56 miles of freedom: Inside Comrades Marathon

It’s 6:30am on a hazy morning in Diepsloot, a rundown township in Johannesburg, South Africa.

As the sun crests the horizon, Sindi Magade emerges from the one-room tin house she shares with her three children and a nephew, and starts to run.

Her undulating nine-mile route will take her to the chic gated development where she works as a maid. Twice a week she traces this route in the morning, the runs forming the core of her training for the 56-mile Comrades Marathon, the world’s oldest and largest ultra, held in South Africa every June.

Sindi, 40, jogs onto a street already thick with commuters, many dressed in the reflective blue coveralls of the city’s gardeners and day labourers, or the branded blazers of private security companies.

Every morning, on the fringes of every South African city, a mass exodus like this repeats itself, as residents of the country’s poorest areas go to work in the shops, houses and offices of its richest. Until the 1990s, black South Africans were forcibly confined to neighbourhoods like this – huddled on the distant perimeters of its cities, far from jobs and services. Millions still live there.

Mixed race

Diepsloot sprung up after apartheid ended, a knot of shacks that grew into a small city filled with people looking for jobs in the wealthy communities nearby. Sindi moved here in its early years, and two decades later, her neighbourhood still has an unfinished look. There are few paved roads or sewers, and streams of blue-grey liquid flowing from houses and shops carve gullies into the roadside. Rubbish is piled up on street corners.

As she reaches the road out of Diepsloot, Sindi weaves past a line of mini-buses wheezing toward the developments. By comparison, she looks like she could go forever, her loose limbs moving with ease over broken bottles as she thinks about her five-year-old daughter’s upcoming debate tournament, her teenage son’s football championship, the new running shoes she hopes to buy next weekend. ‘I tell myself, I must push,’ says Sindi.

In South Africa, where race and class still cleave society in painful and obvious ways, distance running is a rare experience that seems to transcend both. And the chief reason is the hellishly hilly, stupidly long race that Sindi is training for.

‘It’s a bucket-list thing – something you have to do,’ says Cheryl Winn, vice-chairwoman of the Comrades Marathon Association and the 1982 female winner.

That appeals to Sindi. She’s not fast, but she’s consistent. The last miles of her marathons are often faster than the first. And the deeper she sinks into a run, the more comfortable she feels. ‘Those longer runs, you can just relax,’ she says. ‘Shorter races are over too soon.’

After a couple of miles crowded Diepsloot gives way to rolling brown fields. Sindi jogs past the gates of Steyn City, a massive development that features the country’s most expensive house, perched high on the hillside far above her.

Then comes a parade of shopping malls and car dealers. Billboards advertise Swedish furniture and personal trainers. When she turns down a residential street in a neighbourhood called Fourways, it’s eerily empty – the only sounds are her footfalls and the low buzz of electric fences encircling the tall walls around her.

It’s 8am when Sindi reaches the suburban house where she works, giving her just enough time to shower and change before beginning a long day on her feet. This weekend, she’ll run 26 miles, maybe a little more.

All of this, she is hoping, will be enough so that when she finds herself in the inky black of a Durban winter morning a month from now, jostling up against thousands of other runners at the Comrades starting line, she will be ready for the race that, in many ways, she’s been waiting her entire life to run.

Like any ultra marathon, Comrades is tough, but it’s also fairly democratic. To qualify for the event, runners need simply to run a standard marathon in under five hours. And unlike most ultra events, Comrades is run entirely on paved roads, not rocky mountain trails. There are also aid stations every two kilometers and a generous 12-hour cut-off to finish the 56(ish) miles, but that’s where the good news ends. Comrades crosses an area between Durban and Pietermaritzburg known as the ‘Valley of a Thousand Hills’, of which at least 900 seem to be on the course. The race is known for five major ones, each of which, in the words of nine-time Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce, ‘makes [the Boston Marathon’s] Heartbreak Hill look like a speed bump’.

Virtually the entire route, which alternates direction between coastal Durban and inland Pietermaritzburg each year, is uncomfortably undulating. But Comrades is by no means a lonely suffer-fest. It’s massive (more than 20,000 runners), joyful and immensely popular. It’s broadcast live on national TV for 13 hours, and spectators pack the course several deep, some in costume, many with barbecues and beer, all improbably excited to watch people running really far, really slowly.

In a country still sliced apart, this dizzying carnival is also unusually integrated. Comrades actually looks a lot like the country around it. For many South Africans, Comrades was the first non-segregated sporting event they saw. At the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1970s, Comrades began allowing women and black runners. A few years later, it began appearing in full on national TV. And though state broadcasters tried to cut away from shots of blacks and whites sharing bottles of water or consoling each other on the road, it was too late. Comrades was a revelation.

Back then, ‘black people knew soccer, they didn’t know Comrades’, says 21-time Comrades finisher Teleko ‘Samuel’ Ralejalla. But ‘people come [to the race] after they see people they know. In those days we were few, but now we are many.’

For an ephemeral moment the race seemed to neatly shear away the social pretenses of segregation. Gardeners jogged past professors. Construction workers consoled doctors. Black runners hobbled alongside white runners, traversing a distance so humbling that it would eventually strip them of any social grace, of any walls between them. For a gruelling 56 miles, they had something that on most other days eluded them – a shared goal and, more importantly, a shared pain.

A running event can’t save a country. It won’t reduce income inequality. It can’t turn over centuries of colonialism or reverse a vicious system of segregation that still hangs over the country’s present. But for one day, on one crowded stretch of road, South Africans can hold a mirror to themselves and see staring back at them the country they’d always hoped they could become.

Unifying force

Sport has long played a big role in South African history. During apartheid, one of the most visible forms of international protest was sports boycotts. For over two decades, South Africa was barred from the Olympics and the World Cup because it refused to integrate its teams. And as pressure against the apartheid regime increased in the 1970s and 1980s, its rugby and cricket teams were increasingly left in the cold. So when apartheid ended in the early 1990s, sport was an equally important focus for reconciliation.

You may remember the moment in June 1995 when President Nelson Mandela, wearing a green and gold jersey, stood with the captain of the South African rugby team, Francois Pienaar, in front of 60,000 fans after the ‘Springboks’ had won the Rugby World Cup. For the first time since the end of apartheid, South Africa had won a major international tournament – and on home turf. Forget for a second, Mandela’s presence says, that all but one of the squad are white. Forget that most of the fans are, too. For this moment, the country is in it together.

‘Sport has the power to change the world, it has the power to inspire,’ Mandela later said. ‘It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.’

But if rugby was where Mandela made that point most visibly, his real sporting passions lay elsewhere. Though known for his prowess in the boxing ring, Mandela’s first love was running. For most of his adult life, Mandela was a regular jogger – remarkable when you consider the fact that he did it without ever leaving the eight-by-seven-foot prison cell to which he was confined for 18 of his 27 years behind bars.

‘Running taught me valuable lessons,’ he wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. ‘Training counted more than intrinsic ability, and I could compensate for a lack of natural aptitude with diligence and discipline. I applied this in everything I did.’

So when Mandela was freed, he didn’t just attend rugby matches. He went to Comrades. At the finish line in 1995, one week before presenting Pienaar with the World Cup trophy, Mandela congratulated the two winners – both white – and posed for a photo with the race’s organisers, the people a local newspaper called, ‘the almost exclusively white, male... colonial set which controls Comrades.’ But Mandela’s smile was wide and genuine.

Comrades, Mandela would tell a similar crowd at the finish line two years later, had grown from its original vision of a First World War veteran honouring his fellow soldiers, to become something that ‘unites people from all over the country’. Like nearly everything Mandela said in those years, his words felt bigger than their literal meaning. If this race could change, he seemed to suggest, maybe the country could, too.

Pace of change

Sindi was born in 1976, the year the old South Africa began to fall apart. That June, police gunned down a group of young students in the Johannesburg township of Soweto during a peaceful protest march. It wasn’t the first time the government had attacked protesters, or the first time it killed children in the process. But jutting out from the edge of a continent of newly independent states, South Africa suddenly seemed a sad, antiquated, living fossil of a colonial era.

For historians, this moment represents the beginning of the end of a brutal regime. But for a young Sindi, that was a million miles away. In Kolomane, the village in the Eastern Cape where she lived, the country’s racial divisions were as solid as ever. Every January both her parents went away for the year to work for white people in Johannesburg. Whites had the nice houses and swimming pools. Kolomane was far removed, a village of thatched-roof rondavels (huts) with lean horned cattle wandering between them.

From a young age, Sindi competed in every athletics event on offer. ‘I did javelin, shot-put, netball,’ she says. ‘I played soccer and there were no girls playing, so I played with the boys.’ And she ran, racing barefoot on a gravel track. She wasn’t particularly fast, but she liked the feeling running gave her. When you were running, life couldn’t keep up with you, and it couldn’t hurt you.

And there was a lot to run from. She was running from the realisation that she would never finish school, because her family simply couldn’t afford it. Later, running would carry her away from the grief of losing a boyfriend to a mugging gone wrong, and the slow-burning fear she had each day as she sent her kids off to school in a neighbourhood infamous for violent crime.

But it was Johannesburg where the runs began to take on new purpose. In 2000, when she was 24, Sindi relocated to the city, where she found part-time work as a maid. It seemed she could never earn money fast enough to keep up with the hands that stretched out for it day after day. Then one day it hit her – what if, instead of riding a shared commuter mini- bus six miles to work, she ran? Why not get to work for free? This is the way I’ll save some money, she thought.

As Sindi settled into her daily run-commute, however, she realised, to her surprise, that she enjoyed it. As the miles ticked by in those long, slow runs, she sank deeper into a rhythm, relaxing into the sound of her own breaths, or the woosh-woosh of cars sliding past. And as life grew more complicated, running became a clean reset. So when she was offered a full-time cleaning job a few miles further from home, she continued running there. It saved her money, yes, but it was also the best way to clear her head. It made sense. Soon running also helped her find her way out of a crumbling, destructive relationship.

Sindi had met Zane shortly after she moved to Johannesburg. He listened attentively and liked to buy her chocolates sometimes, just to remind her he loved her.

Then the fights began. She enrolled in a course to get her high school diploma. Zane told her he didn’t like her being out so late with other men. She joined the Diepsloot Athletic Club. Zane complained she wasn’t home to cook dinner. She ran her first half marathon. He said that her leggings were too tight.

One evening in 2007, Sindi was getting into a friend’s car after a running club practice when Zane appeared and charged at them, in a rage. ‘That was when I decided, I don’t want this life,’ she says. Zane begged her not to leave. Instead, she walked out and never returned.

Pioneers and protest

On the day before the Comrades Marathon, Durban is a sea of Lycra. In its hotels and on its streets, in the queues for ice cream at the beachfront promenade, it looks like the entire city is ready to break into a run. Tomorrow’s runners are everywhere, adjusting their Kinesio tape or fiddling with energy gels.
By 7am on race day, when Sindi and 15 other Diepsloot runners start a shake-out jog on the wide ribbon of concrete that stretches along the Indian Ocean in downtown Durban, the crowds are already out. Fishermen and surfers head for the water as the last of the late-night revelers stumble off the beach to be met be a jubilant wall of colour and noise. The packs of Comrades runners move slowly, and Sindi and her crew greet other Joburg clubs as they pass. ‘Randburg!’ ‘Soweto!’ ‘Kagiso!’ ‘Hello, Diepsloot, hello!’

A generation after the end of apartheid, running clubs, like South African society itself, are still neatly siloed. They reflect the neighbourhoods they cluster around. Most Diepsloot members work, as Sindi does, in more affluent adjoining neighborhoods. Several have become security guards. One is a teacher. Another, a broad-shouldered middle-aged man named Ali, drives an armoured van. Almost all of them train for ultras by run-commuting. Occasionally, they meet up for group runs along the flanks of Diepsloot, past sand mines and guest farms and endless miles of wilting brown prairie.

But despite division along geographical lines, there’s a camaraderie among South African runners. They befriend each other and offer condolences. They share gels and crack jokes. ‘It feels like we all like to struggle in this country,’ says Sindi’s teammate Ali.

Comrades was never supposed to be political. But, really, it has been that way since 1923, the third year it was run, when a bank typist named Frances Hayward arrived at the starting line in ‘a very businesslike green gymnasium costume’ and, without a number, finished the race to show that a woman could. A black runner, Robert Mtshali, did a similar thing in 1935. And over the years these “unofficial” black and female Comrades finishers grew in number until finally, in the mid-1970s, race directors agreed to abandon the ‘white men only’ rule.

In 1981 the race became more politically charged than ever. That year, a group of white university students in Johannesburg launched a protest against Republic Day (May 31), which had become a celebration of the repressive white government. Since Comrades was to be run on Republic Day as part of the festivities, the students asked runners to boycott.

Rising distance-running star Bruce Fordyce didn’t want to. He’d finished second the year before and fancied his chances. But he agreed with the aims of the protest. So the night before the race, he took a friend’s headband, dyed it black, then twisted it into an armband – the official symbol of the protest.

A number of other runners did the same. But Fordyce’s armband drew the most ire, because he won wearing it. (‘One of the proudest moments in my life,’ he later said).

Fordyce went on to win nine of the next 10 Comrades, sealing his reputation as its greatest champion. But by the mid-1980s, many of the runners in the pack chasing him were black, as were a growing number of the mid- and back-of-the-packers. And television captured, in real time, how the race was spinning away from its segregated beginnings.

If Comrades had a way of briefly subverting apartheid, it hasn’t outrun its long shadow. Fordyce’s life intersected with many elite black runners on the course, but after the finish line they returned to the vastly different South Africas from which they had come. Fordyce lives in a spacious suburban Johannesburg house with a well-tended garden. By contrast, Hoseah Tjale, who twice finished Comrades second to Fordyce and won South Africa’s other major ultra, the Two Oceans Marathon, returned after his running career to a shack settlement and his job as a delivery driver.

Some black elites sank even further into obscurity. In 2010, word spread that Gabashane ‘Vincent’ Rakabaele, the first official black finisher of Comrades and the first black winner of Two Oceans, had died the previous year. But then a more distressing fact came to light. Rakabaele had, in fact, died almost seven years earlier; 2009 had just been when his grave was discovered. ‘It’s bad news,’ says Fordyce. ‘They disappear and you just can’t find them.’

Through the mountains

It’s still dark as Sindi and her running mates walk to Durban City Hall in their orange and black Diepsloot vests. They say their goodbyes and good lucks and head for their starting pens. In Pen G, Sindi swallows another wave of nerves and thinks of her kids at home, watching hopefully for their mother on their small TV. Then the South African national anthem begins to play, and afterward, an old song that migrant workers from villages like hers used to sing as they worked in and travelled home from Zimbabwean mines. ‘Shosholoza, Ku lezontaba. Moving fast, moving strong, through those mountains. Wenu yabaleka, Ku lezontaba. You are leaving, through those mountains.’

Around her, she hears quiet sniffles – from big white men who look like rugby players, from wiry middle-aged Indian men and from a wispy young woman who a few minutes earlier had been cracking a smile in a selfie. And that’s the moment when, for the first time, Sindi finds herself welling up, too.

A few seconds later the sound of a man mimicking the throaty cock-a-doodle-do of a rooster pipes out over the loudspeaker, another Comrades tradition. And the race begins.

It will be easy, then it will be hard, and then easy again. There will be hills longer than any she has trained on, but there will be more encouragement, too, loud and constant. In the tidy, walled Durban suburbs, the cheers will come mostly from white people. But further on, in small, sleepy towns and past vast swaying cornfields, she’ll see black and brown and white faces calling her name as she passes.

As she runs, she’ll think of everyone who’s helped her get here. There’s her five-year-old daughter, Somila, who, whenever her mother is having a hard day, tells her elaborate stories about the house she plans to build for her when she’s grown up. ‘A place with an upstairs, with a gym where my mum can do her exercise. A safe place where no one is going to disturb her.’ There’s her employer, Simonne, who sits across a social divide but who Sindi nonetheless sees as being ‘like family’, who helped her raise money for new running shoes and gear, to fund her trip to Durban, and to feed her children while she’s away.

In the spirit

Several times along the route, she’ll see runners struggling and she’ll offer them what she can – encouragement, aspirin, a glug of water. Others will do the same for her. ‘Pain and joy mix together to yield the Comrades experience,’ says Sizo, another of Sindi’s teammates. ‘The spirit of this race is that you forget for a moment what’s happening in South Africa around you.’

Sindi will also pass ‘buses’ – the massive, colourful riots of runners that serve as pace groups. As they chant, dance and sing, she’ll wonder where they muster the energy again and again. Near the end of the race, a white woman from Fourways, the suburb where Sindi works, will run alongside her. On another day, in another place, they’d pass without speaking, but today, 10 and a half hours into the longest run of their lives, they have a lot in common, and for the next five or six kilometres they’ll hobble along together, talking about their training and their race.

On the notorious final hill, she’ll slow to a walk and, for the first time all day, really take in the scenery around her – the green hills that South African writer Alan Paton once called ‘lovely beyond any singing of it’.

Before she finishes (in 11:21:10), she’ll think, No one is making you do this. And that will push her forward one more step. No one is making her do this. No landlord. No children. No boss. No angry ex-husband. In a life fenced in on all sides by obligations, the final miles of a long run like this have only one: her own.

‘Once you’ve done a Comrades,’ says Sizo, ‘you’ve created history for yourself, which is not easy for most individuals to do.’ As Sindi runs it feels like she’s doing something on the cusp of impossible. And if she can do this thing, maybe she can also learn to drive. Maybe she can move her family out of Diepsloot. Maybe she can finally get that high school diploma.

And in that moment, as much as her body hurts, she almost won’t want the race to end. Because for now, she will realise, for exactly as long as this hill and this race carry on, she is where she, and she alone, has chosen to be.