It’s the 90th annual Comrades Marathon; it is a cold dawn. Legs limber up; stretches are done. Eyes betray the fear – people have died in this race. Before them is a 90-kilometer run stretching between the South African cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, in KwaZulu-Natal. Standing shivering beside some 13,000 runners, in the dawn over Durban, is Themba Baloyi, a Johannesburg entrepreneur and runner. He has a green number on his chest – a badge of honor for runners with more than 10 Comrades Marathon finishes.
Away from the marathon it has been a busy year for Baloyi, the founder and executive director of Discovery Insure, a position he has held since he was 25. This year, he was appointed a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (WEF), a recognition given to distinguished leaders under the age of 40. He will hold the post for five years, influencing youth around the world.
Despite his 18 years of road running, and 14 Comrades Marathons with 11 finishes, Baloyi was anxious on this May morning. As Chariots of Fire played before the starter pistol, Baloyi was overwhelmed by emotion. Tears ran down his face. This was because he remembered after every race it was a ritual to telephone his mother and tell her about it. But she died in December 2013.
“With all the good things I am doing, I know my mother would have been proud. She would have celebrated my WEF appointment. These are some of the things that ran through my mind as I anticipated the start,” says Baloyi.
For 18 years, Baloyi has taken this risk on the road. This is because in every race he is taking his life in his hands – many doctors would tell him not to – he has type one diabetes, a chronic condition he has lived with for 11 years.
“One of the key reasons and driving forces for me is to demonstrate that when you have a chronic condition, it doesn’t mean you cannot do challenging things. I still have a wish of doing Mount Everest one day but my wife wants me to wait for our kids to grow up… A lot of people still think about limitations relating to whatever [health] conditions you are dealing with. I see possibilities,” says Baloyi.
In the marathon, Baloyi took caution.
“I have seen runners lying on the side of the road. Six years ago, as I was going for the finish line, running a 21-kilometer race in (Irene) Centurion, I passed a guy on the side of the road. I later learned he eventually died. That left a huge impression in my mind until today. Now, when I see a runner struggling on the side of the road, I become cautious and intervene,” he says.
Baloyi says, since that day, he always helps in incidents in a race because it could be him one day.
“If we all pass, like other runners do, no one might notice that I am in desperate need for help. So, I always ensure I am not one of the statistics. That is one of the key things in my mind when running. As much as I don’t want to traumatize other runners, I also don’t want to traumatize their families. You don’t want to create an impression that running is a bad thing, that people die,” says Baloyi.
Death at the side of the road haunts him. He says you should always listen to your body. That’s the oldest rule in the book. But there’s that element of heroism that kicks in time and again. That’s not right, it’s foolish, he says.
“I have run with people with heart disease. In one of my races, there’s this guy who ran with his daughter. I admired his courage and the care he took ensuring that he was not a statistic. He was going for his 16th Comrades’ medal – a guy with heart disease. My sense is that people always create barriers and limitations for whatever condition or scenario they are dealing with. But, with due care and consideration, you should be able to complete a race successfully without killing yourself or putting other people at risk,” says Baloyi.
For Baloyi, who runs to keep fit and for enjoyment, each race comes with a checklist: cellphone for emergency calls; glucometer, to check his blood sugar levels; protein supply and a lot of liquids. He does his own check-ups on the road.
“That’s why in some of the races, like the one last year, as much as I was still on track and running on time, I pulled out because my sugar [levels were] sitting at three. I didn’t know what the distance is between three and a coma – hypoglycaemia,” he says.
This year’s Comrades was no different. Baloyi stopped a few times to monitor his blood sugar level and to eat food.
“I continued to the halfway mark, looking good and feeling strong, but I had lost a lot time because I stopped in Hillcrest and the Valley of a Thousand Hills,” says Baloyi.
Towards the second-last cut-off, Baloyi and other runners were 10 minutes behind the time when they met a stranger who told them they won’t make it.
“This guy said ‘whoever gets through this cut-off will be the guy with a big heart’, I looked at this guy and I said trust me I am the guy with the big heart. I then blasted off and beat the cut-off [time],” says Baloyi.
At the last cut-off – at the top of Polly Shortts, 82 kilometers into the race – Baloyi was faced with the impossible; he had to run a kilometer in two minutes.
“I was playing it out in my mind that I was not going to make it. But I am going to negotiate with the race referee, I am going to finish the race,” says Baloyi.
Alas, his negotiation skills didn’t work with the race referee this time. Baloyi was told his race was over. He was ordered to wait for a rescue bus beside the road.
“There comes this lady, Denise Johansson. She was upset. She was chasing her 15th medal. Whatever happened to her along the race, it happens to all of us with all the experience we have in the world. She said, ‘I am going to the finish’. I saw Marthinus doing the same thing. I said ‘okay, everybody is going. Bye-bye referee,’” he says.
From there, Baloyi sprinted past the referee and made a commitment to finish the race with Johannsson and Marthinus.
“As much as I was late, I think I could have still finished in 12:10 but I crossed the line in 12:37. I had made a commitment that I was not going to leave Denise behind. Although I was feeling strong in the last three kilometers, I had to keep the commitment. We were the last two runners to the finish. Unfortunately, Marthinus fell off the wagon,” says Baloyi.
Baloyi and Johansson didn’t know each before the race but were bound by the running and the will to finish.
“Denise made a commitment and she remained true to it. I honored her for that because, as a runners’ code, if you agree on something, you do it,” he says.
Baloyi says long distance running like the Comrades Marathon is an equalizer.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are an elite professional athlete, a CEO, somebody sweeping the street or a miner. We are all equal in the race,” he says.
Baloyi says people should understand your bad day in the office because everyone goes through it. He witnessed the top seeded runners walking in the race and some couldn’t even finish.
“Any runner who’s never had a bad day in the office, his level of maturity has not yet manifested. The level of maturity manifests the moment when things don’t go according to the plan,” he says.
On that day, drenched in sweat just outside Pietermaritzburg, the plan was in pieces, but the will to go on rescued one of the many worst days for those who suffer to run.