This article provides statistics and analysis of South Africa’s 2022 marathon and ultra road running season. Comparisons are made to 2019 (rather than 2021 data) as this was the last complete running season before Covid.
There were a total of 99 events, comprising 81 standard marathons, 17 ultras and one combo event (the Uniwisp Fast One that offered a marathon and a 50k option). This is substantially down from 2019 which had 117 events.
Some of the notable marathon absentees from the 2022 calendar were Red Hill, Akasia, Ottosdal, Cango, Sapphire Coast, Mandela Day, Prison to Prison and PetroSA. On the ultra front notable gaps were Run 4 Cancer 46k, South Coast 48k, Loskop 50k, Chatsworth 52k and Laingsburg 80k. Hopefully we’ll see most of these back on the agenda for in 2023.
Marathons by Province
With 19 events, Kwazulu Natal is the best place to live for the obsessive marathon runner whilst Northern Cape and North West have the scarcest supply.
We have the anomaly in South African athletics of having 9 official provinces but 19 “athletics provinces” – the graph below provides a more detailed breakdown of events by athletics province. A good challenge is to run a marathon in all 19 (to the best of my knowledge only one person has managed this to date). Although North West Central had no marathons in 2022, the Ottosdal Nite Marathon is back in 2023 to fill the gap.
Marathons by Month
The graph below shows the spread of marathons and ultras over the year (with 2019 data also included for comparison). The marathon schedule revolves around the Comrades qualification period and the unusual 28 August 2022 race date resulted in a more even spread of marathons over the year instead of having most marathons crammed into February, March and April (which we are returning to in 2023 with a June Comrades date).
Personally, I think both Comrades and Two Oceans should allow full year (i.e. race date to race date) qualification to balance the running calendar better. Analysis on Comrades qualification marathons showed that those who ran their qualifiers earlier (e.g. in Oct/Nov 2021) performed much better (higher finish rate and faster average time) than those who did late qualifiers. There is no statistical justification for limiting the qualification to a 7-month window.
Most Popular Comrades Qualifiers
The most popular marathon submitted as a qualifier by Comrades entrants was World Marathon Majors aspirant, the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon, with 1048 runners using the October race as their qualifier. Qualifying at Cape Town Marathon also resulted in one of the fastest average times and best finisher rates at Comrades.
The other events scoring over 500 entrants were all races held in the last few months of qualifying: Dolphin Coast (947), Benoni Northerns (895), Wally Hayward (710) and Edenvale (592).
Three ultras make the Top 10 – the Total Sports Two Oceans Marathon (6th), Om Die Dam (8th) and Irene (9th) but no other ultra makes the Top 20. Two Oceans (92.8%) and Om Die Dam (93%) also have the best finish rates (and subsequent analysis showed that running an early ultra as your qualifier is statistically significant in predicting your Comrades success rate).
Unsurprisingly, the list is dominated by flat and downhill races but, what is somewhat surprising, is that Kaapsehoop is missing from the list. For those who like the easy way out, I’d recommend the Tony Viljoen Masters Marathon as the easiest marathon in the country.
Marathons by Route Type
The 81 standard marathons are evenly split between circular, point-to-point, out-and-back and double-lapper route types. Many of the new marathons on the calendar are point-to-point (which is somewhat surprising since this is the most logistically challenging option for both runners and organisers).
On the ultra side, point-to-point dominates. There were only 3 circular routes and the Bruintjieshoogte 50k was the only out-and-back ultra in 2022.
The final graph shows the breakdown of route type by province. Of interest is that Gauteng used to only have one non double-lapper route (Soweto) but now there are 5 circular routes. The big factors in determining metro marathon routes are the cost and logistics of traffic impact, road closures and traffic police support. The largest line item for most metro marathons are traffic police costs, which makes double-lappers a necessary evil to keep race entry fees manageable.
Costs & Inflation
The graph below shows the average cost per kilometre to enter marathons and ultras by province, including the percentage increase between 2019 and 2022. During this time period the CPI (consumer price index) was 4.12% (2019), 3.21% (2020) and 4.61% (2021) which, if my maths is correct, equates to an overall compound inflation of 12.3% over the period. This is a lot lower than the 42.3% MRPI (marathon running price index) inflation experienced by the distance running community over the same period.
Gauteng has overtaken Kwazulu Natal at the top of the table and, even without e-tolls, is by far the most expensive place in the country to run at R8.11/km. The highest inflation rate (almost 80%) was experienced in the Northern Cape although the small number of 2022 marathons had an impact on the calculations.
The frugal runner will want to plan a few trips to the Eastern Cape who have the lowest cost per kilometre of R4.87. The good news is that countrywide average of R6.49 is still substantially less than a litre of petrol so running remains the most cost-effective way to get around.
The Comrades entry fee of R1200 caused a lot of controversy when it was announced and has the dubious honour of topping the cost per kilometre table. Two of the other big ultras, Om Die Dam and Two Oceans, fill the podium as the most expensive races in South Africa.
The rest of the table is filled by standard marathons. Of interest is that 4 of the 5 circular Gauteng marathons appear on this list. As mentioned previously, one of the largest costs of hosting a marathon in a metro is for road closures and traffic control. Whilst we might bemoan the rising entry fee costs, the only people getting rich off road running are traffic departments. Covid restrictions on field size and additional costs to comply with Covid regulations also impacted the 2022 entry fees.
The Knysna Heads Marathon provides amazing value at R1.90/km – the scenery along the course and race organisation are also top notch and I’d highly recommend this event for a marathon weekend away.
Having run most of the events on this list, there are plenty of great options for the cost conscious runner. The races that I have done detailed reports on are Knysna Heads Marathon, Memel Ultra, Prince Mangosuthu 52k, Human Rights Real Gijimas 50k and Bruintjieshoogte 50k.
Entry Fee Increases
Comrades doubling down on their entry fee only made it to number 2 on the list of highest percentage increases (but was by far the biggest rand amount increase at R600). Although the Eastern Cape is the cheapest province to run marathons, the Amathole Marathon (run from Stutterheim to King Williams Town) topped the table after doubling their entry fee and adding an additional 15% for VAT.
Despite inflationary pressures and the additional Covid regulatory costs, 15 events managed to maintain their entry fees and two, Bielie Mielie Marathon and the Uniwisp Fast 50k, actually decreased their entry fees in 2022.
Note: The calculations in these tables are based on the highest entry fee between 2019 and 2021.
Covid Restrictions on field size impacted many of the events in the early part of the year but, somewhat surprisingly, only 18 events managed 1,000 finishers or more (compared to 33 in 2019). Although there was plenty of moaning and social media chatter about entry fees, the most expensive races are still the most popular.
Comrades topped the table and was the only event with more than 10,000 finishers. The Sanlam Cape Town Marathon is still lurking just under 5 figures (I don’t think a standard marathon has ever had more than 10,000 finishers in South Africa).
Perhaps the biggest surprise on this table is that Om Die Dam, who were the 5th largest ultra and only 11th largest overall in 2019, were 3rd overall and leapfrogged the once mighty Two Oceans as second largest ultra marathon in 2022. Hartbeesport Marathon Club’s Om Die Dam is also the largest club organised event on the list whilst Benoni Northerns take the honour for the most popular club organised standard marathon in 6th.
I can assure you that bigger is not always better, there are some absolute gems on the smallest finishers table. The smallest was Golden Gate with just 21 finishers (I ran their inaugural event in 2019 and it’s a straight toss-up as to whether this event or 13th placed Surrender Hill is the best marathon in the Free State). The Powerade Marakele Marathon is another must do event – a beautiful, but very hilly, out-and-back marathon through a Big 5 national park at the paltry price of a couple of hundred rands.
If there’s still space on your new year resolution lists then add a couple of these races to your 2023 plans.
The Great Registration Resignation
The only thing that declined more than Eskom’s megawatt output between 2019 and 2022 is the number of South African marathon runners. After a peak of over 131,000 marathon and ultra finishers in 2019, less than 80,000 crossed the finish line in 2022 – a decline of over 40%. The drop correlates with the increase in race entry fees of 43% and I suspect there may be some causation as well.
The tables below provide details of the biggest losers as well as the few events that increased their numbers. Covid regulations restricting field sizes in the early part of the year played a part in this equation but I expect that Covid kilograms gained during the pandemic combined with the long term impact of lockdowns and no races to run played a much bigger part in the drastic drop.
The Biggest Losers
Two Oceans was by far the biggest loser in 2022 shedding over 8,000 finishers. The 2022 event did not sell out so my interpretation is that this is a result of runners not being able to get fit enough to qualify in time and disillusionment with the handling of the cancelled 2020 event, combined with the expenses and uncertainty about travel. It will be interesting to see whether Two Oceans numbers recover in 2023.
Soweto and Comrades also shed over 5,000 finishers. The case of Comrades is similar to that of Two Oceans – no doubt that expensive entries, poor handling of their cancelled 2020 event, travel costs and the struggle to get shed Covid kilograms combined to reduce the numbers. Based on the failure to sell out the 20,000 2023 entries (whereas 27,500 entries for the cancelled 2020 event sold out in under 6 days) indicates that the trend will not be reversed in the short term.
The drop in Soweto Marathon numbers is simply a case of pricing the product above what the market is prepared to pay (and the half marathon and 10k entry fees verged on the ridiculous). This is really sad for the event that has branded itself as “The People’s Race.”
Some of the marathons earlier in the year including Johnson Crane, Pretoria, Cape Peninsula, Cape Gate Vaal, Jackie Gibson and Kosmos were impacted by Covid regulatory restrictions on field size. Irene 48k changed to a triple-lapper in 2022 which would account for some of their lost numbers and the previous edition of the Vaal River City Marathon was plagued by organisational issues which would have impacted their 2022 figures.
The decline of over 3,000 runners at Kaapsehoop (one of the last marathons in the year) is worrying and indicates that the drop in marathon finishers may indeed be more about economics than post-Covid fitness levels. Kaapsehoop and Soweto are always on the same weekend, so we’ve gone from 14,000 to 5,000 marathon finishers on the first weekend of November pre- and post-Covid.
Note: The “Previous Finishers” numbers in the tables are based on the highest number of finishers between 2019 and 2021.
The Biggest Winners
The good news is that there were 19 events that finished 2022 in the black – although only 8 had triple figure gains. Benoni Northerns were the biggest winners and the only event to attract more than 1,000 additional finishers. They benefitted from ‘timing’ their race to be just as the Covid field size restrictions were lifted (and have also been a consistently well organised event over the years).
Once again, the biggest surprise on the list is sponsorless Om Die Dam 50k, who were just under the triple figure mark despite being the second most expensive rand per kilometre event in the country. They’ve made some changes to alleviate race day traffic and would also have benefitted from the cancellation of Loskop as well as Irene moving from a single to a triple-lap route.
Three events, Umgeni Water, Hippo Richards Bay and Tronox, ended 2022 exactly on par. Personally, I am happy to see that my participation in Empangeni’s Tronox Marathon last May ensured that they did not finish in the red. This is the last official standard marathon I’ve run but I am hoping to be back on the road making a positive difference on 2023’s marathon numbers in February or March. Hope to see many of you out there on the road too.Follow Running Mann: