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1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 8_Nostalgia sport

Harrismith Mountain Race

Mountain-Race site - Copy
Way back in 1922 a Pom army major sat in the gentleman’s club in Harrismith and spoke condescendingly about our mountain, Platberg, as “that little hill”. What was ‘e on about? It rises 7800 ft above sea level and he was from a tiny chilly island whose ‘ighest point is a mere 3209 ft above sea level! Being a Pom he was no doubt gin-fuelled at the time. Anyway, this ended up in a challenge to see if he could reach the top in under an hour, which led to me having to run up it years later. Because it’s there, see.

mountain race harrismith_crop
– at this point I wished I had done some training! –

I had often run the short cross-country course and twice the longer course, which followed the mountain race route except for the actual, y’know, ‘mountain’ part. I had also often climbed the mountain, but strolling and packing lunch. When I finally decided I really needed to cross the actual mountain race proper off my list of “should do’s” I was larger, slower and should have been wiser.

Here’s some 8mm cine camera footage taken by Dad Pieter Swanepoel of Platberg Bottle Store of the start and finish in front of the Post Office – 1960’s I guess:

The race used to be from town to the top of the mountain, along the top for a mile or so and back down. Sensible. That’s how I ran it in 1979. The medal then had a handy bottle opener attached!

HS Mtn Race badges, medal
– mountain Race badges and medals – these are the legitimate four – where I actually finished in the allotted time! –

I recently found some old papers which told me I once ran the race in 79 mins and in 85 minutes another year.

We also walked the race for fun a couple times:

The 12km distance was enough. But no, some fools decided that wasn’t long enough! Apparently a cross-country route needed to be 15km to be “official”, so they added three kilometres of perfectly senseless meanderings around the streets of our dorp causing fatigue before I even started the climb when I ran with Jon and Dizzi Taylor one year.

The finish at the Groen Pawiljoen grounds
– run to A then to B and back (who added three km of tar road!?) –

Oh by the way, Major Belcher did get to the top in under an hour, winning the bet.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Some history from friend Ettienne Joubert, who has also trotted the course:

The Harrismith Mountain Race held annually since 1922, was described as the ‘toughest in the world’ by Wally Hayward, who won five Comrades marathons, the London to Brighton Marathon and the Bath to London 100-miler! (I once spent a wonderful day with Wally).

It originated when, in 1922, a British soldier, Maj A E Belcher, returned to Harrismith where he had been stationed near 42nd Hill during the war. He was referring to Platberg as ‘that small hill of yours’, one Friday evening [lots of silly things are done on Friday evenings] and one of the locals (a certain Van Reenen – or maybe the chemist Scruby) immediately bet him that he could not reach the top (591 metres – just under 2000ft – above the town) in less than an hour.

The major accepted the challenge and set off from the corner of Stuart & Bester streets outside the old Harrismith Club near where the Athertons ran The Harrismith Chronicle the very next day. He reached the summit with eight minutes to spare.

During a later visit to the town, Major Belcher (now a schoolteacher in Dundee, Natal) found out that his record still stood so he took it upon himself to donate a trophy to the Harrismith Club to be awarded to the first club member to break his record to the top.  In 1929 the Club management, as the organizers of the race, decided to open the race up to the residents of Harrismith and a Mr Swanepoel won the race to the top of the mountain in 32 minutes. (The last record time I have is 22 minutes and 9 seconds – from town to the top of the mountain! Amazingly quick).

The race route has changed over time – starting in Piet Retief Street outside the post office and police station for some years. Nowadays it starts at the town’s sports grounds, passing the jail, then through the terrain where the concentration camp (second site) once stood, up the steep slopes of Platberg to the top via One Man’s Pass, close to where a fort was built during the Anglo-Boer War. After traversing a short distance along the top, the descent is made via Zig-Zag Pass, and the race is completed back at the ‘Groen Pawiljoen’ sports grounds.

Our friends Steph and JP de Witt’s Mom, Alet de Witt became the first lady to complete the race. She ran in the year her husband, JN ‘Koos’ de Witt died tragically suddenly in January 1967. She then donated a trophy for the winner of the newly allowed (!) women’s category, which was awarded for the first time only in 1986.

Later the apartheid ‘whites-only’ ruling was dropped and as soon as McDermott* stopped winning, the race was won by black athletes, including Harrismith locals; starting with Michael Miya who holds the record for the newer, longer 15km course at 1hr 03mins 08secs.

*McDermott won sixteen times consecutively from 1982 to 1997 and in 1985 established the “short course 12.3km” record at 50mins 30secs.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Categories
1_Harrismith 2_Free State / Vrystaat 7_Confessions 8_Nostalgia school

I Must Go Down To The Seas Again . .

. . to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking

Maybe Steph was thinking of Masefield’s poem when he suggested we’d done enough short jaunts with our parents’ cars late at night while the dorp was sleeping and good kids were in bed dreaming of homework well done.

Been to Kestell? Tick;

Been to Swinburne? Tick;

Been to Queen’s Hill? Tick;

Had a head-on collision with a hill on Queen’s Hill? Tick;

Drifting laps around the atletiekbaan in Pres Brand Park? Tick;

Donuts on the high school netball courts? Tick;

What was there left to do? Maybe this was the first sign of his lifelong love of the sea – in time to come he would sail a huge ocean-going catamaran and go deep-sea fishing on his skiboat off Sordwana. In those far-off days of our youth, all that was yet to come.

Whatever – (let’s face it, more likely Steph was just thinking ADVENTURE! REBELLION! ADRENALIN!) – he started us plotting a biggie.
It was certainly him who came up with the bold idea:
I know. Have we been to the sea? Does the Vrystaat even have a sea? NO!! Let’s go to Durbs, dip our toes in the Indian Ocean and bring back a bottle of sea water, and – as always – be back before sonop.

RIGHT!!

Ford Corsair
– Ford Corsair –

We must plan:
– We need the white Corsair, not the black Saab; It’s faster.
Here’s what it looked like except Gerrie’s was white. And four-door. Otherwise like this.

We must leave much earlier. We can’t wait for our parents to fall asleep; We need longer.

But not too much planning:

– I don’t remember discussing fuel or mileage or consumption. Those weren’t really fashionable topics in those days.

So Steph strolls into his Mom Alet’s bedroom, the one nearest the long getaway driveway, to talk to her as she lies reading in bed in their lovely sandstone home The Pines. At a given signal we start wheeling the Corsair out of the open garage and down the long driveway to Stuart Street. The driveway is downhill – that helps – and made of two long concrete strips – that doesn’t help: the wheels fall off the edge GghgGghgGghg! SHHH! shhh!

And they’re off!
There’s no beer this trip. This is more serious. It’s a journey, not a jaunt. We have a mission.

We roar past Swinburne; We roar past van Reenen; We leave the Orange Free State; We enter Natal; We zoom down van Reenen’s Pass; Past Ladysmith and on into unknown territory.

Suddenly: Flashing Blue Lights! Oh Shit! They’re after us. We slow down a little bit. Just to the speed limit. We sit straight in the car, no slouching. We practice ‘innocent face.’ We rehearse our story: Ja Meneer, Nee Meneer. The flashing blue light fills the car – then overtakes us and whizzes past and shrinks into the distance.

We slow down. We think. We reconsider. Wordlessly, we make a U-turn and head back to the big HY, City of Sin and Laughter.

Oh well, it was a good idea while it lasted. And anyway, that story about the bottled sea water is just a myth.

~~~oo0oo~~~

I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over

R.I.P Steph – Our histories are forever entwined. You are part of who I am. My sense of self would be poorer without those short-lived mad crazy daze!

Your long trick’s over and I have no doubt there’s a quiet sleep and a sweet dream for you. Whattalife. MANY a merry yarn we got from you, our laughing fellow-rover!

~~~oo0oo~~~

dorp – our village, The City of Sin and Laughter

atletiekbaan – athletic track; our oval, cinder track

sonop – sunrise, when swimming training started

Ja Meneer, Nee Meneer – Yes Sir, No Sir