Athlete Tshilidzi Madzhie from Maramanzhi village finished the gruelling 87-kilometre race wearing pink sandals. Photo:

Madzhie wins his Bill Rowan Comrades medal in his sandals


What do you do if you train for a gruelling race such as the Comrades Ultra-marathon, and you lose a toenail? With only a few weeks to go, you cannot wear your normal running shoes because the pain is too excruciating. Do you simply give up on your dreams, or do you make a plan?

A local athlete, Tshilidzi Madzhie from Maramanzhi village, found himself in such a position. On 27 April this year, he took part in the Polokwane City Marathon, but it ended in pain as his running shoes destroyed one of his toenails. For Tshilidzi, this was a terrible blow because he knew he had to train hard for the upcoming Comrades. He would definitely not be able to tackle the 86 kilometres from Durban to Pietermaritzburg wearing shoes that caused pain every time they rubbed against his toes.

Then the idea popped into his head of running with sandals. He did a bit of research and found that some international athletes also competed while wearing sandals. “Maria Ramirez from Mexico stood out as a notable figure who had achieved success in trail runs while wearing sandals. I decided to give it a try,” he said.

When Tshilidzi started training wearing sandals, he found that this was actually not too difficult, and he enjoyed the freedom the sandals allowed his feet. He embarked on some training runs over 40 kilometres and also compared his times over 21-kilometre and 32-kilometre distances. Much to his surprise, his times were better than his previous personal bests.

The real test, however, came with the gruelling Comrades. In 2023, he finished the race in 09:17:18, and he was hoping to better this time. The best time that he had achieved was in 2017, when he completed it in 08:06:46, earning himself a coveted Bill Rowan medal.

On 9 June this year, Tshilidzi lined up along with more than 20,000 other runners in Durban to start the race. His colourful pink sandals made a lot of people stare, but this did not deter him. The race went smoothly and he was pacing himself well when disaster struck at the 72 km mark. The strap of one of his sandals snapped, leaving him hobbling around with one shoe.

“Luckily, I saw some spectators along the road and asked for help. One of them quickly fixed the strap with a cable tie. I continued until the finish line, thanks to them,” he said.

Tshilidzi not only finished the race, but he also beat last year’s time by almost an hour. He finished in 08:22:39 and earned another Bill Rowan medal.

He realises now that you do not need expensive running shoes to compete in long-distance races. Sandals may be a good option for athletes who experience pain while wearing normal running shoes. This is also a lesson to young athletes from underprivileged societies that they can compete wearing cheaper products and do not have to buy the top brands.

Tshilidzi currently resides in Northam, where he works for Anglo-American. He is also a writer known for his Tshivenda novel, “Vusiwana”.

(Thanks to for making the picture of Tshilidzi crossing the finish line available.)


Date:29 June 2024

By: Thembi Siaga

Thembi Siaga started as an intern during 2021. He assisted with video photography and editing. He also produced numerous small documentaries, focusing on the Vhembe region and its people. Currently he works as a freelance journalist, covering stories in the Elim area.

Thembi studied at the Tshwane University of Technology, where he completed his diploma in Journalism in 2021.

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