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‘Why would anyone want to run this race?’ The question that prompted a story

Monitor writer Ryan Brown shares the story-behind-a-story of the "Unlikely Marathoner," a woman whose courage and generosity help the back of the pack finish South Africa's famous 56-mile Comrades Marathon. One in a series of monthly profiles of Monitor journalists and their most notable stories.

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.

Runners understand stamina and the will to finish a race – whether it’s a 26-mile Boston Marathon or a local 10K road race.

But what if the race is 56 miles? And what if many of the 19,000-plus runners are not your typical well-trained, perfectly-toned athletes?

The Monitor’s Africa correspondent Ryan Brown’s July profile of an “unlikely ultramarathoner” provides a glimpse of the real courage found in the runners at the end of the pack at South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, the world’s largest ultramarathon. These men and women, some with “jiggling potbellies” and “heavy strides,” are determined to finish in the race’s 12-hour cutoff.  

The story centers on Shahieda Thungo, whose singular job is “to pace some of the race’s slowest runners so they make it across the finish line” within that cutoff.  Ryan writes, “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).”

I recently asked Ryan, who’s been covering Africa for the past four years, how she discovered this courageous runner.

Ms. Thungo, who’s known as Makhi, or “neighbor,” overcame the death of a husband, an 11-month-old child, and even her own battle with skin cancer to become an image of humanity and strength as a supporter of others in their own personal races.

How did you find Shahieda Thungo?

Last year, I was at the Comrades covering the story of another runner. A few minutes after she finished the race, I saw this wave of people rolling towards the finish line. And at the front of the pack was this woman with a flag poking out of her backpack, singing and laughing and carrying on like she was out on a leisurely afternoon jog instead of finishing up 12 hours of running. I was really intrigued, so later I looked her up, and found out that in addition to being this force of nature on the road, she has a pretty incredible back story for how she got into running. When I saw that, I knew she’d make a great subject for a story.

“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.” – from “South Africa’s Unlikely Ultramarathoner”

You asked this question in the story: Why would anyone want to run this race? Why would anyone want to run this race?

I asked that question because it was the question that originally made me interested in writing about the Comrades. In the United States and much of the world, ultramarathons are something of a fringe pursuit, with a tiny following that is mostly white, white-collar, and male. So I wanted to know how a grueling 56-mile race in South Africa broke out of that mold so completely, and how it managed to draw in so many people from so many diverse walks of life.

There are a lot of answers to that question.

But the main one is probably that the sheer size and spectacle of Comrades means there is almost no one in South Africa who doesn’t know someone who’s run the race. And that means that an entire country of people have come to see finishing a 56-mile race as something that (nearly) anyone can do, if they really work for it.

It’s amazing how a shift in one’s sense of what’s possible can, in many cases, actually make that thing possible.  

“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.’ ”  – from “South Africa’s Unlikely Ultramarathoner”

As you reported, the Comrades was desegregated in the 1970s – the first sporting event many South Africans ever witnessed. You have a lovely quote from one of the participants: “In South Africa, this is where the spirit of humanity and ubuntu is.” How does that spirit come out of a 56-mile run?

South Africa is a deeply divided country. By some measures, it’s the most economically unequal nation in the world, and still very segregated. Like in the United States, who you interact with on a day to day basis here is highly dictated by your race and class background. But for a single day each year, during the Comrades Marathon, 20,000 South Africans share a single common goal. And perhaps more important than that, they share a single struggle; they share the same pain. In ways that aren’t possible most of the time, that day on the road, they understand each other. It’s ephemeral, of course, but the race really does strip away social barriers and compel this incredible sense of generosity and warmness between runners.

Africa is a huge continent that is incredibly diverse. How do you sift through all the stories of Africa to select those that we see in the Monitor Daily?

I start by acknowledging that I can never cover everything important that’s happening on this blindingly diverse continent. The last thing I want is to pretend to be some kind of authority figure telling you what you need to know about the lives and struggles of more than a billion people and their 50-plus countries.

Instead, I try to write the same kinds of stories I like to read, which are stories that draw the world in close, that make it feel smaller and more relatable. I do try to tell stories that amplify voices we don’t often hear elsewhere, particularly in the West, and stories that have the potential to complicate the way we see and relate to faraway places. So those are the principles that guide me.

What would surprise our readers who have never been to Africa? What has surprised you the most?

For a continent whose global reputation seems to revolve around never-ending wars, disease epidemics, and grinding poverty, it can be surprising to realize just how mundane and relatable daily life on this continent is. Like people everywhere, Africans fall in love and pine and have their hearts broken. They make their favorite Beyoncé song their cellphone ringtones and practice her dances in their bedrooms. They love their children so much the fear of losing them keeps them awake at night. They share silly memes about their politicians. They take selfies. They disappoint their parents. In short, they have lives as complicated and contradictory and full as people anywhere.

Interested in more of Ryan Brown’s stories on the Monitor? Check out her profile page, where you can find a complete list of her reports from across Africa.

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