In Season One: Comrades Marathon

There’s something about committing yourself to something as big as the Comrades Marathon that does sort of change your perception of yourself. It changes what you believe about yourself.”

— Cheryl Winn

Episode summary

Cheryl Winn has a decades-long and multifaceted relationship with the Comrades Marathon. In this episode, we touch on all of it. Cheryl was an elite runner in the late 1970s and early 1980s, winning many local events, and she became the Comrades champion in 1982.

During her running career through to today, Cheryl has also been involved with race production. She is now the Chairperson of Comrades. And she is the only chairperson to also be a former winner of the race.

Cheryl Winn is a trailblazer in both long-distance running and event leadership. This story of her enduring love of and accomplishments in the sport and this historic 90-km race perfectly caps off our season focusing on the mighty Comrades Marathon.

This episode is the last one in our first season, and the theme of this season is experiences in and around the Comrades Marathon, 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.

cheryl-winn-and-isavel-roche-kelly

Cherie Turner: Hello and welcome. This is Strides Forward, where you’ll hear stories about women who run long distances, told one woman at a time. The runners we feature are from all over the world and their ability levels and experience vary widely.

I am Cherie Louise Turner, your host and producer. If you’re a return listener, first up thank you, and also you already know that this first season is focused on stories that have a strong connection to the Comrades Marathon. If you’re new to the podcast, I’m excited you’re here, and what you need to know about Comrades is that it’s a 90-km kilometer or 56-mile running race that takes place each year in South Africa. You may notice that it’s called the Comrades Marathon, but it’s not a marathon in the conventional sense of that word: traditionally marathons are 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers, and so Comrades is actually an ultramarathon, and it’s the largest and oldest ultramarathon race in the world. In 2021, Comrades turns 100 years old, and over 27,000 runners were entered in the 2020 event.

This is the final episode of this season, and to cap things off, I am particularly honored to feature a woman who’s been a trailblazer, both as an ultrarunner in the very earliest days of the sport for women and for her leadership in sports management, especially at Comrades.

Cheryl Winn: My name is Cheryl Winn and I am the chairperson of the Comrades Marathon Association, which is one of the biggest sporting events, most iconic sporting events in South Africa.

Cherie: As if those accolades weren’t enough, Cheryl Winn holds the distinction of being the only Comrades Chairperson who has also won the race. Cheryl’s raced Comrades 6 times and she won in 1982. She was also one of the very first women to break 7 hours 30 minutes. And we will get to all that as well as the fact that Cheryl’s been involved in sports management for roughly 40 years and she’s spent about half of that time working on Comrades in some capacity.

But to really appreciate why all this is so significant, we need to understand what things were like when Cheryl first started her relationship with running.

We’re going back to the mid-1970s; South Africa was still firmly in the midst of aparteheid and Comrades had just celebrated its 50-year anniversary; the US is in its final years of the Vietnam War and disco was the rage; the jogging craze was just about to get into full swing, and long-distance events had started opening up to female runners for the first time. And Cheryl Winn was in the midst of a transition that would redefine her life.

Winn: I came out to South Africa. I was pregnant when I arrived. I had two babies in rapid succession and then I got hepatitis. In fact, when I first came to South Africa I got just about everything because obviously I didn’t have the immune system that South Africans grow up with. And at the age of 24, I was bedridden literally for weeks.

Cherie: Cheryl is American; she grew up mostly in Pennsylvania. Her husband, however, was South African; the two had met and married when he was studying in the US, and then the couple had decided to move to his home country for a year or two, which became three or four, and on to today.

But these were early days, and here was Cheryl, a young mom with two small children in a new country where things were very different from what she’d grown up with, and she could barely function. On the days when she could get out of bed, she’d still regularly take a couple of naps just to get through the day. But she also had some excellent support.

Winn: I had a wonderful general practitioner who also had a tremendous interest in running, and he actually started me off on a getting back to fitness program, of first walking around block, and then walking around 2 blocks, and then jogging around the block, etcetera, etcetera.

Cherie: Cheryl had run a bit back when she was in college in New Jersey, but her motivations then were a bit different.

Winn: The sorority houses were on one side of lake and the fraternity houses were on the other side of the lake. And so a lot of us used to jog around the lake and I think really at that point in time it was just a little bit of fun and an excuse to run part the fraternity houses, which actually sounds ridiculous and pathetic to me in retrospect, but I’m being perfectly honest here, and that’s what we did at the time.

Cherie: But now in South Africa, Cheryl’s running took on a very different significance.

Winn: It grabbed me, and I loved it. I got involved in my club committee and organizing races, and one thing just led to another and it just became a complete way of life; as anyone who’s a runner, it does, running changes your life. It becomes part of your life; it becomes one of your reasons for getting up in the morning, and that was very much how it was for me.

Cherie: And around that very same time that Cheryl started doing those walks then jogs around the block, right when running started to grab her, the Comrades Marathon made a surprising and historic decision that would have a huge impact on her future.

Winn: Comrades took the decision in 1975, which was way long, 20 years before nonracialism was really accepted in South Africa, Comrades took the decision in 1975 that men and women of all races could participate. So it’s been this big unifier, and it’s actually been able to show people how people can work together and support one another long before anyone else thought that normal sport was possible.

Cherie: Before 1975, Comrades was open only to white men. Again, this was during aparteid. And a major consequence of this racist structure was that South African athletes were banned from international competition by the rest of the world. No Olympics, no world championships, nothing. So big events within the country like Comrades were particularly important.

For women specifically, being banned from racing long distances was common: the Boston and New York City Marathons had only just opened to women in 1972 and it wasn’t until 1984 that the Olympics had a woman’s marathon; by comparison, the first men’s Olympic marathon was in 1894.

For Cheryl, this gave her big goals to aim for as she began finding her place in the running scene.

Winn: Almost from the beginning when I started running, and I’m not saying I was this great world class runner by today’s standards, but at that particular time, I used to go out and run local races and I  would win most of them. If I went to run a race, I would invariably win or come second, so I was noticed.

Cherie: And being at the front of the field was something Cheryl found she enjoyed quite a bit.

Winn: If you suddenly discover that late in life, when I hadn’t been good in any sport ever in my life, and you suddenly discover something that you’re good at. I mean, obviously it just grabs you. And that’s what happened with me.

Cherie: Of course, winning never comes easily, and through her pursuit of racing, Cheryl found where her greatest strengths were.

Winn: I think what I had was more determination. I had what it took in my head more than anything else. I just took to it and I loved it.

Cherie: Cheryl took to running and was immediately aware that the greatest driving force in her running community was the Comrades Marathon.

Winn: It totally dominated the running scene. It’s the reason why groups of people got together to train. In fact, the entire road running calendar was built around building up towards the Comrades Marathon. It’s just the way Comrades is; it’s such an important part of the psyche of South Africa. In South Africa, if you say you’re a runner, people will ask you, What’s your Comrades best time?

Cherie: Cheryl’s running progressed and within the short time of only a few years she’d gone from walks around the block to training for Comrades.

Winn: Whereas elsewhere in the world the ultimate is to be a marathon runner, in South Africa we run marathons every weekend in training for Comrades. It was just a natural progression. Once I got involved in running, that’s where it was ultimately going to end up.

Cherie: Cheryl was motivated to put in the training, she’d fallen in love with the sport and with competition and she got a lot of support in her local running community, which just so happened to include some of the very best Comrades competitors there were.

Winn: So Bruce Fordyce, he won the Comrades Marathon 9 times; he once set a record for 100 kilometers. And he was a part of the group that I ran in. Every single Tuesday evening we’d run a time trial and afterwards we’d all go out for pasta supper, and every single Sunday most of the runners, we’d, some people would run in different directions. but most of the runners would congregate at my house. Obviously he was a tremendous inspiration, there were just so many people. I just got so much encouragement.

Cherie: There was a lot of encouragement as well as insider knowledge passed down from seasoned veterans.

Winn: You always had these people who had run several Comrades before and they would have all sorts of little secrets they would pass on, in retrospect, it was so unscientific, you know it was a camaraderie, it was being part of something and everyone working so hard together towards the same goal.

Cherie: Working hard together meant weeks and weeks of group training runs, and Cheryl was welcomed as, she says, one of the guys. Because there weren’t many competitive female ultra runners around in those days; in fact, Cheryl doesn’t remember ever training with other women. So not much differentiated her training program and the one the guys followed.

Winn: It was so different from what it is now. I think just about everyone ran according to the same formula, which was basically, you did one time trial a week, and you did long, slow distance. That was more or less what everyone did in those days.

Cherie: The men tended to run a bit faster, so Cheryl alternated the group runs with days of training on her own, and she also had to work her training around being a mother of two young children and her job. To fit in her workouts, sometimes she got creative.

Winn: We had a track, a wondrous track, and I used to go there with my kids, and they used to have suitcases full of toys, and they would sit in the stands and play in the stands while I, some days I just had to run around the track, around and around and around, because I didn’t have anyone else to look after the children, and at least I could see them and keep an eye on them.

Cherie: And as much as Cheryl valued the wisdom of the seasoned Comrades runners around her, there were some insider tips she did without.

Winn: There were these really weird potions that they used to drink, there was one of the things they used to call corpse reviver, and I can’t remember what was in it; it was like a mixture of salt and sugar and, I don’t’ know, lemonade and who knows what, but certain people would absolutely swear that when you got to a certain point in the race you had to have this so-called corpse reviver. I suppose it probably had a lot of electrolytes in it and some energy. I don’t know. I never tried it.

Cherie: Something that Cheryl did do without hesitation, however, was committing to tackling Comrades. She prepared herself for the grueling 56 miles of this hot, relentlessly hilly course. She had that great support from her club, and she was enthusiastic because she was really good, but the fact remained that this is a huge and very difficult goal. And Cheryl had a great appreciation for what that meant.

Winn: There’s something about committing yourself to something as big as the Comrades Marathon that does sort of change your perception of yourself. It changes what you believe about yourself. It changes your entire set of values in the way you want to live your life; it’s certainly changed mine and of course it changed the direction because I became ultimately more and more involved in athletics administration later on so basically it’s been my life, but it had a huge impact on my daily life, training is absolutely integral, it’s something I couldn’t live without. It’s always had to be there.

Cherie: Cheryl ran her first Comrades Marathon in 1978 in a very respectable time 9 hours 19 minutes. But that paled in comparison to the speed she’d develop over the next few years.

So while female long-distance runners all over the rest of the world were rejoicing in being able to push their ultimate distance limits to the 26.2 miles of the marathon, South African female distance runners, along with the few foreign runners who would join them, were aiming to go over twice that distance and over the grueling hills of the Comrades course.

Isolated as they were from competing in the rest of the world and heavily influenced by the massive pull of Comrades, South African runners were pushing the boundaries of pain and endurance. And Cheryl Winn was becoming one of the best among them.

When she ran her second Comrades, in 1980, Cheryl was in contention for the win; she would end up second and with that be the second woman to break the 7 hour, 30 minute barrier for women. The first woman to break that barrier was Isavel Roche-Kelly, who’d done that just four minutes ahead of Cheryl.

Cheryl would come in second to Isavel the next year as well, but then going into the 1982 Comrades, Cheryl had a slightly different mindset.

Winn: My feelings going into that day were that I was so absolutely confident that I was going to win that day.

Cherie: And that feeling did not waver on the start line.

Winn: And on the day when I got on the starting line, I knew I was going to be the first woman to cross the finish line. I knew it without any doubt.

Cherie: Nor did it waver during the race.

Winn: I led from the start, and I never saw another woman all day, until well after the finish.

Cherie: Cheryl won the 1982 Comrades Marathon in an amazing time of 7 hours, 4 minutes, 59 second, with a lot of daylight between her and the second place female finisher. But that didn’t mean no one was racing her to the line.

Winn: It was funny in those days, guys couldn’t bear to be beaten by a woman. We always finished Comrades Marathon inside a stadium; I don’t know, it’s a tradition they’ve had since the beginning. And on that last track, the guys would sprint, they’d absolutely kill themselves not to be beaten by a woman.

Cherie: Of course, wherever the men around Cheryl came in had no bearing on the fact that she was the first woman, the winner of one of the most prestigious sports events in a country that has a deep love of sport.

Winn: Obviously, all of a sudden, you’ve sort of got this fame. I’ve always been, especially back then, I was a very shy person. I really didn’t like attention. I loved winning; I loved being handed the trophy, but I didn’t like having to be interviewed or have photos taken and stuff like that, that was the part that turned me off. But eventually you do sort of get used to it. And it is nice; it’s nice to be supported and it’s nice to be admired and respected for what you do. It’s a wonderful feeling of achievement.

Cherie: This sudden fame may have taken a bit of getting used to, but it would go on to serve Cheryl as she moved into other high-profile positions in the sport.

Winn: I’d been going to the same gym for five years and when I won Comrades all of a sudden everybody knew who I was. You know, Comrades is such a big thing in South Africa; it’s like winning the Superbowl. Immediately you become, not to the same degree then as now, but you immediately become a household name.

Cherie: Cheryl would go on to compete at an elite level for a few more years, but that wasn’t her only involvement in running, not by a very long shot.

Winn: I was always involved with athletics administration. I previously lived in Johannesburg and I was involved there with my club, and organized club races and things like that, and then moved to Kwa-Zulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, Durban area, I moved there in 1994, 1984, and so I’ve been involved in Comrades one way or another since 1984, in various voluntary capacities: at one stage I was employed; I was the media liaison for many, many years, and communication, and I was the acting CEO for a few years. Now, I’ve been on the board now for probably going on about 8 years now, and chairperson for the last, this is the third year.

Cherie: Cheryl’s love of running extends far beyond her own ability in the sport, she has a deep understanding and appreciation for the totality of what this sport, and specifically what Comrades, means to people.

Winn: I’ve got so much out of the sport, and that early part of my involvement with the sport came from my satisfaction in my own achievements, but then I gradually drifted more and more into race organization and administration. And over a period of time, it just shifted. I got just as much satisfaction if not even more satisfaction and especially during the years when South Africa was isolated. And we had such incredible talented athletes here in South Africa that were denied the opportunity to participate against the rest of the world. And I got so much satisfaction out of, just as much if not more out of their achievements and being able to enable their achievements. It’s obviously a hunger in me, and I still love it.

Cherie: And it’s that love that keeps Cheryl passionate about being a leadership position for such a gargantuan event. An event that started before the roads were paved and with fewer than 100 runners and has grown into a national treasure that requires an enormous amount of finesse to pull off each year.

Winn: We have a board consisting of 9 people that are obviously responsible for basically the strategic direction of race, for sustaining this, because it’s really regarded as a national institution in South Africa. That is chiefly our main responsibility. And then we have 18 full-time employees, and literally they work year-round on this one event. It’s arranging a race, arranging a really, really, really big race; it’s dealing with sponsors, dealing with the media, dealing with all the various stakeholders, the cities, the politicians to a large degree; it’s just balancing it all. That’s really what it’s about; it’s about balancing it.

Cherie: It’s all about balancing because Comrades leadership must navigate every single relationship that the event has an impact on, and there are many.

Winn: Here in South Africa, to close an entire 90-kilometer stretch of road for a period of 13 hours is a massive undertaking and so many forces at work and there are so many people who have to close their businesses for the day and we have very active and political taxi association and we’re disrupting their livelihood on the day; there’s so much politics behind the whole thing, so we’re constantly engaging with all of the communities that we affect and constantly trying ways to develop positive relationships with them and we have been very lucky to be able to do so.

Cherie: Putting Comrades together each and every year is a daunting task; it never ends. And there may well be a bit of luck involved in being able to pull it off, especially as it grows in size and complexity. But it also comes back to the fact that this race holds such a special place in people’s hearts and every single time it happens, thousands of lives change.

Winn: We have this saying, every South African should experience Comrades at least once in their lifetime, there’s something about making a commitment to yourself of something that is so big, so demanding, it takes so much sacrifice, blood sweat tears, and then getting to the end, to that finish line and realizing that you could actually do this, you come away from that race and you actually know that you can pretty much do anything that you set your mind to. And I think that that’s really the lesson of Comrades; it’s just one of the things shows how much the body can do if the mind commits itself.

Cherie: Of course, this year, 2020, put up challenges that even the magic of Comrades couldn’t completely override, so Cheryl and the board got creative to keep the spirit of the race alive.

Winn: On the day we should have staged the 2020 Comrades Marathon, we had a virtual race, and we decided to put it together with about 3 weeks notice and no idea of what a virtual race was and how it was going to run, and we sort of made it up as we went along, and we ended up with 67,000 participants, which was absolutely magnificent.

Cherie: The shakeup of 2020 has Cheryl and the rest of the rest of the  board thinking creatively about what the future might look like for Comrades, always keeping in mind that this is an event  ultimately belongs to the people of South Africa. And one beloved aspect of this race is the way it’s retained an authenticity to its beginnings almost 100 years ago.

Winn: It was founded in memory of the soldiers who fought in the first world war, and it was founded by a soldier who had been seriously injured and sent home, and he waged this relentless campaign to be able to stage this race over this absolutely ridiculous distance of 90 kilometers, between these two cities on, at the time it was completely dirt roads; there were a few streams that had to be crossed. There were gates that had to be opened. His whole idea was that he wanted it to be equally as grueling as the experiences that the people had had in the war.

Cherie: Of course, the tragedies and horror of war will never be equaled in a running event, but Comrades has always been a formidable and humbling challenge.

Winn: It’s tough in every conceivable way. Although it’s run in the coolest time of the year in South Africa, the temperatures can still go up to 40 degree C, well 39.6 was the hottest we’ve had in recent years; that was about 4 years ago. You’ve got the heat, you’ve got this rid distance of 90 kilometers.

Cherie: And of course, those 90 kilometers, or 56 miles, travel over unforgiving terrain.

Winn: And if you could see the hills between here and, people talk about Heartbreak Hill in Boston; I mean, I’ve run Boston, Heartbreak Hill is a pimple by comparison to the hills we have in Comrades. And there are so many of them. And even, we have an up run and a down run and they’re run in alternate years, and even the amount of climbing in our so called down run is absurd.

Cherie: And all that absurdity, that intentional difficulty has a point: shared suffering creates bonds and develops respect between the people who go through it, whatever their stance in life.

Winn: that you will have captains of industry, doctors and lawyers and millionaires and industrialists and taxi drivers and unemployed persons and gardeners all running together and supporting one and other and interacting in a way that never ever happens in South Africa.

Cherie: Because when you’re side by side tackling Comrades, it doesn’t matter what your day job is or what the minute differences there are between genetic codes or where you grew up or how much education you have, what matters that you’ve made it to be in this place at this time doing this very hard thing.

Winn: You help one and other and that’s exactly what you do and you realize, this man next to me is suffering just like I am. It’s such a weird thing that you don’t come across in your everyday life and that’s what I think is so beautiful about what Comrades does and it’s an example to people; that’s why . . . it’s so popular in this country, it’s an example of what everyone believes in, it should be.

Cherie: And there’s plenty of bonding that extends far beyond race day.

Winn: That’s the kind of buildup there was to Comrades. It’s just very much a part of people doing it together and even though now we’ve got, this year we had 27 and a half thousand people entered to run this year and it’s still the way most South Africans train. The name says it all, the Comrades Marathon; it’s all about the camaraderie of doing it together.

Cherie: Comrades isn’t going to solve the entrenched problems of division and discrimination, but it does contribute to unique moments that may help us get a little further down that path.

Winn: I certainly know what people talk about; the thing about South Africa, there are extremes in every world, in every country between the haves and have nots but in South Africa it’s that much greater, and it tends to be along racial lines. And it’s changing, it’s evolving. We’re now 25 years into so-called democracy. But the legacy of apartheid is still very much there. But it truly is the most unifying event on the day and you have to experience it.

Cherie: The difficulty of Comrades is one reason for it being such a uniquely unifying event, but the other factor that makes it so unique is that it encourages and welcomes all South Africans to participate, and that is done with purpose. The board works to make Comrades as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. Heading up these efforts has given Cheryl the opportunity to regularly work across all the many barriers that divide South Africa.

Winn: From an administrative point of view, I’ve been able to meet that I would never normally meet in my own sphere of life because regardless of the fact that there is no more apartheid there’s still wealthy suburbs and there are incredibly impoverished suburbs, and not suburbs; we don’t even call them suburbs. We call them rural areas, townships, shanty towns, things like that. And I’ve been privileged to be able to meet people across such a wide spectrum and get to know them. I’ve gotten to meet people in the board and in the races I’ve organized; I’ve just gotten to meet people across a far more diverse spectrum and form meaningful relationships that I think have enriched my own life and my own perspective immeasurably, and I feel that there are so many people that don’t have that opportunity. People sort of tend to stay in their lanes and they mix with people of their own like. I don’t have the feeling of it’s us and them, because I’ve been so privileged to be able to work with people across all spectrums and get to know them personally. To me that is the solution to all the racial strife we have in our country and in your country and around the world is for people to just get to know one and other and experience things together. It breaks down barriers by doing things together.

Cherie: Cheryl has spent her entire adult life dedicated to this sport that, on its face, is the primal, simple motion of putting one foot in front of the other, and yet it’s transformative in a way that makes it so much more. And the passion she discovered way back when she started remains as strong as ever.

Winn: I just have an absolute love of the sport of running. It’s just something so beautiful to watch and be part of.

Cherie: And the rest of us, women especially, will forever benefit from the path Cheryl Winn helped to forge and the work she continues to do.

Winn: I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time; I was more of what you’d call a trailblazer, and now some years later, and people are winning in a time that’s an hour faster, but that doesn’t worry me. That was my time. No one can take that away from me. I was a winner of the Comrades Marathon. But I don’t normally mention it, and people will ask if I’ve run com, and I say yes.

Cherie: And this brings us to the end of Cheryl Winn’s story on Strides Forward. I am incredibly thankful to Cheryl for taking the time to do this interview and share her story. I caught Cheryl at a particularly chaotic time, and we navigated some technical issues as one does when trying to make connections over multiple time zones and across continents, but she graciously and diligently stuck with me, and I am so incredibly pleased to be able to tell her story both because of her work within Comrades and because of her grit and passion as a runner. Her story felt like the perfect one to end this series with.

I will be back soon with announcements about our next season. And I will be making some standalone episodes in the meantime; as always, every Strides Forward episode will feature a story about one female ultra runner.

A great way to make sure you never miss an episode is to subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast app, or you can always find all our episodes on our Website, stridesforwardpodcast.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.

I’m also active on Instagram and Twitter @StridesForward. And you’re always welcome to contact me, Cherie, through the website, stridesforwardpodcast.com.

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 and I appreciate all the feedback and comments. I love these stories and I’m always excited to know that other people are interested in them, too. Until next time, this is Cherie, wishing you satisfying strides forward.

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