In Season One: Comrades Marathon

As I’ve said many times, when you’re given lemons, make lemonade. And I relied on my legs to make the lemonade. And I just ran faster and it just gave me the strength to go harder and to prove that I belonged on those podiums.”

– Blanche Moila

Episode summary

In this episode, running legend Blanche Moila shares her story, which is a strong testament to the many ways running can be a vehicle for change. Blanche, who is now in her 60s, has been inspiring others through running since she started competing in the 1980s.

Blanche found her competitive running talents in her 20s and became one of South Africa’s best middle distance, cross-country, and marathon runners. Her accomplishments broke down racial barriers and, eventually, made her an inspiration throughout the country.

After her elite running career, Blanche began to regularly participate in the Comrades Marathon. As of 2019, she has completed the event 16 times, and in 2004, she was the face of Comrades.

Blanche, a psychiatric nurse, continues to be an inspiration to young girls and women and works to change negative beliefs about women and running. She does this by continuing to set an example with her own running, as well as public speaking, mentoring, and coaching. Also, Blanche runs Comrades for charity: in 2019, she ran for the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust.

Show Notes and Recommended Resource

Up top in this episode, we give a supportive shout-out to the She Runs Trails podcast, hosted  by Melody Dowlearn. This podcast was created to give voice to female mid-pack and back of the pack trail runners who are doing incredible things out on the trail every single day. Episodes cover a range of issues from nutrition and gear, to ultra running and mental health.

You can learn more about the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust on their website

The recommended resource for this episode is Women’s Running magazine. This publication touches on all aspects of the running lifestyle, from racing and training to nutrition, gear, and inspiration, as well as covering some of the competitive side of the sport, the runners, events and news. And it includes writing by such award-winning journalists as Erin Strout, who received the 2019 excellence in running journalism award from the Road Runners Club of America.

I first learned about Blanche through Bob de la Motte’s book Runaway Comrade

Audio Credits

Additional audio for this episode comes the 2017 Comrades Marathon Promotional Video.

blanche-and-cherie-web
Full episode transcript

Cherie Turner: Welcome back to Strides Forward, the podcast of stories about women and running, told one woman at a time. I am Cherie Louise Turner, your host and producer.
In this episode, you’ll hear the story of a South African running legend, who has a strong understanding of how running can be a vehicle for change, inspiration, and self-empowerment.

Blanche Moila: My name is Blanche Moila and I am from Durban, which is on the east coast of our beautiful country of South Africa.

Cherie : I’m sure you noticed, there’s quite a bit of noise in the background here. And what you’re hearing there is the 2019 Comrades Marathon Race Expo, where I met up with Blanche. And while it wasn’t an ideal recording environment, it is relevant.

For starters, the theme of this season is experiences in and around the Comrades Marathon, a 90-kilometer or roughly 56-mile road race that takes place each year in South Africa. Comrades turns 100 years old in 2021, and over 27,000 runners have registered for the 2020 event. This makes it the oldest and largest ultra distance foot race in the world.

Meeting Blanche in this environment drove home the fact that she is enormously popular. Race expos are where runners check in and pick up their numbers and it’s where there are booths for all types of products, services, and organizations related to running or to the event at hand. With big races like Comrades, the expos are open for the couple of days leading up to the event. And they buzz with excitement and anticipation. It’s a time to connect with fellow runners, and maybe show your appreciation to or get a selfie with your favorite running star or running legend, like Blanche: in this environment, she doesn’t get very far very fast.

Blanche: Walking through this today, was also overwhelming, the Comrades Expo. Lots of lots of people came up to me to tell me how I’ve influenced them to take up running. And this comes from other provinces, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and so forth. So to me, that’s just so humbling, to know that I’ve made a difference in others’ lives.

Cherie: As Blanche alluded to there, South Africa is divided into provinces, like Canada, as opposed to someplace like the US, where the country is divided into states. And Blanche mentioning that she gets accolades from people in all the different provinces points to, yes, the fact that she’s well known throughout South Africa. This widespread popularity has to do with the work she does and her many running accomplishments: she’s run Comrades many times, but before that, in the 80s and early 90s, she was one of the country’s top runners, but in races that were much shorter than 90 kilometers. Blanche has set records and won over 50 races, including many national titles, competing in distances from 1,500m to the marathon, as well as cross country. And she’s received numerous awards.
This nationwide support of Blanche, however, it wasn’t always so forthcoming; she faced many hurdles in her legendary journey. And I will get to all of that.

But here, we’ll start in the now: with the work Blanche is known for these days; work, that is, outside of her job of being a psychiatric nurse. And some of that work she does is tied to why I met her at the Expo; she’s there volunteering at one of the booths, because she doesn’t run Comrades just for herself:

Blanche: I run for an organization called the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust. They look after, or should I say, assist people who are affected and infected by AIDS. So we have children who have been orphaned. They might be healthy, but they are orphaned because their parents are no more because of AIDS. And they also look after patients; they’ve got a hospice. They’ve got so many interesting projects. Very holistic. It’s the whole community involved.

Cherie: Blanche is also well known for her public speaking, mentoring, and outreach.

Blanche: I do go to schools a lot.  I go to community centers and I speak to women, especially women and the girl child. Although at school obviously I have the boys in there as well, but I focus a lot of my attention on empowering women. Right now I’ve got about 13, personally under my wing, that I assist with lifestyle skills and also their athletics, a bit of coaching there, and so forth. I’ve always believed that I’d like to give back to communities. I’ve really achieved so much from my running.

Cherie: And, yes, Blanche is known at Comrades because as of completing the race in 2019, she’s run it 16 times, and in 2004, she was the face of Comrades; her image was used to promote the race. Mind you, Blanche is now in her 60s, so her longevity and discipline here are noteworthy. And not to be glossed over, there’s a world of difference between being the fastest athlete over shorter distances, like she was in her youth, and sustaining a 90-kilometer effort year after year into what are conventionally considered one’s retirement years. All this is to say that Blanche is widely admired across the many facets of the sport and over many decades.

One quick sidenote, as we’re touching on distances, you may have noticed that this event is called the Comrades Marathon, but that it is not a marathon in the conventional sense of this word. In almost all cases when someone is referring to a marathon, they’re talking about an event that’s 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers long; anything longer than that is considered an ultramarathon or an ultra. The Comrades Marathon is an exception in this regard, because it is actually an ultramarathon.

In each episode, in addition to telling one runner’s story, I’ll provide some extra information about the race. For this episode, I’ll cover a bit about the history of Comrades, how it started and some of the milestones, especially as they pertain to female runners.

Now back to our story, and where it all began. Blanche started testing her leg speed when she was quite young.
Running was one way her parents got her and her six siblings to do tasks outside the home, motivated by a homemade timer: the timing started with her mother spitting on a rock outside the front door.

Blanche: We did a lot of running at home as a family about three or four kilometers, between errands, but you come back before the saliva’s dry; you had to be quick. And we were little.

Cherie: Now that easily could have been the end of Blanche’s running pursuits; she was, by her own description, shy and studious, often likely to be found alone in her room reading. Besides, girls weren’t encouraged to run.
But it very well may have been all that racing around as a child that helped Blanche develop the smooth and efficient running style that got noticed one day when she was in her early 20s. While working as a student nurse, Blanche participated in a hospital sports day. A doctor who worked at the hospital noticed her good running form and he encouraged her to join him for training runs. After some initially painful outings, Blanche began to enjoy the way running made her feel; it gave her confidence and belief in her ability to achieve. And when her training friend encouraged her to enter a local 10-k race, she did, coming in third: Blanche realized she had a talent for running fast. But, she is also female.

Blanche: My community, it’s very conservative, yes. And of course the dress code was a problem for running but my immediate family, they were understanding that you can’t run in a tracksuit, you were expected to run in a tracksuit bottom to compete, but I ran in shorts. And that was acceptable to my immediate family. With that support, I was able to keep my head up and run. And to me morality is not an outer appearance, it comes from within. And that’s what I was trying to tell those who questioned my dress code. It’s about the inner me, not what you see outside. You’ve got to run in attire that is competition friendly.

Cherie: Blanche backed up her insistence on looking like a competitive athlete with the training and determination required to become a seriously competitive athlete.

Blanche: And then in 81 I won my first national title, and that’s when people started to notice that there was something in my running, and my community, got great support from them. When they started to see me win, and run well, the support came, because I was putting my community, you know, highlighting the strength of my community, and I got the support big time.

Cherie: Blanche had gained the support of her own community, but now that she was on the national stage, she was getting noticed by the rest of South Africa. But this was during aparteid and Blache, to use her preferred terminology, is melanin-enriched.

Blanche: But obviously from the other communities—we were living in a time of social, for want of a better word, diverse social stuff, and there were problems there. So not everybody was appreciative of my running so well.

Cherie: Blanche’s response to this was simple, and extremely effective.

Blanche: But needless to say there was more positive feedback from other communities than negative. I had one or two people hurl abuse at me. But you know, as I’ve said many a times, when you’re given lemons, make lemonade. And I relied on my legs to make the lemonade. And I just ran faster and it just gave me the strength to go harder and to prove that I belonged on those podiums.

Cherie: Blanche maintained her focus on winning races, though not unaware of the contentious political and cultural climate that swirled around her.

Blanche: The resistance I found very petty and sad. Because what actually transpired was that there were two athletes, very talented, but from the other community. And their parents were really in parliament, they were political strong folk. And these young girls were told, if they couldn’t beat me, they had to quit. Because they couldn’t allow a brown girl to be ahead of them.

That was very sad because they’re career was cut short. And no fault of theirs. It’s just that we come from a very patriarchal society. Whether it is the brown community or a melanin deficient community . . . melanin deficient, melanin enriched, I like to use those terms.

We have a very patriarchal society in South Africa so these girls had to listen to their parents and quit, because for some reason I always had that little edge above them.

Cherie: Time and again, Blanche employed her well-honed ability to turn other people’s negativity into her strength. Here she mentions Pretoria, the government capital of South Africa, which means that, in the 80s, it was where the heart of the power structure enforcing aparteid was located. Blanche also mentions Afrikaans, which is the language spoken by white South Africans of Dutch descent.

Blanche: Short of being politically correct, the 10k in 84, 1984, I won in Pretoria, and that was one of the races where there were some Africaans speaking students hurling comments at me, negative comments, and I took strength from that and ran very hard. And I think that is one of the races I will always remember. That, don’t feel pity about yourself when you get negative comments, just run, the best you can. And run as hard as you can. Of course rely on the almighty God, to give you the strength to overcome this negativeness.

Cherie: A sign of the times, when Blanche began racing, there hadn’t yet been a black female athlete on the South African national team.

And, as Blanche makes reference to here, competing on the national level and being on the national team was the greatest goal for South African athletes at the time, because during aparteid, South Africans were banned from international competition. It was also a high achievement because women’s running in this era was fiercely competitive, with  Blanche going up against runners such as Colleen de Reuck, Sonja Laxton, and Zola Budd.
Note here, similar to how in the US, people might refer to getting on the national team as earning your stars and stripes, in South Africa, it’s called earning, or being awarded, the Springbok colors, or simply the colors, which are green and gold. The Springbok, by the way, is a medium-sized antelope commonly found in South Africa, and it’s the country’s national animal.

Blanche: Yes I did get a phone call, from the national body but also the provincial. My provincial athletic body also notified me. And then I was invited to go to a function in Johannesburg to be awarded these colours. So they really made a big celebration. I think it’s every athlete’s desire to wear the green and gold. Because that was the real carrot, the highest we could achieve in South Africa at the time.

Cherie: So, yes, Blanche earned her Springbok colors becoming the first melanin-enriched female to do so, and with  that, her personal pursuits became firmly planted in the historical social and political landscape of South African. And where did she land in this conversation?

Blanche: The strange thing is, I’ve never . . . a lot of people made a fuss about me being the first melanin-enriched to receive the colors. To me it was just receiving those colors that was exciting. I just felt like I’ve done it, legitimately, on merit. It wasn’t a token. My record spoke for itself. My podium finishes could attest to that. It was such a satisfying moment. That’s when I knew that I could compete with the best in my country.

Cherie: While it hadn’t been Blanche’s goal t o make social and political history, she was certainly aware of what it meant.

Blanche: I accepted those with responsibility, with a lot of responsibility, knowing that I could go back to my community and say, It’s doable. Come on ladies, you can do this. Let’s get more of us on the running field. And over the years, we’ve had, lots of our girls now are really dominating XC, 10ks and so forth. And that’s really heartwarming.

Cherie: But she wasn’t perhaps quite aware of how far the inspiration of her achievements was reaching. Blanche mentions Robben Island here , which, located off the West Coast of South Africa, was home to a notorious harsh prison. During aparteid many black political prisoners were sent there, including former South African president Nelson Mandela and high ranking politician Jeff Radeba. Blanche also mentions former president Thabo Mbeki.

Blanche: The leadership that was in Robben Island at the time, I wasn’t aware they were aware of my running. But when they came out of Robben Island I was informed by the Minister Jeff Radeba the first when he met me that when they were in Robben Island I was an inspiration.

They knew when I was doing so well that change was eminent and at a later stage, I met president Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki at an awards ceremony and once again they reiterated that I really brought joy; they were so excited when they saw me running that well. It was humbling because I wasn’t aware. I wasn’t even aware they had  TV in Robben Island. That was just such an accolade. So irrespective of the challenges I had, when I got that feedback, I knew I had done OK.

Cherie: Appreciation for Blanche’s achievements spread far and wide, and it especially extended deep into her local community.

Blanche: Also I find humbling is the laborer on the road. Every day I walk through my area in my community the guys picking up the refuse would comment, and positive stuff, and just say how much they appreciate what I am doing. And the little old lady will come up, Oh, I’ve got to tell you this, I was in the supermarket one day, and this elderly lady, well, I’m elderly, but she was much older, walked up to me, put her hand in her chest, and she’s dressed, not very elegantly, but like a regular person, probably financially challenged, but she puts her hand in her breast, takes out two rand, hands it over to me and says, in the vernacular, ta nam, you do us proud, meaning, my child, you are really doing us proud. To me that is the greatest gift I could get from this lady. The impression I have from people from all walks of life.

Cherie: As Blanche remained focused on using her legs to make lemonade out of lemons, attitudes throughout the country did begin to shift.

Blanche: Over the years, I’m really happy to say, I get support from every community: the Africaaner, the English, the Zulu, the Sutu, the Cosa, the Peti, every community in South Africa is behind me, and I appreciate that.

Cherie: Now while Blanche had gained support in all the many provinces of South Africa and she’d become an inspiration to people from many varied walks of life within her own immediate community and beyond; while she’d given hope to future world leaders and earned her place on the national team by being one of the best south african female runners of her time in many distances, winning dozens races and several national championship titles, breaking down racial barriers along the way, . . . while she’d done all that, there was one glaring absence in Blanche’s list of accomplishments.

Blanche: I’m a local girl, very local, Durban. Comrades is a Durban event. And for many years I was doing well in the middle distance. But people in my community kept saying, “You’re not a runner until you do Comrades.” And I couldn’t understand that. But now I can relate to what they were alluding to.

Cherie: And what people are alluding to is that Comrades has its own unparalleled significance, and it’s difficult to explain. Promotional messaging for the race begins to capture what makes Comrades so meaningful.
Comrades 2017 Promo: This endurance event holds a very special place in many people’s hearts. There really is something about the immense discipline, the meticulous planning, and the incredibly strong focus, gritty determination, and just sheer crazy perseverance that goes into pursuing a goal like running the Comrades. And somehow it just stirs up that incredible human spirit.

Cherie: So now that Blanche has extensive experience with Comrades, what has she come to understand about this must run athlete-defining event?

Blanche: It’s a challenge, the distance alone. But there’s so much camaraderie around it. It’s humbling. It brings you down to . . . it humbles you. You have people from all walks of life running, your scientists, your laborers, your professionals, and so forth—all of them with one goal, to reach the finish line. And I think, this is where you get the courage from. Every single person forgets their roots and their personal accomplishments in terms of profession and all that. You’re just a huge big family, running this distance. It’s difficult to explain the phenomenon of Comrades; you’ve got to run it to experience and really understand what gets so many people coming back, again and again. You reach the 60 k mark, you all are fatigued at that moment, whether you’re the top runner or the back runner. What gets you through is mental toughness; everyone will tell you that. And this is the beauty of it.

Cherie: This camaraderie that Blanche mentions, this was the intent of this event from the very beginning, way back almost a century ago.

Comrades was founded by world war I veteran Vic Clapham to honor those who had been killed in that Great war with an act of great mental and physical endurance. To quote the race’s constitution, a primary goal of Comrades is to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity.” Or, I might add, womenkind’s spirit over adversity.
The first Comrades took place on Tuesday May 24, 1921, and it has run every year since, except during WWII, from 1941-45. For that first race, 34 white men started, and 16 finished. The first woman to run the race was Frances Hayward in 1923, and she clocked a respectable 11:35.

However, at the time, and until 1975, only white men were allowed to compete officially. So Hayward’s finish, as well as the finishes of the women and black men who ran the race before 1975, was unofficial.

Omitting women from sports, and from long distance running in particular, of course, was not unique to Comrades. For instance, the Olympic marathon has existed since 1896 for men, but there was no Olympic marathon for women until 1984. And the Boston marathon started in 1897, but wasn’t open to women until 1972.

It’s worth noting here, that when comrades did open to all competitors, male female, white, black, this was firmly in the midst of the aparteid, which began in 1948 and didn’t end until 1994.

The fact that running can become so much more than a simple act of speeding up your steps, this was something Blanche has a strong appreciation for.

Blanche: But besides the competitive athlete, it’s so important for me to impress on other women to run for leisure, run for social, run for health because that also empowered them. Their health improves . . . Because we have a very high gender-based violence in South Africa. That actually empowered a lot of women to stand up and say enough is enough, because they started having positive thoughts about  themselves, feeling good about themselves. It was liberating. So my mission was not just to get the competitive athlete but to get everybody else, social, health conscious, healthy living, community.

Cherie: And Blanche continues to help remove the barriers that discourage women from running.

Blanche: One of the hurdles that many women from my community was that there were lots of myths surrounding sports women and one of them was that you wouldn’t be able to conceive, your breasts would be droopy, you’d be–it would detract from femininity. Those are really hard myths that the men actually generated. We hope that all those will be . . .

Cherie: Do those still persist?

Blanche: In our rural areas, yes. We still have a bit of that. We have areas where you still need permission from the chiefs in that area if a girl child has to participate in sports, not a boy child. And if a girl child has to travel out of the province to represent the province, you still need permission. So there is still a bit of that patriarchal.

Cherie: And the chief is always a man?

Blanche: Oh, yes. Unfortunately, that is.

Cherie: Blanche has witnessed first-hand, however, the way running can lift up the women around her, the way her example and inspiration continues to have an impact.

Blanche: I’ve got a young girl. I’ve been working with her since she was 13, she’s in her mid-30s now. And she’s turned out, blossomed out to be one of our top provincial runners, and she’s got her national colors as well. She gives me feedback all the time about how my mentorship has empowered her.
She also comes from a financially challenged family and community, where there is still a lot of violence in that area, so the challenges are there. The safety factor, and yes, she was assaulted once. So those are the challenges. But the feedback I get, that yes, I was her strength.

Cherie: Blanche keeps running, transforming very sour lemons into an ever more nurturing lemonade.

Blanche: Well, my hope really is that every woman in South Africa should feel free and more safe in the environment they are in, should have more confidence that they can stand up for their rights. And I hope, I truly hope that the patriarchal societies we live in will be something obsolete one of these days  . . . That we should respect one and other, and yes, girls can play sport too.

Cherie: This concludes Blanche’s story. You can learn more about this episode or about Strides Forward by visiting stridesforwardpodcast.com.

I recommend several resources on the website that are related to women and running, and each episode, after the story, I choose one of those resources to highlight.

The recommended resource for this episode is Women’s Running magazine. This publication touches on all aspects of the running lifestyle, from racing and training to nutrition, gear, and inspiration, as well as covering some of the competitive side of the sport, the runners, events and news. And it includes writing by such award winning journalists as Erin Strout, who received the 2019 excellence in running journalism award from the Road Runners Club of America.

Please stay in touch. You can reach me through the website, and I’m also active on Twitter under the name @stridesforward. I welcome all feedback, questions, and community building efforts and suggestions.

Thank you to Blanche Moila for sharing her story. Blanche was one of the few runners I have gotten to interview in person, and I am really appreciative of her sitting down with me during an extremely busy time. I’m also thankful to her local club, the Savages Athletic Club, and in particular Debbie Honneysett, for helping me get in touch with Blanche. Meeting Blanche was one of my most treasured experiences on my first time in South Africa and first time seeing Comrades in person.

Thank you to April Marriner of Bonfire Collaborative for the logo and website design; you can find April at bonfirecollaborative.com. And thank you to Cormac O’Regan for the original music and sound design.
And definitely, thank you, the listener. I’m so grateful you’re taking the time to listen to these stories about women runners. Please subscribe and share. And until next time, this is Cherie, wishing you satisfying strides forward.

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