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The Big Five Marathon – 'The Wildest of Them All'

Look on the five denominations of South African Rand banknotes, and you will see pictures of five different animals; lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhinoceros – Africa's Big Five. Located in South Africa's Limpopo province, the 'Big Five Marathon' actually offers the choice of a full or half marathon to entrants. With a seven hour time limit, and tales of extraordinarily steep and difficult terrain, I opted for the latter on this occasion, having taken around five and a half hours to complete the marathon distance on a relatively flat Rome road course just two months previously. It was the right decision for me!

Of course you wouldn't want to travel nearly six thousand miles just to run a half marathon, so there were plenty of opportunities on the trip to get up close to Africa's wildlife – sometimes too close, but more of that later!! The races are held in the Entabeni Game Reserve, a privately-owned area covering an area of 85 square miles. Entabeni means 'place of the mountain' and the whole area is at a considerable altitude. On the upper escarpment the landscape is dominated by the Entabeni mountain, rising alone from in amongst rolling plains and rocky outcrops. The altitude here is in excess of 5700 feet above sea level. In contrast, the relatively flat lower escarpment is at around 3700 feet above sea level and the only connection between the two is a narrow road, less than a mile and a half long, cutting through Yellow Wood Valley. It doesn't take a great mathematician to conclude that this road is massively steep and is only accessible to a few of the 4-wheel drive vehicles on the reserve, and then never in wet weather.

I travelled to Entabeni with my daughter, Angela, a non-runner but avid wildlife devotee, and we stayed at Ravineside, one of many lodges on the reserve. Here we met eight fantastic people, four from the US and four from New Zealand, who we were to share the most amazing adventure with. Brita and Judy were two young ladies from Virginia in the US, whilst from the West Coast, Rahool and Ketika were brother and sister. From New Zealand, Andrew, a sheep farmer, was the only non-runner in his group, and was supporting his wife, Jan, who was running the full marathon, as was Jan's friend, Linda, who was from the same running club. Finally, also from New Zealand was Lesley, an experienced trail marathon runner and triathlete.

Although the shared objective of running in the African wilderness had already brought a cohesion and closeness to our little group, this was substantially reinforced two days before race day when we were ambushed and chased by six rather angry elephants whilst out on a bush walk! (see 'Hiding Elephants' article on this website).

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Race day dawned with a 5am alarm call, a light breakfast at 5:30 and an hour later we were being driven down to the start area on the upper escarpment. Mercifully, the strong winds of the last couple of days had died down and the weather forecast for the race was good with plenty of warm sunshine.

The full marathon runners set off at 8am. They had an extended uphill section on the upper escarpment taking them out to the Hanglip viewing point. Here they would turn and retrace their steps back to the plains. Crucially, at the turning point, they would be given a plastic wristband to wear, and this was their proof that they had run the whole distance. Without a wristband at the end, they would be disqualified.

As I waited in the roadway for our 8:15am start I felt remarkedly calm considering that even in the most mundane 10K road race at home, there are usually butterflies in the tummy. Perhaps it was because I was unlikely to encounter anything scarier than being chased by elephants, although in this environment anything was possible.

A couple of start-line photographs and then we too were off. A gentle downhill start on a dusty track to begin with and then soon we were climbing the first of many hills. I ran alongside Ketika for a while but she pulled away from me after the first long uphill. Brita and Judy were behind me in the early stages but passed me later as we began the descent of Yellow Wood Valley and I would not see them again until the end. As the plains opened out I ran for a while with Bernard, a South African gentleman of a similar age to me (we were both classified as 'Grand Masters' in the age categories). We paused to take photos of a mother and baby rhino grazing not 50 yards from the track on which we were running. Reassuringly a nearby ranger sat quietly in his vehicle keeping an eye on the pair. Bernard, it turned out, was a Royal Air Force enthusiast and was keen to find out where he could buy a running vest like the one I was wearing. This was from the Royal Air Force Association, the charity for which I was running the race. We spoke of my son, Chris, who is currently serving in the RAF and I told Bernard of the Rome Marathon which I had run with Chris just a couple of months previously.

Our conversation was suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted by large numbers of marathon runners suddenly being amongst us, much, much sooner than expected. Confusion seemed to reign. Some ran past us, turned, and then ran towards us again. Eventually a concensus seem to have been reached and the full and half marathoners were running together towards the top of the Yellow Wood Valley road.

It later emerged that the reason for this confusion was our friends, the elephants! The group that had attacked us two days earlier had congregated on the narrow track to the Hanglip viewing point, and the organisers not wanting to risk yet another incident, had closed the track and turned the runners around. For the marathon runners, this created a problem. The kilometre markers they were passing were now wildly inaccurate and much more optimistic than the distance they had actually covered. It was a headache for the organisers as well. Even as the race was being run, they were calculating 2 extra loops on the upper escarpment later in the race to make up the full marathon distance. Furthermore the point at which the confirmation wrist bracelets were handed out now had to be relocated, with the new information being conveyed to the runners at the aid stations en route.

As we started the deep descent down the valley, I ran for a while with Linda and Jan, and Lesley also sped by. Running down a long hill may sound like nirvana but this was so steep that the brakes constantly had to be applied to avoid you going out of control and crashing into the huge fallen boulders that littered either side of the road. At times the gradient eased a little and it was possible to free-wheel for a while but always in the knowledge that the brakes might suddenly have to be applied again as we rounded a sharp bend. At the foot of the hill was an aid station where I grabbed some more water which was provided in rectangular sealed plastic bags. With practise you could tear off one corner with your teeth, drink what you needed and then carry the rest with you sealing the hole between your fingers and thumb – a lot easier than carrying a bottle or trying to drink from a cup.

We now entered a flat lap around a lake where we had seen a large crocodile just days earlier. This part of the route had looked so appealing from the comfort of the route recce jeep just a day earlier. However the sand on the track was a lot deeper than it had looked, and I was quickly reminded of just how hard it is to run in deep sand, lessons I had learnt in past desert races. However, it wasn't too long a section and soon I was back on a firmer surface, passing a ranger's jeep with a large sign on the back stating that 'Africa is not for wusses'!!

Now I was back at the foot of Yellow Wood Valley and the long steep climb began. It was relentless; some sections required your hands to be clamped to the front of your thighs to give you extra stability and power, others actually required both hands and feet to be on the road. Rahool, running the full marathon passed me part way up the hill and boosted my confidence by saying how fresh I was looking! I wasn't feeling it! I would set small targets maybe 50 yards ahead – a boulder, a bush or a tree; drive myself towards it and then take a few seconds breather while I looked ahead to pick out the next target. Some people seemed better able to cope with the hill; others sat motionless at the side of the road almost in tears. One person was running some of the less steep sections by zig-zagging backwards and forwards across the road, reducing the gradient but increasing the distance. There was a welcome drink stop halfway up, and then the relentless climb continued. I rounded a bend and there was a lady with a video camera urging me to run. I managed maybe 10 paces before my legs turned to blancmange!

Finally the height of the ravine walls began to lessen, the gradient started to ease and finally we were back on the open plains of the upper escarpment. The next few miles were relatively flat by comparison and I was able to run long sections. Herds of wildebeest were galloping across the wide plains and it was indescribably awesome and such a privilege to be racing in an environment like this. At the next water stop a band of African drummers and dancers beat out a rhythm for us to run to. Again, I came across Bernard, my South African friend, and we ran and walked together for quite some time. He spoke with delight of the extensive coverage of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations on South African TV and, as I had done earlier, thanked the powers-that-be that, despite our advancing years, we were still able enjoy running in such a fabulous, natural setting, with such fantastic wildlife around us.

In the final few kilometres, the track became steeper with much more loose rock. Nobody wanted to fall or twist an ankle at this stage and so we slowed. We came across a dead wildebeest by the roadside – apparently a natural death rather than being the victim of a predator. A ranger stood nearby, apparently to discourage hyenas from congregating near the running route. I took a photograph of the animal and then the ranger offered to take a photograph of me with it. I knelt beside the animal, taking its horn into my fingers and offered a silent prayer for the old fellow.

Then we could see the lake below us. Bernard wanted to stop for a breather so I ran on and completed the last couple of kilometres alone. As I approached the final bend, a small truck by the roadside was relaying my running number to the finish so when I turned and saw the finish banner less than 100 yards away, I heard my name being called out over the tannoy and could hear Brita and Judy shouting me home. A large man came out from the crowd and high-fived me. I crossed the line, my arms outspread. Somebody, I don't remember who, hung a medal round my neck. I spotted Angela near the finish line waving. She had been trying to get photos of me finishing but the large man who had high-fived me had stepped in her way. Apparently he was a little the worse for wear for drink! We shared hugs with Ketaki, Brita and Judy while we waited for the full marathoners to finish. Ketaki, who had never run the half marathon distance before, and had trained on the flat Los Angeles coastline cooled by Pacific breezes, had completed this most difficult of runs in under 3 hours and was understandably delighted. I had taken just over 3 and a half hours, with Brita and Judy finishing together around 10 minutes in front of me. We each wore our medals with pride.

The half-cut man stopped by again with a large coolbox. "Would you like a fruit juice or would you like a cold beer?" he asked. I settled for the latter!