What makes the Soweto Marathon great 

The People’s Race is one of the most historically rich marathons in the world, taking runners past a number of places that played a key role in the fight against apartheid. 

The heat is unbearable. The race’s official water points have run out of water. Runners are feeling the worse for wear and some look behind them in the hope they will spot the bailers’ bus that will take them out of their misery. 

But at the Soweto Marathon, help comes from unexpected sources. This, after all, is the People’s Race. 

Aware of the runners’ plight, residents of South Africa’s world-famous and biggest township connect their hosepipes and bring them out of their yards.

“Iza uphuze amanzi mntwan’am (Come drink water my child).” Suddenly there is water galore. And some of the residents simply direct their hosepipes on the passing runners – the rejuvenating feeling from the water on their bodies in the scorching Highveld heat is most welcome.

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The men and women who had looked close to collapsing make it to the finish line inside the iconic calabash that is the FNB Stadium, delighted that they have done what every South African should do at least once in their lifetime.

“Of course, everyone has to have the experience of having run the Soweto Marathon,” says Sello Khunou, chairperson of the Soweto Marathon Trust. “It is an experience like no other to be a part of the People’s Race. 

“We all know the generally held notion out there that Soweto is a dangerous place. But since its inception in 1991, the Soweto Marathon has proven that this is actually not the case. Those who have run the race will tell you that nothing beats being in Soweto, taking in all the historic sites that have contributed to turning our country into the democracy that it is now.”

Why it’s the People’s Race 

Especially unique to the Soweto Marathon is the community’s involvement in the race. Khunou explains: “For one, the race is organised jointly by all the running clubs of Soweto. But this is not just about running because the entire community of all the areas that the marathon goes through have taken ownership of the race. 

“They all want nothing bad to happen during the race and they go all out to ensure that runners are safe and take up unofficial marshalling roles. I am sure you would also have seen how the old ladies help struggling runners either by giving them water, or glucose powder if not salt for cramps. And there are also those who use their slippers to slap away the cramps off runners’ legs or rub them with spirit. They are the community medics of the Soweto Marathon.”

I ran the half marathon three years ago and when a runner fell down in front of one house, a clearly concerned elderly woman rushed to his side offering all kinds of help. That is the Soweto Marathon for you. Starting early on the first Sunday of November, runners get to engage with different members of society in the sprawling township. 

Bet on spotting old ladies clad in their different church uniforms, handbags and Bibles in hand. And a few of them are bound to tell you how they will pray that you have a good race. No sooner had runners been spiritually uplifted by such an encounter than they will find themselves on the receiving end of an offer of a sip of beer by a highly inebriated brother who clearly has not had any sleep.

Then there are the laaities, youngsters, who will try to outsprint you or give you a high five as you trudge your way through the race. Some of those often plead that you give them your water sachet or energy bar. And many a time you cannot help but oblige them, their delight at having had their request met knowing no bounds and suddenly filling you with happiness of your own, which propels you forward.

New Yorkers wax lyrical about Staten Island and Central Park – the start and finish of the race – as well as the five boroughs. In Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate is the main attraction. Londoners tell everyone to stop and take pictures near Big Ben and the House of Parliament, or Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace. 

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The World Marathon Majors all have one, if not two or more aspects of their cities that they sell as an attraction for runners to take in during the race. Grand as those can be, none of them compares to what the Soweto Marathon has to offer in terms of heritage sites along the route. Where else in the world can a runner claim to have run down a street that has been home to two Nobel Prize winners?

A run down memory lane 

The 42.2km route takes runners through Vilakazi Street and past the homes of former president Nelson Mandela and his neighbour, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This is the world-renowned street that has since become a tourist attraction. On the morning of race day though, there is nothing touristy about Vilakazi Street – the drummers and dancers who provide the entertainment notwithstanding. 

Vilakazi Street comes about 27km into the race and it is among the most difficult steeps on the route as the runners make their way up towards the Hector Pieterson Memorial. Running this race is tantamount to taking a lesson in South African history. The start at the FNB Stadium, which hosted the opening and final matches of the only Fifa World Cup ever to be hosted on the African continent, is arguably one of the most exhilarating there is, with runners toeing the line and taking pictures against the beautiful backdrop of the calabash with the orange sunrise sky above it.

The excitement at the gunshot sees many a television runner sprinting as though they are in a 100m race and waving at the cameras, only to quickly fade into the throngs of social runners as the elite athletes take the lead.

First up on the route is the monstrous Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the third-largest hospital in the world. Still fresh, most runners fly past without even realising it having gone through Diepkloof and approaching Pimville. Soon you are in the hustle and bustle of Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown. To the uninitiated, this is where the ANC Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955.

“The birth of our democracy happened right there and the Soweto Marathon takes you through there. I get very emotional whenever I discuss the route of this race because I was there when some of those events that shaped our country took place,” Khunou’s voice cracks and he pauses for a while to recompose himself.

“It is truly a historic route. On June 16 of 1976, we gathered at Morris Isaacson [High School] before marching to Orlando High, and we all know what transpired thereafter,” he says in reference to the students march against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction for black school pupils. A march that resulted in many young students being killed, the first of them being Hector Pieterson, whose memorial is just metres away from Morris Isaacson.

A tough, but historic route

The former homes of struggle stalwarts such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Nthato Motlana are within eyeshot of the route, as are renowned venues like the Regina Mundi Catholic Church, also known as the People’s Church, the Credo Mutwa Cultural Village and the Orlando Stadium that was the mecca of football during the apartheid years.

Runners chasing personal best times or other targets hardly ever get to witness heritage such as this. But with six hours in which to complete the race, it is surely worth dedicating one race, some year, to immerse yourself in the rich history that is within Soweto.

That the Soweto Marathon is a special event is evidenced by the fact that Old Mutual has remained a sponsor. The financial giants have pulled out of supporting the Comrades, Two Oceans and Om die Dam marathons. They have also stopped financially backing numerous trail running events.

The company has partnered with the Soweto Marathon Trust and Orlando West High School to provide free accommodation, transport and meals for runners with limited financial means for the Saturday before the race. Because of that, the Soweto Marathon will continue to live up to its moniker as the People’s Race, given that runners from all walks of life are able to participate.

Whether they arrive inside the FNB Stadium with a spring in their step, delighted at having achieved their goals, or battered and bruised after enduring arguably the toughest marathon in the land under the searing Highveld sun, one thing is for sure – every runner that completes the Soweto Marathon earns the respect of others. But more so, they find personal fulfilment in having been part of Africa’s, if not the world’s, most culturally and historically rich marathon.

You have got to do it at least once, they say, if only to drink water from a hosepipe.

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