Running The World: Zimbabwe

Running The World is back after a few weeks off for Iron Things and relays, and today’s interview comes from Zimbabwe. I contacted the Harare Athletics Club and asked if they knew anyone I might interview, and shortly afterwards I had an email from Julie offering to help, and offering her friend Nikki as a second perspective! When they sent me their answers, they mentioned that two other people in their running club, Ephraim and Patrick, put a lot of time and effort into helping answer some of the questions so I just want to thank all four of them. I am constantly humbled by the time people take to help me with this project, it blows me away!

This is what they said;

Hi ladies. Tell us a little about yourself.

Julie: I’m Julie, I’m a wife, a mother of  2 little girls.  I work in my friend’s scrapbooking shop. I also scrapbook as a hobby which is probably why I love taking photos as I run and documenting my runs. Reading is also a passion, and I find the more my running  has progressed, the more I have started reading about running.

I got into running when I turned 40, two years ago. I decided I needed to start running to be healthy and was doing little run/walks around my neighbourhood. A friend, Nisha, was also starting to run at that time and was hiring a running coach to motivate her and help her running improve her distances. I started running with her coach, Ephraim, in June, and that got me started. I set myself the goal of running the Kariba half marathon at the beginning of August. That was my first race and it got me hooked on distance running.

My running to date now includes completing a 20 miler, two marathons and the Two Oceans 56km in Cape Town.

Nikki: I’m also a wife and mum of 2 – my boys are 8 and 6. I am a Director of C2 Media, a creative digital agency in Harare and Melbourne. I love to run, read, I work far too much and too hard, but I enjoy time with my family and friends whenever I get a chance.

I began running in London many years ago. I took part in the first Nike series there, and trained with the help of virtual coaches and training runs in Battersea Park. I upped my distance from 5ks to 10ks, and enjoyed many of the charity runs in the Spring and Summer. On moving to Melbourne in 2004, I joined a friend who’d recently started running as part of a weight-loss programme. I bought a Runner’s World which had a 12-week half-marathon training programme in it. There were 10 weeks to go before the Melbourne Half Marathon, so I convinced her and a few others to try out! I stopped running shortly after while I had my kids, and picked it up again when we moved back to Zim in 2010. I ran many half marathons before tackling the 20-miler in December 2012. I struggled through the race, as an old ITB injury flared up at the 15km mark, so I hobbled the remaining 17km, swearing I’d never do that distance again. By Christmas, I’d managed to secure myself a charity entry into the London Marathon! I did a training marathon before London, as I was nervous of the crowds, so wanted to know I could do the distance. It was the single best thing I could have done, as I found out, the hard way, that I can’t tolerate sugars and gels on a run.

Julie (L) and Nikki (R) at the start of the f 2 Oceans race

How popular is running in Zimbabwe?

Julie:  Running socially in Zimbabwe has increased in popularity over the past few years. In towns, distance running is on the up and the Harare running club, H.A.C., has seen an upsurge in membership numbers this year (in part due to a one-third reduction in its annual subscription rates). Informal running groups are also increasing in popularity. We run with the Hares and Tortoises, and this is a social running group that goes around various routes in Harare.

But, in remote rural areas which generally are poorer, running distances is a necessity and a way of life as children have to run to and from school, often distances of up to 10-15 km each way. And then they have to herd the family livestock too, so they become accustomed to running. In rural areas, training is solo and very competitive, and Zimbabwe has produced some outstanding world class running talent from very humble beginnings. More on that later when I talk about Zimbabwean running stars….

How popular is running amongst women there?

Julie: Running here is very widespread and diverse but we do feel that maybe there are more women runners joining the ranks of distance running here. Cultural backgrounds have played a part in determining the rise of women runners from rural areas.

Before Zimbabwean independence in 1980, very few Zimbabwean women were running. Cultural  beliefs meant that female running was discouraged and there was a lack of understanding of the benefits of running as a sport. However, it is now permissible for women from rural areas to run, and to excel at it.

In town, there is definitely a growing trend amongst middle class women starting to run with the motive of fitness, health, and weight loss.

Julie and her coach Ephraim

How safe do you feel when you run?

Julie: We do feel very safe when running and even though my distance runs are with coach Ephraim or in a race or with the Hares and Tortoises, I have never once felt threatened or in danger. Zimbabwe is an amazing country with a lot of positives and this is definitely one of them.

Tell us a little about the racing scene in Zimbabwe

Julie: Races in Harare are organised by the running club HAC.  There can be up to 300 people at a race and for Zimbabwe, that is as big as it gets.

With the extremely difficult prevailing economic situation in Zimbabwe, corporate sponsorship is limited and the races are very expensive to organise and can cost up to thousands of US dollars to host, what with police clearance, marshalls and water points, just to name a few expenses.

In terms of prize money, what tends to happen is that private donations are made voluntarily by kind individuals, and these go on prize money. The HAC does sponsor its top runners and race expenses are subsidised, as entry fees (up to US$20) can be disproportionate to incomes.

It ha to be said that there is good private sponsorship for known runners who cannot afford to get to races or pay for race entries.

Old Mutual, as part of its corporate responsibility programme, does sponsor some races in Zimbabwe and keeps the entry very low, to encourage entries. They also offer very good prize money and this does encourage a very good turnout of Zimbabwe’s finest elite runners.

At the end of Two Oceans, with their friend Amina

What races are the most popular?

In terms of distance popularity, entry numbers at races show that the 10km is most popular, followed by the 5km, the 21km, the ultra then the 42km marathon distance.

The HAC flagship race is the Europcar Dendairy 20 miler, held at the beginning of December. It is a prestigious run, but not an important one. The important races are the two marathons, the Peter Gradwell and then the Roger Brackley, held in March. These runs give us qualifying times for the Two Oceans and the Comrades runs later on in the year in South Africa. As international entries, strictly speaking we don’t have to qualify for these two runs, but physically and mentally, it is a huge deal to do a marathon, and in under five hours.

Charity races are also very important on Zimbabwe’s running calendar. The Spar Family Fun Run attracts thousands of entrants and little children on bicycles and mums pushing prams are all part of the fun. But, money raised goes towards helping Child Line.

Julie’s girls greet her at the end of her first ever marathon

Which are your favourites?

Julie: My personal favourite is the Kariba half marathon. It’s has sentimental value as it was my first race, but in terms of atmosphere and scenery, it is the one for me! We run over the Kariba dam wall and through the African bush. It is awesome! The hills on it are also challenging enough to make that distance a challenge!

Nikki:  For me, Kariba is a firm favourite as well, but I also love the Victoria Falls Marathon. This scenic route takes us over the bridge to Zambia, and the sun rising over the thundering Victoria Falls is breathtaking. We run through the national park, along the Zambezi, with local and international entrants alike, and the atmosphere and support is amazing. For anyone travelling to Zimbabwe wanting to do a half-marathon or a full, I highly recommend this one.

Nikki during the Victoria Falls Marathon

Do you know anything about the ultra scene in Zimbabwe?

Julie: There are various races around Zimbabwe but only one ultra, the Matopos Ultra which is a 55km run through the Matopos National park near Bulawayo, in the south west of Zimbabwe. This is one I haven’t done as it sounds too tough for me. Nikki, on the other hand, would love to do it – and it is in fact possibly on the radar for next year, instead of a South African ultra.

If you could encourage a traveller to do one Zimbabwean race, which would it be?

Julie: If I could say come to Zimbabwe and run a race, I would encourage you to run the Kariba Half or the Victoria Falls Half or full marathon. Both venues are tourist destinations that give you a chance to experience for yourself Zimbabwe’s natural beauty and warmth of us people who live here.

How do Zimbabwean weather handle the weather?

Julie: In Zimbabwe, we are accustomed to running in the heat as we have hot, humid summers and cool, dry winters. Our climate is perfect for running and the universal rules of hydration, sunscreen, caps, cool, light clothing and running early mornings or late afternoons apply to us here in Zim.

How popular is Trail Running in Zimbabwe?

Julie: Trail running here is not as big as road running, but in winter the HAC puts on a series of cross country runs at venues close to Harare.

Zimbabwe has a lot of natural beauty and undeveloped scenery which can be experienced on runs and this is a huge thing for me as I want to enjoy my running and sometimes need something to distract me from a big hill in front of me!

Nikki on the Zimbabwe trails

Are there any dangers in running there?

Julie: Dangers of running in Harare are open gates with scary big dogs in the yards, and amazingly that is quite a common occurrence, but also careless drivers. Do they not see us runners? Do they deliberately come close to us to frighten us?

Nikki: in addition to the dangers Julie mentioned, we have uneven surfaces on our roads, with many potholes, which can be quite hazardous for any runner. We also don’t have streetlights that work at night, so run with head-torches in groups in the pre-dawn or post-sunset dark.

Where do Zimbabwean runners get their gear from?

Julie: Zimbabwe as a rule, imports running gear from neighbouring South Africa and worldwide. This, of course, makes shoes and clothes and nutritional goods expensive and hard to come by, with very limited choice. Stiff import duties in these “luxuries” can make running in Zim an expensive hobby. I rely on the kindness and suitcase space of my family when they go abroad and have become quite a good Internet browser. I love to spend time looking at “takkies” (running trainers/shoes) on-line!

Nikki: I buy my running shoes online in the UK, and get them sent out here. I run in Kayanos, and these are not imported into Zim, as the end cost to the runner would be in the region of US$350! Old trainers and clothes get passed on here, and nothing goes to waste.

Tell us a little about the running stars of Zimbabwe

Julie: Running stars in Zimbabwe are undoubtedly world class. Stephen Muzhingi has won the Comrades ultra (87 or 89km depending on up or down runs) three times back to back. He also become the second man to win both the Two Oceans and the Comrades ultras in the same year (2012). He is a humble man from humble beginnings, but with a hunger for doing well and is a huge inspiration to both of us. This year, Stephen and Fellow Zimbabwean Prodigal Khumalo, finished in the top ten at Comrades.

The two Zimbabwean men who ran the marathon at the London Olympics last year are Cuthbert Nyasango and William Zhuwao. They made us all so proud.

A female runner in Zim that inspires me is Tabitha Tsatsa. She won the Two Oceans ultra in 2013. That’s 56km in a time of 3.39 at the age of 40.

Constance Nyasango is also a world class runner. I will never ever be able to run that fast but she does inspire me to do better in my own humble endeavours!

Julie with Olivia Chitate (L) and Constance Nyasango (R) at last weekend’s Kariba Half Marathon. Constance was first woman in a time of 1.18! 1.18!!!!

What do Zimbabwean runners use to hydrate whilst running?

Nikki: Race water stations tend to offer water or coke and water mix. No fancy powerade or similar for us, although, some water points at big events are sponsored,so carry Energade and jelly babies / oranges and bananas, in addition to the standard coke and water. Some of us run with Mazoe, a local cordial, mixed with an electrolyte tablet or two.

What about fuel?

Nikki: In terms of fuel, we tend to keep it very simple here. Most HAC runners use Gu (brought in from outside the country, as there are no local suppliers) or Vooma (which is available locally). I can only tolerate a small amount of sugar when running – and NO gels – so I tend to carry roast butternut and oranges / sliced banana if I can’t drop these off at water points before the race. I have a hydration belt, so am able to carry my special juice, my butternut, and my phone for live-tweeting and Instagramming while I run!

Post race treats are an ice cold beer or tea heavily laced with sugar, chocolate milk, or more Coke. Races usually have egg and bacon rolls on offer at the end, which generally goes down a treat!

Zimbabwe sunset

How does social media play a role within the Zimbabwean running community?

Nikki:  Twitter is not yet big here – within and without the running community – but I am trying very hard to change this! I spend a lot of time talking to my running tweeps in South Africa, as it’s a much more vibrant landscape there in terms of who is on Twitter, and who tweets their runs. I live-tweet my runs – or, should I say, I live-Instagram them as I can simultaneously post to Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is much bigger here than Twitter, so friends and family, and most of my HAC friends can follow races like Two Oceans and the Vic Falls Marathon, both of which I documented.

This year, the National Healthcare Trust was involved in the Falls Marathon, and they asked me to be part of a panel discussion on health and non-communicable diseases like Diabetes and Obesity. I did this while running 42.2km which was quite an interesting experience! I got great feedback from Zimbabweans in the Diaspora, those at home in Harare, and runners in South Africa, all of whom said they loved seeing my journey and were planning to do the Falls marathon (or half) next year as a result!

Running blogging doesn’t exist here (yet!) – I keep threatening to set up my own blog, but haven’t had the time to do so. We tend to follow South African / US / UK bloggers to get our running fix when we’re not on the road.

zim 2
Nikki, Julie and Amina with 9-times Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce

What are the best things about running in Zimbabwe?

: The best things about running in Zimbabwe are the weather, the amazing countryside and the friendliness of the running community here. People are always, in my experience, very willing to share their knowledge and advice. I would not have been able to run my first Two Oceans without the support of the running community here and the breathless questions I asked as I plodded along were always answered by fellow runners as we went along. This, for me, is such a big positive about running in Zim.

Nikki: One of the things I love most about running here is the simplicity of it. I love that our races are small – although it is a real buzz when we do attend a big race, with support, goodie bags, music at the start, and so on – but we never have to worry about tripping over anyone, or shuffling to the start 15 minutes after the gun has gone. Our races aren’t always well-marked, so some of us do get lost, and put in a few extra kilometres (I’ve done this on more than one occasion) but that’s part of the fun of it. I know that I could be a faster, leaner, more accomplished runner if I put my mind to it – but I love the journey, I love the adventure of speaking to people along the way, of stopping to take pictures, and of living in the moment.

And the biggest challenges?

Julie: The biggest challenge is undoubtedly lack of awareness of running and lack of big sponsorship but with the way the Zimbabwean economy is at the moment, this is a very difficult issue to tackle.

Julie, Nikki, Ephraim and Patrick…thank you so much for this wonderful glimpse into the Zimbabwean running world! It’s been fascinating and I so appreciate your time and effort in pulling this together.

You can follow Julie on Twitter HERE and on Instagram HERE and Nikki on Twitter HERE and Instagram HERE. Their IG pics are particularly fab.

For more Running The World interviews, click HERE.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Nic J says:

    Superb stuff – really like Zim, even though we were only there a few days (and despite the currency problems). Great people, and fabulous countryside. Interesting comments on safety and increasing acceptance of more people, particularly women, getting into running.
    Will def look to go back at some point!

    1. Cathryn says:

      I thought of you as I was working on this. I was really excited about the growth of women’s running there and also by the enthusiasm of Julie and Nikki for running and building relationships through running. I loved this post!

  2. Jen says:

    Really interesting perspective about a country that’s hardly ever in the spotlight here in the States. Which brings me to a suggestion — perhaps you can post a simple map and/or statistics (capital, population, etc.) about the country at the top of each Running the World post?

    1. Cathryn says:

      Yeah, great idea. I did it for Malaysia as I knew so little about it but I can easily build it into other posts! Great idea.

  3. Thank you for this great post. I have reposted to both Stephen Muzhingi and Prodigal Khumalo’s Facebook pages, (Official and Personal) and I am honoured to say that are, and have been, in our family for a very long time. Thank you. Not sure if I can post a link, but delete if you prefer

    1. Cathryn says:

      Wow – thank you. I am honestly very humbled that you reposted on their FB pages. I hope it makes them smile. Thank you for your lovely comment and how lucky you are to have them in your family!

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