Monday, April 12, 2010

Semick, Kimball, and Wardian Tackle The Comrades Marathon To Build Awareness for Local Children (Interview)

The 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa is one of the oldest ultras in the world, and with over 23,000 participants last year, it is also one of the most competitive. That challenge should be enough for top US ultrarunners Kami Semick (2009 50k and 100k World Champion), Nikki Kimball (3-time winner of Western States, and 50k/50m US Champion), and Michael Wardian (multiple 50k/100k US Champion) who are planning to race in 2010. But these three have upped the ante even more to raise money and awarness for Starfish, a non-profit organization that is helping the AIDS-ravaged KwaZula Natal area along the Comrades course where nearly 40% of the population is HIV positive (the highest in the world). I caught up with Kami to hear more about their project and find out where I could donate:

 (Nikki Kimball, Michael Wardian, and Kami Semick)

1) Those statistics about KwaZula Natal are shocking. Can you tell us more about the situation there? How did you learn about this?

I was giving a presentation in the Bend REI a few years ago, and a member of the audience, Clifton Pieters - a native S.African, came up to me afterward and asked if I intended on running Comrades. I said I would at some point. He sent me information not only on the race but on the tidal wave of orphans that is hitting South Africa due to HIV. I started to do research on the issue and couldn't turn away from it. An entire generation of adults is being wiped out from the AIDS virus which is leaving children to raise children.

(Children of KwaZula Natal)

The term being used is "child headed households." Ten and eleven year old children are taking care of their two and three year old siblings. 450 children a day are being orphaned by AIDS in South Africa. These children are not going to school and are being forced to work, or worse, to just meet their basic needs of food, water and shelter.

The epicenter of this is KwaZula Natal, the region surrounding the Comrades course. The area has the highest rate of orphans in the world. One quarter of the South African orphan population is in KwaZula Natal. Although 40% of the adult population in the area is HIV postitive, estimates are that over 90% of the children orphaned are not HIV positive. These children can become productive members of society and help their communities and their country get back on their feet, but first they need an education and support to really lift themselves out of this situation.

2) So you hooked up with the Starfish Charity. Why this group?

Once I had committed myself to helping, the next question was how. I looked at doing shoe drives, clothing drives, money drives aimed at helping the communities. For the hard goods, with the help of Mike Wardian who works as a shipping broker primarily directing food aid to Africa, we priced out what it would cost to send a container from an eastern port to Durban (port in South Africa). From a financial standpoint, once I raised money, my challenge was figuring out how to get the money into the right hands without corruption taking a large chunk. I even thought about just going over and buying blankets and goods, and giving them to the communities around the race course. In my research, I kept coming across Starfish Charity. They seemed to be at the grass roots level, seeding communities with infrastructure - programs, food parcels, day care, blankets, school uniforms, etc, to help children stay in the community versus being sent off to an orphanage. So with my friend Clifton, we contacted Starfish in the United States.

 Starfish is was founded in 2001 by a group of S. African expatriates living in London. They saw the tidal wave of orphans coming and wanted to help. In 2003, they supported 3,306 children. By 2010, their objective is to support 100,000 orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV.. Although this is only a fraction of the fore casted 2.1 million orphans in South Africa, for each individual child that they can support, it is the difference between life with hope or not.

Working with the North American contact, who is also a native South African, she guided me away from focusing my efforts on bringing hard goods over from the United States. The key is to help South Africa ignite their economy by seeding the communities with funds to purchase local goods that would support the children.

Working with her South African co-workers, they identified a town, Chesterville, along the Comrades race course where we can focus our fund raising. Vukukhanye is the Starfish project within Chesterville that is aimed at providing care and support to children orphaned and made vulnerable by AIDS. Vukukhanye is Zulu for "Arise and Shine." It is the communities optimistic hope that they will arise and shine and show the world that they can overcome their circumstances.

3) That’s great your North Face team members are joining you. Is this your first Comrades? Have Michael or Nikki run it?

This will be the first time for all three of us.

4) The finish times for the winners of Comrades are insanely fast (5:23 for 56 miles/90km). Is Team North Face hoping to be competitive?

Definitely. I think we all have the potential to be top 10 if not top 5. Getting one of the coveted three top spots will be a matter of how the day goes...

 (Comrades, the biggest ultra in the world)

5) Is there any way others can help?

Absolutely. We have set up a website where we can take individual donations using a credit card.  We are also interested in talking with any potential corporate sponsors. We've encountered quite a challenge raising corporate donations because of the Haiti crisis and the economy. But, for those who are able to give, individuals or corporations, not only are we grateful, but know that the money will go to giving a child hope for a future.

Thank you Scott for letting us tell our story.

Best of luck to you and the TNF team. We’ll be cheering for you!

- SD


  1. Nice piece, Scott. Inspiring. A typo in Q4, I assume, as the distance is actually about 56 miles (90-K) ...

  2. Those statistics are breathtaking. It's hard to imagine a whole community that is missing adults. There truly is a war on aids, but it appears we are not winning.

    How does the Starfish charity differ from Starfish Africa? Or are they the same?


  3. This is very cool. Kudos to the North Face team for doing more than running the race!!!

  4. Scott,

    > insanely fast (5:23 for 56 miles/90km)

    Yes, that would be insane. Distance last year for that 5:23:27 was only 89.17 or 55.4 miles (no "about" on race distances from me!). As you know, 50.6mi is a lot harder than 50mi. Another four mins. Last four Down years was 89.17K and last time Comrades was 90K was in 1995 as I know from experience. But the Down CR is at 5:47.4 mile pace. Guess I can't argue that seems insane.

    My opinion is that top 10 at Comrades is what matters, getting a Gold medal, and top 3 isn't that much more important. Men's is extremely competitive and I'll predict Mike will have a tough time getting there. Women's race in SA is not deep, notice over 1 hour gap from 1st to 10th, and Nikki and Kami have a great chance to put two Americans in top 10. Top 3 very doable, will depend on how they handle the travel and what kind of on-course support they can get.

    Group of four (not me) going from Boston area this year. I hope that American participation picks up some day. But not a simple trip to make. Put this on your bucket list.

  5. cheers for the awareness scott. my local church runs 11 orphanages in S.A., and most of the children come from AIDS ravaged situations. it is an epidemic of the worst kind, but with organizations like starfish, differences are being made. thanks for taking the time.

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  7. Great piece, Scott. Made for some fascinating run group discussions this morning.

  8. Well done with this amazing effort. Also see for a team of runners all living with HIV who completed Comrades


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