‘I Refuse to Be Old’: The 81-Year-Old Runner Who Became a South African Celebrity

On June 11, Maros Mosehla lined up with 16,000 other runners on the start line of the Comrades, a 56-mile footrace that began outside the red brick City Hall in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Mosehla, a wispy runner, 5 feet 2 inches tall, did not stand out from the crowd of athletes who had gathered to run just farther than the equivalent of two marathons through the misty winter morning.

But by the time Mosehla, a builder by profession, crossed the Comrades finish line in the city of Durban 9 hours and 26 minutes later, he had done something extraordinary. At 81, he became the oldest person to complete the racein its 102-year history, shattering a record that had stood for more than three decades — the previous record-holder competed at 80. Perhaps even more jaw-dropping was the fact that he had finished ahead of more than two-thirds of the runners, 95 percent of whom were more than 20 years younger than him.

In ultrarunning, a sport that rewards mental fortitude and prudent pacing over absolute speed, octogenarian athletes are not completely unheard-of. This March, for instance, five runners over 80 competed at the USA Track & Field 100 mile championship in Nevada.

“It’s phenomenal, but it’s not totally improbable,” said Shona Hendricks, a South African sports scientist and ultrarunning coach. With well-considered strength training, lots of recovery time and “choosing your parents wisely,” that is, having good genetics, some runners are still capable of completing these kinds of bruising distances well into their retirement years, she said.

But even among that rarefied bunch, Mosehla cuts a distinct profile. He qualified for the Comrades with a standard marathon time of 3 hours 51 minutes — 40 minutes faster than the global average for anyone of any age. And at this year’s Comrades, he ran a pace of nearly six miles an hour — speedier than more than 10,000 of the race’s 15,000 finishers.

“People ask me why I refuse to be old,” he said on a recent evening, sitting in the living room of his house, which he built himself. By now, he has outlived two wives, two of his 17 children and most of his childhood friends. But he still takes on construction jobs and, of course, goes running three times a week. “When you run, you stay young,” he said.

Outside Mosehla’s home, a breeze tinkled what sounded like a huge wind chime. But it was, in fact, his more than 300 race medals, which he had strung up on his washing line to show a visiting journalist. “They are my legacy,” he said.

Mosehla grew up and still lives in the village of Ga-Mogashoa, in South Africa’s rural northeast. The youngest of six children, he was born at home — “we had no clinics here then” — and spent his childhood tending his family’s cattle on the rocky hillsides and in valleys scooped between them. At times, he and his friends would walk more than 20 miles a day with their herds, and would sleep beside them in the grass. “I knew all those cattle by name,” he said.

In 1959, when he was 17, Mosehla asked his father if he could go to school so that he could learn to read and write. “In those days, going to school late was the common thing here,” said Benson Leshilo, a friend of Mosehla’s. “It was the situation of the time,” he said, referring to apartheid, the brutal system of segregation that deliberately kept Black South Africans poor and undereducated.

In Mosehla’s village, there was no school, so he walked five miles to the nearest one, where he began kindergarten at the age of 18. As he studied, he also worked in construction on the side to pay his school fees and help support his family. “That work started out from necessity, but I grew to love it,” he said.

It was also at this time that he began to run, first in local cross-country meets and later representing his bantustan, an apartheid-era territory set up for Black ethnic groups by South Africa’s government.

“I was light and fast, so I was always winning,” he said.

At the time, South African distance running was on the cusp of a revolution. The country had been barred from most major sporting competitions, including the Olympics and the World Cup, because of apartheid. Desperate to claw its way back in, the white government announced in the early 1970s that it would integrate road running. By the time Mosehla ran his first marathon in 1974, the country’s major road races were beginning to desegregate.

But the situation was far from idyllic. In 1981, Mosehla says he was leading a marathon in the city of Pietersburg (now Polokwane) when a white race marshal purposely directed him to take a wrong turn. He said that he figured it out in time to sprint back and still win the race, but added that “I was so angry that I declined to take the prize.”

A couple of years later, busy with work and the demands of life as a new husband and father, Mosehla stopped racing altogether. Instead, he would jog a few kilometers before work on the concrete road behind his house, where trucks growled past carrying cargo of asbestos and chrome from local mines.

He didn’t take up running formally again until 2003, when he was 61. By then, the Comrades had mushroomed from a plucky little event with a few thousand participants each year into the world’s largest race longer than a marathon. It attracted between 15,000 and 20,000 runners a year, tens of thousands of spectators and large TV audiences. For South Africans, the Comrades had become the pinnacle of distance running, and Mosehla was no exception.

Credit…Rogan Ward/Reuters

In 2006, he signed up for the race, and finished in 8 hours 19 minutes.

“One thing I love about Comrades is that on that day, people are focused on the same thing — they have the same spirit,” he said. “There is no difference between us on that day.”

Except, for some runners, there was one major difference.

“I’m half his age, and he still beats me,” Thabana Mokgohloa, 41, said. This year, Mokgohloa, who runs for the Polokwane Athletic Club with Mosehla, finished the Comrades about 20 minutes behind the 81-year-old. “You know what?” he added, “Every time he beats me, I get inspired.”

On a recent morning, Mosehla slipped on a pair of old blue sneakers and set off on a five-mile jog near his house. As he passed hillsides where he had once herded his father’s cows and houses he had built over his 50-year career, passers-by shouted greetings. He rattled off a list of his favorite construction projects to the wheezing journalist beside him: the local headman’s home, a teachers college, a nursing home.

“Whenever I build a house, it must come out splendid, because it is an advertisement of my work,” he said. “When I see my buildings, it makes me feel proud, like when I run with the young ones.”

He was still basking in his latest Comrades finish — his 10th race — which had propelled him to the status of minor running royalty in South Africa. He was now constantly being invited to run in races across the country, and had recently hosted the premier of his province, Limpopo, at his house. It felt to him as if his life was on the cusp of something great, and he said he hoped next to run an international marathon, in Dubai or New York.

“God knows everyone’s age,” he said. “And for me he has decided: You are still young.”

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