Running for Freedom: The incredible story of Eunice Ntuli
Eunice Ntuli ran her 10th Two Oceans Marathon (56 kilometres) on 15 April 2023. In the process, she was awarded her Blue Number. This is a great achievement in itself, but Eunice’s story is so much more. It serves as a testimony to all that is good and amazing about South Africa. And its incredible women athletes.
We live in fairly dark times in South Africa. Literally. Power outages mean that on most days we will either wake up or go to sleep in the dark. The news is filled with dark stories of State Capture, violent crime, state ineptitude and selfish politics. It is easy to think there is little to be optimistic about in this country.
And it is at this point that Eunice Ntuli arrives in her running shoes.
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On 27 April, Freedom Day, I was sent a Facebook post on Eunice. My immediate thought was that Eunice was the epitome of freedom, achieved in a life of adversity and lived fully every day. When I got to interview her a few days later, she smiled brightly: “Running will bring you freedom.”
Eunice was born in Durban’s King Edward VIII Hospital in 1964. Her mother, Martha Ntuli, and father Elias Telintshontsho lived in Glendale on the KZN North Coast. At an early age, Eunice was afflicted with an illness that hampered her walking. Despite numerous medical visits her condition was never diagnosed and she spent many years with limited mobility. This impacted on her schooling. She completed Grade 5 at Petezi Primary in Glendale but then started working as a cane cutter in the local sugar cane fields.
Her life was transformed by the intervention of her cousin, Sazi Shabalala. Sazi was an athlete, participating in karate and running the Comrades Marathon. Sazi encouraged Eunice to tackle her health challenges by becoming physically active. She began to walk more confidently at the age of 15.
“I got stronger. Running was a medicine for me.”
She gradually developed an interest in running and longer distances attracted her. Her first race, she remembers, was in Durban in 1993 – the Bluff 10km.
She laughs. “Yhu, one hour, 45 minutes! I struggled.” But she wasn’t discouraged and began to increase her training distance and enter more races.
She now boasts a best marathon (42km) time of three hours, 16 minutes.
Eunice, 59, is a grandmother, recalling other South African galloping grannies like Mavis Hutchinson who died last year at the age of 97.
She has two sons, Siphiwe, 28, and Sipho, 23. Siphiwe works as a barista and has a six-year-old son. Sipho was a victim of violent crime, like so many South Africans. While walking in the street on 25 March, he was attacked and stabbed. He was still in hospital when the time came for the Two Oceans, but he urged his mother to run as it was her 10th marathon. He is now at home with Eunice, but has not yet fully recovered.
Eunice is proud of her sons, as they are of her. “They are proud of me. They say, ‘Mum is a hero, strong as a lion’.”
I asked Eunice how she managed to keep up her running in between being a mother, grandmother and employee – she often works six days a week. She is a member of the Faith Mission and although her running prevents her from attending church every Sunday, she says, “My belief is very important to me. I see God’s will in my life.”
Eunice combines her domestic employment with her training. She runs to work! Each day she runs 16km from Shakaskraal to Sheffield Beach in the morning and then back home in the evenings.
Running shoes are expensive, but she makes do. Training for this year’s Totalsports Two Oceans Marathon, she observes: “My shoes were broken, you could see my big toes! But I didn’t worry, I was training.”
She explains: “Running, for me, is like a doctor. I don’t ever go to the doctor… running keeps me healthy and fit.” Despite a history of illness in her family, she credits running for her good health.
Running is part of her identity now. She is a runner.
“It makes me proud of myself. When I don’t run, I become a crazy woman.”
She says when she is running she enters a different world where she is alone with her thoughts; where she has purpose, but also where she is part of a community of runners.
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Apart from the expense of good running shoes, there is the matter of entry fees and transport and accommodation for races. She says that on her wages, these expenses are not easy. She laughs ruefully and says there are times when she goes to races beyond KwaZulu-Natal and uses all her available money. When she returns home, she says all that is left in the fridge is water.
To get to the Two Oceans Marathon, she travelled in a bus via Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. She left Durban on Thursday morning and arrived in Cape Town on Friday shortly before midday. She then had to register and collect her number and only got to bed late that evening, before having to wake early for the start of the ultra marathon at 5.30am.
Eunice acknowledges the love and support of her sister, Angeline Telintshontsho, and her employer, Nadine Foster. She had a place to stay and a comfortable bed. She says quite often she sleeps outside before a race, unable to afford accommodation.
Angeline, who is 70, is very supportive of her younger sister and her running: “But I can’t really understand what Eunice does in order to run. She is amazing.”
Eunice has two further ambitions. The first is to run 25 Comrades Marathons. She ran her first Comrades at the age of 29 in 1993 and will compete in her 20th race on 11 June this year.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Of comrades and the Comrades
The second goal is to help local children to run. She says poverty in her area is widespread and there is little for children to do. Many get into drugs. She hopes to find a way to get donations of running shoes and to form a club for young runners in the area. DM/MC/ML
Dr Robert Morrell writes in his personal capacity. He is a senior research scholar in the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) at UCT. He worked previously at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University), the University of Durban-Westville, the University of Natal (now UKZN) and UCT.