An African marathon adventure.
I first heard of the Big 5 Marathon when it popped up on my Facebook feed from 2:09 Events. They run the Bacchus Marathon and the Farnborough Half, which I have done, amongst other events. They are also the UK agent for the sports tours to many big races around the world. As soon as I saw the short video about the event I knew I had to do it. Finding out it would be part of a safari package which combines big game and running, my two favourite things, there was no way I could pass it up. My wife supports me at all of my races and joins me in some and she was good enough to agree to make it part of our annual holiday.
I opted to take the 7 day tour which gave me a few days to settle in and relax before the big day, whilst mingling with the other runners. The reserve was exclusively for runners and their supporters for the whole period so I was surrounded by like minded fools!
The day before the race was route inspection day. You can get an idea of what to expect from the promo videos and descriptions on the Big 5 website, but the route inspection makes it real. We were all taken to the start in 10 seater jeeps, all 320 marathon and half marathon runners, then driven the full course in those jeeps. Well, this really hammered home what a challenge this event would be. I put my estimated finish time back by an hour after this! The route is on the roads and tracks around the reserve. You're in with the animals, no fences, no ditches, no rivers to cut them off. As we drove the route we saw rhino, ostriches, wildebeest, all sorts of antelope, giraffe and zebra to name a few. The lions weren't visible on the course.
The big feature of the route is the mountain. You run a couple of sections on the upper escarpment of the reserve and a section on the lower escarpment. In between you have to run down and then back up the mountain. The start is at one of the reserve lodges and it’s stunning. Cut into the hill, set beside a lake, the views were breath-taking. You get a 1km warm up down hill before you turn uphill on a real tester that takes you all the way to the first checkpoint at 10k. Some stretches were rocky and at least once the jeep had to be in 4WD mode. The good news is you run back down about 4km of the same stretch then continue on a gentle downhill across the savannah of the upper escarpment. All good so far but the steep descent is next and the jeeps were locked into 4WD. In all this hill is 3km long and we dropped 350m in elevation. When I write that down it doesn't seem so bad so I have to remind myself that I did a really hilly half marathon that only had a total elevation gain of 320m.
IMAGE: Route Inspection
The lower escarpment is relatively flat but it's mostly on sandy roads through bush. In total there was 9km of sand to cover. As we passed one of the small lakes a crocodile was basking in the sun close to the road. This was also prime elephant terrain and the evidence was all around in the dung heaps and destroyed trees.
The end of the sand brings you back to the hill, this time we were going up. This was also the first cut off point. The driver locked the 4WD and shouted "don't drop anything as we ain’t stopping!. If we stop we won't get going again". And its obvious why, we seemed to point straight up. This was gruelling in a jeep. The engine was screaming and we made slow progress. The steepest section of hill is concrete road, necessary for the jeeps to make it, but proved to be a bonus for the runners too. No way would you want to run this section on dirt road. At the top we were back on the savannah with stunning views and animals to see. Even more welcome was a nice downhill stretch on firm, relatively even dirt road. The route followed a valley, along one side, round the end and along the other side. The start of the valley road would be checkpoint two, the first that my group would be concerned about reaching before the cut off. This is a tough course and the valley road ends with another couple of steep climbs, one at 39km, that was daunting. There was also a final descent to the finish which really tested the jeeps. It was just so rocky we bounced about all over the road and the passengers joked about having a safari massage from the jeep seats! This looked ridiculously challenging considering how tired we would be.
I got to know a couple of American runners, Steven and Liz, on the airport transfer and we had agreed to run the whole way together, which was to be great fun. Having seen the route we decided our 5 hour target was nuts so we moved it back to 6 hours. The maximum time allowed was 7 hours. Keeley from London had been in my jeep on the route drive and was a bit concerned about making the cut off if I was going for 6 hours as she knew I had just run a 3:22 marathon.
Race day couldn't come quick enough for me, I had been waiting 10 months for this. There was a lot of razzmatazz before the start and a great party atmosphere. I was mingling with runners from all over the world, 39 nations in all, chatting to people I had met on safari drives or in the restaurant as well as a huge number of new people.
The race start was delayed last year by elephants on the route, no trouble at the start at least this year. A total of 174 of us set off for the full marathon in great spirits. The whole area is set on red sandstone so the paths are red dirt. I had no idea how much red dust that many runners could generate! Runners get very dusty from the start. My group struck up conversations as we went with people from loads of countries, one of the things I really loved about this race. The camaraderie was awesome, from start to finish. I ran past Keeley not long after the start who was in great spirits, her only concern was the go pro harness she was wearing annoying her, not the cut off points.
The first section was relatively comfortable even with the hills. We witnessed a stampede of about 30 wildebeest running right across the track which spooked everyone around. Some runners ahead were only just missed. One straggling wildebeest went bounding across our path about 20m ahead, nearly taking out my friend Liz. That got the adrenaline buzzing. I loved this section as runners who had already been through he turnaround were coming back to us and everyone was high fiving and shouting encouragement. Water stations were really frequent and were serving coke, electrolyte drinks, bananas and water in plastic pouches. And it was cool and delicious. Despite this being mid winter it was still very warm. Liz and I are big sweaters and were both concerned about hydration but we were always close to drinks. On this downhill stretch I struck up a conversation with a couple of South Africans just after the turn. One of them was doing his first marathon, maybe they are just hardcore over there but we all thought he was nuts!
Going down the big hill was weird. It was the steepest incline I have ever run and it was really tough to go down. We didn't go any faster here than we did on the flat. It was tough on the knees, quads and toes. You know when you run a regular race there will be people speeding past you on the down hills, well not here. Everyone was doing the same steady approach. We were all glad when we reached the bottom.. At this point we were on 5 hour pace but with the toughest terrain still to come. We took our time at all the aid stations and there was a group of staff from one of the lodges at the station at the bottom of the hill. I took some selfies here and as I did, the leader came past to run back up the hill. He was flying!
Image: Water stop at the end of the big downhil!
The 9km stretch of sand was a killer. We jogged where it was firm and walked when it was deep. Which was a lot. The guides said the deep sand was more extensive this year. My running buddies were starting to struggle and this was when we had to keep each other going. Keeley passed me in the sandy stretch, looking strong, still griping about the go-pro only this time because the battery had run out. I was keeping an eye on time as nobody wanted a DNF but we were well ahead of schedule and despite the strength sapping sand we made the next checkpoint and cut off with 50 minutes to spare. Now here's a thing none of us had ever seen, a foot spa at the water station. People had a chance to get sand out of their shoes and socks and have their feet washed! Bizarre! I was wearing Montane gaiters which were brilliant. I had only worn these gaiters in one trail race as a test and was really impressed with how effective they were. I wasn't sure they could keep sand at bay but they could, I had no sand in my shoes at all.
None of my group wanted to stop for a foot massage so we hit the wall, the affectionate name for the hill we had to climb. It was ridiculous. Nobody even attempted a run, including the leading runners apparently. Walking was gruelling. Liz and Steven were really puffing now and we stopped frequently for everyone to recover. They weren't quitters though and responded to encouragement, I think this is where I broke out the jelly babies too. At the top we had a well earned drink, a banana and lots of cheering from the supporters there, the only place on the route they were allowed. It felt good, although I was now worried about the next cut off and the 7 hour limit as we had used a lot of time on the hill.
Image: View from the big hill
As we moved on from the aid station I did some sums and told the others the pace we needed to maintain to have a comfortable buffer. Steven was shot at this point. I knew he had the mental resolve to finish this but he was drained physically. Liz got the message and encouraged us all into a run. Each km we ran pushed the cut off line further away which was good. We were heading into the valley now on to what is known as the Long Drive and everyone was using a run walk strategy. This gave us a lot of time to talk to other runners, which I love. I was well within my comfort zone so tried to keep everyone else's energy up. Hopefully I wasn't annoying the hell out of them. It seemed to help keep everyone going, Steven eventually got a second wind and Liz encouraged us into regular marathon shuffles. We had made the final checkpoint with time to spare and I knew, in principle, we were in no danger of a DNF.
We battled the final hills and started the descent to the finish, only to meet other runners coming back up the hill towards us. My first thought was that we had taken a wrong turn. Actually they had been turned back by rangers as elephants were blocking the route. At the race briefing we were told to obey the rangers, if they said stop there was real danger ahead. We shuffled down to the rangers who were brilliant. They were very clear, nobody was running on. They were taking runners in jeeps past the elephants and dropping them 200m from the finish, so we could run the last stretch. Sadly I witnessed some runners arguing with them. We were at 41k so did what everyone else was doing and ran around until we hit 42k. This was really bizarre, we did a 300m loop with lots of other runners who all wanted watches to record the full distance, but while it was all part of the experience, there was no way any of us wanted a 41k marathon on our stats. We had a bit of a debate about what this would mean in terms of the cut off time of 7 hours to complete the race. I had 42k on my watch and the time was 6:39. A delay waiting for a jeep could tip us over the 7 hour limit and the discussion in our jeep was what would they do if we arrived at the finish, through no fault of our own, later than 7 hours. In the end it wasn’t an issue but it certainly would have been for people behind us. The trip past the elephants in the jeep did mean that we missed the final, treacherous rocky downhill section which we were all thoroughly grateful for. We struggled out of the jeep, linked hands and ran to the finish to be met by our partners. We were given a cold beer and a great medal and tee. Everyone was pleased to be finished, grateful we had each other but mostly delighted by the amazing experience we just had. I managed to find Keeley and was chuffed she had finished 20 minutes ahead of my group, never in danger of the cut off.
Image: Finishers group
The Big 5 Marathon is one of several organised by Albatros Adventure Marathons. All my dealings with them, their tour guides at the resort and 2:09 events have been fantastic. I will definitely recommend both organisations to any runner. Everything from my initial enquiries, making my booking and the race experience was so smooth, really professional. The race itself was well organised. The only thing I might change is adding a water station half way up the hill. We were on it for a long time and could have used more water. There was a fantastic after party the following day too and we had a lot of fun with the runners, tour guides and rangers.
I have to say this has been pretty expensive, but it has been an incredible experience. There is a 5 day tour and an 7 day tour and a choice of lodges to stay in at the game reserve starting from £1529 per person this year. I chose the longer tour because I wanted more safari drives but the runners experience will be much the same regardless of which package you pick. Its worth noting flights are not included.
This really was an adventure, an amazing running experience. Plus I have two new friends for life in Steven and Liz. If you love running, love animals, love runners and like a challenge, have a think about doing the Big 5, I have no idea how I am going to top it. If I can ever top this.