Crazy or courageous? Where a marathon meets a Big Five safari

As endurance runners seek out ever tougher races, Anna Nicholas heads to Limpopo for a marathon in the Savannah

Runners in the Big Five Marathon across Entabeni Game Reserve, South Africa
Runners in the Big Five Marathon across Entabeni Game Reserve, South Africa | Image: Albatros Adventure Marathons

A sullen sun beats down as I pound through soft, hot sand the colour of couscous. I’ve been more than six hours on my feet, coursing through unforgiving African savannah and along dusty tracks littered with potholes, boulders and rocks. More than 20 miles of it. I’m exhausted. But not exhausted enough to give up. Abruptly, a game ranger with a stern demeanour comes into view and flags me down, his jeep partially blocking the sun’s rays. I stagger to a halt. I am less than one mile from the finish line of the toughest marathon of my life. But he wants me to stop. Like a truculent child, I argue with him. I’ve already passed two previous cut-off points with ease; my medal is almost within sight. 

He eyes me exasperatedly and points to a huge swell of dust on the trail ahead – a large herd of elephants. These are no endearing Dumbos; they’re crotchety, wild creatures that have invaded the course, bellowing wrathfully, flapping their ears and spoiling for a fight. Duly chastised, I hop up to join the other weary participants and, once past the disaffected trumpeters, am summarily released to stagger on for the last stretch of the route.

I first heard of the annual race held each June at Entabeni – a 50,000-acre private reserve three hours’ drive north of Johannesburg – via a South African friend and fellow marathon aficionado. What makes it so spectacular? The course runs straight through the land of the Big Five: lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant. Entabeni is situated in the Waterberg region of Limpopo province, a mountainous area characterised by subtropical woodland, sandstone cliffs, sedimentary rock and dense clumps of forest. It’s renowned for its untamed beauty (and wildlife), and for being the first zone in South Africa’s northern territory to be named a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.

A pride of lions spotted en route
A pride of lions spotted en route | Image: Albatros Adventure Marathons

Seduced by the thought of running my 10th marathon in such a place, I sought out the organiser, Albatros Adventure Marathons and hastily signed up. By luck I was awarded a place – usually it is completely sold out within 48 hours. For safety reasons, and to minimise impact on wildlife, only 300 runners are permitted to take part. The 15th-anniversary race that I was to join included people of 31 nationalities: 185 signed up for the full marathon, while 115 opted for the half.

Unlike most road runs in Europe and the US, this route is downright arduous, beset with vertiginous inclines, scree slopes and deep, gritty soil. There is also altitude and climate to consider – the race commences at an elevation of 1,400m and promises to be sticky, with temperatures reaching the mid-20s. Thankfully, a compulsory add-on includes five nights’ accommodation in one of the many fine lodges on the reserve, with the promise of excellent food and game drives to follow the ordeal.

I begin training in earnest four months in advance, in conditions that emulate the varied, hostile terrain of South Africa, but rarely come close to being comparable. Before I know it, I am being ferried by coach from Johannesburg airport to Entabeni. It’s an overwhelming journey, but the global running community is inclusive and friendships are formed fast. Lone participants are quickly absorbed into jolly gatherings – the meals are exceptionally good – and a feeling of solidarity soon permeates the group. Most have previously tackled road races, but there are a few intrepid novices, among them Rory Fitzpatrick, general manager of the Clayton Hotel in Galway, who has elected this as his first marathon at the behest of his siblings – both seasoned runners – to mark his brother’s birthday.  

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We set off in convoy early one morning to examine the course by jeep. Fish eagles soar overhead, and in the near distance rhinos and lions prowl the long grass. Albatros Adventure’s race director, Lars Fyhr, cheerily assures us that if the full marathon feels too daunting we can swap for the half. Several people immediately nod in assent. I feel my confidence plummet as the muddy jeep struggles along rough dirt roads of red earth and sharp rocks. At one point, we pass a gaggle of large, leering crocodiles by a lake. Clusters of hippos, buffalos and zebras eye us curiously as the vehicle splutters up a devilishly steep hill. The dusty track snakes interminably towards the distant summit; dread clutches my stomach. 

But then race day arrives in a blur of bonhomie; an African band plays at the starting point while runners offer last words of encouragement. Having been unable to face breakfast at so early an hour – and with my nerves totally on edge – I’ve pocketed a fistful of energy gels to help me stay the course. There is the quick, familiar frisson when the starter gun fires, then I’m off, setting a steady pace. All the fearful thoughts soon make way for utter concentration – the terrain is instantly rocky. We form a sweaty and unwieldy phalanx along a winding pass, but gradually the crowd dissipates. Hurtling down a steep hill at the 10-mile mark, I find myself alongside Richard St John, an easygoing 72-year-old retiree from Toronto. The oldest participant and a veteran of 107 marathons, he agrees the course is “very challenging” and generously allows me to use him as pacer. I’m glad to have a chum; we’re heading into lion country.

Other sections find me, unnervingly, alone. At one water station – placed at 2.5-mile intervals, along with rangers at strategic spots – I wonder where everyone has gone. Having assiduously followed each race marker, with the reserve’s distinctive monolith of reddish rock always in sight, I’m on course but eerily estranged from the others. My reverie ends abruptly when an African wildcat dashes across my path, followed immediately by a snuffling warthog, causing me to yelp. Later, on a stretch of anaemic pasture, I see giraffes grazing, while fine-boned impala huddle together protectively. One of the savannah’s easiest targets, they’re referred to as “McDonald’s” by the rangers. 

Armed guards protect the runners
Armed guards protect the runners | Image: Albatros Adventure Marathons

Four hours pass. Finally, legs and lower back searing with every stride, I reach Yellow Wood Valley with its precipitous hill. In the sticky heat, I start the gruelling ascent. My hair is wet from sweat, my feet are throbbing. I’m especially grateful for my company here – Italian chef Luigi Diotaiuti, owner of the renowned restaurant Al Tiramisu in Washington, DC. In between discussing wine and gastronomy, he tells me that he trains three times a week and tries to race as often as possible in “special” places – such as Uluru in Australia – which have cultural or religious significance. His goal is to run a marathon on every continent.

On the appropriately named Long Drive, I find myself plodding alongside Liz Ferro, the American founder and CEO of Girls With Sole, who has completed 75 marathons to date. She laughingly mentions a near-collision with a “rogue wildebeest”, but she’s all business here – her aim, as a role model for the victims of abuse she assists through her non-profit organisation, is to embolden them by setting an example. 

Motivation, according to John Brewer, author and professor of applied sports science at Buckinghamshire New University – who happens to have 20 marathons to his name – is a key factor for runners, “particularly older people… It is all about achieving one’s best, or running for good causes, rather than being competitive.”

Anna approaches the finish line
Anna approaches the finish line | Image: Marathon Photos

I am running for two chosen charities: Canine Partners and the Scientific Exploration Society. But it’s clear that the challenge of this terrain has lured a certain breed of runner. Marathon-running has surged in popularity since 1981, when the London Marathon was inaugurated (following the New York City Marathon in 1970). This event is part of a growing number of endurance races designed to push the limits. “In the early days of road runs there were few water stations and even fewer female participants,” says Brewer. “Now there are hundreds of races and anyone can stand out from the crowd and win a medal, regardless of speed. So, increasingly, bigger and bolder marathon experiences are being embraced by the global running community.”

As I face the final, excruciating few paces to the finish line, I remind myself that, as a reward, I shall be recovering for a few nights at the historic Saxon hotel in Johannesburg, where Nelson Mandela resided for six months. I am already dreaming of the spa, complete with saunas and sound-therapy rooms that will hopefully soothe away my pains.

On either side of the track, crowds of runners are clapping and whooping along with a band. My spent legs are as loose as a foal’s, but through my dizzy exhaustion I feel a sudden swell of elation. I bite my lip, holding back what I’m embarrassed might be tears of joy. With immense relief, I accept my medal from a beaming Lars Fyhr. At six hours, 39 minutes, I am within the seven-hour time limit and placed 106th out of 151 full-marathon finishers, 42nd of the 67 women. Fourteen people have not completed the race, and four will fail to finish in the allotted time. 

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I had resolved that this would be my very last marathon, aptly tagged “the wildest of them all”. Yet later, studying the six other races organised by Albatros – including the Great Wall of China, the Petra Desert and the volcanic hinterlands of Iceland – I waver. Of course, there are also the seven continents to contemplate. With three already conquered, surely it would be gutless not to finish the task…

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