It’s the largest and oldest ultramarathon in the world — and one of the most famous.
Scott Olthoff of Urbana will run the Comrades Marathon on June 2 in South Africa. Although it’s called a “marathon,” the race is more than twice that distance at 54 miles. More than 18,000 runners will run from Durban on the eastern coast of South Africa to Pietermaritzburg, with the goal of completing the distance within the 12-hour time cutoff.
The question Olthoff often gets is “why?”
Olthoff, who works at Chesser Financial in Champaign, has been involved with World Vision for five years. He and his family sponsor three children in Africa and India through the organization, and he traveled to Kenya in 2011 to visit the sites of water projects the organization was funding and to meet one of the children he sponsors.
“It was pretty amazing, very emotional,” Olthoff said. “You support this young man and his family. You get updates once a year. But to actually meet him and see the conditions he lives in ... it’s a cool connection once you get to meet the child you sponsor.”
Olthoff ran the Nairobi Marathon when he was in Kenya in 2011, also to raise money for World Vision. The organization invited him and several other runners to run the Comrades Marathon this year. The team hopes to raise $100,000, and Olthoff’s goal is to raise $40,000 of that himself. He’s raised $20,000 so far.
After running the Comrades Marathon, Olthoff will fly to Kenya to visit some of World Vision’s development sites and see some of the children sponsored through the organization.
Comrades won’t be the first ultramarathon Olthoff has run, but it will be the longest. He began running in 2005 with the encouragement of Michael Chitwood, a former co-worker at Youth for Christ and now the director for Team World Vision, a fundraising program for World Vision. Olthoff has done 12 marathons and two 50-kilometer races.
“Most runners are very positive people, so they are fun to be around. That’s what I love about it,” Olthoff said.
He’s looking forward to the international aspect of the Comrades Marathon.
“People from all over the world run this event, so it’s going to be a fun event to be in,” he said.
The race has been run since 1921, with the exception of five years during World War II. It was started to honor the South African soldiers who fought in World War I.
One of Olthoff’s running partners is Thad Sweet of Ogden. Sweet ran Comrades Marathon in 2010, also as a fundraiser for World Vision.
“I’m not sure I would have ever attempted to run an ultra if it wasn’t for our friend Michael (Chitwood) encouraging us to do something that really wasn’t about ourselves,” Sweet said. “The chance to run for World Vision is really an opportunity to help out somebody else.
“We so believe in the cause and work that World Vision does that when he asked us to go to another country and run a 56-mile race ... it’s an expensive trip, it’s a huge time commitment, with training and being off work for two weeks. It took a big reason to say yes. The opportunity to help kids who are less fortunate than we are, that’s a pretty big reason.”
Olthoff ran 50-kilometer races last fall and this spring in preparation for Comrades. He’s been increasing his mileage since January, running 6 to 8 miles a few times a week and longer distances on weekends. Since the end of February, Olthoff has run the marathon distance about every weekend, including completing the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon on April 27.
He hasn’t had any injuries.
“I’ve been trying to be as careful as I can to push it as far as I can go, then back down a little bit,” he said, adding that he’s also been using post-run ice baths — although he hates them — to ward off injuries.
Comrades Marathon is run in the opposite direction each year, either “up” or “down.” The distance varies somewhat, with the “up” course measuring 54 miles and the “down” course closer to 56 miles.
This year is an “up” year, meaning Olthoff will start from Durban on the coast and run a mostly uphill race to Pietermaritzburg. He’s run at Kickapoo State Park for hill training, and he also regularly runs parking garage ramps.
Sweet ran the race in a “down” year, so he hasn’t offered a lot of specific race advice, as Olthoff will face a completely different kind of race.
“Scott’s a pretty accomplished runner,” Sweet said. “He knows what he’s getting into. It’s more just sending encouragement his way.”
Olthoff said people line up to block the finish line of the race as soon as the 12-hour time limit is reached. “In South Africa, you are a celebrity if you are the first one not to finish,” he said. “I don’t want to be a celebrity in South Africa.
“It’s just about going slow, never going fast,” Olthoff said of the strategy for running an ultra. “The turtle wins the prize, not the hare.”
For more information on Scott Olthoff’s run at the Comrades Marathon and Team World Vision — or to make a donation — go to www.tinyurl.com/comrades2013.
World Vision provides clean water, health care, education, food, help in increasing agricultural productivity, microfinance and disaster relief to people living in poverty in nearly 100 countries.
Photos: Top, Scott Olthoff runs in Champaign. He is training for the Comrades Marathon in South Africa in June. Photo by John Dixon/The News-Gazette. Bottom, Scott Olthoff in Kenya in 2011 with Nelson Kiprop, one of the children he sponsors, and Nelson's father. Nelson, who is now 7, is wearing a Chicago Marathon medal given to him by Olthoff. Photo provided by Scott Olthoff.