The run of five Comrades Marathon debut winners came to an end in 2017, as 32Gi fuelled Bongmusa Mthembu won the Up-run. It’s his second win, after claiming the Down-run title in 2014. Race legend, Bruce Fordyce was the last South African to hold both down and up wins, dating back to the 1980s. We catch up with Bongmusa on this edition of the 32Gi Sports Nutrition podcast.
It’s an absolute pleasure to welcome Bongmusa Mthembu back onto 32Gi Sports Nutrition. We chatted to him in the lead-up to the 2017 Comrades Marathon, he was very confident. I did see him as well ahead of the race, I put it in the press conference piece I put together, I’ll put that link up on the website if you want to go see that as well.
To hear the confidence he had in his voice ahead of the race. Thank goodness for that because he brought it on race day. Bongmusa Mthembu, thanks for joining us. Your second Comrades and you’ve also become the first South African since the 1980’s to win both the Down and the Up-Run. You must be ecstatic?
Bongmusa Mthembu: Yes, I’m really ecstatic, I’m happy, I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for quite a long time and I’ve been working hard. I think it came at the right time and I’m very happy.
How to know when it’s your year at Comrades
DK: Bongmusa, every year you guys go out there, you train hard and I mean there’s a whole group of guys who on the day can win it. But what makes the difference? For you yesterday, or should I say on Sunday, race day, what made the difference? Did you feel better? What is it that makes a winning Comrades, the difference from maybe just getting a Gold Medal?
BM: I think the only thing is the hunger, more even than the rest of the guys. I mean take nothing away from them, the guys are very tough, from the beginning to the end. Because that’s why a little bit earlier, before halfway, the pace was slow, there was a huge group, because you can’t just let those guys go, you have to be efficient. Comrades is a long distance. So what I did, the other thing I did is not fear to run because in certain times these guys can run, can push the pace anywhere, whether it’s a hill or down. I think that’s what works for me.
DK: Bongmusa, tell me, Charles Tijane, he went very early and gee, at one stage it looked like he might cause a huge surprise. Because to hold it out from that far, he did very well still to get a Gold Medal. But within the pack, with the elite guys, with our two defending champions from Team TomTom, we had Gift, we had David, you had Ludwick Mamabolo, you guys were a strong crop. When did you make your move and when did you realise that maybe this is the time to break them?
BM: I was trying to stay focused because firstly, we all know Charles Tijane, how he runs. Sometimes we start within maybe the first 21-24km, then he will break away, going upfront. Then again around 37, 45, so on, he will walk and come back again.
Remember, when I talk about Gift or David, those guys are very tough, you have to respect them. So before you make a move, you must, there’s emotion whenever there is somebody taking the lead. When I saw them relaxing, when Charles Tijane moved, I was just relaxing. Giving him a chance that whenever he hit maybe a highest point I will just chase him down to little Polly.
Then I will see how we’re going to plan. My training has really changed because I know I’ve got the spirit and I’ve got the power. The only thing I have to do is to be consistent on the hill and to be strong. As I’m saying, I’ve never been scared of running on Sunday.
How to master a tough Comrades year
DK: Bongmusa tell me, a lot of people just did not have a good race this year, they didn’t get the times they wanted. It was hot, but it wasn’t as hot as it probably could have been or has been in the past. How did you find it out there?
BM: I think we didn’t expect the weather, the weather was very hot, even from the start, Durban, coming up to Maritzburg. It’s also again, you recall from Durban up, coming to Maritzburg, you’re climbing in altitude. So to know yes, that thing is going to be a problem.
But as I’m saying, by the time we hit halfway I could see, no, we’re going to run like 5:35, 5:30, in between. For me, luckily, my most training was around 9:00 and 2:30, so lucky that’s where I was training, the weather was okay. It was hot, only the last weeks, that’s where we had the snow, but our training by that time was already finished.
DK: Bongmusa, would you give that advice to novice runners? I know I’ve done it in the past and if you’re going to a race like that, especially these guys at the opposite end of the spectrum to you, they’re going to be up there for 11, for 12 hours. They need to be training in the heat as preparation don’t they?
BM: That’s why it’s the word called ‘training,’ training, to get your body used to what condition you’re going to be in. I mean those guys have been on the road from the early morning, they have to try it by second time to be on the road during the day, just those couple of hours. So that by the time of Comrades, they will know those conditions. We do, because we know by 9:30 to 11:00, that’s where the Comrades is hot, so even the weather, that’s going to be a problem, so we have to train in those conditions.
Tips for getting to the end of Comrades
DK: Bongmusa, how do you handle your hydration and keep cool in the closing stages of that race, when you were really getting tired and it was getting hot even for you guys in the front?
BM: Yes, I was really under pressure because coming to Maritzburg, I think everyone knows Bongmusa. I’m mostly in Maritzburg, so it was not easy. I had to stay focused, stay calm; not tell myself that I’m winning now as I’m taking the lead, but that’s what I did.
I was just enjoying the pain, just enjoyed that moment, listen to the crowd, although they were just shouting: Win-win Bongmusa. But at the end of the day it I was trying almost to relax, stay focused, do my own thing that our coach has said to me.
Also, they played a very important role, my team and the guys who have been helping us. My sponsor is Nike and 32Gi, all those guys, they really helped me. Because without them, I’m less than nothing, even those guys who are waking up early in the morning, come to the road and they’re helping us. I’d like to thank them.
Because it’s not easy to wake up and leave your family and run about 2:30, to come and support you without getting anything. It’s also dedicated to them, that they don’t wake up for nothing. I think they’re very proud of me also.
DK: Bongmusa, it’s a lot of dedication to go to and win a Comrades and you can’t do it every year and yes, there’s a bit of a financial benefit to it, but you guys do rely heavily on your supporters, on your sponsors. You’re not the biggest team out there, you don’t have the budgets of the likes of Nedbank and KPMG. So for Arthur Ford and your camp, this is special.
BM: This is very, very special and this company is from KZN, we are from KZN, it’s not a big company like Nedbank. But I mean, they try by all means to help us and I don’t know how to thank them because without them I’m less than nothing. These guys, they’ve been with me since day one and they’re liking our sports so that maybe one day there will be competition in between the team.
But other than that, I mean, I think, as I’m saying, also them, they’re very proud and they’re seeing that they invested in a guy that is very focused, with the whole group of guys that I’m training with me. My coach and my manager, it’s quite amazing. We still can’t believe that we made it, we’re just watching it again and again and again.
How South African elite ultra-runners push the limits
DK: I can imagine that feeling and you’ve now had it twice, which is so incredible. I want to ask you as well, you went to 100K World Champs last year, you were a very strong South African team, you were phenomenal in finishing in 2nd place. Do you think that that experience was something that also helped you at Comrades this year?
BM: 100% because you’ll remember that even before we went to Spain, I went up to Dullstroom and there I was with Gift and David and also sometimes Ludwick used to call me and also Rufus. So we used to chat altogether. So going up to Spain, that really gave me a lot of experience also and come back full of confidence. Starting my training for Comrades, it was quite amazing. I didn’t do, after that I didn’t do much long runs because I had 100km, I only had to do tempo runs and speed.
DK: Lastly, we’ve got a lady who does the transcriptions for our podcast, Anouchka. I got a message from her after the race, she was like: Bongmusa won! She was so excited. She doesn’t know you, she’s edited your podcast, and that’s what I love about Comrades. You get a whole country getting behind you, that race day vibe is incredible. Already in the last 24 hours since you won it, what’s the reaction been from people around you?
BM: It’s huge, I must say. My phone is ring left and right, even now there’s a call entering and messages, Twitter, Facebook, I mean I’m everywhere, so it’s quite amazing. I’m very, very happy and I think the whole of South Africa, the whole of KZN, my home state, I mean they’re very happy. They’re very proud of me.
DK: Bongmusa, the likes of yourself, David, Gift, you guys are such ambassadors, not only for the race, not only for ultra-distance running, but for this entire country. I just want to congratulate you again. I’m so happy for you.
I look forward to the next challenge, to seeing you back on that starting line next year. You might not win it, but I know you’re going to give it everything. Thank you so much. Enjoy the applause and the adulations that you’re going to get because you do deserve it.
BM: Thank you so much.