'KZN runners are so talented' - Bong'musa Mthembu ready to build future KZN champions
For the first time since 2013, not a single KwaZulu-Natal Athletics (KZNA) runner finished inside the top ten at the 2023 Comrades Marathon. While this statistic has set alarm bells ringing within the KZN ultra distance running community, Bong'musa Mthembu remains positive about the ability of athletes from his home province to compete against the best. The legendary three-time Comrades Champion who took sixteenth place in 5:32:10 during this year's Down Run believes that with the right systems in place, KZNA top runners can loosen the stranglehold that athletes from the North West Province have taken on the 90km race.
"At the end of the day the truth is that here in KZN we have a lot of runners who can even beat the guys from up country. The guys are capable of performing miracles," he told #TheTopRunner. "But you must understand that Comrades needs a lot of preparation just to run for five hours. I was inspired by watching a lot of previous Comrades champions like Fusi Nhlapo, Zithulele Sinqe, Vladimir Kotov and others who performed well at Comrades yet raced sparingly in the buildup to the race. I never go into the race saying I'm going to win it. I go into the race saying I want to give it my best and run with all my strength according to my fitness," said the SA 100km record holder.
That approach served Mthembu well as he amassed nine gold, two Wally Hayward and four silver medals in a Comrades career dating back to 2006, while also winning the Two Oceans 56km ultra marathon. And although the Arthur Ford top runner is a vehement advocate for group training he achieved much of that success training alone or in a small group that includes fellow Comrades Marathon gold medalist Thuso Mosiea. The man who won the silver medal at the 2016 IAU World 100km Championships says he has found it difficult to train in larger groups in the past because not all athletes in his province have the same outlook on what it takes to build a long-term athletic career of an international standard.
"KZN runners are so talented but the problem many have is their surroundings. I wish we can train together so that what I'm saying can be proven. Look at the Kenyans for example, they train as a group. Look at the guys from the North West (Nedbank Running Club) they have four strong guys, the guys from Lesotho used to dominate the Soweto Marathon using the same approach. So why don't we learn and do the same thing here in KZN?"
Yet for the first time this year the man from the town of Bulwer near Pietermaritzburg was spotted training in a large group that included the likes of fellow KZN Comrades gold medalists Nkosikhona Mhlakwana and Prodigal Khumalo in the lead up to The Ultimate Human Race. Now almost forty years old, uMvelase believse it is the right time for him to begin working with others who share his vision to build KZN's future champions especially because he has now found athletes who share his vision.
"I wish I can also do that right here in KZN, but we must be honest and fix their surroundings first. The challenge is that many of these runners are young," explained the 39-year-old. "We have to build a runner so that he can make the right decision at the right time. It's true. I am now at the stage where I can give back. But I'm not in a rush because I don't want the athletes that I produce to go through the same hardships that I went through. I don't want the youngsters that I develop to fall by the wayside. So it's important to guide runners. They can even take a whole year just learning how to speak and behave. So that's what I have been doing since last year and one or two of them will soon be ready to step forward."