Before dawn on August 28, nearly 20,000 runners will line up in front of the city hall of Pietermaritzburg, a Victorian-era South African city that looks like British colonialism preserved in amber, to compete in the Comrades: the world’s largest ultra-marathon.
At 5:25 a.m., South Africa’s national anthem, a full-throated, patriotic mash-up of songs in five of the country’s official languages, is sung. Then, Vangelis’s synthy, melodramatic Chariots of Fire theme will thud through the tinny speakers, and the crowd will fall suddenly, reverently silent. And finally, just before the start of the race, the loudspeakers will play an old Southern African migrant laborers’ tune called “Shosholoza.”
Shosholoza, Ku lezontaba. Moving fast, moving strong, through those mountains.
Wenu yabaleka, Ku lezontaba. You are leaving, through those mountains.
Although the Comrades bills itself as a marathon, that name is something of a P.R. disservice. Because this race is two marathons, stacked neatly on top of each other, a run that will take those on the starting line roughly 56 miles east to the port city of Durban by the time the sun sets.
South Africa is not particularly known for its long-distance runners. Even the very best of them seldom win the world’s major marathons or stand on Olympic podiums. But the country occupies a unique place in the pantheon of ultra-running, the term for any run longer than a standard 26.2-mile marathon. It’s partly the number of runners, which eclipses every other ultra-marathon in the world. (The next largest is probably the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, in France, with about 10,000 competitors in total.) But it’s also what that number represents.
In a sport known in most countries as the purview of a few stringy oddballs charging up and down mountain trails, the Comrades is extraordinarily mainstream. In South Africa, you’ll find Comrades runners pumping your gas, cleaning your house, teaching your kid high-school biology, and making hit pop songs. In this country, running an ultra-marathon is a perfectly normal thing for anyone to do. And those who don’t do, watch. More South Africans, proportionally, tune in to TV coverage of the Comrades than Americans watch the World Series.
“It’s because it’s a leveler,” says Blanche Moila, a South African distance runner who, in the early 1980s, became the first Black woman ever to qualify for the country’s national athletics team. We were sitting in the sparse living room of her apartment in a quiet suburb of Durban one day in July, six weeks before this year’s race.
I knew what she meant. In the world’s most unequal country, where access and opportunity to almost everything are sharply divided by race and class, the Comrades offers a truly level playing field. And the race itself reduces nearly everyone who runs it to the same, sniveling mess, broken in body and spirit, pulled forward only by the collective energy of the event.
“And the surgeon, the doctor, he is learning from the laborer…. It really is humbling, getting advice from somebody that under normal circumstances they would have ignored,” says Moila, who will run her 18th Comrades this year.
You’ll find Comrades runners pumping your gas, cleaning your house, teaching your kid high-school biology, and making hit pop songs. In this country, running an ultra-marathon is a perfectly normal thing for anyone to do.
I first became aware of Moila in June 2018, when I was standing on the sidelines of the Comrades around the 45-mile mark, waiting for another runner I was writing about. By this point, it was midafternoon. The race’s winners had long ago completed the race, meaning that everyone lurching past me now was, theoretically, doing this for fun.
Though it certainly didn’t look like anyone was having much fun by this point. A middle-aged man walked by sobbing, snot and spit running freely onto his orange running singlet. He seemed too bereft even to wipe it away. Nearby, a woman bent over, quietly vomited, and wobbled back onto the course, her eyes glassy.
Then I heard the crowd begin to whoop.
“Blanche!” someone screamed. “We love you, Blanche!” I squinted into the winter sun to see the runner they were looking at. In the distance, a tiny woman of about 60 in a knotted white headscarf was cresting over a hill toward me, her strides loose and comfortable. She was making quick work of the broken runners around her, passing them like she was out for a casual Sunday jog. Some gazed up from their own misery to watch her.
Forty years ago, Moila burst seemingly out of nowhere onto apartheid South Africa’s distance-running scene. In the span of a few months in 1980, she went from running a fun run on a lark at the psychiatric hospital where she worked as a nurse to running neck and neck with the country’s best distance runners—all of them white women.
“It was an accident,” she says. But she began to sign up for races, and very quickly she began to win them, too. Her presence turned heads. At most races, she says, she was the only Black woman on the starting line, a petite four feet, 11 inches, with her hair wrapped in a white doek, or headscarf. Occasionally, the all-white crowds would heckle her. “So I put my head down and I ran faster,” she says. In 1984, she finished second at the South African cross-country championships, earning a slot on the national team.
But there was a catch. South Africa’s national team had nowhere to go. By then, the country had been barred from nearly every major sporting event in the world, from the Olympics to the World Cup. The greatest South African runner of that era, a shy, barefooted white runner named Zola Budd, had claimed British citizenship by descent so that she could compete internationally. Anti-apartheid activists trailed the teenager to meets, screaming that she was a “racist bitch” who should go home.
“It really is humbling, getting advice from somebody that under normal circumstances they would have ignored.”
But change was coming for South African running, led by a strange little run called the Comrades. Although the race had been run since 1921, for many decades it was a curious sideshow. In 1975, the race was racially de-segregated and allowed women to compete for the first time, a kind of Hail Mary thrown up by South African sports officials that a major integrated sporting event might prove them worldly enough to be allowed back into the global sports fraternity.
It wasn’t. But isolated, sports-mad South Africans were desperate for spectator sports. By the early 1980s, the country’s single TV channel was broadcasting the Comrades each year in its tedious, 12-hour entirety. Its winners became local heroes, and the race ballooned in size.
By the time Moila first registered, in 2000, the number of participants was topping 15,000 each year. She was already retired from professional running and trained for the race during her off-hours, running loops of the psychiatric hospital where she worked during her three a.m. lunch break (she worked night shifts), or knock off as the sun was rising and do a half-marathon before going to sleep. She ran this way through two pandemics—AIDS and the coronavirus—that claimed many patients and colleagues.
In South Africa, a dizzying variety of people manage to fit the misery of training for an ultra-marathon into lives defined by many other varieties of hardship. If there’s an explanation for how the world’s most unequal country became the site of perhaps its most egalitarian distance-running culture, this may be it. Every winter, for one impossibly long day, South Africans test collectively how much pain is possible to endure—and then come out on the other side of it.
In distance running, as in life, “you have to be prepared for the darkness,” Moila says. “The wheels come off,” she says—but then you screw them back on later.
Ryan Lenora Brown is a Johannesburg, South Africa–based journalist