More than just a marathon

2008-10-10 00:00

The Warsaw Marathon celebrated its 30th running two weeks ago with a record field of just over 3 000 runners.

Poland has a number of marathons, but none match the size of the Warsaw event, which has become a feature race for many. Despite being held on the same day as the Berlin, which this year was the world’s largest marathon, Warsaw attracted over 300 foreigners, providing a significant commercial injection into the local community.

There are a number of aspects that make this marathon attractive, but few that could not be learnt and replicated in KZN.

The course is one of the flattest I have seen and, although Beijing may have been flatter, there is much more to be seen on the Warsaw course. From the start, the race completes a seven-kilometre lap through the reconstructed Old Town and rebuilt barbican. The second lap extends further into the city centre before crossing the Wisla River.

This three-kilometre, tree-lined run along the river is a patchwork of yellow, gold and brown autumn leaves. Runners re-cross the landmark Swietokryski cable-stayed bridge into the city for the second half. As out-bound runners proceed from 25 km to 27 km, the leaders head towards 37 km from the opposite direction, relieving the challenge of some of the “hard” kilometres. A choir-filled tunnel at 40 km heralds the finish.

Spectator support over the initial 15 and final 10 km is complemented by 18 musical hotspots featuring a diverse range of genres to invigorate runners in their endeavours.

This year’s larger field attracted faster runners, reducing the course record to 2:11 and 2:31 for men and women respectively, while KZN’s Tanith Maxwell set a new personal best (PB) of 2:36;38. The course is even faster and particularly suited for PBs among the masses.

Warsaw was destroyed by the war and in particular during the Polish uprising of 1944, but the true-to-original reconstruction provides a very special atmosphere. It is one that could easily be matched by a true city marathon in either Victorian Pietermaritzburg or Durban.

The central location of the combined marathon village and finish ensures the marathon is a focal point for everyone over the weekend. This doubles as the start, finish and change-over for a marathon relay held over a series of five-kilometre laps around the city centre on the Saturday afternoon. The relay adopts the standard IAAF format, attracting another 180 teams of six members and their supporters to the event. What a fantastic way to reinforce the corporate and social contribution, with minimal additional organisational resources.

It’s all part of converting the marathon into a major event: something, with the exception of Comrades, we in KZN (and South Africa generally) have failed to do. Turning road races into events brings additional rewards and recognition for the runners, the organisers, the city, the community and the sponsors.

Despite our long tradition and expertise in the sport, attempts in KZN at prestigious or “city” marathons have been embarrassingly naïve. The past focus has been on the licensed runner and club recruitment, instead of igniting the imagination of the public, sponsors and the city authorities.

The potential of mass sports events is recognised worldwide, yet we have failed to turn this potential into capital.

How can we justify closing down city roads for 400 or 900 runners? Is a race that doesn’t go through the city centre or past key cultural, historic or central landmarks a city marathon? Using 500 to 600 club members to marshal and service the race just reduces our potential entrants.

How can we attract major numbers if we continue to crowd the fixture list with weekly marathons?

Can a few race flyers and the usual club-centred notification processes ever generate the public interest, involvement or commitment that is needed for a major event?

With the largest provincial club of around 400 members, is it really feasible for such an event to be hosted by a single club? Should KZNA even sanction such an application?

Work on the inaugural Amman Marathon in October 2009 began in June this year, but frequently our event organisation commences less than eight weeks before race day.

The more times we fail to produce an event of acceptable prestige and level, the harder it becomes to attract the necessary municipal and sponsor support on future occasions.

Each year we roll out the same competition as the previous 12 months, initiated by clubs and committees whose average age progresses in step with the calendar. What excited and enthused us as youngsters of the 1970s, ’80s and even ’90s has lost its relevance to today’s youth, and is old hat to sponsors and the commercial world.

As with the old city, the Warsaw marathon re-invented itself in 2002, with 300 runners covering multiple city centre laps to create the correct support, atmosphere and the illusion of numbers.

This year, it reached the dynamic mass and produced the times and recognition that bring sustainability locally and internationally.

The lessons are there for the learning, the rewards can be bountiful for the sport, the participants, the community and the sponsors, but the real question lies with us: do we have the courage, the will and the foresight to make the changes to what we have already proved not to have worked?

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