Comrades winner Bong’musa Mthembu
From bricklayer to elite runner – it’s been a long road to victory for Comrades champ Bong’musa Mthembu
HE HARDLY slept the night before he hit the ground; tossing and turning, he ran the 87 km- long route between Durban and Pietermaritzburg through his mind. He’s no stranger to the annual contest dubbed the Ultimate Human Race – it was his 11th attempt at the gruelling Comrades Marathon – but this time Bong’musa Mthembu had someone special waiting for him at the finish line whom he desperately wanted to impress with a gold medal. For the first time, his 12-year-old son, Sisanda, had come to support Bong’musa. When he was crowned Comrades champion, after finishing the race in 5:35:34, he fell to his knees in prayer. Then he ran to his son, who embraced him as they both cried with joy. “You get emotional, thinking, ‘Am I going to finish or am I going to bail?’” the KZN-born athlete tells us when we meet him at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.
“You understand the pressure, people are watching you all over the world, and your family and friends are there at the finish line waiting for you.”
Bong’musa was one of over 17 000 athletes who started the race – and one of only 13 852 who successfully completed it. Casually dressed in a comfortable grey Nike hoodie and matching trackpants – a brand he’s been with for seven years – he recalls what kept him going. “Once the gun goes, you’re off, and about five kilometres in you get going. Along the route we’re all talking and laughing. Comrades is a long-distance run so you can’t be serious from start to finish.
“After the halfway mark it gets serious, now we’re running and you’re focusing on your race. During the race I try to stay focused, no matter how much pain I feel. By the time we got to Cato Ridge, there were six of us – David Gatebe, Gift Kelehe, Ludwick Mamabolo, Hatiwande Nyamande and Teboho Sello.
“I stayed at my pace till we got to Camperdown. Then it was three of us, Gift and Hatiwande and me. I saw I can take it.”
And take it he did. Along with the enviable title of champ, he
walked away with R425 000 for winning the race, R200 000 for being the first SA male to cross the finish line and R35 000 from the KZN department of sports and recreation for being the first man from the province to complete the race.
IT’S been a long road to victory for the 33-year-old athlete. In 2013 he was at a training camp for the Comrades – preparing for the tough ultra marathon often means he’s out of reach for about six months. When he returned two days before the race, he got a call from his family informing him his fiancée, Lethiwe Vilakazi, was ill. The news devastated him.
“I ran but I couldn’t focus,” he says. “I didn’t finish that race, I just pulled out.”
In 2014 he tried again and bagged his first win on the down-run, but his happiness was short-lived: Lethiwe passed away in September.
Bong’musa hit the road again in 2015, mourning the loss of the woman he’d lived with for 15 years, and who bore him a child. Although he completed it, he didn’t make the Top 10. “After everything I’d been through, I was just happy I was able to finish in 2015,” he recalls.
It was a difficult few years, but he bounced back and took third place last year. “It was quite amazing for me to make Top 3 after everything.”
Bong’musa, who hails from a rural community in Bulwer, some 70 km from Maritzburg, says he enjoyed running during his high school days.
After matriculating, he went into construction and worked for a small company in Maritzburg in 2000, but never gave up running. “I started getting more knowledge about running and did it consistently throughout the year. I was doing cross-country, track and some 21-kilometre races.”
In 2005 he decided he’d run the Comrades the following year. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘I want to win,’ or, ‘I will win one day’, I just went there to enjoy it and see what happens.”
During that first race in 2006, he ran for six hours and 30 minutes. He finished 29th. It took him three years to secure his first gold, coming in at a time of five hours and 46 minutes in 2009.
“It was very emotional, I was quite happy, that’s where professional teams spotted me. That’s when I decided to leave construction and focus on running.” And he hasn’t looked back since.
Running has changed his life significantly. “I’ve been to places I never thought I’d go to. Many doors have opened for me and I’ve been able to meet different people who’ve opened my mind. All those experiences mean so much to me and I don’t take them for granted. It’s made me grow and build my character.”
TRAINING for the Comrades is all- consuming, Bong’musa says. He’ll usually start training from November/ December and work out for two hours in the morning and another hour in the afternoon. In February he usually heads off to the training camp where he stays until June. In the run-up to this year’s race, he trained in Lesotho, Underberg and QwaQwa among others.
He doesn’t adhere to a particularly strict diet, but acknowledges its importance. Bong’musa enjoys traditional food but says he stays away from fat and red meat. He also eats a lot of vegetables and fruit, adding that having a food sponsor helps.
He usually only has one month free from training, which he uses to spend time at home in Bulwer with Sisanda. “Before training starts I sometimes take him to gym and we work out and run together; he enjoys sports. I can’t force him to run, so we do a range of sports, including soccer.” Seeing his son at the finish line makes all the sacrifices and hard work worth it. “He told reporters at the race he wants to run like his dad, that tells me he sees value in what I’m doing. It makes me proud.”
Being a good father is his top priority. Bong’musa plans to invest his winnings for Sisanda’s education. He also wants to use some for an ongoing project: fixing his mother’s house. “Whatever I do, I do to change my family’s lives.”
Now that he’s realised his dream of bagging gold and making his son proud, Bong’musa has another goal: he wants to stay focused so he can continue his winning streak at the Comrades. “I still want to change my life, my future, my family’s futures.”
Does he have any advice for aspiring runners? “Never let it [winning] go to your head. Don’t think you have it in the bag. You can be a favourite but until you’ve crossed that line, you’re not a favourite.”
RIGHT: Comrades Marathon champ Bong’musa Mthembu after the gruelling KwaZuluNatal race. He says his son standing at the finish line motivated him to win.
LEFT: Bong’musa works out for about three hours every day in the run-up to the ultra marathon. His son, Sisanda, joins him when he can. RIGHT: He fell to his knees and prayed after crossing the finish line victorious.