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.

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