Vaylen Kirtley has become the face of South African running on our television screens thanks to her work as anchor presenter of the SABC broadcasts of events such as the Comrades, Two Oceans, Cape Town and Soweto Marathons, but she’s a runner in her own right. We caught up with her for a Q&A the, in between doing a trail run and and her next stint of broadcast duty. – BY SEAN FALCONER
MA: Hi Vaylen. So first things first, how did your trail run go this morning?
Vaylen: This was the second year that I’ve done this 12km, and last year was really warm from the beginning, whereas today we had amazing weather at the start, and the sun only really came out when we finished the race. Still, I must say, I ended up getting a much slower time, but it’s okay, because at the beginning of the year, I had an accident on my scooter and smashed my elbow badly. That’s why you can see this lovely big scar. And it’s really just great to come back from that and be running again, because I’d never broken anything else before. So I had a great run, and what I was really impressed about was the amount of people that were there. I think last year, I easily walked to the front at the start line, but this year it was difficult. The numbers must have doubled. That’s certainly what it looked like to me.
MA: So you’ve come down to Cape Town to anchor the SABC’s broadcast of tomorrow’s marathon. Do you usually try fit in a run yourself, whether it’s a race, a parkrun or just a training run, when you travel to cover a race?
Vaylen: Definitely, whenever I go anywhere, I’ve got my running kit in my bag and try to get out and do a run. The beauty of being somebody that loves to run is that you can do it absolutely anywhere.
MA: You’ve become the face of running in this country, thanks to your work on SABC Sport, so do you find that a lot of people recognise you during races, and say hello or want to have their picture taken with you?
Vaylen: You know, runners are very chatty, and I’m a runner, too, so I love a good chat. It starts with somebody saying hello, and you can end up having this life-changing conversation over 30 minutes, or 10 kilometres, and you’ve got a new friend. But I don’t find it as easy to chat during trail races, because I have to concentrate on where I’m putting my feet!
MA: You’ve run the Comrades twice, in 2010 and 2011, which came after you’d already worked on the broadcast for several years, so I would imagine you have plenty of conversations with fellow runners in that one?
Vaylen: Of course, I had some wonderful chats in those races, but you know, it’s funny, now I can’t even think that I did that distance once upon a time! The first time, I finished with just 13 minutes to spare, and I ended up spending two hours in the medical tent, where they had to give me two glucose drips and they couldn’t find a pulse at one stage. It was crazy, and it was all because I made all the novice mistakes, like not eating enough on the road. The next year, I trained better, and I had learnt my lesson from 2010, so I ate so much on the road – basically every time somebody was offering, I took something, and I ended up running 10:19. I haven’t run anything like that again, but I did run the Two Oceans Ultra in 2014, because it’s the only big ultra in the country that offers a Friday run, for those people who for religious reasons can’t run on the Saturday. So I could run it and then do the broadcast the next day.
This year I ran the Two Oceans Trail Run on the Friday before the ultra, because I have fallen in love with trail running, especially when I’m down in the Western Cape. The trails here are absolutely magnificent… but it’s a completely different type of running. One of the first things that struck me about trail was the skill that people have in running downhill, and you can see what a difference it makes, even in a short 12km race like today. I find it incredible how much time people make up in using different techniques going downhill, even on really steep slopes with big spiky rocks and loose gravel. I have to walk a lot of the time, and can’t believe the skill of these people flying past me down the hills!
MA: Does it ever cross your mind that that you’re taking a risk running trails, in terms of having a bad fall, which might affect your work?
Vaylen: It worries my producer! And yesterday, one of my colleagues said to me, “Vaylen, whatever you do, just don’t fall, please, because on Sunday we need your face to look how it does today!”
MA: Was that comment sparked by the fact that you’re now considered accident-prone, after your scooter accident and elbow injury?
Vaylen: Ha, ha, ha, I actually do regularly trip over my own feet sometimes, and I think all of the scars and scrapes that I have are from being clumsy. When I was three, my older brother got a bike that didn’t have training wheels, but I also wanted to be on a bike that didn’t have training wheels, but my parents wouldn’t let me ride it, obviously because I couldn’t ride a bike yet, so I snuck out early one Saturday morning, at 5:30am when everybody was still asleep, and tried to ride his bike in the courtyard. I kicked the pedals, but obviously my legs were too short, and next thing my second toe on the left foot got stuck in between the cog and the chain. My mom still tells the story about how my screaming woke them all up, and my toe is actually a little deformed because of that accident.
MA: Where does your love of sport come from?
Vaylen: I get this question all the time, and I tell people it feels as if sport has always been a part of my life. I started doing cross country when I was in primary school, but even before then I wanted to be involved in all of the activities at school. Not that I was a particularly strong team sports player, but I just loved being involved and part of a team, and just being out in the sunshine, as I grew up with a love of being outdoors. For me it was much more about participation. I think I may have run regional champs in cross country when I was in my last year of primary school, but I was more about cheering everybody on than the competitiveness of running. Some people have said I never really fulfilled my potential, but I think you’ve either got that very competitive streak or you don’t.
MA: Speaking of school days, did you have an outgoing nature then, and the confidence to be a presenter, an actor or public speaker or was this something that came afterwards?
Vaylen: No, it was always there. I was involved with public speaking and drama from primary school right through high school, and leadership positions at my school, including the Johannesburg Junior City Council, where I was part of the communications portfolio.
MA: In terms of working in the running community, an early memory of you was when you were the roving reporter on the Comrades Marathon route, stopping runners for a quick word on camera. How did that come about?
Vaylen: So I actually started working on a junior sports programme for the SABC when I was in high school, and in my last year of high school, I also got involved in a disability sports programme. From there I started getting involved with other events and they put me on the road running production, and I think it was 2005 when I was part of that Comrades production team for the first time. I remember one of the people said to me, this is live, so don’t mess up tomorrow, because there will be millions of people watching. I was so young then, just 18.
MA: How did your career progress from there to becoming the anchor of the running event broadcasts?
Vaylen: I think my colleagues thought I did a good job, and so I played that road reporter role for a couple of years, and on a couple of different races, because back then the SABC used to cover quite a lot of road running events. And then I started doing voiceovers, and I did a short period on a road running programme – I think it was sponsored by Nedbank – while still being part of the team covering races. I then ran the Comrades, fulfilling a childhood dream, and the year after that, they asked me to take over from Cynthia Chaka as anchor of all the road running productions. I was just so excited to have gotten that kind of opportunity, and of course, I grabbed it with both hands. Thankfully, they obviously think that I did an okay job, and I’m still doing the job now.
MA: Besides anchoring the live broadcasts of races, you also appear on morning TV. Please tell us about your various roles in TV.
Vaylen: Okay, so currently I am the producer and presenter of the sports on Morning Live, from Monday to Friday, We’ve got five-minute bulletins each hour for the three-hour show, which is broadcast on SABC2 and on the DSTV channel 44, which is broadcast across Africa. I also do scripting and voiceovers for a disability sports programme, and as I said earlier, I have been covering disabled sport since I that junior sports programme, so it’s wonderful that I’m still involved in disability sports.
I also do scripting and voiceovers for a magazine programme, and I co-anchor a weekly women’s sports talk show called The Ladies Club, with Lebo Motsoeli. That’s fantastic, because we only have one or maximum two guests in a half-hour show. That gives us an opportunity to actually get to know people a lot better, and to focus on the significance of their achievements, because if you don’t know what they’ve gone through, and a little bit of their background, you can’t fully appreciate what they’ve been able to do. I must say, I love telling stories, and I like hearing people’s stories.
MA: It sounds like you’ve developed a good balance in your work, between presenting, producing and writing.
VK: Definitely, and that’s why I feel so grateful for the work that I do, because I get an opportunity to do all of those things. I get the opportunity to have more in-depth interviews with The Ladies Club, whereas on Morning Live our slots are limited, because it is a current affairs show, so more often than not I’m doing quick news bulletins. Then with the disability sports programme, I get to write scripts, and there’s great opportunity for storytelling with a mixture of human elements, as well as what’s current and newsworthy. But there’s nothing like live events, something that’s unfolding right in front of you, and then the journalist and storyteller in me really comes to the fore.
MA: I assume you have to watch a lot of sports to keep up to speed with what’s going on around the world, in order to put together a daily news package?
VK: It’s not a case of “have to” watch sport, because I actually want to, because I love watching sport. I mean, my TV is mainly on sports, and I actually have to force myself to watch a movie or a series now and again. Otherwise, if it’s not live sport, it’s a sport documentary, because there are so many fascinating stories out there – and when you’re passionate about something, it’s not really work. So, for example, if I report that there is a massive boxing fight coming up on Saturday night, I also want to watch it. I mean, if people are getting excited about it, I’ll get equally excited about it. I want to see that person go for that record attempt for a half or a full marathon. When you are involved in people’s stories, you’re so just as excited about it, so you want to know how it goes, especially when you get to know people. You want to know how they are doing. Oh, and my daughter doesn’t watch sports with me, because she says I scream at the TV too much!
MA: Speaking of watching TV with your daughter, I read that you recently discovered a series that you both enjoy, The Flash, which ironically is about a superhero who runs very fast. Was that the reason you liked it, because he runs?
VK: Hahaha, yes, I suppose was quite tickled by that… but who wouldn’t want to run that fast? In this job we follow people and we are amazed at the times that they are able to run, but he’s a superhero that does amazing things at that speed.
MA: If you’ll permit a slightly harder question, the presenters and commentators of running productions on TV often get a fair amount of criticism on social media. How do you feel about that, especially the day after you’ve done a broadcast that you thought actually went quite well?
VK: I think when you get involved in TV, you realise that you’ve got to have a thick skin, but as much as there is criticism, there are also a lot of people that are very complimentary, and I feel you have to find the balance between both ends of the spectrum. I think there are people out there that want to see broadcasts get better, but there are also people who just want to criticise for criticism’s sake. Those that genuinely want to see things improve, they’ll give you suggestions, and that’s really helpful, valid feedback. But we also listen to the criticism, to help better your product, because at the end of the day, you want to be better than the last time. But overall, it’s a mixture of having a bit of a thick skin, because in TV, just as in life, you’re not going to be able to please everybody, so you find a middle ground.
MA: I’ve read that you’re a bit nervous about alarm clocks, that you sometimes check at least 10 times that the alarm is properly set when going to bed, because you have to be up so early most mornings for the breakfast show. Have you ever overslept for work?
VK: I have to be at work at 4am on week days, so I always check that alarm clock at least three times before I actually turn my lights off, because I get up at 3am. I have been known to hit the snooze button one too many times… but I’ve made pretty sure that I use the loudest alarm that is so irritating, it will definitely wake me up!
MA: I would imagine that most of your schedule revolves around the fact that you need to get to bed relatively early, and this must affect your relationships and your social life?
VK: I don’t want to say that the sacrifice is worth it, because to me, it’s not a sacrifice, it’s a career, it’s what I’ve chosen to do. For me it’s normal. However, my fiancée struggled quite significantly with this kind of life when he first got involved with me, and it was through him that I realised how other people view my life, that it isn’t as normal as I think it is.
MA: You’ve said that because you’re up at three every morning of the week, come the weekend you like to sleep in, but on the other hand, don’t you think that means getting up to go running on the weekend is that much easier for you?
VK: Definitely, which is why I try to go and do a parkrun with my daughter on Saturday mornings, because I actually want to get up and go run… but keep in mind that it is actually sleeping in for me when I only get up at 6am for a parkrun! Ialso get to sleep in on Sundays, even though we go to the early service at church, because 6:30am is really sleeping in for me!
MA: I suppose your fitness levels are affected by your unorthodox work schedule, since you probably only get to go running sporadically. On a related note, do you find there pressure on you as a TV personality that you supposed to live up to some expectation about fitness and appearance, or do you think it’s a bit more relaxed these days?
VK: True, I don’t get to run as often as I would like to, and I definitely don’t do half as much cross-training as I should, but I think I’m fortunate to be in sports, because it’s not quite like being an entertainment presenter. I think if I was on the red carpet every weekend, there would be far more emphasis on image, but I don’t feel that there is that pressure on me. Also, I think these days there is a lot more consciousness around people looking healthy, and people embracing who they are. The general psychology of society is changing and evolving.
MA: That said, there are a number of pictures of you on online where you’ve done the red carpet thing, and you do seem to enjoy the dressing up thing.
VK: It’s wonderful to have been asked to host some really big award ceremonies, like the South African Sports Awards, the PSL Awards, and the GSport Awards, and dressing up comes with the territory, you know, but I do enjoy it.
MA: Getting back to the Cape Town Marathon broadcast, what are your feelings as a broadcaster about the event’s rapid growth and the excitement around marathon running, versus the traditional focus in South Africa on ultra-marathons? I would assume you would be exceptionally excited about this event, because it’s something new to sink your teeth into.
VK: Definitely, but it’s not just the fact that it’s wonderful content for us to broadcast, and the spectacle of an IAAF Gold Label status event, in the same league as your Berlin and New York Marathons, but actually what it means to athletics in the country, because it’s creating a legacy that’s going to live on for many, many years. If you remember a couple of years ago, one of the biggest criticisms about South African road running was this huge focus on ultra-marathon running, which is not an Olympic distance, and we had Olympic quality athletes moving up to the ultras to chase the prize money on offer, which affected their ability to run for the country in shorter distances, including the marathon. It’s races like the Cape Town Marathon that now give those athletes a world class platform on home soil to compete at a recognised Olympic distance, and our athletes are really starting to step up.
It is such an interesting debate, because I think that South Africa has been in a league of its own when it comes to ultras, which is why people come from all over the world to run ultra-marathons in South Africa, and because we give those athletes proper credit for their efforts. It’s something that Camille Heron mentioned, that she was astounded at the reception she gets in South Africa, and that she’s more recognised here than back in the United States. I don’t ever want us to lose that, but I do think in the past you had athletes opting to go longer too soon, when they could have focused on the marathon or shorter distances.
MA: On a related note, you’ve got the SPAR Women’s races and the FNB City Series races bringing top international talent to South Africa and lifting standards at the shorter road distances. You must be excited about that as well, even if you’re not directly involved in broadcasting these events?
VK: Yes, it’s fantastic to see internationally recognised distances with strong international fields, good prize money and media attention. It create a much more competitive environment and that brings out the best in our athletes, and we’ve seen throughout sporting history that the better the competition gets, the more athletes step things up.
MA: Those races aren’t broadcast by the SABC, but as a broadcaster, would you like to see those races getting the same kind of coverage that Comrades, Two Oceans, Soweto and Cape Town get?
VK: I think that the fact that we know about these events, and the fact that we talk about them, is incredibly powerful. Yes, it would be wonderful if we did put them on TV, but at the end of the day there are time constraints, budgetary constraints, and all those kinds of things. But it would be great to see more road running in general on TV, especially given the rich heritage of road running in this country… and not just road running, but also other running, like cross country, and track and field. One of the saddest things is that we don’t get to see more track and field in this country, because we’ve got amazing athletes, but they’re not being seen. Athletics Alive on the SABC covers track and field and does a great job, but I think if there was more live coverage, then we’d also see committed sponsors getting involved in track and field, helping to create a level of consistency and grow the sport.
MA: Getting back to your own running, do you get that FOMO feeling while covering races from the studio?
VK: Absolutely, all the time! And after each race, I’m super inspired, so I just go put on my shoes and I go running, because you feel like you’ve missed out.
MA: So how many races do you manage to fit in these days?
VK: It’s very sporadic, very much all over the place, a bit like my training. As I’ve said, I just love running, so it’s always part of my life, and I always take my kit with me wherever I go. I’ll get out on the road or trails wherever I am, but I don’t have a set training regime, and I don’t have set races that I do. I have certain things that I look forward to doing that fit in with work travel, like this Sanlam Peace Trail Run, or the Two Oceans Trail Run, but otherwise I just decide close to race day that I will go do a local race.
MA: Lastly is there a bucket race you still want to do?
VK: Yeah, one day I want to hear Frank Sinatra being blared over the speakers at the start of the New York Marathon. That’s top on my running bucket list, but other than that, I don’t think I have another specific race that I’d like to like to run. New York is the one.
IMAGE: Jetline Action Photo