Finding a marathon to run on the African continent was quite time consuming. Craig and I had originally thought to run the Big Five marathon in South Africa however other commitments on the home front meant this wasn’t to be. I set about looking at the map of Africa, with another tab open to smarttraveller.gov.au – my go-to source of all things safety when traveling as my tolerance for risk is not very high! Once I had established which countries were “safe” according to the Australian government, I then spent ages researching marathons in that group of five countries (from a starting number of 54).
Eventually I unearthed the Rossing National Marathon Championships, held in February in Swakopmund, Namibia. There was no website; no Facebook and only a link to the Swakop Striders where I found an email address for the race director Frank. I first emailed Frank in March 2014 where he indicated the race date was set for 14 February 2015; then again in June 2014 when he indicated he was confident the race would go ahead; and then in September when Frank said he had received verbal confirmation the event was proceeding. In the meantime I’d taken a chance and booked flights to South Africa for Craig and me.
During all of this the terrible outbreak of Ebola occurred. Countries most affected were on the west coast and north of Namibia. I followed the travel advice closely for months and it continued to be that Namibia and South Africa were free from Ebola. Nonetheless family were muttering more loudly as the time passed that we should cancel the trip.
Traveling Sydney – Johannesburg – Swakopmund we passed through multiple screening mechanisms in airports. These largely consisted of some kind of body scan that could pick up increased body temperature at the checkpoints. At Johannesburg we were overwhelmed by the number of men trying to get us to go with them in taxis and to act as guides, and fortunately had booked the Intercontinental across the drive access to the airport and simply walked there. Finding the flight to Swakopmund the next day was more tricky and again we were bombarded with offers for paid help.
Swakopmund is an oasis on the west coast of Namibia. It was settled by the Germans and there is a strong Germanic influence in the demographic of the people; language spoken; and architecture. English is the national language of Namibia however German is widely spoken as well.
Namibia itself is largely desert and it was really incredible to see that beyond the bounds of Swakopmund was sand, sand, and more sand. It was in the area we stayed where movies including Flight of the Phoenix and Mad Max: Fury Road were filmed.
The morning of the marathon we drove the short distance to the athletic field. My bib was number 1! OMG!
We lined up on the start line and the race began. The Namibian Army and Police Force were well represented, and those runners took off. At the back was the rest of the field consisting primarily of the Swakop Striders, and me.
The marathon is named for and sponsored by the Rio Tinto Rossing Uranium mine which is the main industry of the town. There had been a fire at the mine the day we arrived however all were reassured that it was under control and there was no need for concern. The local publicity around the marathon is that Rio Tinto wants to encourage the workers and families to remain fit and healthy, while also sponsoring higher end athletes to qualify for more world-class events.
The course for the marathon was the salt road leading north out of the town. A salt road is a gravel road on which a lot of salt water has been poured. The salt dries and forms a crust on top of the gravel. As long as it doesn’t rain, the salt lasts a long time and maintenance of the road requires trucks to pour more salt water on top every so often. It hadn’t rained in Swakopmund for seven years!
The speed limit on the road was 100km/hr and the road wasn’t closed while we were running on it! Imagine a 21km stretch of road with a single lane in each direction. Then, off to each side is a sloping verge, down to a gravel stretch of dirt road running parallel to the salt road. It was on the dirt to each side that the traffic drove and consisted mainly of semi-trailers roaring past on both sides, tooting horns and waving madly.
Beyond the dirt section to the east was desert; and to the west was desert for around 2km before the sand ran straight into the South Atlantic Ocean. Just to the north is the Skeleton Coast – home of multiple ship wrecks.
We had hired a car and Craig drove out along the course (as did other supporters in their vehicles), carrying snacks and some drinks for me.
I lost a lot of time in two emergency toilet stops around 21km when it was clear something I’d eaten or drunk wasn’t agreeing with me. My nutrition plan was abandoned – I couldn’t look at a gel, and we reverted to jelly beans.
The day was reasonably cool and there was a steady spray of mist coming off the Atlantic Ocean that was quite cooling. In all the running conditions were pretty good, give or take the odd semi trailer and a few things to dodge on the salt road.
I finished in just over 4:20 which was pretty good considering how much time I’d spent in the toilets. I’d briefly mentioned feeling anxious about the run that morning to Craig who helpfully said “Anne, we haven’t come half way around the bloody world for you to not finish” and in truth this actually assisted my resolve to get to the end. It was true – I was going to finish so I might as well buckle down and do so. I remember smiling as I ran the last 5km because I was so excited to be running in Africa.
There was only one hill, right around 40km, and I zoomed up there past other competitors, doing my usual best kilometres at the end. Running around the stadium to the finish line was fun, especially when the children cheering on the side ran along and past me to do their own fast finish!
Namibia was an adventure when it comes to marathons. I would compare it to a well run regional marathon in Australia – the organisers know what they’re doing from years of practice and the event went off without a hitch. They really need to work on their advertising and promotion so that a little gem like this doesn’t get overlooked by runners seeking a marathon in Africa.
Apart from the marathon, Namibia is an amazing country with the most awesome scenery. We chartered a little plane and flew to Sossusvlei the day after the marathon. These petrified trees are just incredible.
I also couldn’t leave without seeing the pink flamingos at Walvis Bay.
Rossing marathon was number 6.