Hot on his trail: South African trail running champ Thabang Madiba

Posted on 26 July 2022

Multiple winner of the South African Trail Running Championships and the first black trail runner to represent South Africa internationally, Thabang Madiba is a man with endless humility and boundless ambition.

Interviewed by Lauren Dold

I was born with this desire in my heart to run. As long as there’s sweat and my heart rate goes up, I’ll always enjoy myself. As a child growing up in Ga-Rankuwa I loved soccer but my grandma refused to buy me soccer boots. But one day she bought me tekkies for a school outing and that’s when my running started. I ran every day after school.

In my first race in secondary school, I came third in the 1 500m. That medal has motivated me from that moment until today.

Track and field running was always a challenge for me as a junior, but when it came to cross country racing, I found I would even challenge the senior athletes. Trail running is more technical, more challenging, and there are far more obstacles… so with a cross country background, trail running came easily to me.

My first competitive trail run was in the Groenkloof Nature Reserve in Tshwane, and I ended up winning that race. It was my first time lining up with serious athletes – there were even Comrades runners in that race… but I moved like a gazelle over those rocks.

Running really has taken me places. My first international run was in Poland, then I ran in the Czech Republic. At times in my travels I have been the only black man in a town, and in a race, but I felt good. I was like a celebrity! I got so much positive attention, and the way the children looked at me was so sweet!

Outside of trail running, Michael Jackson was my idol. Man that guy could dance. But within the field it has to be Ryan Sandes. He’d won so many races and I remember thinking to myself, I want to be like this guy. I remember the first time I met him, it felt so good to rub shoulders with the very best.

Every single race is tough, even though I’ve managed to win some of them. You get to a point where you feel like giving up. You get to a point where you feel like you’re going to fall. My longest trail was the Dodo Challenge in Mauritius. That was a 54km run, climbing over 3 000m, and that really tested my strength. But when you reach the end, you forget about all the pain that you went through.

This Top Trailists Top Five

My favourite place in the world has to be Madagascar. I remember when I left Diego Suarez, (also known as Antsiranana) when the plane took off I shed a tear because of the love and the pure joy that those people showed me. They don’t have much but they’re so happy! It’s not easy to find that. I wish I could go back.

My favourite meal is probably fish and veggies… but in winter I must say I love fat cakes! (similar to vetkoek)

3. The person who inspires me most has to be my son. He’s turning 11 now, and he has been such a motivation for me. He loves running, he loves cycling, he doesn’t want to be in front of the TV, he just wants to be outside.

My top event must be the 4 Peaks Mountain Challenge (in the Witteberge of the north-eastern Free State), the toughest mountain race in the country. I did the first one in 2011, and I was crying getting to the top of Sikonyela’s Hat, the terrain is so technical. It’s tough but so close to my heart. (Thabang is the only man to have won the forward and reverse races.)

The shoes I run best in are definitely Salomon’s S-Lab Sense 8’s, for hard ground and soft ground. So light and comfortable!

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