In Season One: Comrades Marathon

No matter what has happened in my life, I have achieved so many things. Right now I am celebrating my success. I am very thankful: I am thankful for the experiences I have had because instead of breaking me, they made me stronger, because no matter what I went through, I never gave up on myself.”

– Enie Manzini

Episode summary

South African firefighter and now single mother of two Enie Manzini discovered her love and talent for running at a young age and began running seriously in 2007. Not long after, Enie had the first child. Committed to excelling in her sport, she worked in her training around motherhood, household duties, and a demanding career.

And then Enie came face to face with the biggest hurdle of all: her home life turned violent. For a decade she would endure increasingly severe domestic abuse from her husband.
Enie shares her very personal and ultimately triumphant story of how her passion for running and desire to be a positive role model to her children were instrumental in her decision to end a destructive marriage. Enie has gone on to become one of South Africa’s best ultra-marathon runners. She is also a member of Team Massmart, South Africa’s first all-women’s elite long-distance running team.

Enie’s journey demonstrates how a deep belief in yourself and commitment to standing your ground and following your dreams can give you strength even in the darkest of times.
This episode is part of our first season, and the theme of this season is experiences in and around the Comrades Marathon, which is a 90-kilometer, or roughly 56-mile, road race that takes place each year in South Africa. It is the oldest and largest ultra-distance foot race in the world.

Show Notes Recommended Resources

The recommendation for this episode is the blog Free to Run, which is part of the Free to Run organization. The organization works with females in conflict areas to involve them in outdoor activities, including running. To quote the website, their goal is to increase opportunities for women and girls to engage in public life, using sport as a tool of empowerment and education. The blog follows the work of Free to Run.   

Learn more about Free to Run on their website: https://freetorun.org/

You can find our complete list of Runner’s Resources on the Strides Forward website. This is a list of blogs, books, newsletters, magazines, and podcasts (mostly) about running that are by women, focus on women, or both.

We always welcome suggestions for the resources page as well as feedback and comments about the podcast. Please feel free to contact host Cherie Turner at clouiseturner@gmail.com.

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Cherie Turner: Welcome back to Strides Forward, the podcast about long-distance running and women who compete in the sport. I am Cherie Louise Turner, your host and the producer of Strides Forward.

This episode is part of our first season, which features stories of runners who have a strong connection to South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, the world’s oldest and largest ultra-distance running race. Comrades turns 100 years old in 2021 and over 27,000 runners were registered for the 2020 event. And while a conventional marathon is 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers, Comrades is 90 kilometers or roughly 56 miles, so it’s actually an ultra marathon; ultras being any running races that are longer than a marathon. 

One note about this story is that it does involve domestic violence, so if you’re listening with young children or this is a subject that you’re particularly sensitive to, please be aware. 

This story is also about unwavering determination to run far and fast, while also being a strong role model to two children and working the strenuous and stressful job of a firefighter and parametric. It’s a story about this women. 

Enie Manzini: My name is Enie Manzini. I’m from South Africa. I live in the small town called Boxbeck. I have passion of running since I was in school but started running competitively around 2007. 

Cherie: So yes, since grammar school, Enie has felt a very strong draw to the sport of running.   

Enie: Since at school, I always wanted to compete in the running field. There was netball, there was volleyball, but I was never interested in those kind of sports. I will always go for running. I think it is my God given talent. 

Cherie: Enie started out running 10ks and then progressed up through half-marathons and then marathons, eventually moving on to ultras, all the way to the Comrades Marathon. 

Like many South African long-distance runners, Enie was drawn to Comrades because, well, it’s Comrades. It’s not only the biggest running event in the country, it’s one of South Africa’s biggest sporting events, at all. But Enie was also inspired to run Comrades  after seeing the Russian Nurgalieva twins win year after year: in the decade between 2003 and 2013, they were almost unbeatable; the only year one of them didn’t win was in 2005, and that victory went to Tatyana Zhirkova, also a Russian.

Enie: when I used to see the Russian twins dominating; why is it only them every time who are winning, I was asking myself, why only them. That was always on my mind, and I told myself, you know what, I need to go and try to run this race. that’s when I had the dream that one day I want to go run this race. That’s when I started to have the dream about running comrades. 

Cherie: To help her running journey evolve, Enie found support and got training information through fellow runners in her area; she joined a local running team, and then when a team formed at her workplace, she began running with them, and there she set the standard, much to the admiration of her co-workers, Enie was the fastest, male or female. And come 2011, she realized her dream of running Comrades for the first time.  

But it didn’t come easy. Just after Enie had started to take her running more seriously, in 2007, she had her first child, and by the time she’d made that Comrades debut, she was the mother of two, a boy and a girl. So she sacrificed sleep and any sort of social life to get in her runs; she worked her training around her family and household commitments and the long hours she put in as a firefighter and parametric.   

Enie: I work long hours; I work 4 shifts, 2 nights, 2 days, and then off 4 days. Normally when I train, it depends, if I am starting a shift that day, I have to wake up very early; I have to start my running very early because my day shift starts at 7, and it ends at 6pm. So for me, if I have a 2 hour training or 1 hour training, it requires me to wake up sometimes around 3 and train at 4 or half past 4, depending on the distance, in order for me to complete the training in time for me to prepare for work. At least by 6am, I have to be completely done with my training and start to prepare for work. Luckily, I’m not far from work; about 20 min from work, depends on traffic. When I’m working night shifts, I normally train immediately when I finish my night shift in the morning at 7, then I will train. I have taught my body to work; I will train still after my work. Then shower and rest, and wake up in the afternoon and prepare food for my kids and myself and then go to work in the 2nd night shift. So, finishing the 2nd night shift, another routine, I will train again and then I will sleep. That’s how I do my training. That’s how I get my training done. It’s complicated if I sleep and train for the night shift; it’s better for me to train immediately after the shift, then I rest after. 

Cherie: Enie squeezed in racing much the same way; on numerous occasions, she’d come home from a race, take care of her family, and then head out to work a nightshift. Day in, day out, year after year, Enie kept at this rigorous schedule. Whatever it took to keep improving her running, Enie did it.

Enie: I try by all means to keep myself disciplined. I know there is no day when I will skip my training.

Cherie: Enie was fueled throughout by her positive and ambitious mindset. 

Enie: Most of the time, I imagine about the goals, what I want to achieve. So that keeps me motivated. If I run that long distance, even though some times when we are training on your long runs, you will feel, some days you will feel tired, and you will feel that this is hard, and you will always ask yourself , if I’m feeling this distance is so hard, will I make it on my race day. So, sometimes I will imagine myself winning the race; I will imagine myself reaching the podium. That motivates me. That’s how I keep myself going, and I always tell myself, even though it feels so hard, in my training, I know that on the race day, I can do better than this.  

Cherie: While Enie was powering through hard workouts envisioning winning races, there was one key person who did not support these efforts at all, and that was her husband; long around 2015, he laid down an ultimatum. 

Enie: So my husband told me, I think because of his insecurities, he told me to stop running, So, there were a lot of things happening, there was domestic violence that was involved there, and I never reported. So I said, enough, because there was nothing wrong with what I was doing, I just love to run. And what is more likely to influence the children more positively sports, competing, or someone who’ll go drink and socialize. 

Cherie: The abuse had begun after Enie had their first child and she’d never gone to the police, even though it had become increasingly worse over the years. And running was something that kept Enie fit and strong, something that was important to her personally but also as a mother and role model to her two children.   

So when her husband finally insisted that she just stop running altogether, Enie had her own moment of reckoning. 

Enie: So that moment, he opened my eyes to say, you know what, this is enough, and this is getting worse. So I went to report the matter to the police and the police told me to get a protection order. They issued him a protection order, but also a marriage now with a protection order, I was just thinking and asking myself, How are we going to live? 

Cherie: So Enie had reported the domestic violence to the police and gotten a protection order. And, in essence, this order meant that, if Enie’s husband violated it, that is, if he physically abused her again, he would be arrested. But, the couple was still living together. So it made sense for Enie to wonder how this order, this threat of arrest, was actually going to stop a habit of abuse in her home. 

It didn’t take long before Enie would get the answer to her question. 

Enie: About a week after Well, I found a substance in my running supplement, I realized after, I was supposed to go run a race, first day I took it was fine, then the taste was different. Decided to check, I saw foreign particles inside. 

I started to feel dizzy, see blurry, my heart rate, I started to feel palpitations, and I was with the kids and I said, go get help, I’m not fine, the kids were scared, something said to me, go outside, and I went outside and I started to feel a little bit better,  called daughter, please bring me a glass of milk, drank, felt better.

Cherie: Enie decided to go to bed and get some rest. But when she woke up, she still wasn’t feeling well, and was feeling a bit weak. 

Enie: I decided to drive myself to the hospital, took kids to a friend’s house, on the way, seeing blurry, park on the side of the road; it was a Friday, heart rate was so high, admit me; stayed all weekend. Since  

Cherie: There had been tests done at the hospital, and they’d come up inconclusive. But, it seemed clear that someone had put poison in Enie’s supplement drink powder, and the suspicions of who would have done such a thing pointed strongly to one person, Enie’s husband. Enie also recalled something her husband had said to the police when they came to serve him the protection order. Enie’s husband had been spying on her phone, and the officers told him that he should stop. His response was daunting

Enie: Enie is my wife, I will do what I want. So when I combined everything that had happened, I thought, a protection order is just paper, it won’t protect you, it’s just a paper. When I was in the hospital I realized, I have to leave this marriage or I’m going to die. 

Cherie: Enie filed for a divorce and it was finalized in 2016. And most importantly, she had freed herself from ongoing violence and trauma. Enie’s domestic abuse nightmare was over. 

And almost immediately Enie started seeing exciting and unexpected shifts in her running career. She set personal best times in several distances and won some local races, and, early in 2017, she lined up for one of South Africa’s biggest marathons, the Johnson Crane. Enie felt well prepared to go after her sub-3 hour goal, as she lined up against the over 3,000 other runners, including several elite-level women. And while she’d miss her goal by only one minute on that day, her performance was noteworthy for another very important reason. 

Enie: I kept training hard to achieve the actual goal I wanted to achieve. 

I went and ran Johnson Crane, it’s a marathon. I went and ran that race. I was the first lady; I won that race. So that kept motivating me more and more.

Cherie: Let’s revel in that for a moment. Enie ended a violent, abusive relationship and in less than a year, she’d won a marathon. And while she hadn’t broken 3 hours, that 3:01 finish was also a personal best marathon time. 

And Enie’s running fortunes were only about to get better because it was during this same time period when Enie was really starting to come into her own with her running that Ann Ashworth was scouting for subelite female long-distance runners who appeared to had untapped potential, runners she could help bring up into the elite ranks; runners like Enie. 

And on one fateful day, these two trajectories collided. 

Enie: Then one day when I arrived at work, opened emails, I saw her name in my emails, something just, I asked myself, but why did she send the email?

Cherie: Enie had closed the door on a destructive marriage, and Ann Ashworth was opening a window.  

Enie: She wants me to be part of this team, I was screaming, that moment when I saw that email, so happy. I will never forget thaT day because that day changed my life.

Cherie: Enie Manzini had received an invitation to be part of an all-women’s elite development team, a team that’s mission was to provide support to women who had the talent and drive to level up from subelite to elite. This meant she’d receive financial support and other benefits, and for Enie it had another important significance as well.   

Enie: She put hope in me. Ann saw potential: When I was thinking that what I was doing was nothing, for the fact that she from far, she recognized me; she saw that potential in me, she motivates me to do even better than I was doing.

Cherie: With Ann’s belief in her, Enie found an even greater drive to excel. So when she lined up for the first event she’d do with her new team, she was well-trained and ready to have another go at her sub-3hour marathon goal.  

Enie: When I first started with the team, my first race was not right. I didn’t have a good race at all. Went to a marathon, started well, ran well, along the road, started to have upset tummy, I was struggling, instead of sub 3 hours, 3:44. 

I finished I was so sad, I was supposed to . . . went to sleep in the car, drove back home, didn’t want to talk to them, disappointed, sad, prepared for work, still sad, crying, because it was my first race after I joined team Massmart. 

Cherie: While the race was deeply disappointing, Enie did get some valuable insight into how the team operated. 

Enie: Ann phoned me, I didn’t have a nice race, and then she asked me, what happened, why didn’t you come to us so we could be there for you, she motivated me, we know you’re not going to be perfect; she assured me. That made me feel better. 

Cherie: Enie was reassured that the team would be there for her through ups and downs; Ann had faith in the runners she had chosen, and she was in it with them for the long haul. And an area where she saw that the team could really help on a steady basis was by providing a structured training program; something Ann had noticed with most of the athletes she’d invited onto team Massmart was that they were really good, but they didn’t train properly or have the structured training plan that they needed to be great. 

Enie: I started running as a social runner; I didn’t have a coach before . . . if you sign on with the team, we’ll give you a coach, and we’ll help you with this, that, that, I started having a program, before, I would just run or run according to other people’s plans. 

Cherie: The support provided by Enie’s coach Mark Wolf and by the team benefitted her physically as well as mentally and emotionally.

Enie: Coach is mark wolf thank team Massmart for all the support, they really helped me to restore whatever I’ve lost, to gain my confidence back again. 

Cherie: The members of this all-ladies team have also formed strong, mutually empowering bonds. 

Enie: working with Massmart has also helped me; we support each other. You know you have sisters that are always supporting you. Our goal is to improve each and every day, is to . . . goals every year; we have our challenges but when you have someone who will understand the difficulties that you are going through, who will advise you, it really helps a lot. I love being on this team. It’s a really nice team.  

Cherie: Another core ingredient in the recipe to create competitive elite runners is funding and other material support. Athletes who are pushing their limits benefit from pricey services like massage, chiropractic, and personal training. Supplements and other training and racing nutrition are necessary but also costly. And to be competitive at the big races, you have to be able to get there. 

Enie: Traveling to comrades, accommodation, transport, two oceans, they are taking care of all those costs; with the support they are giving us, you don’t have to worry about training, I have to go and train, just train hard, they are making you worry less, you can worry about your training. The important role that the sponsors play in our life. Sometimes you want to go to comrades, I can’t go without finances. Working hard, that’s what you worry about.

Cherie: Now of course for Enie, for the Team Massmart, and for many South Africans, there’s one race that looms largest, one race where you want to show what all of this structured training, nutrition, support, financial support, and effort can add up to. And that race, without question, is Comrades. 

Most everyone in the country has a sense or at least an appreciation for just how difficult the event is; it’s a cultural touchpoint that generates respect nationwide. And Enie has a firm understanding of why this is so.  

Enie: Comrades one of the races we all love, it’s a hard race, so if you are a South African and you are able to conquer that race, that makes you feel proud. If I am able to conquer this race, I can conquer anything. It is only your mind that tries to discourage us. If you work on your mental fitness, you can conquer anything. Work on your mind during training. That’s the thing Comrades, it you conquer it, you can achieve anything. 

Cherie: Enie’s definition of what conquering Comrades means to her continues to develop as her running improves. An obvious goal is to get faster and finish higher among her competitors.  

One influential factor on the finishing time of a runner is the direction of the race. Comrades runs between the coastal city of Durban and the town of Pietermaritzburg, which is in the hills. Each year, the race switches direction. When it ends in Durban, there’s much more downhill running, and when it ends in Pietermaritzburg, that reverses. This makes for down years and up years, and as you might expect, the down years are faster. 

Enie’s been chipping away at her Comrades performance since that first time she ran in 2011; she’s completed the race a total of 8 times since then, and 2019 was her best year yet; she finished with a blazing time of 7:10. Mind you, that was an up year. And, her best time before that was from the previous year, her first year with Team Massmart and, as you may have guessed, it was a down year; there she ran 7:21. So Enie cut 11 minutes off of her time on a slower course. 

Both years, she broke into the top 20; a truly phenomenal achievement. 

Enie: I am happy that I am finally at the top there. The year when I found myself in the top 20 that really made me emotional. I was inspired to improve every year. Because that was the dream. I’m fighting to move into the top ten.

Cherie: As incredible as her race was in 2019, Enie hadn’t reached the goal she’d set for herself, which she’d gotten tantalizingly close to. 

Enie: I had a good race, and I ran well up until 20 km to go. Started having tummy aches. for the first time, from there, that’s when i started losing time, i was aiming at finishing sub-7. 

Cherie: Enie continues to have what is clearly a very realistic goal of breaking 7 hours, especially considering that 2021 is going to be a down year. With her coach, Mark Wolf, she continues to train and work on her race-day nutrition. And if, or rather when Enie does break 7 hours, that will put her in the hunt for that highly coveted top 10 finish, also known at Comrades as a gold medal performance, because the top 10 men and women earn gold medals. 

Enie: And I know that that doesn’t come easy; it comes with a lot of responsibilities. It comes with hard work; it comes with discipline, it comes with commitment; it comes with determination, perseverance. So yes, I believe that if you really want something and you commit yourself and work hard, you can achieve it. 

    

Cherie: This dedication and commitment, Enie isn’t just doing this for herself. As the single mother of a now 14-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy, she wants to continue to show them what it looks like to never give up on your dreams.  

Enie: They are happy for the fact that I am doing well. I hope I will inspire them, they will learn from me. 

Cherie: But of course, reaching big, challenging goals isn’t all about the highlights; there’s years of hard work and consistent dedication behind those epic performances.

Enie: you have to have a passion for running, love running, to be give yourself time, I work, I am a mother, and have to make time for training, but if you love what you are doing, you’ll make time, you have to love the sport. To young runners, set goals, work hard, committed, dedicated, persevere, you have to know you won’t be achieving the goals you want every time, sometimes it will take long to achieve goals, it took me long; I still believed 

Year in and year out, but I never up, I kept on pushing I kept on working hard. We are not the same, other p get their goal fast , you have to be patient, when come back, look and analyze where you went wrong, consistent with training, follow guidelines, thankful for my coach, I can see my improvement, I believe I can still go very far, I know that my age now I’m getting better with age. 

Cherie: Enie has endured traumatic hardships and she has a full life even outside of being an elite runner. But it was by her passion for running and drive to reach her potential in the sport that has helped keep her strong throughout. Enie, now age 39, continues to get faster and aim for greater achievements. She also draws strength from how far she’s already come.  

Enie: No matter what has happened in my life, I have achieved so many things, right now I am celebrating my success, I am very thankful; I am thankful for the experiences I have had because instead of breaking me, they made me stronger, because no matter what I went through I never gave up on myself. There are a lot of women who go through challenges and I was still, I used it as my stepping stone, I used it to be a better person, very grateful for all the things I have achieved already, I survived a lot.

Cherie: And this is where we end our story of Enie Manzini. I want to thank Enie for her time and for sharing her running journey and also for her willingness to share her experience with domestic abuse. Enie has been very open about this painful and personal part of her life because she wants others, especially women who might be experiencing something similar, to gain inspiration and motivation from her example. 

I feel really fortunate to get to share Enie’s story, and I am inspired by her strength and confidence and endurance. 

Each episode, after the story, I share a resource from the growing list of podcasts, blogs, newsletters, magazines, and books that are featured on the Strides Forward website in our Runner’s Resources. These resources focus mostly on running and are created by women or feature women, or both. 

The recommendation for this episode is the blog Free to Run, which is part of the Free to Run organization. The organization works with females in conflict areas to involve them in outdoor activities, including running. To quote the website, their goal is to increase opportunities for women and girls to engage in public life, using sport as a tool of empowerment and education. The blog follows the work of Free to Run.   

If you have an addition for the resources page, please contact me. I can always be reached through the website, or you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @stridesforward. 

I would also be so thankful to you to rate and review the show. I am always grateful to get feedback from listeners. 

Thank you to the Strides Forward team whose voices you experience in other ways with this podcast. There’s Cormac O’Regan who makes all of the music you hear and does the sound design.  And there’s April Marriner of Bonfire Collaborative; she keeps the podcast branding and website looking amazing. You can find April at bonfirecollaborative.com. 

Of course, thank you to you, the listener. I really appreciate you tuning in. I really do love these stories and I always enjoy hearing about what resonated. Was there a particular takeaway that stuck with you? Please let me know. Until next time, this is Cherie, wishing you satisfying strides forward.

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