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In the gruelling quest for Comrades glory is a moment to see commonality among South Africans


Zukiswa Pikoli is Daily Maverick's Managing Editor for Gauteng news and Maverick Citizen where she was previously a journalist and founding member of the civil society focused platform. Prior to this she worked in civil society as a communications and advocacy officer and has also worked in the publishing industry as an online editor.

As a South African, the race represents humans trying to live the best lives we can and finding pockets of joy and release, despite the many trying conditions we live under.

Veteran marathon runner Bill Buffum once said: “The marathon is not really about the marathon, it’s about the shared struggle. And it’s not only the marathon but the training.”

This year’s Comrades Marathon was held on Sunday, 11 June. The event has been a South African staple for 102 years, making it the world’s oldest marathon race. It draws entrants and crowds from around the world. 

I had never really had more than a passing interest in the Comrades, and my personal running best is a gentle 7km jog one wintry August day in 2016 – a feat I have yet to repeat. 

However, in 2019 I had to cover not only the race but also the build-up to the race for work, as a colleague was about to participate in his 20th and last Comrades race.

The videographer helping me document all the preparations and the actual race day and I found ourselves breathlessly chasing our colleague (sometimes on foot, mostly by car) up and down the arduous Westcliff Stairs, around and through the steep and winding Munro Drive in Houghton, and attending build-up half-marathons on dark and cold winter mornings.

When the day of the race finally arrived we were overwhelmed by the number of people who turned up, excited and energetic, in Durban’s buzzing CBD at 4am. We spent the day following our colleague, cheering him and others on as we got drawn into the euphoria of such an epic race.

In awe

Reflecting on my Comrades experience, I was in absolute awe of the people who put their bodies and minds on the line to endure something so gruelling. What I learnt was that, inasmuch as it is your body that physically runs towards the finish line, if your mind is not adequately conditioned and ready to run the race, you’re dead in the water. 

What I saw on the thousands of faces willing themselves over the finish line were numerous stories and reasons they were compelled to complete the race, and I found myself lost in each and every one of those stories.

The marathon is often described as a true test of “human endurance and stamina”, which it undoubtedly is. I would lean into the Buffum quote and also say that, as a South African, it represents a moment to see commonality in one another regarding who we truly are: just humans trying to live the best lives we can and finding pockets of joy and release, despite the many trying conditions we live under.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Comrades Marathon — a gruelling crash course in many of life’s (hardest) lessons

I can imagine that for those who run the race that day, what matters is not socially constructed points of division but rather leaning into a shared moment of vitality and common purpose.

Author William Barclay said: “Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.” I’m inclined to agree with this sentiment, as I have seen that the true glory that comes from the Comrades Marathon is the commitment to show up every day and do the hard work to get you to the start line, through the moments of physical torment and mental anguish, and over that coveted finish line. And many of us will never get to experience this. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Alan Jeffrey says:

    Thank you for this article Zukiswa. I was reflecting along similar lines and the end of the day on Sunday. we stood at a spot in Westville and watched the kaleidoscope of humanity-South Africans and many others from all over the planet. There existed a common bond of joy and giving without a trace of any racial tension whatsoever. This is what this country could and SHOULD be. There remains enormous goodwill between our peoples. We need to find a new Government next year, one of National Unity and led by a good man or woman(most of you will understand what I mean by ‘good’) to replace the truly evil clique that holds this wonderful country in it’s dirty hands. Oh and btw, I voted for the ANC in 1994 despite my more centrist leanings-then they were a wonderful left of centre and in my opinion natural choice to govern. Surely even Cyril Ramaphosa must be utterly ashamed at what they have become

  • Alan Jeffrey says:

    PS-please can we have an Edit facility. Excuse my spellos and other mistakes

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