Roman Mars [00:00:00] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. It’s 5:25 a.m. outside of the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. And Shahieda Thungo is ready to go on a run.
Shahieda Thungo [00:00:17] We are here!
Roman Mars [00:00:20] She’s wearing a white running skirt and knee socks–one pink and one blue. And she’s cracking jokes.
Shahieda Thungo [00:00:25] Listen, I’m not there to run for the money, so I have to look good. I choose my struggles. I can’t be fast, so I must be cute.
Roman Mars [00:00:35] The road around her is packed with other equally chipper runners, adjusting their race numbers, snapping selfies, and dancing.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:00:44] Altogether, there are about 13,000 people here. And they’re not getting ready for a 5k, a 10k, or even a marathon. This is the start line of the Comrades, which is 56 miles long.
Roman Mars [00:00:55] That’s Ryan Lenora Brown, a reporter in South Africa, who was there the morning of the race in August.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:01:01] Most years, more than 15,000 people run the Comrades–way more than run any other ultramarathon in the world. For reference, about 25,000 people ran the last Boston Marathon. But the Comrades is more than twice as long. And as a foreigner in South Africa, I’ve been haunted for a long time by a question. Why the hell do South Africans think running a race like this for fun is a normal thing to do?
Roman Mars [00:01:26] Not only is it very, very long, the Comrades goes to a part of South Africa whose name sounds pretty ominous when you’re doing two back-to-back marathons through it. The Valley of a Thousand Hills.
Shahieda Thungo [00:01:39] How are you?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:01:39] Good, how are you?
Shahieda Thungo [00:01:39] Good, good, good, good, good. Can’t complain.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:01:43] How’d you sleep?
Shahieda Thungo [00:01:46] Did I? Did I? I’m not sure. But I’m here now.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:01:53] Shahieda is one of the Comrades pacers, who are appointed by the race to help groups of runners trying to finish in a certain time. In South Africa, these Pacers are called “bus drivers,” and the people they pace are their bus. Shahieda paces the Comrades slowest bus, made up of runners trying to finish just before the race’s 12-hour cutoff. She’s a kind of evangelist for running very slowly, very far.
Shahieda Thungo [00:02:17] I just want to make the slower runners like myself believe that the how is irrelevant–whether you’re crawling, rolling, or whatever. As long as you’re going forward in Comrades, you are going forward.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:02:30] Today, she’s got a little piece of paper tucked into her pocket, telling her what times and distances she needs to hit to come in just under that 12-hour mark. Basically, she’s aiming to do this like a human metronome. 13-minute miles all day long. No faster and definitely no slower.
Roman Mars [00:02:49] Over the course of the day, they’ll follow a route that weaves through what feels like all of South Africa. The race winds through wealthy suburbs–full of cafes and craft breweries–and sleepy, rundown, little farming towns. It cuts across the sugar cane plantations that first brought British colonizers to this region in the 1800s. There are shack settlements and rich private schools.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:03:12] A few minutes after I see Shahieda, they play the national anthem. And then another song comes on. It’s a haunting tune that migrant laborers used to sing on their long journeys home from South Africa’s gold mines. Its refrain means “Go forward.”
Shahieda Thungo [00:03:37] They were underground, and it was dark. It’s a very draining task to do. And that’s exactly what Comrades is. You know, you’re going to trot along the whole day. So, it is just saying, “I can do it. I will Shosholoza on. I will move on. I will keep going. And no matter how hard it is, I have a purpose why I’m doing this.” And then the cannon goes off. And we start the watch. And we’re off.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:04:27] Around the world, ultramarathons are having a moment. These are races that are any distance longer than a standard 26.2-mile marathon. The number of people running them more than quadrupled between 2010 and 2020. There are now thousands of these races annually.
Roman Mars [00:04:43] But in most of the world, ultras are pretty niche, and they attract a very particular demographic. Your average ultra-runner in the U.S. or Europe is a well-educated, married man–about 45 years old. In other words, they look a lot like me.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:04:58] And you only have to eyeball the start line of an ultramarathon in North America or Europe to see that this is still an overwhelmingly white sport. But in South Africa, it’s a different story.
Shahieda Thungo [00:05:08] So all kinds of people run Comrades–white, Black, Indian, colored, male, female, others, wealthy, poor.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:05:19] If you live in South Africa, you definitely know someone who runs ultras–probably lots of someones. Here, ultramarathons are the stuff of a whole country’s New Year’s resolutions and midlife crises. They’re the kind of thing that a totally ordinary, not athletic person wakes up one day and decides they’re going to do–and then does. It might be your doctor, your kid’s teacher, the man pumping your gas, the woman who cleans your house.
Roman Mars [00:05:45] In one of the most economically unequal countries in the world, extreme distance running is a sport that feels like it includes everybody. And improbably, that inclusiveness happened during one of the darkest, most divided moments in South Africa’s history–during the final years of apartheid.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:06:08] When the Comrades ultramarathon first started, it wasn’t the little Rainbow nation and Nike’s that it later became. In fact, in its earliest days, the Comrades looked a lot like ultramarathons elsewhere.
Matshelane Mamabolo [00:06:19] So back then, look, I mean, this is 1921. This is South Africa in its early days.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:06:25] This is Matshelane Mamabolo. He’s a South African sports journalist and also, like so many of his countrymen, a Comrades runner.
Matshelane Mamabolo [00:06:33] The race was only open to white people. It was just the white people who ran–and only men, actually.
Roman Mars [00:06:39] The Comrades was started by a white South African World War I veteran named Vic Clapham. To honor his comrades who had fallen in the war, he designed a run between his hometown of Pietermaritzburg and the coastal city of Durban, about 56 miles away.
Matshelane Mamabolo [00:06:54] And a few people apparently signed up. I think there was about 34 people who signed up to run the race. And it was a big deal because, I mean, who runs from Maritzburg to Durban?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:07:08] The race alternated directions each year. And in those early days, the press called it a, quote, “marathon go as you please.” Guys ran in rugby boots. They stopped for a beer and curried chicken at a hotel along the way.
Roman Mars [00:07:22] This definitely wasn’t the first ultramarathon in the world. Actually, even long before the first modern marathon was held in the 1896 Olympics, a form of super long-distance racing had been popular in the U.S. and Europe. It was called “pedestrianism.” And in its heyday in the 1870s and ’80s, it was a hugely popular spectator sport, where competitors race-walked distances up to 1,500 miles. The sport was so popular that the biggest names earned the equivalent of millions of dollars of prize money.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:07:53] The Comrades, on the other hand, was a much more amateur affair. Over the decades, the race grew in size, but not dramatically. By the 1960s, there were maybe 150 guys running it every year. And they were all white.
Roman Mars [00:08:06] Every once in a while, a woman or a person of color would show up on the start line and run the race unofficially–without a number. The organizers generally didn’t pull them off the course, but they never got recorded in the official finishers list. And some years, the organizers actually blocked their entry to the stadium where the race ended, so they would never cross the finish line.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:08:27] Between excluding 90% of the population from participating and then also being, you know, 56 miles long, the Comrades seemed doomed to obscurity. But then the ground started to shift.
Roman Mars [00:08:43] By the 1970s, apartheid South Africa was one of the last white-ruled countries in Africa. And it was coming under global pressure to change.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:08:51] Anti-Apartheid campaigners believed that one of the best ways to force South Africa’s hand would be to isolate it from the rest of the world. South African activists organized boycotts of the country’s exports. They pressured international companies to divest from the country and urged the world’s artists and musicians not to perform there.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu [00:09:10] We are not asking that you make a political decision. Not asking you to make an economic decision.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:09:18] Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African anti-apartheid leader.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu [00:09:22] We’re asking you to make a moral decision. Those who invest in South Africa, for goodness sake, must know that they do so, and in doing so, are upholding and buttressing one of the most vicious systems the world has ever known.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:09:40] For many South Africans, one of the most painful forms of isolation came in the realm of sports. By the 1970s, the country was no longer allowed to compete in the Olympics or the World Cup.
Roman Mars [00:09:52] The apartheid government lobbied hard to FIFA to not kick them out. But they were so bizarrely committed to segregation that they pitched some weird compromise idea of sending an all-white team to the World Cup in 1966 and then an all-Black team in 1970. FIFA said, “No.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu [00:10:11] I don’t think you can ever have normal sports in the kind of society we have–a totally abnormal society.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:10:22] Activists understood how this withdrawal from world sports would make the white government feel like pariahs.
Roman Mars [00:10:28] And it worked. South Africa desperately wanted back into the world’s competitions. And so, beginning in the early 1970s, it began to experiment with integrating domestic sports.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:10:39] Running was one of the first. In 1974, sports journalist Matshelane Mamabolo’s uncle, Titus Mamabolo, became the first Black athlete to win an integrated national championship–in the five kilometers.
Matshelane Mamabolo [00:10:52] And suddenly, South Africa started believing that, “Oh, we can compete with white people and even beat them.” And I think because of that, the whole country started shifting towards, “Let’s open up to the Black people.”
Roman Mars [00:11:04] The Comrades organizers were cornered. They didn’t want to be left behind. A year later, in 1975, the organizers opened up the race to people of color.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:11:15] At the time, distance running was enjoying a worldwide boom in popularity. It was also beginning to include more and more women. For a long time, the conventional wisdom held that women couldn’t run marathons because it would damage their delicate reproductive organs. But by the 1970s, prohibitions on female runners were also starting to fall. The Comrades dropped its ban on women the same year as it became multiracial.
Roman Mars [00:11:40] All these circumstances helped running become more popular in South Africa, too. Still, the Comrades might have languished forever in obscurity if it weren’t for one more factor. In 1976, South Africa became one of the last major economies in the world to get television, when it began broadcasting a single state-run channel. For nearly a decade, many of the country’s leaders had resisted the introduction of TV because they believed it could indoctrinate South Africans with dangerous ideas. The country’s minister for posts and telegraphs called it “the devil’s own box for disseminating communism and immorality.”
B. J. Vorster [00:12:19] Already we can see how easy it is to create and instill wrong impressions about peoples and countries by slanted news and pictures and unbalanced presentation of facts.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:12:35] This is South African Prime Minister B. J. Vorster, giving his first televised address… about television.
Roman Mars [00:12:45] But even as it was trying to stop South Africans from seeing too much of the world, that TV channel had a lot of space to fill. And so, it started playing a lot of local sports.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:12:55] Beginning in the 1980s, the SABC began to broadcast the Comrades live–in its full, tedious entirety–for the whole country to see. For a new station with a lot of time to fill, a race that took literally all day was actually perfect. And what South Africans saw when they tuned in felt to many like a revolution.
Commentator [00:13:16] And they’re on their way. South African runners’ greatest challenge of human endurance…
Roman Mars [00:13:23] In a country where almost everything was segregated–from neighborhoods and schools down to park benches and beaches–the Comrades was mixed.
Commentator [00:13:32] What we are witnessing is an almost nakedly explicit presentation of the greatest race of all. The marathon of life itself.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:13:41] For Black South Africans who watched the race in that era, the Comrades wasn’t just a stunning athletic feat. It looked in many ways like a parallel universe.
Matshelane Mamabolo [00:13:51] When you’re watching Comrades, you see this spectacle that is abnormal, actually. You know, you see a white guy running with a Black guy, even hugging him. Like, “Oh, you can touch a white man.” You know, they’re sharing drinks. It was aspirational. It was, “Oh, this is what our country should be like.”
Roman Mars [00:14:13] In the years after the race integrated, most of the runners were still white. But at every level, Black runners were making quick inroads–from the weekend warriors finishing the race in 11 hours up to the elites running it in less than six.
Hoseah Tjale [00:14:26] My name is Hoseah Tjale. I come from Murano village.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:14:32] Around the time the race integrated, Hoseah Tjale was working as a gardener for a white family in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. During the day, he planted flowers and clipped hedges.
Hoseah Tjale [00:14:42] And then at the night you must go in the kitchen to help wash the dishes.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:14:48] Oh, so you were the gardener during the day, and then at night you’d do the dishes?
Hoseah Tjale [00:14:51] Yes.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:14:52] And in between, sometimes, he went for a jog.
Hoseah Tjale [00:14:55] That’s just the time I start to run for fun.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:14:58] Pretty soon, he realized he was really fast. And the longer the distance, the better. He started running marathons. And then he decided to go bigger.
Hoseah Tjale [00:15:06] Just on the radio. They said, “Comrades.” “What is the Comrades?” They said, “Durban to Maritzburg.” I don’t know what Durban looks like. I don’t know what Maritzburg looks like.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:15:16] In 1979, Hoseah ran his first Comrades and finished 21st of nearly 3,000 runners. He started to think, “Hey, maybe I could win this thing someday.”
Roman Mars [00:15:27] At that point, the Comrades had never had a Black winner. But soon, Hoseah became one of the race’s favorites. He ran with a distinctive lopsided gait and almost always raced in a floppy blue and white bucket hat. Fans, particularly in Black areas along the Comrades route, would pour into the road as he ran by, cheering him along.
Matshelane Mamabolo [00:15:46] It didn’t just make us believe that we could be good in just sports. In just about every field, you started thinking, “Oh, no, white people are not that great. I can be better in this. I can be better.” And it gave hope.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:16:03] In those years, Hoseah was racing to beat a white archeology student named Bruce Fordyce.
Australian Commentator [00:16:08] Two men are out in front. One is ebony, and one is white. Maybe that’s why they call this classic race “The Comrades.” In South Africa, what a refreshing sight it is to see a Black man and a white man striving side by side in search of victory.
Matshelane Mamabolo [00:16:23] It was almost a tale of South Africa really. Here was this Black guy and this white guy. They became rivals. And in the country, I can bet you, we all supported them along racial lines.
Roman Mars [00:16:35] But the hierarchies of apartheid were hard to outrun. Throughout the ’80s, Bruce Fordyce trained full time for the Comrades and other ultras, living off speaking gigs and sponsorships. Hoseah got his training by running 15 miles to his job as a delivery driver and competing in races at any distance from six miles up to 60 every weekend.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:16:55] I don’t know. Did you ever feel angry that he had more resources because he was a white person?
Hoseah Tjale [00:17:01] Is their luck. They are lucky.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:17:07] But even on this very uneven playing field, long distance running was a life changing experience for many runners of color.
Poobie Naidoo [00:17:14] Everybody is feeling the same pain–the aches and pains. They’re all feeling the same thing that you feeling. You know, if a guy’s struggling, you help him along because you know the pain he’s going through and you can identify with it.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:17:28] That’s Poobie Naidoo, a runner of Indian heritage who also raced the Comrades in this era. At his peak, he could finish the race in a little more than six hours, which meant averaging just over a six-and-a-half-minute mile for 56 miles.
Poobie Naidoo [00:17:43] Soon as the Comrades, that gun goes off, there’s no apartheid anymore, there’s no segregation, there’s nothing to do with color. Everybody’s out there to run their best to prove that they can finish the race and that type. So, everybody sort of–like the lawyers, doctors, and all that–all come down to your level now. You know, so the playing fields are equal.
Roman Mars [00:18:05] But if for those 56 miles, there was no apartheid, as soon as athletes stepped off the course, it was back to normal life in South Africa.
Poobie Naidoo [00:18:14] After Comrades, it’s back to the same black and white. In other words, you’ve got to know your place. You’re black, and you stay back.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:18:22] Hoseah left his running club in the early ’80s after the chairperson allegedly called him by a racial slur. And he might have been allowed in white areas while he was running a marathon. But the rest of the time he could be arrested if he didn’t have the correct stamps in his passbook. That’s a document Black people had to carry to show they had permission to be in a white neighborhood. He told me about a time this happened to him outside a train station in Johannesburg when he was on his way to work.
Hoseah Tjale [00:18:48] In the station, when the train come in, I come out in the platform on the street. The police–they grabbed me. “ID? You’re not allowed to come in here working in Johannesburg.”.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:19:02] So what did you do?
Hoseah Tjale [00:19:03] Well, I go to jail.
Roman Mars [00:19:11] By the late 1980s, apartheid was on its last legs. South Africa was in the grips of a low-grade civil war. The government was cracking down violently on protests. Black areas of cities were patrolled by soldiers. Abductions, torture, and beatings of activists were common.
Winnie Mandela [00:19:28] Apartheid is a criminal act against mankind.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:19:32] That’s Winnie Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist and wife of Nelson Mandela, who by the mid 1980s had been in prison for more than 20 years.
Winnie Mandela [00:19:41] A white man has the audacity. He’s three and a half million, we are 30 million! The apartheid regime can go to hell. Power to the people!
Roman Mars [00:19:57] In this world, the Comrades began to take on a kind of outsized, symbolic meaning. For several years in a row, it had seemed like Hoseah was on the brink of winning the race. But every year in the final miles, Bruce Fordyce would surge from behind and win.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:20:14] Then in 1989, Bruce and Hoseah both competed in a 62-mile race shortly before the Comrades. As a result, Bruce decided not to compete in the Comrades at all, and Hoseah raced it on tired legs. That blew the field wide open.
Commentator [00:20:30] Good morning. Nice to have you with us. It’s 5:45, and we are counting down to the start of the world’s greatest long distance road race, the Comrades…
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:20:39] On the morning of May 31st, 1989, the elite runners eyed each other nervously. After all, Bruce was the only man who had won the race since 1981. What else could a Comrades champion look like?
Roman Mars [00:20:55] That morning, several runners pulled out in front. But for a long time, no one could break away.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:21:00] But in the final ten miles, two runners surged ahead.
Commentator [00:21:04] Most of them gritting their teeth–determined, no smiles for the crowd–slugging it out toe-to-toe like two boxers in the ring.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:21:13] For the first time in the closing miles of a Comrades, both of the leaders were Black. One of them, Willie Mtolo, had been among the favorites. But as the race approached the finish in Durban, he suddenly slowed down, grimacing in pain.
Commentator [00:21:27] And he’s gone! Willie Mtolo has stopped, dead in the streets! His hamstring is history!
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:21:33] That left only a relatively unknown runner named Samuel Tshabalala. He was a railway worker from a small farming town, who often trained by running the 30 miles home from his job in his work boots. For the first time in more than 65 years, the Comrades had a Black winner.
Matshelane Mamabolo [00:22:01] You know, here is the first Black man to win the Comrades? And he then added to what Hoseah had done in that… Yes, we believed we can compete. Yes. But now we believe we can win.
Roman Mars [00:22:16] Eight months later, South African President F. W. de Klerk delivered news that would change the course of the entire country’s future. For decades, anti-apartheid activists have been relentlessly harassed, intimidated, and imprisoned. Now, suddenly, the government was unbanning them.
F. W. de Klerk [00:22:32] The prohibition of the African National Congress, the Pan-Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party, and a number of subsidiary organizations is being rescinded. I wish to put it plainly that the government has taken a firm decision to release Mr. Mandela unconditionally.
Matshelane Mamabolo [00:22:54] So you have Sam winning. And then the following year, Mandela comes out of jail. And Black people–we all just start thinking we own the country now. Everything is ours.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:23:06] Four years later, in April 1994, South Africa held its first democratic election. Nelson Mandela became president.
Nelson Mandela [00:23:14] We, the people of South Africa, feel fulfilled that humanity has taken us back into its bosom–that we, who were outlaws not so long ago, have today been given the rare privilege to be host to the nations of the world on our own soil.
Roman Mars [00:23:38] Mandela had always been big into sports. Throughout his life, he was a boxer and also a regular runner. And that wouldn’t be remarkable, except that he did all of his jogging for more than two decades inside of an eight-by-seven-foot prison cell.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:23:53] “Running taught me valuable lessons,” he wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “Training counted more than intrinsic ability. And I could compensate for a lack of natural aptitude with diligence and discipline. I applied this in everything I did.”
Roman Mars [00:24:07] So it felt symbolic when in 1996, Nelson Mandela came to the Comrades to present the winners their trophies.
Nelson Mandela [00:24:20] Especially after seeing the courage and determination of those who just made it, I have decided to take part in the next Comrades Marathon.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:24:36] To be clear, he was joking. Even if you’re Nelson Mandela, running 56 miles when you’re 78 is a big ask.
Roman Mars [00:24:44] But his presence at the race underscored that it had become a South African institution. And throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, its popularity continued to grow, drawing more and more new runners.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:24:58] Runners like future Comrades pacer, Shahieda Thungo.
Shahieda Thungo [00:25:01] So we would watch Comrades from start to finish in the whole day.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:25:07] When she was growing up in a Black township south of Johannesburg in the 1980s, her family always watched the race.
Shahieda Thungo [00:25:14] And that’s what I knew about Comrades. And I knew it’s very long. I knew it’s very painful because I saw what runners looked like at the finish. And I knew I would never do that thing. That’s what I knew about Comrades.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:25:28] Then in 2011, when Shahida was in her mid 30s and working at a bank in Johannesburg, her life was ripped up by its roots.
Shahieda Thungo [00:25:37] I was actually diagnosed with a form of skin cancer. And it was a week after that my husband passed away. And I just started walking. And then I started jogging. And then the jogging came into running. And I went for my first ten kilometers, and it clobbered me good and proper. And I love the feeling at the end.
Roman Mars [00:25:59] Soon she was racing longer and longer distances. She never ran fast, but she found she had nearly endless endurance. And as she went along, she’d chant and sing to herself to distract her from the pain of running. Other runners started to join her. And pretty soon race organizers began to ask her to be an official pacer.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:26:17] This isn’t a small job. Imagine that not only do you have to commit to running a 56-mile race, but you must also promise to finish it in a very specific time.
Roman Mars [00:26:29] They wanted her to pace to finish in 12 hours. 12 hours is the official cut off time for the race. That meant that she had absolutely no margin for error. If she ran slower than she expected, her bus wouldn’t just finish late. Those runners would be blocked from crossing the finish line at all.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:26:47] At the time, Shahieda had only run the Comrades once. But she loved pacing slow runners because–sure–if you pace faster runners, you might help them break a personal record or something. But if you pace the slowest runners, you might be the difference that helps them achieve this nearly impossible thing.
Shahieda Thungo [00:27:03] I become a comedian on that day. I become a mother. I become a psychologist. You know, I’ll find runners that are going through the most, and I’ll tell them, “We all feel like you. If you think you are the only one in pain, you are not. Put on your big girl bloomers. Come, let’s go. Just take two steps.”
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:27:22] She’s paced the 12-hour bus ever since. And this year, after two years off because of COVID, the race was back. And so was Shahieda.
Announcer [00:27:30] So, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your race day! How you feeling?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:27:41] After the gun fires, I watched the runners streaming over the start line. It takes more than 10 minutes before I finally see Shahieda, jogging slowly just in front of the ambulance that follows the slowest runners in case of medical emergencies.
Commentator [00:27:57] At the back, here comes one of our bus drivers. Look at these guys. have a great race, guys. All of the best!
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:28:08] I see her again about seven miles later, in a little farming town called Ashburton. At this point, the 12-hour bus is still tiny. She has maybe a dozen people running with her, and they’re all looking suspiciously cheerful. Before the Comrades this year, I spoke to a runner who’d finished it 41 times. He told me that what appeals to him about running a 56-mile race over and over and over is that it’s like living your entire life in one day. The experience holds the entire range of human emotion, from elation to despair. And gathered all along the course are thousands and thousands of spectators, singing, cheering, and encouraging the runners on. By the time I see Shahieda again, we are more than 35 miles into the race, in a Durban suburb called Pinetown. Her bus has swelled to about 50 people. There’s this super dazed look in her eyes, and she seems a bit wobbly, but she’s still cheerful. How are you feeling?
Shahieda Thungo [00:29:19] Amazing! Anyone for strawberries.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:29:25] And then a couple of hours later, I’m waiting for her at the finish inside Moses Mabhida, a World Cup stadium in Durban. The clock is ticking down. There’s 30 minutes left. Then ten. Still no sign of Shahieda. Suddenly I hear it.
Commentator [00:29:45] The 12-hour bus is in the house!
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:29:46] Now there is a huge pack of runners behind Shahieda–this tidal wave of bright colored running jerseys. And in the middle of it all, I see her little pacer flag with a big 12 written on it bobbing up and down.
Shahieda Thungo [00:29:59] You tell all the pains, like, “Listen, you can come after the finish line. It’s fine. And we’re just going to dance. And we’re going to shut Comrades down. And that’s what we did. When we hit the grass–I don’t know–it was just amazing. You know, the stadium became alive.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:30:16] The clock reads 11 hours, 53 minutes as she jogs over the finish line and bursts into tears.
Shahieda Thungo [00:30:24] We crossed the finish line, and it was so emotional. The hugs. The guys were like, “We did it.” If they could lift me up, they probably would have–even as sore as we were.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:30:34] Meanwhile, hundreds of people are still streaming over the finish line as the stadium speakers begin to play Final Countdown.
Commentator [00:30:43] Ten seconds to go! Five, four, three, two, one!
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:30:57] All at once, a line of Comrade staff swarms across the whole finish line, blocking anyone still on the course from finishing. Dazed, exhausted runners keep slamming into it. I hate this part–seeing all these people who’ve been running for 12 hours not finish. They look shattered. But watching them also reminds me why Shahieda’s 12-hour bus is so powerful. All of those people could easily have not finished, too. But somehow, they did it.
Shahieda Thungo [00:31:37] Comrades is painful. You are really going to hurt on the road. You are going to lose your mind while running. But if you do it with someone or some people, it makes it not so mammoth.
Roman Mars [00:32:11] There’s a story that sports psychologists like to tell about Roger Bannister, the Oxford University medical student who first broke the four-minute mile in 1954. Until then, four minutes seemed like an almost superhuman barrier. People have been trying and failing to break it for nearly 70 years. But once Roger Bannister ran a sub-four-minute mile, four more people did it in the next year. Now, more than 1,600 people have run a mile in under four minutes. The barrier, it turned out, was largely psychological.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:32:43] Shahieda and the 12-hour bus feel like a Comrade’s equivalent of that. Watching them pour over the finish line, the race feels doable. Running 56 miles feels like a thing that anyone can achieve. At least it is in South Africa.
Roman Mars [00:33:18] Coming up after the break, we talk about one of the most famous South African sports stories ever and how it connects to post-apartheid South African politics. If you’re hiring for your company at the beginning of the New Year, it might mean you are stressed trying to find quality candidates to help you achieve your 2023 business goals. Not to mention you also often have to adjust to candidates’ work preferences. Let ZipRecruiter help you achieve your hiring goals. You can try it for free at ziprecruiter.com/99. ZipRecruiter has a powerful matching technology that it can use to help find the right candidates for your job. With ZipRecruiter, you could even send a personal invite to candidates who seemed perfect for your job, so they’re more likely to apply. Plus, the work environment may look different these days, so ZipRecruiter offers attention grabbing labels like “remote” and “training provided” and more that speak to job flexibility. Let ZipRecruiter help you find the best people for all your roles. Four of five employers who post on ZipRecruiter get a quality candidate within the first day. Go see for yourself. Go to this exclusive web address to try ZipRecruiter for free. It’s ziprecruiter.com/99. Again, that’s ziprecruiter.com/99. ZipRecruiter: the smartest way to hire. I’ve also picked out some of my favorite episodes of 99% Invisible to share. And the audio is conveniently embedded even on mobile. Try it yourself. Go to Squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. Is the New Year making you want a new look for your space? Article is the easiest way to make your space beautiful. Their team of designers focuses on beautifully crafted pieces, quality materials, and durable construction. When I moved into my new place, I wanted new, quality furniture. I was tired of a poorly made hodgepodge of stuff that I’d collected over the years. So, I bought Article everything. My big dining room table. The Zola black leather dining chairs–which are simply the best dining chairs and existence–I have eight of them. My sofa, coffee table, end table, media unit sideboard–I basically have an Article showroom in my rented house. I go for the walnut mid-century styles, but whether you’re mid-century modern, industrial, or traditionalist, you’ll be able to find something at a fair price. And this is because Article cuts out the middleman. There are no showrooms–except for the one in my house–no salespeople, and no retail markups. Article is offering our listeners $50 off their first purchase of $100 or more to claim. Visit article.com/99, and the discount will be automatically applied at checkout. That’s article.com/99. Get $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. 99% Invisible is supported by BetterHelp online counseling. I’m sure you, like me, know a lot of people in counseling or are in need of counseling. We’re back with Ryan Lenora Brown, who reported this week’s story, to talk a little more about sports and politics in South Africa.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:36:42] Yeah, and what I want to talk about in particular is a sport that most Americans know very little about, but that’s really, really popular in South Africa and has played actually a big role in the country’s recent history. Rugby.
Roman Mars [00:36:55] Well, I know about rugby. I know rugby exists. You are right, though; it is not very popular here in the U.S.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:37:00] Yeah. So maybe the easiest place to start here is with a rugby reference Americans might be familiar with. Have you ever seen the film Invictus?
Roman Mars [00:37:08] I am aware of its existence, but I have not seen it. No.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:37:10] Okay. So, it’s this Clint Eastwood movie starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela with an honestly slightly questionable South African accent.
Morgan Freeman [00:37:21] Tell me, Francois. How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do? How do we inspire everyone around us?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:37:31] Yeah. But anyway, Invictus is the story of South Africa’s unexpected victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Roman Mars [00:37:39] Okay, so what was significant about that?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:37:41] Well, for one thing, it was a kind of masterclass in Mandela’s ability to make these big, sweeping, symbolic gestures of unity, which he did a lot in those years.
Roman Mars [00:37:49] Yeah, I mean, I can imagine it. You know, he had to because, like, he had recently become president in the country that was, you know, incredibly divided and deeply segregated. And, you know, he became president after 27 years in prison. So, there’s a lot to heal there.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:38:03] Right. And that actually included sports. So, you know, we just talked in this episode about how long-distance running became the sport that transcended all these divides. But by the 1990s, most sports in South Africa were still seen as kind of, quote unquote, “belonging to certain races.” Obviously, I don’t mean people of other races didn’t play those sports–just that they were very strongly culturally associated with particular groups. So, for instance, soccer was a quote, “Black sport.” Cricket was a, quote, “white sport.”
Roman Mars [00:38:32] And where did rugby fall in this divide?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:38:34] There have always been Black rugby leagues and teams in South Africa, but rugby was widely seen as a white sport. So, to get back to the Rugby World Cup in 1995–this is the biggest tournament for the sport. Teams from all over the world compete with each other. And that year, South Africa hosted the tournament, which was significant because it was also the first time that South Africa was allowed to play since apartheid had ended. But the team it fielded was almost entirely white, and so were the supporters. And actually, it was, like, even worse than that. A lot of Black South Africans were rugby fans, but they would cheer for whoever was playing against South Africa–particularly New Zealand. They saw the Springboks, who are South Africa’s national team, as actually a symbol of white supremacy.
Roman Mars [00:39:18] So what did Mandela do here?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:39:19] Well, first he approached the Springboks captain, who was this white guy named Francois Pienaar, and basically asked him to make the point to the team–to the public–that they represented the new South Africa.
Matt Damon [00:39:35] Do you hear? Listen to your country. This is it. This is our destiny!
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:39:36] That’s another clip from Invictus. And that was Matt Damon, by the way, doing actually a pretty good Afrikaans accent. So anyway, the rest of what Mandela did was pretty simple. He went to the games, he wore the team’s jersey, and he cheered for them like they were his team. And when they won the whole thing in this nail biter game in downtown Joburg against New Zealand, he presented them with their trophy.
Commentator [00:40:04] There it is. Francois Pienaar. And Nelson Mandela is cheering along with the whole of the stadium. A sea of flags. Wonderful moment for the whole of South Africa.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:40:21] This footage is actually really sweet. You can see Mandela pumping his arms and genuinely looking very jazzed about the team winning.
Roman Mars [00:40:28] And so what happened after that? What was the result of all this unity at the Rugby World Cup?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:40:35] Well, obviously, South Africa didn’t change overnight. Neither did the rugby team. The gesture was really significant to a lot of people, but it took also actual policies to make really significant changes happen. And what that looked like is that in the late 1990s, the government started creating these racial quotas for sports teams to get them to transform. Those quotas have been really controversial in South Africa, as you can imagine.
Roman Mars [00:40:58] Yeah, I can imagine those are controversial. But eventually they just become part of everyone’s life and therefore not necessary anymore?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:41:07] I would say yes and no. You know, a lot of people would argue that these kind of transformations really have to start at the level of youth sports, club sports, to be meaningful–to not tokenize Black players and not put them forward when they’re not ready. And you’ve seen that start to happen in rugby in particular. Rugby is sort of one of the leaders among South African sports. But in any case, the South African rugby team now does look really different than it did back in 1995.
Roman Mars [00:41:35] So what’s it like now?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:41:36] Well, to answer that question, we’re actually going to go quickly to another Rugby World Cup. This one is in Japan in 2019. And spoiler alert, South Africa actually won again.
Commentator [00:41:48] The biggest prize of them all! South Africa are World Cup winners in 2019!
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:42:00] The captain of that team was a guy called Siya Kolisi, who was the first ever Black player to hold that title. And the squad itself was the most diverse it had ever been.
Interviewer [00:42:10] Siya, just tell me–when the final whistle went, what were your first thoughts?
Siya Kolisi [00:42:15] You know, we face a lot of challenges. But, you know, the people of South Africa have gotten behind us, and we are so grateful to the people of South Africa. You know, we have so many problems in our country, but to have a team like this… We know we come from different backgrounds, different races–and we came together with one goal, and we wanted to achieve it. I really hope that we’ve done that for South Africa, to show that we can pull together if we want to win–to achieve something.
Roman Mars [00:42:44] It sounds like he’s really, like, taking Mandela’s example and continuing on into the next generation.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:42:51] Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, sports are political everywhere, obviously, but South Africa has been a particularly stark example of that just because the transformation it’s undergone has been so stark. So obviously, you know, we saw it with the Comrades in running. And this rugby story is just another interesting, significant example, I think, of a place you’ve seen that really powerful kind of transformation in sports in South Africa that mirrors what’s been happening in the country.
Roman Mars [00:43:17] Does this mean I should watch the movie Invictus or I should not watch the movie Invictus?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:43:22] Roman, I want to leave that one up to you.
Roman Mars [00:43:27] Leave that decision between the audience and their God. Thank you so much.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:43:31] Thanks, Roman.
Roman Mars [00:43:39] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Ryan Lenora Brown. Edited by Delaney Hall. Original music by Swan Real. Sound mix by Martín Gonzalez. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson DeLeon, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks this week to Isaac Ngwenya, Roxy Thomas, Bob de la Motte, Dhashen Moodley, and Tommy Neitski. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.
Stitcher Announcer [00:44:52] On your marks… Get set… Stitcher!
Leave a Comment