Twice winner of the Women’s Day 10km Challenge, Nedbank athlete, Annie Bothma, is one of over five hundred runners set to make their marathon debuts at the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon on Sunday.
One of Cape Town’s fittest and fastest, Bothma has several track and road titles to her name, but on Sunday she will be competing over a distance significantly further than she has yet raced. Quite possibly Bothma will turn to South Africa’s most successful and consistent distance athlete for marathon inspiration. Cape Town Marathon Race Ambassador Elana van Zyl will be at the finish line to greet her at the finish.
In early 1994 Van Zyl, who had proven herself a world-beater over distances up to the half marathon, was also facing her marathon debut. Given Van Zyl’s status in world athletics, it was inevitable that her marathon debut would be in a major city marathon, and the 1994 Boston Marathon was chosen.
“I would have absolutely loved to have run a huge city marathon in South Africa,” said Van Zyl at the time. “But you’ve got to be realistic. We have a long way to go before we can compete with the major city marathons around the world.”
The Boston Marathon appealed to Van Zyl. It had hosted many of the world’s best marathoners since its inception in 1897, where fifteen runners completed the course, and Van Zyl was eager to be part of that action.
Van Zyl ran a superb race, clocking the fastest debut ever at the time, finishing third behind German Uta Pippig in 2 hrs 25 min 15 sec – still the fastest by a South African, although Colleen de Reuck’s 2:26:35 at Berlin in 1996 stands as the national record due to Boston not meeting IAAF accreditation standards.
Running easily, Van Zyl had taken the race lead from Pippig at 30km and was on course for a 2 hr 22 min marathon when disaster struck. “The pace felt very comfortable,” recalled Van Zyl. “The most difficult part was having to be patient and hold back. So it felt the right time to take the lead. But all of a sudden, I just had nothing left. I was still on 2:22 pace with 5km to go, but then lost all that time and finished third.”
Although the fastest time of her career, Van Zyl rates her subsequent Boston Marathon races as superior. “In my debut we enjoyed the wind behind us but the next year, when I was just a minute slower and a close second to Uta (Pippig), we ran into a headwind all the way.
Van Zyl missed the Boston centenary in 1996, where a record number of 35 968 finished the race, but was again in the mix the following year. The 1997 race saw an intense battle in the women’s competition involving Van Zyl, compatriot Colleen de Reuck. Pippig and Ethiopian Olympic champion, Fatima Roba. Roba eventually took line honours in 2:26:24 with Van Zyl just 44 seconds behind in second. De Reuck was a further minute back in third.
Years later, the famous ‘Boston Marathon Monday vibe’ would provide the inspiration for Cape Town Marathon’s success. “Boston will always be a special place and I made some good friends there,” explained Van Zyl. “The event has provided inspiration for the development of Cape Town Marathon and its success in gaining gold label status.”
In the end, Van Zyl did run a marathon in Cape Town – the 2001 Peninsula Marathon, which she won in a canter in 2:44:01 as a training run. “My coach at the time, Pieter Labuschagne, suggested I run it as a training run the week before the national 10km championships as I was in training for an international marathon at that stage.”
Van Zyl believes Cape Town Marathon now offers everything she was looking for in choosing a city marathon in which to debut. Would the 28-year old Elana have run Sunday’s Cape Town Marathon? “For sure! What a dream - I would have run my legs off! Just as I did in Durban in running 8 min 32 sec for the 3000m and in Green Point where I set a world 15km record of 46:57 in 1991.”
Van Zyl did not get that chance to debut in front of her home supporters, but Bothma will do so against some of the world’s top marathoners and in the shadow of Table Mountain. What better place and incentive to make her mark on the world stage?