driver, Papic, earlier in the race shortly after we crossed the Qunu River. He was holding a bamboo flagstick to advertise the details of this bus. I took the opportunity to visit the Nelson Mandela Museum* before the race and learnt that Madiba’s birth name, Rolihlahla, means “pulling the branch of a tree”. The bus drivers held bamboo flagsticks as they pulled their passengers along – so perhaps we should call our stick wielding pacesetters “Rolihlahlas” from now on.
* Highly recommended to spend a couple of hours in the museum if you visit Mthatha. It’s really well done and inspirational.
I had also cashed in on my Vitality benefits for discounted accommodation close to the finish at a place called Cycad Stay. As luck would have it, the proprietor is a Cheetahs AC club member which meant there was no problem getting a late checkout so that I could shower and relax before my flight home (would highly recommend this accommodation for those visiting in future).
Cheetahs are the largest running club in the area and, with all their members on raceday support duty, they did well to get 192 marathoners, 270 halves and 168 10km runners in just their second year of organising this event.
With a 5pm flight home and a post-marathon shower secured, I was in no rush to finish and spotted one last photo opportunity with a prominent stone structure to commemorate the naming of Nelson Mandela Drive. However, some creative but rather macabre vandals have now removed most of the letters so that the sign now reads, “Son Dead”. You can only work with what you’re given but taking the “M” out of “Hermanus” produces far more amusing results (which a group of schoolboys allegedly did back in 1993). Having played around with the wording for a bit, some other options would have been ‘so man drive’, ‘son and lad’, ‘loan dead’ and ‘man lie’.
I had spotted Dean Venish & Son snapping away along the route – as well their buzzing drone at the turnoff to Coffee Bay. Dean uses the drone to produce a lovely race video which can be viewed here (check out the half hour mark of the race video where I spotted the drone and the drone spotted me). I also managed to capture the man himself at the finish line. If you want the Venish’s watermark to vanish then it’s just R25 a photo (that about $1/€1 for international runners).
Check out the photo album here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/Q8uuub2tnA7uv4S79
Based on the most recent census results, Mthatha is one of the least diverse cities in South Africa with 95% of the residents classified as “Black African”. However, marathon running in Mthatha probably has the most body-type diversity in the country. Mthatha marathons prove that people of all shapes and sizes can run a marathon. As someone who is steadily becoming a more well-rounded individual, I draw inspiration from this.
Transkei is one of the hardest places to get to for a marathon but it should be on everyone’s bucket list. You are always guaranteed fantastic hospitality and a unique running experience. If I do find myself with some surplus flight discounts and a marathon deficit to deal with in future years, the Cheetahs Marathon will be top of my list.
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