Two-time Comrades Marathon winner and reigning champion Bongmusa Mthembu has been working hard to defend his crown this June, clocking up plenty of kilometres during training and races.
Mthembu, born in Bulwer, was a comfortable winner of the Comrades last year in the colours of Arthur Ford running club, and his previous triumph in the “Ultimate Human Race” was in 2014.
But the Pietermaritzburg resident had to cut short his training stint in Lesotho this week to pay his last respects to friend and fellow ultra-distance runner Sphiwe Ndlela.
The South African running fraternity is still in mourning the sudden death of the 28-year-old gold medallist Ndlela, who reportedly fell ill during a training camp in the Drakensberg.
Ndlela, born in Ixopo in southern KwaZulu-Natal, reportedly complained of abdominal pain, sweating profusely and vomiting during the camp.
The Nedbank athlete later died despite efforts by paramedics to save him.
Ndlela finished in the top 10 in the Comrades and the Two Oceans in 2016 and 2017.
Mthembu said he had had a “brotherly relationship” with Ndlela.
He arrived back in Pietermaritzburg on Thursday from Lesotho to attend the memorial services for Ndlela in the city last night and Durban on Friday.
He said: “I’ve just arrived from Lesotho. We’ve been hit hard. Sphiwe was like a brother to me. We spent 2013 and 2014 training together in camp and I know that he learned a lot from me there.
“He was focused and dedicated. We are still in shock because he was a strong and a healthy person. This happened at a very bad time for us and especially his family because his career was starting to blossom.
“He had been supporting his family because, like myself, he came from a disadvantaged background.
“I pray for the family and friends left behind.”
Mthembu, who is one of a handful of athletes to have won the iconic race more than once since Bruce Fordyce in 1990, said he had been doing training at altitude in Lesotho when he learnt of Ndlela’s death, as he continued to prepare for the Comrades Down Run on Sunday, June 10.
“The preparations are going very well. I’m happy with everything and I have no injuries or anything that could prevent me from running,” he said.
“I’ll be competing in the Two Oceans soon and I hope to do well there, as well.”
The 93rd edition will commence at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall at 5.30 am, finishing 12 hours later at the iconic Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, covering a distance of approximately 90 km.
Ndlela will be laid to rest on Sunday in his hometown.