Who said running is free?

South African running is itself a race to compete. (Nick Laham/Getty)

South African running is itself a race to compete. (Nick Laham/Getty)

Putting foot to ground and setting off for a run can be done by anyone at anytime. It’s shocking at first then when you realise just how expensive something so fundamentally simple can be.

In a sport in which there’s no option but to put in the work to get fit, time can be the biggest cost. Training to win any long distance event often takes a financial toll on athletes who, if lucky enough to have a job, need to take time off and sometimes unpaid leave to train.

Comrades marathon and national triathlon coach Lindsey Parry says that athletes who entertain thoughts of winning an ultramarathon (42km +), must dedicate months to a schedule and typically run between 170km to 300km a week, which means they can spend between three to five hours training a day.

“If they had a job and they had to train that would mean they are training between 2.30am and 5am/6am so that they can go to work,” says Parry.

During those periods, athletes also go on training camps with their coaches in Lesotho, Dullstroom and Graskop, which can last up to three months.
That, of course, costs money.

The training phase charges don’t end there. A professional runner will utilise four to six expensive shoes a year. They will regularly need to visit specialists such as biokineticists and physios. Nutrition also becomes crucial and the typical grocery bill will likely balloon extraordinarily.

Those who end up chasing prize money in the major marathons have to gamble and invest in flights to take them across the country regularly. 

The lucky few who are part of professional clubs can expect a contribution for some of the costs they will incur “but they don’t have multimillion-rand sponsorships that football and rugby teams have”, says Parry.

Typically, the retainers of these contracts will be in the regions of R1 500 a month for athletes who are identified as having the potential of getting a gold medal in a prestigious marathon but have not yet secured the honour. Someone with a fair amount of clout behind their name will generally earn between R10 000 and R1 5000.

“These are people who have families to look after and besides the physical costs of preparing they have rent they need to pay and they need to feed themselves,” Parry added.

The fact that there is money to be made but just not very much has created a vicious cycle in South African running. Athletes are forced to compete at professional levels but have very little reward when they succeed and run the risk of ending up destitute if they don’t finish favourably.

“When I was running in my day, I would train before and after work without any financial support from anyone except myself,” says 1991 Comrades winner Nick Bester. “But the last couple of years it’s become a little bit more professional. Athletes get retainers and managers, and shoe companies sponsor the kit.”

Such is the price of being a professional runner today that those sponsorships have become a necessity for the vast majority. 

Bester, now the national manager of the Nedbank Running Club, says an increase in prize money incentivises participants and thus creates a higher density of runners capable of competing for first.

“These days the guys are actually going for the money… When I won the Comrades I said I would not run again until there is prize money —there was zero prize money. Everybody crucified me for that but the next year there was prize money. There’s a lot more athletes that’s in the elite pack.”

South African running is itself a race to compete. Those setting on the path to become professional runners do so knowing there’s only a finite amount of nourishment to keep the legs moving. Taking to the tar has become our great gamble.

Tebogo Tshwane

Tebogo Tshwane

Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust financial journalism trainee at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a general news intern at Eyewitness News and a current affairs show presenter at the Voice of Wits FM. Tshwane is passionate about socioeconomic issues and understanding how macroeconomic activities affect ordinary people. She holds a journalism honours degree from Wits University. 
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