Sonja Laxton’s 100 SPAR Women’s Challenge Races

The SPAR Women’s Challenge Joburg at Marks Park Sports Club on Sunday October 6 will be a very special one for one of South Africa’s most successful athletes, Sonja Laxton.

Laxton, whose running career spans more than five decades, will be running her 100th SPAR Women’s Challenge 10km race. During that time, she has notched up 79 victories in all age categories except the junior category – and that is probably only because the SPAR Women’s Challenge did not exist when she was a junior. Laxton has an impressive career record and one of her greatest achievements was to become the first athlete, male or female, to be awarded national colours in all three branches of athletics – track, cross country and road running.

In all, Laxton, (formerly Van Zyl) collected 70 national titles, on the track, on the road and in cross-country. She set 28 senior national records over the 1500m, mile, 3000m and 10 000m on the track, and over the half and full marathon distances on the road. “I started running at high school, but in my first year, I was too shy to run,” said Laxton. “The next year, I did run for my house, but I wasn’t fast enough to run for the school in my own age group, so I ran under-19, because the older girls had got a bit fat and lazy. It was only the next year that I started running in my proper age group.”

After high school in Port Elizabeth, Laxton went to Wits University, where she achieved a Master’s degree in Biochemistry. “It was while I was at Wits that I met coach Jan Barnard, who changed my life,” said Laxton. “He started me running longer distances and I started to win. The first time I won at 800 metres, my time was 2.22.2 – I will always remember that. I went to the SA Champs in Port Elizabeth and won the 800 metre title.”

Barnard lived in Florida Hills and Laxton and others used to train by running in the koppies around Florida. “It was hard work, but we loved it,” she said. Laxton travelled to Europe several times, but her international career was cut short by the international sports boycott imposed from 1976. “Ian (her husband, who is the coordinator of the SPAR Grand Prix) says I would have qualified for five Olympic Games, in different events. “But I had so much fun from my running that I can’t be too said about what I missed. I made many friends that I am still in contact with today, because in those days, you used to stay with private families when you raced overseas.”

Laxton started road running in in 1977 and won her debut marathon, the Golden Reef marathon from midtown Johannesburg to Benoni, in 1978. “I was running with some of my RAC friends, including Bernard Rose. I was desperate to go to the loo. They told me to just nip down an alley but I couldn’t do that, so when I saw a public toilet, I ducked in there. They were timing me – they said I took 45 seconds and that included washing my hands. But I won the marathon and broke the South African record. What was even better was that my time was exactly the same as the time Ian did for his first marathon. I would never have lived it down if his time had been better.” She completed 23 marathons, including two New York marathons, but then decided to stick to the shorter distances. “I don’t do anything beyond a half marathon anymore,” said Laxton. One of her best memories was running in the same 5000m race as Zola Budd, when the 17-year-old barefoot runner broke the world record in Stellenbosch in 1984. “It was a windy day and conditions weren’t great,” she said.

“Coertzenberg Stadium was packed that day, and you could feel something special was happening. We all lost sight of Zola. She lapped me and I tried to keep up with her as she passed me, but just couldn’t. The crowd was going mad. I was watching her time and I had to remind myself that I had a race to run. Although Zola lapped me, I still came second!”
Laxton is a great fan of the SPAR races, which are run at six cities around the country.

“Women’s races are a lot of fun. The winner has the satisfaction of being the first across the finishing line, instead of coming after a bunch of men, and there is always a very good vibe at the SPAR races. They really are something to look forward to. I plan my year’s training around the SPAR Women’s Challenge series,” she said. “I think they have done a lot to get women involved in running. Women who might have been a bit wary of running in a mixed race feel more comfortable about running in a women only race.” So get to Marks Park Sports Club on Sunday October 6 and give a special cheer to South Africa’s running queen when she crosses the line.