With the charge down Constantia in the Old Mutual Two Oceans now a mere dull pain in the quad, between 4000 and 5000 KZN runners will turn their attention to the local ultra marathon and marathon fixtures in their traditional galvanizing preparation for the Comrades Marathon on 15 June.
Despite a lack of resources and sponsorship, many clubs host marathon and ultra races in the knowledge that runners can’t resist the temptation of another energy sapping run in the belief that it will assist them to an improved medal or time. Ironically with each passing month research and practical experience confirms this is a plan fraught with problems for both the organizer and the runner.
In organizational terms, there are few clubs who have either the level of sponsorship, or the numbers of volunteers to host a truly safe and successful marathon which does justice to the athlete and organizers. Something has to give: Be it marshals, prize money, efficient results, entry fee or value for money handouts there is rarely a long distance event that doesn’t make compromises.
In some cases the safety of the runner (and event) is the compromise from inadequate marshalling. We are not talking miss-direction, but rather use of inexperienced or total omission of marshals on a particular ‘quiet’ junction, blind bend, or other potential crossing. Organizers may escape the potential outcome of such risk weighting for many years, but if, or when, the unthinkable occurs, the fall out for runners, organizers, clubs and the sport will be devastating.
Disaster management is in its infancy in our sport, with few municipalities having any real structure, or requirements currently in place. I foresee this changing dramatically over the next two years as we become exposed to the detailed and rigorous world cup requirements. The focus will turn to all road events: cycling, running, triathlon etc and if implementation is driven with out input from the sports, it would be a surprise if the requirements prove to be practical or sustainable in what is seen as a shoe-string budget sport.
With clubs now submitting applications for 2009 races, it would be prudent for many to review the distances they offer in direct relationship to the resources and manpower they can muster. For most clubs, with less than 200 volunteers to call on, organizing a 10km to 21km is considerably more viable. Alternatively organizing a marathon in combination with neighbouring clubs presents a win-win situation that can only produce safer events, better marketing, attract bigger entries, larger sponsorships, larger prizes, greater value and add to the sport.
A fixture list that pits Hillcrest, Newlands and the SA Marathon Championships against each other in the heat and humidity of Durban, or permits six marathon and ultras in a three week period in the midlands does little to support the clubs, sponsors, or the future of the sport.
Changing such situations is rife with the problems of ownership, tradition, and empires. The greatest resistance to change rests with two concerns: Fear of the unknown, and loss of status, (on personal, or group level). However having the trust and faith to make change frequently initiates progress and benefits across a whole spectrum of associated fields. The consolidation of marathon and longer events can not only provide safer, bigger, events, with greater returns for clubs and sponsors, but can be expected to positively impact on the performances of runners at all levels.
Numerous research papers show that, contrary to previous beliefs, running more does not improve efficiency, and hence performance, but rather reduces running efficiency making runners slower. Recent Finnish, American, Danish and Australian studies across all abilities, (which will be covered in a future column), confirm that, after an initial adaptation into the sport, the runners who opt for high volume training gains less than those on a 60 to 70km per week with more explosive training.
While running distance does enhance low-intensity energy production from blood fatty acids and glycogen, and enhances mitochondrial enzyme content, these benefits are achievable with regular 80 to 100 minute easy, slow runs. Even marathon and ultra racing requires only occasional paced excursions and training of 2 to 2 ½ hour duration. This month’s performances by local athletes such as Carol Mercer, (Gold and 2nd 40 year old in Two Oceans) and Tanith Maxwell (2:37 in Rome Marathon) further substantiate this regime. While sessions longer than 2 ½ hours may give bolster confidence in a novice they do little to enhance physiology, and arguably detract from a runners performance.
While studies, resources and logic would make the move to fewer bigger marathons, with larger fields, greater safety, more atmosphere and better performances by all runners an obvious objective, it is a move that requires the courage, foresight and collective commitment of individuals, clubs, committees and the provinces. This is surely the greatest challenge.