There’s something about the half marathon distance that I’ve begun to enjoy more and more in recent times. Perhaps that’s because I’ve grown older and slower, or perhaps it’s because my dodgy right knee is making racing decisions for me; but whatever the reason the half marathon is now my favourite racing distance. I love the fact that 21 kilometres is a serious challenge but without the major strife that comes with a full marathon distance or even tougher, an ultramarathon.
Happily, there is a really full calendar of half marathon races in SA and most full marathons offer a half marathon as part of their programme. Over the years I have run hundreds of half marathons and I have several firm favourites but last month I was reminded of my all- time favourite when I ran my 18th Skukuza Castle lager half marathon in the Kruger National Park.
I am always wary of using clichés but if ever there was a bucket list event the Skukuza half marathon is pure bucket list. It is excitingly unique for a number of reasons. The first obvious attraction is that this is a race run in one of the World’s most famous game reserves, and a game reserve which boasts all of Africa’s Big 5. Over the years some of the members of this Big 5 club have been in close proximity to the Skukuza half marathon runners.
As if to remind runners exactly where they are running the race is started with a loud tape recording of a lion’s roar. As these roars fade into the distance runners run a lap of the Skukuza cricket oval and then head out for a few kilometres in Skukuza village before plunging into the bushveld. There is an almost surreal atmosphere as a long stream of brightly clothed runners wends its way along dirt roads, past thorny acacias and termite mounds. Snorting and grunting hippo greet runners as they wend their way past Lake Panic, occasionally startled impala spring away crashing through the bush accompanied by squealing warthogs.
Thankfully the route and the runners are guarded by heavily armed rangers, but while running this year I recall thinking that the rangers were looking the wrong way. They were looking at the runners and shouting encouragement, but I felt very strongly that they should rather be looking deeply into the trees and bushes behind them for any lurking dangers.
And over the years there have been a few interesting sightings. Two year’s ago an irritable black rhino refused to be turned away from its path to drink at Lake Panic and I can recall one race where a helicopter was used to turn a herd of buffalo. Most famously the race once had to be shortened because 3 lionesses were lying in the road on the race route. The lionesses weren’t going to move so that year the race was shortened to a 14 kilometre run.
The Castle Lager Skukuza half marathon is not an easy race. It starts later than most races, at 8.30 because many runners have to drive from neighbouring Kruger park camps. It is always hot and dry and the dirt roads have some long steady climbs. Perhaps the most bizarre part of the route is the 3 kilometre stretch down the H-11 from the turn-off to Lake Panic to a rough path back into Skukuza Village. The sun bakes off the hot tar road and startled tourists stare disbelievingly from their air-conditioned cars at the incongruous sight of dozens of sweating runners plodding steadily to Skukuza. Some even snap photographs as if they were photographing a rare sighting of a leopard on a kill in a tree.
The sponsors seconding table at 19 kilometres is always a very welcome sight as it heralds the last climb of the race and for many runners offers the chance to sample some of the sponsors ice cold products. There are plenty of takers.
The race is incredibly popular and entries are limited, so many runners enter the following year’s race as they cross the finish line. This means that entries are limited. There is a lucky draw for entries but a donation of R800 to a conservation fund guarantees an entry. Funds raised from these donations help to support many of the Park’s important projects such as cheetah and wild dog research and the study of endangered herbivores on the Northern Plains.
Finally, there is the Kruger Park itself. Almost every runner stays an extra few days before or after the race. It’s such a treat to be a running tourist. As I write this I am busy organising my trip next August to the half marathon and to the park itself.
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