Friday, September 19, 2014

Running in Johannesburg, South Africa: Mushroom Farm Park in Sandton

When I visit a foreign country or city, I make sure to check on the web what the local running community is recommending in terms of routes, or any other tip posted by other runners who have visited before. Conversely, I hope others find my "Running in..." labeled posts (see the "Running in..." labels in the right column) with more than 50 reviews from around the world!

When it comes to South Africa, and especially Johannesburg, getting local tips is particularly essential as there is so much insecurity caused by the extreme gap between wealthy and poor populations cohabiting in this city. One of the most common advice is "don't even think of running on your own outside!" In retrospective, and as I was told by colleagues afterwards at the office, the run I did upon arrival down to the Botanic Garden was slightly on the risky edge although I didn't feel threaten at any time even when passing groups of homeless in the underpasses (oops, put this way, that doesn't sound so safe!).

For the exclusive and privileged Sandton area, some people advised to pay for a pass at the Radisson Blu fitness center which has an indoor track. I don't know how long it is but I doubt this would have fitted my desire to run at least 10K. Besides, if it is about avoiding the treadmill, rather be outside (any takers among hotel owners and managers to install treadmills outside?). Here is the imposing Radisson Blu:
The next hint was from seeing a large green area on Google maps, the Innesfree Park. However, I learned later in the week that the nearby area on the other side of the highway is extremely dangerous and unsecured, so a clear no go (I think we drove by and it's also an open area with many people hanging out).

The last tip I found was for a rather small local park called Mushroom Farm Park and renovated in 2009. Along with mine, here is an enthusiastic blog post about this green patch in Sandton: I'm in love with a park. Indeed, it is the best compromise for a safe run outside. It is opened from 6 am (at least) to 6 pm, has at least 3 guards on duty patrolling the park, has high fences all around, only one opened entrance (the parking one which is ok to use for pedestrians although the signs say otherwise). It is very accessible and close to the major hotels in Sandton, which is the default area for business travelers (Hilton, Radisson, Holiday Inn, Courtyard). For locals, or those brave enough to drive a rental car on the left side of the road, it has a free and rather spacious parking.

It has a nice pathway, albeit quite narrow when there is other users, especially the bridges.
But, for such a small area and short loop, a great variety with a winding trail, 2 bridges over a small creek and a couple of hills.

From a practical standpoint, the park has restrooms, which I didn't visit and I brought my own water so I didn't test/taste if the water is drinkable (but tap water is throughout the city, including at the Botanic Garden as I was told and experienced).
Quite conveniently, for those interested in cross-training, it has an original outdoor gym:
Also a playground for kids to have their own fun:
Here is the sign which will please the bird watchers (and, yes Steve, I did spot a few ducks and pigeons! ;-):
Last, but not least, the park attraction is a balloon which Hyundai sponsors, offering aerial views over Sandton for RSA75 (about $8):
Note that the balloon can be seen from miles away so that's an easy landmark to spot Sandton from anywhere in Johannesburg.

Since I got my GPS stolen from my suitcase at the airport, I could tell for sure the length of the loop. One of our consultants whom I ran with on Thursday said 700 meters. The first day, I clocked 3:25-3:40 loops without going in the red zone. On Thursday, I was in my 16 th lap, having ran all the previous ones between 3:15 and 3:20 when I passed 2 runners only to find them picking up the pace to follow me. It was enough to get my engine (or ego... ;-) started and here we were, running the next lap in 2:56, phew! I did another one under 3 minutes, still "pushed" by them and they finally stopped so I slowed don a few seconds for the last 2 laps to make it 20. Great speed work out, which I hadn't really planned for as I was rather meant to taper, one week before the US 24-hour Nationals in Cleveland, OH. Yes, tomorrow...! Anyway, with these times, it must indeed bit slightly shorter than half a mile.

Again, a perfect option and compromise between outdoor running and security, a definitve "must run" if you are staying in or nearby Sandton (which is actually quite some distance from downtown, but has a large train station).

Run happy AND safe in South Africa!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Running in Johannesburg, South Africa: Sandton, Braamfontein Spruit Trail, Botanic Garden

I just landed this morning after 20 hours on a plane and 29 hours door to door. Plus 2 hours to wait for an available room as arrived at the hotel in the morning. A rather smooth trip overall except for the stealing of my new Garmin and old Canon camera from my suitcase. After flying more than 1.7 million miles, it was time something like that happened to me, still it's always a bad surprise and almost jeopardized my plans to explore Johannesburg on foot. What is disconcerting is that it seems so common particularly with South African Airlines according to this thread. You'd think that, after a few years of consistent occurrences and reporting, a few cameras would catch the thieves and address the issue. Speaking of camera, I passed by many gorgeous villas in Sandton, each with electrified fences and at least a handful of cameras. The cost of living in such a contrasted and divided country with extreme wealth on one side (houses, luxury cars) and extreme poverty on the other one (and I know I haven't seen much in the area I'm staying in).

Anyway, having gotten the usual warning of not exercising outside in this country, and Johannesburg in particular, I did some search on the Internet about running in Sandton. I didn't find much, just a few posts reassuring foreigners that Sandton is particularly safe in the early morning, and recommending to run in the nearby parks or the indoor track of the Radisson Hotel's Planet Platinum gym. This didn't seem very appealing for a long run so I de zoomed on the map and found a very interesting stretch of green area along a creek, on the West side. It seemed so obvious, I was disappointed when the Concierge of the hotel had no idea about what I was pointing him to on the map. His only reaction was that it must be very far. Indeed, 4 kilometers, phew! ;-)
So I decided to go after sending an email to Agnès with the Google trace of my targeted route (only to find out upon my return that I hadn't hit the send button before leaving, oops!). The sidewalks are quite uneven along the main arteries of Sandton and it's also dangerous to cross roads and streets in a country which drives on the other side of the road (I almost missed to cross one looking at the wrong side of the incoming traffic, with the wrong habit and reflex); as a result, I was glad to find the Braamfontein Spruit Trail. It's kind of the Parisian Coulée Verte (see 2007 and 2014 posts), or maybe a local PG&E trail since the trail isn't much about leveraging the nice creek as it seems to rather be to allow for the passage of a huge power line across the city.
But, when not looking up, it is really surprising to find such a natural creek running in the heart of the city.

There is no marking but the path is rather easy to find and follow. It was actually quite dusty in this early September, after a dry winter. Yes, it's still winter here for a few more weeks, yet the temperature was 86F this afternoon and quite dry (16% humidity)!

I saw dozens of mountain bikers but only a handful of runners.

After about 12 kilometers I reached the Emmarentia Dam:

The reservoir is surrounded by the Johannesburg Botanic Garden which was crowded today with locals enjoying early Spring conditions.

I did see a few local species, for instance these ducks which seem to wear a brown mask or sun glasses, and a sort of ibis.

And a few upside-down inhabited nests as I've seen in Senegal last year:
Great city escape for a long run if you are staying in Sandton. Note that the trail keeps going North for a few more kilometers. More to explore another time, I won't have this luxury with my busy work week here. A good excuse to start tapering anyway after another reasonable good training week (88 miles, including a good speed workout on Thursday with Bob) and before the upcoming US Nationals of 24-hour in Cleveland in 2 weeks, which I finally decided to go!