I think I’m just a junkie for sports, but running, especially the long-distance running, I’ve actually realized that I really find my peace during my runs. So some of these long runs that I log in is also just to have that moment to myself in my head, and my conversations. It initially started as a journey to regain my pre-baby body, and that goal came. And after that, I just had this relationship with running. Besides that, over and above that, I’ve just met wonderful people through running; I’ve made wonderful friendships. That keeps me going back.”
– Shirley Mosiakgabo
In this episode, we tell the story of Botswana’s Shirley Mosiakgabo, who started running 10ks as a way to lose weight after having her children and then developed into an ultra-runner. Shirley’s story is a great testament that, if you have the desire and are consistent in your efforts and patient to let your abilities to develop, you can reach goals that previously appeared impossible or out of reach.
We follow Shirley’s story from the early days of discovering a joy for making running a regular part of her life through to her experiences running her first 90-km Comrades Marathon. As of 2019, Shirley had completed Comrades a total of five times, and she is the Botswana Ambassador for the race.
Where many people consider races like Comrades to be “crazy,” Shirley shows us that, with time, dedication, and desire, completing ultras can also be a next step in a long-distance running journey.
Early on, Shirley discovered the great satisfaction of completing a hard thing. When the opportunities arose to continuing stretching that hard thing out longer, her curiosity and drive, as well as support from friends and family, inspired her to see if she could go that extra distance. Shirley followed that curiosity to what’s often referred to as the Ultimate Human Race, Comrades.
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-kilometre, 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 and Recommended Resources
The recommended resource for this episode is RunGrl. This organization’s tagline is Making Room for the Black Woman Distance Runner, with goals of promoting wellness, creating community, and providing running information and inspiration, as well as raising up and celebrating the voices and images of black women in distance running.
On the website, there are loads of articles in the categories of running, health and wellness, and lifestyles, written by a variety of Black female contributors from across the US. The platform also features an initiative called The Relay which provides expert tips, tools, and insights from certified coaches, experts, and elite runners, including Olympian Marielle Hall, NCAA Division I runner Peyton Thomas, and RunGrl co-founders and certified running coaches Jasmine Nesi and Ashlee Green, among others.
You can find RunGrl at rungrl.co.
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 email@example.com.
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Cherie Turner: You’re listening to Strides Forward, the podcast where we share stories from the endurance sport of marathon and ultra marathon running, one woman at a time. From world class record breakers to everyday extraordinary adventure seekers, you’ll get an inside look at why and how women from around the world keep lacing up and running far. Women like Shirley.
Shirley Mosiakgabo: My name is Shirley Mosiakgabo. I currently live in Botswana, in Gaborone, with my family of four. So that’s me, my husband, and two sons.
Cherie: If you’re new to the podcast, welcome, and if you’re returning welcome back! My name is Cherie Louise Turner, I am your host and producer. This episode is part of our first season and the focus of the season is stories that have a strong connection to South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, which is actually an ultra marathon: Comrades is 90 kilometers or roughly 56 miles hilly miles. It’s the oldest and largest ultra running event in the world. The race celebrates its 100 year anniversary in 2021 and over 27,000 runners were registered for the 2020 event.
For athletes like Shirley, Comrades did not figure into her plans at all when she started running.
Shirley: I got into long-distance running after my kids. After my first-born, I had put on a little bit of weight, and I was looking for ways to shed it off. And then, sometime that year, they announced that the city marathon was coming here, so we were going to have our first Gaborone Marathon. That was around 2010. So my sister, my siblings were very excited, and they were like, OK, let’s do; let’s go do 10 kilometers. At that time really, the idea of long-distance running was just what we saw on TV, so we were like, OK, yeah, I think it’s doable. Let’s go do it.
Cherie: Shirley’s only previous experience in running had been short track events she did in her youth.
Shirley: But it had never translated to long-distance running. I think the furthest I’d gone was like 3000 meters. That was way, way back.
Cherie: So 3000 meters, 3 kilometers; and it so long ago; it wasn’t experience Shirley could lean on to get her through this longer challenge.
Shirley: The race day came and we ran it and it was just such a terrible experience. After finishing it, it was pains all over. The next day I couldn’t even get to work, I just called my boss and said, the only thing I can lift right now is my cell phone to tell you I can’t come to work.
Cherie: So Shirley had met her goal, but she also suffered mightily for it.
Shirley: But that moment was very special because when the pains were gone, I thought it was really really a nice experience and I would love to do it and we started training again for the next year.
Cherie: And there it is: on the flipside of painful challenges can oftentimes rest those satisfying feelings of having faced and finished a hard thing. Carrying her enthusiasm forward, Shirley rallied her coworkers for weekly walks, working up to 5 kilometers, or just over 3 miles.
The 10k race would get cancelled the next year, and Shirley’s coworkers would stop showing up for the weekly walks, but Shirley didn’t stop, and when the race returned after the one-year hiatus, she was ready to go again. She’d found a new training partner in a local friend, and she had been eager to get back in shape again after having her second child.
Shirley: When the marathon returned, we went and ran it, we ran the 10k, and this time it was actually bearable. I finished OK. And I thought the time was also decent. So after that we made even bigger goals. OK, let’s aim to do this in less than an hour.
Cherie: The duo of Shirley and her partner in training continued to gain momentum, and the two women started regularly running 10 or 12 kilometers each weekend together, to stay fit, with an eye toward getting a bit faster. And the wanted to do more than one event a year, so they found another nearby 10k to do before their local race.
Shirley: Ran under 1 hour. Next weekend, doing Gabarone 10km, good results, still under 1 hour, even better.
Cherie: Running had become a regular part of Shirley’s life. The original post-pregnancy weight loss goals had come and gone, and now she had other motivations, like continuing to stay strong and fast. She did not, however, have aspirations of running ultras.
Shirley: After, shared on Facebook. Had a friend, every time I post, I run with people who run Comrades. At that point we thought Comrades was a goal far far away from people in Botswana. We just didn’t think there were people who were so close to us who were able to run it.
Cherie: It’s not so much the physical distance to the race that feels so far; Botswana and South Africa are neighboring countries after all, but rather it’s the magnitude of Comrades can make it feel worlds away. It’s a long race and a huge production.
Shirley: So I’d laugh about it just thinking about the distance was just daunting. I Googled it, 90km, out of my league.
Cherie: So Comrades was off the table, for now that is. But that friend kept making his comments on Facebook about running with people who did Comrades, and he kept inviting Shirley and her training partner to join his club for a training run. And one day they did; they showed up for a weekly Wed night 10km group run.
Shirley: He insisted we join the runs, so during the week run 8km, we went and joined them, the run was a speed session. We had no idea what was a speed session, so we just showed up and ran. If they’re running fast, we would run fast. If they ran slow, we ran slow. So we kept joining them on Wednesdays. I think it was mostly all men. I think we were the first two ladies.
Cherie: The female duo kept showing up to the these weekday group runs, but this was mostly a team of long-distance runners, runners who were preparing for marathons and ultras, and they were very eager to encourage the female additions to the group to try out running longer distances.
Shirley: We’d never run beyond 12 so we thought there’s no way we’re going to run anything longer than 12 kilometers. Goes. So one weekend, my friend was out of town, so I went to this long run, 21. We ran from one end of city from the other. As I was running, I thought, when are we going to take a break. I just couldn’t imagine that you could run more than 10km without stopping. We got to the 10.1 mark and they’d stashed water. We get there, and I was catching my breath, looking for a place to sit. But oh, no. Then we were off again. It was the longest run I’d done. But I managed to run the 21. Then I drove home, and I laid on cold tiles of the floor of my bathroom. I just couldn’t image how these guys could do this every single weekend.
Cherie: Because it wasn’t just the distance these runners were up against.
Shirley: Mind you our temperatures can go as high as 40C.
Cherie: In Fahrenheit, that’s 104 degrees. So, Shirley had completed her first half-marathon run, 21 kilometers, or 13.1 miles. So of course, the next milestone she was encouraged to tackle was a full marathon, 26.2 miles, or 42.2 kilometers.
And on a long weekend group training run, Shirley thought she’d done just that; but her watch had mismeasured the distance and she’d missed the mark by a few kilometers. Nevertheless, it had been a really tough run, tough enough for Shirley to seek the cool comforts of her tiled bathroom floor once again. And tough enough that she wasn’t too enthusiastic trying to do a full marathon again, for a while at least.
So Shirley stuck to those half-marathons, those roughly two-hour runs that not long before had stretched the limits of what she ever thought she’d do. Just a few years earlier, a 10k had laid her out for the entire next day, and now she could run 21ks, no problem.
And when a half-marathon race series started, Shirley was there. She was enjoying herself; she was challenged but having fun. And she had become a part of the running community. And even though she didn’t have an interest in running marathons and ultras, people in her running community, people who were her friends and training buddies, they did. So when Comrades came around again, it wasn’t just a big faraway event anymore; it was something she had personal connections to, and she was eager to follow the action.
Shirley: I remember now in 2015, because I joined those guys in 2014, in 2015 in WhatsApp group tell about how local runners are doing, someone giving updates, I really really got interested in it. I was also on my laptop, learning about Comrades, entry dates and so forth. At that point, I was like, I think I should run this next year,
Cherie: The lure of Comrades, the history, the challenge, the thousands of people, the magnificent aura of it, and the curiosity of being out on the road for so many hours all had Shirley reconsidering her decision to not run further than a half-marathon.
Shirley: Never had run a marathon, but I’m doing it.
Cherie: Shirley made her commitment official. And while she hadn’t yet run the full distance of a marathon, she’d be running one soon. Because to stand at the start line of Comrades, you do need to qualify by doing a marathon between Sep and April before the race, Comrades takes place in June. Shirley was signed up for the 2015 Comrades, and at that time, she had to finish her qualifying marathon within 5 hours; that time has since dropped to 4 hours 50 minutes because of the growing popularity of Comrades.
This qualification is to help ensure that all Comrades runners have a fighting chance to finish within the very strict cutoff time of 12 hours. So Shirley’s first step was to run a marathon, and she relied on running experience to date to get her through.
Shirley: Coming from a sprinting background, I didn’t have discipline of starting slow. Started with strong runners, and I could hold that for 21, but then didn’t know. After 21 obviously, yea. I managed to go up until 30, and then after 30 . . . remember up until this point I didn’t even know, I’d never run beyond 21, so I didn’t know you actually even had to consider nutrition. I thought, I ran well for 21k with water, so I’m just going to stick to that, that’s what i know, so I don’t want to change anything. Can you imagine? But the stubborn girl in my said, Keep going. 4 hours, 8 minutes later I reached the finish line.
Cherie: With this marathon experience, Shirley was starting to understand what it would take to take on a 90-kilometer challenge.
Shirley: I was sore all over. Fast forward a few weeks later, I was quite happy and thinking, I can do this again. So but now my worries were that, If I am to prepare for Comrades, I have to do things differently. I have to learn how to slow down for this; luckily the p around me told me if i don’t slow down I won’t be able to finish. Back to drawing board, to learn how to slow down, start slowly, slow down the pace.
Cherie: Shirley was all in and she followed the guidance of her teammates who’d run Comrades before. She ran hilly events with them to prepare for the grueling climbs of Comrades. She ran her first ultras, a 50k and also the 56 kilometer or 35 mile Two Oceans, which is another of the great ultra races in South Africa.
Shirley learned to eat and hydrate properly. She learned how to slow down her pace to be sustainable over the full distance. And after some painful experiences with her feet, she dialed in on the shoes she’d rely on for the big day. And she got tips, and advice and shared stories with teammates.
And then, all that remained after months of training, prep races, talking, testing equipment, figuring out pacing and eating and drinking was to get to the start line.
Shirley: I lined up there. I remember going through the emotions of the start, Shosholoza, oh my gosh, it was so overwhelming. I was sitting there thinking, What have I done? I was just thinking, Can I really do this? Time came and before we knew it, the gun went off, and we set out to run our first Comrades.
Cherie: The long journey of Comrades began. Shirley had no set plans to run with anyone else, but several teammates from Botswana were out on the road, too, including her friend, Ben.
Shirley: My friend Ben caught up and we ran together. That was a saving grace; they really really make me comfortable. We ran 20, 30k together, and then Ben said it was time for him to go. He said, OK, I’m going to leave you around 60k. But he left me instructions, like a proper parent. He said, Make sure don’t waste time. If you walk, balance with running, walk, run, walk run. The cramping is inevitable. Walk a little, keep going.
Cherie: Sage advice: keep moving forward. And it sounds so simple. If it weren’t for the heat, and the hills and and the exhaustion of having already run 38 miles and having another 18 to go. And now, Shirley was facing that all alone.
Shirley: The moment he left I was overcome with emotions. You know it’s that point when you are reaching your breaking point. I remember cramping and thinking, you know what when I get to 70 I am done because that will be such an achievement. I’ve never run that far and I’ve come all this way. 70 is good enough.
Cherie: Of course, look at that. She’d already gone further than she’d ever gone before, by a long shot. Why continue? It’d been a monumental day already. Especially since cramps are a totally valid reason to pack it in. They’re excruciating, and if you’re cramping, you can’t run. Good enough. 70 kilometers is a great accomplishment. And Shirley’s husband meeting her along the course to provide support, and he had a car. She could just get in, and call it a day.
Shirley: I had my cell phone, and I sent a text to my husband; I said I’m cramping, where are you? With exclamation marks and all sorts fo things. I put phone away and started walking and sobbing a little bit.
Cherie: Even in a crowd as large as you find at Comrades, running for so long can become a very lovely endeavor. It’s also prime time to go down dark mental and emotional spirals. You’re physically drained, you’re psychologically drained, you’re emotionally tapped. Why oh why did you even sign up for this?
Shirley: As I was walking, my friend Larry came from behind. He said, Hey Shels, how are you? And you know in life there are people who are just ever cheerful and when someone who is that cheerful comes and speaks to you there’s no way you can continue being grumpy and weepy. And, my mood changed.
Cherie: And focusing on the heat and the pain and the jumping in the car and the being ok with going 70 kilometers all disappeared. Shirley came back to the moment at hand, and with a little help from a friend, got back into the game of focusing on how she was going to keep moving forward.
Shirley: And I was like, Hi, I’m cramping. And he was like, when are you cramping? When you run up or down? I told him, When I go up. And he said, I’m also not that strong going up and I’m just walking the hills, so let’s go together. Yea that really really changed the outlook of the race, all of a sudden I became positive and everything. Before I knew it we were just talking.
Cherie: And Shirley learned the great art of looking to intermittent rewards to break up the distance and keep you moving down the road.
Shirley: When you get to a water station ask what’s in the back, getting goodies.
Cherie: One step at a time, sometimes running, sometimes walking, asking for goodies at the water tables along the route. And it was at one such table, Shirley and Larry caught up to another member of their team from Botswana, who had some reassuring news about what it would take to make the 12-hour cutoff time and become official Comrades finishers.
Shirley: We caught sight of friend we call the pace master, and he was just enjoying himself. We said, Hi Chilepea. And he said, we’re almost there, almost 80km. And he said, I’ve calculated that I can walk to finish. And we said, OK, OK, but let’s try to run a little.
Cherie: All that was left was the short distance they’d done week in and week out on those Wednesday night training runs. The end of this epic journey was so close relative to how far Shirley and her friends had already gone.
And yet, there are still several miles to go. Seen from another perspective, the distance left wasn’t too much different from the 10k that had been Shirley’s maximum for several years. It wasn’t too long ago that she’d been satisfied running 10 ro 12 kilometers, and calling it a day. Now that was just a small part of her larger goal, this gargantuan 88 hilly kilometers. And you never know why you’d do something as hard as running so much further, until you do.
Shirley: Then we arrived, and oh, god it was such an emotional day. We sprinted for our lives to that finish line. And in 11:33 we finished. I remember just getting there and I just broke into tears. I remember thinking, I’ve done this. I’ve done this. I was just crying thinking this is so emotional, I’ve never . . . I thought that I’d had races that were worth tears but that particular moment I just took that medal and I cried. And I remember thinking, I could have stopped at 70, I could have not finished.
Cherie: Shirley Mosiakgabo had completed her first Comrades. She’d gone from goals of regaining fitness and health after childbirth to becoming an ultra runner, a pursuit she’d once seen as out of her league and one that many people see as crazy. But for Shirley and runners like her, this was the result of a methodical progression of seeing the next biggest challenge and wanting to meet it.
And that’s exactly what Shirley had done: she’d met the challenge of what is often called The Ultimate Human Race. Now was a time to celebrate and bask in the deep satisfaction of overcoming a major challenge. But first Shirley had to deal with the harsh reality of finishing an ultra: the post-race aches and pain. It’s fair to say, this is the adding insult to injury part of the sport.
Shirley: That walk to the car was so painful. No one can do anything for you. When they touch you it’s painful. When they don’t touch you it’s still painful. It was just such an experience.
Cherie: But Shirley would not be deterred by these unkind facts about ultra running, and she was lured in by the special medal given to runners who complete Comrades the year immediately following the first time they run the race, the back to back medal.
Shirley: Oh my god, it was so painful, but I remember thinking, I think I should come back and do this back to back thing. So next year we were back at it again, and we kept doing it until this year, we went for number 5.
Cherie: Yes, as of 2019, Shirley has completed Comrades 5 times. She has also become the Comrades Ambassador for Botswana. We talked about the Ambassador program in Cathy Hopkins episode, too, because Cathy is the race’s Canadian Ambassador. These are foreign representatives of Comrades who promote the race within their country and help runners who are interested in racing there navigate the process of getting into and running Comrades. It can be a bit confusing and overwhelming for the uninitiated, and the ambassadors help pave the way.
Shirley also has her own reasons for continuing her pursuit of running far.
Shirley: I think I’m just a junkie for sports, but running though, especially the long distance running, I’ve actually realized that I really find my peace during my runs. So some of these long runs that I log in is also just to have that moment of myself in my head, and my conversations, really. It initially started as a journey to regain my prebaby body, and that goal came and after that, I just had this relationship with running. Besides that, over and above that, I’ve just met wonderful people through running, I’ve made wonderful friendships. That keeps me going back.
Cherie: This concludes our story with Shirley Mosiakgabo. I want to thank Shirley for sharing her story, from her home in Botswana to my closest in Boston. Like several of the women featured on this podcast, Shirley agreed to be a part of this project before any episodes were created and I really appreciate her willingness to take a chance on a stranger with only an idea. Her story is such a great testament that, if you have the desire and are consistent in your efforts and patient to let your abilities to develop, you can reach goals that previously appeared impossible or out of reach.
Have you ever had an experience like this, where you met a goal that you’d previously believed was out of your league? Please tell us about it. You can Tweet to us or find us on Instagram @StridesForward. You can also always reach me, Cherie, through the website, womensrunningstories.com. There you’ll also find full transcripts of all the shows as well as show notes, complete with all pertinent links. And you’ll find our Runner’s Resources page there, which I’m going to return to in just a moment.
But first, I just want to let you know that this episode marks a milestone for Strides Forward because it’s our tenth! And, originally, this season of focusing on Comrades was going to end here. But, we have two additional episodes we’re excited to share, and they’ll be published biweekly as usual.
This is an ever-growing list of blogs, books, newsletters, magazines, and podcasts made by women or about women or both and mostly focused on running. Every episode we highlight one of these resources and this episode we’re focusing on RunGrl. This organization’s tagline is Making Room for the Black Woman Distance Runner, with goals of promoting wellness, creating community, and providing running information and inspiration, as well as raising up and celebrating the voices and images of black women in distance running.
On the website, there are loads of articles in the categories of running, health and wellness, and lifestyles, written by a variety of Black female contributors from across the US. The platform also features an initiative called The Relay which provides expert tips, tools, and insights from certified coaches, experts, and elite runners, including Olympian Marielle Hall, NCAA Division 1 runner Peyton Thomas, and RunGrl co-founders and certified running coaches Jasmine Nesi and Ashlee Green, among others.
You can find RunGrl at rungrl.co, that’s r-u-n-g-r-l, dot c-o, and I’ll link to it in the show notes,
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. Or please feel free to email us with comments and feedback; I’d would love to hear what you enjoy about the show. Is there something in particular that resonated? Are you training for an event and finishing inspiration here? I’d love to hear about it.
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 love these stories and I’m always excited to know that other people do, too. Until next time, this is Cherie, wishing you satisfying strides forward.