Categories
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 8_Nostalgia school sport

Two Cross-Country Runs – Two Seconds

Never ones for orthodox, disciplined, organised affairs – or maybe: having grown out of enjoying organised affairs, a small group of us started running in the early mornings. We’d meet and run the short course above the hostel, past the jail and back. We called ourselves Mossies cos we got up at sparrows-fart to run. Tuffy Joubert, Louis Wessels, Fluffy Crawley, myself – who else? We were in Std 9. 1971. It was summer; daylight came early.

We chose a bird name as the organised runners were being coached by a teacher called ou Makou, so they were the Makoue. Muscovy ducks. Their star was Stefan Ferreira.

After a while, a match-up was arranged; a challenge. We were determined to win this showdown: Us vs The Establishment! At the last minute a third team was entered by Dana Moore; he said they hadn’t trained, so were calling themselves the Pikkewyne. Penguins.

The course chosen was new to all: Up, around and down Queens Hill. Only about 3,5km google earth tells me. That was probably a standard distance for school cross-country, as Oosie was in charge. Oosie always made sure things were done right. The maths teacher! White coat, black glasses . . something like this. Oh no, wait, that’s not Oosie: That’s a science lab, so that’s Oscar Boehmer, our science teacher.

– Queens Hill – about 3,5km –
– Kevin a few years earlier –

The Pikkewyne were given a good head start, and good thing too, as we soon caught them while still on the climb. They were huffing and puffing! The pace seemed way slow so I soon moved to the front and started pushing harder. On the way down I saw Kevin Crawley watching. He must have come back to town on leave as he had finished school. He said, ‘Good going, you’re lying second!’ and that surprised me. I thought I was well ahead. ‘Only Dana’s beating you,’ said Kevin. Ah! Of course! How could I have thought Dana was among the huffers n puffers!? His ‘unfit’ was always better than most people’s fit! I pushed harder down the hill. The finish was now visible ahead. As I got within a few hundred metres another surprise: I caught a glimpse of Stefan Ferreira just behind me over my right shoulder! He stayed a metre back as I pushed again, even harder, nearing the finish. A number of cars had been parked on both sides of the road and the straightest line to the finish was hard against the cars on the right, but that would mean ‘scraping’ Stefan off against them. Dilemma. I moved left to make room for him to also run past them. Well, longish story short: he pipped me at the post! I came second. Damn! Consolation prize was: WE came first. The Mossies won the team competition.

Our next big X-Country day was an inter-school event on the slopes of Platberg. A far more serious course – about ten km and a lot more climbing. It was the route of the famous annual mountain race except for y’know, that actual ‘mountain’ section.

– Platberg – about 10km –

The start and finish was on the tar road outside the high school and the girls hostel.

As we got to the first steep section, where the yellow arrow points, the pace slowed right down. Once again I was impatient. I didn’t want to go ahead, but this was too slow! I went ahead. Soon after we turned down I noticed there was one guy near me, the rest had dropped back. At a barbed wire fence I glanced back as I hopped through and noticed he was barefoot. Ah! I thought, I have a plan for that! I pushed hard and aimed for the donga where the blue arrow points; I knew it well, it was very rocky and uneven. I planned to make a getaway there. I was wearing my asics tigers. I loved those shoes with their thin hard soles and super light tops. When I hit the donga I pinned my ears back and ‘put foot,’ leaping from rock to rock and flying down, leaving my pursuer in my dust.

Or so I hoped. As I emerged from the donga onto the flat veld leading to the country club road he was half a metre behind me. Uh oh! I knew I had a problem. I had run those 800-odd metres as fast as I could go, and – barefoot – he had absorbed the surge. Respect! He stayed just behind me on the gravel road and drew level with me as we turned left onto the tar road. We ran shoulder to shoulder up the gentle incline.

– the Koos vest –

When we first appeared in sight of the finish I heard a disappointed groan from the crowd. They were hoping to see one of our distinctive orange vests. They thus thought the two leaders were not from Harrismith. They didn’t know my rebellious nature had me wearing my own favourite white vest that I’d sewed a Scout badge onto and painted a peace sign on. Then they started recognising me and an encouraging shout went up. ‘Dis Peterrr!’ Once again there was ear pinning and I let rip with everything that I had.

And got left in the barefoot fella’s dust. Second again. To make it worse, he was from Vrede, our main rival dorpie! When I got my breath back I went looking for him to congratulate him. I joked ‘Oy! Couldnt you see I wanted to win in front of my mense?!’ He grunted and scowled and turned away. Oh well. Vrede humour is probably different to this rooinek’s!

~~~oo0oo~~~

Leon Fluffy Crawley wrote: Yep great memories… Lovely piece on your blog.. Confessions… I was part of the early morning run… I was staying in the hostel after Mom Pollie moved down to Ladysmith.. Std 9….that’s where we met at the hostel.. early morning and did a stint before school…. I did not do the races…. You were the athlete… Great athlete… I must have bailed out at some stage… Great to see Kevin’s name there as well.
We had a great youth period in Harrismith… I pity not going back there more often after school as Pollie stayed in Ladysmith – which then became my “home town.” I missed a lot of that period of my life in Harrismith!!!! 
Well keep safe… At least the keys are in the lock waiting for stage 3 – Fluffy

~~~oo0oo~~~