Russian twins Elena, left, and Olesya Nurgalieva, who have a host of medals between them, put in an appearance at Thursdays Bonitas Comrades Expo at the Durban Exhibition Centre. Picture: Clinton Wyness

Durban - As thousands of runners stream into Durban for Sunday’s Comrades Marathon, the hospitality industry is gearing up for the start of a month of high-profile sporting events.

The big bonanza for local businesses – hotels, B&B’s and restaurants – includes the rugby international between South Africa and Wales and the Top Gear Festival, and will then be followed on July 5 by the biggest horse race and social event on the African calendar, the Vodacom Durban July.

“These are great events for the city and region and we are set for busy times,” said upbeat hotelier Mike Jackson, regional chairman of the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (Fedhasa).

The 89km Comrades Marathon – the world’s greatest ultramarathon – which Durban Tourism predicts will attract 58 800 visitors (runners, including international racers, and supporters) will generate an estimated R186m for the city.

Provincially, however, it is worth much more, with Ndabo Khoza, the chief executive of Tourism KZN, the regional tourism authority, recalling that last year, the economic benefit was more than R200m.

The total number of visitors last year was 56 000, but as this year’s race is downhill from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, another 2 800 visitors are expected, Durban Tourism says.

Comrades coach Lindsey Parry said Thursday about 16 500 runners were expected, with about 4 000 international runners, for whom 5 000 places had been reserved.

Hundreds of locals will land jobs as a result of the big race: 413 extra people were employed last year.

Andrew van Wyk, marketing manager for the Coastlands hotel group, said its three hotels were “chock-a-block” with runners and TV crews.

“They will be getting a 2am wake-up call, so that they can travel to Pietermarizburg,” he said.

Excitement was mounting at Thursday’s three-day Bonitas Comrades Expo at the Durban Exhibition Centre, where runners queued up to register, visited the stands and did some celebrity spotting.

The famous Russian identical twin sisters, Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva (Elena has eight Comrades wins and her sister has two) who have been brought out by their new sponsor, Toyota, were due to put in an appearance at the expo today but paid a surprise visit Thursday.

The 38-year-olds were thrilled to be back in the race again and, having competed so many times before, were glad to see friendly faces.

They could not give any predictions, apart from saying “we will try and win”.

As to what they would eat on the morning of the big race, they said breakfast would include toast and jam and hot tea.

Comrades coach Parry said his ideal race day breakfast would be rolled oats and a little bit of honey with some peanut butter mixed in because runners would feel fuller for longer, although he did not recommend oats for people not used to it.

“And runners should drink only when thirsty,” he stressed.

Zola Budd, who will be running in the newly formed Hooters Running Club, also called in to register, and will be running with a yellow ribbon on her vest to honour her former coach, Pierre Korkie, who is still being held by militants in Yemen after being kidnapped a year ago.

He was working as a teacher, while his wife, Yolande, who was also captured, did hospital relief work.

She was released in January.

Budd’s manager, Ray de Vries, stressed Thursday that the gesture should not be interpreted as a political statement, just a heartfelt way of honouring and remembering her coach.

The move was catching on and scores of other runners would also be sporting yellow ribbons, he said.

Hundreds of runners flocked to the Durban Tourism stand at the expo where they were invited to “like” the organisation on Facebook or Twitter, with one of the rewards being having their keepsake picture taken in front of an image of Durban.

A giant image of the route (sponsored by Coca-Cola), which invited people to send messages to the runners, proved a popular attraction.

It also explained that it would take 13 000 steps for runners to get to Polly Shortts, 57 200 to get to Inchanga, 70 200 steps to Botha’s Hill, 87 100 to Fields Hill, 92 200 to Cowie’s Hill and 115 700 to compete the race in Durban.

The Expo is open to the public until 7pm Friday and from 9am-5pm Saturday.