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South Africa: The World’s Oldest Ultramarathon Meets the World Cup

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National Geographic Digital Media's Korena Di Roma will be traveling to South Africa to report on the Comrades Marathon, the start of the World Cup, and World Vision's humanitarian efforts in the country. Follow her dispatches here.

It’s been called the greatest footrace on Earth—56 miles through the brutal, hilly terrain between two South African cities. It’s a race that rivets the sports-loving country each year, and this spring it will take place for the 85th time just two weeks before the inaugural match of the 2010 World Cup.

The Comrades Marathon began in 1921 as a living memorial to South Africans who fought in World War I. That year, 34 runners took on the course between Pietermaritzburg and the coastal city of Durban. Today it’s the world’s oldest ultramarathon and, with nearly 17,000 runners set to participate, it’s also the world’s largest.

For many runners, Comrades is a race against the clock: At the 12th hour, the finish line closes and runners’ times are no longer recorded. South African native Paul Jansen Van Rensburg, who will be running the race for the first time on May 30, recalled watching Comrades as a child. “We would get up at 5 a.m. and watch with our families, especially the end … where people carry one another, crawl, and basically do anything and everything to help one another over the finish line. It’s every South African boy’s dream to someday run it.”

That the scope and drama of Comrades seems to be virtually unknown in America may change as the popularity of destination marathons increases and more runners look to the combination of adventure travel and road racing as an ideal getaway.

But who runs a race like Comrades? And what makes it such a unique challenge even among ultramarathons? I put the latter question in various ways to the team of runners I’ll be traveling with, and theirs are the answers I’ll have for you in the coming weeks.

As for who they are, my initial thought was that it must take a truly special person to run a race like Comrades, “special” being my description of choice for crazy, reckless adrenaline junkies. But I’ve had the chance to learn about some of the 18 runners who make up Team World Vision, and the reality has often surprised me.

Along with Jansen Van Rensburg, who is one of two South Africans on the team, there’s Bart Yasso, a 54-year-old running icon battling chronic Lyme disease. Paul Martin lost his leg in a car accident and went on to become a ten-time Ironman finisher. American 50K record holder Josh Cox is hoping to be only the second American to win Comrades. And Andy Baldwin, the Navy doctor, triathlete, and former Bachelor star who first suggested I tell their story, will be tackling his longest distance race yet.

Michael Chitwood, a World Vision staff member, is leading the team he helped put together. Their goal? To improve the lives of children in South Africa, Kenya, and Ethiopia by raising sponsorships that will help provide clean water, healthcare, education, and opportunity.

So check back to follow the team’s journey, and learn how they’ve trained, what advice they have for ultramarathon hopefuls, and of course, what it feels like to cross the finish line. After the race, we’ll be traveling to World Vision development areas to meet some of the children they’ve helped sponsor. And if you’re planning on traveling to South Africa for the World Cup, I’ll be catching a few matches during its first days and will report on some of the things you might need to know before you go.

Photograph by Alyssa Bistonath / World Vision.