Heroes Deserve Medals: The Tale of Xolani Luvuno (#15620)

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Letter of the Law vs the Spirit of the Law: An Open Letter to the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA)

There were some great performances at Comrades 2018. Bongumusa Mthembu won his third Comrades and became the first South African since Bruce Fordyce (the undisputed the King of Comrades) to claim back to back victories. Likewise, in the women’s race, Ann Ashworth had the race of her life – she started as an outsider but dominated a strong field for a convincing victory.

These were great performances. However, the one that will be remembered is that of a runner who finished way down the field amongst the last of the bronze medallists. This was the year that a one-legged cancer survivor on crutches hopped the longest Comrades in 23 years. The year that a former convict gained redemption. The year that a recovering drug addict who lived under a bridge for several years redefined what is possible. On June 10, Xolani Luvuno astonished and inspired a nation – and the 2018 edition of Comrades will be remembered as Xolani’s year.

I love writing about running. I particularly like to share interesting stories about races and runners. Before Comrades I was able to share some great stories – some I heard on the road, others I received in my inbox: A six-time Comrades finisher who was impaled 3.5km underground and came back for a seventh medal, a club mate running with an invisible but incredibly debilitating autoimmune disease called Lupus, a lifetime drug addict who found the road to recovery on a running track – and even a bit of comedy amongst all the drama with a couch to Comrades runner who got a DNF at Two Oceans and was only lining up for Comrades after a chance seating next to Caroline Wöstmann on the flight home.

Fordyce (and three legs).

These were impressive stories but they had nothing on Xolani. A few days before Comrades, I was on Facebook and saw a picture of Xolani standing next to Bruce Fordyce. I remember having a cocktail of thoughts fly through my head including, “Good luck buddy!”, “Wow, just wow!” and “What are the chances that he’s actually going to finish?”.

Comrades is a long race. A race where everyone has bad patches. You won’t be remembered for how you start, you’ll be remembered for how you finish.

CMA, you started strong. There was no social media campaign to get Xolani to the start – you made a plan for him. You let him start five hours before the rest of us. This evening I watched the video of Xolani’s start. It was special.

A special start at 00:30 on June 10:


It was just Xolani and Hein Venter (his friend, coach and the man he calls “father”) as well as a handful of friends and family. It was an emotional experience – fortunately someone captured it on their phone camera. There were no TV cameras or reporters around but you gave him the full fanfare anyway: Chariots of Fire followed by Max Trimborn’s cock crow and the firing on the cannon.

That’s a great start CMA, you guys flew out of the blocks. Unfortunately no one remembers how well you start, it’s how you finish that counts.

You got to Drummond and life was peachy. Social and traditional media were full of the stories of Xolani’s amazing feat (or in his case foot). But you don’t win Comrades at Drummond.

At Comrades, Drummond is where the questions start being asked. We asked you about Xolani’s medal. You responded with vague answers. After a couple of uphill walks, you started running again. A surge. Everything’s OK. A statement comes out that Xolani was indeed awarded a special medal and everyone celebrates.

The official CMA statement from their Facebook account which has subsequently been deleted (thanks to Tracy Smith for the screen capture).

You managed to keep the pace going through Kloof but the warning signs were there. The real race starts at 60km – doubts are once again cast on Xolani’s medal- you stumble down Field’s Hill and limp into Pinetown. Your challengers are asking probing questions and snapping at your heals. How will you respond?

Right now things aren’t looking good CMA. You’re going through a bad patch. In fact, it’s an horrendous patch.

CMA is cramping and it’s horrible to watch. It turns out Xolani didn’t get a medal from Comrades. CMA wobbles into Westville and suddenly seizes up – a media statement is released saying, “Sorry guys, we lied.” – but it’s OK because “We followed the rules and Xolani knew he wasn’t going to get a medal when he started.”

CMA, your rough patch has cost you. You can no longer win this race – but you can still salvage a finish, maybe even a strong one. Your supporters still love you. We want to see you dust yourself off and start running again.

We want to see a strong finish. This is a defining moment. How will you respond? How will you be remembered?

On Sunday Xolani ran with #15620. In 1967, a runner started Boston Marathon wearing #261. Her name was Kathrine Switzer. A few miles into the race, an irate official called Jock Semple yelled, “Get the hell out of my race” and attempted to rip Switzer’s race number off her back. Her boyfriend, the burly hammer-thrower Tom Miller, pushed him aside and they carried on to finish the race. The photos taken of that incident are iconic. They are also an embarrassment to the Boston Marathon Association.

An irate Jock Semple tries to rip the race number off Kathrine Switzer’s back (photo from Google images).

When asked his opinion of a woman running the marathon, Boston’s race director Will Cloney said, “Women can’t run in the Marathon because the rules forbid it. Unless we have rules, society will be in chaos. I don’t make the rules, but I try to carry them out. We have no space in the Marathon for any unauthorized person, even a man. If that girl were my daughter, I would spank her.”

How does history look upon Jock Semple? He’s reviled and ridiculed. And Will Cloney? Well he got good spanking of his own when women were allowed to legitimately enter Boston a few years later.

Cheryl Winn, Rowyn James – how do you want to be remembered?

Please don’t hide behind the rules. There’s the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. You guys make the rules and you have the power the break, bend or amend the rules.

Xolani broke the rules on Sunday. He changed the definition of what was possible. Most would not have expected him to finish – and no one could predict the impact a one-legged hero on crutches would have on South Africa. He astounded a nation. His effort is what Comrades is all about. He touched all 10,000 runners who passed him on the road to Durban. I was one of those runners.

I passed Xolani in Berea. I was tired, sore and feeling sorry for myself – but then I saw Xolani. He changed my perspective. At that stage of the race I didn’t want to talk to anyone but I talked to Xolani. I congratulated him. I even managed a decent attempt at the ‘click’ for the ‘X’. I told him he was amazing and asked if I could take a photo. He smiled and told me to go ahead. I realised that after running 82km I was suddenly smiling again.

Still smiling after 82km – and infecting the rest of us with his smile.

Xolani’s smile infected me. A lot of people took photos of Xolani on Sunday. He’s smiling in every one of them. He was smiling when he started and he was smiling when he crossed that finish line. The only thing that hurt more than his leg on Monday morning would have been his cheek muscles.

So here we are CMA. Most of the race is complete but the most challenging part is ahead. This is where you are truly tested. The cameras are on you as you approach 45th Cutting and the finish. How will you respond?

When Vic Clapham founded Comrades it was to honour those who fell in the First World War. He was honouring heroes – and heroes get medals. Cheryl Winn (#3060) and Rowyn James (#1024), many years ago you were foot soldiers on this great journey between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. You are now the Generals commanding this magnificent race and its participants. Jock Semple will be remembered for trying to rip the number off a runner. Will you be remembered for denying the medal to one of our Comrades? Or will you be remembered as the ones who placed it around his neck?



I really hope that the Comrades Marathon Association acknowledges Xolani’s performance with an official finish and medal. Their wishy-washy, wordsmithed, ‘hide behind the rules’ press release does not leave me with a lot of confidence, it concludes, “we will apply our minds to the appropriate means of recognition”. I suspect that this means he’ll get a “Spirit of Comrades” Award.

However, there is an easy out: Create a new medal, a special medal to honour a one of a kind performance. I would suggest calling it the Frith van der Merwe medal to honour her one of a kind performance in 1989 when she finished 15th overall. As far as I know it would also be the first medal honouring a female athlete in South Africa (if not the world).

As for Hein, give him the Spirit of Comrades award. He’s also a hero but he’s got two legs like the rest of us so he can live without a 14th finish and medal – besides which, he’s got so many medals he’s giving them away!

Hein presented Xolani with one of his old Comrades medals after they crossed the line together (photo from Facebook).

The best of Xolani on social media:

Xolani’s back incredible back story:


Xolani dances through a water station:


An interview on SABC as Xolani nears the finish:


Follow Xolani on Facebook:




JM Busha Peace Marathon (A Tale From The Tavern)

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[MARATHON #188 / UNIQUE MARATHON #102 / 1 May 2018]

A Running Mann Walks Into A Bar & Says, “Barman, I Want To Run One Last Marathon Before Comrades”

The first of May is Workers’ Day in South Africa – somewhat ironic considering it falls smack back in the middle of our annual period of protracted wage negotiations and national strikes. For the Comrades runner, May signals the culmination of many months of hard work and training – with 1 May being the last day one can qualify or improve your seeding for the largest ultra on the planet. The local running calendar revolves around Comrades – and South African marathon organisers also down tools after Workers’ Day, shutting the local running scene down until the end of July.

I’m not one to rest on my laurels (in fact I’m a “Yanny” person and can’t even hear “Laurel”!) – although it had only been a couple of days since the Outeniqua Marathon and we’d just arrived back from our Garden Route trip, I knew I had to squeeze in one last marathon to beat the post-holiday blues and get through the barren marathonless winter months.

The sun rises over Randfontein.

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Outeniqua Marathon (The One I Almost Missed)

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[MARATHON #187 / UNIQUE Marathon #101 / 28 April 2018]

I run a lot of marathons around the country. When local runners see the Gauteng license plates pinned to one’s vest they often ask, “Did you come here especially to run the marathon?” – and are suitably impressed (and often somewhat surprised) when you confirm that is indeed the case. When you run a marathon on the Garden Route, local runners ask a similar question from a slightly different perspective, enquiring “Are you here on holiday?”

You see, when you live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, your assumptions change and you know that even the most addicted marathon runner isn’t going to just ‘hit and run’ – it’s much more likely that they are going to ‘hit, run your marathon and stay for a few days’.

Running through the Garden of Eden: About to cross the Silver River on a road that’s a national monument.

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Marathon Addict? Guilty As Charged! (My 100th Unique Marathon At Bruintjieshoogte)

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[MARATHON #186 / UNIQUE Marathon #100 / 21 April 2018]

Prudent South African runners only plan their running year BC (before Comrades). When you’re running Comrades in June, it is presumptuous to plan anything for the second half of the year. Having ended 2017 with 89 unique marathons, I realised that I could reach my goal of 100 unique marathons in 2018 BC via a combination of three factors: good health, extensive travel and a very understanding wife.

Everything went perfectly to plan: After 13 consecutive marathon running weekends all around the country (with just three repeat races: Om Die Dam, Two Oceans and Jackie Gibson), it was now time to conclude the 100 unique marathons goal. When picking a milestone marathon, many people would pick a large, flashy and prestigious marathon – but there’s a big risk of getting “Phantom Menanced” and the hype not living up to expectations.

Summiting a termite mound in preparation for summiting the Bruinjieshoogte pass.

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Jackie Gibson Marathon (Where The Hills Have No Name)

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[MARATHON #185 / 3rd Jackie Gibson / 15 April 2018]

People are very liberal dishing out advice when you’re 21. When I was 21, I migrated upcountry from a small cliquey, seaside village called Cape Town to the metropolis of Johannesburg – and received plenty of unsolicited advice. Most of it I either completely ignored or quickly forgot. However, the one piece of advice I took to heart and still apply 20 years later (probably because of the gravity with which it was delivered) was, “Stick to the north of Johannesburg. You can’t go wrong in the north of Johannesburg. But whatever you do – stay clear of the south!”

Two decades is a long time to survive in Johannesburg – overall I have come through relatively unscathed, I’ve only had one car stolen and have avoided most of the pitfalls one associates with life on the highveld (like being hijacked, mugged or becoming a Lions supporter). I attribute much of the success of this survival strategy to heeding the above advice – and, other than for weddings and marathons, I have avoided the south of Johannesburg like KPMG avoids due diligence. Just like in Game of Thrones, people of the north need to limit the amount of time they spend in the south if they want to survive!

If you survive two-laps of the steepest hills Joburg south can throw at you, this is the great medal you’ll earn.

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Mall Of The North Marathon (The Pick of Polokwane)

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[MARATHON #184 / UNIQUE Marathon #99 / 7 April 2018]

I’ve spent three nights in Polokwane.

There are three marathons in Polokwane.

You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce the reason for each visit!

Having now run all three of Polokwane’s standard marathons, I can confirm that the Mall of the North Marathon is my favourite.

Acacia Thorn trees are distinctive in the Limpopo bushveld and line the route. First National Bank (FNB) also chose this tree for their logo (I’ve been told that this is because there’s a prick in every branch – but I’ve also been told that this applies to all the banks).

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Two Oceans (A Love Letter To My Favourite Ultra)

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[MARATHON #183 / 16th Two OCeans / 31 MARCH 2018]

South Africa hosts the two biggest (and greatest) ultra marathons in the world: Two Oceans and Comrades. I’ve been asked many times about the difference between the two. My philosophical view is that if you are a teenager in love, Two Oceans is the sweet, charming, beautiful girl that you should marry. Comrades is the girl that’s way out of your league but is malevolent enough to string you along, thinking you have a chance – only to break your heart (and your body) after crushing your spirit and ripping out your soul.

It’s got to be a special race when you’re this happy at 38km (and still have 18km – and Constantia Nek – to go).

The Romance

Growing up in Cape Town, Two Oceans was my “girl next door” – and it was as a teenager that I fell in love with her. I had just started high school at Rondebosch Boys and they asked for volunteers to hold up kilometre boards over the first 15km and man (or in my case “boy”) the last support table on the route. This seemed like a really good idea since I could support my Dad (The Old Running Mann) and we were told we could drink as much Coca-Cola as we liked on the day. In future years Rustenburg Girls School were invited to partner us at the table (which made the proposition even more attractive!). Continue reading “Two Oceans (A Love Letter To My Favourite Ultra)”

Umgeni Water Marathon (One Dam Marathon After Another)

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[MARATHON #182 / Unique Marathon #98 / 25 MARCH 2018]

After Om Die Dam the previous week and Kosmos (around Lake Umuzi) the week before that, I headed down to Midmar Dam for the Umgeni Water Marathon – in what was quite literally a case of just one dam marathon after another!

Another dam fine marathon I got myself into (& around)!

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Om Die Dam: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

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[MARATHON #181 / 10th Om Die Dam / 17 MARCH 2018]

Running Om Die Dam is a bit like having kids:

  • Some people have one kid and decide that’s enough;
  • Quite a few people have one kid, take a few years to recuperate before having another (and maybe squeeze out one more after that) – but then they’re done for good, knowing with certainty that that’s enough;
  • Some people stick to “recreational running”, deciding never to have kids after seeing the haggard and traumatised faces of friends with kids and hearing their tired tales of endurance;
  • But then there are those crazy people who just keep popping out kids year after year. I am one of those crazy people – having just popped out my 10th Om Die Dam.
Proud recipient of permanent #1295 after popping out my 10th Om Die Dam.

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