Running seems to be a more popular pastime these days than ever before, and more and more people are traveling to epic locations for memorable running experiences. But let’s be realistic here, and acknowledge that while there may be a runner in your household, it may even be you, who is keen to head to the ends of the earth to lace up and sweat, not everyone shares this passion. So what do you do? I’d suggest making a destination race an opportunity to combine running with an epic travel experience. Remember, whether you’re running or not, the number one reason to do a destination race is the destination itself.
If you’re less worried about a fast personal best and more interested in a fun time, then Africa is the place for you. Many of the races here allow you to take in exceptional scenery and run with wildlife around you. As an added bonus, many races in Africa are associated with charitable causes.
Please do note that running in Africa is not easy. Climatic conditions, often combined with tough terrain, can mean that races here can easily be some of the toughest you’ll ever run.
So without further ado, here are some of the top races you should consider taking part in across the African continent, and some suggestions for what you, or the non-runner in your life, should do while you’re there.
1. Cape Town Marathon, South Africa
I’m going to start with the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon because this is the first marathon I ever ran. My kids were at boarding school in Cape Town and I’d always been a keen runner, but living on a farm in the middle of Zambia, the opportunity to run an iconic race like this hadn’t presented itself before, so this was a perfect opportunity to combine my first marathon with a visit to my kids at school — in fact, the race route went right past the school and the boarding house matron was waiting at the school gate with a smile and a few words of encouragement as I ran past.
The vibe of this race is incredible, with dancers, performers, musicians, and cheer squads all along the route, as well as a crowd of very enthusiastic spectators. I was startled the first time someone in the crowd cheered me along by name. Not knowing anybody in the crowd, I was perplexed, until I realized they’d read my name on my running bib and were simply cheering me, a total stranger, along.
The Cape Town Marathon is Africa’s only marathon to acquire IAAF Golden Label Status, which for the uninitiated means it’s met stringent criteria in organization — gold label status is reserved for the best-organized races.
There’s so much to do in Cape Town that I don’t think I need to give you any hints for things to do post-race!
2. Kilimanjaro Marathon, Tanzania
The “Kili” Marathon began in 2002, initially as some talk over a few cold Kilimanjaro Lagers. Since then, it has been held annually in Moshi under the watchful gaze of Mount Kilimanjaro. Hundreds of runners come from all over the world to take part in the race, which is a 6.5-mile loop, with runners doing the full marathon repeating the course four times (there are also half marathon and fun run options). The Kilimanjaro Marathon is one of the few marathons that doesn’t invite any professional runners, so an amateur runner is guaranteed the win, and the race has become a great breeding ground for local athletes.
This iconic race takes place late February/early March each year in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro and is a great opportunity to have the snow-capped peak of Africa’s highest mountain in your marathon photos. Incidentally, Forbes Magazine has named this the “4th Best International Adventure Marathon.” The Kilimanjaro Marathon is a qualifying race for the Comrades Marathon (more about that later). And yes, you can drink a Kilimanjaro beer at the end.
After the race, you could always consider climbing the mountain that you’ve been running in the shadow of, alternatively, head to Ngorongoro or Serengeti National Parks.
3. Victoria Falls Marathon, Zimbabwe And Zambia
The Vic Falls Marathon is held in Zimbabwe every year, in June, July, or August. It began in 2006 with only about 300 local runners taking part but has grown to attract close to 2,500 athletes, from over 40 countries.
This is the only race in Africa that crosses an international border — crossing from Zimbabwe to Zambia, on the Livingstone Bridge, over the Zambezi River, the border between the two countries. The race gets you close enough to Victoria Falls that you can feel the spray on your skin, and lucky runners can view elephants, buffalos, and even lions as they run through the local game park.
You can choose between the Full Marathon, Half Marathon, and Fun Run courses.
After the race, spend some time enjoying the famous Victoria Falls and all the activities offered here.
4. Lewa Safari Marathon, Kenya
The Lewa Marathon (and Half Marathon) is an annual fundraising endurance race held in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya every June and proceeds raised are aimed at improving community development in the area, as well as wildlife conservation, particularly that of rhinos. The first race was held in 2000 and since then, it has gained popularity, now attracting competitors as well as spectators from all around the world.
Run on dirt roads and rough terrain, under harsh climatic conditions, and at an average altitude of 5,500ft above sea level, the two 13 mile loops, through the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, have gained the reputation of being one of the 10 toughest marathon events in the world. Runner’s World Magazine named Lewa Marathon “One of the Top 10 races to Run in Your Life.”
The marathon is run entirely within a wildlife conservancy. No fences, no rivers, nothing at all separates the runners from the African wildlife. The scenery is amazing, and better still you can glimpse some of the local wildlife, including giraffes, rhinos and wildebeest, running alongside them if you are really lucky.
Once you are done with your run, stay on and enjoy some game drives, game walks, or even camel rides at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
5. Uganda International Marathon, Masaka, Uganda
The Uganda International Marathon is a race like no other, and an opportunity to both challenge yourself and make a difference. Beginning in the town center, participants run off-road, through rural villages, up hills, and along Pine Ridge with stunning views right out to Lake Victoria.
This is not just a marathon, but a 7-day adventure where runners visit the projects they are fundraising for and get to know the local community. Runners support projects from giving children access to clean drinking water and quality education, to conserving the environment through recycling plastics, and supporting the elderly, women’s equality, and the disabled community. The Uganda Marathon is part of the UN Global Goals project.
There are options for Full Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K as well as disability race options.
This marathon is an experience in itself, enjoy seven days getting up close and personal with the projects that you are supporting with your run.
6. The Two Oceans Ultra Marathon, South Africa
The Two Oceans Marathon is a 56K ultra marathon and 21K half marathon held on the Saturday of the Easter Weekend in Cape Town. The marathon is known as “The most beautiful Marathon in the World” because of the breathtaking scenery along the route. The Two Oceans began in 1970 with just 26 participants and has grown to such great numbers that slots sell out within days, if not hours of opening. The half marathon attracts more than 16,000 participants and the ultra-marathon 11,000 participants.
Once again, this is Cape Town, and the options of things to do post-race, from sightseeing to tours of the wine lands, from beaches to fine dining, are endless.
7. Comrades Marathon, South Africa
This 55-mile ultra-marathon is run annually in the KwaZulu Natal Province of South Africa. It’s the largest and oldest ultra-marathon in the world. The race has been held every May/June since 1921. Entrants come from more than 60 countries, with a cap at 20,000 runners (though only 10,000 actually make it to the finish line before the cut off time of 12 hours). This is a serious race and there are 5 cutoff points along the route that the athletes have to reach by a specified time or be forced to withdraw.
To qualify for the ultra-marathon, runners have to complete an officially recognized marathon (Kilimanjaro Marathon and Cape Town Marathon are two of the qualifying races).
Nearby Durban boasts 370 miles of subtropical beaches on its coastline and fantastic weather year round, so head to the beach after your run.
8. Marathon Des Sables, Morocco
The name of this marathon is French for “Marathon of the Sands.” This is a 6-day, 156 miles ultra-marathon, held annually in Southern Morocco, across the Sahara Desert. With its extreme desert conditions — think sandy trails, dry lake beds and stony tracks, all run with a bag on your back that contains all your essentials, including a tent and food, — this has been called the toughest foot race on earth.
Desert Dream is a tour operator based in the city of Ouarzazate in the south of Morocco. It arranges guided tours lasting from 1 day to 3 weeks, including anything from off-road vehicle trips to camel treks, if you are looking for something to do after your run.
9. Great Ethiopian Run, Ethiopia
This is a 10K run held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia every November. It has close to 37,000 participants, about 500 of whom are elite runners, making it Africa’s biggest and arguably most-famous running event. Given the quality of elite athletes, and Addis Ababa’s high altitude of 8,000feet, not many elite athletes from other countries take part in this race.
Addis Ababa is a great starting point for a Simien Mountains or Bale Mountains trip.
10. Marathon Of Marrakech, Morocco
This is an annual running event, held every end of January in Marrakech. It’s a beautiful flat, fast course that goes through ramparts of the city and along dusty roads lined with palm, orange, and olive trees. The mild January weather is just right for a marathon run. And more than 8,000 runners from all over the world take part in this race.
Marrakech is a city unlike any other, full of history and culture, with beautiful architecture and bright colors. There’s a lot to do to keep you or the non-runner in your life occupied here after the race.
There you have some of the races in Africa which are well-worth trying. They will not only give you a challenge, but also fabulous memories to take home.
A Few Tips For A Destination Race In Africa
1. Plan for jet lag. Plan to arrive at least 3 or 4 days before your race to give yourself time to adjust.
2. Schedule the race for the beginning of the trip. Even if you’re not planning to run your fastest race ever, you don’t want to wear out your legs sightseeing. The real vacation can start after the run.
3. BYO “fuel.” Airports and planes are not known for well-balanced food options, and once you land, you may not be able to find your preferred protein bars, energy drinks, etc. So come prepared with your own supply.
4. Pack everything important in your carry-on. You don’t want to land and find your race gear has vanished along with your luggage. Carry what you know you’ll need on race day in your hand luggage.
5. Stay hydrated. Airplane air is very dehydrating, reducing blood circulation and heightening jet lag, so keep drinking during your flight (though do remember alcohol causes dehydration!)
6. Plan logistics ahead of time. Figure out in advance how to get to the start of the race, where it ends, and what to do about transport. If you can’t understand the language, get someone at the race expo or hotel to write down some directions.
7. Don’t freak out if things don’t go as planned. Remember you are here to enjoy yourself, so don’t stress if you didn’t get enough sleep, the local food doesn’t agree with you, or the terrain isn’t what you expected. Just appreciate where you are and what you are doing, and remember this will all make for great memories.
8. Look Around You — Last but not least, remember the number one reason to come to Africa to run is the destination itself! So look up, look around you, take it all in, and enjoy the experience.
Consider these activities before or after you take part in a marathon in Africa: