Who said running is free?

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.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

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. 

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.


Coalition politics and law: The fight over Tshwane

With coalition politics on the rise, particularly in local government, this kind of court case is likely to become more common

High court declares Dudu Myeni delinquent

Disgraced former SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni has been declared a delinquent director by the...

SANDF inquiry clears soldiers of the death of Collins Khosa

The board of inquiry also found that it was Khosa and his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango who caused the altercation with the defence force members

No back to school for teachers just yet

Last week the basic education minister was adamant that teachers will return to school on May 25, but some provinces say not all Covid-19 measures are in place to prevent its spread

Press Releases

Openview, now powered by two million homes

The future of free-to-air satellite TV is celebrating having two million viewers by giving away two homes worth R2-million

Road to recovery for the tourism sector: The South African perspective

The best-case scenario is that South Africa's tourism sector’s recovery will only begin in earnest towards the end of this year

What Africa can learn from Cuba in combating the Covid-19 pandemic

Africa should abandon the neoliberal path to be able to deal with Covid-19 and other health system challenges likely to emerge in future

Coexisting with Covid-19: Saving lives and the economy in India

A staggered exit from the lockdown accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district is necessary for India right now

Covid-19: Eased lockdown and rule of law Webinar

If you are arrested and fined in lockdown, you do get a criminal record if you pay the admission of guilt fine

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

Call for applications for the position of GCRO executive director

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory is seeking to appoint a high-calibre researcher and manager to be the executive director and to lead it

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday