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Soweto Marathon, a view from the road Print E-mail
08 November 2017
From the crack of dawn, roads towards the FNB stadium are clogged as runners start making their way to FNB Stadium for the start of the Soweto Marathon.

There's an air of anticipation as runners make their way to the starting line, greeting, hugging, chatting and, of course, paying that last visit to the bathroom.

From their different seeding pans, they huddle and chant songs of bravado, warming up for the battle ahead. Lanky top runners seeded A are in front, fancying their chances at the R220 000 prize on offer for the men's and women's winner for 42km. The field cascades downwards from A to F right at the back, based on fitness level.

Seasoned runners, novices and those in-between line up to tackle one of the hardest and hottest marathons on the running calendar, the People's Race.

At 6am sharp, Joburg Community Development MMC Cllr Nonhlanhla Sifumba points a firearm upwards and pulls the trigger to signal the start of the race.

Runners in front bolt forward, chasing after the JMPD lead car and taking with them SABC cameras beaming the spectacle to couch potatoes at home. Elite runners disappear – never to be seen again – as they tussle for glory. On the day, the show will be stolen by Tshepo Mothibelle and Irvette van Zyl, the first man and woman to cross the finish line respectively.

But most of the 25 000-strong field have to wait a few minutes as they push and shove before they can cross the starting line. Far from the SABC cameras, social runners have their own drama captured for posterity. Drones above, expensive cameras, but mostly cellphone cameras click away to produce selfies, portraits and group photos, providing evidence that they too were there.

Forward they go, cheered on by a multitude of spectators, and other runners who will be running 21km and 10km later. With gusto and enthusiasm, they tackle the first 5km, going down Rand Show Road, chatting and laughing along the way.

Diepkloof residents come out in their gowns and pyjamas, some still nursing the hangover from last night, to witness the spectacle of runners in colourful outfits invading their streets. Then there are members of the St Johns Zionist church in their typical blue and white regalia, concluding their night vigil at a house nearby, singing rhythmic hymns to the accompaniment of tamborines and drums while stomping their feet.

Runners look on and some receive this as a blessing they'll need shortly as they start the first ascend towards the Diepkloof Hostel, which dominates the landscape above. It is at this point that the first questions are asked of each runner's fitness level. From the distance, you can see the hostel, a massive structure now converted into family units and newly painted in bright colours to neutralise its masculinity.

After this first hill, runners get a welcome reprieve as they sprint down Chris Hani Road, still jubilant but a little subdued. They negotiate a few inclines to get to Kliptown. At the 12km mark, the earlier exuberance has given way to a more realistic pacing. But it is after turning right from Chris Hani into Koma Road that the Soweto Marathon route starts claiming its first casualties. Many resort to walking the lengthy hill even as crowds start swirling along the road.

It is only when they turn right and are greeted by the bold red and grey structure of the Jabulani Theatre that the runners start regaining their rhythm. It is the halfway mark and the City of Joburg has erected a massive waterpoint, welcoming them with music and dance. From this point it is a nice down run for some 6km or so before the runners hit the notorious hills of Orlando. They soldier on, but the stride in their legs is significantly shorter.

By the time they get to Vilakazi Street, they have mostly resorted to walking. The spirit is festive. Old Mutual has placed huge branding. There are gumboot dancers, pantsula dancers, a drumming group and tourists looking on. But for runners with weary legs, it is a long walk up the road. The achievements of local Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu make runners feel even more unworthy of walking this street.

Some of the runners regain their composure on the down run, until the Orlando Stadium appears looming large at a distance, daring them to climb up. They run and walk, but keep going forward until they hit the dreaded New Canada Road. With some 10km to go, runners are by now tired and grumpy and the heat only wears them down even more. Many dreams of running marathons under four or five hours end here. Sore muscles have to bear the brunt until runners turn right into Main Reef Road. With just 6km to go and the road flatter, you'd expect them to sprint but by now, their legs are way too heavy and uncooperative.

Most are impatient and just bidding their time as they pray for the FNB Stadium to show its face. It's a question of survival until the stadium does appear, reviving the mood, the composure and the rhythm as runners try to sprint to the finish. The packed stadium offers enough inspiration for runners to sprint home. No one wants to be seen walking.

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