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How mere ‘bar talk’ inspired a 50-year-old ex-rugby star’s Comrades Marathon feat



FOR a Bachelor of Science degree holder, Basil Dingiswayo makes a living from something completely different, away from laboratories and technological research.


No lab equipment, no dustcoats. Instead, Dingiswayo plies his trade in shorts, T-shirts and trainers – a bespectacled and rugged figure cut out for the outdoor working environment.

The former rugby star is the teacher-in-charge of sports at the Heritage School, one of Zimbabwe’s foremost private primary schools.

Dingiswayo is recognised as a club legend at Old Hararians by ex-teammates and fans alike. When Zimbabwe’s domestic rugby was still at its peak across the country from the late ’90s into the early 2000s, Dingiswayo was an integral part of Old Hararians’ special group of players who dominated the top-flight league with a scintillating brand of rugby that drew crowds big enough to make many local football clubs salivate.

And now still hungry for action even as the years have elapsed, the 50-year-old fitness enthusiast gave in to an urge and last Sunday ran in the venerated Comrades Marathon in South Africa, the world’s biggest ultra-marathon race. 

The energy-sapping race is approximately 89 kilometres, between the KwaZulu-Natal cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, up and down hills between start and finish points.

This year’s Comrades was not a particularly good outing for Zimbabwean runners, both professional and non-professional athletes. Others, like Dingiswayo, however managed to return home with medals for feats outside the major exploits.

Dingiswayo – who completed the race with a time of 10.04.43 – won a bronze medal, which is awarded to runners who finish between 10 and 11 hours. The cut-off time for the century-old grueling race is 12 hours.

To finish the Comrades Marathon as Dingiswayo did, for a 50-year-old schoolmaster, was remarkable in its own right. Perhaps even more remarkable is how the idea came about, and the chain of events leading to him actually joining the field in KZN.

“The running inspiration started one night in the OH bar,” Dingiswayo revealed to The NewsHawks this week.

“I remember I was with Max Madziva and Tich Chidongo (ex-Old Hararians teammates). Someone came in and said that as OH players we were so full of ourselves, and as such he challenged us to run the 20 miler (marathon). Not only did we not know how long the 20 miler was, we had not trained. Worse was still to come when I called Max on the race Sunday morning and he was hung over. He missed the bus and had to drive himself to Enterprise Country Club (on the northern outskirts of Harare) for the start. We finished, comfortably. The bug then caught on, and I have been giving myself targets, Comrades being one.”

The race itself will forever be etched in Dingiswayo’s memory – thousands of locals cheering on as scores of runners went past. He was also chuffed to have a special “supporter” among the crowd: gifted former Old Hararians and Zimbabwe utility-back Victor Zimbawo, who lives in the KwaZulu-Natal area.

“There were close to 19 000 runners, the experience was unreal,” explained Dingiswayo.

“The start is an experience in its own, a seas of people singing hymns, then Shosholoza. The race tests you as an individual, it strips you to the very core. To finish is tough, but the support system carries you through. From start to finish, you do not run for 500 metres without people on the road urging you on. There are times when you want to curse them after they say, ‘last hill’, and then a kilometre down the road you see another bigger hill. The hard part of Comrades is actually the discipline required in preparation. It is demanding and you seem anti-social.”

Commonly known as Dingi in rugby circles, and simply Mr D in the corridors of Heritage, a rigorous fitness regime has always been part of his sporting life – in realisation of what he lacked in natural physical attributes during his younger years.

Even in his prime, Dingiswayo was not one of the biggest rugby players you will ever see on a rugby field. But boy oh boy, ask opponents, they will testify how tough-as-teak this diminutive fellow was! He possessed a competitive streak and rather fiery temper that few opposition liked to face, but then symbolised the pre-professional era of rugby in which the ethos of the sport – healthy competition – related with everyday life.

He acquired a reputation as a hard-nosed flanker with the essential skills of turning over opposition ball consistently, and an explosive ball-barrier in equal measure.

“Many used to say I was just a nuisance on the park!” laughed Dingiswayo.

In Test rugby, Dingiswayo was never capped by Zimbabwe in the premier format of the game, testimony of the abundance of specialised talent those days, certainly not lack of ability on his part. But he had a long international career in Sevens since his University of Zimbabwe days, and then went on to coach and later manage the country’s second team, Goshawks Sevens.

Over the years, Dingiswayo has spread his interest further in sport. He is also into swimming. Last December, he was in Melbourne for the World Short Course Championships as one of three African representative officials. On that assignment, he became the first black Zimbabwean to go on the international swimming officiating list.

Whilst on the Australia trip, he got close up to fellow Zimbabwean Donata Katai, the country’s first black Olympian swimmer. Then Chad le Clos, before the South African smashed the African record in Melbourne on his way to winning the 200m butterfly gold medal. And also Japanese Daiya Seto after his gold in the 400m individual medley.

Dingiswayo has recently graduated with an advanced diploma in management of Olympic sports organisations under the auspices of the Zimbabwe Olympics Committee (Zoc).

But, for now, the talk of the town should be about how this half-a-century-old enigma pushed himself to the limit in one of the greatest tests of human endurance.

Such endeavours do not happen all the time, though.

“I did it just to test myself and the fitness from rugby days,” posed Dingiswayo…“I will never do it again!”

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