Ottosdal Draf en Trap Festival (Ottosdal Night race 2020) – René van den Worm
Ottosdal is a small town in the North-West province and about three to four hours’ drive from Pretoria. The night race originated in 1993, when the Business Chamber decided the race would be an opportunity to market the town and improve its image. It has emerged from a marathon to a full festival where various cycling events take place during the morning and the marathon takes place at night.
This year (2020) marked the 27th year of the night marathon taking place. From my research, it seemed to be the only night marathon in South Africa, which made it a bucket list item for me. Something new and something different to explore….
The marathon starts at 17:30, the half marathon starts at 18:30 and the 10 km starts at 18:40. All athletes run along the same route with various turning points on-route. Athletes that have run this race before stated that you run through the fields to the turning point (21.1 kilometre marker), which made me believe it is going to be partly dirt/gravel road.
I had to check out the route profile (of course I had to plan the marathon) and it always seems easier on paper… I remember thinking it is an out and back, now confirmed that we are going to do road running only and that no trail running is involved. The road has rolling hills (more dips and pulls and some serious slow poison). Upon further investigation and looking at the weather report, it seemed that there was a slight chance of thunderstorms and a definite chance of winds. How nice and cool a marathon it would be, and the plus is that 17:30 will be the hottest the weather will be… I thought…
On arrival, Ottosdal seemed very windy. The registration process went quite quick and the organisers are extremely helpful in answering questions.
In preparation for the marathon you need a light to see, a light to be seen and some serious mosquito spray – the slogan of this marathon is not “Speke rol, spoke hol en muskiete lol” for nothing…
So there we were, some trying to qualify for Comrades, some doing their very first marathon, some running a LSD and some to take part in the Triple Marathon challenge over the course of the weekend (Tobie Reyneke took part in this event, where you start off with Akasia marathon in Pretoria on Saturday morning, drive to Ottosdal for the night marathon and then take part in Benoni’s Johnson’s Crane marathon on Sunday morning)…and then there are the ordinary bunch of us that just wanted to tick this off their bucket list. A big attraction of course is the opportunity to take part in the lucky draw to stand a chance to win a diamond!! You need to make sure you run at least sub 4h30 to stand in line to win that diamond as the draw takes place at 22:00 and you need to be present.
I ran with Hannes Nel. Hannes wanted kilometres on the legs and I wanted the thrill of a night race. We agreed that we will take this race slow. The longer we take, the more time on the legs for Hannes (we thought of completing the marathon in approximate 4 hours).
The start of the marathon is set off with the traditional Comrades’ Chariots of Fire, giving you a big lump in your throat and if you are an emotional runner like me, you quickly wipe away that lonely tear, because somehow this song always reminds me of the challenges we face when training for and running Comrades. It also gives me an immense pride of what all these runners are out there to achieve…. So off we were with Chariots of Fire playing in the distance, trying to run through the thick grass on the finish straight, blistering sun on your back with humid air. THIS is the start of the Ottosdal Night Marathon…
The combination of heat and wind set the race start to be extremely humid. It is easy to start this marathon too fast and quite possible by the 5km mark to feel like you have blown. We adjusted pace significantly. I was struggling to find my rhythm. The road seems very flat, although you can clearly see the rolling hills and pulls. We stopped to take some photos. The wind blew every now and again, pushing hard against your body, almost as if saying: get off the road; making the “slow-poison” rolling hills on the road even more difficult. But you soon forget about that as you place your focus and mind on your surroundings. Afterall, we were there to take an experience home.
The people of the community drive past you several times, offloading the lanterns from their trucks, tractors, jeeps and bakkies. The paraffin lanterns are placed approximately 20 meters apart to provide light. The sun is still shining, with the smell of paraffin being very overwhelming. Hannes was still thinking out loud on how much paraffin they probably use for all these lanterns, when we were running past the truck with all the plastic 20 L jerry cans transporting the paraffin. It is a lot! It soon became evident that this community know what they are doing and are extremely organised. They have a system that works for them. Some are placing the lanterns on the road and some just drive over the lantern to lid it automatically, revving the car ever so slightly to ensure the lantern is fully lit… (check out the photo).. and then we knew: night time will be here soon.
A female runner and a group of club members from Klerskdorp ran past us. I overheard her saying to the group that you feel like you are running at speed in the night, but you are much slower. I remember thinking why she would make a comment like that as you would still run normal pace, but Hannes pointed out that she must be an experienced runner. We were soon to learn this important lesson….
Not sure whether we automatically ran faster because we knew it will be dark soon and you want to run as much as possible in the day as this is within your comfort zone. Knowing you won’t be able to see a thing already played tricks with my mind. I usually have negative splits during a marathon. This marathon was going to set the record straight that you can’t always run negative splits… and like the Klerksdorp athlete said, you slow down drastically at night.
The lanterns were getting lid. You are made clear that night time and the dark will set in quickly. We turned around to look at the sun as it sets its last rays over the horizon. The sky is the most beautiful shades of pink, blue and orange. The picture is rounded off with a windmill in the far distance, turning in the wind, waiting patiently for the promising rain. Windmills are universally known as the symbol of life, serenity, resilience and perseverance in a harsh environment. We took in a long breath and, like the windmill, took in the calm of the landscape around us, knowing that we will soon have to become flexible to our changing environment and push through to the end with determination. It was getting dark quick. Somewhere in the distance you hear a cow moo. And we all moo’d back at it. This is what I was there for…
As we approached the 21km mark and therefore the 42km turning point, night time has set. Something happened with my mind. It is as if your senses do not know what hit you. Hannes and I had a long conversation about sensory tracking, trying to be philosophical about all of what happens within your brain and how your body react to it… We came to the conclusion that one can only see the light in front of you, enclosing your vision to only that headlamp and the long road of lanterns, but you cannot see where you have to put your foot down taking the next step, therefore causing you to run with caution, slowing you down.
At about 25kms, you could hear the thunder and in the far distance see the lighting of a possible storm building. The wind that blew in the first half of the race that I complained about as it pulled and tucked at you, was sure going to assist in the second half as it would then become a nice tailwind. Unfortunately, there was no tailwind. Nothing to dry your wet race vest, no wind, no sun. The temperature was dropping but you do not even realise it during the marathon as it still felt extremely humid.
The clouds in the far distance seemed stormy, every now and again, you could hear the thunder roaring, but when you looked up, the sky was so clear and you could see thousands of stars. At times the wind blew out some of the lanterns. People are on-route though to ensure the lanterns are lit again. As an athlete I felt that they were doing a lot to make this race as comfortable as possible.
This marathon was by far the quietest marathon I have ever run. It made you feel lonely at times. You do not hear the normal footsteps at night, making you think that you are in fact running all by yourself. You know the field is small, but could it be that the gaps are that big? You can see the stars in the night sky and you can hear the bullfrogs and screeching sound of crickets. It is overwhelming. At every water point, you will hear the most Afrikaans songs you have ever listened to. And once you have past the water point, the night life’s sound is at play again. In my head I was now singing an Afrikaans song: “Die padda wou gaan opsit met sy nooi in die vlei u-hum” until we meet up with more runners.
Most runners did not wear reflective gear or headlamps. Sometimes, the only thing you can see is a tiny light (other than the lanterns) in the far far distance, making the road seems extra far. The road is quiet, but when you listen carefully, you can hear the slow shuffle on the road of fellow runners. You can’t see them though. You only see them when you are almost on top of them.
Mentally, the uphills in the first half are now supposed to be the down hills, but with the lanterns pathing the way, the entire road seemed to be one long stretch of uphill. You can’t really see the uphill, but your legs and your heart rate is telling you that you are working and you are working hard at it. I felt that my entire second half was a sprint to the finish, but in reality it was a slow shuffle.
If it was not for our head lamps, I would most probably not be able to see my hand in front of my face. Funny, how you could see the lanterns in the far distance, yet you could not see the approaching water point’s lights. When you approach a water point though, it was well lid, with tons of atmosphere. Young people cheering you one with Afrikaans music, dancing (sokkie) to the music, with the kids screaming “hou bene hou” en “mooi so Oom, mooi so Tannie”! This kept me going. The fact that they said we are almost there (even though we know it is just something spectators say), made me believe that it is true. I mean, why would a child be dishonest? ☺
By the 35 km marker, my legs were extremely sore. You could now clearly see the town in the distance, but it seemed further away than the 7kms that are left to shuffle. And those seven kilometres were by far the longest, slowest kilometres I have ever run (I still felt like I was sprinting).
At one kilometre to go, you enter the town… watch out for the potholes as you you don’t want to twist your ankle as you finish the race. We finally finished the race with tons of atmosphere at the finish area. My legs started cramping the minute I stopped and crossed the finish line. My hamstrings were not happy with me. My knees felt tender and bruised.
It was a slow 4:25. There is no such thing as an easy marathon, but where else in South African can you run a marathon at night with this beauty?
I was now looking forward to a nice hot shower and a warm bed. When you stopped running, you soon realise how extremely cold it is because of your wet clothes. I was wishing for the thunder to turn into rain to make me sleep peacefully and to forget about the pain and cramps, but we were too tired to wait for the rain.
Be sure to know that the Klip Kerk (Stone Church) just outside the show grounds offer accommodation in the form of camping and of course… they make sure that you return to Pretoria with a full stomach after eating a decent farm brekkie.