Comrades marathon: More than just a race

Team Uganda group after conquering the Comrades marathon in Durban, South Africa recently. PHOTOS | COURTESY.

What you need to know:

  • The run that was. Incepted in 1921, the Comrades Marathon is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon race, attracting tens of thousands of runners from across the globe. This year, 12 runners represented Uganda and as Andrew Mwanguhya writes, the Comrades is not your ordinary race.

After a grueling nine hours, 26 minutes and 10 seconds (9:26:10), 81-year-old Johannes Maros Mosehla from Limpopo, South Africa crossed the finish line.

Mosehla had just smashed a 34-year-old record during the 96th Comrades Marathon down-run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, becoming the oldest person to complete the 87.7km ultra-marathon.

Fellow South Africans Tete Dijana and Gerda Steyn, who won the overall men’s and women’s titles in 5:13:58 and 5:44:54 hours respectively, are two times younger than Mosehla.

Dijana and Steyn chopped off five and 10 minutes respectively from previous records going back to 2016 and 1989 en route to their triumph.

Dijana,35, who defended his title having also won the 2022 Comrades, quit his job as a security guard at North West University to focus on running.

On her part, 33-year-old Steyn did not discover her talent until 2014 while working in Dubai, where the quantity surveyor major from the University of Free State, South Africa joined a running club.

Such is the legend of the Comrades. Anyone can give it a go. You do not have to have been a professional athlete to.

But it is stories like octogenarian Mosehla’s, a retired bricklayer from Sekhukhune District, that make the Comrades such an iconic ultra race.

Before he crossed that finish line, the record for the oldest person to complete the under the regulated 12-hour-mark belonged to legendary Wally Hayward, who - then aged 80 - finished one minute and 57 seconds before the cut-off time.

Participating in the Grandmasters category of 60+ years, Mosehla, who has now run 10 marathons, did not even get a chance to participate until he was 50 years old.

“I started running Comrades very late,” Mosehla, whose best time (before turning 81) completing the race was in 2007 when he finished in seven hours 57 minutes, told South African press.

“When I first wanted to take part, Black runners were not allowed in the early 1980s.

“I later joined Polokwane Athletics Club and decided to enter. Unfortunately, because of an injury, I could not run for a few years. I enjoy running the Comrades.”


Today, the Comrades, which is capped at 25,000 participants per race and attracts runners from across the globe, is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon race.

The direction of the race alternates each year between the “up” run (87.6km) starting from Durban (elevation: 332ft/101m) and the “down” run (87.7km) starting from Pietermaritzburg (elevation: 3020ft/921m).

The spirit of the Comrades Marathon is embodied in camaraderie, selflessness, dedication, perseverance, Ubuntu. It is to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”.

Ugandans at Comrades

And therein lies the different motivations why people, men and women, young and old clamour to add running the Comrades to their life accomplishments.

Uganda has not been left behind either. Ugandans have run the Comrades for a couple of years now, but it is this year that the country got some good traction back home.

Twelve people, including nine Ugandans and three expatriates - two of them women - ran the 2023 Comrades under Team Uganda flag. Some were running their first Comrades, others their second and some third and fourth.

Gaddafi Ssali, a 42-year-old senior tourism development officer at the Tourism Ministry, posted Uganda’s best result, completing his first ever Comrades in 06:49:56.

“For me,” Gaddafi told the Sunday Life, “getting out of the comfort zone of 21 kms and 42 kms and stretching human limits is what pushed me.

“If you don’t put in the miles in training,” he emphasised, “don’t expect to achieve.”

Janet Nakkazi, business development manager at Maad and basketball player, is one of two women that ran comrades 2023, which was actually her second in-person. Her third was virtual.  She finished this year well in time of 11:18:13.

 “I wanted to push my limits, and running is my therapy,” Nakkazi, 40, who has run several marathons in Uganda and East Africa said.

It was hardly easy, especially for Ugandans, who were welcomed by lows of 7⁰C.

“Everything that had to go wrong that morning went wrong,” added Nakkazi, “It was freezing. At one point I went to pee and I could not open my strings. I could not feel my fingers.

“Even old injuries like plantar fasciitis (stabbing pain in the bottom of your foot, near the heel) resurfaced, quads hurt.

“It got stable at around 30 kms but then at around 57 kms, I hit something, tumbled and fell flat. I was helped back up and from 60 kms, I was stable. In the end, it was all good.”

Lotty Njuguna, a Kenyan tax consultant in Uganda, is the other woman, who completed her very first Comrades Marathon, sealing it under Team Uganda in 10:51:51.

Asked what motivated her to ‘torture’ herself for 10 hours in South Africa, she was as hilarious

“It’s a running problem, I tell you,” she said, “that’s the only way to sum it up.

“I travelled thousands of miles to Durban, worked until 1am and rode in a bus to the start point, only to run back to Durban. How can that not be a ‘running problem’? (laughs).”

Njuguna,39, says with good preparation and a great mindset, anyone can run the Comrades.”

She summarises her marathon experience with Gary Zukav’s famous quote: “When the pain of continuing exceeds the pain of stopping, a threshold is crossed. What seemed unthinkable becomes thinkable.”

Will she subject herself to the same again next year? “See you at the starting line next year, God willing. I told you it’s a problem! (more laughs).”

Bigger than imaginable

Moses Rutahigwa, a 41-year-old head of consumer, private and business banking at Standard Chartered Bank, Botswana, tells of his experience and motivation of running Comrades through his family and humanity as a whole.

Not one to duck a challenge, Rutahigwa was spurred on by “the sheer imagination of covering 90 kms on my two legs. It stirred something inside me,” he says.

One of Rutahigwa’s friends put it well: “I can’t stand driving for 10 hours, let alone imagine someone being on his/her legs for that long,” said the friend.

Running his very first Comrades, Rutahigwa crossed the finish line in 10:23:36.

“We run for so many reasons,” explained Rutahigwa, “All the people I met were running for different reasons. From honouring our departed friends, celebrating milestones, inspiring their family, overcoming difficulties, etc.”

Rutahigwa added: “Personally, I ran to inspire my children and those who believe in me to go for their dreams and never allow negative voices that tell you ‘it can’t be done’. I was inspired by my mentor, Herman Kasekende.

“I believe credibility is built on the frontline not on the sidelines. After climbing a mountain, running a marathon, getting married, having children, going for that course, breaking that habit, etc, you earn the credibility to talk about it.

“As Theodore Roosevelt said “It’s the man in the arena.” Rutahigwa was also overwhelmed by the whole size of the event. Sports is big business. Imagine the impact of over 16k runners - excluding families, coaches and support teams in one city! Airlines, accommodation, food, road transport, shopping,” he notes.

“And if there’s one reason I will go back for Comrades, it is how the people of SA took care of us and made us feel. For all the 87.7 kms, we were never alone. They cheered us on, fed us - both locals and sponsors supported us. Schools, churches, people of all ages, name it. It is like everything stops that day for everyone to enjoy Comrades. Back home, runners are ridiculed, women insulted, injured by boda bodas and drivers and others.

“We need to promote a culture of positive affirmations and support for athletes or anyone going out of their comfort to do something challenging.”

Before the race

Back to the race, many questions form in your mind as you head for the challenge.

“You battle with so many emotions but once you step into your pen on race day,” explains Rutahigwa, “it’s one thing on the mind - I have to finish.

“Comrades changes you. Your view of life and challenges becomes different. I told my wife that ‘you sent a boy to Comrades and he came back a man.’

There are several community running clubs in Uganda where these runners are affiliated to, including Team Matooke, which organised Team Uganda to Comrades 2023.

Comrades history

One of the most gruelling ultramarathons in the world, the very first Comrades was organised by a soldier called Vic Clapham, who was born in the UK,  but later immigrated to South Africa.

After fighting in World War I (1914–18), Clapham wanted to honour the soldiers who had died.

He proposed a race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban and the very first Comrades was run in 1921. The Ultimate Human Race was born and the rest is history.


Medals are awarded to all runners completing the course in under 12 hours

Gold medal: The first 10 men and women.

Wally Hayward medal (silver-centred circled by gold ring): 11th position to sub 6hrs 00min.

Isavel Roche-Kelly medal (silver-centred circled by gold ring): women only, 11th position to sub 7hrs 30min.

Silver medal: 6hrs 00min to sub 7hrs 30min.

Bill Rowan medal (bronze-centred circled by silver ring): 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min.

Robert Mtshali medal (titanium): 9hrs 00min to sub 10hrs 00min.

Bronze medal: 10hrs 00min to sub 11hrs 00min.

Vic Clapham medal (copper): 11hrs 00min to sub 12hrs 00min.

*** Prior to 2000, only gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded ***

Comrades qualification time: 04:49:59 in a recognised 42.2kms marathon

Comrades 2024 qualifying period: September 1, 2023 to May 2, 2024

Numbers at Comrades 2023

87.7km: Distance of the race

21,092: Total number of entries

16,126: Total number of starters (12,906 male, 3,220 female)

14,897: Number of finishers (11,942 male, 2,955 women)

Overall winners of Comrades 2023

Men: Tete Dijana (SA), 5:13:58

Women: Gerda Steyn (SA), 5:44:54

Team Uganda at Comrades 2023 and finish times

Gadafi Ssali, 06:49:56

Robert Okudi, 08:49:55

Martin Abila, 8:59:54

Andu Debebe, 09:36:27

Godfrey Kamya, 09:37:48

Moses Rutahigwa, 10:23:36

Amos Nuwagaba, 10:48:11

Lotty Njuguna, 10:51:51

Charles Mugambe, 10:57:44

Daniel Ligyalingi, 11:03:32

Janet Nakkazi, 11:18:13

Girum Fisseha, 11:25:30