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When a marathon isn’t extreme enough, run backwards

Or dressed as a candy bar, or with a pineapple on your head. Meet the wave of runners aiming for a different kind of record.

By Ryan Lenora Brown

At 6 a.m. on a hot spring day in early November, 10,000 runners wearing highlighter-yellow shirts surged over the start line of the Soweto half-marathon outside Johannesburg.

Inside this sea of sweat-wicking neon, Farai Chinomwe cut a striking profile. He was dressed in full-body white cotton coveralls, with his long dreadlocks tucked under a headwrap and a thick floral scarf knotted around his neck.

Also, he was running backwards.

“Hey, Rasta man,” another runner said, jogging up beside Chinomwe as he gazed back at the starting line receding into the distance. “You going the whole way like this?”

“The whole way,” Chinomwe replied.

“Why?” the other man wanted to know.

“For the bees,” Chinomwe said as he jerked his head sideways to check for obstacles in front of him.

A professional beekeeper and yes, Rastafarian, Chinomwe has run nearly every major distance race in South Africa like this — face-to-face with the rest of the field — since 2015. His backwards running finishes include three Comrades, a 56-mile ultra-marathon, and three Two Oceans, a 34-mile race.

In every one, he uses his high profile to chat with curious fellow runners, explaining the ecological significance of bees and dispensing words of wisdom that are equal parts philosophy (“I go into the future unknowingly, but I’m always looking back at where I’ve come from”) and unabashed ego (“running backwards, everyone notices you”).

Chinomwe would repeat his “for the bees” conversation dozens of times that morning, as our route wound through a sleepy Sunday morning in this constellation of bedroom communities, built for Black workers during apartheid. Families making their way to church and uniformed security guards commuting to work stopped to snap photos of the backwards man in the beekeeping suit. I jogged beside him, occasionally warning him about a pothole or a dip in the road. Outside a ramshackle pub, a group of glassy-eyed drunks at the end of a Saturday-night bender blinked in bleary awe. “Rasta,” one mumbled to himself in wonder as Chinomwe passed. “A backwards Rasta.”   

Running a marathon began to shift from the realm of the absurd to the stuff of New Year’s resolutions and midlife crises.

Once, just running a marathon was enough — or more than enough — for most people. But today, marathon running’s quirkier and more extreme iterations seem to be booming. People are running marathons dressed as candy bars and while chain-smoking cigarettes.  The same day Chinomwe ran the half-marathon in Soweto, Israeli runner Moshe Lederfien cruised through the five boroughs of New York with a pineapple balanced on his bald head. All told, including New York, Lederfien says he’s run about 40 marathons this way. (“Are you going to run the full marathon with the pineapple on?” a New York Times reporter asked him before the 2022 race. “Ask the pineapple if he’s ready,” Lederfien replied opaquely.)

A few weeks earlier, 18 offbeat running world records fell at the London Marathon, including “fastest marathon dressed as a confectionary item (female),” “fastest marathon dressed as a star (male),” and “fastest marathon in a six-person costume,” which went to a group of men masquerading as a box of veggies.

The motives of these chain-smoking, backwards-moving, produce-aisle-masquerading runners are diverse, but weird running’s raisons d’ȇtre tend to exist at the intersection of personal growth and public spectacle. Most of us will never be the fastest runner at the London Marathon, after all. But we might have a shot at being the fastest gingerbread man – and getting 15 minutes of TikTok fame along the way.

“There’s attention, there’s shock value, and then there’s just challenging yourself to do something other people can’t,” however obscure that something may be, says Grayson Kimball, a sports psychologist and running coach at Northeastern University.

Even beyond the most headline-grabbing runs, distance runners are taking on strange new challenges. The number of people running ultra-marathons — a term for any race longer than a standard 26.2 mile marathon — has nearly quadrupled in the past decade, according to a recent study by researchers at RunRepeat who analyze running trends.  

Obstacle course races — in which participants scale walls, shimmy under barbed wire, and dunk themselves in pools of ice as they run — are booming. There are midnight ultra-marathons themed around ’70s B movies and “runcation” tours where athletes can complete marathons in places like Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland.

“If you’ve done a lot of marathons, you start to think, what can I do that’s different or more challenging?” says Kate Helen Carter, the world record holder for fastest marathon in a full-body animal costume. In certain social circles, “you can start to feel like everyone you know has run a marathon. And you feel like you want to do something on top of that.”

Most of us will never be the fastest runner at the London Marathon. But we might have a shot at being the fastest gingerbread man.

Carter, whose Twitter bio describes her as a “writer, editor, coach, world record holder, [and] part time panda,” had already run several marathons when she arrived at the 2019 London Marathon in a fluffy black and white suit, clutching a plush panda head.

Inside a special tent for runners attempting records, she greeted a post box, a rhino, and a tent. Beside her, a married couple were handcuffing themselves together as adjudicators from Guinness World Records hovered, confirming that everyone’s costumes met the specifications for their category.

Carter’s motivation for running as a panda was nothing especially profound. That year, she’d qualified for both the Boston and London marathons, which were two weeks apart. She decided she would push for a fast time at Boston — but that meant she definitely wouldn’t be in fighting form once London rolled around. “So I thought, what can I do that would be different and fun?” she says.

A friend suggested she run in costume. Why not? she thought. And suddenly she was at the London starting line, wishing a man in an enormous Big Ben suit all the best in his attempt to become the fastest marathoner dressed as a landmark (male). That runner, Lukas Bates, soon achieved weird running fame when his costume got stuck crossing under the finish line arch.

Not too long ago, distance running itself was considered a quirky endeavor, or, at best, a niche sport for only the most serious athletes. Marathons, the modern era of which dates back to the late 1800s, were an activity for extremists, and the idea that the average person might go out and run in a big loop for fun was nearly unheard of in most communities.

Then, in 1972, American Frank Shorter stormed to a surprise victory in the Olympic Marathon in Munich live on television, introducing millions of Americans to marathon running. A generation of distance-running celebrities followed in Shorter’s wake. And as participation in races grew, running a long distance like a marathon began to shift from the realm of the absurd to the stuff of New Year’s resolutions and midlife crises.

“When you see other people do a thing you previously believed was impossible, you start to believe you can do it too,” says Kimball, the Northeastern sports psychologist.

A classic example, he says, is the four-minute mile. From the 1880s to the 1950s, running a mile in less than four minutes was seen as an almost mythical barrier, one that would require a perfect storm of circumstances to break. Then, on a cold day on a wet track in Oxford, England, in 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3 minutes 59 seconds. Within two months, his record was broken, and by the following year, three more runners had run sub-4.

“So the question was, did runners suddenly become faster, or was that barrier psychological?” Kimball says. “Obviously … it was psychological.”

Mass participation in marathons also transported 26.2 miles from the realm of the outlandish to a real, tangible distance people could aspire to. But in recent years, the once-impossible has started to feel to some athletes like it’s perhaps a little too possible. Now, half a million people per year run a marathon in the United States, and more than a million globally.

“So what’s going to distinguish you from Joe Runner in his tank top?” Kimball asks.

In Moshe Lederfien’s case, the answer to that question was a pineapple.

Twenty-five years ago, Lederfien was an overweight, traumatized Israeli war veteran, working as a clerk for an electricity company in Rishon LeZion, Israel. To lose a few pounds and clear his head, he decided to take up walking. Over the years, the walks became runs, and then the runs grew longer. By the time he was in his mid-50s, Lederfien was running several marathons a year.  

One day, while coaching a group of young runners, Lederfien put a bottle of water on his head to free up his hands, a trick he’d learned from his Yemeni grandmother.

“The kids said, ‘Can you run with that on your head?’ I said, ‘I’m not a clown!’ But I tried it and people loved it,” he recalls. “Then I tried a pineapple, because life is sweet.”

To date, Lederfien estimates he’s run about 40 marathons balancing the pineapple, including both New York and Berlin this year. (“Now training with watermelon,” reads his Instagram bio.) He says he finds a spiritual purpose in this kind of running. “It is my duty as a Jew to find balance in this life,” he says. “As a human being I want to be delighted, I want to experience joy. But okay, you also cannot lose balance.”

For Chinomwe, the beekeeper, backwards running has a similarly transcendent dimension. “In some African traditions, we walk backwards into the next life,” he says. “I like the idea of always being able to see where I’m coming from.”

But Chinomwe’s origin story, like Lederfien’s, is more prosaic than that philosophy suggests. One day several years ago, his car broke down, and he had to push it up a hill backwards. At the time, he was running marathons the normal way, but he liked the way moving backwards worked his muscles. So he started incorporating backwards running sessions into his training — first a few hundred meters at a time, then longer and longer. He tried running a 10-kilometer (6-mile) race backwards, and found he enjoyed the experience – both the race itself and the spectacle he made.

But so many people asked him why he was running backwards that it occurred to him maybe he should invent a more compelling reason. So he began to weigh up causes that were important to him. Stopping rhino poaching? Cancer research?

Then, in April 2015, he was relocating a swarm of bees that had nested inside a military museum in Johannesburg, where he lives, when the idea struck.

“I could raise awareness for the bees,” he says. He has never had an official charity or even a GoFundMe page. Instead, he says, he’s focused on imparting information about the role bees play in human food systems. “It’s about awareness,” he says, though he doesn’t deny that it’s also been good for his beekeeping business.

In recent years, social media has helped significantly raise the profile of quirky runners like Chinomwe, says Kimball, the Northeastern professor. “Twenty years ago, maybe you’d see a guy running the Boston Marathon in a tuxedo and later say, remember that guy running the Boston Marathon in a tuxedo?” Kimball says. “Now he goes viral.”

A TikTok video of Lederfien in the Berlin Marathon in September, for instance, got nearly 2 million views, catapulting him into a category of modern minor celebrity.

And it’s a very gentle sort of notoriety. Running in a panda suit, Carter says, “is all the best bits about being famous and none of the bad bits. Everyone is so excited to see you, but no one knows who you are.”

Sarah Dudgeon, Carter’s friend who first suggested she run in costume, says she dresses up for marathons to ensure the experience will be challenging and enjoyable — even if the running itself is a slog. Currently, Dudgeon, who has run nearly four dozen “normal” marathons as well, is the solo holder of three world records: for fastest marathon dressed as a bride, as a monk, and as a witch.

She’s also half the team behind the fastest three-legged marathon and the fastest marathon in a two-person costume, which she and her husband completed at London in 2019 dressed as a sausage dog.

Two-person costumes, she reckons, are especially difficult, owing to the fact that you have to run an identical pace with another person for 26 miles. But every costume run has its own challenges — brooms are unwieldy to carry, dresses can chafe, and sometimes, deep in the pain cave of a marathon, you get tired of being told for the 600th time that you’re a “runaway bride.”

“But I can’t say any was my least favorite, because they all make me smile to think about,” she says.

Indeed, whatever their raison d’ȇtre, weird runners are unquestionably a delight for the rest of us.  

As I jogged alongside Chinomwe in Soweto, listening to him chat about pollination and pesticides with anyone who would listen, I found myself losing track of the run. The Soweto course is notoriously hilly, and on my previous attempts, I’d trudged through much of the race sulking. This time, however, the miles ticked by unnoticed as I basked in other runners’ delight. Soon, when people would ask him why he was running backwards, I’d gleefully answer myself: “It’s for the bees!”  

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Ryan Lenora Brown is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times MagazineRunner's WorldThe Christian Science Monitor, and others.


Top photo:  Moshe Lederfien runs with a pineapple on his head during the New York City Marathon. Photo by Enrique Shore/Alamy Live News


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