Runner's World

56 MILES OF FREEDOM

Source: Sindi training in Diepsloot, the Johannesburg township where she lives with her three children and a nephew.

At home getting ready for a run.

IT’S 6:30 A.M. ON A HAZY MAY MORNING IN DIEPSLOOT, A RUNDOWN TOWNSHIP IN JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA.

As the sun crests over the horizon, casting a pink glow over the low-slung fog and cooking fire smoke, Sindi Magade emerges from the slumped, one-room tin house she shares with her three children and a nephew, and starts to run.

Her undulating nine-mile route will take her to the chic, gated development where she works full-time as a maid. Twice every week she traces this route in the morning, the runs forming the core of her training for the 56-mile Comrades Marathon, the world’s oldest and largest ultra, which is held in South Africa each June.

Sindi, 40, jogs onto a street already thick with commuters, many of them dressed in the reflective blue coveralls of the city’s gardeners and day laborers or the branded blazers of private security companies, the front lines of South Africa’s notorious crime epidemic.

Every morning, on the fringes of every South African city, a mass exodus like this repeats itself again and again, as residents of the country’s poorest neighborhoods trudge off to work in the shops, houses, and offices of its richest. Until the 1990s, black South Africans were forcibly confined to neighborhoods like this—huddled on the distant perimeters of its cities, far from jobs and services. Millions still live there.

This particular neighborhood, Diepsloot, sprung up after apartheid ended, a knot of shacks that grew into a village and then a small city filled with people looking for jobs in the high-end gated communities nearby. Sindi moved here in the neighborhood’s early years, and nearly two decades later, her neighborhood still has a haphazard, unfinished look to it. There are few paved roads or sewers, and streams of blue-gray liquid flowing from houses and shops carve gullies into the roadside. Piles of garbage slump uncollected on nearly every street corner.

As she reaches the main road out of Diepsloot, Sindi weaves past a long line of dented mini-buses wheezing and heaving their way south toward the developments. By comparison, she looks like she could go forever, her loose, lanky limbs moving with practiced ease over trash and broken bottles as she thinks about her 5-year-old daughter’s upcoming debate tournament, her teenage son’s soccer championship, the new running shoes she hopes to buy next weekend. “I tell myself, I must push,” Sindi says. “I must do it.”

In the United States, ultramarathoners are, by reputation and reality, a very specific kind of runner—and a very specific kind of person. It’s a Trader Joe’s–loving, national park– vacationing, Subaru-driving kind of crowd, white collar and just plain white. (One 2013 survey of American ultrarunners found that less than .1 percent were black.)

In South Africa, ultrarunning may be an oddball pursuit, but it’s a far more mainstream kind of oddball. In a country where race and class still cleave society in painful and obvious ways, distance running is a rare experience

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