The Future of Running Clubs in SA
Running clubs play a vital role in local communities. They not only train, coax and encourage runners of all abilities, they also provide a sense of community and belonging. With Covid-19 and the related lockdown restrictions impacting heavily on road-running events – previously, for many people, a key driver for joining a club – what is the future of our running clubs?
We’re more than 18 months into the Covid-19 pandemic here in South Africa, and there is little hope of an end in sight to the various restrictions in place. Covid waves come and go, and with them, the rules on how many people can gather in one place.
Some sporting events have managed to sneak in between waves, while others have hedged their bets on restrictions being relaxed towards the end of 2021. Most that have taken place during the pandemic have been either mountain-bike or trail-running events, where numbers are usually limited anyway. Road-running events – arguably the lifeblood of the South African events scene – have been few and far between.
Because of restrictions on gatherings, and the lack of road-running events, running clubs have had to adapt. Many normally hold at least annual events, while most if not all hold weekly group runs and time trials. These have all been put on the back burner while South Africa grapples with the pandemic.
So our clubs, such a staple of the local running scene, have had to recalibrate the way they operate. Some have found success; others are deeply concerned for their future.
A system under threat
In Durban, Westville Athletic Club is one that has taken a knock due to Covid and accompanying restrictions. After the initial enthusiasm for virtual challenges during the hard lockdown of 2020, commitment soon waned.
Chairperson Kylie Griffin says the climb back to pre-Covid club membership will be tough. “Last year, members reached out to each other and supported each other, through garden challenges and the like. Then, when we were able to run on the roads, some groups reformed – generally shared via WhatsApp and Strava.
“However, attendance at the club for time trials and club runs has not returned to pre-Covid levels. Many runners are just too nervous or cautious to come and run in groups other than with their usual training partners.”
Griffin adds that the social aspect of club running has been significantly affected. “Without events, there has been a lack of renewal of membership; our numbers are down approximately 50 per cent, which means a loss of income for the club. We weren’t able to host our Illovo Christmas Challenge last year, either. This has had a major financial impact on the club.”
Westville Athletic Club has a long history, dating back almost 50 years, and runs a number of programmes to encourage runners of all kinds. They are a traditional club in every sense of the word, with clubhouse facilities, a field, and strong representation on the local KwaZulu-Natal road-race scene.
There are many reasons to join a club like Westville. “We are well-organised, put on events for our runners, and have programmes such as Zeros to Heroes to assist beginners experience running and hopefully stay in the sport. Because we have our own clubhouse with ablutions and a hall we are able to host regular time trials and league events, and we can organise social events which build a sense of community.”
During this topsy-turvy time Westville Athletic Club has remained committed to putting on a good show for members, engaging in a mix of virtual and real-world events when possible. But challenges arise – in the shape of runner apathy, and the constant fluctuations in the government’s Covid alert level system.
“We’ve put on virtual events, and hosted staggered league events. While there was some initial uptake, the support has dwindled, as people say they could just as well be running by themselves.
“We’ve attempted to set up support programmes for ‘wanna-be’ runners; however, each time we’ve done so the restrictions have been altered, and have scuppered our plans.
Alternatively, clubs will have to organise smaller events and runs which keep members engaged.
“The result is that while we’ve kept some members engaged, many have fallen out of the team. We were able to host some social events earlier this year – Bruce Fordyce did a book launch at the club. This got significant support; however, since the latest restrictions were put in place, all the events planned have had to be postponed. We’re working hard to ensure we don’t have to cancel.”
While trying to keep the club going through the Covid pandemic seems the major issue, Griffin says that from her perspective, the club system was under pressure before the virus appeared on the scene.
“The traditional club system as we know it is under threat. Poor leadership from Athletics South Africa (ASA) through the provincial structures like KwaZulu-Natal Athletics (KZNA) has resulted in a lack of faith in formal sports administration, which is why so many informal groups are able to form.
“The virtual clubs wouldn’t be a threat if they were active organisers of events, but those that don’t organise events entice membership from the established clubs with offers of rewards, depleting the volunteer club numbers – which in turn makes it harder for clubs to use typical volunteerism to host events. As many clubs can’t afford to pay for race organisation, and sponsorship is harder to secure, they cancel events.”
To stave off disaster, Griffin sees a need for more professional structures, and further innovation. “Running clubs will need to become more professional when putting on events; either by employing organisers, or using the professional race-organising bodies. Currently it’s the formal or sanctioned race calendar which keeps clubs alive, as members must be in the structure to take full advantage of events.
“Alternatively, clubs will have to organise smaller events and runs which keep members engaged – running groups (organised through social media) can enhance member activity. Typically, by getting involved with them we’ve found that our members see this as additional support, and respond positively.”
The club is working towards the future, and has a number of plans in place to recapture the lost membership numbers. But much relies on the return of events. “We previously had a robust club calendar of events which gave runners of all disciplines and abilities a goal. We’ve drafted and planned for a series of events, both running and social, which will be adjusted for roll-out as soon as we’re able to host events again.
“However, we do also need events organised under the auspices of KZNA; this will also assist in getting runners back into the ‘serious running’ fold. We will also need to work on rebuilding the club spirit through social events and fun challenges between members and neighbouring clubs.”
For Griffin, though, the club scene overall is in trouble. “The immediate future looks very bleak, unless we can begin hosting and training for events. Without the structure of events, the formal club will lose relevance, and only those who can provide events and functions will keep people engaged. However, even with engaged people, clubs will not be able to get the financial income needed to sustain them.”
It’s all about community
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Itheko Sport Athletic Club in Cape Town was a club on the rise, with a corporate sponsor (Brimstone) and over a thousand members on the books.
The club was formed in 2010, and ever since has attracted members from across the city, thanks to a commitment to focused training and runner development. At one stage Itheko had 14 coaches on its books, and was able to guide runners in the pursuit of track and field, road and cross-country running excellence.
“We’re very focused towards the community, and building good relations with our runners and other running clubs,” says Club President Achmat Jacobs. “This philosophy remains, but obviously we took a knock during the hard lockdown of 2020. Up until that point we had four training runs a week, we were working very closely with Western Province Athletics on the training of our coaches, and we had a vibrant community. Now that momentum is gone. We need to rebuild.”
Jacobs says Itheko had all their plans in place to re-open the club fully around the middle of 2021; but then the third wave of Covid infections hit the country. “It was incredibly frustrating. We had hosted numerous digital workshops among the club committee on how best to re-open; all our compliance and Covid protocols were in place, and from July 2021 we were all set to go. Then we were stopped in our tracks again.”
Itheko still plans to open up again soon, albeit with the acceptance that large gatherings are likely to be off the table for some time. However, they are confident that the club will bounce back strongly. “First of all, we’re very fortunate to have Brimstone as a corporate partner. That helps greatly in keeping the club going. We know there are club members out there training, just keeping fit,” says Jacobs.
“During the hard lockdown we were quite active with virtual gatherings, and encouraging runners via social media; but we dropped the ball a bit this year, because we really thought we would open up again.”
To entice runners to stay with the club, Itheko got creative with their membership. By the time of the first lockdown in 2020, members had already paid their annual fees. That membership was then carried over into 2021.
But with events still off the table, the Itheko membership has been carried over into 2022 – so any member who signed up in early 2020 remains a member throughout 2021 and 2022. “But the challenge does remain: how do we go about increasing membership for 2023 and beyond?”
Jacobs believes the club’s founding principles will see them into the future. “Good governance is key for us,” he says. “To attract and keep members, a club must be well-run. We like to run things professionally at Itheko, so in our finance committee we have accountants, and so on. So many clubs fail because of poor governance.”
A focus on social interactions and coaching is also key to Itheko’s future success. “We have always been driven by coaching, while the social aspect is very important to a community-based club. Running is a complete lifestyle enhancer; and people see that when they see their friends joining a club, and the lifestyle changes that come with being part of a club.”
During the earliest days of the pandemic, technology played a major role in keeping people fit and allowed for at least some form of social interaction, limited though it was. Virtual runs were all the rage. Once restrictions were lifted to allow outdoor exercise, runners quickly fell back into group-run patterns (even though this was technically ‘illegal’ at the time).
Social media platforms such as Telegram and WhatsApp have made it easier than ever before to create groups and arrange running activities. But do they pose a threat to traditional clubs? Jacobs thinks they’re more a help than a hindrance.
“We like to pull those social media groups into the Itheko community,” says Jacobs. “We include the leaders of those groups into our coaching umbrella, and we encourage Itheko runners to run with those groups so that there’s a representative of the club taking part.
“We have to use modern technology in our favour; and by communicating with the WhatsApp or Telegram groups, we create good relationships with all runners in the community.”
Fat Cats roar
Formed in 2014 as an extension to a football club, the Fat Cats Athletic Club is a thoroughly modern running club with great ambitions. It’s part of a bigger Fat Cats family, which has codes such as Book Club, Football Club, Cricket Club, Cycling Club and Investment Club.
Fat Cats AC is a virtual club, registered with the Central Gauteng Athletics Association. It currently has over 400 members – most based in Gauteng, with the rest in the Western Cape, Limpopo and Free State.
Prior to Covid, the club had shown great growth. In 2015, Fat Cats had five Comrades Marathon finishers; in 2016, that number jumped to 17. And in 2019 – the last time Comrades was held – 139 Fat Cats crossed the line. Club membership also went from 25 to 400 in just four years.
“We had so many exciting things planned for 2020,” says Fat Cats vice-chair Nnoni Mokgethi. “We had great running plans – training runs, events, and a calendar full of activities. There was so much excitement for the year ahead; and many of the club members were looking forward to running Comrades, and the hosting of our second annual road run, the Fat Cats 10km.”
Of course, then Covid appeared on the scene; and that was that for events all over the world. But by virtue of being a virtual club, Fat Cats was well placed to ride out the initial storm of lockdown lethargy. “Everyone had paid their fees for the year – and now we were told not to leave our houses! We quickly jumped into action so that our members wouldn’t feel the pinch of lockdown.”
Mokgethi and the Fat Cats executive committee arranged online training sessions every week during the hard lockdown, focusing on strength training. Then, when restrictions were eased, the club organised a virtual running series to keep club members focused on their training, and to give them value for their subs.
“We had groups around the country doing their own training, which really helped keep the club mentality alive. We created a calendar for the entire year to keep the members entertained.”
Through its CSI wing the club also adopted another new norm; through a virtual quiz night, it was able to raise money for a Covid relief fund that benefited 29 families across the country.
The age of the average Fat Cats member meant that embracing the new world of virtual training was a relatively smooth process. “We sit in the 35- to 45-year-old age group, with about 45 per cent female membership and 55 per cent male. Our members are career people, they are driven millennials, they are married, and they have children.
“As a club, we support the healthy lifestyle of that age group, and provide focus and training for people with busy lives.” The digital innovations implemented by the executive committee helped retain most of the Fat Cats membership into 2021.
But the various lockdown levels have made it difficult for all clubs to plan for the year ahead. To counter this, Fat Cats has kept its focus on the digital experience. “We are lucky that our club age group is amenable to change, and really adapts quickly to new experiences.
“What is a club for? For us, it’s to create the spirit of togetherness, and to create a sense of belonging. To keep that going, we have a Telegram group where our technical subcommittee of qualified coaches issue training programmes and add various challenges. The whole idea is to keep the club spirit going – but also, adding value for our members.”
Challenges include a ‘training for Comrades’ task, plus various ‘target’ challenges. Members are encouraged to share their results, photos and training to the group, to maintain the club excitement.
Fat Cats has also formed a monthly challenge for female runners – the ‘Lionesses’. “We started these in January 2021, with the purpose of getting runners to share and comment on their runs – anything, really, to get people running. Naturally, the conversations diverge pretty quickly, with the most recent topic being the vaccine registration.”
But Fat Cats hasn’t relied solely on new digital tricks to keep members loyal. They’ve also gone the time-honoured club route of launching a new running kit. “Last year we launched a brand-new kit with our technical sponsor, Monflair. Runners love the new kit; and launching our new gear towards the end of 2020 was just another way to keep members involved, and create club chatter.”
Looking ahead, Mokgethi knows there will be challenges; but she’s confident that road-running races and running clubs will bounce back. “We have created this community on Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram; and that all translates to members who feel a part of something, because we’ve maintained the club bonds. Nothing will replace the human connection – that’s what people crave.
“I think races will recover, and I think there will be a very relevant place for running clubs long after Covid. There’s so much that running clubs do for people that you can’t do alone. If I look at myself… when I first joined Fat Cats, I was running 2km. Now I run marathons! You join a club, and you improve, through all the activities – the club runs, the time trials, the training schedules. It all adds up.”
To keep the momentum going throughout the rest of 2021 and into 2022, Fat Cats is busy preparing its third annual 10km road race. The first was held in 2019, in real life; last year’s version was virtual. The club is hoping that the 2021 version will take place as a fully-fledged 10km road race.
“We had just under 3 000 runners in 2019, which is excellent. Last year the numbers dropped a little, understandably. We think that this year the numbers will remain the same.”
Mokgethi says the club is also looking to grow its numbers in other provinces, as a way to maintain growth; and also to grow the club’s development wing – Fat Cats Juniors. “We’re looking to solidify our footprint in the Western Cape, Limpopo and Free State. We’ve formalised our junior development programme, which is free to runners between the ages of 7 and 16 years old. All events and means to give back are to keep the Fat Cats flag flying all over South Africa.”
Determination, innovation, perhaps a little luck. What is your running club doing to survive, prosper and grow?
By the numbers:
Fat Cats Athletic Club
Average age: 35
Top 10km time: 34:00
Top 42km time: 2h42
Itheko Sports Athletic Club
Average age: 41.8
Top 10km time: 29:01
Top 21km time: 1h05
Top 42km time: 2h22
Westville Athletic Club
No stats available at present.
“We regularly have athletes in the provincial teams, both on the road as well as in cross-country,” says Kylie Griffin. “We typically have between 10 to 12 members chosen for the provincial cross-country team each year – one of our strengths. We usually have a few in the 10km and 21km provincial team each year, and we do boast numerous silver medals in Comrades.”