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Going the Extra Mile: How ultra-marathons are bolstering the legacy of running in Africa

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AFRICAN athletics is often synonymous with sleek, speedy runners dominating the standard marathon. But there’s another side to the continent’s running culture, one that’s been thriving for decades: ultra-marathons.

From South Africa’s iconic Comrades Marathon to Morocco’s gruelling Marathon des Sables, ultras are attracting the biggest names in athletics and bolstering the legacy of African sports.

Last weekend (April 15), Cape Town played host to thousands of athletes from South Africa and beyond for the latest edition of the Two Oceans 56km Marathon.

According to Sports Network Africa, an African sports site, thousands of eager athletes flocked to the Cape Peninsula to participate in the world-renowned event.

This year’s edition saw over 12,000 runners from as far as Europe and the Middle East take part.

South African Gerda Steyn and Zimbabwean Givemore Mudzinganyama won the 52km race in the female and male categories, respectively.

Steyn crossed the finish line at a record time of 3 hours, 29 minutes, and 06 seconds. This marked her second consecutive record victory and fourth successive win in the ultra-marathon.

Dubbed ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Marathon’, the event is one of Africa’s most prestigious marathon events, taking place around the Cape Peninsula – one of the most breathtaking running courses in the world.

Ultra marathons often focus on raising funds to advance charitable causes in the continent.

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From conservation, climate action, and healthcare to greening causes, ultras have raised billions to enhance different initiatives.

AHOTU, a global digital athletics calendar, lists close to 10 ultra-marathon events lined up in South Africa alone in 2023.

A 2021 study by RunRepeat, a smart athletic gear dealing firm, found that South Africa was home to the fastest ultra-marathon runners globally.

According to the report findings, the average pace of an ultra-marathon runner in South Africa was 10:36 minutes per mile.

Due to their global relevance and the nature of the participants they attract, ultra-marathon events also generate significant economic value for local communities.

The Two Oceans Marathon, for instance, is estimated to inject up to US$37 million into the South African economy annually.

Other relatively large ultra-marathon events have disrupted the status quo of athletics on the continent and successfully withstood the test of time.

The Comrades Ultra-Marathon – one of the oldest and largest ultra-marathon events existing today – is one such event that has grown to attain global relevance since its launch in 1921.

With its vibrant spirit of comradeship, a tradition of camaraderie and social support among runners, the number of runners is usually capped at 25,000, most of whom run to raise funds for charity.

In 2019, before the pandemic disrupted the event in 2020 and 2021, The Comrades Marathon raised close to US$250,000 for its six charities alone.

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This is despite the race spanning 90km, more than double the standard full marathon race distance.

The Marathon des Sables in Morocco holds a relatively similar legacy, which sees participants, runners, and walkers, covering more than 250km across the Sahara, over several days.

The week-long 37th edition of the gruelling run through the Sahara is slated for April 21 to May 1.

In addition to the Comrades Marathon and Marathon des Sables, ultra-marathons such as Sao Tome’s GlobalLimits and Botswana’s Salt Pans Ultra are quickly gaining popularity among athletics fans and runners.

Since 2012, GlobalLimits’ 6-stage 200km race through Sao Tome has been a force of attraction for tourists and athletes alike.

Meanwhile, Botswana’s Salt Pans Ultra is a relatively new event founded in 2019, but it is already making waves in the ultra-marathon community.

The three-day trail run takes participants through Botswana’s stunning Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.

Smaller but similar events are also rising.

The UltraMARAthon, a 50-km single-day footrace traversing conservancies in Kenya’s northern Maasai Mara ecosystem, is just one example. The proceeds of the UltraMARAthon are dedicated ‘to benefit rangers and the community of the Mara conservancies.’

Interest in this kind of athletic event is rising, signalling the possibility of upward momentum.