Mehluli Sibanda, Senior Sports Reporter
LAST Sunday saw over 3 000 runners take part in the four races on offer at the Econet Victoria Falls Marathon, the biggest number ever to take part in what is a fast growing event.
What started off as a small event in 2006 with 425 athletes, mostly locals, has grown to become the biggest marathon in Zimbabwe as witnessed by the numbers from the 12th edition last Sunday. A total of 3 489 runners took to the road last Sunday, these coming from over 54 countries. Zimbabwe had the highest number with 1 913. In fact the numbers could have been well over 4 000 but some of those who had pre-registered and paid did not fetch their race numbers.
According to the organisers, the Victoria Falls Marathon in Zimbabwe grew from the success of the Kilimanjaro Marathon in Tanzania, and was first proposed by Wild Frontiers in 2005. The buy in of the local Tourism Board, the Athletics Association has contributed to the success. As with the Kilimanjaro Marathon, the idea was to use sport as a means of attracting tourism to the region.
When it started in 2006, sponsorship was limited with Delta Beverages the first bankroller through their aptly named Zambezi Lager. Other sponsors then were Comair (British Airways) and Shoprite. The country’s biggest mobile network operator, Econet Wireless took over sponsorship in 2009 and have been the main bankroller ever since. Zambezi Lager had remained as the sponsors of the Half Marathon while GoToVicFalls campaign took on the Fun Run. Econet have however assumed sponsorship of all the three races with their various brands. The full marathon is sponsored by Econet, Kwese sponsors the half marathon, EcoSure the fun run and Steward Bank the Team Relay Challenge which was introduced this year.
United Refineries, represented at the awards ceremony by chief executive officer Busisa Moyo also sponsored hampers for the relay and the veterans.
“The first event, in 2006 was very small — around 300 in total — and, mainly local runners. Sponsorship was also limited — the harsh economic conditions at the time in Zimbabwe made us make use of the ‘barter system’, for a lot of sponsorship deals — beer, water, flights, were all supplied rather than cash. At one stage we even considered giving the prizes in livestock — cows and goats, this did not happen,’’ said the organisers.
At the height of the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe, the marathon did not take place but made a return the following year.
The numbers have been steadily growing over the years with this year the biggest in terms of attendance.
“In 2010, the improved economic situation allowed better numbers, and now the event is on the map, with a full, half, and 7,5 km fun run. It’s a unique event, running across a bridge over an international boundary, in the spray of Victoria Falls, through a World Heritage Site, and seeing big game such as elephant along the beautiful route. From a ‘sports tourist’ point of view, in the surrounding area you have all you would ever want, game viewing safaris, boat cruises, walking safaris, canoeing, white water rafting, horse riding,’’ further said the organisers.
Deborah Harrison, the sponsorship co-ordinator for the Econet Victoria Falls Marathon attributed the growing numbers to the fact the athletes run past the majestic Victoria Falls, which is a once in a lifetime experience. Running through the game park along the Zambezi River is another attraction for the runners as they can get an opportunity to spot some wild animals, even the Big Five if they are lucky along the way.
“The Victoria Falls are one of the Seven Wonders of the World, so to run past them, at sunrise, with the fine spray and mist from the Falls on your face and from one country into another is a unique and once in a life time experience. Being an iconic venue, lends to the race having an iconic status, not to forget the fabulous opportunity of running within one of Zimbabwe’s National Parks, along the Zambezi River, where the opportunity exists to cross paths with any of Africa’s Big Five, with elephants often being seen on route,’’ Harrison said.
Econet Wireless chief operations officer, Fayaz King said the growing numbers did present a challenge as there is a limit on the number of people who can cross the Victoria Falls Bridge, which is part of the route. King said he had a discussion with Victoria Falls mayor Sifiso Mpofu and the town clerk Ronnie Dube to see how best the resort town can adjust to accommodate the thousands of visitors during the time of the marathon.
“We are encouraged by what we are seeing, it’s growing at a phenomenal rate, some of the races are oversubscribed because of the capacity of the bridge that’s part of the race. We probably need to look at rerouteing if it’s going to get bigger,’’ King said.
Nkosiyazi Sibanda, winner of the inaugural event in 2006 was the first men to cross the finish line last Sunday with Olivia Chitate the winner in the women’s category. Interestingly, the winners from last year, Mathews Mutanya and Tabitha Tsatsa finished in second place in their respective categories. Tatenda Hove won the men’s half marathon while Betha Chikanga took the women’s top prize.
While for the top athletes, they ran to win the prize money that was at stake but for the thousands of other social runners, they entered for fun, what was important for them was finishing the various races. Those who completed the full and half marathons got medals.