She’s won nearly every elite short and middle distance race in the country and is the undisputed queen of the Women’s SPAR Grand Prix Series, but Ren? Kalmer has now taken on long distance road running and proven that she is a force to be reckoned with over longer distances as well. Not only did she win her debut marathon in Soweto in November, she did so in spectacular fashion by smashing the course record.
A year ago, on the morning of the 2008 Soweto Marathon, Ren? Kalmer went out for her usual long training run of about two hours (approximately 30km). When she got back, she relaxed in front of the TV, to watch the live broadcast of the race. And that was when she realised it: the pace she had run in her training run was nearly exactly what the female runners in the race were doing. The only difference was that they were running an extra 10km. That day, the seed – to run the 2009 Soweto Marathon – was firmly planted in her head.
Ren? did not want any pressure before the marathon and kept a low profile about her entry into the race, which has one of the biggest total prize purses (R807 000) in the country. When she lined up on 1 November, she had a simple race plan: to run at 4min/km and stick with the female frontrunners. If she felt good at 10km to the finish, she would go for gold. But things did not turn out that way.
They turned out even better. Ren? found herself leading from start to finish, and in doing so, walked away with R110 000 in prize money – R100 000 for finishing as the first woman in 2:44:06 and an additional R10 000 for beating the 2001 course record of 2:45:37. Not bad for a first marathon! It was also an unexpected early birthday present – she turned 29 on 3 November, two days after the race.
“I didn’t realise how big the Soweto Marathon was. At the start, there was a bit of chaos and pushing and I did not see the other girls. I thought I was behind and ran to catch the group of runners ahead of me,” says Ren?. “At the 6km mark, I saw Poppy Mlambo’s boyfriend next to the road and asked where she was. When he said she was behind me, my whole game plan of sticking tactically with the girls went down the drain. I kept running my own pace and felt remarkably comfortable up to the 32km mark.”
She found the last 8km especially challenging and had to motivate herself to stay positive and push through the pain and tiredness. “I tried not to think about the distance and kept telling myself there were only 30 minutes of running time left.” With 8km to go, she was on target for a sub-2:40 marathon. “I finished in 2:44:06. That just shows how hard the last 8km were.”
Though she realised she was on her way to winning her debut marathon, the last thing on her mind was breaking the record. Her parents were – as always – next to the road to support their daughter. Their friends, who watched the marathon on TV, phoned and told them Ren? was in line for the record. “When I saw my parents in the last few kilometres, they encouraged me to keep working hard because I was in line for the record. That was the first time I realised it. I must admit, I was so tired I did not care about the record. I just wanted to finish,” says Ren?.
And when she ran into the stadium, the applause and cheers of the crowd were so deafening and overwhelming that she thought her closest rival, Poppy, was catching up to her! “The crowd went crazy. I have never heard anything like that. It was such an emotional finish. I enjoyed every second of it,” says Ren?, who definitely felt the distance in her legs the next day. “I was very sore and had to go down steps backwards.”
Ren? has always been a multi-faceted runner and has excelled at track, cross country and road events, and has been SA Track and Field Champion in the 1500m and 5000m events numerous times. She had already made her mark as a junior when, in 1997, she won a total of six titles: SA Junior and Senior 1500m, SA Junior and Senior Cross Country, and SA Junior and Senior 10km road races. What made her achievements so remarkable was that she ran in the u/17 category, but her times were faster than the girls in the u/19 category.
Since then, she has competed at the IAAF World Championships, the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, the All African Games, and last year the Olympic Games.
Ren? has a different love for all distances. “There is something very special about track running. Nothing comes close to the adrenalin of running around the track while 90 000 people in the stands go crazy. Road events are more tactical and you have more time to ‘recover’ when something goes wrong in the race. Cross country is very tough but it makes you unbelievably strong,” says Ren?, who was also the SA 10km champion in 2007 and came second at the SA Half Marathon Championships in the same year.
She admits that running distances from 1500m up to half marathons (and now even marathons) might be controversial to some coaches who believe an elite athlete has to specialise. “I have had some criticism because I don’t specialise in one distance, but I feel I am blessed being able to run different distances. I also enjoy the variety; it helps me stay motivated all year round because there is always something to work towards.”
This year saw her start competing in international road races for the first time, including the recent Great South 10 Mile Run (16km) in Portsmouth, where she placed fourth in a time of 55:23. “For the last ten years, I have been competing in only track events (800m, 1500m, 3000m and 5000m) overseas. Now I am enjoying the international road races so much. It is a new challenge and a lot less stressful than track events. I love it!”
She placed tenth at the Freihoffers 5km in Albany, New York, finishing in a time of 16:14 and followed it up with a fifth place in the Mini 10km (33:28), also in New York. Her best international road performance up to now was when she finished 15th at the recent World Half Marathon Championships in Birmingham. She bettered her PB by 80 seconds, finishing in 1:10:37. “I am so happy with my performance,” she said after the run.
Her training for longer distances has not changed much from her previous programmes. High mileage is nothing new to her and she has always done a lot of it. “My coach and I have always believed that if you have the endurance, you can race any distance.” Her training consists of early morning training runs at 5am with Coach Gerrie Coetzee, when they run anything between 8km and 15km. The afternoons are reserved for quality work. “We are a big training group and meet at the Ruimsig Athletic Stadium in the West Rand. You will find anyone from primary school kids to Comrades runners training there,” says Ren?, who works half-day at Provox Centre for Public Relations and Communications.
She believes that Gerrie, a teacher at Ho?rskool Roodepoort where she matriculated, is the best coach in the country. “He does not miss a training session and runs with me every morning. He dedicates so much of his time to training; even the slowest child’s programme gets worked out for him or her individually.”
Her half-day position allows for physiotherapy sessions and an afternoon nap before a second training session at 4pm. These sessions include hill work, fartlek or track work. “On Sundays, I only train once a day; a long run of about two hours. On Fridays, I don’t do any quality work. I only do two jog sessions in the morning and evening.”
She usually covers about 140km a week, but upped her mileage a bit in her preparation for the Soweto Marathon. “I was a bit worried about my mileage because I was overseas for about three weeks before the race. I was nervous about the marathon because you never know what could go wrong on the day.”
She has loved running since she can remember. She was nine years old when Teacher Maggie Fourie told everyone in the school to try cross country running. “I was an exemplary student and listened to Teacher Maggie! I finished 42nd in my first race and loved it. I started training and every year I improved a little. When I was 13, I started with my coach, Gerrie, and the rest is history. Gerrie is so dedicated and committed, and I soon realised that with those two qualities, I would go far in life.”
Since the age of 11, she dreamt of running at the Olympic Games. 18 years later that dream came true when she competed in Beijing last year. She placed seventh in the 1500m final in a time of 4:08.6. “It was an amazing experience which exceeded all my expectations. It made all the sacrifices worthwhile. And what made it even more special was that my whole family and my coach were there to support me. They share in my dreams and sacrifice a lot for me.”
Ren? comes from a very close-knit family and is the oldest of three kids. Her parents make sure they don’t miss any of her races. Dad, Christo, helps Ren? with the business side of running and mom, Elouise, makes sure they are always there for Ren?, even if it’s just at a local fun run.
Her sister, Christine (23), shares Ren?’s passion and talent for running. Christine is on an athletics scholarship at the University of Arkansas in the USA, where she is studying civil engineering. “I can’t wait for her to come home at the end of the year so we can train together.” Her brother, Herman (27), and parents try not to miss any of her races, and Ren? describes them as the most amazing and supportive family.
Ren? had to deal with disappointments from a young age, but always managed to overcome them and come out stronger on the other side. In 1998, she was the number one ranked junior athlete in the world over 1500m (4:09min) when she picked up a stress fracture a week before the World Junior Championships. She could not compete in the finals and had to withdraw from the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.
One of her biggest disappointments came in 2005 when she fell ill with the Coxsackie virus, which attacks the lungs and heart and leaves one feeling exhausted all the time. For a long time, she was only able to jog and could not put any effort into training. It was a difficult time for an athlete used to competing at a high level, who now had to start from scratch, running at 6min/km. “When I was sick, I learned to not take things for granted, and that any achievement is a grace from God. I also used that time to do things I could never do as an athlete, but the hunger to race competitively was always within me.”
In 2007, she was back on track and moved from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg to start teaching. She also started training with her old school coach, Gerrie. “We started with small goals and did things step by step. When I started winning again, it was such a highlight; something I used to take for granted.”
She knows she sometimes misses out on the fun stuff in life. She can’t go party every evening or go away for a weekend, because she has to concentrate on training. “I don’t regret anything and if I had to do it all over again, I would choose this exact path.” The hardest part of running is when things don’t work out as planned, especially when she has to lay off because of injuries. “I read a lot of autobiographies of sportspeople and that gets me through tough times. I realise it’s not just me going through difficult times.”
Ren?, a qualified accountancy teacher, misses the kids she taught for two years. “There was never a dull moment in my class. Running can be a very selfish sport because it is all about you, but with teaching I felt as if I meant something in the kids’ lives.”
She is definitely not setting her sights on distances longer than the marathon. “I don’t think I will ever run something as crazy as the Comrades Marathon. I am also too competitive to go out there and just do it for fun.”
She has been invited to run a 15km race in Australia at the end of November and a half marathon in December in Japan. “It all depends on how I recover from the marathon. My ultimate goal is to run the Olympic Marathon in 2012. I would also like to race an international marathon next year. But saying that, there is still a lot I want to achieve on the track,” says Ren?.
“I will run for as long as I enjoy it. Running is like a good drug. It is addictive and makes me feel good. To achieve my goals is the cherry on the cake!”
Role model: Paula Radcliffe Favourite food and drink: Sushi and red wine Proudest moment: Becoming an Olympian Greatest competitor: The stopwatch Dream holiday destination: Any island holiday will do First thing you do after a race: Phone my parents and coach What is your second love to running? I am a shopaholic! Life motto: I can do anything through Christ who strengthens me.
THE QUEEN OF SPAR
Ren? recently pocketed R50 000 for finishing tops at the 2009 SPAR Women’s Challenge Grand Prix Series. The five 10km races in the series are held in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, with top-placing runners accumulating points from all the races to be in contention for the series title. With four wins from four races and 122 points, Ren? finished way ahead of her rivals, despite having to miss the last race in Johannesburg because she was overseas, representing South Africa at the World Half Marathon Champs in Birmingham.
The 2009 Grand Prix Series was Ren?’s second victory. In 2007, she also won first prize in the series. The Spar races are very close to her heart because her love for racing probably started at one of these runs. “My first Spar race was in 1994 at the age of 14. That’s when the racing bug bit me, or maybe I was just impressed with the t-shirt and goodie bag! What makes these races even more special is that they are all about women.”