The Big-Five Marathon and Half Marathon 2016 in South Africa on the Entabeni game reserve was amazing. This unique race takes place in an African safari game park with lions, elephants, rhinoceros, African buffalo, leopards, cheetahs, hippopotamus, zebra, giraffe, antelope and many more wonderful creatures. The race has been run for the past 12 years without incident. The logistics of the race are quite interesting, how do they keep the runners safe in such a wild environment?
Lions are the main threat to the runners during the race. They are unpredictable and can hide very well. So, the night before the race, all of the rangers need to take shifts finding and watching the lions overnight. This year, the female lions were found close to the route of the marathon with a fresh kill. It was too dangerous to run the race in that area so the organizers of the event had to change the route for the race in the morning. The male lion was a little more difficult to find – the rangers spent all night driving around trying to locate the dominant male lion. It wasn’t until about 7am that they finally found the male. Once he was found, it was safe to go ahead with the race.
The lower escarpment of the Entabeni game reserve has several lakes. The lake that the big-five marathon runs around happened to have a pod of 15 hippopotamus. This doesn’t happen every year but that is how it worked out for 2016. This presented an extra element of danger for the race because the animal that kills the most humans in South Africa is the hippopotamus. The male bull is extremely territorial and although they are very large animals, they move very quickly and have a deadly bite. The route of the half marathon had to run across a low bridge that the hippos often use to get out of the water. Even though there was a ranger posted at the lake to keep an eye on these hippos, I ran that section really fast!
There is a section of the race that runs through a beautiful rocky canyon from the upper to the lower escarpment. This is where the leopards like to hang out. The threat of these beautiful cats was minimal as they generally stay away from people and sleep during the day. There was not a ranger in this area and this is a section of the race where I was alone (or so it seemed) with the next runners 100m ahead and behind me.
One of the most beautiful landscapes while running the big-five marathon is the upper escarpment where you can see herds of wilde beast running in the distance. During the week we had the chance to look at these animals up close while they were grazing. I had never seen one before and I was very surprised to see that they are actually very beautiful. Their coat has a subtle black stripes, their goatee looks soft and shiny and their heads are stunning. The herd seemed to be confused by the long line of running humans, as I saw them running in a line crossing the path, changing directions and going the other way and then changing directions again.
The rhinoceros population is at risk all over the world. Poaching has become rampant in the past 5 years, people are killing this pre-historic animal for their horn. It is a very serious problem in South Africa especially at Kruger park. Entabeni is home to a few families of rhinoceros, their rangers are highly trained and in contact with the anti poaching groups in the area. I feel very lucky I had so many chances to watch them close up – hopefully this is something future generations will be able to say as well.
The Big-Five Marathon is quaint, with only 285 runners for both the full and half marathon from 32 countries. This is good news for the runners because the crowds are not scary and the runners space out quickly putting everyone in their spot relatively quickly.
But the course is not easy. In fact, almost everyone I asked after the race has said this was by far the most difficult marathon they have run. And these are people that have run dozens of races all over the world including the Macchu Picchu, Great Wall of China and Antarctica marathons.
There are two main difficult parts of the race – multiple kms through sand (down where the lions live) and of course the killer 3 km hill. I haven’t spoken to anyone that ran the race that ran up that hill. It was steep.
What the race lacks in ease, it more than makes up in spirit and fun. There were three spots I passed where there was live African music with drums and singing and dancing. I also had the pleasure of sneaking by the hippos, watching the herd of wilde beasts and drinking coca cola along the way.