The run started on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg where on March 25, 1961 Mandela gave his last public speech as a free man, and finished at Howick village close to where he was arrested on August 5 the next year.
The first Mandela Day Marathon, set to become an annual event, symbolises “a long run to freedom”, said spokesperson Mbeko Nzimande, using a phrase that echoes the title of Mandela’s autobiography “A Long Walk to Freedom”.
Mandela stayed in prison for almost three decades, until February 1990. Four years later, he became the country’s first black president.
Organisers wanted “to honour our living legend Nelson Mandela by having a marathon here,” said Sifiso Mkize, deputy mayor of the eastern uMgungundlovu district, which covers Howick and Pietermaritzburg.
“And it is a way to expand township tourism — we know that tourists from overseas want to experience the way Africans live.”
The mapped distance from start to finish is 41 kilometres, and several detours were added through townships, where young dancers and cheerleaders welcomed the runners, to reach the marathon distance of 42.195 km.
Because South Africans love the symbolism of numbers, organisers initially planned to limit the number of runners to 466 — a tribute to Mandela’s prisoner number, 466-64.
But a surge in demand forced them up to 940, representing Mandela’s age of 94 multiplied by 10. Sponsors then roped in more runners, and eventually 950 athletes took off at sunrise.
“We had to turn people away,” said Nzimande. “When you speak about Mandela, everybody wants to be part of it.”
“It’s very, very important. It was this Mandela thing,” said the marathon winner Brighton Chipere, 38, who finished the race in 2 hr 28 min 32sec. “I came from Zimbabwe especially for this race.”
“Mandela has done a lot for us, so why not do the race on his behalf?” said a smiling Renee Moodley, 50, a housewife, who took part in the run.
Mandela’s grandson, Mandla, who is also an ANC lawmaker, said Mandela took fitness seriously and used to work out daily between 4:00 am and 6:00 am.
“It is a message to South Africans and the global community that we should continue to stay healthy and fight obesity,” he said trying to tuck in his potbelly after he ran 10 km.
Parallel to the main race, 560 amateur athletes ran 10 kilometres while members of the public was invited to walk exactly 4.6664 km to the spot where Mandela was arrested.
There a sculpture made up of 50 steel rods up to 10 metres (about 33 feet) tall was recently erected. When viewed from a certain angle, Mandela’s image comes into focus.