Mothibi, the new king of the Comrades

Edward Mothibi dethroned South Africa’s ultramarathon king, Bong’musa Mthembu, in dramatic fashion. But what made his Comrades win even more remarkable was that it was his first Up Run.

It is only the afternoon after the Comrades Marathon, but Edward Mothibi is already back down to earth. Walking on the Durban promenade, there is little to suggest that Mothibi has just achieved the unthinkable: victory in his first attempt at the Up Run.

Save for the official race T-shirt worn by every third person on the beachfront, he could pass for just about any other holidaymaker as he and his family walk towards their car, two-litre bottles of seawater in hand.

But this is no ordinary holidaymaker. This is the 2019 Comrades Marathon champion. The man who denied the revered Bong’musa Mthembu a hat-trick of triumphs at the Ultimate Human Race by reaching the Scottsville Racecourse in Pietermaritzburg first, about 20 seconds before the title defender.

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We meet at a restaurant he describes as selling “very good food at a cheap price”. Not that price should be an issue for the man who bagged a cheque for R500 000 the day before. But Mothibi is a simple man, his well-done steak, egg and chips order confirms as much. Hailing from the tiny village of Magogoe, Koikoi in Mahikeng, North West, the 34-year-old father of three daughters is an unlikely champion.

The Comrades is generally acknowledged as one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world. It takes a lot of experience to win it, along with hard work and talent proven over a period of time in marathons and other shorter ultras.

Mothibi does not have the first requisite and his pedigree in marathons and ultras hardly screamed potential Comrades winner. And it was his first Up Run, even though the Nedbank Running Club athlete made an impressive Comrades debut in last year’s Down Run. He finished fourth in 2018.

Other runners may have been surprised that a man with no marathon titles, one that hadn’t even finished in the top 10 yet at the Two Oceans Marathon, won the Comrades this year. But the man himself and those close to him saw it coming.

Mental strength to beat the king  

“I’m happy, very excited. It is a dream come true,” Mothibi says between bites of steak. “Last year, they beat me with 3km to go and I finished fourth. This year, I just wanted to get a gold medal. But my coach said to me, let’s go for it. I knew that running at a pace of 3:45 [three minutes, 45 seconds a kilometre] would be easy because I had trained for it. The key was to be mentally strong.”

He had a strong mind all right.

Mothibi’s win was made all the more special because he was not the first one to reach Polly Shortts, the race traditionally being won by the man or woman who is in the lead on that notorious hill on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.

“I must confess that when Bong’musa climbed Polly Shortts first, I thought he was gone. But I just kept going at my pace and as I saw the gap closing, I became positive and eventually I overtook him and I knew then that he would not catch me.”

David Gatebe, Mothibi’s training partner and Comrades Down Run record holder, who helped set the pace early on in the race, provides a little insight into the champion’s incredible fightback at Pollys, as the hill is known among competitors.

“We had great training in Dullstroom, about five weeks, and we worked hard on that Steenkampweg hill. I told Edward there that if we can conquer that hill, then we will not have problems at Comrades. We also spoke about the climb up Pollys and I advised him to not allow Bong’musa to be too far ahead of him when they climb up. He has the speed and I knew that he would win if he was still in contention there. Edward should have won Comrades last year, but he lacked experience. He really deserved it this year.”

Mothibi’s love for running

The duo’s coach, Dave Adams, is with us in Durban and initially offers to leave us to it. He is not one for the limelight, Adams. He works at the Impala mine in Rustenburg and has groomed the likes of Gatebe as well as fellow runner Gordon Lesetedi, but prefers to let his athletes shine.

“I still have a lump in my throat. I was tearful when he won. I have known for many years that he has got the talent. But I was initially reluctant to have him go for Comrades because he is very light.

But Nick [Bester, the Nedbank Running Club manager] convinced us to try it and we increased his training distance and he had a good run last year. Edward has a passion for running. He is willing to listen to advice and we share plans and we work very well together.”

Mothibi admits that he did not really consider himself an ultra runner. Granted, seeing the likes of Vladimir Kotov and Andrew Kelehe win the Comrades Marathon excited him. But he dreamt of running international marathons instead.

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“I didn’t like ultras. I grew up running track and later moved on to cross-country. In the marathons, my best was a sixth place at Soweto Marathon with a 2:24 ,which is my PB [personal best]. I admired [long-distance runner] Hendrick Ramaala and I wanted to run the fast sea-level marathons, but I never got the chance.”

That does not matter anymore now. Not with the title of Comrades Marathon champion against his name. That his name is now on a list that includes luminaries such as Bruce Fordyce is something a young Mothibi would not have dreamt of growing up in Koikoi. While he was renowned as that kid who loves to run, Mothibi did not think he would be a Comrades champion one day.

“I just loved to run. I would run anywhere. If they sent me to the shops, I ran. I ran when I went to school and even on Sundays on my way to church.”

That running finally paid huge dividends on 9 June 2019 and, the day after his triumph, Mothibi was still experiencing some disbelief.

“It’s like I am dreaming. I don’t believe this has happened to me. I thought I was dreaming. That guy Bong’musa is a terminator. To beat that guy takes a lot of guts. I think he woke up late when I left him at the top of Polly Shortts.”

He was certainly not dreaming. Mothibi did win the Comrades Marathon – and he did it on his first attempt at an Up Run, competing against the race favourite.

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