SA’s Mr Running Lives To Love Running

Commentator and photographer Cuan Walker is as well connected in running than most anyone else. 


Sometimes a personality rises to the top in a sport in a way that goes beyond the definition of a traditional role. A way of engaging beyond expectations. In the sport of running in South Africa, Cuan Walker is that man. 

Walker’s strong connection to uniquely talented runners from all over the continent has emerged as something special. When you listen to his deeply insightful commentary at Comrades, or marvel at the emotion captured in his atmospheric photos, there is an unmistakable authenticity to his passion. 

We asked Cuan about his relationship with running; here, he shares his inspirational story. 

Runner’s World: RW editor Mike Finch remembers seeing you as a child on the press truck at Comrades. How did that come about?

Cuan Walker: When I was 12 years old, I bunked school to go and walk around the Comrades expo. But when I got there, they were still setting up – it was only opening the following day. 

I couldn’t go to school, so I found a way inside, and ended up at the history gallery. This turned out to be my favourite part of the expo, showcasing images from 1921 to the present day. 

There was an elderly gentleman there, sticking up pictures. From following Comrades, I recognised him as the late Barry Varty, a former Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) Chairperson. I went over to him and offered to help. 

At first he was taken aback – who was this youngster?! But over the next five hours, the more we talked about Comrades – and the stats I was spitting out, without notes or anything – the more stumped he became. He took me to the media centre to introduce me to Cheryl Winn, a former winner, and the Chair of Comrades. 

Within five minutes of being introduced, Cheryl asked me what I was going to do on Comrades day, and asked me if I would like to go on the press truck to watch the race. Of course – I couldn’t believe it! 

Over the next few years, I’d stay over at Cheryl and Mick Winn’s house the night before Comrades every time, and then go on the media truck. Where I would inform all the journalists as to who the runners were, their backgrounds, their race results, etc. All from my head. No papers, no laptops. 

RW: What sparked your interest in running and runners?

CW: My late father was a runner. When I was born, my little birth notice in the newspaper said “Another little road runner is born”, and I guess it was just meant to be. 

I could look at results and remember them forever – I could tell you an athlete’s history, even down to what shoes they used in a particular race.

When it came to running, I could look at results and remember them forever – I could tell you an athlete’s history, even down to what shoes they used in a particular race. It seemed like I had a photographic memory for the sport. Which, FYI, didn’t work with school! 

But it’s a sport I have found peace in, and a sense of belonging.

Walker with Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie

RW: You commentate races, but you also capture running scenes in amazing photographs… what do you consider your main gig in running?

CW: My first proper, permanent working job was in the Mr Price Sports Marketing department, under former Two Oceans winner Gwen van Lingen. She took me in, and has been one of the biggest blessings in my life. I worked with her building up a running team that saw many Comrades victories and dozens of Comrades golds. 

I always wanted to commentate. As a kid, I would put in a VHS tape of a road race from TV, and then push ‘Play’ and ‘Record’ together on my mom’s tape deck and record myself commentating. Then I’d play it back, to hear how it sounded. 

In 2008, at the SA Marathon Champs, a commentator didn’t arrive; so I took the opportunity and stepped in for the SABC. They signed me up, and ever since then I’ve been part of the live broadcast. In 2022 SuperSport took over the broadcasting rights, and I was very fortunate to be included in their amazing team. 

And over the years I’ve changed jobs here and there, but I’m cemented back in with Mr Price Sport and look forward to doing amazing things there. 

The photography just came about naturally. People always used to say I had an eye for taking photos; then around 2020 I got my first proper camera, and I haven’t looked back. I also recently started coaching for Athlete Ashworth, under David and Ann Ashworth, and that’s been going really well. It enables me to use my knowledge of the sport to help others do better and achieve their goals and dreams.

RW: To get so close to the runners over many years, you must have great passion for the sport. What do you bring to the experience that makes runners at ease – comfortable with you?

CW: I think the biggest thing here is to understand the different cultures and backgrounds, and show respect. Some runners, over the years, have seen me as almost literally part of their family. As a youngster, growing up, during Christmas etc I’d be staying in the townships with athletes and their families, I’d spend Christmas and holidays with them. 

Or… drinking mursik [fermented milk, drunk by the Kalenjin tribe in Kenya – most of the best Kenyan runners are Kalenjin] in a mud hut in Iten in Kenya. I’ve done it all. 

I understood them beyond just their race results and running accolades; because I knew their backgrounds, the challenges they faced, their day-to-day hurdles they had to overcome. Because of that, they felt comfortable talking to me and confiding in me, with things they otherwise would not have been able to talk about or express to others.

Welcoming Maxed team members on the Comrades finish line.

RW: As you’ve proved yourself worthy of their trust, do those runners you spend time with ever ask you for advice?

CW: All the time! I’ve even had Comrades winners call to ask, should I rather do this or that, when they’re preparing. And it’s not only running advice; I’ve been an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on with personal life too.

RW: What are the biggest challenges you face, given the direction you’ve taken?

CW: I would say that outside of Africa, people can comfortably make a successful living, either doing TV commentary or sports photography; but here in SA… it’s only a ‘side hustle’!

RW: With your photography, what is it you try to capture in a picture? 

CW: When I take a picture, I always aim to make the image speak for itself. If I had to post it on Instagram, anyone seeing it should be able to look at the image and have the image tell them the story, as opposed to having to post a caption with it.

RW: Your images are perhaps most recognisable for their unmistakable African authenticity. Outside of their physical attributes, what makes African runners unique, in your eyes? 

CW: My favourite running scene to shoot is when the guys are doing a long run on dusty gravel roads. It always turns into a very fast finish, regardless of what the training programme dictates, and it makes for the best scenes!

 It’s no secret that African athletes are the best distance runners in the world, without a doubt; so shooting them doing what they love and excel in… that just makes it unique already. That, and the emotion, the terrain they run in, some of the challenges they face, they all make it unique. 

For example, that picture I took of the guys running in rural Ndwedwe, where a whole pack of dogs came charging at them, wanting to bite them – that’s something they face often. 

RW: Which event has resulted in your most memorable experience?

CW: I would say being at the Mr Price Sport Comrades training camp was very memorable for me. Because just seeing these humble human beings doing extraordinary things is inspiring. 

In terms of shooting trail, I think definitely when I followed Ann and David Ashworth in the Ultra Trail Drakensburg 100km trail race. It had a lot of beauty, in the scenery; but it was so brutal. I take my hat off to anyone running that type of race. 

And last year I attended the adidas Adizero Road to Records, at their HQ in Germany. Being able to shoot the best runners in the world was so inspiring. 

But in terms of a road event that ranks the highest, Comrades will always be in my heart as one of the best. In 2011 the race was on my birthday, and they sang happy birthday to me on the broadcast! 

In 2016 the race was also on my birthday; and the night before, while I was giving the athletes a pre-race talk I joked with them, saying that because it was my birthday, I wanted them all to bring me back a lot of gold medals and I’d be happy. David Gatebe came up to me, and said, “I will give you a special present tomorrow. Because I will break the record!” 

Walker with Kenyan legend Patrick Sang

The next day, he ran an insane 5:18:19 course record; and he came up to me and gave me the biggest hug, and said, “Happy birthday, my brother.” I still get teary eyes just thinking of it.

RW: What is your own running experience, and your goals? And how would you describe your ‘relationship’ with running? 

CW: I’ve finished three Comrades, I have a couple of Two Oceans Half silvers and I run quite a bit; but the biggest mistake I made was to run Comrades when I was too young. I didn’t listen to my body, and I ended up in ICU, after a Bill Rowan Comrades finish I should never even have started. 

That and all the work I do in the sport mean I haven’t been able to run some of the races I’d love to, but it doesn’t stop me from returning. I would really love to run Comrades again next year. I would just love to get back into running consistently, forget about the times of the past, and just run for fun and good health.

RW: Back to the photos. What do you look for in a subject, and how do you try and bring in out in an image? Or is it pure instinct?

CW: Pure instinct, I would say. I want the pictures to tell the story, so I try picture it in my head, first; and then I try to bring it to life.

RW: What does the future of photography look like, in running or sport generally? 

CW: I think it will grow, and hopefully be more appreciated. These days it’s not just how fast you run as an athlete, but how you promote your partnerships and sponsorships. You need a lot of good content, as everything is now on social media. So that’s where the photos and videos have come to make a big difference.

RW: And what does the future hold for you personally?

CW: I just go with the flow. And I hope my journey takes me forward internationally with the TV commentary, that I grow the coaching side and help people achieve what they set their hearts on achieving, that I make a difference in the work that I do – I just generally aspire to inspire others.

RW: What’s your favourite piece of photographic equipment? 

CW: My Sony a7iii camera, with a 70-200mm f2.8 lens. It makes for banger images. 

RW: Given the opportunity, who would you most like to shoot?

CW: I’ve spent numerous visits and a lot of time in Kenya, but never had the camera set-up I have now, and I didn’t focus on photography. I’d love to go back to Kenya, because I know a lot of the top athletes there personally. 

So I’d be in my element, going to all the different camps there to capture what life is like for those incredible runners on their home turf. I think it would make for an epic coffee-table book or memoir. 

RW: Who inspires you?

CW: Photography-wise, undoubtedly Dan Vernon, who I’ve got close to through social media. He travels the world shooting the sport, and was the man behind many of Eliud Kipchoge’s images that we see. He gives me words of advice, and has been so open for feedback.

RW: What’s your earliest memory of running?

CW: When I lived in Johannesburg as a youngster, when I was about seven, my late dad took me to run the 5km race that was alongside the RAC Tough One 32km. I fell at the start, and had a huge roastie; but that day felt like I was at the Olympics. From there I attended road race after road race… and now we’re here.


READ MORE ON: My Running Life

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