Jacques van der Westhuyzen.
Jacques van der Westhuyzen.

OPINION: South Africa's runners get their fix

By Jacques van der Westhuyzen Time of article published May 2, 2020

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At least one sector of society cheered this week. And they showed their joy, happiness and appreciation by venturing onto the streets and pavements in their thousands yesterday. And, they did so again today and they’ll do so tomorrow and the day after that.

They may be forced to do it alone, and only in a 5km radius from their homes, and between 6am and 9am, but they’ll take that any day of the week right now.

After five weeks of lockdown and being forced to come up with inventive ways to stay fit, runners have been given the go-ahead to hit the streets once again.

It’s been many weeks for this country’s running community. Accustomed to running freely on the roads and in big groups at the weekend, everyone from the 2km walker to the 50km pro was swiftly forced to give up the very thing that kept them ticking over from one day to the next.

Just like regular drinkers and those who enjoy a puff, running - for thousands - is a fix they can’t do without. But, after five weeks of silence the streets have come alive again.

“We can run!” could well have been the most tweeted and messaged few words sent among running friends on Wednesday evening and into Thursday morning.

While the figures are not accurate because Athletics South Africa were still processing the number of registered runners when the national Covid-19 lockdown was instituted five weeks ago, estimates are that there are just over 126 000 permanent and registered licensed runners in the country, with a further potential 227 000 who run regularly but aren’t registered with a club.

For these men and women, running is a big deal and it matters greatly that they weren’t able to run until yesterday and are allowed to run now. Add in the 776 000 registered parkrunners in the country - those men, women and children who run or walk 5km every Saturday at one of 277 events across South Africa - and you realise how much running and walking means to so many people.

In the last five weeks, this country’s runners have shown they’re indeed an inventive and crazy bunch. Old, dusty and squeaking treadmills were brought back to life and hundreds of runners created home-garden routes, running around their houses and in their parking areas - from just two or three kilometres at a time to full marathons and even ultra distances.

Heck, others, like South African ultra-trail legend Ryan Sandes, pushed the bar further than anyone else on the weekend of April 18: he ran a 160km route through and around his home in Noordhoek, Cape Town, taking 26 hours and 27 minutes to complete it, to “challenge himself”. Many have run to raise money for the poor and destitute in these trying times.

One person who said he was “blown away” by the efforts of so many runners over the last few weeks is John Neale, the club captain of one of the oldest and most established clubs in the country, Randburg Harriers.

“It has been amazing to see how the runners accepted the lockdown and the restrictions and made a plan to get on with it,” said Neale this week. “Of course there has been a lot of frustration, but the runners have also shown their resourcefulness. They have run in their gardens, in the driveways, inside small rooms in their houses.

“I also really believe people have exercised more than normal in the lockdown, mainly because they have had time to do so, and many of those who exercise regularly have expanded their range of exercise, which is good news for the long term.”

The spread of the new coronavirus, which has affected every community, industry and sector across the world, forced the cancellation or postponement of major South African running events like the Two Oceans and Comrades marathons. Other smaller events, like RunZone Athletics Club’s inaugural marathon, The Joburg North City Marathon, were called off days before the lockdown and state of National Disaster were announced by the President six weeks ago.

RunZone founder and chairman, Graham Block, was gutted to have to make a “tough decision” days before the event would have taken place, but said there was more to life than a running event.

“It was so disappointing that we had to cancel our race day (scheduled for March 22) I thought it was crazy at the time, because the one thing that seemed to keep us all sane was being able to run,” said Block, whose club, with close to 1 200 members, is the biggest community club in the country.

“But once I’d had time to think about it and saw the bigger picture I knew we made the right decision. We were upset, but it’s not always about running, and the decisions made by the government were spot on. Life is far more valuable than a running event or being able to run in a big group. We at RunZone support every decision the government makes.”

Block added: “I’ve been involved in running all my life and I like to look at the positives always. The sooner we all do what is right, the sooner we can all go back to normal.”

What “normal” will be no one knows. Running and walking, and even cycling, seem to have a better chance of being allowed than team sports like rugby and football, where groups of people in close proximity are a requirement.

One can run, walk or cycle alone; but you cannot play rugby or football alone. But that does not mean the future of running won’t be changed significantly in the weeks and months that lie ahead.

“It’s not the first time the human race has faced a crisis or disease and like every other time, we’ll get through this,” said Block, whose club hosts on average between 850 and 1 000 runners almost every weekend in organised runs that range from 5km to 35km.

“I firmly believe we’ll see an explosion in running when this is over. Running numbers won’t be like before; they’ll double. We’ll find a solution and we’ll get there but it could take a while.

“I truly believe there will be an ever greater push afterwards for better wellness, health, physical well-being it’s going to be big business. The coronavirus has come to us to clean this place and it will make us all think differently and out the box. With change there is opportunity and that’s why I’m not looking at the negatives.”

While Neale was delighted the greenlight had been given to runners to hit the streets again, he said it would be some time before any formal events could be staged again.

“We’ve all seen in the news how easily this virus spreads in groups and that means running and cycling groups, too. Normal distancing just doesn’t cut it when speed and drift are at stake, so I can’t see how there will be any running in groups any time soon let’s hope in the last quarter of this year. And, as for organised races, well, that could take much longer.”

The decision by the government to allow runners onto the streets was welcomed by Central Gauteng Athletics general manager Mandla Radebe who said: “We have continuously communicated with our members to follow the regulations of government and health professionals, but we welcome the guide to now allow runners to run alone.”

Block said the world returning to “normal” depended largely on a vaccine being found, but he said there was still reason to be upbeat.

“We must all take one step at a time. Let’s not focus on the finished goal, but only on the next kilometre. Running as a sport will possibly be changed forever, like so many other things in our society, but with that comes hope and opportunity, and hopefully plenty of goodness to South Africa and the world.”


Independent on Saturday

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