DURBAN, South Africa — On a balmy Sunday morning in late August, Kgadimonyane Hoseah Tjale stood below a stadium full of roaring fans on the finish line of the Comrades ultramarathon, clutching a small air horn.
He had been here before. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Tjale racked up four podium finishes at the Comrades, a 56-mile race between the South African cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Today, it is the largest ultramarathon in the world, attracting a field of up to 20,000 runners, throngs of spectators and millions of live television viewers.
The story of how the Comrades became the race it is today is bound up in the story of Tjale and other pioneering Black runners of his generation. In the dying days of South Africa’s apartheid regime, they helped transform the race from a poky, amateur affair into an enormous event that looks much like the country around it.
They did so from one of the most uneven playing fields in the modern world.
Back at the race for the first time in 29 years, Tjale marveled as the top finishers sprinted past him. In his days, nearly every top runner was white. Now, all the top men were Black, wearing the jerseys of big corporate running clubs that paid for them to attend training camps. The 2022 men’s race winner, a university security guard named Tete Dijana, earned around $42,000 in prize money and bonuses. It was equivalent to about a decade of his salary.
“There was none of that in our times,” said Tjale, a retired delivery driver who was living in a shack north of Johannesburg when he ran his final Comrades race in 1993, when the race did not offer a cash prize.
Tjale had been invited back by the Comrades’ organizers to sound a horn marking the cutoff for a special medal given to runners who finish in less than six hours. In the car from the airport two days before, Tjale asked one of them why they had invited him. He’d never won the race, after all.
But for Comrades runners, the reason was obvious.
“We are here because of him,” said Freddie Wilson, a runner from Johannesburg, as he waited to take a photograph with Tjale at the race expo. His voice shook with emotion.
Like many Black South Africans, Wilson grew up watching Tjale on TV. His family didn’t have a television, but on Comrades Sunday they would crowd with others in their neighborhood into the lounge of a family who did and spend the entire day watching the race.
Wearing a bucket hat and running with a distinctive, lopsided gait, Tjale was a revelation in the front pack. From inside a country whose government was purpose-built to stifle the ambitions of Black South Africans, here was a Black man doing something audaciously ambitious, for the whole country to see.
“He was our great,” Sello Mokone, who has run the Comrades 18 times, said. “The moment we saw a Black guy doing this, we knew we could do it too.”
At his peak, Tjale could run 56 miles at a pace of just over six minutes a mile. He racked up dozens of wins at ultramarathons, including at South Africa’s other famous ultra, the 35-mile Two Oceans. Twice, he almost defeated the Comrades’ white folk hero, a floppy-haired blond man named Bruce Fordyce, who won the race nine times between 1981 and 1990.
Bob de la Motte, a white runner who finished second to Fordyce three times, said that Tjale “was the better athlete.”
But while Fordyce focused full-time on the Comrades, living off money from speaking gigs and corporate sponsorships, Tjale worked as a delivery driver, running 15 miles from the crowded workers’ hostel where he lived to his job. On weekends, he ran every local race he could find, from 10 kilometers to 100 kilometers (6.2 miles to 62.1 miles), for prize money to supplement his income.
“He was lucky,” Tjale said of their rivalry.
Tjale grew up in the 1960s in a rural area near the city of Polokwane, formerly known as Pietersburg. He dropped out of school after eighth grade. A few years later, he moved to Johannesburg to work as a live-in gardener for a white family. There, he clipped hedges during the day and washed the family’s dishes after dinner. In between, sometimes, he went for a jog.
In the late 1970s, his running caught the attention of his employer, who helped him buy a pair of sneakers and join a running club. He began entering races, and soon, winning.
It was an auspicious moment to take up distance running. At the time, South Africa was subject to widespread international sports boycotts, which kept the country out of most major events. The nation was desperate to get back in, and in the mid-1970s, the apartheid government announced it would desegregate a minor sport, running.
Amid a global boom in jogging, entries at races like the Comrades began to tick upward. And South Africa’s single state-run TV station began broadcasting the Comrades live in the early 1980s. Millions watched Black runners like Tjale and white competitors like Fordyce share bottles of water and sling their arms over one another at the finish line.
“In the Comrades, everyone needed help at some point, and people always gave it,” said Poobie Naidoo, another elite South African distance runner from the 1980s, who is of Indian heritage.
But the moment runners like Tjale and Naidoo stepped off the course, they returned to an apartheid reality. In 1979, not long after his first Comrades, Tjale was arrested on his way to work for not having documents showing he was allowed to be in a white part of the city. He spent a night in jail.
“On the road was the only place I sometimes felt like apartheid wasn’t there,” Tjale said.
In 1989, both Tjale and Fordyce participated in a 100-kilometer world championship. Because of the timing, Fordyce skipped the Comrades, and Tjale ran it on tired legs. Another runner, Sam Tshabalala, became the race’s first Black champion. Tjale, meanwhile, ran his final Comrades in 1993, quietly finishing 51st.
In 2016, Tjale, a reserved man with an easy laugh, retired to a 20-acre farm he bought near Polokwane. It was one of the first times since he married in the 1970s that he and his wife had been able to live together, and they spent quiet evenings on their couch cracking jokes and watching soap operas.
He didn’t think much more of the Comrades, besides occasionally turning down invites to events the race hosted. “I was done with that thing,” he said simply.
But this year, a Comrades Marathon Association board member named Isaac Ngwenya called with a plea. Would Tjale come and let himself be honored?
He agreed and last weekend boarded a plane for Durban.
Tjale arrived to a race radically transformed from the one he left. At the Comrades expo, thousands of runners — most of them Black — milled around, trading training stories. The night before the race, more than 300 people slept in the Pietermaritzburg Y.M.C.A., where race organizers put up entrants who could not afford accommodation.
“It’s something I can show my son, and myself — that I did this thing,” said Cynthia Smith, a security guard, as she stretched out on her foam mattress.
On the start line at Pietermaritzburg City Hall the next morning, more than 13,000 runners sang an old migrant laborers’ song called Shosholoza, whose title means “go forward.” The gun popped, and they surged into the winter morning.
“It’s like living your entire life in a single day,” Tommy Neitski, a 42-time finisher, said of the race’s mass appeal. It’s also like seeing all of South Africa in a day, on a course that winds its way past shacks and boutique hotels, sugar cane fields and gritty industrial towns.
Tjale arrived at the finish line at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium to sound the six-hour horn. Waiting in a V.I.P. lounge, he ran into Jetman Msuthu-Siyephu, winner of the 1992 race. They spent the morning trading memories.
As the day wore on, the two men watched the salt-streaked runners pour in by the thousands, dissolving in joy and exhaustion as they stumbled over the finish line. Tjale couldn’t stop smiling.
“When we go,” he said to Msuthu-Siyephu, “we will have left something for this world.”