Sometimes it just happens

I wrote this article shortly after the events of Red Hill Marathon in 2008, one of the most memorable days in our clubs 4 decade history. The underline theme of club spirit still holds true today . . .

I recall an incident from a primary school cricket match: I was batting against a medium pace bowler who was keeping a tight line and length, making it difficult to score runs. Then, seemingly from nowhere, he over-pitched a delivery fractionally. Without any conscious thought or preconception of what was about to happen, my eyes, hands and feet all responded in a coordinated flurry . . . and the next thing I knew the ball had sailed over the bowler’s head and landed beyond the boundary rope. I remember standing there and thinking to myself: “How the hell did that happen?”

I relate this personal anecdote as a metaphor for the 2008 Red Hill Marathon, because to this day I have moments when I think back and wonder: “How the hell did we pull that off?”

A bit of background for those who were not members of the club in 2008 (and for those with short memories): January 2008 was hot, dry and windy – perfect conditions for runaway veld fires, and there had been numerous flare ups all over the Peninsula during the summer. On the Friday afternoon before the 2008 Red Hill a fire sprang up on the mountain behind Capri, and soon a violent southeaster was fanning the billowing flames in the direction of Red Hill and Scarborough.

A concerned runner phoned in to Cape Talk to ask if the Red Hill Marathon would take place the following morning, which prompted Grant Labuschagne to phone the station to assure listeners that it would go ahead, come what may.

But the situation looked bleak the next morning. As I left Kommetjie at four a.m. it was evident that the fire had spread from Scarborough all the way along to above Ocean View, and running anywhere beyond Ocean View would be impossible in the smoke-filled air. Fire Services had closed the road between Ocean View and Scarborough to all traffic.  I phoned Andy Campbell to give him advanced warning of the situation.

When I reached the club the news was grim. The fire had also reached the top of Red Hill and was burning in the area of the informal settlement. Participants had started arriving. An ominous amphitheatre of raging flames had greeted them as they crested Ou Kaapseweg and looked across the valley. Many athletes resigned themselves to the fact that the race would be cancelled.

In truth, for FHAC there was no alternative. The race had to take place. To organise the Red Hill in 2008 would have cost in the region of R80000, and many of the expenses were paid in advance of the race. No race meant no entry fees, and hence the club would have taken a financial bath. Besides, with less than an hour to go to the official start of the race there were hundreds of athletes milling around wanting to know what the situation was.

This was the moment when the flurry of co-ordination sprang to life, the moment of dovetailing that happens when everyone has the same goal and understands his or her role in achieving it. The first step was to buy some time, and the race referees agreed to delay the start by 30 minutes. Next we had to reroute the course.

We knew that if the race ran out to Ocean View traffic lights and back to the foot of Black Hill it would give us 12km. The road over Black Hill to the Glencairn traffic light was a further 5.5km. The plan was to then route the runners up Glen Road, through Da Gama Park and across to Red Hill via the Marine Base road . . . and we weren’t sure how long this section was. We did know that from the top of Red Hill back to the club was 12km. In a flash Kim J-W was in her car and off to measure the “unknown” section of the course. In the meantime we had to get permission from the Navy to run through the Marine Base road, which was duly done.

Soon the call came back from Kim . . . the section in question was 7.5km. We had a route that was close enough to 36km for the Classic. By know the entry tables were doing a brisk trade. The next challenge was for Martin Rohland to get all the water tables re-positioned and stocked before the race reached any of them, and the volunteers manning those tables had to be notified of the new locations of their tables. Also, the race marshals had to be informed of where their new positions were.

At 6:30 sharp the starters gun fired and approximately 1300 marathon and Classic runners set off into the hazy distance. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief. But the respite was brief, because almost immediately Andy turned to me and said: “I need you to find me another 6kms for the marathon course”. We were in the unique situation where the marathon runners were already out on the road, but the last 6kms of their route was yet to be determined.

After a quick recce around Fish Hoek it was decided to divert the marathon runners down Riverside Road, through the back streets, around the wetland area and back to the sports fields along the same route. This would make the marathon route about 43km by our estimation, but we were mindful that, because Red Hill was a qualifying marathon for Two Oceans and Comrades, we had to err on the side of the route being longer rather than shorter.

The next challenge was to find marshals for the extra 6km loop, as well as set up a refreshment station for this section. Janet Jackson took charge of the water table. It was positioned so that runners would pass through it twice, as they entered and exited the wetland area. Water and coke that had been surplus to requirements at earlier refreshment stations was ferried to Janet’s table. Volunteers returning to the club from earlier marshalling stints were coerced into going back out onto the course to man the 6km loop. Even then there was not quite enough manpower, so Brett Searle, Jonathan Barrow, Michael and Cameron Mackintosh (aged between 7 and 10) were grabbed as soon as they finished the Fun Run and co-opted into standing duty on the wetlands path.

Tommy Ball, the lead cyclist for the marathon, was confronted with the interesting situation of not knowing at all what the route was for the last 6km. He literally cycled to the next marshal and asked for further directions.

Amazingly despite all the challenges and stresses of reorganising the event in less than an hour, everything ran like clockwork. The water and coke at the refreshment stations was ice cold, the stations were evenly spaced at 3kms apart, there were no marshalling errors where runners were sent in the wrong direction, and there was not one area where the organisation was found to be wanting. And the runners were incredibly appreciative of the effort that was put in to make sure that their event went ahead.

Today I am still in awe of what was achieved by the club members that day . . . the way everybody adopted a “can do” attitude and pulled together to accomplish something remarkable. It’s what makes FHAC a great club.


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