Nelson Mandela, left, and Bruce Fordyce
Nelson Mandela, left, and Bruce Fordyce Credit: Courtesy Bruce Fordyce

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Credit: Courtesy Alejandro Maldonado

Bruce Fordyce, a South African ultramarathon legend and nine-time Comrades Marathon champion, was running late. It was a February day several years ago, and he arrived at the check-in for his commercial flight from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg past the departure time. An airport employee admonished him. He was late, and the flight was closed for boarding.

Except, Fordyce soon learned, for one VIP passenger. The airport staff told him it was his lucky day, and that he could probably join the special guest. Nelson Mandela had yet to board the flight.

“We walked across the tarmac to the plane, and all the people on the plane were looking at us,” Fordyce recalls. “Mandela turned to me and said, ‘I bet the passengers staring at us are all asking each other, who is that funny old gray-headed gentleman walking with the famous Bruce Fordyce?‘”

Fordyce, 62, is a celebrated sporting hero in South Africa and one of the most iconic ultrarunners. He met Mandela, who died in 2013 at age 95, three or four times, and like many in South Africa, idolizes the former president and political prisoner.

The two bonded through their love of athletics and the power of sports, and so when the South African Embassy invited Fordyce to D.C. to honor and celebrate Mandela’s centennial, Fordyce didn’t hesitate.

On Saturday morning, Fordyce will be the special guest at the parkrun, a free volunteer-led 5K run-walk, at Fletcher’s Cove in Northwest. Parkrun has gained popularity since starting in the United Kingdom in 2004 and is now held every Saturday morning in dozens of countries around the world.

There are five parkruns in the D.C. area, including the one at Fletcher’s Cove, which launched in 2016. Fordyce is the manager of parkrun in South Africa.

“If he was still alive, Madiba would have loved parkrun,” he says, using Mandela’s traditional Xhosa clan name. “It doesn’t have too much to do with running, but with community, people getting together on a Saturday morning and really building community and bringing people together.”

Mandela understood how sports could help unify a country. This is famously depicted in the Hollywood film Invictus, which is about the time Mandela supported the mostly-white South African rugby team shortly after being released from prison and elected the country’s first black president.

“He was an avid supporter of all sport, and what sport means to nation building in South Africa and globally,” says Yoliswa Mvebe, the deputy chief of mission for the South African Embassy in D.C. “He appreciated the role of sports in our culture and history and the power it has to change the world, to inspire and unite.”

Mandela knew about Fordyce, whom Mvebe calls “one of the sporting legends” in South Africa, even before the two men had met.

Fordyce says he was told that while in prison, Mandela and other prisoners were not allowed to watch television programs except for sports. In the 1980s, the Comrades Marathon—an approximately 55-mile road race that is known as the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world—started to air live on TV.

A vocal critic of apartheid, Fordyce won his first Comrades Marathon in 1981. He and other runners initially wanted to boycott the event when race organizers announced it would celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Republic of South Africa. Instead, Fordyce decided to run. But he wore a black arm band as a way to protest.

Throughout the race, Fordyce remembers, fans threw tomatoes and eggs at him, booed, and “shouted rude names.” He had become a target and could feel the increased pressure.

“If you’re going to make a political statement, you better win, or everyone is going to laugh at you,” Fordyce says. “With all things, people love winners. After I won the second time, the third time, I was very popular. But not after that first win.”

Credit: Courtesy Alejandro Maldonado

More than a decade later, Mandela gave Fordyce the State President’s Gold Award for Sport. When it was Fordyce’s turn to receive the award, Mandela leaned over and gave the famed runner some advice.

“I think the biggest message from him to me was, ‘What contribution can you make?,’” Fordyce recalls. “He gently lectured me and some of the older athletes, ‘You can’t retire. You got to train and coach the youngsters, bring sports to more people.’”

That’s what Fordyce says he’s doing with parkrun, a message he wants to share with those who show up in D.C. this Saturday. Parkrun, he says, is not about running fast, nor is it really about runners. It’s about the community, and sharing a love for fitness, regardless of your race time.

“Walkers are encouraged to come out. Front runners, they finish about 15 minutes. Back walkers, about an hour and 15 minutes,” Fordyce says. “We wait for them, time them, they get so thrilled. No one will laugh at them.”

Nowadays, Fordyce has some knee issues, but still tries to run six days and about 40 miles a week. The parkrun at Fletcher’s Cove has hosted elite runners before, like professional ultrarunner Michael Wardian, but Fordyce “is in his own category,” says event director Andres Falconer.

On Saturday, the parkrun will have a special meaning. It’ll serve not as only as way to be active but as a celebration of Mandela, and the ideals he held about sports.

“This event is celebrating our global icon,” says Mvebe. “This event is about making sure that the South Africa diaspora in the U.S., particularly in D.C., the citizens in the United States, have a platform to unite. This is what Madiba would’ve loved us to do.”

The Fletcher’s Cove parkrun takes place every Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath, at 4940 Canal Road, N.W.