By Stephen Granger
Cape Town’s Main Road is one of the oldest transportation corridors in South Africa, stretching down the spine of the Cape Peninsula while the Cape Peninsula Marathon, which closely traces the historic south-bound wagon route, is one of the oldest and most popular footraces on the calendar.
Construction of Main Road, which was originally known as ‘Die Ou Wagen Pad Na ‘T Bos (the old wagon road to the forest), began soon after the arrival of the Dutch settler, Jan van Riebeeck. Starting at the Castle it wends its way around Devil’s Peak to Muizenberg. In 1687 it was extended to the new winter harbour at Simon’s Town.
The original reason for the road was to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for timber, as the primary source for fuel at the time.
Just over four hundred years after the construction of the original ‘wagon road’, Alex Jones of the Celtic Harriers Running Club, measured a road distance of 42,195km between Green Point and Simon’s Town and gave birth to the Peninsula Marathon in 1964. After moving into ‘virtual mode’ due to COVID challenges last year, on Sunday 20 February colourful streams of runners will again be urging on their weary bodies into the traditional finish on the naval sports fields in Simon’s Town.
The race has enjoyed a rich and colourful history, which has seen many of South Africa’s leading marathon athletes test their mettle along this corridor, where the scenic beauty of the final 15km between Muizenberg and Simon’s Town between mountain and sea, more than makes up for the south-easterly headwind, which at times provides an additional challenge to those looking for personal-best times.
Legends of the sport, including Willie Olivier, Bernard Rose, Thompson Magawana, Gabashane Rakabaele, Ernest Tjela, Sonja Laxton, Isavel Roche-Kelly, Lindsay Weight and Monica Drogemoller are among those whose names appear on the winners’ trophy.
Since Celtic Harrier’s own Dave Wassung’s 2 hr 27 min 52 sec victory in the inaugural Peninsula Marathon in 1964, only Drogemoller can boast four winner’s medals, having achieved her victories between 1984 and 1991, while two, Willie Olivier in the 1960s and Ernest Tjela in the 1980s have won the race on three occasions.
Given favourable conditions, the Peninsula is one of the fastest marathons in the country. In 1983 Johannesburg athlete, Bernard Rose, demonstrated that by equalling Geoff Bacon’s national marathon record of 2 hrs 12 min 10 sec, while Tjela’s time of 2:11:47 for his third victory in 1987 stands as the current race record. Drogemoller’s 1990 winning time of 2:37:19 remains unsurpassed among women.
On fifty-three occasions the Peninsula Marathon has been run in a southerly direction, between Green Point and Simon’s Town, but in 1984, in an attempt to counter the negative impact of running into the south-easter, the race started in Simon’s Town and ran northwards. Cape Town athlete, Ron Boreham, won in 2 hr 17min in that year, but his hopes of attaining his 2 hr 12 min target time were thwarted by an unseasonal north-wester which blew on the day! The experiment has never been repeated.
To satisfy the increasing demand for road races more accessible than a full marathon, a half marathon, run over the second half of the marathon course, was introduced twenty years ago.
While COVID restrictions have capped the entries at 2000 for each of the races this year, to have thousands of runners once again racing down the original wagon road to the south will be a shot in the arm for distance running in the region.
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