How a grueling 56-mile ultramarathon in South Africa became a stage for racial reconciliation

Joseph Dana
10 min readJul 11, 2018
The start of the Comrades Marathon

At the end of a Shabbat dinner with family and friends in May, I found myself on the phone with one of the greatest South African runners of all time. The voice on the other end of the phone was Bruce Fordyce. While he might not be known outside of the country, Fordyce is the Michael Jordan of South African running. “Joseph,” he said over the phone, “you’ve made the worst decision of your life but you’re going to love every minute of it.”

He was referring to my decision to run the Comrades Marathon — a grueling 56-mile ultramarathon near Durban that is one of South Africa’s most beloved, admired, and watched sporting events in an already sport-obsessed country. Running the Comrades is a feat that creates immediate respect among peers and family in South Africa. Many finishers even include it on their resume.

Runners get ready to start the marathon, 2017. (Photo: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images)

The Comrades was a continuous topic of conversation during that Shabbat in May. Five of the men present, all over the age of 60, had run the Comrades — most more than once. Their eyes lit up when I announced I was running this year, and stories about the race flowed freely. They told me about training in the late 1970s and how sometimes they had to skip races because they fell on the first night of Passover. Back then, most of their friends and peers ran ultramarathons like the Comrades. Today, their children are into CrossFit and Pilates.

One guest told me how he sat down one year about five miles from the Comrades finish line, convinced he couldn’t take another step. A random runner stopped to check on him and after a brief chat they discovered they were both Jewish. The stranger helped him across the finish line. Years later, they bumped into each other in a Cape Town restaurant. “You might not remember me, but we finished the Comrades together in 1985,” the random runner said.

As an outsider who has made South Africa my adopted home, I approached the Comrades not only as a personal physical test of my running ability and fitness but also as a way to learn about South African society from the inside. The Comrades’…

Joseph Dana