Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala Marathon (The show aint over…)


[MARATHON #259 / UNIQUE MARATHON #155 / 4 February 2024]

My mission to run every marathon in South Africa took me to Ladysmith on the first weekend of February for the Dr. Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala Marathon. Most of the KwaZulu Natal marathons are run on a Sunday so my frequent travel companion, Julian Karp, and I took a relaxed Saturday afternoon drive down the N3.

I had booked us accommodation at Farquar Lodge since the ratings were good, the price was affordable and I knew that there was a good “Farquar”-ing chance that I’d be able to make a joke or two about the venue name in the race report.

Julian and I popped through to registration and topped up our R300 entry fee (which includes a race shirt) with a R60 taxi ride ticket to the start. The race starts at 5am and the taxis leave at 3:30am which means a really early wake up (which is a problem for me because according to my daughter I cannot afford to lose any more beauty sleep).

The stated start was Kirkintulloch Primary School and this is where the taxi dropped us. The actual start was about 1km further down the road. However, this did allow for a few teacher / school kid jokes amongst the runners before we were chaperoned (like naughty school children) out of the school grounds and directed to the start line.

Naughty kids to the back of the class.

The race commemorates the founder and group leader of 5-time Grammy award winners Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In my sleep deprived state, I wondered whether the logistical challenges of a point-to-point race were justified but was informed that the start has significance as Kirkintulloch Primary School was where the late Shabalala spent most of his formative years.

Waiting for enough light to start the race.

The race ended up starting slightly after 5am as the referees wanted to wait for enough sunlight to avoid any of the elite athletes breaking a leg in the potholes. The race offers excellent prize money (R35,000 for first place down to R1,000 for 10th) and lucrative age category prizes as well (e.g. the fastest 70+ runner earns R3,000) so the field attracts most of the top local talent*. Maybe not quite generous enough to put ‘diamonds on the soles of your shoes‘ but definitely enough to afford some carbon plating.

* I was surprised to see that there was money left of the table in some of the age categories and simply finishing would have earned an ‘open’ lady the R1,500 9th position prize.

The runners negotiated the gravel section without incident but one car was not so lucky.

Although the runners seemed to negotiate the uneven terrain over the first kilometre without incident, one motorist was not so lucky. After the short gravel section, it was onto the tarmac accompanied by a spectacular sunrise.

Another spectacular South African sunrise.

I thought that the organisers had missed a trick in not getting the marathon going with a medley of famous Ladysmith Black Mambazo melodies*. However, this gap in the aural ambiance was filled from the backpack of Comrades qualification bus driver Mandla Dladla.

* Ladysmith Black Mambazo have done collaborations with many famous artists including Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban, Emmylou Harris and Melissa Etheridge. However, it’s a pity we never saw a Ladysmith Black Sabbath supergroup – imagine Ozzy Osbourne belting out ‘Shosholoza’ or ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ to the backing of Mambazo harmonies.

Mandla got the morning going with ‘Shosholoza’ so I guess it was a case of ‘a Mandla awethu’ for bringing the power of music to the marathon. A little further on, I asked Mandla if he’d be playing Ladysmith Black Mambazo tunes all the way to Ladysmith but he said he only had 10 on his playlist. However, he does do special requests as you can see and hear in the the video below.

The Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala Marathon* is quite a mouthful so naturally organisers chose an abbreviated version for the route markings. Whilst BJS is the obvious acronym, the road markings may cause some confusion (and disappointment) for non-runners after the race. Imagine the anticlimax for some poor villager who follows the BJS trail for 42.2km only to arrive at an empty stadium.

* But is still a lot shorter than his full birthname of Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandia Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala.

The Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala Marathon road markings may cause some confusion (and disappointment) for non-runners after the race. Imagine the anticlimax for some poor villager who follows the trail for 42.2km only to arrive at an empty stadium.

Ladysmith itself was named in 1850 after a Spanish noblewoman with an equally long name, Juana María de los Dolores de León Smith. Lady Smith was married to Harry Smith (a 19th-century British governor and high commissioner of the Cape Colony) after whom the nearby Free State town of Harrismith is named (and in our country’s rich tradition of cadre deployment, the town of Ladismith in the Cape is also named after Juana).

Runners on the left, bovines on the right. The ‘Black’ in Ladysmith Black Mambazo comes from the black ox which is seen as the strongest farm animal.

Whilst on the topic of names, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, also has an interesting story. The first element, ‘Ladysmith’, is a straightforward link to the hometown of Shabalala’s family, ‘Black’ is for the black ox which is considered by local Zulu villagers to be the strongest farm animal, whist ‘Mambazo’ means “axe” in isiZulu as the group used to “chop down” all their rivals at weekend singing competitions. The group were so good and won every competition they entered that they were eventually banned from competing but were allowed to perform at the events to show off their talents.

Relentless rolling hills on the edge of the Drakensburg.

The route is a series of relentless rolling hills on the edge of the Drakensburg with the highest point just before the halfway mark and the lowest point just after 30km. However, with a total elevation gain of 393m, I would classify the course as moderate. The big difficulty factor with an early February race date is the heat. It wasn’t long before the friendly rays of the newborn sun were replaced but the glaring beams of a tempestuous teenager.

The route is 30km of country running with the last quarter covering Ladysmith town.

This was the second year that the race was run. I got feedback from runners that there were some issues with the inaugural run like a lack of water but these had all been addressed in 2024 – and we enjoyed a well-organised run with plenty to eat and drink along the way.

The climb into Ladysmith.

After 30 kilometres running through the pristine KwaZulu Natal countryside, the Shabalala Marathon takes their runners into Ladysmith. This is a rude shock to the system which starts with the steepest hill of the race, after which your mental fortitude is tested with a 5km dog’s leg slog up and down Farquar Road in the 30°C heat. I knew that I would get more mileage out of Farquar Road in this report – I just didn’t realise that the mileage would be literal not figurative. However, this stretch did seem to bring out the maternal instincts of many marathoners who were overheard muttering, “Mother Farquhar!”.

The final quarter of the marathon includes a 5km dog’s leg slog up and down Farquhar Road in the 30°C heat. This seemed to bring out the maternal instincts of many marathoners who were overheard muttering, “Mother Farquhar!” (left photo courtesy Livhuwani Muriel Tshilate).

Earlier in the race, I was perturbed to see that the local health and safety officers were expecting the worst with their marathon field as this was the first time I’d seen a meat wagon bearing a trailer to carry additional supplies for those wounded on the battlefields into Ladysmith.

The ambulance came armed with extra supplies for the battlefields of Ladysmith.

Ladysmith featured prominently in the Second Boer War with a series of battles and skirmishes centred around the 118-day Siege of Ladysmith (2 November 1899 to 28 February 1900). Interestingly, two internationally famous figures, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi were present at the siege as a war correspondent and stretcher-bearer respectively.

The final few kilometres take one along Ladysmith’s main road where one gets to see some of the old war machines on display (to be clear, I’m talking about the tanks not Prem Ramraj who appears in the photos below). I thought it was a nice touch that the bollards are in artillery shell format.

Some old war machines and Prem Ramraj.

However, a little further down the high street it appeared that some actual artillery shells had hit the pavements recently. I remember my father frequently complaining to my teenage self that, “Your room looks like a bomb’s hit it!”, the same could be said for this part of downtown Ladysmith.

Some parts of the CBD did look like a bomb had recently hit it.

Although there was no music at the start, I could hear the harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo as we neared the stadium. I arrived home just in time to get my medal. It seemed that there was a in-race shortage and a new consignment was being freshly unpacked. This being KwaZulu Natal, there was strict stock control and earlier finishers were made to stand in line so that their race number was diligently captured to check that no one was doubling down for a second medal. This seemed like a bit of a redundant exercise since most people don’t know what to do with their race medals in the first place so I would doubt anyone would try to grab duplicates.

Queueing for medals.

As I waited for Julian’s arrival, I noticed that there was another line even longer than the medal queue. It turned out that this was for a complimentary boerewors roll which is always appreciated after a marathon.

Queueing for boerie rolls.

The race is a fitting commemoration to the memory of Dr. Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandia Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala who passed on 11 February 2020. The show may not be over until the fat lady sings but it’s nice to know that Lady Smith will provide an annual concert venue to honour the legacy of one of South Africa’s legends. The drumbeat of a couple of hundred marathon runners’ feet harmonise wonderfully with the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Signing out from the Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala Marathon. Look out for the next race report from the Kloppers Marathon in Bloemfontein.
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2 Replies to “Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala Marathon (The show aint over…)”

  1. Your room never looked quite as bad as that, however I do remember a time when you almost burnt the house down, and another time when you turned up clutching a traffic cone.

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