Johannesburg, South Africa – Eight days before her first ultramarathon, South Africa’s infamous 87km (54-mile) Comrades, Ashleigh Adams is on stage at a party for her running club, reciting her poem about how she got here.
“I am trying to give myself a second chance,” the 35-year-old says, leaning towards the microphone in front of her.
“My shoes have holes, yet I put my hope there,” she says, her voice smooth and deep. “The direction of my run is in my veins.”
Four years ago, this kind of second chance felt impossible.
Back then, Adams’s life had fallen into a deep rut. During the day, she sat on a velvety armchair inside a bookstore in one of Johannesburg’s most opulent shopping malls and devoured stacks of self-help books.
There was Who Moved My Cheese?, The One Minute Manager and Awaken the Giant Within. She studied the secrets of an endless fount of Tibetan monks, daytime TV hosts, and Fortune 500 CEOs with straight, blinding white teeth.
Then, each evening, she walked the 5km (3 miles) home to the draughty single room where she lived and drank until she blacked out.
“I couldn’t face the world sober,” she told Al Jazeera. Anyway, those books were for people whose lives mattered, she told herself, not for broke drunks like her.
That was, until one day in 2019 when a friend invited her to go on a run. Adams was feeling puffy and a bit bored. “Why not?” she thought. She ran around a track near her house in jeans and canvas sneakers. It hurt worse than her worst hangovers. And she loved it.
The next day when she woke up sore, she thought, this is what it feels like for pain to have a purpose. Running was a blank slate.
“You build yourself up, you demolish yourself, and then somehow you keep going,” she says. It was like everything the self-books had been telling her. But suddenly it felt like something she could do, too.
Running hadn’t changed everything. Even four years later, she was still trying to find a steady job and a more comfortable place to stay. Her dream of becoming a counsellor or a life coach remained distant.
But the ground had shifted and here she was, standing in front of a crowd, promising them that in a few days’ time, she would finish a race more than two marathons long. It was a big, terrifying thought. She had never gone that far. She had no idea if she could.
“The voices in my head are loud like silence,” she told the crowd.
‘I was right to take that chance’
All across South Africa, at that same moment, thousands of other runners were having a similar kind of thought. How in the world did I get here?
“We are a nation of accidental ultrarunners,” says Theo Rafiri, a decorated South African distance runner. “Running found us. And once running finds you in this country, this race is the pinnacle.”
Strung between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban, the Comrades is run by between 15,000 and 20,000 people each June. The course is thick with spectators, and millions watch the live TV broadcast.
“It’s one of South Africa’s greatest stories,” says Rafiri, who came second in the 1993 Comrades and has run the race more than 30 times.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine many countries in the world where the prospect of watching a 12-hour-long footrace on television could ignite such passion, or where it’s a common hobby to run almost 90km (56 miles) for fun.
The story of how this strange race came to be such a phenomenon in South Africa stretches back through the last decades of apartheid, when the country – cut off from the sports world by international boycotts – turned inward, creating huge spectacles of its amateur sporting events.
One of them was a nearly 90km (56-mile) footrace known as the Comrades, which had been run annually since the 1920s. But its popularity only began to skyrocket in the 1970s, when the race admitted people of colour and women for the first time.
By the time Adams was born in the late 1980s, the Comrades was televised in its entirety every year and its winners were bona fide celebrities.
Not that this mattered to her. For most of her life, the Comrades wasn’t in her field of vision.
Adams grew up in a township near Cape Town, part of South Africa’s Indigenous Khoisan community. She was raised mostly by her grandmother, but she says her father, a truck driver who loved to read, was “the most precious person in the world to me”.
When she was 10, he was shot and killed. Adams couldn’t make sense of it. She fell into trouble, flunked out of high school. By 19, she had a baby girl, Sade.
Over the next several years, now living in Johannesburg, she cycled through low-wage jobs – at a supermarket, painting houses, installing lightbulbs in social housing. Her daughter shuffled between different relatives as Adams focused on the centrepiece of her survival: booze.
“For a long time I didn’t care what happened to me,” she says. “I thought me and my baby were put on this earth to suffer.”
Even after she started casually jogging in 2019, it took a while to kick that mentality. “When I was running I would hear a voice saying, ‘You need to stop drinking,’” she says. “And then I would think, but why? Beer is the only thing that’s been there for me.”
For her birthday in May 2019, a friend bought her three litres – about four bottles’ worth – of wine. That night, she drank it at home alone, glass by glass, until it was gone.
“The next day, I was so sick I couldn’t get out of bed,” she says. Adams told herself “never again”, and that was the last time she drank.
Instead, she began to go out each morning for longer and longer runs. Her routes carried her across the township of Alexandra, a crowded neighbourhood of small houses and shacks just across a highway from Sandton, the skyscraper suburb known as “Africa’s richest square mile”.
She ran past the kinds of sticky taverns where she used to spend her nights, watching patrons stumble out glassy-eyed into the bright mornings.
She didn’t have her watch, and her phone was a little brick of a thing – no GPS, no Strava running app – so she rarely had any idea how far she’d gone, or how fast.
“I just connected to that pain I was feeling,” she says. “The way running hurts gives you this surety that you’re still alive.”
Her transformation caught the eye of Lizzy Babili, an elite runner who lived in the area. She invited Adams and her daughter to come live with her for a while.
“I was doing for her what other people had done for me,” Babili told Al Jazeera. “I felt, this is a person with an open soul. And I was right to take that chance.”
‘Living my own dream’
On June 11, just before 5:30am, both Babili and Adams stood outside the city hall in Pietermaritzburg – Babili at the front with the elites, Adams deep into the crowd.
The crowd belted out South Africa’s national anthem. The cannon fired, and 16,000 people surged away into the dark morning.
“I wanted to see what my limits really were,” Adams said simply of her choice to sign up for the race.
But on the road that day, her mind felt light. “I was so clear,” she says. She didn’t talk, as she often does on the road, to her dead parents. “Sometimes I find them sitting on my shoulders,” she says.
She didn’t worry about her daughter Sade, who was now 16, or wonder when they’d make it out of the single, tiny room they share with another woman – a recovering addict who Adams took in to support – each of them sleeping in a pile of blankets on the floor. She wasn’t wondering when, or if, she’d find a job again.
She was just running – past chicken farms and sugar cane fields and slumping, sleepy small towns. She passed children kneeling on the ground to pick up the sweat-drenched sweaters that runners had flung off as the day warmed up, and her heart twisted. She passed spectators who shouted her name in a dozen different accents, and it rose to her throat.
By the afternoon, the sky overhead was thick with barbecue smoke. Everything on Adams’s body seemed to be chafing. “Your body wants to give up, and you have to keep talking to it,” she says. But as she rounded the bend into Durban’s Kingsmead Stadium, the pains shooting from her body fell suddenly silent.
“It was like I was witnessing myself living my own dream,” she says. Ten hours and 28 minutes after the race began, she crossed the finish line. And suddenly, in that instant, the world cracked open a little wider.
“If this thing felt impossible and then I did it,” Adams asks, “what does that mean for the life I have coming next?”