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SA'S LEGENDARY TOUR OPERATOR TO THE LONDON MARATHON

12 April 2019


She has taken sporting tours to the Virgin London Marathon for more than 25 years, so it would be safe to say that there is probably no one in South Africa who knows the London Marathon and its workings better than Vreni Welch, a legend in the South African running community.
 
With just a bit more than two weeks to the London Marathon we caught up with Vreni on what makes the London Marathon the iconic and probably most sought-after marathon it is today.
 
How did you get involved in taking sporting tours to the London Marathon?
It was just after Apartheid ended in South Africa. I knew there was a calling for runners who could not get into the London Marathon through the ballot system. Back in those days I had to fly to Manchester and sit in front of a board as part of my application to obtain the agency that were given guaranteed entries into the race and had the rights to organize sporting tours to London. I was the first official agent in South Africa and our company was initially called Champion Tours. The name eventually changed to Vreni’s Time to Run. Back in those day around 75 people joined the tour.
 
What has changed in terms of the sporting package over the years?
Oh so many things. We’ve always been awarded a set number of guaranteed entries by the London Marathon organizers. But initially we had no choice regarding accommodation. About 10 years ago things changed and we could choose our own hotel, which was definitely the way to go. About 8 years ago we chose The Strand Palace Hotel as choice of accommodation and we have been going back since. Runners love it there!
 
Tell us about the diverse group of runners you have met?
In the early days most runners that accompanied us on the tours had never been out the country. These days of course most have travelled abroad.
 
I have met so many different people over the years, all with different personalities, different religions. I remember taking a Rabbi and two of his friends across. Whilst on the coach they quietly slipped to the back of the bus and performed a ritual.
 
Then there was the legendary gardener and horticulturist Keith Kirsten who accompanied us. His company also sponsored a previously disadvantaged runner to join us. It was the first time this guy was on a plane, on a tube, in a theatre…first time for most things that many of us take for granted.
 
Then there were the two runners from a mining company in Botswana. They were so terrified of London being such a big city that we had to drag them out the room for a pre- race run. Other than that, they hardly came out.
 
I also fondly remember the legendary Willie Castle, who joined the tour five times. He organized a reunion in the UK as well as an auction and raised nearly a million rand in aid of the Maritz Brothers Inanda.
 
You must have seen it all over the years?
Yip, from a runner who used the money her late mom left her specifically to run the London Marathon to runners who saved every single penny to make their running dream come true.
 
It is wonderful what running does; it brings together so many different people from all walks of life. That’s how the last 28 years have been fulfilled for me.

How does the excitement build leading up to the big day? 
Every year I organize a get together at my house about two months before the race. It is then that I can sense the excitement amongst runners. When they receive their South African running vests, they realize they are in for something special. And when we get to the Expo and Registration process in London, the excitement is at an all-time high. For many it is the first time they see the running world exhibiting on such a large scale.
 
The pinnacle of course is the hours before the race. As we are about to board the coach that takes everyone to the start it is usually cold in London. But everyone is so nervous and remarks how it is not cold! Once everyone is on the coach you can see the excitement on their faces.
 
Tell us about race day
Up to last year we still went to the 8-mile mark to support the runners. There is a Lebanese man that owns a delicatessen and he allowed us for many years to use his chairs in front of the delicatessen. He even allowed our runners to use his toilets inside if they needed to. Before we left to go to the finish, it was tradition for us to buy the most delicious egg mayonnaise rolls from him.
 
Tell us about some special memories that stand out for you?
I used to work for the SABC for 25 years, so I covered everything from the Comrades Marathon to Two Oceans. Then I got the chance to experience the London Marathon from the back of the media truck. What an experience! It was amazing to see how they treat their elite athletes. They had a separate area with food, massage therapists, toilets and where their coaches could wait. All the elites had to go through a gate to get screened before they lined up to check that their clothing etc. was in line with sponsorships. One sees things very differently from the back of a media truck.
 
What makes the London Marathon so special?
To start with it is a country where everyone speaks English, so there is no language barrier for South Africans to worry about. The crowds know South Africa, and the streets are literally lined with thousands and thousands of supporters. Runners are also familiar with most of the landmarks they run past. Running in London feels very comfortable for South Africans, there is no anxiety. 
 
I would always advise people to choose London as their first international marathon. It is a great initiation to other big city international marathons.
 
You have been going to London for over 25 years. Are there still some landmarks that stand out and that you love to see?
Oh yes! I love Tower Bridge as well as the Gardens around Buckingham Palace. The St James’s Park Gardens are magnificent, and we always try to do something different when we go. We’ve been to Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
 
What makes you continue these tours year after year?
It is a Million Rand project and we only cover costs. I do not make money out of it. I do it to see runners fulfill something they set out to do and to share in their enjoyment. These tours are my way of giving to people, helping them achieve something and enjoying it. All my life my philosophy has been to help people. When I see others achieve it gives me so much joy.
 
Ed’s Note
Vreni Welsh and her husband Dick are absolute legends in the South African running community. Both are synonymous with the Rand Athletic Club (RAC). In 2001 Vreni was awarded the Spirit of Comrades Trophy; the first non-runner to achieve this honour. 
 
Her passion for sport comes from her days as one of the country's top tennis players in the early 60s. She also played provincial hockey and netball. Vreni used to run but after an injury and a case of blood poisoning, she decided to give up running. She kept her passion alive by initially helping at water tables and, in 1979, was elected as RAC club secretary, a job she has put her heart and soul into.



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