One of South Africa's top runners, Irvette van Zyl has been closely involved with the SPAR Women's Challenge,

From a race which nearly didn’t happen to the biggest event on the Nelson Mandela Bay roadrunning calendar – that is the path the SPAR Women’s Challenge has taken in the last three decades.

On March 21, the 27th edition will be held when thousands of women descend on the Summerstrand race village adjacent to Pollok Beach for the 10km and 5km races.

The event has become extremely popular among social runners and professional competitors alike, but Grand Prix Series co-ordinator Ian Laxton recalls an initial cool reception to the idea from PE roadrunning officials.

“The first race was held in Durban in 1990,” said Laxton, who has been involved with the events since their inception. “We began to extend it around the country but when we came to PE in 1993 we were told the idea wouldn’t work.

“But the next year we were determined to make it happen so we went ahead and the PE race has become a very special part of the calendar.”

One of South Africa's top runners, Irvette van Zyl has been closely involved with the SPAR Women's Challenge,

One of South Africa’s top runners, Irvette van Zyl has been closely involved with the SPAR Women’s Challenge, winning the Grand Prix Series on three occasions. Photo: Reg Caldecott

Walmer Athletics Club, under the chairmanship of Loynes Jenkerson, took up the task of race organisers, beginning with just 274 runners in the 10km event.

From those relatively humble beginnings, Laxton said the races “just took off” as thousands of runners began to line up at the start.

“There was year-on-year growth and during that period we became much better in terms of organising the events. Furthermore, we had really good media partners who promoted the events through their platforms.

“We also decided to decentralise the organisation of the events. So this was never done at a national level, but left to the regional SPAR distribution centres to organise.

“This was one of the best things we did because the DCs became very involved in the races, which just continued to grow.

“Things went ballistic around the year 2000 and the PE race peaked at 14 000 runners. It’s not quite as big now but remains a very important part of the series.”

He recalls the race being moved from Kings Beach down the road to the current Summerstrand venue to accommodate all the entrants.

“That was an out and back course along the beachfront and of course good results were very dependent on the weather and the wind.”

Laxton said the idea for the series was two-fold – to create an opportunity for elite runners to showcase their talents while encouraging SPAR’s lady customers to enjoy some exercise and female camaraderie.

“There were no cut-offs, there was good value for money and we focused on the masses. I have no doubt you will find these people still jogging and having their family run with them.”

This led to initiatives such as the 5km distance being introduced in 2005, which created an opportunity for a whole new wave of participants.

In addition, SPAR EC introduced the concept of having race beneficiaries and hundreds of thousands of rand have been raised over the years to assist local charity organisations.

The first Port Elizabeth champion was Olympian Elana Meyer, who had won a 10 000m silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games, and Laxton added that the series had been critical to the development of South Africa’s top female runners.

“You can ask any of our leading competitors – the Rene Kalmers, the Irvette van Zyls – and they will tell you how important the SPAR races have been for them,” he said.

“The races are well organised, the courses are generally fast and there are good incentives.”

In 2007, Laxton was instrumental in introducing the Grand Prix Series which, he felt, had taken the competitive edge to another level.

“There has been huge support from the professional clubs for this and the incentives on offer have attracted many top runners, not only in South Africa but from further afield as well.”

This was demonstrated last year when Namibian Helalia Johannes competed and set new records in each of the six races.

“Importantly, there is TV coverage of all six events on SABC,” concluded Laxton. “This provides fantastic exposure for both the runners and the professional brands involved.”