A few months ago I wrote about the thrill of walking in Johannesburg at night. Yesterday I discovered that running in Joburg at night is even better. Especially when you’re running with 10,000 other people, dressed in florescent yellow.

My friends and I, getting ready to Run Jozi. I wish I’d painted my face. (Photos courtesy of Martina.)

Last night was the first-ever  Nike Run-Free, Run Jozi race — a 10k run through downtown Joburg. I had never run a 10k race in my life, and had never had an interest in doing so. In fact, I had never run 10 kilometers in one go before. But when Martina told me there was going to be 10k race through the city centre, at night, costing only R70 ($9.30), and that participants get a free t-shirt, I signed up right away.

Race day afternoon was ominous. Clouds and thunder rolled in and it began to rain around 3:30. But I dutifully donned my Run Jozi shirt, tied up my shoes with my new bright yellow laces, and hopped into the car with Martina and Rob. We picked up Eva-Lotta on our way to the park-and-ride in Emmarentia, and trudged through the chilly rain to the bus stop.  (Dear Nike: Please put the bus stop closer to the park-and-ride next time. Running 10k is enough — I didn’t need to walk another 2k.)

Showing off our personalized t-shirts. The personalization was free! (Dear Nike: Well done.) Unfortunately there were no numbers so I had to get “TwoSummers” on mine. The T and the S are hidden on the sides of my ribs. (Photo by Rob, on Martina’s iPhone.)

Thank goodness we got free ponchos (Nike, well done again). The rain was really coming down at this point. The plastic kept us warm, too.

The atmosphere was festive at the starting line in Braamfontein.

I personally would not eat fish & chips before running a 10k. (Photo: my blackberry.)

Gumboot dancers. (Photo: my blackberry.)

Near the start. (Photo by Martina on my blackberry.)

For those of you not from South Africa, I should explain the significance of this event. In Joburg there many people — especially white people — who have never been to the Joburg city centre (or CBD, as we call it here). It is quite easy to live your whole life in the northern suburbs and never venture downtown. For many years after apartheid, the  CBD was considered a “no-go area”. It was synonymous in lots of people’s minds with crime, filth, and poverty.

It was strange seeing so many preppy white people wandering around the CBD. But also very cool.

Waiting for over an hour at the starting line, packed together like sardines, was a bit unpleasant. My feet began to hurt. At least the rain stopped.

As night fell, anticipation built.

Photo by Martina.

At about 6:55, the line started moving forward. The crowd burst spontaneously into the South African national anthem. I got goose bumps. A few minutes later we were running across Nelson Mandela Bridge, with fireworks exploding above.

Thanks to Mark Straw of the Joburg Photowalkers for sending me this spectacular picture. Obviously I did not have my camera on me. Mark organized a scouting mission last weekend to determine the best places to photograph the race, and the best ways to light the runners. Clearly that scouting mission paid off.

My friends and I separated when the running began. As I ran across Mandela Bridge, it was just me and my iPod, playing “Marry the Night” by Lady Gaga. I cried as I ran over that bridge. I was so happy to be there, but so sad that Jon wasn’t. Jon certainly would not have been running; one of his favorite lines was, “I only run when I’m being chased.” But he would have been there to take photos. He would have been proud of me, and of this city.

Before the race, I thought I would take it easy. Walk part of the way, perhaps. But five minutes into the run, I switched into Commando Super-Jock Mode. I would run the entire race, as fast as possible. And I would love every second.

We ran through the central business district, past the ANC headquarters and the Joburg Public Library. We cruised past the Troyeville Hotel, and turned a corner toward Hillbrow. The uphill climb began.

As I ran up the hill, the highrises of Hillbrow were lit up like 100 Christmas trees above me. Thousands of neon shirts bobbed in the foreground. A slower song began to play on my iPod — “My Guitar”, by a South African artist named Zahara. I started to cry again but I didn’t slow down. I wish I could find a good recording of that song to attach here. I felt like it was written specifically for me.

In Hillbrow, the streets were filled with spectators. Children jumped up and down, laughing, as we ran by. This race was a big deal for the runners, but it was also a big deal for the residents of the neighborhoods we ran through. The residents of Hillbrow are rarely visited by outsiders at all, let alone 10,000 at once. People peered through their windows, and shouted from high-rise balconies. They stood along the sidelines and held out their hands. I high-fived as many people as possible.

(Dear Run Jozi fans: You’re supposed to slap our hands, not grab them and hold on for dear life. Please remember this next year.)

I was running so hard, and enjoying myself so immensely, I barely cared that I couldn’t take photos. I saw Mark Straw along the way, toting his tripod down Constitution Hill. I stopped briefly to hug him but didn’t even think to ask him to take my photo. Bad blogger, Heather, bad blogger!

This photo is not from last night. It was taken Saturday by my friend Sandor Orozi, on the scouting mission that I mentioned earlier. But you get the idea.

The last kilometer or two were all downhill. I weaved in and out, passing people. I began to fantasize. Maybe I would win! Alas, when I crossed the finish line there were already a few thousand people there. I felt awesome nonetheless.

I haven’t gotten my official time yet but I think it was just under an hour. My first thought when I looked at my watch: “I’ll run faster next time.”

Dear Nike: I love you for doing this race. But please have more buses at the finish next year. That one-hour wait killed my buzz. And my friend nearly passed out.

Here is the 2Summers Run Jozi playlist:

  • Marry the Night: Lady Gaga
  • Superbeast: Rob Zombie
  • Scatterings of Africa: Johnny Clegg
  • We Are Who We Are: Kesha
  • The Boxer: Carbon Leaf
  • Konichiwa B*****s: Robyn
  • These Days: Johnny Clegg
  • Whenever, Wherever: Shakira
  • I Broke My Saw: Love Tractor (shout-out to my talented cousin, Armistead Wellford)
  • Loverboy: Billy Ocean (should-out to my sister, Susanna Mason)
  • My Guitar: Zahara
  • Cold Feelings: Social Distortion
  • Tomorrow: Silverchair
  • Melatonin: Silversun Pickups
  • L.E.S. Artistes, Santigold
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