The running academy driving South Africa’s distance running revolution

Two women, both giants of South African distance running, are at the forefront of a revolution which is transforming distance running for women in South Africa.

Having been mentored by Elana van Zyl, Nolene Conrad lends a supporting shoulder to the next generation - Yandiswa Shange. Photo: Stephen Granger
Having been mentored by Elana van Zyl, Nolene Conrad lends a supporting shoulder to the next generation – Yandiswa Shange. Photo: Alvin Dirkse

As a young girl, Elana van Zyl delighted at running along the tracks and roads on her parents’ farm near Albertina. At first, running was just fun. Later, she discovered that it was something she could do better than most other girls. As she took it more seriously, she developed into one of the country’s most successful athletes of all time. By the 1980’s and 90’s, running had become her life.

Early years and close rivals – Elana van Zyl leads Janet Grieve (Welham) in a WP junior track championship event. The two became founding directors of Endurocad many years later. Photo: Courtesy of Elena van Zyl

One of a set of twins, Janet Welham enjoyed her childhood in Durbanville as part of the Vital Health Foods family, where she and her twin Ruth always seemed to be running everywhere – before emerging as top juniors at Bellville Athletics Club and later the University of Cape Town. She and Van Zyl went head to head repeatedly during those early years, creating a bond that would unexpectedly serve the two runners well, many years later.

After her retirement as an elite athlete, Van Zyl continued to embrace running as a powerful tool to empower others in sport and life in general. Eight years ago she and her former athletics’ rival, Welham, founded Endurocad, a distance running academy.

Today, both get as much pleasure, if not more, from seeing young athletes – and in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds – achieve their athletics and life goals, as they did from winning their own medals and breaking records.

Elana van Zyl (left) and Janet Welham pictured at the launch of Endurocad in 2013. Photo: Courtesy of Elana van Zyl

They get even more pleasure when athletes who started out at Endurocade start mentoring other young athletes to achieve life goals. This has been the case with Blue Downs-raised, Nolene Conrad, who turned her challenging upbringing into World Athletics gold label status, achieved at the World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia, Spain while at Endurocad three years ago.

Conrad then graduated to became part of the Endurocad management team, taking care of the wellbeing of many young athletes, who justifiably look up to her as an ideal role model and one who has demonstrated the success of the Endurocad programme. 

Nolene Conrad (front) with some of Endurocad’s top performers in recent years-FLTR Yandiswa Shange,Thobile Vilakazi, Nicole Louw, Beetrice Themane, Anneke Viljoen and Mia Lyons. Photo: Alvin Dirkse

Endurocad offers its athletes a full spectrum of support and is the first of its kind on the continent. It aims to provide an optimal sport-life environment supported through expert coaches, learnerships, mentorships, bursaries and soft and hard skills development.

“We like to ensure that our athletes receive the support from our mentors and skilled professionals on the programme needed to not only achieve their athletic goals – but to contribute to society in a positive way,” emphasised Van Zyl.  “Tertiary education as well as entrepreneurship is important to the Endurocad ethos.”

In recent years, Endurocad has modified its focus and intent.  “While we continue to offer opportunities and advantages to all distance athletes, our primary focus is on women,” explained Welham. “Endurocad aims to become the most proficient woman’s empowerment and athlete development academy in Africa.

“We see Endurocad as a vehicle and platform for critical social change where we incubate and nurture the female youth of South Africa through athletics and career opportunities. We have aligned our focus areas with those of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals in order to integrate with these globally important social, economic and environmental objectives.”

Nolene Conrad and Elana van Zyl – the driving forces behind the Endurocad Invitational Track Series at Stellenbosch. Photo: Stephen Granger

Van Zyl knew that improvements would not be achieved overnight but was determined to make a positive difference through their academy. “South Africa has lacked the support structures in distance running that countries such as the USA and Japan have invested heavily in,” said Van Zyl. “It took America twenty years but look at their performances now! Japan channelled their best runners into corporate teams and now boast no fewer than forty athletes who have run faster than 2 hrs 10 min for the marathon.

“South Africa had support systems in place in the 1980s and 90s when the mines and several of the universities invested significantly in distance running,” Van Zyl continued. “South African distance runners were then running times on a par with the best in the world. But those support structures were neglected in the face of the ‘distractions’ which came with South Africa’s return to international sport and standards continued to slip.”

Cape Town Marathon ambassador and Endurocad Director Elana van Zyl supports Nolene Conrad at the finish of the 2018 marathon. Photo: Stephen Granger

That was the signal for Van Zyl and Welham to respond in kind and they did just that with the launch of Endurocad in June 2013 and the re-launch of the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon in September 2014.  Both initiatives have proved important elements in the quest to get distance running in South Africa back on track – literally. “We hoped to change the mindset of clubs to invest in and strive for excellence and to allow their members to dream of Olympic glory,” explained Van Zyl.

“In particular, we wanted to find a way to keep talented girls in the sport.  And in recent years the improvement in distance running in South Africa, notably in women’s competition, has been incredible.  Of course, it’s not only Endurocad’s influence, but there is no doubt that we have played an important part.” 

Endurocad’s late-summer middle-distance track series at the Coetzenburg track in Stellenbosch, now in its third season, has been an important component in this success.

Nolene Conrad after her 2:34:38 debut marathon at the 2018 Cape Town Marathon. Photo: Stephen Granger

“It’s been awesome for women’s running in South Africa to have improved in recent years, especially to see the return of some great track performances after so many years in the doldrums”, Van Zyl said. “The athletes are just so hungry for competition, following the COVID break, you can see it in the results.  COVID forced them not to over-race and when athletes are hungry, performances will come.”

This year’s five-meeting series in March produced exceptional results. 403 athletes took part, setting 151 personal best performances which included top ranking national performances at senior and junior level, five world-class performances each over 1100 points on the World Athletics chart and the fastest times in years recorded in distances from 800m to 5000m.

Ethiopian athlete,Tadu Nare, leads 2017 Endurocad athlete of the year, Carmie Prinsloo, in the women’s 1500m at the final Endurocad Track Invitational meeting. Nare went on to take third place in her personal best time in the national half marathon championships four weeks later. Photo: David Papenfus

The track series is an example of an opportunity or advantage Endurocad has created for all middle-distance athletes, not simply those registered at the academy. “We are proud that the impacts of the track series can be seen by the results being produced by athletes further afield,” said Welham. “The recent national half marathon championships in Gqeberha are a case in point.  Many of the top finishers had raced in one or more of our meetings in March.”

Top Gauteng athlete, Precious Mashele, signed off in the final Endurocad track meeting on 29 March with an impressive 5000m win in personal best time and went on to beat last year’s half marathon champion, Stephen Mokoka, in Gqeberha to take the title in a personal best of 1:01:17, while KZN athlete, Mbuleli Mathanga, Mashele’s closest rival in Coetzenburg’s sub-13 min 30 sec 5000m, also ran a personal best of 1:01:25 to take third, just two seconds off Mokoka’s time.

Precious Mashele leads Mbuleli Mathang in the 5000 m in the final event of the Endurocad track series. Stephen Mokoka and Adam Lipchitz are close behind in third and fourth. All four athletes placed in the top five at the national half marathon championships. Photo: David Papenfus

Adam Lipchitz, another KZN athlete who ran a big 5000m PB in Stellenbosch, placed fifth in the national championships in his best ever time of 1:01:30, just two seconds down on Kenyan Felix Kibitok.

The women’s race was dominated by east Africans, but even here the Endurocad series played a role, with Ethiopian Tadu Nare having taken advantage of the perfect Coetzenburg conditions on the final night to race to the fastest 1500m of the year in South Africa, before placing third in the half marathon in Gqeberha behind Kenyan Brillian Jepkor.

Former Endurocad athlete, Kyla van Graan Jacobs, (left) and Danielle Verster in the womens 1500m at the final Endurocad Track Invitational meeting – part of Endurocad’s quest to enhance women’s distance running. Photo: David Papenfus

Conrad competed in two of the meetings and was heavily involved in the organisation of the series, as she continues to develop both as an athlete and as an accomplished member of the academy staff.  Whereas her emergence as a top-flight athlete at the academy delighted Van Zyl and Welham several years back, today it is Conrad who speaks passionately of the talents and skills of the next generation of athletes.

“Graduation from Endurocad means that the athletes have succeeded both in athletics performance and in developing life skills,” Conrad emphasised.  “After 5 years on the Endurocad program, completing their studies, developing their skills and pursuing their running career at our base in Stellenbosch, Beetrice Themane, a 22 year-old athlete from Limpopo, and Yandiswa Shange, who grew up in Bergville in KZN,  successfully graduated.

Endurocad’s Nolene Conrad (second from right) with Yandiswa Shange, Beetrice Themane and Thobile Vilakazi. Photo: Alvin Dirkse

“They both completed their diplomas in Sports and Recreation Management at ETA College Stellenbosch and the Cathsseta learnership in Sports Administration.

“We are incredibly proud of the young women they have become,” Conrad stressed. “And we wish them all the best for their future. The two things Endurocad has tried to give them are roots & wings and I believe they are now ready to fly!”