In the early hours of a Saturday morning, atop a green hill in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Bong’musa Mthembu looks out onto the horizon. The sun is just coming up. He sits quietly, small-framed and unassuming. At first glance, he looks like just another young man taking in the view, not an ultramarathon runner known around the world for being a three-time Comrades Marathon champion and seven-time gold medal winner. But that’s exactly who he is, having won the ultimate human race in 2014, 2017 and 2018.
For the past few months, Bong’musa has been preparing for the biggest feat of his career, the Comrades Marathon triple crown, a title bestowed upon those rare few who manage to win the race three times back to back. Earlier this year, he added to his racing honours by winning the men’s ultra-leg of the 2019 Two Oceans Marathon in an impressive time of 3:08:40 – a race he jokes was merely meant as part of his training programme, but that he unintentionally ended up winning
While the tale of his rise to the top is the stuff of legend, the story of his life has not been without its share of hardships and tragedies. Born in a rural township of eMpulelweni in Bulwer, he experienced the death of his father in 1997 at the age of 16. His mother then raised him and his eight siblings alone and the family struggled to make ends meet, where Bong’musa says some nights they went to bed without food.
Upon finishing matric in 2002, there was no money for him to study at university, so Bong’musa set out to find work, giving up the dream of following in his father’s footsteps to become a teacher. After being jobless for six months, he eventually found a job as a bricklayer and began providing for his family.
After a few years in construction, he became a professional runner and went on to win his first Comrades Marathon in 2014. But the celebration was short-lived when his girlfriend of 12 years unexpectedly died, leaving him alone to raise their infant son. Heartbroken and laden with grief, Bong’musa was unable to complete the 2015 Comrades Marathon, pulling out of the race long before the finish line.
Months of inactivity followed, a period in which he contemplated hanging up his running shoes for good. Yet, as he explains, there was a voice inside that refused to allow him to give up on professional athletics. As a result, Bong’musa returned to the Comrades Marathon in 2016, finishing third among 20 000 entrants.
Today, he stands as the reigning Comrades Marathon champion, now going for his fourth win and the coveted triple crown accolade. Bong’musa is Medshield’s new Brand Ambassador, a shining example of what it means to be positively shaped by experience, and how we are inspired by our members. He shares his early beginnings and his thoughts with us ahead of the 2019 Comrades Marathon.
Q: Bong’musa, as an adult people know you as one of the world’s top ultradistance runners. Did you play sport as a child?
A: Yes, in Grade 10 I played soccer. In rural areas, there is no variety of sport in school so this was all we had. I was very good at soccer, at any given position. I was striker, middle fielder, defender, even a goalkeeper.
Q: Did you have dreams at that stage of being a professional soccer player?
A: Definitely. Growing up I would see on TV that you could make a living from soccer. That was how the dream started. But nobody was coming to the rural areas to scout soccer players and I wanted to find something I could do for myself. That’s how I found running. I trained myself. I didn’t know about pace and body balance then. Knowledge wasn’t there, but I think the hunger and passion are what drove me.
Q: Tell us about your first professional race.
A: In 2005 I ran the Pietermaritzburg marathon, now called the Postnet Marathon and I won. It was unexpected. I just wanted to see how the guys in the front run. I stuck with them until it was just me and two guys ahead. From 27km of the 42km race, I took the lead up until the finish. From there I was approached by big clubs like Mr price, Nedbank and Harmony Gold. That was when I saw that something could come of this.
Q: When did you decide to run the Comrades Marathon?
A: I became aware of the Comrades Marathon because Willie Mtolo, one of the guys from my township won it. My first Comrades was in 2006. It was the worst ever race of my life, but I was excited to run it. It wasn’t about winning the Comrades, it was about finishing it. I was so proud of myself. It felt like I had won something. That’s where the real work began because I never looked back.
Q: You’ve won the Comrades three times, and are now going for the triple crown. How are you planning to run this race differently?
A: I’m not chasing anybody’s record. I’m chasing my dream. I’m going to run my own race. But it’s important to know who’s behind me, who’s with me, but not ever lose my strategy. I will be ready to face any challenge my competitor brings to me. You have to be confident and that’s the most important to me right now.
Q: You have experienced success and loss in your life. What has that taught you?
A: Don’t ever forget who you are. Don’t ever forget where you from and be proud of where you are from. I’m not ashamed to say I’m from a rural township. My father taught me to be proud of your roots, no matter how successful you become. His words have stayed with me.
Medshield will be #BackingBongmusa in the 2019 Comrades Marathon as he attempts to win the race for the third consecutive year and achieve the triple crown. Follow his journey on our social media pages and be part of the #BackingBongmusa movement.