CAPE TOWN – When Elana van Zyl-Meyer ran her first marathon in Boston in 1994, little did she realise that her engagement with the famous race would have lasting implications for her career, not just as one of South Africa’s all-time great athletes, but as the driving force behind Africa’s leading city marathon.
The Boston Marathon - the world’s oldest annual marathon - has been one of the role models for the Cape Town Marathon, which held its 50-day launch in a City hotel today.
The Boston Marathon began in 1897 with 15 entrants.
In 1996, 35 968 runners completed the race, setting a record for the world’s largest marathon.
An estimated 500 000 spectators line the roads to watch the race each year, making it New England’s most widely-viewed sporting event.
Cape Town Marathon ambassador Van Zyl-Meyer ran her fastest marathon at Boston, completing the iconic point to point route from Hopkinton to Copley Square in Boston in 2hrs 25min 15sec (the then-fastest ever marathon by a debutant).
And she admits that the event has provided inspiration for the development of the Cape Town Marathon and its success in gaining IAAF Gold Label status within a few short years.
“Boston was where I ran my first marathon in 1994, so it will always be a special place and I made some good friends there.
“The history of the race and the vibe of Boston’s Marathon Monday make it special and have helped create our vision for Cape Town,” Van Zyl-Meyer said.
“But the spectators who line 1st Avenue for the New York Marathon and the massive charity success and party atmosphere of the London Marathon have also inspired us to build an event which could one day join the elite group of six ‘Marathon Majors’.”
Van Zyl-Meyer liked to measure herself against the best in the world and looked up to Zola Budd (in her early days in South Africa), Swedish athlete Grete Waitz and Norwegian Ingrid Kristiansen in this respect.
“They were the athletes who inspired me most, although my toughest competitors were fellow Africans in Kenyans Lornah Kiplagat, Tegla Loroupe and Catherine Ndereba,” she said.
These role models provided inspiration to Van Zyl-Meyer's athletics career and she has subsequently sought out international best practice in road race organisation to guide her team to build Cape Town Marathon to its success.
“Boston, New York and London have shown just what can be achieved, and have set the bar in organisational excellence,” Van Zyl-Meyer remarked.
“We have tried to incorporate some of the ideas from these races. It was an unfulfilled dream of mine to race on home soil against the best runners in the world and having supporters there to cheer us on. This is what we have tried to provide for our athletes today.”
While Boston, New York and London have been the primary role models for the Cape Town Marathon, there is little doubting Van Zyl-Meyer's best-loved destination as an athlete.
“I loved racing in Japan,” Van Zyl-Meyer recalled. “I raced there no fewer than 18 occasions, and felt special there.
“The support for women in Japan was one of the things that drew me to that country and culture. It’s incredible to see a million people out on the roads in support of an all-women marathon.
“I appreciated the respect with which they treat people and I’m sure this helped me to see the potential of sport in promoting peace. Incorporating peace as one of the major themes linked to the Cape Town Marathon was important to me.”
The strong support for Van Zyl-Meyer in Japan contributed to her excellent performances in the east, including three of the four historic world half-marathon records linked to her name.
After her 1:07:59 at the SA Half Marathon Championships in East London in May 1991, which bettered Kristiansen’s world record, she improved the mark in three successive years in Japan.
A 1:07:36 in Kyoto in 1997 became 1:07:29 in the same race the following year, before her best ever time in Tokyo in 1999 lowered the then world best to 1:06:44.
There were many opportunities for the 51-year-old to celebrate success in her athletics’ career. For Van Zyl-Meyer, however, several desperate lows proved stronger life mentors, providing valuable experience in transforming the Cape Town Marathon into the blockbuster event it has become.
Van Zyl-Meyer and Frank Sinatra would appear to have little in common.
But Van Zyl-Meyer takes pride in doing it “her way”, seeing herself steering a rubber duck on the path life has taken her.
“I have always enjoyed being independent. I funded my education, accommodation and transport.
“I took charge of my career as an athlete, and I’m now enjoying playing a role in passing on some of these skills to others and helping to grow Cape Town Marathon into something we can all be proud of,” Van Zyl-Meyer said.