The concept of a Port Elizabeth ultramarathon was the bright idea of the Eastern Province running legend, Jorrie Jordaan. Together with his fellow PE Technikon Committee members, Abie Olivier, Richard Jordain and a few others, he set out to organise the race and to find a willing sponsor. Local salt producer, Swartkops Sea Salt, manufacturers of Marina Salt products, agreed to sponsor the race, and for 16 years it carried the brand name Marina Salt - it is still affectionately referred to by old-time runners as “the Marina”.
Jorrie marked out the course and caused controversy by painting the words 'sout' and 'salt' next to kilometre markings on the road surface. The Traffic Department ordered the club to remove the markings as they were a distraction to motorists. Much publicity was received in the press as a result of this incident.
The first race started and finished at the Red Windmill with a length of 52km. After a number of years of minor route alterations, the race distance finally changed to a 50km event with the name Marina Salt Ultra Marathon, and with the start and finish at King's Beach car park. The withdrawal of sponsorship by Marina Salt after the 1997 race saw the name change to The Bay Ultra.
Charlo Road Runners took over the hosting of the race from PE Technikon who had hosted it up until this point, and for the next two years it was hosted by Charlo Road Runners and sponsored by Waterfront Spar. Thereafter, Body Concept Road Warriors (BCRW) took over the organisation and management, and this has continued to the present day. Nonetheless, The Bay Ultra has endured a chequered sponsorship history, being sponsored one year each by the Cellular Shop, Nokia Customer Care, the Peoples Bank, First National Bank, two years by Harmony, then one year by General Motors; even so, it was cancelled in 2006 because a sponsor could not be found. GM’s sponsorship ended with the world recession, and in 2009 the race battled through with a small sponsorship from Investec.
In 2010 sponsorship was obtained from Algoa Bus Company, and this was associated with major changes in the entire race format. The name was changed to the Bay to Bay Ultra Marathon and Relay and it incorporated relay teams of 6 members running against a bus over the 50km route in a race based on the old Great Train Race format. In addition, a 50km Scout Charity Walk was introduced starting at 11pm on the Friday night before the main races. BCRW hosted the races jointly with the Port Elizabeth Amateur Athletic Club (PEAAC).
However, the relay race concept was not successful, possibly because schools did not enter due to other athletics commitments. After two years Algoa Bus also withdrew their sponsorship.
In 2012, BCRW were left with the decision whether to go ahead with the Bay Ultra in its original format with no sponsors. It was decided to go ahead with minimum frills, but fortunately a month before the event Lemaitre Industrial Footwear came forward with sponsorship, and the race was named the Lemaitre Bay Ultra . In 2014, Lemaitre’s parent company, Bagshaw, took over the sponsorship, and the race became known as the Bagshaw Bay Ultra.
The record holders on the old course up through Walmer, out to Lake farm, returning over the Chelsea Hills and back through Walmer are Charl Matheus and Helene Joubert. The route was then changed to run along Marine Drive before climbing the Chelsea Hills and returning through Walmer. New records were set by Lindile Tokota and Leanne Findlay. In 2009, the route changed again to an out and back along Marine Drive, much of it along the magnificent south coast and back along the new beach cycle path.
However, this out-and-back route did not embody the original concept of the Bay Ultra, and in 2011 the route reverted back to a circular course starting at Pollok Beach, going through Walmer and onto Upper Seaview Road, and then on to Sardinia Bay Road, to Victoria Drive and back along Marine Drive. To complete 50km there was a short out and back along Upper Seaview Road, but this now takes place in the seaside village of Schoenmakerskop.
A 10 km Participation League race has been held in conjunction with the Bay Ultra. This 10 km has been a well-supported race, and an important generator of funds for the total event. During the two years when the relay race was held – 2010 and 2011 – the 10km race was cancelled.
A 5 km fun run has also been held on the day, but as is the case with all such fun runs, participation depends on conditions on the day. The existence of the popular Park Run from Hobie Beach on a Saturday morning has also caused numbers to drop in this distance.
In 2018, Amobia Communications came on board as the naming sponsor for the Bay Ultra. As a new feature, a 21.1km out and back route was introduced, giving those runners not looking to qualify for the two big ultramarathons an opportunity to participate in a fast, flat course with beautiful scenery.
The Bay Ultra powered by Amobia remains a popular race with runners. It is one of only two ultra-distance races in the Eastern Cape which have prestige and participation league status and is the only one staged in Port Elizabeth. Because of its position in the calendar in relation to the Two Oceans and Comrades Marathons, the race is often used by athletes to gauge their training for these internationally known events.
The race has a record of all races and awards permanent numbers to runners who have completed 10 races, and the table below gives the number of finishers over the years since 1998. Entrants are typically 10 to 20% higher than finishers - the large entry in 2000 a result of the hype over the Millennium Comrades.
Over the years the race has been won by many famous names including Dmitiri Grishin, Charl Matheus and Donovan Wright, and on the ladies’ side: Helene Joubert, Margie Saunders and Lorna Lumb.
2019 will be the 37th year that there has been a 50km ultra marathon race in Port Elizabeth.