'I couldn't believe it when I won it' - Willie Mtolo reflects on winning 1992 New York Marathon.
It's been almost thirty years since William Bhekizizwe Mtolo became the first South African to win the New York Marathon. On November 1 1992, Bra Willie came from behind passing Mexico's Andrés Espinosa in Central Park to cross the finish line first in 2:09:29. The victory which came barely three months after Elana Meyer won the country's first post-Apartheid athletics Olympic medal when she took the silver medal in the 10 000m at Barcelona, signalled an end to sporting isolation and the beginning of a new era during which the country's black athletes in particular could embrace the overseas racing opportunities which had remained closed for decades.
"When I was growing up in Underberg I used to walk 16km to school and 16km back home. So I think that's where my running started," the man from KwaZulu Natal told #TheTopRunner. "But I only started running seriously once I moved down to Hillcrest because my sister was staying in Hillcrest. Then I joined the club Hillcrest Villagers and that's where I ran my first time trial where I was beaten by legend Graeme Fraser," he revealed.
Unhappy with his performance running in an old pair of squash shoes, the teenager returned the following week and won the time trial ahead of the Comrades Marathon gold medalist Fraser. That first win caught the eye of the club's management and it wasn't long before Mtolo was lining up at the start of his first Comrades Marathon. Three weeks after his twentieth birthday Mtolo finished in 23rd place as he completed the 1984 Down Run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in 6:02:40.
But the punishment that that first 90km ultra marathon visited on his body was enough for the young man to take a break South Africa's favourite running pastime to focus on shorter distances. The decision soon paid dividends because two years later when Mtolo ran 2:08:15 in an epic duel against Zithulele Sinqe at the SA Marathon Championships in Port Elizabeth. Although Sinqe won the race by 11 seconds, that performance coupled with his runner-up finish at the 1989 Comrades Marathon (5:39:59) put him at the of the readmission invitation list when race organisers heard that South Africans were allowed to compete internationally again.
"In 1991 I went to New York. Although I didn't, I was invited because there was a rumour that in 1992 South Africans might be allowed to run internationally. So I went to Joburg to train. I was training with Jerry Modiga. Modiga was a very good person and he helped me a lot to win the New York Marathon. And Hendrick Ramaala also came in, although Hendrick at that time he was very slow because we were lapping him when we were doing the 1000m reps on the track," he giggled.
Ramaala would go on to repeat Mtolo's feat twelve years later, but it was the man from the Midlands that was the pioneer. Mtolo was the first to figure out important things like how to customary pre-race pap and meat when hotels in The Big Apple had never even heard of mealie meal.
"I know these people they don't know what is uphuthu. So what I did is that I carried the porridge from South Africa and a two-plate stove just for in case - and a pot. I went there with my wife Fikile. When we got to the hotel we asked them if they would cook the food for us, but they refused. So because we had a stove we plugged everything with my wife and the water boiled and when we were about to pour the mealie meal in the pot the smoke alarm went on! We saw the fire engine coming and were waiting for the police to come and arrest us. So we unplugged everything and hid it under the bed and police couldn't tell where the smoke was coming from. We eventually covered the smoke detectors with towels and cooked the phuthu," he laughed.
With his stomach lined Mtolo was ready for race day. "I was in a very good shape. We passed halfway in 62 minutes and with 15km to go I was lying number four or three. But I didn't lose contact with the frontrunners. So I just kept going because I was feeling strong. And I knew that when it comes to the hills I'm very strong. Because before the race I usually go and run a few kilometres before the finish. So when it came to the last 5km I just went very hard on that hill. Espinosa couldn't respond," was his detailed description almost three decades later.
It was a moment that would change Mtolo's life forever. "I couldn't believe it when I won it. It was my first big event outside South Africa, running against Kenyans and Mexicans and these other top runners. I didn't expect to win the race. Winning the race was really a big dream for me," he smiled.
The 2021 race which is the 50th running of the iconic global marathon takes place this Sunday 7 November where Southern African eyes will be on Namibia's Helialia Johannes. The Olympian and World championship bronze medalist won the 2019 SPAR Women's 10km Grand Prix title.