Comrades through the eyes of runners

The winding road that sees runners go from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. PHOTOS/COURTESY 

What you need to know:

Started by WW 1 veteran Vic Clapham 103 years ago, the Comrades Marathon is an ultra-race of approximately 88km give or take. It is run annually in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It is the world's largest and oldest ultramarathon

Every story is special, and every tale charming - if not disarming. 

When all was taken in, the 85.91km Comrades Marathon was a beautiful symphony of harmony and humanity!

Everywhere you turned, there was a profound moment unfolding as each participant immersed themselves in the honour of running this iconic ultra run in South Africa.

This particular one, run on Sunday, June 9, 2024, was the 97th edition.

Incredible stories

The amazing stories of the runners who participated in this race came at me, fast and furious. Each was unique, inspiring and memorable. 

First off, age in this race was not an excuse because 82-year-old Marosi Mosehla not only retained his oldest finisher title by completing his 11th Comrades race in 10:13:46; he also beat 11 of the 25 finishers from Uganda. Then there was 66-year-old Anver Omar who arrived for his son’s wedding reception after posting 11:28:42!

As expected, there were many couples running together but it was Givemore Mudzinganyama, 34, and wife Nobukhosi Tshuma, three years younger, that rocked the podium and some cash, with each earning a gold medal after finishing in the men and women’s top 10! What a feat!

And then there was the Comrades most decorated man with 49 medals - Barry Holland! 

Despite not finishing what would have been his 50th Comrades - this alongside his wife, two daughters, son, son-in-law and nephew, who all finished - Holland's spirit was never killed. He had to quit after 40km with a troublesome knee.

“It was unfortunate that I could not complete the race,” said the 72-year-old, “In November last year I underwent a knee operation. I had not trained for eight weeks. There was no conditioning in the leg. I will be back next year to fight another day,” he said.

When he lines up again at the start line next year, he will be going for 50 Comrades finishes alongside another legend, Louis Massyn, who finished his 49th in 11:35:51. Talk about determination.

Hell yeah!

Yet as all these wonderful stories kept coming in, I had to pinch myself just to ensure I was not just dreaming. I, too, had a story of my own. My special story.

For one who had absolutely no significant sporting background, let alone sufficient running experience, I had just conquered the world’s oldest and most iconic, enduring ultra run - The Ultimate Human Race! It would be a lie to say I was not extremely proud of myself.

The writer crosses the finishline. 

First, I had never liked long distance running growing up. I actually hated it. A quick 5km, 10km, or 30-minute treadmill cardio was enough. Make no mistake, I looked after myself before taking on long distance running last year, but just like a regular bloke would to be in shape, not to run some 86km. 

The longest I had been on the road on foot was a walk with Daily Monitor colleagues in February just before the outbreak of Covid. 

Then, we walked from Namuwongo to Entebbe after having an argument on a WhatsApp group where some people were convinced that we wouldn’t. 

Three years later a “mad” man called Joseph Beyanga of the Joe Walker fame had me walk with him and friends from Sheraton Kampala to Mbale, some 240km away, in February 2023.

After that, Beyanga introduced me to the virtual Twitter Running School, ceremoniously led by another crazy man, Robert Kabushenga - who, by the way - was crazy enough to run the Comrades Marathon. The rest is history.

Meanwhile, as you read this, Joe Walker is already infected. The man is adding some running to his walking to assault the Comrades Marathon in 2025. I kid you not!

But back to my story. I did not run my first organised race until July 2023.

Then my running virginity was broken by a 50km ultra run at the Hoima Great Escarpment, thanks again to the crazy community I had joined, with Moses Rutahigwa, Janet Nakkazi and Fiona Ssozi as the leading culprits. 

My first official full marathon happened over a month later at the TuskerLite Rwenzori Marathon in Kasese, where I missed the qualification mark for the Comrades (04:49:59) by one minute and 46 seconds.

I did not know much about all the scientific hydration, nutrition and all that you put in, weeks before a serious race. Little wonder I momentarily went unconscious after my races both in Kasese and Hoima.

Anyway, I put in the work and went to the Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon the following month and beat the Comrades qualification time by over five minutes in 04:44:01. What a few months can do!

Long story short, months of anxiety - from Comrades registration and finances to sleepless nights and balancing work and training - followed. It was tough.

Somewhere in the middle of the training programme which was from December to May, The Legends Marathon was born, I fell sick, mood swings happened, and I questioned my sanity at times. 

Mind you, the above was not exclusive to me. My Comrades, with whom we have a WhatsApp group (oh what would we do without that!) shared similar struggles. But we encouraged each other and kept going. 

The good thing is, depending on your targets at the Comrades run, the Ultimate Human Race gives you a training programme that suits your ambitions, and I went for the bronze medal programme, which is for those intending to finish in under 11 hours. 

Expo, economic impact & Shake-out Run

Battle stories are usually written on D-day, but the Comrades experience truly starts happening way before the hair-raising South African National Anthem, and Shosholoza and Chariots of Fire songs are played on the morning of ‘war’.

The Comrades Expo at the Durban Exhibition Centre is an experiential trade centre. It starts on Thursday and lasts through Saturday, with the race the next day.

From registrations and goodies pickups to general wear, massage to recovery boots, hospitality areas to innovation hubs, a lot goes on here. 

This is where it is in every business or company’s interests to have their presence felt with tens of thousands of eyeballs looking through merchandise and purses and wallets coming out to pay for it.

The economic impact cannot be emphasised enough. From arrivals and departures both at Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and King Shaka International Airport in Durban alone, you could count at least six in every 10 passengers as Comrades participants.

The same was true at airport cafeterias, and hotels and apartments we visited or where our colleagues stayed. The amount of income Comrades brings to South Africa every year is vast.

For us Comrades novices of course, the take-away from the Expo was the novice hospitality where we got to meet legends of the race, take pictures with them and listen to their stories. 

The organisation, order and culture, where systems were almost flawless and tens of thousands queued up for service without any rush in the world, is one we silently wished and hoped for back home. It was incredible!

The other experience was that easy run called the ‘Shake-out Run’ the morning before race day, which happens on the sidelines of Durban beaches.

This is where our hearts and body organically opened up to the beauty of culture and humanity. 

Drums, music and songs from all sorts of cultures in Southern Africa filled the air as different running clubs led dances across the stretch of the beaches.

The joy was unconfined, the abandon - reckless! We danced, we hugged, we sang. It was the kind of release we needed before the next day’s ‘war.’

The battle is here

And finally here it was, after all the months of hard work, anxiety and sleepless nights.

Proudly Ugandan. Moses Rutahigwa proudly arrives at the finish line hoisting the Ugandan flag.

Stephen Mugabe, Collins Cherotich, Don Akatukunda and I left our apartment after a night where we hardly slept, at around 4am.

On stepping out, Mugabe and Akatukunda got a lift from another runner’s uber and Cherotich and I took the earlier ordered one to drop off our phones with Anita Komukama, one of Team Matooke’s unsung support-cast heroes. 

We would find her and her team at the finish line in Pietermaritzburg several hours later. 

Seeding and pens

At the starting point outside the Durban City Hall, the long street is segmented into pens, or waves. Or paddocks. The pens are separated by metallic barriers from waves A all the way to H, which represent seeding according to one's Comrades qualification time.

Elite and other faster runners start in A, B and C in that order, and it is in that plan that they leave the pens once the start-gun goes off.

So the best seeds took positions and Nathanael Kasozi, our captain Nakkazi and myself also readied ourselves in our Wave H - although I never really got to see my mentioned friends until later in Pietermaritzburg. 

At seven minutes to the start-gun going off, the South African Anthem reverberated. Stuff was real now. It was happening.

The famous Shosholoza South African song followed, with almost everyone hanging onto every word. 

“Shosholoza (Shosholoza) Uyeyeeee… Kulezontaba… Stimela siphum'e South Africa,... Wen'uyabaleka (Wen'uyabaleka) Uyeyeeee… Kulezontaba… Stimela siphum'eSouth Africa.’ Gripping stuff!

A word combination of both Ndebele (Zimbabwe) and Zulu (South Africa), Shosholoza began as a folk song for the gold and diamond miners travelling back and forth between Zimbabwe and South Africa during apartheid. A symbol of political struggle against apartheid, Shosholoza came to mean “to push forward, endeavour, to strive... Moving fast and strong through those treacherous mountains.”

In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he described Shosholoza as “a song that compares the Apartheid struggle to the motion of an oncoming train.” Equally gripping was Chariots of Fire (if you remember that segment with Mr. Bean at the London 2012 Olympics), which followed before the start-gun went off and we embarked on the long journey.

On the road…

After about eight minutes of navigating human traffic (those in early waves had long gone), I crossed the start-line, punched the air in a jump, and prayed to God to remain by my side. As for the amount of times I had to urinate before and immediately after the race started - thanks to the almost non-stop hydration in the preceding hours and anxiety - I lost count.

After we had navigated our way through Durban CBD, we were treated to some of the best community care any runner would ever dream of. South African households - from breastfeeding mothers to the babies’ great grandparents - literally pitched camp by the road side for most of the 85.91km to both enjoy the race and support us.  Where you would get an insult on the road back home, or be shoved off the road by a boda boda rider or car driver as both of you fight for the limited space, at the race, we had humans collectively urging us on. The battle felt shared. 

Most prepared food and fruits from their parked cars and served us. From Pinetown, through Winston Park, Drummond, Cato Ridge, Umlaas Road, Mkondeni and all the way to the finish point in Pietermaritzburg, we never lacked. That was on top of the official 48 fully stocked refreshment stations, containing water, salts and sugars, energy bars, energy biscuits, bananas, oranges and cooked potatoes among others!

Even churches proudly branded their support points, feeding us and playing inspiring music as they assured us Jesus was with us all the way.

The Comrades is an unofficial public holiday in South Africa. From the streets to supermarkets, everyone talks about it. Citizens own it. It is in their hearts. It is the main fixture on television that day. SuperSport broadcasts it live from start to finish. 

Amidst all this, we kept putting the next foot forward as it was a long day on the road, where the elevation gain shot to nearly 1,800m high.

At Drummond, one of the most evil hills - just before its most devious cousin, the Inchanga, a strong string around a man’s powerful shoulders dragged his indisposed relative in a wheelchair, with another family member pushing from behind.

Yes. They were part of the race, complete with their bib numbers and timing chips. What is inspiration, if not that?

The Comrades Marathon means different things to different people, and everyone has a reason they are doing it, and why they go through hell to make the dream a reality. On my end, I want to give myself a chance to experience life as much as I can given that we are guests on earth.

My target was to keep it at 7.30 minutes per kilometre so as to finish in under 11 hours. I managed to keep my discipline, always resisting the temptation to be faster when the body called for it. At some point I battled a stomach stitch but gradually walked it off.

Cut-off gates and buses

I maintained the strategy of running the limited gentle flats, running some of the hills and walking the balance.  Note that the walk is not a walk in the park. It is a fast walk, or cut-off gates will prematurely end your race.

The Comrades has cut-off points; if you have not made it through by a specified time, you are required to get off the route and board a bailer bus (actual bus) for transportation to the finish venue.

For this edition, cut-off points were at Winston Park (04:45:00 hrs), Drummond (halfway - 06:20:00), Cato Ridge (08:10:00), Umlaas Road (09:40:00) and Mkondeni (11:10:00).

Runners that fell just short of the final cut-off point, which is the finish line in 11:59:59, were this time allowed to continue and cross the finish line although they were still classified as Did Not Finish (DNF).

Along the way, I met my friend Luke Kiwanuka, who was struggling with a shoulder and heel problem. I stuck with him a little but he assured me he would handle it.

Later, I surged forward but at a controlled pace. At 69km, however, my energy started to wane. This is where Kiwanuka and one of the sub-11 hour buses picked me from and I never looked back. In running circles, 'buses' or 'bus drivers' are simply a group of runners with a shared target. At the Comrades, there are both official and unofficial buses charged with delivering a group of runners at the finish line in a designated time. One is not mandated to board them, but they can help you in time of need. They pace themselves according to the goal. They run, walk, and run together.

If for example your target is to finish the race in under 10 hours, a sub-10 bus could be good for you. You can enter and get out of any bus at any time depending on how your body feels.

And so with 4km to go, the sub-11 bus that had helped me from kilometre 69 disintegrated. It had brought me this far and now I had enough energy to power home in a time of 10:58:30 for my sub-11 bronze medal. Comrades medals are given according to position and finishing time. You must be among the first 10 men and women to receive gold, the highest medal. And in order to receive the Vic Clapham medal, the last medal, you must finish in 11:59:59.

Resilient Luke!

My friend, Kiwanuka, followed a minute later, also just in time for a sub-11. “The bicep of my left arm gave way at kilometre 38 and the pain was excruciating,” Kiwanuka explained.

Ten of thousands of runners show up for different goals. 

“I also got pain in the heel area of my left leg I think at kilometre 47! And there was a point where I felt like I wanted to sleep due to exhaustion! 

“I overcame all these by reminding myself that finishing the race would make the running community and my Sure and Steady Hikers Club proud after all the confidence they had in me! 

“At kilometre 53, I joined the sub-11 hour bus that promised the runners a bronze medal if they stuck with the race plan and true to their plan, we made it and we got bronze!

On crossing the finish line in 10:59:43, Kiwanuka made the decision to return for a back-to-back medal next year!

Ilungole beats odds

My friend, John Stephen Ilungole, whom I often bumped into while training in our Kira locality, also beat odds to finish his first Comrades Marathon in 11:19:47.

“I had a catalogue of health issues two months leading up to the marathon, but I stuck to my belief and desire to participate in the race,” he explained.

“Given this background, I took a very cautious approach aimed at just finishing strong in terms of the after-effects of the race.

“However, after the 70km mark, I got a sharp pain across my stomach all through the back. 

“I could hardly run, but I was able to walk at a fairly good speed. Along the way, I was able to run a little on slopes and flat surfaces until I was able to cross the finish line. 

“The other challenge was a blister I developed on the left foot due to a big mistake of using new socks against the usual advice of not using anything new on the race day. For this challenge, I had to run through the pain.”

Bonita angry at Polly Shortts 

For Bonita Mulelengi, also a first time Comrade and Fast and Furious Running Club captain, it was largely a manageable debut in an impressive 10:30:34.

“I had no challenges on the run save for being angry at the last 6km, which didn't seem to end,” she narrated. 

“It didn't help that, whereas I found the other hills to be like the usual Kampala hills, Polly Shortts was not a Kampala Hill. It was a special one. That, plus the other two smaller hills after it made me mad.”

Like all of us, Mulelengi drew energy from the support on the road and found it “very comforting to know that I was doing this with 20,000+ runners from different nations.”

She said: “I was very elated that the run marked the beginning of a rest day for me since the six months of training had been brutal, and I was quite ill in  April - a matter I thought would set me back. 

“This was probably my greatest motivation…Finish the run! This is your moment. Make it count, and after that, take a break!"

Will she come back? “Definitely! The back-to-back medal is a trap, but also, when you taste it, you want more, and it would be good to experience a DOWN RUN to have something to compare the UP RUN with.”

The UP and DOWN RUNs are run interchangeably year-on, with the former being Durban to Pietermaritzburg as it is a sustained ascent, and the latter a fair descent. Last year was a DOWN RUN.

Fitness trainer Paul Akankwasa aced his first Comrades in 09:19:08, only bettered by Gadafi Ssali, Cherotich, Martin Abila and Mbale Siraji.

After experiencing 86km, he wants to use this information to impact his clients mindsets. “It's a matter of keeping positive and believing in yourself and you  will conquer the race,” he said.

Marvin and marriage…

Albert Marvin Onyia, who negotiated his first Comrades in 09:51:59, likened taking a shot at this race to a new marriage.

“It is like getting married to a new woman, whom you know little about,” he said.

“However, I did prepare well for it. From 1st January to 31st May 2024, I ran 1,800kms, with daily runs of minimum 5kms per day. 

“For elevation gain training, I went to Tanzania to climb/hike Mountain Kilimanjaro in February for five days (three days for over 5,000m above sea level and two days to descend to the ground). 

“I (also) went to run the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon (56km) in South Africa to test my training, fitness and see if I was ready for Comrades.” He finished in five hours and 25 minutes. “This made me conclude that I was ready for Comrades.”

However, on the night of the race day, Marvin could not find sleep. “I had to take a sleeping pill but at around 2am, my eyes were wide open.

“I remember at 5am we sat down at the starting line for about 30 minutes waiting for the flag off time of 5:30am (6.30am in Uganda) but my soul was not with me due to anxiety.

“When they flagged us off, I peed like five times and the first one was in a graveyard, which I couldn’t notice due to the tension, anxiety and coldness on the route.

“The beauty was that I took it easy with an average pace of between six to seven minutes per kilometre. 

“As per plan, I changed my shoes at kilometre 64 (there is a sports company that helps with that) and that boosted my run for 22km to the finishing line with no major injuries and fatigue.”

Marvin, who says he will definitely come back in 2025, has a message for runners, the government, boda boda riders and car drivers.

“I wish to encourage our running community to try the Comrades Marathon,” he said, “ I also plead with the government to provide better sports facilities for training. 

“I also request our boda boda riders and car drivers to respect runners on the road as we don’t have any training facilities.”

It is like life…

For Abila, who picked his back-to-back Comrades medal in an impressive 08:36:58, endurance running is like life.

“Long distance running in many ways reflects life itself,” he narrated, “Through the pain and joy of Comrades, being a believer in Christ, I meditated on Hebrews 12:1-2 NLT.

It states: “Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.”

Fisseha has nothing to prove

Girum Fisseha, an outgoing American diplomat who together with Andu Debebe found a home in Team Matooke, secured his back-to-back Comrades medal in 10:34:25.

While he says he can never rule out going back for his third Comrades, he has nothing to prove after doing both the DOWN and UP RUNs. For now, he will take this one in.

“The race was gruelling and relentless, a true test of endurance and willpower,” said Fisseha.

“My extensive training and mental preparation helped me tackle the unforgiving terrain, serious climbs and steep ascents despite pushing me to my limits.”

A stomach upset midway the race prevented Fisseha from consuming his planned nutrition but he never gave up. 

“In those moments of struggle, the support from my fellow teammates, Godfrey (Kamya) and later on toward the finish Bonita, was invaluable. 

“Their pacing and encouragement were crucial in helping me push through the pain and exhaustion to cross the finish line strong. 

“As my time in Uganda comes to an end in a few days, I can't think of a more memorable way to sign off. 

L-R (holding race numbers): David, Tommy and Shaun have successfully completed 42, 41 and 40 Comrades races respectively. Here they pause with members of Team Uganda at the Novice Hospitality Tent.

“The recreational running community here in Uganda are the most amazing and welcoming group of people I've ever encountered. The camaraderie of the running community will always hold a special place in my heart.”

Rutahigwa going for 10

If there is a person so unflinching in their drive to get a green number, which you earn by completing 10 Comrades races, it is Moses Rutahigwa. He secured his back-to-back medal in 09:47:59.

“I was first tempted to go for a sub-9 but opted to change plans after 30km,” explained Rutahigwa.

“There was no benefit in pushing hard and failing to finish. I took it easy thereafter, and finished very well. 

“I also was joined by two fellow comrades aiming for their first Robert Mtshali UP RUN medal. Delivering them to the finish line way ahead of the clock was awesome.”

About Comrades 2025? “I am aiming to complete 10 Comrades races and attain a Green Number by the time I make 50. So eight more to go, God willing.”

Maad Ligyas…

Daniel Ligyalingi, also a proud back-to-back Comrade, likes doing his things fast, especially the first half of things.

But on this particular one, he was forced to take it easy. He had to start in the last paddock after arriving ‘late’ and failing to navigate the human traffic in his allotted pane. 

“It ended up being a blessing as I ran conservatively but steadily through the early hills and walked as and when the crowd dictated,” explained Ligyalingi, who finished in 11:43:07.

“At around 36km, I had to take a long break to clear the tummy, and I got back much more relieved.

“Normally, my idea is to run ahead of the 10 hour buses, which later overtake me around halfway the race when energy levels start dwindling and wait for the 10.30 bus but this time, it didn't happen. 

“Owing to the slow start, they were way ahead. When the 11 hour buses and later 11.30 buses came and overtook me, I panicked a bit but quickly calmed down because I had a lot of time in the bank. 

“I was determined to push hard towards the end in the much fairer terrain. The body was feeling good. However, I was wary of the burnout that could occur towards the end.”

With about 16km to go, Ligyalingi met Nakkazi, one of the three Ugandan ladies at Comrades including Mulelengi and Doreen Lwanga, “We decided to push together until the end.”

Finish line… Beautiful watch, unbearable watch

The finish line is where the magic happened, tears rolled, people crawled to the end, and some collapsed with the ticking clock agonisingly in sight.

The more beautiful images had Ugandan runners pick a nearby black, yellow, and red national flag as they powered home, with Kabushenga’s enthusiastic grab-and-run as one of the incredible sights. 

At the Comrades, time is sacred, and at exactly 5.30pm (6.30pm Uganda Time), the gripping Chariots of Fire tune and a gunshot go off to signal the end of the race.

Watching tens of runners arrive as the gunshot went, collapsing in heaps of agony after realising all the hard work had ended in such an excruciating manner, was heartrending. 

But, as long as you breathe, there is always a next time.

Comrades 2024

Entries: 23,000

Starters: 18,884

Finishers: 17,313

Comrades medals (men and women)

Gold: First 10 men and women 

Wally Hayward (men): Position 11 to 05:59:59

Isavel Roche-Kelly (women): Position 11 to 06:59:59

Silver (men): 06:00:00 to 07:29:59

Silver (women): 07:00:00 to 07:29:59

Bill Rowan: 07:30:00 to 08:59:59

Robert Mtshali: 09:00:00 to 09:59:59

Bronze: 10:00:00 to 10:59:59

Vic Clapham: 10:00:00 to 11:59:59

Men’s overall winner

Piet Wiersma 05:25:00 (Netherlands)

Women’s over winner

Gerda Steyn 05:49:46 (South Africa – new record)

Old record by her: 05:58:53

Team Uganda/Matooke representatives at Comrades 2024

Gadafi Ssali 07:09:48

Collins Cherotich 07:26:23

Martin Abila 08:36:58

Mbale Siraji 08:58:46

Paul Ankwasa 09:19:08

Don Akatukunda 09:28:36

Stephen Mugabe Magunda 09:45:56

Noel Thomas Kalunda 09:45:56

Godfrey Kamya 09:46:52

Andu Debebe 09:46:52

Moses Rutahigwa 09:47:59

Albert Marvin Onyia 09:51:59

Andrew Muwanga 10:09:05

Doreen Lwanga 10:10:46

Bonita Mulelengi 10:30:34

Girum Fisseha 10:34:25

Andrew Mwanguhya 10:58:30

Luke Francis Kiwanuka 10:59:43

Robert Kabushenga 11:04:38

Charles Mugambe 11:17:46

John Stephen Ilungole 11:19:47

Nathanael Kasozi 11:24:08

Amos Nuwagaba 11:28:50

Janet Nakkazi 11:42:58

Daniel Ligyalingi 11:43:07