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Joburg: Growling with flavour

Paul Berkowitz: studied economics, maths stats. Worked at Econometrix, FNB, Wits. Interested in South African politics, economics.

Having tasted (and subsequently spat out) the wares of Nike South Africa and its Run Jozi campaign, I laced up for Joburg’s most underground, offensive and fun anti-run run, the Growler. 

I heard about the Growler via one of its founders, one Paul Theron. By day Paul is a mild-mannered financial analyst and media celebrity, but on the weekends he is a member of the Tyrone Harriers, a running club that haunts Joburg’s leafy suburbs. When some of the Harriers were barred from entering the Puffer, a road race through the beautiful, scenic wilds of the Cape Peninsula, they decided to hit back. And thus was the Growler born.

As Paul describes the Growler’s nativity in 2008, in his rousing pre-run speech: “The reason given for barring us was that there were too many people running on the ecologically challenged Table Mountain Reserve footpaths. So we said to ourselves, there is no way someone would use such a rubbish excuse on the hellish, broken streets of Joburg. So we launched the Growler, through the worst streets of Joburg. This is a celebration, of sorts.”  

You can see the full route of the Growler on the official website. The race begins and ends in Houghton and that is the beginning and end of any appeal to scenery or middle-class aesthetics. The Growler is less about soaking up the vibes from the mountain and more about finding a quiet mine-dump (or the site of the old Top Star drive-in) for an alfresco toilet break. 

The fynbos-encrusted trail runs of the Cape are easy on the eye and so forth, but there is more life bursting forth from one Bree Street dustbin than across the whole peninsula – particularly on the first Sunday of December (when the Growler is held), which lurches into the world, staggering in the foetid wake of the Saturday night come before. The sights of early Sunday morning city life are interesting but the smells, ah the smells, they are truly mesmerising. 

There have been one or two imitators and pretenders to the throne, including the abovementioned Run Jozi campaign from Nike South Africa. It has held two 10km runs, one through the inner city and one through Sandton and Alexandra, but they’re too sanitised and sponsored for the likes of the Growler faithful. Run Jozi has branded shirts, water tables, medals, DJs, goodie bags, and a proper start and finish.

So, apart from those stupid things, Run Jozi is exactly like the Growler. Only worse. Exactly.

The Growler wears its brash Joburg chauvinism on its sleeve. It is dirty and smelly and not about to have a bath any time soon. While other races may be Celine Dion, all sculpted and technically correct and awful, this one is more Amy Winehouse. Like Amy after a Saturday night the Growler is covered in vomit and fumbling for a drink but always the genuine article.

The route covers most of the old CBD and the surrounding working-class suburbs in loving detail. I’ll take you through it briefly, gentle reader, with some personal commentary and observations (a quirk of all native Joburgers who run the Growler).

The route starts in pristine Houghton, opposite King Edward VII School (KES), but immediately heads south across Louis Botha (the proverbial train tracks) into Yeoville and up Kenmere Road. At the intersection of Kenmere and Raleigh (née Rockey) Street there’s a chip shop where you can buy your chips by the cake box for R20 if you want (the secret ingredient is oil).

Further up Kenmere and past the Yeoville police station where the route zig-zags south-west and then west on the bridge over Joe Slovo Drive. Berea shows you a flash of an ankle (it’s generally cleaner than Yeoville) and before you know it you’re in Hillbrow on Claim Street. 

There’s not much activity in town this early in the morning (6:15) but the taxi drivers are already up and quite happy to let 150 middle-class runners jaywalk across their routes. Maybe we are their comic relief after a heavy night and maybe there are few fares to lose this early in the morning. At any rate, they are most accommodating and hospitable.

From Claim Street we turn smartly into Twist Street (via Goldreich) and continue south into the belly of the beast. From the top of Twist there is a wonderful view of the Noord Street taxi rank. We pass the legendary Club Base on the way. From its balconies you can see the view south from a place of relative safety, a cold beer in your hand. We pass the MacDonald’s and Steven, my running buddy and general partner in crime, informs me that it’s built on the ruins of the first Look & Listen in South Africa. Steven, a man with a serious vinyl addiction, still has the records he bought there all those years ago. 

It is on Twist that we temporarily swell our ranks by one; a local tears his shirt off and runs with us for a few hundred metres, screaming at the top of his lungs. Craziness is clearly contagious, but it’s not clear which of us is the host body. 

Noord arrives very quickly. Dustbins overflow with eggshells, mielie cobs and the other detritus of the taxi rank vendors. We run past a few glowering rank marshals (the only point on the route where we aren’t met with friendliness) cutting west along Plein and then south down Eloff. We head west for a bit and then south again, and suddenly we’re on Loveday Street, in the shadow of the M2. 

The BP garage on Loveday is our first designated pit stop of the route. Although the Growler eschews the formalities and niceties of a proper run, efforts are made to accommodate the less-proficient runners (like me). There are regular stops so that stragglers can catch up, and there are three strategic breaks for cold drinks and (formal) ablution facilities. All 150 of us crash through the doors of the Quickshop and the quiet thoughts of the cashiers, who were probably hoping for at least another hour of peace.

The detour south into Selby was done to take in the sights of the original Top Star drive-in, or at least the gaping hole where the drive-in used to be. The themes of ruin and of being in reduced circumstances are central to the Growler, but so are the tenacity and bloody-mindedness of the city. The Top Star is long gone, but the smart red carpet of the Rea Vaya route runs through Commissioner and Market. The gutted buildings in Hillbrow rub shoulders with those that have been reclaimed by the infamous Bad Boys security company, now tagged bright orange with their gang colours. 

From our short pilgrimage we head back north, up Sauer, and further west along Commissioner, where we pose for the obligatory group photo in front of the Anglo American headquarters. Then it’s north again up Ntemi Piliso and across the Mandela Bridge into Braamfontein. The original route cuts west through the Wits campus and onto the M1 for a bit but we are cheating today, breaking east on Stiemens and then north on Melle, up the hill and then down onto Empire.

We head east on Empire until we reach the BP garage, our second stop. We are halfway through the madness and some members of the group leave at this point, desperate to rediscover suburbia. We’ve barely had time to mourn them when we’re off again, north up the hill on Queens Street, past Constitution Hill. I tell Steven that Constitution Hill has its own postal code. He’s not nearly as impressed with my cleverness as I am but still grunts politely.

We run east onto Kotze, jink north for half a block on Catherine and then east onto Abel. The denizens of Hillbrow are waking up and are even happy to make friendly banter. One of them comments on my Pirates jacket: “You support the Bucs, you are already a winner”. I cross my wrists above my head, forcing a bit more air into my lungs, to cheers. He’s right; I feel like a winner. 

We reach Joe Slovo and head south down the offramp towards the Ellis Park precinct. Steven and I have walked this path from my little Yeoville flat a few times to watch the soccer or rugby. When you walk back at night, or drive slowly enough, you can see the fires flickering under the bridge amongst the sharp rocks where the homeless live. 

When you pass them on a run (on Sauer, on Joe Slovo, on Sandton drive, under the bridge) the homeless will invariably greet you, if they are up. When you’re not in your car and you are travelling slowly enough, the gravitational pull of other people is strong enough to affect you. In those few seconds that you orbit each other, you can make a connection.

We’re on Saratoga, then Susie, Dora, Beit and Fitzroy as we circumnavigate Johannesburg Stadium and look across the road to Ellis Park. We’re in Bertrams proper, on Millbourn. This is our third and final stop for drinks, on a road that must have more fish and chip shops per square inch than any other road in the city. I wonder if the SABC knows about this road, and what it plans to do about it.

We turn north(ish) into Viljoen and the steep, steep challenge of Stewart Drive looms ahead. The physics of this will be interesting. We pass the home for mentally troubled people on the one side and the voting station where I voted last year on the other. Stewart Drive is very steep and most of the group are content to walk it. The pack spreads out even more. I phone my better half and ask her if she’d like to meet on the corner of Jolly and Bezuidenhout for a quick kiss. I hope to win the group’s respect with my choice of partner, if not with my running skills. 

By the time I find her on Bezuidenhout, the rest of the group is already running north down the hill, back towards Houghton. It serves me right for wanting to exploit her for my narrow aims. I do get a warm embrace, but even better, I am handed a cold bottle of water. 

Bezuidenhout, the dividing line between Yeoville and Bellevue, is very steep. We’re aware that running hard on the downhills at this point is a bad idea. Anyway, the motorists here are less generous than the taxi drivers. We take each block on its merits.

We cross Rockey again and pass the Rasta House, an infamous Yeoville establishment. The rumours are that the Yeoville police are paid their hush money in weekly brown envelopes. It’s probably true. Business is booming.

At the bottom of Bezuidenhout we turn west and then north again up Acorn. Technically, this is Houghton (or upper Houghton as the estate agents like to bill it) but nobody is fooled. Louis Botha is the unofficial demarcation line. I buy the Sunday Times from Josias, my paper guy. He doesn’t have the City Press. This is not life, as the young people are fond of saying. If we run in last I can always claim that I stopped to buy the paper.

We turn east onto Louis Botha. The pavements are awful. MC Escher couldn’t draw them, not with all the drugs in the world. At 1st Avenue we head west, then onto Houghton Drive. The wild part of the journey is over. All that’s left is coffee, muffins, hot baths and cricket scores.

Here is to the Growler, the race dubbed “Joburg’s most offensive road running event”. Long may it flourish, like a daisy on a dunghill. Here is to the obscene, indomitable spirit of Joburg and her inhabitants. Let us raise our middle fingers to all the others. I certainly hope to run this race again; I’m sure I have a few more Growlers inside me, waiting to be let out. DM 


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