Communal Bliss

2008-04-12 00:00

LAST year at this time, King’s Park Athletics Track was the weekly focal point for road running with numerous clubs hosting 20- to 30-km events over virtually identical courses. Each route used a tedious combination of NMR Avenue, Snell Parade and some variation of a Durban North circuit that effectively went between the Umgeni River and Virginia or La Lucia. The only thing that changed was the weather and the direction of running.

As repetitive as it may have been for runners, it was also irritating for non-runners who each week faced delays and diversions on their Sunday morning excursion to work, golf, the beach or other weekend activities. Given the years of similarity, the tolerance of the country club golfers has been exemplary.

KZNA’s decision that 2008 races be based around the club’s home community has resulted in new and interesting courses and has the potential to draw more people to the sport, particularly if a manageable five-kilometre run is associated with the main event.

Tomorrow’s Provincial Half-Marathon Championships, hosted by the Wings Club, is based around Merewent, Wentworth and the Bluff, and will be competed over a new course that uses pancake-flat Tara Road as its core. This has the potential of delivering faster times, while support along the route is virtually assured of being more vociferous than the high-walled, empty canyons of Durban North.

Community races by nature garner more interest and character with the Nedbank Soweto Marathon perhaps the best example of how running and community can combine in a festive showcase.

ASA’s move to take the Nedbank Series into townships is delivering benefits on many levels. Not only is there more spectator support and increasing participant numbers, but also the standard of competition and performances are changing the face of local running.

After an initial 64:35 triumph by Zimbabwean Wirimai Juwawo in Tshwane, the second event was held in Seshego, outside Polokwane, where Norman Dlomo became the fastest South African of 2008 with a 63:31. Five runners finished under 66 minutes.

The ranking lasted exactly one week, before Enos Matalane carved 40 seconds off that time in the Kanyamazane race pulling seven runners under the same time barrier. The women’s race showed a similar story, with Heleria Johannes taking honours in 74:45 and Louisa Leballo the lead South African in 75:42, a time that would have been third-fastest in 2007. Nine women ran faster than 80 minutes in the two races.

This is clear indication that the Nedbank series, with its substantial financial reward, is attracting highly competitive fields and delivering a consistent improvement in performance, particularly over the shorter distances.

In Kanyamazane, the community under the guidance of local runner and coach Boiki Gamma. There was no local club to take on a core organisational role and, with minimal involvement of the provincial body, whose members are scattered between the province’s urban hubs, the community adopted the race as their own.

With marshals, water points, and kilometre marks in place well over 90 minutes prior to the start, and local vendors employed to offer passing runners the freshest locally grown fruit between water points, the organisation of many club and provincial races around the country was put to shame.

Ownership, passion and pride, combined with community spirit, are the ingredients of event success. Such characteristics are absorbed into passing runners, providing that special catalyst that converts ordinary into remarkable.

It is the community and spectators lining Old Main Road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban that provides the atmosphere to attract tens of thousands of runners to the Comrades each year. Conversely, it was the sparse support and disinterest along the identically-distanced London to Brighton that saw race numbers dwindle below 100.

The point is that a race is just a race, and a relative non-event, without the character of the community or environment it runs through. Of course there are those special races for which the attraction is the solitude of stark or challenging landscape, but for the most part, our sport can only benefit in terms of performance, enjoyment and recruitment from integrating with the community. Similarly, recruiting community involvement can deliver employment and commercial benefits as well as forge the status of the athletics club in the area. These are aspects that seem lost through the centralisation of events in urban areas in recent years.

While some clubs may not be in the flattest of areas, the next weeks and months provide runners with the opportunity to experience the warm welcome, culture, and scenery of Merewent, Verulam, Mount Edgecombe, Avoca, and Mthwalume. In July, the sport makes history by holding the first SA road running championship in the township of Motherwell (outside Port Elizabeth).

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