01 Oct, 2013

State of the (Marathon) Nation

State of the (Marathon) Nation

Back in May 1986, Willie Mtolo and the late Zithulele Sinqe fought an almighty duel in the SA Marathon Champs race in Port Elizabeth. Sinqe’s winning time of 2:08:04 was the fastest ever by a South African, with Mtolo’s 2:08:15 second on the list, and their performance really made the rest of the world sit up and take notice. “Globally, only the Australian Rob de Castella, with his 2:07:51 in Boston, was faster than Sinqe that year,” says SA athletics statistician Ri?l Hauman, current editor of the South African Athletics Annual. “Even though both the Boston and PE courses were considered assisted due to the overall drop from start to finish, Sinqe and Mtolo were right up there in the world rankings of the time.”


However, it took more than 11 years for another South African to go faster than Sinqe, when Josiah Thugwane ran 2:07:28 in Fukuoka, Japan in December 1997. And since 1986, only four SA men have managed to go faster than Sinqe: Thugwane, Gert Thys, Hendrik Ramaala and the late Ian Syster – and Thys set the current SA record of 2:06:33 in Tokyo as far back as February 1999. Similarly, amongst the women, the days of Elana Meyer, Colleen De Reuck and Frith van der Merwe are somewhat a distant memory. In the 90s these three athletes ran 14 sub-2:30 times between them, but we had to wait until Rene Kalmer’s 2:29:59 in 2011 for another SA woman to repeat that feat.


“If you look at the global marathon statistics, the world is getting better at a terrific rate, but South African standards are not improving. SA has stagnated,” says Ri?l. “And for that reason, we selected a 41-year-old Hendrik Ramaala to go run the marathon at the World Champs this year. Yes, he made the qualifying time, but he is past his best racing days now. The problem seems to be that there are few younger athletes of the same calibre coming through to take over from him.”


In the past year, South Africa’s top male and female marathoners were substantially off the global pace overall.

Men            World   SA        Women      World   SA

Sub-2:05     11         0          Sub-2:20     6          0

Sub-2:06     23         0          Sub-2:22     18         0

Sub-2:07     50         0          Sub-2:24     44         0

Sub-2:08     91         0          Sub-2:26     89         0

Sub-2:09     152       0          Sub-2:28     144       0

Sub-2:10     224       1          Sub-2:30     210       0

Sub-2:11     307       1          Sub-2:32     313       1

Sub-2:12     432       1          Sub-2:34     407       2

Sub-2:13     562       2          Sub-2:36     522       2

Sub-2:14     706       3          Sub-2:38     656       3

Sub-2:15     848       6          Sub-2:40     798       3



Ri?l believes that a combination of interlocking factors is responsible for not only this lack of marathoning depth in SA, but also the overall disappointing performances by South African athletes in global track, road and cross country events:

1 Lack of season structure and planning.

2 Lack of opportunities for top class competition.

3 Lack of money and support for athletes.

4 Over-racing, moving up to marathons too soon and over-importance of ultras.

5 Lack of proper coaching structures and guidance for athletes.

6 Dysfunctional and too politicised national athletics body.

7 Overly stringent and impractical qualifying requirement for Olympics.


“I see athletes all over the country racing too much, weekend after weekend. They don’t peak for a big race, they just race at the same level all the time, and I know it’s a question of money for many of them, as they need to put bread on the table. Also, many move up to marathons and ultras too soon, when they should ideally gradually build up distance over a few years, focusing first on speed and strength on the track and in cross country, then step up to 10km on road, and only much later move up to half marathons, still later the marathon, and only much later the ultra-marathons. But we all know the big money is in the marathons and ultras, and that is where many young athletes go.”


Ri?l points to the success of UK Athletics at the 2012 Olympic in London as a model which SA would do well to learn from. “If we can get our season planning right and get a proper coaching structure in place, with a national coach in place and coaches at all levels working together, from grassroots to Olympic level, as they did so successfully in the UK, then we can turn things around. And with more money we can help athletes like Stephen Mokoka with a 2010 PB of 2:08:33 and Lusapho April on 2:09:25 in 2011 to focus on the Olympics and World Champs, and then we could see our marathoners challenging the world’s best again.”