For the last 30 years, surfers, athletes, walkers and paddlers have paced the Eastern cape Shoreline from Yellow Sands at the Kwelera mouth to Nahoon Beach in East London in an annual bout of madness brought on by Surfers Marathon fever.
This unique race has a proud history dating back to 1975, and was born from some friendly rivalry between local athletes and surfers who frequented the same watering hole in East London. Having not faired as well as some of their road running friends in a road relay from King William’s Town to East London, the five-man surfing team came in for a fair bit of ragging.
Seeking retribution, the surfers issued a challenge to the roadrunners to meet them on their turf – the beach – and set about planning a route taking in the sand, rocks, loose boulders and rivers between two points.
The first race which stretched for about 1 kilometre further that the current one began with just 36 enthusiastic runners. To further rub salt into the wound, the race was won by one of the runners! However the stage was set for what has become one of the most sought after marathon cum obstacle courses in the country. The race has stayed in the hands of the surfing fraternity ever since and currently boasts an entry base of between 1500 and 2000 participants.
Over the years this race has captured the imagination of people throughout the country and this forced organisers to create additional categories to include non-athletes, juniors, woman, rugby players, veterans, masters and walkers too. As a result of a few unofficial challenges from those who preferred to sit out the distance, both a single and double ski category were introduced in 1986.
While race winners have included the then well known Danny Biggs of Comrades Marathon fame (1985-1987), the race has seen its share of foreign competitors too, from as far a field as London and Vancouver.
After three close attempts by Biggs, it was eventually an elated Mzwandile Shube who finally broke the exclusive and much sought after 60-minute barrier by romping home in 55:40 minutes in 1989 partly by silted rivers and strong following winds. Sipho Majombozi (59:58) and Michael Scout (59:19) followed suit in 1992 and 1993. While Colin Hall has been the most successful surfer with a record nine wins in that category. Andrew Carter (3 wins), Dave Malherbe, Peter Venter, Gordon Harmer, and others have been up there with the rest on numerous occasions over the previously unmeasured, estimated 18km course. In its 26th year, surfer John Pollock took on the daunting task of measuring the intimidating course with a measuring wheel and put the record straight of 16,45km.
Although there is always the excitement of the tussle upfront, the fun, laughter and camaraderie of the not so serious competitors are what have earned the marathon the popularity it now enjoys and a proud history dating back to 1975.
The race starts at the mouth of the Kwelera River at Yellow Sands north of East London. Competitors then follow a rugged seaside course over loose boulders, gulleys and soft sand on the way past Rainbow Valley resort before they encounter their first major obstacle, the Gonubie River. After taking a plunge in the sometimes icy waters, a short run on the Gonubie Beach takes the runners past the car park and hotel for the relatively flat 5km chase along the coast-hugging tar road to Eastward Ho. From there it is back to the beach as runners plod their way through shingle to the firmer sand of Bonza Bay Beach and the last stretch before the final hurdle – the Nahoon River. Once across the Nahoon River, there is a 400 meter scramble to the finish in front of the Nahoon lifesaver’s complex.
All this might sound a little intimidating to the not-so-competitive, but the cut-off time of 2 ½ hours (3 ½ for walkers) usually allows even the slowest runner/walker to finish inside the limit and qualify for the coveted and much sought after T-shirt. For those who doubt their swimming ability, lifeguards are always on hand at the rivers to lend a hand if necessary.
While Doug Kunhardt hold the prestigious record of being the only runner to have completed all previous 33 marathons, a few more are not far off the mark.
Yet another feature of the race has been the support and encouragment from residents along the Gonubie coastal road who provide runners with makeshift showers, water, cool drinks, music and a helping hand year-in and year-out.
One thing is for sure. Once you don your shoes for your first surfers marathon you are usually hooked and hopefully event coordinator Neville Wilkins and his dedicated team from Border Surfriders Association will continue to provide what is one of the largest social sporting events in the region for many years to come.
Although earlier records have been harder to come by, the winners and their times for last couple of years include:
1982 Gerrit Rudman (1:09:02)
1983 Gordon Shaw (1:05:14)
1984 Colin Lind (1:03:00)
1985 Danny Biggs (1:00:13)
1986 Danny Biggs (1:07:07)
1987 Danny Biggs (1:01:01)
1988 Thabang George (1:01:19)
1989 Mzwandile Shube (00:55:40)
1990 Thabang Baholo (1:11:00)
1991 Mzwandile Shube (1:00:35)
1992 Sipho Mjombozi (00:59:19)
1993 Michael Scout (00:59:19)
1994 Mpumezi Bomvana (1:11:49)
1995 Lunga Mancham (1:03:47)
1996 Makaya Masumpa (1:06:22)
1997 Luzuko Metu (1:04:03)
1998 Makaya Masumpa (1:07:05)
1999 Siyabulela Zabeko (1:05:05)
2000 Bonisile Nqculana (1:03:43)
2001 Pumlani Ntongani (1:05:04)
2002 Pumlani Ntongani (1:05:11)
2003 Pumlani Ntongani (1:05:18)
2004 Simo Simatu (1:03:43)
2005 Zolani Ntongana (1:02:06)
2006 Zolani Ntongana (1:02:23)
2007 Doran Fritz (1:03:12)
2008 Mzuvelile Hlanti (1:01:10)
2009 Mzuvelile Hlanti (1:09:35)
2010 Mluleki Nobanda (1:11:39)
2011 Melikaya Sithuba (1:09:21)