Running a marathon is an intimidating proposition for most healthy people; running an ultra is out of the question. Evelina Tshabalala does both and more, while living with HIV. She has climbed three of the ‘seven summits’ – the highest mountain peaks on each continent – and takes part in insane runs, such as the Comrades Marathon, regularly. This on top of working a nine to five and participating actively in her community while keeping children off the streets by encouraging them to exercise, and taking part in meetings and support groups for people who are HIV positive within her community. Are you exhausted yet?
Being diagnosed with HIV isn’t a death sentence any more, thanks to antiretroviral drugs. By keeping the disease at bay, medication has made the virus a manageable condition. People who test positive can live normal lives. The disease is still terrifyingly prominent in South Africa, however: along with AIDS, it is responsible for roughly 1000 deaths in South Africa per day. This is why Tshabalala keeps working with both the youth and adults of South Africa, promoting the message that the disease is manageable.
Her attitude to helping children is rooted in a natural impulse to help, as well as the traditions of her culture. “In our language, your child is my child. If I see your child do something wrong, I’ve got the right to say ‘no, don’t do that,’” she says of guiding children who are not her own. “The kids know me. When they see me coming they think, ‘there is mama coming.’ And now all of them have discipline.” Sternness as well as kindness is Tshabalala’s way of nurturing.
Long distance runners are usually as thin as it is possible for the human body to remain while sustaining itself. Evelina Tshabalala – as with most things – is the exception in this regard. She is powerful rather than skinny; strength, as well as endurance, is key to her success. It’s tempered by the warmth of her smile, and the ease of her laugh. These are some of the factors that make her personality as warm and appealing as it is; she is not the typical hyper-competitive and overly focused endurance athlete.
Perhaps this is because athletics is only part of her life, a means to an end in her efforts as an activist. She is highly engaging and generous with her time. “I don’t expect anything when I help somebody,” she says. She is a founder hero of the organisation Positive Heroes – which features other high profile individuals such as Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron, as well as a team of marathon runners.
Tshabalala is accustomed to strife, and she continues to make a difference. There seems to be no obstacle large enough to keep her down. She witnessed the fatal shooting of her father and lost her son to drowning. She has also lost both her brother and her sister. That should be enough to cripple anyone. Not Tshabalala.
A natural athlete, Tshabalala won the first race that she ever entered – a 10 kilometre event. She won the next one too, a 5 kilometre run the same afternoon. At the time she didn’t have running shoes, and ran both races barefoot; the winnings she earned that day paid for her first pair.
Initially Tshabalala ran barefoot because she had to. But when she muscled in at the starting line barefoot, she thought of her hero Zola Budd, a barefoot champion from a very different background, who also ran barefoot and won. Graduating from 5 kilometre and 10 kilometre races, Tsahabalala ran her first marathon, at the age of 19 and finished in 3:03 – a remarkable time for someone so young. The time was good enough to place her in the South African Championships, and she earned her colours representing Western Province.
She lives today in Joe Slovo, an informal settlement in Cape Town, but she grew up in Durban. The move was prompted by necessity: “I wanted to work for my family. In Durban there was work, but the money was not what it was in Cape Town.” It was difficult, moving away from her family, and the life that she built in the mother city has withstood a huge amount of hardship and turmoil.
It has come with rewards, too: as a result of her mountain-climbing exploits – she has climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Elbrus in Russia and Aconcagua in Argentina for the seven peaks challenge – she was given the chance to meet former President Nelson Mandela. It was the greatest honour any South African could hope for, but Tshabalala had a feeling it would happen. When she summited Kilimanjaro she shouted ‘Madiba’ as she reached the peak in honour of a man who conquered seemingly insurmountable mountains of his own.
Another long-term dream was fulfilled much earlier, when she travelled to Britain the same year that South Africa achieved democracy. Her take on the capital of the British Empire? “London is nice, but it’s dirty. There are lots of flies, and you can’t see,” she says of her 1994 visit to Britain’s capital city for the London Marathon. She’s joking, for the most part. Still, the city did prove challenging to the first-time visitor. Disorientated, she got lost on a training run, and found her way back by showing her hotel keys to passers-by. Although it’s held in spring, the change of seasons in London is not the same as it is in South Africa, and Tshabalala found the cold, windy conditions bitter – in spite of which she declined to wear a warm outer layer. She ran well, and finished in 25th place, earning another medal to add to her collection.
Evelina Tshabalala is, on top of her achievements as a runner and a mountaineer, a beautiful human being. To endure the losses that she has suffered, and to retain an optimistic outlook with the burden of HIV, is a story that speaks to the strength of her spirit and the fortitude of her character. That she does more than just endure, and actively raises money and awareness for HIV and other causes – on a grassroots as well as a national level – stretches the limits of the imagination. And she isn’t a figure who looks at herself as existing on a different level to other people. She is rooted in her community, the definition of an extraordinary person living as one of a crowd. She’s a South African special, a gift to the nation and an example to all.