The Soweto Marathon is one of the most brutal races in the country. It tests runners’ fitness and mental strength in a course filled with as many steeps as iconic landmarks, many of which are the sites of key moments in the fight to dismantle apartheid. The soaring heat saps your energy while the passionate crowds that fill the Soweto streets on race day replenish runners with encouragement, water and even fruit and other foods.
Despite the toughness of the Soweto Marathon, thousands from all over the country and parts of the continent congregate at FNB Stadium every year in early November to run this iconic race, which caters to those wanting to run 10km, 21.1km or 42.2km. This year’s race featured New Frame staffers, who sold each other dreams and then braved it out to experience what the People’s Race is all about. The number of those who ran doesn’t quite match the number of those who registered, but we’re not mentioning names…
Noxolo Chalale: Online Editor – 10km
I held my first Soweto Marathon medal for a few seconds and then I stuffed it into my backpack. The blazing sun seemed to have branded my disappointment into every bronze fibre of the medal that said 10km instead of 21km.
I had registered to run the half-marathon earlier in the year when my optimism was high and my resilience untested. In September, with all of life’s burdens a little too much to bear, I decided to downgrade to the 10km to lighten the load of expectation.
So on 3 November 2019, my hands were swollen, my feet were throbbing and my body ached with what-ifs. What if I had trained better, what if I had slept earlier, what if I had eaten better. But what if I had not run at all.
The race started off almost fun, with runners in neon-coloured tutus singing songs, friends taking selfies and children high-fiving adults who were amused at seeing their tiny bodies take on this huge task. Then we turned the first corner and saw the sea of lime green shirts in front of us, all headed uphill.
With every stride I took, I became more aware of those around me and their determination to do the best they could. Even the runner pushing a crying baby in a pram seemed committed to making the best of the situation. One step, two steps, many steps later I had somehow made it over the hill, through the intersections and was still pushing through the pain.
And yet, here I was almost an hour and a half later and I was sulking because I felt like I had done good enough, but not my best. It felt as though by downgrading my distance, I had also downgraded my achievement.
I thought back to the man washing cars who had directed his hose at us as a reprieve from the heat, the drunk man who shouted at us to “be like the Bokke and win”, and all the neighbourhood children who stuck their tiny heads through their fences and cheered.
If they thought my achievement, no matter the distance, was worth encouraging, surely that should’ve meant something to me, too. I took my medal out of my backpack, hung it around my neck and hobbled along, smiling at those who congratulated me. I ran the race, measured not only in distance but in determination.
Ihsaan Haffejee: Photojournalist – 21.1km
I signed up for the half-marathon with all the confidence of someone ignorant of the task at hand. The 21.1km race didn’t sound too bad, until someone pointed out to me that a novice like myself, with zero long-distance running experience, would probably have to run for around three hours to complete the race.
I couldn’t see myself running for that long and so I decided to drop out. For some reason, and I can’t really say why, I began running on a daily basis around a month before the start of the race, even though I had made my mind up about opting out. At first I could barely make it around my block once without my heart feeling like it was ready to burst through my chest. But the body slowly adapts to the routine of running.
It doesn’t become enjoyable, you just learn to tolerate the pain. And so, after being convinced by my colleagues that a half-marathon is doable, I found myself at the starting line at FNB Stadium, joined by thousands of other runners, all united in our collective stupidity of thinking that this would be fun.
Spectacularly undertrained, I was concerned that my legs would seize up and I would suffer the indignity of not being able to finish the race. The vibe at the start was encouraging. People seemed relaxed and many were chatting about the Springboks’ victory in the Rugby World Cup final the day before.
“Well done guys, you’re almost there,” shouted a race marshal after we were barely 300m into the race. His comment was met with good cheer from the endless stream of runners.
Clever banter from fellow runners and hearty encouragement from the locals was a constant throughout the race. Kaizer Chiefs fans were teasing Orlando Pirates supporters, while others complained that the official Soweto Marathon shirts made them look like Mamelodi Sundowns fans.
“Keep going … I love all of you,” said an old lady who popped her head over her wall. “We love you too, Gogo,” replied a runner. And so it continued as we meandered through the world’s most famous township.
Children lining up and encouraging you not to give up. Drunk men who had been partying the entire previous night offering you sips of their beer. Residents spraying people with their garden hoses so that runners could keep cool in the heat. A truly wonderful atmosphere that one has to experience for it to be fully understood. Personally, my race was going well up until around the 15km mark, when I was passed by what looked like a 60-year-old lady playing maskandi music from a portable speaker attached to her backpack.
Those last 6km were painful and mostly uphill, heading towards FNB Stadium from Orlando Stadium. I was forced to summon the will to finish from a place deep within. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, an avid runner, summed up this aspect of running as follows: “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running.”
I eventually crossed the finish line, much to my own surprise and joy. Murakami once again is best placed to articulate this feeling: “At this point [the finish] a new feeling started to well up in me – nothing as profound as a feeling of pride, but at least a certain sense of completion. A personal feeling of happiness and relief that I had accepted something risky and still had the strength to endure it. In this instance, relief outweighed happiness. It was like a tight knot inside me was gradually loosening, a knot I’d never even realised, until then, was there.”
Dennis Webster: Journalist – 21.1km
Generations come and go between a marathon’s first and 42.2km. Time and distance force protagonists into suffering, trickery, shame, madness and, eventually, virtue. (All, interestingly enough, are key features in epic Latin and Greek poetry.)
A 10km race is less stoic, and decidedly more playful. There, runners trade in interpretation, not penance.
But if the 42.2km race at the Soweto Marathon is a Homeric epic, and the 10km is a new-age, yoga-mat-haiku, then the 21.1km is a sonnet. When I ran the half marathon on 3 November, plodding along in iambic pentameter, that was fine by me.
The sonnet’s capacity for development (setting up a problem in the octave, before a sudden turn towards its resolution in the sestet) is not very alienating. Soweto’s half-marathon distance is similarly welcoming. Runners get some of the personal progress of a marathon, from an effort more similar to the jaunty 10km.
The Soweto half-marathon’s turn comes after the race enters Orlando West, before swinging to face a daunting sestet: eight uphill kilometers back to the finish at FNB Stadium.
After centuries of tinkering, today’s sonnet is only recognisable by the impressions of the original form that haunts it. And something similar has happened in Soweto.
Once a symbol of white minority rule’s urban violence, many now say the township is emblematic of the successes of South Africa’s democratic project, abuzz with tourism and entrepreneurship. But it also stands, perhaps more than any other place, for the socioeconomic chasm that has developed between black people since the fall of apartheid.
As writer Niq Mhlongo observed in a love letter he recently penned to his hometown, “designer-clad patrons” now “arrive in fancy cars and drink Moët & Chandon champagne while chatting on their smartphones” in select Soweto enclaves.
Sowetans are magnanimous in their support of the race. And their kindness when hosing down heat-struck runners on their front lawns deserves its renown.
By the end of the race’s octave, however, it was clear that, for all its unrelenting change, Soweto retains a wicked capacity for critique. Onlookers were quick to remind the rainbow running pack, many wearing Springbok colours in celebration of the previous day’s Rugby World Cup final victory, that Kaizer Chiefs’ win over Orlando Pirates was at least as important.
Commentary on road running’s bourgeois, suburban roots was as exquisite: “Does this look like the 702 Walk the Talk?” one supporter asked of a runner whose legs were giving in. And for every official watering point, there were a hundred unofficial ones, where morning revellers offered runners quarts of beer in a gesture that said, “Don’t kid yourself.”
Njabulo Ngidi: Sports Editor – 42.2km
Draped in the South African flag and high on the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup triumph, I swaggered into FNB Stadium ready to pummel the road like Rassie Erasmus’ men did England. I was confident, this being my third time running the Soweto Marathon and fourth involvement in the People’s Race, with my first run here being the half-marathon.
I know the route like the back of my hand. I run some parts of it during my training, including the daunting summit of Vilakazi Street. The nerves that wake me up in the wee hours of the morning for every marathon weren’t there. I even had breakfast around 3.30am, something that doesn’t normally happen in the morning before a race as my stomach would be too tied in knots for me to take anything in. That confidence would prove to be my undoing.
I set myself an ambitious target of running a sub four hours, something I had never achieved before. Last year I ran my personal best marathon time of 4:17 in Soweto. I was confident that I could shave 18 minutes from that time to get a good seeding for next year’s Comrades Marathon. Instead, I added 46 minutes on to that time to finish in a time of 5:03:04.
My lack of full fitness was rudely exposed. What makes Soweto Marathon great, and why we keep coming back for the punishment, is that there is no place to hide. If you are fit and have prepared well, it will be kind to you like it was to me last year. But if you cut corners, it will show you who is boss like it did this year. My preparation for the marathon wasn’t great, it was okay because I had taken a running sabbatical after the heavy drinking of Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations. With temperatures soaring into the high 30°Cs, I needed something stronger than water to keep me cool.
But since my late return to the road, I have been behaving when it comes to drinking. I even abstained from it the day before the marathon despite it being a busy sporting weekend – starting with the Rugby World Cup final and ending with the Soweto derby. I regretted not drinking because then I would have had an excuse for the pummelling the marathon handed me.
The trouble started just after the 34km mark. My body decided it was done by then, which caused my stubborn mental resolve to kick in. I was seeing my ancestors at Riverlea. They just stared at me and kept it going. I dragged myself to the finish without their help, motivated by the fact that I will come back next year to show the People’s Race who is boss.