The top three finishers in the Pretoria leg of the 2012 SPAR 10km Challenge, (from left) Rutendo Nyahora (second, running for Nedbank CGA in a time of 35.28), race winner Rene Kalmer (Nedbank CGA, 34.50) and Nolene Conrad (third, UJ, 36.43). Kalmer clinched the 2012 SPAR Grand Prix at the Pretoria run, but is keen on being the first runner to record five Challenge wins in a season, at the Johannesburg run on Sunday. Photo: gsport

In many cultures turning 21 represents coming of age and becoming your own person. The SPAR Johannesburg 10Km Challenge, taking place at the Old Parktonian Sports Club, turns 21 this weekend and the race has certainly placed itself as the foremost women’s race in the country.

Nolene Conrad has been running SPAR Challenge races since she was 19, and she says it has been a memorable nine years of participation for her.

Top runner Nolene Conrad gets ready to record her completion time for yet another SPAR 10km Challenge. Conrad, who will run her ninth Challenge on Sunday, likes the atmosphere of all the ladies running together. Photo: Reg Caldecott“I will be participating in the last leg of the SPAR 10Km Challenge (this weekend). I enjoy running SPAR races because it is the only opportunity where we ladies can run freely without the presence of men. It also makes ladies feel special. I like the vibe and atmosphere of all the ladies coming together,” runner Nolene Conrad who came third in the Pretoria 10Km challenge says.

Like any child growing and trying to find out who they are, the race has had its teething problems.

SPAR Sponsorship Manager, Belinda Nel, says: “We had about 200 women running the race when it started, and this year we will have around 12 000. It was a real grass-roots race when it started, and it has grown so much over the years.”

SPAR started the race because they have a real passion for women, says Nel. The retail giant mainly supports women’s initiatives, and there is a simple reason why they do so. “Women are our shoppers. They support us and their communities, which is why we want to give something back to them.”

“This race is important because it gives women the chance to interact with each other. We believe that women don’t want to compete against men. What makes the race so popular is the fact that it is mainly for women, and men have to be dressed in drag if they want to compete.”

Journalist Jane Bramley, who has been covering it for eight years, says: “The female runner who crosses the line first at the race is the first person to cross the line, which creates a feeling of success.

“There is a lot of camaraderie amongst the ladies, which makes it different from most other races. It also gives the runners a chance to be themselves. They can pace themselves better because they aren’t competing against men.”

This race is really for the woman on the street who goes to gym a few times a week, and just wants a day out with her friends. It’s about women supporting other women. Over 20 000 women have run it over the years, and they keep coming back every year, says Nel.

Veteran women’s sports photographer Reg Caldecott, who has shot seven Johannesburg SPAR 10Km races before, agrees. “It’s more than a race, it’s an event,” he says.

“I enjoy and love it even though I have never run the race. I know a lot of the runners and have very good relationships with them, which is rare,” Caldecott says. “If I wasn’t taking photos I probably would run the race in drag. I am not sure I would go all out but maybe put on a skirt or something,” he adds laughing.

“People normally leave after most 10km races but people stay for the entertainment after this one. There’s also the charity element to it.”

Some of the proceeds from this year’s race will be going to Reach for Recovery, a cancer support group for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Nel acknowledges that the entertainment factor is ones of the reasons why the race is so popular. The entertainment this year will be provided by pop trio BlackByrd – comprising Tarryn Lamb, Samantha Heldsinger and Tamsin Maker.

“We have a lot of celebrities competing this year including former Miss SA Nicole Flint, SuperSport presenter Romy Titus, and Kass Naidoo. And we are trying to get some of the players from the SPAR National Netball team who won’t be going to Australia for the Quad Series to participate as well,” Nel adds.

They don’t plan to make many changes going forward Nel explains. “We don’t want to change a winning formula. If we were to change anything it would probably be the route. Other than that the Johannesburg SPAR Women’s 10Km Challenge really is perfect.”