South Africa: 56-Mile Comrades Marathon – The Results Are In

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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. Photographs by Korena di Roma

Single-leg amputee Paul Martin lifts his sponsored child—born without
arms—at the 60-kilometer point near Field’s Hill. Martin completed the
race in 10 hours and 30 minutes.

For months I’ve been preparing to be in South Africa to see Team World Vision run the Comrades Marathon, and I admit that I had no idea what to expect. But of all the possible outcomes, seeing all 18 team members cross the finish line before the 12-hour cutoff was unforgettable.

Josh Cox, who holds the American record for the 50K, came to South Africa to win Comrades. He achieved a silver medal for under seven hours after battling stomach problems on the course. At the 30-kilometer point, onlookers said he seemed frustrated and apologetic as he passed the team’s cheerleaders who were gathered with the children the runners sponsor. But he kept going—and that’s the story of Comrades, which I understand better now that I’ve seen the people who took on what is billed as the Ultimate Human Race.

IMG_4904Leading the pack after Josh was Todd Katter, with a time of 8:46. Just 22 years old, Hannah Landecker was the team’s third finisher, completing the run in 8 hours and 53 minutes. She was the 211th woman to cross the finish line, and I was there when she passed the 30K and 60K milestones. Each time she was smiling widely, running at the front of the sub-9-hour pace group, and when I saw her at Sahara Stadium in Durban, where runners come in for the finish, she was sporting a Bill Rowan medal—named for the first winner of Comrades and given to those who finish between seven and nine hours.

It was cold the morning of the run. We had slept in the dormitory of a boys’ school in Pietermartizburg after having had lunch with some of the sponsored children. It was the first time that the children had been away from home, and they also slept there, in rooms that housed ten or twelve cots for regular boarders. None of us got much sleep that night, but in the morning as we ate breakfast, the team seemed at ease with what was ahead of them.

We saw nearly all of the team members pass the 30 and 60 kilometer marks, then we drove to Sahara Stadium, seeing on the way the line of runners that clogged the course, a moving band of color that extended over the hills. I’ve never seen anything like it. In the end, we gathered in a tent at the stadium trading stories and waiting for other runners to come in.

Being near the finish line before the cutoff was a heartbreaking experience. I may never forget the man in his sixties who passed in front of us, his clothes drenched and his face resigned. With fifty seconds to go, he might have made it if he were running, but he only walked, crying, knowing that as close as he was, it wasn’t going to happen. And there was a couple, each holding up one end of a banner with a photo of the daughter they’d lost to cancer. She was stoic, but he was crying uncontrollably. Other runners were holding hands or holding each other up, and of course Chariots of Fire played on the loudspeaker.

It was a huge accomplishment for Team World Vision that everyone finished the race. In fact, they almost made it look easy. At the tent, Todd Katter said it had been the worst day of his life pain-wise, but you wouldn’t have known it to look at him. Josh said he kept going because he knew the little girl that he and his wife sponsor would be waiting at the finish line. Maybe meeting the kids the day before made that kind of difference for everyone.

Next up, we’ll be visiting World Vision’s Okhahlamba development area in the Drakensburg mountains. Tonight we collected our tickets for the World Cup, and I’ll be bringing details as the tournament gets closer.