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South Africa's unlikely ultramarathoner helps others cross the finish line

Why We Wrote This

Coverage of marathons usually focuses on the winners. But at the back of the pack of the world's largest ultamarathon is a story of humanity, strength, and great courage.

Courtesy of the Comrades Marathon Association
Runners at the 2018 Comrades in South Africa pass through an area known locally as the Valley of a Thousand Hills en route to completing the 56-mile race in June.

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Every June, nearly 20,000 South Africans line up to run the world’s largest ultramarathon, the Comrades. For most of those people, the goal is to get to the finish line as fast as possible. But Shahieda Thungo is not most people. For the past three years, Ms. Thungo has paced some of the race’s slowest runners – the ones barely squeaking in before the 12-hour cutoff. “The back is where my people are. And this has become a passion for me, a kind of calling,” she says. “To carry them to the finish.” But Thungo’s passion begs another question: Why would anyone, let alone 20,000 someones, freely consent to spend a Sunday running 56 miles? The answer is wedged into the dark corners of South Africa’s recent history. It’s a tale of how a sports-mad country cut off from the rest of the sporting world by apartheid turned an obscure footrace into a televised spectacle akin to the Super Bowl. In doing so, the Comrades has shaken off many of the stereotypes about distance running to become a race that transcends class and color in a way that few other sports here do.

It was half past five on a winter morning, the sky above still an inky black, when the starting gun popped. All at once, 19,058 people surged forward toward the starting line of the world’s largest ultramarathon.

At the front of the pack on June 10, lean and lanky, the elite runners eased comfortably into the 6-1/2 minute mile pace they would hold for the next 56 or so miles, as they charged up and down the punishing inclines that had given this region a nickname that on other days sounded bucolic: the valley of a thousand hills.

Behind the elites came the serious hobby marathoners, wiry and focused, stealing glances at their Garmins as they settled into long, easy strides.

But as the minutes ticked by, the people pouring across the start line of the Comrades Marathon looked less and less like stereotypical ultramarathoners. There were middle-aged men with jiggling potbellies and barrel chested rugby-player types with labored, heavy strides. There were women with false eyelashes and fluffy tutus, and 70-year-olds in faded running club singlets.

And there was Shahieda Thungo.

By the time she went over the starting mat just after 5:42 a.m., more than 18,000 runners were already on the course. Meanwhile, about a hundred yards behind her, a small fleet of buses were rumbling along in low gear. Written on their sides in block letters were two ominous words: BAILERS BUS.

“We were literally being chased from the word go by the buses that pick up the people who can’t go on anymore,” says Mrs. Thungo, who ran that morning with a pacers flag sticking out of her backpack, which announced her projected finishing time: 12:00. “I told the runners with me, it’s going to be a long day in the office.”

But that is exactly how Thungo likes it. On the road, she’s known as Makhi, or “neighbor,” and for the past three years, she has had a singular job here  – to pace some of the race’s slowest runners so they make it across the finish just in time to beat the Comrades’ infamous 12-hour cutoff. It’s a job that’s part cheerleader, part nurse, part cleric – a day of singing, praying, cajoling, and doctoring (not to mention running 56 miles herself).

Courtesy Discovery Vitality
Shahieda Thungo (embrace, right) hugs a friend after completing her third Comrades ultramarathon on June 10, 2018. For the past three years, Thungo has served as the pace-setter for some of the slowest runners – getting them across the finish line just before the 56 mile ultramarathon's 12-hour cutoff.

It’s also a job that hints at an answer to the question that hangs low over this race. 

Why would anyone want to do this, let alone 20,000 someones?

For most people who run the Comrades, the answer is that it’s a challenge that exists on the very cusp of what is possible. Of the 19,058 people who started this year, nearly 6,000 finished in the race’s final, creaking hour, as the winter sunlight drained from the sky above the coastal city of Durban. They completed the Comrades, but they could just as easily have not.

At the back of the pack, pacing groups like Thungo’s – which in South African races are called “buses” – don’t just carry a few runners to the finish. They surge across the field like tidal waves, dragging anyone who needs them along in a flurry of song and dance. Back there, the crazy woman running alongside you chanting, “Durban! Hey! We’re coming! Hey!” and shoving cold baked potatoes into your hands can be the only thing that keeps you on the road.

“It’s the one place in this country where color, creed, religion, gender just don’t matter,” Thungo says. “I say, if our country were run by a Comrades runner, it would probably be a better place. In South Africa, this is where the spirit of humanity and ubuntu is.”

But where that spirit comes from is a story wedged into the dark corners of South Africa’s recent history. It’s a tale of how a sports-mad country cut off from the rest of the sporting world by apartheid sanctions began in the 1980s to turn an obscure footrace between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban into a televised spectacle akin to the Super Bowl, attended by tens of thousands and watched rapturously on TVs across the country.

“Every June, we turned on our one TV channel – there was only one – and we watched the Comrades all day,” remembers Thungo, who grew up in the black township of Soweto, just south of Johannesburg.

The Comrades, which began allowing women and black runners in the mid ’70s, was also the first desegregated sporting event that many South Africans ever witnessed. Here were black South Africans competing against white South Africans, sharing, for a brief moment, the same goal, the same struggle, the same pain. As a result today, in a country where many sports are still deeply segregated, Comrades looks like Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation in Nikes.

Finding purpose

Like many Comrades runners, Thungo didn’t have a long history of distance running before she started completing the race. As a kid, she watched the race on TV, but she never thought of running it herself.

Then, in May 2011, her husband J. came home from a minor surgery and fell suddenly ill. Less than two months later, he passed away. He was 38 years old.

A week after his funeral, a doctor diagnosed Thungo with skin cancer.

“That was my downest of downs,” she says. Six months later, when she finished chemotherapy, she couldn’t drag herself up from the misery. A doctor gently suggested anti-depressants.

“Give me a year,” she told him. “I want to see if I can sort this out another way.” And so, she began to walk, long rambling strolls that took her through the fields near her house in the Protea Glen section of Soweto. “I’d stand out there by myself and I’d scream and I’d cry,” she says. “And afterward, I felt a bit better.”

Over time, “the distances became longer, and the screaming less.”

Soon, she was running. First 10ks, then 21, then her first ultramarathon, the 35-mile Two Oceans in Cape Town.

As she ran, she often chanted quietly to distract herself from the heavy legs and burning lungs. One-two-one-two-one-two-one-two. At one race, another runner joined in. Then another and another. Soon, Thungo had informal buses running behind her at almost every race.

Running wasn’t just therapeutic, it gave her purpose. In your life, you might not be the smartest in your class, she had often told her young daughter, Nkazi. You might not be the prettiest. But you’ll get there. It’s not about comparing yourself to other people. It’s about running your own race.

And now here she was, literally running her own races.

“People sometimes ask me, don’t you want to run faster? Don’t you want to see if you can finish sooner? But I don’t,” she says. “The back is where my people are. And this has become a passion for me, a kind of calling. To carry them to the finish.”

That finish seemed almost impossibly far, even to Thungo, as she huddled with her fellow runners at the start line in Pietermaritzburg that day in June.

No matter how well prepared you are, she knew, running the Comrades is hard. “You’re nervous? That’s good, be nervous,” she had counseled runners at the race expo the day before. “It means you respect the distance.”

And the finish still seemed far away as Thungo and her bus shuffled past the halfway mark 5 hours and 54 minutes later, singing and clapping as they went.

Easy! Easy! Easy, wena!

Durban! We are coming! Mabhida Stadium! We are coming!

“And all the time, she’s looking after you,” says Ena Du Plessis, a Johannesburg runner who ran with Thungo’s bus in part of the race. “She’s speaking in all different languages – in Zulu and Afrikaans and English – asking how you’re doing, seeing if you’re OK.”

But there were times, Thungo knew, when even she wouldn’t be OK. “Your moment” she calls it.

Courtesy of the Comrades Marathon Association
The Comrades, run each June between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, attracts approximately 20,000 participants per year, making it the largest ultramarathon in the world.

This year, Thungo’s came about 43 miles into the race. She’d been on the road for nine hours, at an almost impossibly consistent pace (when you’re the 12 hour pacer, after all, there is no room for error). She’d passed through chic suburbs and depressed villages, “like seeing all of South Africa in a day.” She’d sung and soothed and screamed. And now, as she approached the race’s final punishing hill, everything ached.

“My eyebrows pained me, my fingernails pained me. If you asked me a place I wasn’t hurting, I couldn’t have named one,” she says. So she listened quietly to her own rule of the race, which played in her head on a kind of tape loop. Just keep moving.

As she repeated those words in her head, she reached down and tapped the laminated piece of paper pinned to her thigh. It was a note from her daughter, Nkazi.

“Mommy,” it read in bubbled letters. “I love you loads! Make me proud.”

She tapped it again. She thought of those long nights after her chemotherapy treatments, when she was too weak to move, and six-year-old Nkazi made her tea or brought her cans of sharp ginger soda. When she promised herself over and over again that she would beat this thing for this little girl. “She took care of me,” she says. “That child, she dragged me through really dark times.”

She tapped the note again, and kept going.

'Is this thing even possible?'

Like many distance runners, Thungo welcomes a race’s dark moments. In those times, she says, she often speaks to the people she loves who have passed on. Shahieda, she hears her husband J. saying, you’ve got real cojones, running this crazy race.

She wants to laugh then, thinking of him. Thinking of the stupid line he used to get her attention that day at the gym when she was 23. “Hey,” he said as he passed her on the escalator, "you look like someone I know.” And she rolled her eyes. And she shrugged him off. But that was it. That was the beginning.

She thinks of the years that followed, all 13 of them lining up like soldiers at attention. Good years and terrible years. The good years when they played endless games of pool late into the night, until her pregnant belly got so big it dragged across the table as she aimed her cue. The bad years, like when she lost that baby at 11 months old and vowed she’d never have another. The good years, when she got pregnant again.

The bad years, when he got sick. When he died. When she and Nkazi were left alone.

And now, somehow, it’s another good year, and he’s here, laughing with her again. You’ve gotten this far, he says. You’ve raised our daughter. You’re doing well in your life. So yeah, you’ve got this race.

And then there’s the voice of her mother, all tough love. I didn’t bring someone into the world who’d come this far and fail, she tells Makhi as she runs. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

And so Thungo keeps going. Three more miles pass, then six. She feels better, at least as much better as she could hope for after running for 50 miles. And suddenly she is in Durban. The air smells like salt. She can see the sea. And just as suddenly, there are hundreds of runners behind her, following her, listening to her final promises. We’re almost there. We’re getting that medal.

And even more suddenly, they’re all there, running into the stadium with the roar of the crowd pressing in against them.

“I couldn’t hold in my tears,” says Lerato Sekgonyane, another runner beside her that day. 

And then, with everyone else, he’s suddenly collapsing over the line into sobs and wobbly-legged embraces. Eleven hours, 52 minutes, and 33 seconds. He looks up to see Thungo nearby, swallowed in a mess of sweaty, teary hugs. “Before this run, you wonder to yourself, is this thing even possible,” he says. But not now. Not anymore.

They’ve done it.

They’ve made it home.

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