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South Africa: In Durban, Comrades Marathon and the World Cup Take Center Stage

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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. Pictured: A Team World Vision training run in Durban; photograph by Andrea Peer/World Vision

I’m at the hotel in Durban, South Africa, a seaside city that’s buzzing with the energy of both the Comrades Marathon and the World Cup. Since stepping into the South African Airways boarding area at JFK, I’ve been wondering what decorated walls, magazine covers, and complimentary packets of airline toothpaste before the World Cup came to South Africa. Writing from a hotel across the street from the Comrades finish line and within sight of the city’s nautical Moses Mabhida Stadium, I’m thrilled to be here to witness it all.

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Photograph by Kyle Vermeulen/World Vision

On the flight from JFK, it was easy to spot the passengers who would be running Comrades: fit, purposeful, surprisingly serene, and dressed as though they might jog straight to their hotels from the airport—you know, just as a warm-up.

As over the top as that sounds, training for Comrades is all about extremes. Think back-to-back marathons and days when “going for a run” means covering 20 miles or more, preferably on hilly terrain. “We actually ran the marathon distance [26.2 miles] about ten times in the last three months,” said Tony Halabi, a member of Team World Vision from Chicago. “I never thought I would be putting in 75 miles per week … I ended up running Boston as a training run.”

Speaking of the Boston Marathon, one of the toughest parts of that race is famously known as Heartbreak Hill. There are hills of the same size on the Comrades course that “don’t even register on the map,” said David Courtney, a South African who has run and finished Comrades three times and whose son, Paul Courtney, will be running for the first time on Sunday.

Flying from Johannesburg to Durban, I looked down at the hills passing belo–the landscape of KwaZulu-Natal province. From the air they looked almost like they had been crafted by hand, being side-by-side and steep all around, the way a child might draw hills. I wondered if these were what the team would encounter in a race with no flat terrain–as I’ve heard said many times, at Comrades you’re either running uphill or downhill.

This is the case whether it’s a so-called “down” year, when the race is run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, or an “up” year, when it takes the reverse course. The race begins in Pietermaritzburg this year, but a down run doesn’t necessarily mean an easier race. “I am terrified of the incessant pounding the downhills are going to do to my knees,” said Paul Courtney, one of many team members who cited the hills as the race’s most daunting aspect.

In fact, they say it’s not the distance, it’s the terrain. “Everyone can train the miles,” said Hannah Landecker, the youngest and only female runner on Team World Vision. But no one on the team, she says, has trained on comparable hills. “It looks like an EKG,” said runner Steve Spear, describing the widely distributed map of the hills, which here can be seen on anything from t-shirts to coffee mugs.

Five hills stand out as particularly grueling—Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s, Fields, and Cowies, in the down-run order, known as the “Big Five.” Today we had lunch with Bruce Fordyce, who has won Comrades an unprecedented nine times and is a celebrated athlete in South Africa. Andy Baldwin recalled Fordyce’s words to the team: “He said we would feel pain like we’ve never felt before, but that finishing Comrades is about more than physical ability.”

For the members of Team World Vision, the toughest part of their journey is both behind and ahead of them. Hannah is also my roommate on this trip. Small-framed, cheerful, and seemingly fearless, she graduated college just weeks ago, and this evening she sat on the floor of our room surrounded by Comrades paraphernalia and gel packs, calmly pinning her race bib to an orange-and-white World Vision singlet. Considering that I’m feeling pressure when my biggest challenge here is to string words together with limited time and a tenuous Internet connection, I’ve been incredibly impressed by Hannah’s composure and optimism.

If anyone is feeling the pressure right now, it’s Josh Cox, who’s a favorite to win—no small feat when you consider that only 12 novices (those running Comrades for the first time) have won the race in its 85-year history, and that last year’s winner covered the 56 miles in 5 hours 23 minutes. You do the math.

During a press conference today, Josh was asked about carb loading, race-day strategies, and how he feels about his competition. Wearing a striking pair of running shoes that blazed with the colors of the South African flag, Josh gave nothing away as far as his strategy, but emphasized how his team has come together under widely varying circumstances to support each other and the children they’re sponsoring, some of whom will be at the starting line tomorrow to cheer them on.