South Africa’s endurance sport love affair

It’s no wonder that South Africans love long-distance challenges – the country’s climate and contrasting landscape is ideal for endurance sport activities.

Whether on land or in water, South Africans love testing their endurance ability and an ever-increasing number of people from overseas have discovered the fantastic events the country has to offer and are participating in them.

Learn about some of the challenges that South Africans hold dear. Among them are a good number of world leading events:

ON FOOT

Endurance running, which is widely supported throughout South Africa is a discipline ideally suited to the country’s varied and beautiful landscape. It is highlighted by two ultra-marathons, both of them world-renowned events.

The Comrades Marathon

The Comrades Marathon is run annually between the capital of Kwazulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, and the balmy coastal city of Durban. The distance can vary slightly from year to year, but it usually is in the region of 90 kilometres.

The race attracts approximately 18 000 runners, and the route is lined by great numbers of cheering supporters. The biggest entry in the history of the Comrades Marathon occurred in 2000, when the race celebrated its 75th anniversary. An extra hour was allowed for bronze medal finishers to celebrate the milestone and the public responded in incredible fashion with the field topping out at 23 961.

Since the introduction of prize money, the Comrades has also drawn some of the world’s top ultra-distance athletes. The undoubted King of the Comrades, though, is South Africa’s Bruce Fordyce, who won the grueling race an astounding nine times between 1981 and 1990.

In recent times, runners from overseas have also claimed their share of victories, including Vladimir Kotov winning the up run for Durban to Pietermaritzburg three times in succession, but no one has managed in any way to duplicate the successes of Fordyce in both directions.

The popularity of the Comrades is based largely on some dramatic finishes over the years. But it is not the race for the title that provides the drama as much as the struggle for the also-rans, right at the end of the race, to cross the finish line before the cutoff gun sounds for medals.

Special mention should be made of two-time women’s winner Isavel Roche-Kelly, who became the first woman to win a silver medal in 1980. More than that, however, she also won the Cape Argus Pick ‘n Pay Cycle Tour in 1984, making her the only woman to achieve the unique double of victories in the Comrades and the Cycle Tour.

The Two Oceans Marathon

SA’s second ultra-popular ultra-marathon is the 56-kilometre Two Oceans Marathon. Its greatest drawcard is an extremely picturesque route that winds along the coastline surrounding Cape Town. The Two Oceans, like the Comrades, also manages to pull top professionals from overseas.

Zimbabwean men have enjoyed good success in recent years, being the dominant runners in the event since 2001, including Marco Mambo being crowned champion in 2004, 2005, and 2008.

The women’s race has succeeded in drawing many of the top female athletes preparing for the Comrades Marathon, which takes place just over a month after the Two Oceans, and as a result has produced winners who have gone on to Comrades’ victory. They include Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva and Tatyana Zhirkova.

ON WHEELS

The Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour

Cycling is a very well supported family-oriented sport, and South Africa boasts the world’s largest individually time event, the Cape Argus Pick ‘n Pay Cycle Tour.

Like the Two Oceans Marathon, it is raced around the Cape Peninsula. In recent years it has drawn an increasing number of overseas cyclists, and it forms part of the International Cycling Union’s prestigious Golden Bike Series.

The event at one stage formed part of the now defunct Giro Del Capo, a professional tour event, which ended with the Cycle Tour, and thus drew professional teams from South Africa and from abroad.

Robbie Hunter, the first South African to win a stage of the Tour de France, the most famous cycle race in the world, has won the race on a number of occasions.

The Laureus Foundation has used the Cycle Tour to raise funds for sport in South Africa, drawing big names to help boost the profile of the event, including Miguel Indurain, a five-time winner of the Tour de France, decathlon star Daley Thompson and rugby legend Hugo Porta.

Even Lance Armstrong, before his seven Tour de France titles were removed, took part in the event, along with Stephen Roche, the winner of the 1987 Tour de France, and Jan Ullrich the 1997 Tour de France champion.

The man many regard as the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx (five Tour de France wins, five Giro d’Italia victories, one Vuelta a Espana win, and three World Championship titles) has also taken part in the Argus.

Overseas interest in the race continues to grow and in 2006 it topped 2 000 entrants for the first time, including competitors from Africa, North America, South America, Asia, Australasia, the Middle East, Europe, and the United Kingdom.

The Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge

The Voice of Cycling, Phil Liggett, is a huge fan of the event, and also loves the Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge, another mass-participation cycle race that takes place in Johannesburg.

The race has been recognised by cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, as a model to the cycling world, and it continues to show fantastic growth. The aim of the organisers is that the size of the Cycle Challenge’s entry should eventually eclipse that of the Cape Argus Pick ‘n Pay Cycle Tour.

In 2007, the Cycle Challenge became the first event to attract Eddy Merckx to South Africa. Nicknamed “The Cannibal” because of his hunger to win every race he entered, Merckx was named the UCI Cyclist of the Twentieth Century. He was named Belgium’s Athlete of the Century, and he was voted World Sportsman of the Year three times.

The Absa Cape Epic

The Absa Cape Epic is truly that – an epic challenge, covering eight stages of extremely testing terrain.

It covers roughly 700 kilometres, but any images one might have one open roads and flat riding should be dispelled very quickly. The Epic is a supreme challenge and it attracts both the casual competitor and the world’s best mountain bike endurance racers.

It is also the world’s most broadcast mountain bike event. By March 2009, it had generated 8 000 hours of television in Europe, America, the Middle East and Africa.

The Sani 2 C

Among the mountain bike community, another event that is held in high esteem is the Sani 2 C. It has been voted the best MTB race in South Africa by many different publications on a number of occasions.

It’s a three-day event, covering about 260 kilometres, that starts at Underberg in the Drakensberg Mountains and sweeps all the way down to the KwaZulu-Natal coast at Scottburgh.

Competitors love the Sani 2C’s course: it’s a challenging mix of surfaces, climbs and descents, and scenery that tests and exhilirates competitors. Like the Absa Cape Epic, it attracts the cream of South Africa’s mountain bike racers, as well as top overseas stars.

ON AND IN WATER

The Dusi Canoe Marathon

Off of land, the Dusi Canoe Marathon is a three-day challenge that requires remarkable stamina. It is not just about canoeing, but running too, and that with a canoe on one’s shoulders. Plenty of portaging means that good running is a requirement to do well.

The Dusi pulls about 2 000 competitors annually, but overseas contestants tend to shy away from it because of the high premium it places on running.

The race is synonymous with Graeme Pope-Ellis, a man known as the Dusi King. From 1972 to 1990, he won it an astonishing 15 times and placed second on three occasions. Only a broken boat in 1979 had prevented him from achieving another top-two finish.

The Fish Canoe Marathon

The Fish River Canoe Marathon, however, does draw some of the world’s top marathon paddlers. It takes place over two days, starting in the Eastern Cape Town of Cradock.

In 2006, the event had its first ever international winners when the Czech combination of Michala Mruzkova and Katarina Vacikova claimed the women’s title in record-setting fashion.

South Africans, though, are among the best canoe marathon paddlers in the world and are tough to beat. This is borne out by the fact that Hank McGregor won the K1 Canoe Marathon World Championship title in 2003 and 2011, while Shaun Rubenstein landed the title in 2006.

In 2008, Ant Stott and Cam Schoeman teamed up to win the K2 Canoe Marathon World Championship title in the Czech Republic. Interestingly, both paddlers attended the same school: Maritzburg College.

The Berg River Canoe Marathon

The Berg River Canoe Marathon is regarded by many as the world’s toughest canoe marathon. It features four stages and covers about 230 kilometres.

Andre Collins and Giel van Deventer completed the event for a 40th time in 2011.

Nine-time champion Hank McGregor, the 2003 and 2011 World Marathon K1 champion, believes the Berg is definitely the world’s toughest race.

The Midmar Mile

South Africa is also home to the world’s largest swimming event, the Midmar Mile, which has been recognised as such by Guinness World Records. The number of entries has rapidly accelerated well past the 10 000 mark, topping 16 000 by 2003. It is so popular that it is now swum over two days.

Former winners include some big names in the world of swimming, such as Ryk Neethling, a previous winner of the Fina World Cup swimming series and an Olympic gold medal winner in the 4 by 100 freestyle relay, as well as Germany’s Jorg Hoffman, a former world champion over 400 metres and 1 500 metres, and Terence Parkin, the winner of silver in the 200 metres breaststroke at the Sydney Olympics.

Johannesburg-born Keri-enne Payne, a seven-time winner of the women’s race, finished second in the 10-kilometre open water swim in Beijing, and is a two-time world champion.

Sam Greetham attended the Midmar Mile in 2005, when the entry was 17 050 swimmers, as a member of swimming world governing body Fina’s open water swimming technical committee. He was blown away.

“Nothing I have seen comes anywhere near the Midmar Mile,” Greetham said. “Both in terms of the number of participants, tip-top organisation, security and safety aspects, and the interaction between the participants and the public.”

Greetham helped design the 10-kilometre open water course for the Beijing Olympics, and he also designed the course for the 2012 Olympics in London.

His view was echoed by German star Nadine Pastor, the runner-up in 2009, who reckoned: Honestly,” she said, “I’ve never seen anything like it: the number of swimmers, the crowds, the organisation, and the beautiful setting.”

In 2011, former 25-kilometre open water world champion and coach of the USA’s national team at numerous open water World Championships, Steve Munatones said: “It sets the worldwide bar in every category.”

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