SA’s top three runners tell how their race went down

2014-06-02 00:00

COMRADES Marathon champion Bongmusa Mthembu, the first KwaZulu-Natal winner since Shaun Meikeljohn in the 1995 down run, was quietly confident he could pull off the biggest win of his career yesterday.

Having finished among the gold medals previously, he knew what it took to be at the front of the field and his mission was accomplished as he was first into Kingsmead Cricket Stadium to claim the 2014 honours.

Coming from Bulwer and living in Pietermaritzburg, the Nedbank Running Club athlete had prepared well for the race, the bulk of his training done at altitude in Underberg, Sani Pass and Lesotho. A professional runner, Mthembu said he had always been a fan of the Comrades and had harboured ambitions of claiming the great race since he was a young boy.

“I have always liked sport. Where I grew up, rugby and cricket wasn’t considered … but soccer and running became my life, often leading to me getting into trouble from my parents when I came home late,” he said. “I watched the race on a small TV and wanted to win Comrades.”

That has been added to his CV and Mthembu is now a runner who can claim to have won the world’s biggest and oldest ultra-marathon. Speaking on his strategy, Mthembu said he ran against his watch and was undaunted at the company he ran with yesterday.

“I felt confident running with the top runners and they ran the pace I wanted. There was no pressure on me and I respected the athletes I ran with. It’s taken hard work and dedication to get this, something I knew would be mine one day.”

And it has been a long road for Mthembu. “It’s not an overnight success,” he said. “I have been working toward this for five to six years. I was inspired by Willie Mtolo, who came second twice and now I have gone one better. I love running and want to give back and encourage my community in Bulwer to make their name at Comrades as well.”

Mthembu had his brothers Eugene and Sandiso, who were at the roadside, were “over excited” at his win. While he reaps the running accolades, Mthembu said his mother, back in Bulwer, never watched him run as “she is scared in case something happens to me on the road. She would have gone to church yesterday and someone would have told her about my win on her way home”.

Second-placed Ludwick Mamabolo, always outspoken, was full of praise for the South African dominance in the men’s race. “I am proud of these runners, to see South Africans fill the top three spots. It shows we are better than the overseas guys,” he said. “I struggled early in the race with cramp but I asked God for strength and help and he answered my prayers. I was out of contention with 18 km to go but never gave up, knowing the race is not finished until the finish line is crossed. I forgot the pain and knew I could get second. After 69 km, I knew my down title was lost and that Bongmusa would be the new champion. We spoke a lot while we ran together and I had told him previously he could win Comrades if he worked on his finish. He listened to me.”

Third-placed Gift Kelehe, attempting to make history by following in the footsteps of his brother Andrew, who won 2001’s down race, said his mental strength had been vital. “I was strong mentally and when Muzinghi passed me, my coach said I could do better. My legs were strong and I prefer the hills, which enabled me to catch Mu­zinghi and Photo before the end,” he said. “I prefer the up run as that race is all about style and I have style.”

Now it’s time to celebrate as the top three men reflect on what they achieved. Mthembu, a Christian who was seen running to the finish biting the cross around his neck, was keen to respect his culture and return to his family in Bulwer to celebrate at home. Mamabolo was going to his church, to give thanks, before going to his home in Limpopo and Kelehe said his celebration would be a short run his coach would get him to do first thing today.

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