DURBAN, South Africa - Jogging through his hilly neighborhood last week, Billy Mattig said he knows no man can run forever. He just wants to complete the 55-mile Comrades Marathon twice more. Then he'll take it easy.
"When you get older," the former railroad worker said, "you feel the hills more."
Mattig, for the record, is 80.
He has entered the annual ultramarathon 25 times, finishing 18. Far from an anomaly, he is part of a national obsession that has made the race into an annual spectacle, an event that, on June 16, millions of South Africans will watch on television from dawn to dusk.
Some 14,000 entrants will jog, walk or hobble from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in under 12 hours. The winner will become a national celebrity, and many of the other finishers will vow to do better next year.
As one measure of the race's grip on the public imagination here, when the South African Broadcasting Corp. conducted a poll last year ranking 100 "great South Africans," No. 64 was Bruce Fordyce - winner of a record nine Comrades races. He polled ahead of Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and Hector Pieterson, the boy whose shooting death by police in 1976 helped spark an anti-apartheid uprising in Soweto.
Comrades is not the longest road race in the world or the most watched, but race organizers say its hold on South Africans sets its apart from other high-profile races.
"Americans don't plan their day around the New York marathon," said Cheryl Winn, acting chief executive of the Comrades association. "Here, people all over the country watch their televisions all day. No matter where you go, someone in every little village or town or office knows somebody who has run it."
The appeal of Comrades has many sources. It is an extreme test of endurance, at more than twice the distance of a standard marathon. It unites blacks and whites, at least for a day, in a country where the races still only rarely mix socially. And the race, begun in 1921 to honor soldiers killed in World War I, can seem at once daunting and doable.
"It's Everyman's Everest. If you have two legs and reasonable health and put your mind to it, you can do it," said Fordyce, known as the Comrades King for his dominance in the 1980s.
Mattig, the oldest runner this year, first ran Comrades in 1965 at age 40. A soccer player through his 30s, he took up jogging to strengthen his right knee after a cartilage injury during a church league game. Soon he had signed up for Comrades.
He finished that year in under 9 1/2 hours, good for 165th place. He took five years off, returning in 1971. In the next 20 years he completed all but four Comrades. As a 10-time finisher, he received a coveted "green number"; his race number, 1885, forever belongs to him.
After a race in the early years, he announced he would never run another, said his wife, Heather. She hoped he meant it, but by dinner that evening he was talking about the next year's race.
"Eventually you get used to it; you live with it," she said, recalling the hours of training when she lost him to the road.
In Mattig's last six Comrades - 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2000 - he failed to finish within the required 12 hours. If that recent history worries him, he does not show it.
"Man, a lot of it is in the mind," he said. "I know I can do it, absolutely. I know I will."
For many runners, the Comrades training regimen is grueling. One schedule recommends covering 900 miles during the six months before the race, including two standard marathons and three "ultras" of more than 30 miles.
Mattig has cut back. He does not plan to jog the entire 55 miles; he will walk the steeper uphill sections, as many other entrants do, so he has energy to run the downhill and flat sections.
As race date nears, he still jogs or walks most afternoons, greeting fellow residents of his retirement village, some of whom depend on walkers or canes.
Even if Mattig reaches his goal of 20 on-time finishes, he will be nowhere near the record. Clive Crawley holds that honor with 42 successful runs. But Mattig would set one mark: If he manages to complete next year's, he would be 81 and the oldest finisher in history.
Comrades bloomed relatively late in the national consciousness, and Fordyce is often credited with raising the race's profile, beginning in the 1980s with his string of victories, including a record-fast 5 hours, 24 minutes in 1986.
"He certainly made it look easy," said Dick Welch, chairman of Johannesburg's Rand Athletic Club. "He inspired a lot of people and in so doing dragged the whole country with him."
Fordyce benefited from lucky timing. Though he preceded the era of cash prizes (this year's top male and female finishers will collect $30,000 apiece), he peaked just as the running boom reached South Africa from the United States. And his first win, in 1981, came five years after South Africa got television, which helped spread the race's popularity.
He also had the good fortune of gaining his fame at a time when South African sports fans had limited outlets. Though Comrades allowed black (and female) runners to compete in 1975, international opposition to apartheid made South Africa a pariah in the 1980s. The country was banned from the Olympics and international rugby and cricket competitions.
For Fordyce, 49, all that winning opened the door to a lucrative career as a motivational speaker and made him a household name. Fifteen years after his last victory, he said he is often recognized around Johannesburg.
"You can always get a table in a restaurant when it's supposedly full," he said. "On the other hand, people dig into your private life. If you're seen drinking too many glasses of wine, people say, 'Oh, that's not a great example.'"