Race report – Hemel & Aarde Marathon

Mar 1, 2020

When I first heard there was a new marathon in the Cape from Caledon to Hermanus that was supposed to be a fast route, I thought it sounded interesting but when I heard it finished at a winery, I was sold! I certainly couldn’t miss an opportunity to combine my two loves, running and wine, plus I wanted a shot at improving my seeding for Two Oceans anyway. So shortly after, a whirlwind trip to Hermanus was booked for the inaugural Hemel & Aarde Marathon.

My colleague and I flew into Cape Town from Johannesburg on the Friday morning, collected the rental car and headed off to Hermanus. This is truly such a beautiful part of the world and the stunning views start from Sir Lowry’s pass where you’re treated to a view of the beautiful coastline of Gordon’s Bay and Strand. This is also where the strong Cape winds seemed to pick up though and our little hired car felt like it might blow over at any minute.

We’d been lucky enough to find accommodation at a lovely little guesthouse at the Hemel & Aarde Village, just at the end of the road where the race finishes. We hadn’t realised quite how close it was to the finish until we arrived and saw that it was walking distance to the start and bus pick-up point, so things were already off to a good start.

We’d opted to collect our entries from Caledon which doubled up as an opportunity to drive the route and see what we were in for. This proved to be a good move and helped me immensely on race day when the going got tough.

Hemel & aarde marathon route

On the morning of the race, we took a short jog to the West Coast Mall where the busses awaited us for the drive to Caledon and the start at the Overberg High School. The start of the race was nothing short of freezing! This is not an area of the country that I visit often, so I can’t say if this is normal for the weather around the area but the winds were howling. Thankfully I’d packed a long top for the start, which was just a lifesaver. I think the wind was the reason that most of the runners only began heading to the start line at about 5h45. For the first time at the start of a race, I was happy to have complete strangers huddled in close proximity to me. Being somewhat vertically challenged, this was a perfect opportunity for my fellow runners to be my barrier from the wind.

Following a short welcome, the crowd counted down from 10 and the race was off!

The first 7 to 8km of the race winds through the little town of Caledon. Most of this section is relatively easy going, but you do get your first taste of the few big hills to come. This was where I realised that the ‘fast’ race that this marathon had been advertised as, certainly didn’t mean it was going to be easy. This first climb is followed by the first long downhill though, so it was easy to balance out the short time lost on the hill.

After turning onto the main road through Caledon for a kilometre or so, we turned right onto the R320 (Hemel en Aarde Pass) and the beautiful scenery of the Overberg slowly started to reveal itself. This road was now the route for the rest of the marathon and it undulates from here with a beautiful mix of scenery from the valley. We passed farms with cows grazing, open fields and magnificent mountains. There are a couple of challenging up-hills but certainly more descents where you can enjoy the expanse of the Overberg as you wind your way down into the valley. The strong winds were a constant feature throughout this race, at times blowing from the side but, luckily, at times from the back which gently urges you along.

From about 17km to 21km, it’s pretty easy sailing, with a lovely long and scenic (mostly) downhill stretch. However in many races, specifically ones where you’re running for a particular time, there comes a point where you question whether you can actually achieve what you set out to do that day. Mine came at about 24km where the hardest section of the race starts. There are two tough climbs here, and after a couple of long downhill stretches in your legs, these hills feel like Everest and a few short walk breaks seemed reasonable. At 26km, I was faced with the biggest climb of the day. What can I say, that hill broke my spirit. Even though I could feel the wind at my back urging me forward, my head was telling me, “no way!”

Overberg mountains

By the time I got to 30km, I was now just over 5 minutes behind my target time. However, this is where I was thankful for having driven the route the day before because I knew there were a number of sections to come where I could make that time back up. This route is forgiving, and I managed to get my head back in the game and slowly creep my time back to target. The last 8km or so of the route is pretty fast, with mostly downhill running, but enough short hills to keep it interesting.

My personal highlight was seeing a group of volunteers manning a waterpoint at about 36km with two of them holding out ice lollies for the passing runners. If I wasn’t trying to make up time, I might have stopped to hug the man who gave me mine! That was just the boost I needed.

Hemel & Aarde marathon elevation profile

The last few kays of the race are downhill and my target slowly started coming back into reach. Just before the finish, there was a short, sharp uphill and then the finish banners were in sight. Crossing the line on slightly wobbly legs, I’m glad to say that I managed to claw my way back to my target and finished the race in a time of 3:29:24.

Overall, I found this marathon to be more challenging than I’d first anticipated but it was certainly a beautiful setting. My watch measured an elevation gain of 670m and an elevation loss of 895m, so there are certainly more downs than ups and the downs come when you need them. The race was organised by local running legend, Wietse van der Westhuizen. I’m always sceptical about doing an ‘inaugural’ race because there are bound to be teething issues. However, full credit to the organisers, the arrangements were spot on and the race seemed to go off without a hitch.

Now considering that the finish is at a winery, what better way to celebrate than to head into the Whale Haven Winery for a quick tasting or glass of wine. Then, just a short 400m walk down the road (we’ll call it a recovery walk), you’ll find the Hermanuspietersfontein Winery for another tasting. By this point, the pain of the downhills was starting to fade away and planning for the next race was already underway.

Hemel & Aarde Marathon medal

Denise Davies

Denise is a road runner at heart with a new passion for the trails. She has completed 7 Comrades Marathons, numerous standard and ultra marathons and is starting to add the ultra trails to her list as well.

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