The chances of a black woman winning this year’s Comrades Marathon are slim to non-existent.
It is this situation that lights a fire in Ramadimetja Lizzy Babili’s belly.
While she readily admits to being nowhere near ready to depose her boss, Ann Ashworth – who won last year’s Down Run and owns Team Massmart, South Africa’s first elite women’s running club – Babili nurses lofty ambitions of one day capturing the title at the Ultimate Human Race.
This weekend though, the 28-year-old will be pleased with a top 20 finish. It’s a pretty low target, given that she finished 10th in the Two Oceans Marathon in April, coming in just under the four hour mark at 3:59:32.
But Babili is going for her back-to-back, having completed her maiden Comrades last year in a time of 8:44:32 before being stretchered to the medical tent in the belly of the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.
“I really thought I was going to die last year,” she said. “But I made it out alive and I know now what Comrades is about and I am ready to tackle it again.”
Running to work
Babili was initially dissuaded from racing as her club, Massmart, felt she was too young. But a good run at the 2018 Two Oceans made Ashworth changed her mind and allowed her to race.
“So I had gone to watch the 2017 Comrades because a few of my friends from Alex [Alexandra township in Johannesburg] were running. One of those was Charles Tjiane, and we followed his progress and provided support for the other guys. I really enjoyed the vibe of Comrades and after that I decided to register. But when I joined Massmart and told them I am going to Comrades, they said I should wait a bit because they felt I was not ready yet. But they changed their mind after my run at Two Oceans.”
Babili had been running for a while, having grown up doing middle-distance running and cross-country at school. Even when she started working, she hardly ever used taxis.
“I used to run from Alex to Montecasino to go to work. And when I lived in Diepsloot and worked in Centurion, there were days when I ran, too.”
It was during these runs that she met Maria Vilakazi, a strong runner on the circuit.
“Maria invited me to join her for a 15km race in Krugersdorp and she got me to be right in front at the start. I had a good race and finished in fourth place and she was third. That run gave me the confidence to believe I have what it takes.”
Improvements since joining Massmart
That self-belief brought her wins at the Marikana and Vaal Marathons in the not-so-fast times of just under 3:30.
“It really was a pleasant surprise to have Maria be so supportive of me, because generally women in running are not kind to each other. And I think that we could achieve so much more if we tried to work together and support each other.”
It was when she finished as runner-up to Ashworth at a race in 2017 that things changed for the mother of two daughters from Moletlane in Zebediela, Limpopo.
“After the race, Ann approached me and asked me to join her team. I was a 3:20 runner when I joined Massmart. I was a good runner, but I lacked the confidence and did not really know much about running. But joining Massmart opened my eyes to the potential I had and to understanding myself and the sport more.
“The support from the club is very good and, even if you fail, there is always encouragement from the other members of the club. Ann has a lot of experience and we all learn from her. She is everything to us and even though she is still competing herself, she wants to make sure we also do well. It is a women’s only club and it is incredible how we back each other up.”
Settling an old score at the Comrades
Babili has done well. Her qualification for this year’s Comrades was achieved courtesy of a splendid run at the Cape Gate Vaal Marathon, where she won the women’s race in a time of 2:55:25, a personal best.
A solid training run in the Om die Dam 50km race yielded a 3:54:27 finish, which Babili followed up with that brilliant sub-four at the world’s most beautiful marathon in the Mother City. She is now eager to banish the memories of last year’s poor Comrades debut with a super run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg on Sunday 9 June.
“Last year was a great learning experience for me. I remember starting very well and was actually in the top 20 by the 50km mark. But at 70km my legs were so swollen I had to walk. I walked for close on 10km and a few runners I know were surprised to find me where I was and they tried to encourage me to push on. Lesego [Hlako, another emerging black female runner who should do well at Comrades] also came by and tried to get me to go with her, but I just did not have it in me.”
An 8:44:32 finish in a maiden Comrades is a pretty good run. But Babili is a much better runner than that, as her Two Oceans run showed.
She is sure to prove as much in the Ultimate Human Race and set in motion a project that will see her first emulate Fikile Mbuthuma by being a black woman in the top 10, and later take home the title as the first black African woman to win Comrades.
Only five black African women have finished in the top 10 of the Comrades Marathon: Mbuthuma in 2016, Sarah Mahlangu in 2002, Nokuthula Hlengwa in 1993, Nhlanhla Nene in 1982 and 1980, and Mokgadi Relela in 1977.
“I saw Fikile when I went to watch the 2017 race and she really inspired me. I heard she had a top 10 the previous year and it was great to see a black woman doing so well. It really would be nice to see more of us making it big in the ultras. It is a goal of mine to one day get to that level and even go on to win the race in the future.”
There can be no denying she has the talent to achieve those goals. With age on her side and the right kind of support, it’d be foolish to rule out Babili winning Comrades some day.