/ 2 June 2023

South Africans discover the world via marathons

Just Run Tours Min

June is a big month for South African runners — Global Running Day is around the corner on 7 June and 20 000 athletes will run 87km in the 2023 Comrades Marathon on Saturday, 10 June.

But for South African pharmacist Wandisile Nkwalase, marathon running is a unique mode of international travel. He has run 28 marathons — half of them international marathons in cities such as Paris, Tokyo and Istanbul.

“I started running around 2016 and immediately saw an opportunity to travel the world through running. I ran my first marathon in 2018, which was the Paris Marathon,” says Nkwalase. “Every runner in South Africa wants to run overseas.”

Nkwalase is on his way to being one of 38 South Africans to have completed the “Marathon Majors” — the world’s top six marathons: Tokyo, Boston, New York, Chicago, Berlin and London. Nkwalase says he will have completed the Marathon Majors once he finishes the New York Marathon in November.   

The tricky part for South African runners with their hearts set on international races is the expense and lengthy visa application processes. Since the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, Nkwalase has worked to make running overseas “fashionable, accessible and, most importantly, more affordable for people”, through his travel agency Just Run Tours.

“These marathons are really expensive, so we want to make those marathons more affordable through economies of scale,” says Nkwalase, who books large numbers of runners to reduce costs and help local runners start participating in the Marathon Majors.

“I spoke to travel agents from New York City for my friends and it’s around R58 000 [per person]. We want more South Africans to be able to achieve that goal of running the major [international] marathons,” says Nkwalase.

Beyond running for health reasons, it is also a sport of mental toughness — or even mental cleansing, depending on your reason for running. If you’ve ever wanted to look into the mind of an amateur runner, Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running lifts the lid on a runner’s motivations whether it’s the pursuit of self-improvement or meditation. 

“For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level, I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level,” writes Murakami. 

But for Nkwalase, aside from running for health purposes, he mentions “when you run, you forget all your problems”. 

Home run 

Although Nkwalase’s Just Run Tours takes groups of running enthusiasts abroad, it is not a running club. They are taking Africa to the world and want more South African runners to achieve a goal of running the major marathons.

“We consider ourselves a travel agency, for now, because we organise everything from registration, and accommodation to visa applications — and provide running kit for everyone,” says Nkwalase.

Just Run Tour’s first marathon was the 2022 Paris Marathon, with only a few runners. But in November, a group of 37 runners travelled with Nkwalase to Turkey for the 2022 Istanbul Marathon.

Demand has shot up after a video of the 50 runners that Just Run Tours took to France for the Paris Marathon in April went viral. The video shows the group of South Africans singing and dancing in their patriotic running kit during their 5km practice run before the marathon.

“It’s just to run 5km together as a group. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you run, it’s just to show that comradery with the runners. It’s just how we do things — and people then take pictures of us,” explains Nkwalase. “These are people who have met for the first time and it looks like they’ve known each other for a long time.”

What is common in international marathons — and part of what makes them a unique travel experience — is that the routes go past some of the landmarks of that particular city. The Paris Marathon, for example, starts at Arc de Triomphe and, 30km into the race, runners pass the Eiffel Tower.

Running the marathon only constitutes about two to three hours of the whole trip. The rest of the time is about exploring the city, culture and food and understanding how other people in the world live. 

Just Run Tours will embark on three more marathons this year and there are already runners who want to sign up.

“We have three marathons in October and November: Amsterdam, Athens and Istanbul marathons. We’re looking at 40 [runners] for Amsterdam, for Athens around 30 and Istanbul about 20 runners. So, in total, close to 90 runners,” explains Nkwalase.