I always thought the Buffs Marathon was named after the Buffalo Park club, but when I went over the course and analyzed the profile I began to understand why runners were split into the groups who love the course and those who hate it.
Quite simply it is a course that suits the Buffs of pacing, not the take it as it comes brigade!
For years I had heard how runners had recorded fast times on the Old Mutual Buffs Marathon. This was where Bruce Fordyce recorded his fastest marathon of 2 hours and 17 minutes and the venue of an annual pilgrimage by Durban’s Stella Club. According to many this is the course on which to secure your best seeding for the Old Mutual Two Oceans or the Comrades marathon. The main feature of the race was the overall drop from 500 metres down to sea level and the finish. By contrast there were local East London runners who cursed the profile, citing the steep downs and a monstrous climb in the final fifth for some of their worst ever marathon times.
Who was to be believed?
Clearly there is more to running this A to B course than meets the eye and it takes no small amount of discipline, control and strategic running to get the most out of this race.
Sure there is an overall drop but the few well placed steep ascents combined with a 2km sting-in-the-tail climb at 36 kilometres has been known to destroy the best intentions.
This is a course where pacing is as important as your fitness. The temptation to let loose when the gun goes can be overwhelming for many but it’s a mistake that comes back to bite later in the race. There are roughly seven definable uphill segments on the overall descent to the lowest point of the race just after 35 kilometres. None of these are particularly long but they elicit a slow down in pace that is 6 or 7 % slower than the average pace for the target time.
For instance a runner looking to run 3 hours 30 minutes for the marathon would want to reduce his pace to 5 minutes 35 seconds for these uphill blimps compared with an overall average of 5 minutes per kilometre. The difference in pace is exaggerated by the fact that the average downhill pace over the same section would be around 4 minutes 45 seconds per kilometre. But the real challenge is to keep control on this downhill pace. Increasing the pace to 4:20 or other attempts to put ‘minutes in the bank’ are assured of only one thing – that the runner will be found with a deficit when he or she gets to 35km!!!
The truth is that any investment designed to put ‘time in the bank’ requires you to make a greater withdrawal from your energy account, which leaves you in the red when you come to 36 kilometres …. and there in front of you is the start of a two kilometre long climb. It’s the worst climb of the whole race and those adopting the ‘time in bank’ approach are left in discussion with the ultimate bank manager as they seek guidance on reducing the greatest deficit known to runners – no energy!
Even adopting a more sensible and controlled pacing for the downhill will require you to slow your pace by a whopping 20 percent to climb this switch-back hill. Continuing our example a 3:30 marathoner would need to change pace from running 4 minutes 30 seconds per kilometre into the lowest point to slogging out 6 minutes 10 seconds to get back out of the whole.
This is a dramatic change in pace and one you have to be mentally prepared for.
After you pass the 38km mark there are two more leg-blurring 4:40’s downhill followed by short but taxing climbs that require a grinding 6:10 pace. However home is on the horizon and now is the time to give what you can as any extra vooma now makes a positive dent into your finish time.
The Old Mutual Buffs Marathon has the look and feel of a downhill marathon and one where you can ‘Do Great Things!” … but be wary … This is a course that requires respect and control. Those ignoring the warnings can be left regretting their initial helter-skelter dash down the early kilometres!