Written by: Anja Riise
The Waterberg in South Africa is an incredibly scenic area with an absolutely breath-taking beauty. Every mid-winter the Big Five half and full marathon is hosted in this area, and it too will take your breath away, literally. This year, the 12th annual race saw a total of 285 runners at the starting line, for the half and full marathons, from 32 different countries – a race record.
I work at this event and have no time to run, or so I convince myself. This year however, a couple of colleagues thought it would be a great idea to join in… and for some odd reason, I was caught up in their enthusiasm. And, I did run a couple of times in November, so I thought I would be fine, right?
The first few days were spent acclimatising to the altitude as well as the weather, running outside of the reserve and going on game drives. The day before the race, route inspection let it dawn on us that a scenic landscape naturally entails some vertical challenges.
As the route goes through the reserve, the race briefing included instructions on what to do if any big game was encountered on the track. Rangers are stationed along the route, so if the participants encounter any large animals they can turn back to the nearest one. They also track the lions the day before and stay with them, in shifts, all the through the night – a good thing too, since a lioness made a wildebeest kill right on the full marathon route in the early morning hours. Her two cubs and the big male joined her at the breakfast feast. This meant they probably wouldn’t be wandering off too far anytime soon and those in charge of the race spent the morning re-routing the race.
The first couple of kilometres consist of a gentle incline, which actually didn’t feel all that gentle on foot. We then find ourselves on the plateau of the upper escarpment, with fantastic views and an abundance of grazers. The marimba band really energised us as we proceeded, while blesbok and wildebeest stared at the two-legged runners in confusion, before setting off in a cloud of dust. After a few more kilometres, the half and full marathon routes split. The longer one went to a lookout point with a view of the lower escarpment, before back-tracking to a point where all the participants had to descend to the lower escarpment.
The famous (or infamous) Yellowwood Road is a 2.2km stretch with an altitude difference of 500m and at times the slope is at a 45º angle! This is where our fitness was really tested. The downhill “run” is what had me worried. I needed to keep focused while my thigh muscles battled to keep me from tumbling down the slope gracefully as a log. Reaching the bottom I was welcomed by another band cheering me on and it was pure joy just to have made it down.
The route then took us through a forested area, around a dam where you’re almost guaranteed to find hippos during the mid-day relative warmth. The deep sand here was especially challenging for the full marathon runners that navigate a rather long loop. Unnoticed by the participants, two cheetah brothers had decided to spend the day in the long grass by the dam, only 50m from the track! Driving back to the camp at sunset, most rangers however stopped to reveal where they were still resting and how close we’d been running… Probably a good thing they weren’t tempted to show off their own running skills at the time.
Most changed socks and had their feet washed at the musical water station at the bottom of the hill, before the real fun began; crawling up Yellowwood again! As a half marathon “runner” I also experienced being swiftly bypassed by full route runners on gazelle-like legs, while I was struggling to slowly put one foot in front of the other and not fall over. But it is rather fascinating to see what some focused training might have achieved…
After a slow uphill walk, the drinks offered were more than welcome. I probably downed about a litre of energy drinks, well more than recommended, but at this point it was more about survival than getting a decent time. Arriving at a downhill stretch of hard-packed sand, antelopes kept crossing the path. Then a tricky terrain section a few kilometres before the end tested my no-longer-fantastic focus. Loose rocks on the winding road kept both my legs and brain busy and I could only hope that the wobbly rocks wouldn’t send me flying… This is when most participants confess that it’s the scenery that keeps you going. The surroundings made it enjoyable to just be out in the wild, on a sunny winter’s day.
As I turned a corner, hearing the speaker announcing the names crossing the finishing line. At this point tunnel vision had set in and no amount of cheering could change my pace. Seeing colleagues and friends at the end and catching the scent of lunch was however enough to make me finish with a smile.
This year a 15 minutes’ improvement of the previous course record for the women’s full marathon was made! And, for the first time, first place was shared between the two Danish ladies on gazelle legs I had met at Yellowwood. The three top ladies beat all the men, which is also a first! Definitely an inspiration, and I might be already thinking about “next year”!?
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