Growing up, Lusapho April was never tempted by the lure of riches that professional running could afford a promising young runner from the East Cape.
He considers himself fortunate in that regard.
Because as he prepares to compete in Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon, April knows that he represents the best of what has become an endangered species in his homeland of South Africa: the elite distance runner.
“It was never about the money for me,” April said. “I am just passionate about the sport and have always had a bigger picture. I am not narrow-minded.”
Historically, South Africa has produced some of the more recognizable names in marathon history, such as Josia Thugwane, the 1996 Olympic champion; Hendrick Ramaala, the 2004 ING New York City Marathon champion; Elana Meyer, an Olympic silver medalist on the track who set the national record of 2:25:15 in Boston in 1994; Colleen De Reuck, twice a South African Olympian and the 1996 Berlin Marathon champion; and Gert Thys, who won the 1999 Tokyo Marathon in a still-standing national record of 2:06:33.
Perhaps the trailblazer was Willie Mtolo. It wasn’t until the abolition of apartheid in 1992 that South African athletes were welcomed back into Olympic sports competition following a 30-year absence. That year, Mtolo came to the New York City Marathon and stormed to victory in 2:09:29.
Today, the string of success forged by those South African athletes is a thing of the distant past, replaced by an era of dominance asserted by the East African runners from Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda.
So, what has happened to all of the South African distance runners?
“Yeah, it is true that South African distance running has lessened,” said Mtolo, in town promoting the Mandela Day Marathon. “If you look at the times, there are very few people in South Africa that can run 2:10. But before, we had [coaching] minds but they are just gone now. We are working very hard now to try and make a lot of improvements.”
Mtolo said that purists of the sport are fighting an uphill battle against the pull of commercially successful ultramarathons, such as the 89-kilometer Comrades Marathon, which offer huge prize money that few poor young runners can ill afford not to pursue, regardless of whether they are physically equipped to do so. For example, Two Oceans is offering a 1 million rand ($100,518 USD) bonus for breaking its 56-kilometer course record in April.
“We are having a big problem with development,” said Mtolo, who used some of his $50,000 in prize money from his 1992 New York City Marathon win to start an athletic club for young runners. “What is happening with athletes in South Africa is that they love to run longer distances like ultramarathons when they are too young because most of the ultradistances pay a lot of money while the shorter distances don’t pay a lot of prizes. Even the sponsors push our young athletes to run the marathons too early.”
April is not one of those athletes.
Growing up in Uitenhage, a small country town about 40 kilometers outside Port Elizabeth, he was introduced to coach Karen Zimmerman, who took him under her wing when he was 14 and shepherded him through all of the potential pitfalls. She remains his coach to this day.
“She kind of nurtured me and put me on the right training and pointed out how certain ways are not the way they should be done,” April said. “I did track and field and cross country and gradually I was introduced to the roads. I started off with 10Ks and 15Ks and when I was in my mid-20s I started doing half-marathons. That is when I realized that I really loved this thing. I didn’t make my marathon debut until three weeks before my 27th birthday.”
April also credited having a runner like Mtolo to hold up as a role model.
“After seeing you, [Mtolo] will come over and say, ‘Young man, what you are trying to do right now is not right. This is how you should do things and how you should behave if you want to be successful in life.’”
April, 31, comes to New York having progressed from a 2:14:19 guy in his 2009 debut in Hannover, to a 2:08:32 guy having won that same race this past spring. He said that for the first time he has had no hiccups in his training and is confident coming off his runner-up finish in 1:03:07 at the South African Half Marathon Championships in East London on September 21.
“This is the first time since I’ve taken up running marathons that my training went well without having to go for imaging to see if I was injured, or to the chiropractor,” April said. “I’m healthy and I am looking forward to Sunday.”
Having monitored his progress closely, Mtolo is confident April will turn in a strong performance.
“Lusapho is in terrific shape if I look at the times he has run before,” he said. “Even if you look at running a 2:08, there is no reason why he cannot do that and at least finish in the top five. He has to have a strong mind. He cannot be afraid of running with other athletes. He has to remain positive during the marathon. He must know that he will feel some pain at some stage but the important thing is to run your own race the way you plan it.”