Nkosikhona “Caster” Mhlakwana is a Comrades Marathon champion in the making. Sure, the Comrades is so long and tough a race that anyone who makes a prediction probably needs their head examined. Yet every year, in the build-up to the world-famous 90km or so KwaZulu-Natal ultramarathon, reporters and road running experts put their reputations on the line by making a call on who will win.
Many of us end up with egg on our faces, having called it so horribly wrong that we try in vain to find ways to justify ourselves. Not that this embarrassment stops us from doing it. After all, where is the fun in looking ahead to a big sporting event if we can’t predict the results?
This prediction about Mhlakwana, however, is not a fun exercise. Far from it. It is an educated guess. It is made from observing the Comrades Marathon for many years and seeing what it takes for athletes to conquer the beast. It is based on a thorough knowledge of the runner’s background, personal and athletic, as well as his ability, personality and ambition.
Mhlakwana, to the uninitiated, is a 27-year-old Maxed Elite runner with a single official Comrades finish to his name. And it was no ordinary finish. If the 2019 Comrades Marathon is fondly remembered by many for Gerda Steyn’s record-breaking Up Run win, the road running enthusiasts and Comrades aficionados will swear that their lingering memory of the 94th edition of The Ultimate Human Race is that of Mhlakwana’s legs giving up on him some 500m from the finish line, resulting in him losing out on a gold medal.
It was a sorry sight, Mhlakwana having made his way into the Scottsville Racecourse in ninth place only for his legs to turn to jelly and leave him having to balance himself on the perimeter advertising boards, with the crowd calling on him to keep going. He tried and eventually finished, but not before Entsika AC teammates Gordon Lesetedi and Siya Mqambeli had overtaken him to complete the top 10 prize money positions.
It was the kind of experience that should have destroyed a novice’s resolve. Mhlakwana, though, has gotten stronger from the experience – so strong that he ran the fastest Comrades this year. Among the few runners who completed the 90km Race the Comrades Legends virtual run on 14 June, Mhlakwana did the Down Run on the actual Comrades route, albeit from Howick to Pinetown instead of from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Incredibly, he finished it in exactly the same time (5:53) as he did last year’s official Up Run.
Mhlakwana was buoyed by that run and believes he will do way better in a competitive environment, his hope being that he will be among the gold medallists at next year’s centennial run.
Champion in the making
His coach Prodigal Khumalo – a Comrades gold medallist and double winner of the Ultra-Trail Cape Town 100km run – is in no doubt that his charge will be champion one day. “Caster is definitely going to win Comrades some day. He’s got the talent, as he showed by coming in at position 11 in his first race. He has got so much potential I am in no doubt he will be among the best Comrades runners for a long time,” said Khumalo.
“It is always said that talent means nothing if you don’t have the passion. Caster is one of the most passionate runners I know. And he’s an incredible hard worker for his age. He is mentally very strong, too, as proven by the fact he did not allow last year’s incident to break him. With experience, he is going to grow into a Comrades champion, of that I am very sure.”
This view is also held by Xolani Mabhida, the man who helped coach Bong’musa Mthembu to winning three Comrades titles. “I have been fortunate to witness Caster’s development from when he started running, and I am in no doubt that he is a Comrades champion in the making.”
Mabhida is from the same township of Sphumelele in Howick where Mhlakwana lives, and remembers the first time he encountered the now Maxed Elite runner.
“I used to run and I invited a group of youngsters who seemed to be heading in the wrong direction as teens to come join me for my training session,” said Mabhida. “Caster was among them, and I remember getting them to run laps around the field with me. He was the only one who managed to keep up for a while, and when he was tiring I told him to rest and then come back later. He joined me again on a rainy day and I immediately picked up that he had good endurance.”
There and then Mabhida took Mhlakwana under his wing and trained him until he passed matric. Being a track and middle-distance runner, Mabhida got Mhlakwana to be his training partner, which meant his protégé did the same distances even though he was not necessarily endowed with speed.
From the track to the road
“I remember his first big run being a silver medal in the 3 000m at the KZN Championships. He also did the 1 500m and 800m, but I was aware he would be more suited for the road because of his endurance. I used that period to help him build up his speed while getting him ready for the longer distances.”
At a championship in Durban in 2009 where Mhlakwana finished third, Mabhida agreed with Khumalo that the lad would be better off training with the Comrades component. His move to the road only happened two years later, though, as he continued to run on the track.
“Coach Pro [Khumalo] made me realise that I was not going to make much money on the track and that there are better opportunities on the road. I then started running cross-country and some 10kms,” Mhlakwana recalls.
After completing matric in 2014, he went to study sports management at the Durban University of Technology but was forced to drop out the following year because of a lack of financial backing. It was as a first-year student that Mhlakwana ran his first full marathon. He remembers the race fondly.
“I finished second behind Joseph Kiyengo, but I ran the same time as him, 2:15. But there was a lot of bad talk about that race because people kept saying that the course was too short and they were discrediting my time. But Norrie Williamson [a renowned race referee and route measurer] had approved the distance.”
Dejected, Mhlakwana – who had a 69-minute half-marathon personal best (PB), achieved at the tough and hilly Township Marathon – decided to disregard his maiden marathon and go in search of a new start. He won the 2015 Deloitte Marathon in a record time of 2:20 and “I decided that was my new PB because people were talking ill of my 2:15”.
Having held a part-time job as an electrician, he quit to do a sports science course, which he did not finish. But in 2017 he enrolled at the University of KwaZulu-Natal for a bachelor’s degree in education, which he is in the process of completing.
Mhlakwana returned to the track and cross-country for the university and has represented KwaZulu-Natal in the national championships in the 5 000m (14:32 PB) and 10 000m (29:33 PB). He has won the Heroes Marathon and pocketed a cool R50 000 for his efforts, which went a long way towards alleviating his family’s struggles.
His move up to the ultramarathons served to confirm Mabhida’s assertion that Mhlakwana is a natural endurance runner. “Coach Prodigal got injured late in 2018, but he had seen me during the long runs and said to me he believes I have what it takes to do well in ultramarathons,” said Mhlakwana.
“He registered me for the 2019 Nongoma Marathon, which he had won the year before. It is the toughest 56km race in the country, but I won it at the first attempt. There were some top Comrades runners at that race, like Marko Mambo, Joseph Mphuthi and Mncedisi Mkhize, and I beat them all. Suddenly everyone started talking about the Comrades.”
Khumalo convinced him he was good enough for gold at the Comrades and they went into hard training at a camp in the cold Drakensberg Mountains. There were also mental coaching sessions with John McGrath to prepare the young man for his debut.
All that hard work bore fruit as Mhlakwana competed with the experienced top Comrades runners and came agonisingly close to getting that gold medal at his first attempt. He was the first Maxed Elite runner home and helped the club win the overall team prize.
With all this in mind, it is difficult to argue with Khumalo and Mabhida when they say Mhlakwana will win the Comrades Marathon in the not-so-distant future.