The Changing Face of Marathon Running

BY SUPPLIED - APRIL 16, 2015

With entries to Africa’s first IAAF Silver Label-accredited marathon having opened last month, the 7 500 places in the 42,4km main event, set to take place in Cape Town in September, are filling quickly. This year, the five-event running festival looks set to attract over 20 000 athletes, with 17 countries already represented in the line-up. The USA is leading the charge with the largest contingent yet, with the UK, France, Australia, Germany and the Netherlands not far behind. And, of course, marathon-loving African countries like Kenya and Zambia are high up on the list.

While first-timers are snatching up plenty of the slots, this year the marathon also aims to attract the interest of some of the more than 10 million global circuit marathon runners who take on at least one or two international city marathons each year, booking and training well in advance.

“International running events have become globally popular for regular runners and serious athletes, as a means of not only experiencing the unique beauty of the routes but also seeing unique aspects of the various countries,” explains sports scientist and self-confessed running addict Kathy McQuaide, the strategic, marketing and relationship manager at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA).

The beauty of the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon, for instance, is that it allows visitors an opportunity to participate in the challenge while at the same time seeing heritage sites and famous landmarks – Rondebosch Common, Seapoint Promenade, the Grand Parade, the Liesbeek River Parkway and District Six are just a few on the route – that may not be included on a standard tourist excursion. And with Cape Town being a destination of choice internationally, the host city’s tourism appeal enhances the continent’s ability to take its rightful place in the league of world-class city-marathon events.

There are plenty of other reasons that marathon running is fast gaining popularity. A growing global health consciousness is a contributing factor, particularly among women, and Kathy says she’s witnessing a shift in the numbers of novice women runners. “With running being so easily accessible, a greater number of women are taking part each year. For the first time, last year, the total number of women runners exceeded that of male runners in the 21km event of another well known marathon,” she says.

And while running is very much a sport that can be done solo – you don’t need a team to participate – in areas where security can be a problem, there’s a “safety in numbers” aspect to it. “Organisations like parkrun, brought to South Africa by Bruce Fordyce, are also encouraging more and more people into running,” says Kathy. “The purpose is to give both professionals and novices an opportunity to take part in a timed 5km run with a group of people. In South Africa, this also allows people to run in areas where, if they had to run on their own, their safety may be at risk.”

The fact that running is goal oriented also plays a role in its popularity. “It offers fast benefits,” Kathy points out. “There’s always another goal or level for a novice or experienced runner to achieve and work towards.”

Elana Meyer, South Africa’s Olympic long-distance medallist and Sanlam Cape Town Marathon brand ambassador, agrees. “People have a goal in mind and are willing to challenge themselves. With marathon running, it’s surprisingly quite easy to do.” She adds that an increasing number of runners are now moving up from the half-marathon to the full marathon, and for those aspiring runners, several non-negotiables need to be considered when training. “They include willpower, longer running time, better nutrition, overcoming the ‘hitting the wall’ scenario, and fundamentally maintaining the right headspace to enjoy the end result – the prestige of having completed a full marathon,” Elana says.

But the benefits of marathon running go way beyond simply improving best times and personal health. “Sport is becoming a massive link in bringing marginalised communities, countries and people together – it’s being used as a means of building peace,” Elana says. Situated in Sanlam Cape Town Marathon’s technical sponsor ASICS’ home country of Japan, World Marathon Major (WMM) family member the Tokyo Marathon, under the banner “The Day We Unite”, attracted in excess of 35 000 runners, less than eight years after having launched. Its compatriot, the Osaka Marathon, is aiming for no fewer than 30 000 participants.

“World-class city marathons have proven their ability to bring divided communities together while at the same time financially benefiting communities those cities they serve,” adds Elana. The economic benefits of this year’s Sanlam Cape Town Marathon are expected to reach into millions of rands.