South Africa’s Robyn de Groot is one of the world’s best marathon racers. But she’s at a crossroads in her career where she’s facing the very real prospect of having to pack it all in at her prime due to a gap in sponsorship, or try to crowdfund her way to achieving her best results yet.

No professional athlete ever sets out to become a marketer’s dream. By way of their talent and commitment, they end up being a marketing platform for their sponsors. Some take this role on really well and others not. If you speak to any of De Groot’s current or previous sponsors, you’ll get an enthusiastic two thumbs up when you ask if she’s a valuable brand ambassador.

De Groot has won both events she’s entered so far in Europe, the M3 Montafon Marathon and the Swiss Epic. | Photo: Swiss Epic

Unfortunately, valuable brand ambassador that she is, she’s without a title sponsor currently after the full-time contract with dormakaba was terminated prematurely by dormakaba due to the dire state of the South African economy. To dormakaba’s credit, they gave De Groot three months’ notice, but with no racing in the country for two months due to another highly restricted lockdown, it was difficult to find a replacement. Racers need races to show their worth. There’s only so much a social media post can do…

De Groot hasn’t let this get her down though and battled her way through various Covid-19 limitations to get to Europe to race in as many events as she can. She’s competed twice (so far) and won both events. The first was the M3 Montafon 130km/4500m Ultra Marathon in Austria. The second was the Swiss Epic, a five-day team stage race, where racing as Team Gabriel Technolgie with Ariane Luthi, she won all five stages and the overall crown.

We spoke to De Groot this week after her dominant victory at the Swiss Epic to find out that while her financial future is uncertain, her commitment to achieving her best hasn’t faltered.

De Groot is racing as many high-profile international races she can while in Europe. | Photo: Swiss Epic

You and Ariane have been fierce competitors in the past. And probably know each other’s strengths and weaknesses as a result. What was it like racing as her teammate and what did you learn about her that you didn’t know before?

We have been tough rivals over the years but we have also developed not only a healthy respect for each other but also a friendship. We have both supported one another through some difficult moments in our careers. Through that we have developed a good relationship and have previously discussed potentially teaming up. As soon as I knew I had a visa and would be heading to Switzerland I let her know. Because I now had no title sponsor, I was able to race for her sponsor, Gabriel Technologie, who funded our Swiss Epic participation and support. We had a great time racing with each other after a long period of not seeing each other.

In terms of learning something about each other, yes, we know one another as rivals and we know each other’s personalities, so there were no surprises. We had no bad moments during the race and it led to the whole Swiss Epic campaign being a very positive experience and a good foundation for our racing relationship.

De Groot and Luthi are keen to maintain their partnership to try and win the 2021 Absa Cape Epic. | Photo: Swiss Epic

Besides the shorter duration, what are the main differences between the Swiss Epic and the Cape Epic?

Many people have asked me this question, especially South Africans. The stages are shorter in distance. You definitely spend more time in the saddle at the Cape Epic. There’s no dust! There had been a lot of rain before the event though. The trails are quite rocky and rooty. Parts of it reminded me of the Garden Route area back home.

The biggest difference I would say is the gradient. The uphills are super steep and the downhills and technical sections on the descents are quite challenging. The altitude is also a huge factor at the Swiss Epic. Two of the days we climbed up to 2500 metres with the highest point at 2600 metres. It’s one thing competing at 1500-1800 metres which is about Johannesburg’s altitude, but up in the Alps the air is thin. You become a lot more aware of your breathing and as a result, your pacing strategy also needs to be adjusted. Ariane is very experienced at that and she guided us well. It was good to have her on my team!

De Groot with her 2019 Marathon World Championships bronze medal. 

Will you and Ariane team up to try win the (postponed) 2021 Absa Cape Epic?

We have definitely spoken about it. In fact, we have spoken about it for a while. We had planned on doing the 2021 Cape Epic together in March this year. But then it was postponed. A lot of the uncertainty lies within our sponsorships. We are on the search and looking for financial backing to make teaming up for the Cape Epic and potentially the future too. Nic Lamond from Podium Sports has been busy with proposals in this regard.

You no longer have a full-time racing team contract. What position has this put you in? Are you able to continue racing full time or is it time to consider making major changes and stepping back from world class racing – in your prime?

It’s been a testing year with the termination of my dormakaba sponsorship. That being said they have been fantastic in providing me with support and doing their best to not drop me in the middle of the season. The economic climate hasn’t been in my favour in terms of finding a new sponsor. Hopefully coming off some good performances here in Europe I hope to pick something up. The search is still on. I have picked up a modest sponsorship with Vital Engineering, which pays my basic living costs. It doesn’t cover any racing expenses. I’ll still do my best to keep racing and hopefully secure something substantial for 2022 and beyond.

My goal is to continue to race full time. I would say I am at a point in my career where my performances are the best they have ever been. So to walk away wouldn’t be easy, but I am willing to push through. I still have some big goals that I want to achieve. I have faith that something will come along to allow me to continue racing professionally. Right now I’m just staying focused and trying not to worry about what needs to happen too far in advance. I haven’t really thought about what to do beyond my racing days because I still feel I have my best performances ahead of me.

Riders reached a peak altitude of 2600m at the 2021 Swiss Epic. | Photo: Swiss Epic

What are the main goals you still want to achieve?

If you want something badly enough you are willing to push through. I missed the racing season last year due to the Covid-related lockdown’s effect on events; and it’s not been easy getting to Europe to race this year. But I made it. To compete in Europe is important for me. I get 90 days with my visa and am trying to fit in as much high-profile international racing as I can. There are always key races I target each year in South Africa. Unfortunately most of those haven’t taken place this year. Although I see it is opening up there a bit now. Not forgetting some smaller races in South Africa too, which are really important for local sponsors. I have some bigger goals though that I want to achieve still and am working hard to reaching those.

De Groot and Luthi won all five stages and the overall title at the 2021 Swiss Epic. | Photo: Swiss Epic

Which brands are supporting you and in what capacity?

Although I lost my title sponsorship, I am very fortunate that all my other sponsors have continued to support me. Omnico supports me with Cannondale bicycles, Giro helmet and gloves, Crank Brothers pedals and Stages power meter. They have been very supportive during a difficult time. I have product sponsorship with Isostar and Oakley. IHF, which is Polar in South Africa, have been really good with both on and off-the-bike devices and Tifosi Sport supply me with ON running shoes.

I am fortunate that South Industries and Tune also provide me with wheels and support in Europe and South Africa.

I have signed with a new business called Matchkit which offers a crowdfunding platform for athletes. This helps fund my racing for 2021 and until such time that I can secure a sponsorship. So far there have been a number of contributions which could see me get to another event here and which I really appreciate. I really would like to compete at the marathon world champs before I head back to South Africa and crowdfunding through Matchkit will help me achieve that.

I’d like to race Cape Epic and Wines2Whales back home later this year too. It’s not easy for me to ask for funding, but for those that are keen to assist, please check out my Matchkit link here.

As I said before, Vital Engineering came on board with a moderate, much appreciated financial sponsorship which helps me meet my basic monthly financial commitments. That really has enabled me be less stressed and more focussed on training and racing.

Follow Robyn’s progress on Instagram: @robyn_de_groot