The Inspiration: The UNOGWAJA Challenge

Comrades. It’s a relatively short name made up of only eight letters, but the word itself has one of the longest connotations in the South African dictionary. At 89km long, it’s one of the toughest, but also most rewarding races I’ve ever done. As a result, this Ultra has got a special place in my heart. The depths that you trudge through on that race have no equal, and your mind becomes the worst enemy you’ve ever had. But cross that finish line, and you realise why it’s a race that South Africans can be proud of, and why some many foreigners travel to listen to Shosholoza on the start line. I’ve done the down run, but am planning to do the up run in the next few years. But running the race has also made me respect the Unogwaja Challenge even more.

The Unogwaja Challenge was started by the charismatic John McInroy in 2011, and it was made of a small group of brave, fit (and slightly unhinged) people that cycled from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg in ten days (that’s roughly 1 750km over ten long days in the saddle) and then ran the Comrades to emulate the legendary Phil Masterton-Smith, who’s nickname was Unogwaja (Zulu for “hare”). In 1933, Masterson-Smith couldn’t afford the train fare from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg, but he didn’t let that stop him. The Hare was so determined to run the ultimate human race that he did what no man had ever considered possible before, he jumped on a clunker of a bike and cycled from CT to Durban in under ten days, arriving just in time to run Comrades. The Unogwaja Challenge raises money for charity through The Light Fund (more on that here), and it’s one of best charity-based challenges I’ve seen from South Africa. It’s also one of the most demanding. 10 days of hard riding followed by 89km of running up and down heart-breaking hills.

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The Unogwaja has become a real pay-it-forward story, as McInroy and his merry band of athletes have inspired thousands of people to either tie up their running shoes, get on a bicycle, or to do something for charity and our beautiful country. They’ve graced a number of magazine spreads, newspaper pages, website columns and more, and their signature red socks have become the latest running accessory for runners in-the-know. But that’s not where this challenge ends.

The cycle challenge is still the main part of the Unogwaja (there are 11 cyclists in the 2015 edition), but there’s an update to this inspirational story. On Friday 1 May 2015, John McInroy and Robert Le Brun of Unogwaja will set out to cover the 1 750km route from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg on foot. “The cycle challenge will remain at the heart of Unogwaja but we wanted to open the journey to all. Unogwaja on foot, means anybody can take part in the journey for as long or short a distance as they can. The Unogwaja is not just about a cycle or a run but is a journey of hope that we want as many to be able to take part in as possible and call their own,” says McInroy. That’s amazing, considering both the distance and the mental push needed in this challenge. They’ll need to walk over 50km a day to make the destination before race day. The good news is that anyone can join them for parts of their journey (or the whole thing if you have the time and fitness). On 30 May the two teams will unite in Pietermaritzburg, and then the following day they aim to take on the Comrades together.

It’s an amazing story, and it’s all been done for a very good cause. One of the offshoots of Unogwaja are the Red Sock Runs that happen around the country on Friday. They’re managed by great people, and have a brilliant vibe that sets you up for a great weekend. Meet some new people, get your running back on track, and invest in some of the signature vibrant, knee-length Red Socks (proceeds go to charity) – find out more here or follow them here.

So far the Unogwaja has raised R730 140 this year, and they’re aiming for R2-million. For more details about the foot journey, the Challenge and the Light Fund please visit www.unogwaja.com and join the conversation on #unogwaja.

John McInroy

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1 Comment

  • John McInroy says:

    Arthur! Thank you SO much for writing so passionately about our journey. You are now a part of it and I know have been for a while now through your support of Thamar back in 2013! We hope to see you on day 1 as we walk from Southern Sun Waterfront to Grand Parade at 7am on Friday 1 May (Worker’s Day) – an historic occasion!

    We have received quite a few enquiries about the Unogwaja on Foot which is so awesome! We are really glad people share the same enthusiasm as us about what this can become. In order for us to begin this journey, we have to start somewhere, and covering over 50km a day is pretty arduous and will involve long spells of (slow) jogging/running in order to get where we need to go (PMB on 30 May to unite with the Unogwaja Challenge cycle group). The kind of pace where most people will be able to join for short periods and we also plan to walk through all major people areas to give as much opportunity for as many people to join. We see this evolving dramatically each year but in order to make the leap with the resources we had, these were the parameters for year one. This really is the start of a long journey that we really hope can become South Africa’s journey but it does not happen over night and we just want to make sure we are managing everyones expectations. We cannot be responsible for anyone along the route. Each person joining for 10 metres, a kilometre, a day or beyond needs to look after themselves entirely.
    This is another recent interview with some practical questions that may assist: http://www.thetreatylife.co.za/2015/03/the-unogwaja-also-goes-on-foot.html

    Please don’t hesitate to give me a shout via twitter @johnmcinroy we would be happy to hear from you!

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