Victory: Lungile Gongqa as he wins the Two Oceans in Cape Town. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Victory: Lungile Gongqa as he wins the Two Oceans in Cape Town. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

It takes at least 10 years of development for talented athletes to reach their peak, says Nick Bester, national manager of the Nedbank Running Club, which achieved four firsts in the men’s and women’s ultra-and half-marathons at the 2017 edition of the Two Oceans.

"We look for athletic talent in all our communities and we start training youngsters for marathon running from the age of 15," he says.

Crossing the finishing line in first place were men’s 56km winner Lungile Gongqa, women’s 56km winner Maryna Damantsevich; men’s 21km half-marathon winner Namakoe Nkhasi; and the women’s half-marathon was won by Irvette van Zyl.

"It’s our best achievement ever and it has taken many years of supporting our runners to get here. This is what we work for," says Bester.

Gongqa has been part of Nedbank’s training camp for two years. He moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg to train at altitude and lives in the Nedbank Running Club training house for elite athletes near Zoo Lake.

He is in the national squad, being trained by former Olympic marathon athlete Hendrick Ramaala, who manages the training of the Nedbank group of athletes who competed in the 2015 Rio Olympic Games. Half of the Olympic marathon team was from the Nedbank Running Club’s Olympic programme.

The development programme athletes who performed well in the Two Oceans half-marathon are David Manja, who came third; Thabang Mosiako, who came fifth; and Philemon Mathipa, who came 10th. Now in their early twenties, they have been training with the Nedbank Development Running Club since their teens.

"It’s the team effect. You need the team support and buy-in of the athletes, managers, partners and sponsors," says Bester, who won the Comrades in 1991 and started his running club in 1999.

In 2008, he teamed up with Nedbank and took the reins in launching the Nedbank Running Club. Over the course of the past 10 years, he has grown the club to 4,500 members.

It has 13 branches nationally, each responsible for supporting runners at all levels and identifying and nurturing development athletes.

There are now five Nedbank development running clubs in Soweto, Pretoria, Klerksdorp, East London and Bloemfontein with about 350 members.

"It is vital that we look after the next generation by growing our development programmes," says Bester. "How else would the sport grow and can we expect to perform on the international circuit?"

The Klerksdorp club has 70 members and an apartment where successive groups of about eight boys, aged 14 to 18 from throughout the North West, live under the care of training manager marathon champion Pio Mpolokeng, who won the Two Oceans half-marathon in 2000 and has been training athletes since 1999.

Three of the development runners he trained competed in the World Cross Country Championships in Uganda in March as part of the South African national team. David Manja was the first South African man home, taking 34th place, and Joel Mmone was 37th. In January, his protégé Mosiako won the Dischem 21km in Johannesburg in a field of 6,000 runners.

"We identify talent from the school athletics championships throughout the province, and we then hold a training camp where we select seven or eight boys who we feel could go far in marathon running," Mpolokeng explains. "We look for talent, strength, speed, willpower, discipline and commitment to both their sport and their schooling.

"With the consent of the boys and their parents, they then move to the apartment from all over North West, and they live here, attend school here and do their training here; all their expenses are paid for by the Nedbank Development Running Club," he says.

"We treat their training and schooling as equally important as we would like them to continue on to higher education after they matriculate. Thabang Mosiako, who came fifth in the Two Oceans half-marathon this year, is now studying human resources through Boston College in Klerksdorp while continuing his training." The boys are required to be disciplined. Drinking, drugs or smoking are not tolerated.

From the age of 16, they start training for the 21km half-marathons. Before then, they train for track events — 800m and 1500m, and up to 10km. From the age of 25, they start training for 42km marathons and progress to 56km and ultramarathons such as the Comrades (89km).

"The older you get, the longer the distance you can run," says Bester, who won the Comrades at the age of 31.

The Nedbank Running Club focuses on all distances, and 40%-50% of the athletes in the national team have come through the Nedbank Running Club’s development programmes. The club has several legendary athletes on its staff, including Ramaala.

"Through the work that we do, we see the difference that running makes to people’s lives," says Ramaala. "We are currently working on increasing the number of runners with talent and bringing them from all over — from our cities, villages and neighbouring countries — to train with our clubs and build a strong southern African talent base and sense of unity."

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