Regular readers will know that Soweto, aptly coined ‘The People’s Race’ in Johannesburg is one of my favourite races! It’s not a course you’re likely to PB as it’s extremely hilly and scheduled in the heat of summer. But people are drawn to it for its pulsating township route, positive vibe from 40, 000 runners, upbeat energy from enthusiastic residents, and the epic finish through the tunnel of the famous FNB stadium, “The Calabash”. Nothing quite beats the Spirit of Soweto and this is why we keep coming back. I first ran the 10 km Route in 2017 and then braved the Half Marathon in 2018. In 2019, race organisers called for runners to “Lace Up. Conquer Your Hard” and on the 3rd of November, I returned for the Half, improving my course time by 14 minutes. The race was definitely easier for me this time round which had a lot to do with the lessons I gained from 2018. The Soweto Half Marathon is not for the faint-hearted but it’s doable and really worth the whole experience. So what does it take to complete Soweto?
9 Steps To A Successful Soweto
Train Hard: The Soweto Half Marathon is known for its uphill climb in the second half which coincides with the intense heat. So although Soweto is a fun and vibrant race, it’s also a race that is best enjoyed when you’re well trained. For Gaborone runners, the biggest challenge is the elevation as our training ground is pretty flat! As part of my training, Coach Nicola put a lot of emphasis on hill work which I did at Mokolodi and Kgale Hill or on the treadmill if I couldn’t get to those places. Other runners also incorporate hills as part of their long runs in surrounding areas like Tlokweng, Polokwe and Lentsweletau. Strengthening your glutes in the gym is another way to prepare for the hills so although I’m not a fan, I did my share of squats! The heat of 2019 was ridiculous (definitely my hottest Soweto) so it’s really important to acclimatise by doing most of your runs outside (as opposed to the air-conditioned gym). This year, I ran past 4 casualties and though many factors were probably at play, I suspect heat was one of them.
Coerce Your Friends To Run: Soweto is too fun (and hard!) not to share with good friends! There are many races I’m happy to do on my own but Soweto is best shared with someone. My high school friends (based in Botswana and South Africa) have made it an annual tradition to do Soweto – most of us train together, line up at the start and then wait for each other at the end! This year Ditiro and I were joined by Ticha, Taffy, Luzibo, Polelo and Mpumi.
As we made our way to the gantry, we also bumped into another good friend, Botsile and given how many people there were this was such a pleasant surprise!
Check Out The Expo: In the past, Ticha has graciously collected our race packs for us as he is based in Johannesburg but this year we decided to do the honours and take the opportunity to see the Expo! I’m so glad we did. Johannesburg is home to several sports-related businesses and retail stores so the size of the Expo was far bigger than we are used to in Gaborone. We arrived at the Expo just as South Africa was winning the Rugby World Cup which meant that the crowds had long dissipated or where about to arrive!
We collected several race packs from different counters in a very short space of time. We then milled about The Expo and saw Sean from Brooks Running who we had met at the Gauteng Trail Clinic! Once we were done, we found a good place to take some photos without all the crowds that are usually there on Race Day. For anyone doing this race for the first time, I would highly recommend a trip to the Expo. It’s a good experience when done leisurely and really gets you in the mood for Race Day.
Get Up Early: So your training is done, you have your band of friends, you’ve collected your race pack, and now is time for the big day. GET UP EARLY! By Gaborone standards, there is a lot of traffic at the Diacore Marathon. BUT nothing compares to the traffic you will encounter at Soweto and with 40, 000 runners this year, the traffic was even worse. As we were waiting in traffic, we saw marathoners frantically hop out of cars and run to the start. Many probably missed the official gun start. We were up at 03:30 and set off around 04:15. Even then, it was a mad rush at to make it to the loos and to the gantry on time.
Feel The Energy: No matter how stressed you’re feeling, you are quickly engulfed in this buzz and excitement. I was a lot more relaxed this time and I felt this energy even more. So however your training has gone, once you line up, allow yourself to feel the energy and take it all in.
High 5 the kids on the side of the road, listen to the music, laugh at the guy in purple speedos rushing past, smile at the pantsula dancers. Don’t focus on the road, look around you, spot the pig sty and goat kraal, take in the spaza shops, appreciate the cheering from the crowds, read the words on the tower, “You are in Soweto, and Soweto is in you”. Take in the Spirit of Soweto.
Run Smart: Soweto is a tough race with a bit of a twist! The first half is fast as it’s mostly flat and downhill. The danger of this is that it lulls you into a false sense of security and then the hills in the second half are a bit of a shock. So you have to play it smart – capitalise on the easier first Half, BUT without wearing yourself down so you have no energy to complete the more difficult second half. Once the gun went off, Ticha and Ditiro sped off, I soon lost sight of Mpumi, and then I fell into my rhythm. After working through the crowds in the first km, my pace ranged from 6:22 to 6:48 from 2 – 12 km, significantly faster than 2018. Remember I didn’t take a gel last time? This time I knew better and took a gel around 10km. It was around this point that someone shouted “Gabs Runner” and I turned to see Luzibo who we hadn’t seen at the start! I was so excited! We exchanged a few words and then she pressed ahead. As expected, my pace dropped significantly to 8:01 and 8:04 for 13 – 14 km. I picked up my pace again and before the big 18 – 19 km climb I took another gel. I ran and power walked but to show you how much I had improved – in 2018 I did this stretch in 10:34/09:05 but this time I managed, 08:37/08:05! At this point, I ran past Luzibo who was struggling with some leg pain but when we approached the stadium, she was by my side again and we stuck together until the end.
Run The Tunnel Like a Champ: As we approached the tunnel, I turned to Luzibo who was doing this race for the first time and said, “Get ready, this is our moment” and in we went. With the darkness of the tunnel comes a sense of anticipation and excitement. You actually feel your heart racing and as you emerge on the other side, you are overcome with this victorious feeling. You almost run taller as you take that final sprint towards the finish line.
My total time was 2:33:02 and according to the race stats I was in the Top 14% of women finishers compared to 45% in 2018!
Smile For The Camera: As soon as you have found all your team mates, it’s time for a big photo shoot! Last time, I was so exhausted at the end of the race but this time I had an epic time, even managing a few high jumps!
Eat All The Food: Once you have tortured your legs on the streets of Soweto and been toasted by the sun, it’s time to celebrate, and celebrate hard!
One of the joys of being in Johannesburg is that it is home to a smorgasbord of culinary delights. Depending on your mood, you can find cuisine to tantalise your taste buds including everything from Nigerian to Greek to Italian to Ethiopian and countless others. This time we tried Kolonaki, a popular Greek eatery located in Parkhurst. One of the great things about Greek food is the concept of ‘meze’ which are small dishes designed for sharing. We stuffed ourselves with dolmathakia, falafel, kebabs, sardines and the mandatory pita bread with hummus.
And of course, after all is said and done, what better way to end the day, then with a cappuccino while staring down at your medal? So… are you ready to conquer your hard this year?!
I’m joining two fabulous runners, Kim from Running on the Fly and Deborah from Confessions from a Mother Runner for their link up, the “Weekly Run Down”. Hop on over to their blogs and others, and be inspired to be better and do better this 2020!