The Big Five Marathon is an annual event held at the end of June during the Winter.
Despite being Winter, the temperatures often reach mid 20s Celsius, while temperatures plummet during the evening.
The event is managed by Albatros Adventure Marathons and can be booked direct through them or through agencies like Travelling Fit. Because of the nature of the event and accommodation limitations within the reserve the event must be booked as part of a package and can be modified to incorporate additional travel to suit the individual. Rates are dependent upon the accommodation type selected but start at approximately $3600 pp twin share including race entry, T-shirt, 5 nights’ accommodation, coach transfers to and from O R Tambo airport, three game drives with the option of purchasing extra and all meals.
Entabeni which in Zulu means place of mountains is located 268km to the NW of Johannesburg and takes approximately 4 hours to drive. Guides holding Marathon signs meet runners at the airport arrivals hall and a large modern coach transports the athletes to the Entabeni game reserve. Johannesburg is not a safe city and pre-organised transfers are highly recommended. Our flight did not connect with transfers, so we had to fly in two days early and stayed at the Holiday Inn Johannesburg Airport Hotel which provides free and safe transfers to and from O R Tambo airport.
Upon arrival to the reserve the coach is met by several off-road safari vehicles. The terrain is not suitable for the coach and all runners must swap onto the safari vehicles. Luggage is handled by the guides who drop the bags off at the various lodges. Guests are greeted by multiple animals and welcomed to each of the lodges with a buffet lunch filled with an array of fresh good quality food.
Safari’s are included in the package and the guides do a wonderful job ensuring runners see a wide variety of flora and fauna throughout their stay. The reserve is filled with a variety of animals but unfortunately has not been lucky enough to avoid being a victim of poaching crimes.
The Big Five event includes both a half and full marathon and a route inspection of the respective courses takes place the day before. This is so valuable as it gives runners 24 hours to consider aspects of the course and tweak plans. It also provides another opportunity to see all the wonderful animals. The course is marked thoroughly with colour coded arrows for the respective distances and kilometre markings. Following the route inspection marathon runners do have the opportunity to change to the half marathon distance, purchase merchandise and collect race numbers.
The run is dictated heavily by the resident fauna. The 2018 event was due to start at 0900 but started at 0930 due to slow moving elephants on the course. Additionally, we were warned that signs and km markers do disappear at times, as happened to the 37km marker. Starting at Lakeside Lodge which is the biggest of the lodges in the reserve and sits at an elevation of approximately 1167M. The course winds around the upper escarpment and out to the highest point of the course sitting at 1702M. Runners numbers are recorded here to ensure all pass this point.
The course does consist of several hills the steepest of which has a 42% gradient. It is not possible to run up it. Running down also requires good knowledge of appropriate technique to avoid injury and to scoot down nice and effectively. This hill starts at the 14km mark, is 3.2km long and takes runners down into the lower escarpment and lion territory. Thick, soft, deep and heavy sand awaits runners at the bottom heavily impacting speed and efficiency. Present for much of the 8km loop in this area I was pleased I made a last-minute decision to make my own home made gaiters. It meant I could plough through without worrying about the discomfort of sand in my shoes. I would highly recommend short gaiters for anyone running this event.
Armed guides line the course and the pride of lions were closely monitored to ensure the runners were not in danger. Running in the Big Five does present risks and runners were informed at the start “anything that runs in Africa is food”. There are stretches of the course where runners can find themselves alone. So being aware of the surroundings is important and if a guide does yell “stop”, runners must stop. I personally spent a considerable part of the run alone and had a little freight. Singing at the top of ones lungs while trotting along seemed to do the trick and saw me safely to the end.
Upon completion of the lower escarpment, runners are given a wrist band. No wrist band at the finish means disqualification. It’s then back up the hill. Despite being extremely steep. It was in the shade and offered respite from the hot high sun that reflected off the sand in the lower escarpment. Walking up with purpose seemed to do the job but beware of cramps at the top, which brought many undone. With 14 kms to go after ascending “the hill” it proved to be the hardest part of the marathon. Muscular cramps troubled most runners making the final third the slowest and most fatiguing.
This final part of the journey winds back through a small valley and finishes back at Lakeside lodge. It is quite undulating and very rocky in parts which can quickly bring a cramping runner to a halt.
The finish is filled with positivity, music and every single finisher is announced including the country they represent.
Hydration stations are located approximately every 5km and offer water coke and wet sponges. Two on course offer additional electrolytes. I ran with my hydration vest and found this better as I needed electrolytes more frequently as cramping began.
Beer and water are offered at the finish along with a buffet lunch. A pool is also close by to assist with cramping muscles and massage therapists provide 15-minute massages for a small charge. All finishers receive a finishers medal.
Trophies are awarded to the first three male and female place getters in each event.
Not accustomed to running at altitude, the first 5km was pretty tough until I settled. Breathing heavy it felt like I couldn’t get enough oxygen into my lungs.
Also not a trail runner. This event provided a whole new learning opportunity. I did some preparation on trails and sought advice to better assist me technically which definitely paid off.
As a whole I highly recommend the event as a brilliant bucket list opportunity. It is well organised, and the topography outstanding. To run in the African Savannah is mind blowing. However, I also recommend being prepared.
Although I thought about the heat and took on extra electrolytes, it wasn’t enough taken at the right time. I crossed the line screaming as each of my muscles on my calves and quads contracted hard and painfully forcing my feet to rotate. I had no control over them and upon stopping could no longer move. I just screamed. I was picked up and put in the pool. Muscles contracting outside of your control is about as painful as it gets.
So once again this marathon provided yet another learning opportunity and a chance to evolve again in the sport of marathon running.