A booze embargo and virtual marathons

Author of multiple Bradt guides over the years shares his experiences of lockdown in South Africa

We went into a 21-day lockdown on 27 March, with South Africa imposing some of the strictest rules of any country in the world. Among the more controversial restrictions are a total veto on the sale or transport of alcohol and cigarettes, and a ban on recreational running or walking (with or without dog) outside one’s own house and garden.

Our household is unaffected by the first two of these. We don’t smoke, and being organised in such matters, we’re stocked up with sufficient booze for the time being, though (whisper it) rationing may soon come into force if the lockdown is extended!

But my wife and I are both keen runners, and the thought of spending weeks on end locked indoors, unable to do any aerobic exercise, was, frankly, alarming. Of course, we’d be the first acknowledge this as a ‘first-world problem’, a petty inconvenience compared to the hardships faced by many South Africans now in lockdown in overcrowded informal settlements. Still, running is an integral part of our daily routine, and we were determined not to abandon it entirely.

Immediately after the lockdown was announced, but before it came into force, I panic bought an exercise bike. The next day, I pioneered a test run within our property, repeating innumerable variations on a short loop that includes the labyrinthine vegetable-patch section demonstrated in the video below. It was boring, and strange, but more doable than I expected. Game on!

We weren’t the only ones to take up lockdown running. On Strava – for those unfamiliar, a kind of Facebook for runners – we and thousands of others joined the Mzansi Lockdown Virtual Marathon, a challenge to run 42km (the equivalent distance to a marathon) in the lockdown period, averaging 2km per day.

Over the first two days of lockdown, my Strava feed underwent a strange transformation. Instead of the usual generous loops and in-and-out linear runs, my screen was filled with by a gallery of repetitive Rorschach-test squiggles – from sketchy ellipsoids and amorphous up-and-down scribbles to near-perfect boomerangs and, occasionally, something a little more risqué.


Initially, 2km seemed a sensible daily target, to myself and to most other runners I follow. Running around in tight circles is surprisingly slow going (I’m about about 50% down on my usual pace) and also oddly tiring, possibly because you never get into any kind of rhythm, but repeatedly brake and swerve to change direction, more like trail running than road running, though without the wide open spaces!

The stakes quickly got higher, though. A few days into lockdown, one friend ran a 10km on a repeat loop of less than 100m. On the second weekend of lockdown, a member of our running club did a half-marathon, repeating the same loop 222 times in two-and-a-bit hours. Soon after, someone else did a full marathon (42km).

Another runner my wife knows covered the same distance as the Two Oceans UltraMarathon (56km) in their garden. Incredibly, yesterday I heard of somebody doing a garden ‘Comrades’ – South Africa’s most famous competitive run, covering the 90km between Durban and Pietermaritzburg – in one day.

I’m not quite in that league. But as I adjusted my mindset to the circularity of lockdown running, I’ve gradually upped my game, via 3km and 5km, to a maximum daily distance of 8km. Indeed, 14 days into lockdown I’ve long surpassed the original goal of a Mzansi Lockdown Virtual Marathon, having run a total of 56km, admittedly at a pace that would be embarrassing under most other circumstances.

For most South Africans, the burning question now is whether the lockdown will be extended, for how long and under what terms, or whether it will be fully or partially lifted. The signals are mixed. Mercifully, our documented rate of infection in the first fortnight of lockdown is considerably lower than predicted, though it is unclear to what extent this simply reflect low testing rates. Equally, the potential economic and social impact of an ongoing lockdown and associated job losses is mind-boggling, and South Africa more than most countries lacks the resources to absorb this.

The future feels very uncertain, but whether we can take back to the road in the coming weeks, or it’s an ongoing regime of lockdown loops, I’ll still be running to keep up my sprits in this strange and scary time.

Shortly after this article was written, lockdown in South Africa was extended by another 14 days, and one runner we know took lockdown garden running to its circular extreme, completing an incredible 100 miles (161km) in his garden over 24 hours!