Runner’s Paradise: Marathons in Africa

Have you ever wondered why some of the world’s fastest runners come from Africa? Africa is claimed by some to be a Runner’s Paradise and marathons in Africa are famous for providing a unique marathon experience.

The Ethiopian Abebe Bikila ran the marathon, barefoot, at the 1960 Olympics in Rome – and won. Decades later his fellow countryman, Haile Gebrselassie, won the Berlin Marathon four times. (He later conceptualized the massively popular Great Ethiopian Run.) To date, no one has broken the Berlin Marathon record set by a Kenyan (Dennis Kimetto) taken away from a fellow Kenyan (Wilson Kipsang).

Clearly, the African continent is a rich training ground even if all you aspire to do is set a personal record. And with plenty of staggering scenery to feast your eyes upon, it’s much sweeter to feel your “lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery” and achieve a runner’s high in these epic locations.

Cape Town, South Africa (Two Oceans Marathon)

If you are chasing incredible coastal scenery while pushing yourself to the limits, this 56K Ultra Marathon fits the bill. The name comes from the fact that runners have commanding views of both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans while rounding Cape Peninsula. It’s also hard to argue the organizers’ claim that this ultra is “the world’s most beautiful marathon” when you’re approaching Chapman’s Peak, one of the loveliest stretches of race-able coastline in Cape Town. If you are not up to the challenge yet, join the half marathon instead. The event is held each year on the Saturday of Easter Week.

Great Rift Valley, Ethiopia (Ethio Trail Marathon)

As a recently started running event in the heart of the ancient Great Rift Valley, the Ethio Trail Marathon builds on the popularity of Ethiopia as the land of legendary runners and capitalizes on the chains of lakes and waterfalls located in Abijatta-Shalla National Park where the marathon takes place. If birdwatching also happens to be high on your list, you will find the islands on Lake Shalla a real paradise. Held in August when the average daytime temperature ranges from 23°C to 27°C, the Ethio Trail Marathon offers three distances to choose from: 42K (uphill), 21K and 12K.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe-Zambia (Victoria Falls Marathon)

So maybe you are ambitious and want to cram as many experiences as possible in a single event while also having the time of your life. Then put down your name for the Victoria Falls Marathon held in the vicinity of ‘the smoke that thunders.’ Starting by the banks on the Zimbabwe side of the border, runners cross the Victoria Falls bridge, briefly enter Zambia, traverse Zambezi National Park (where the chance to spot wildlife is high), then finish at Victoria Falls Primary School in Zimbabwe. With spectacular river and waterfall scenery, varied terrain and wildlife entertaining you along the way, the full 42.2K should be a no-sweat feat. There’s also a 21.2K half marathon and a 7.5K fun run for beginners to enjoy. The event is held annually in July.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya (Safaricom Marathon)

There’s running on dirt roads under the intense heat of the sun, and there’s running under withering heat in the company of lions, giraffes, elephants and zebras – at an altitude of 5,500 feet above sea level. If this lung-busting safari appeals to you, then this 42K race held each June within the 55,000-acre Lewa Wildlife Conservancy should be on your bucket list. The good news is you are far from the only human bold enough to run with some of Africa’s iconic Big Five: More than 1,000 runners from around the world gather in the shadow of Mt. Kenya to run and raise money for conservation and community projects benefiting local communities.

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (Comrades Marathon)

Named in memory of a South African soldier’s fallen comrades who fought during WWI, the Comrades Marathon is one of the world’s largest ultra-marathon events with plenty of compelling history to go with its mass appeal. Attracting a staggering number of runners from all corners of the globe (more than 18,000 runners joined in 2013), Comrades was first run in May 1921 (now the event is held in June) with only 34 runners setting off from the quiet charm and dignity of Pietermaritzburg for a race to Durban some 89km downhill. Since then, the “down” runs were held in even years while the “up” runs from Durban to Pietermaritzburg were held in odd years. The unfolding scenery between these two locations is phenomenal, especially as the route snakes through the aptly named Valley of a Thousand Hills. But don’t let the crescendo of one green slope rising above another fool you. The Comrades Up or Down has long been notorious for its infamous hill climbs that have stripped countless runners bare.

Moshi, Tanzania (Kilimanjaro Marathon)

If you’re setting your sights for the Comrades Marathon and would also like to oogle at rural Tanzania’s scenery in the shadow of the snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro, this 42.2K marathon is for you. Taking place at the end of February or beginning of March, the “Kili” run kicks off from Moshi then heads towards Dar es Salaam before turning around and tracking back down into the heart of Moshi where the route then follows a track that steadily climbs towards Mweka, a village on the southern slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Kili marathon also offers a glimpse into the warmth of locals who provide ample vocal support, cheering on runners as they pass through. If you don’t intend to qualify for the Comrades Marathon, you may want to join the 21.1K half marathon or the 5K fun run.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia (Fish River Challenge)

The Fish River Canyon is a gorge of stunning proportions: a massive gash in the African continent 160kms long, 27kms wide and half a kilometer deep, only the Grand Canyon of the US is bigger. Casual hikers follow the canyon’s 84km trail to marvel at the stark beauty of the primeval landscape, but elite runners use the same trail to push themselves beyond what is humanly possible. After all, this ultra marathon is unsupported (except for water stations along the way) and the difficult nature of the terrain as it follows the course of the Fish River presents a real possibility of completing the course after dark (when the canyon is more intimidating). For this reason, this June event is timed to coincide with the full moon. The race route spans 96K, with a “Lite” version recently added for those who wish to tackle a shorter route (65K) but still breathe in the same mind-blowing scenery.

Kalahari Desert, South Africa (Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon)

There’s walk-in-the-park Victoria Falls Marathon, lung-busting Safaricom Marathon, and even the grueling 96K Fish River Challenge. Then there’s the 250K extreme marathon – in the middle of a desert. Without support. Not surprisingly, KAEM is one of the most revered desert races in the world. A 7-day, 6-stage self-sufficient foot race held annually in October, KAEM attracts runners from around the world and takes them to the dramatically contrasting landscape of the Kalahari Desert near the equally stunning Augrabies Falls on the Orange River. Finding your way back after getting lost in the vastness of the Kalahari is not the most pressing challenge: The course is clearly marked throughout, with checkpoints every 8-10km and hawk-eyed race crew to steer you back on the right track. Instead, runners should brace for extreme shifts in temperature ranging from above 40°C by day to below 5°C at night.

Sahara Desert, Morocco (Marathon des Sables)

Regarded as the world’s toughest extreme marathon (at least according to Discovery Channel), this 7-day, 6-stage, 250K journey through the Sahara brings elite runners to sandy trails, sand dunes, dry lake beds, white-hot salt plains, rocky jebels (mountains or hills), and the occasional sand storm. Like the KAEM, MdS requires you to bring everything you need (minus tent and water) to make it through the unforgiving desert where daytime temperatures regularly reach 50°C. Held in March or April, MdS is wildly popular despite the mental and physical toughness it demands, regularly attracting more than a thousand ultra-fit runners from around the world. Slots are often sold out years in advance, but the preparation that goes with putting your name down will truly be worth it. After all, this foot race is the stuff of legends. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

This article originally appeared on Demand Africa.

More from AFKTravel:

Three African Marathons That Combine Running And Wildlife

7 Great Walks, Treks And Hikes In West Africa

The Best Mountain Hikes In Africa

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