Pietermaritzburg — Bongmusa Mthembu and Camille Herron used Sunday’s 93rd edition of the Comrades Marathon to show their excellence. Mthembu clocked 5hr 35min 34sec to lead the field home for the 86.7km trip from Durban to Pietermaritzburg while Herron’s winning time was 6:27:35.
With his second title following his 2014 down-run win, Mthembu became the first South African athlete to complete the Comrades up and down run double since Bruce Fordyce in 1987, while Herron is the first American since Ann Trason in 1997 to win the race.
Mthembu also became the first black South African to complete the up and down double.
Herron, who broke down in tears of joy while also nearly failing to finish the race, said she wanted to match her compatriot’s efforts.
Herron did all the hard work from Pinetown when she took the lead, only for her to think she had won by just entering the Scottsville Race Course.
A fellow runner had to remind her that she still had to finish, but at that point she was never in danger of being caught by the second-laced Russian Alexandra Morozova, who was entering Pietermaritzburg at the time. Charne Bosman, the 2016 down-run champion and 2014 up-run runner-up, was third.
“Ann Trason won the Comrades and the Western States race in back-to-back years and that’s been my goal ever since. In three weeks’ time I’ll be running my first 100-mile race. Next year, I’ll be back to take part in the down run and try to win it because that’s what Ann Trason did and follow in her footsteps and break all the records.
“I’ve been thinking about the Comrades since 1995 when I read Professor Timothy Noakes’s book and it’s been the only ultra-marathon I’ve been thinking about. It was a big deal reading about Bruce Fordyce and the legends and that’s the one book my dad bought me.”
Whatever she read or the nuggets of advice it contained, she used them wisely in what was a well-paced race. She was never under threat, though Morozova mounted a belated surge at Umlaas Road.
It was too late at that point and the Oklahoma-born trail specialist made up for her 2015 disappointment when sickness prevented her from finishing.
Mthembu did not have it his own way as Hatiwande Nyamande (5:38:48) and Gift Kelehe (5:41:48) kept up the pressure.
Having failed dismally in the 2015 edition, when he could not finish in the top 10, Mthembu paced his race perfectly while watching the likes of early pacemakers Thobani Chagwe and Charles Tijane fade in the unseasonably fierce Midlands heat.
Nyamande, who improved on his 2015 third-place finish by more than 10 minutes, and Kelehe probed until the crucial Polly Shortts point, from where Mthembu shifted into gears his competitors could not match.
Mthembu’s winning time was way off Leonid Shvetzov’s 2008 record of 5:24:49 but it was faster than Kelehe’s 2015 time of 5:38:36.
It was clear Mthembu had a plan and the lessons from his disappointing 2015 outing were well heeded. Mthembu, who was greeted at the finish line by his nine-year-old son Sisanda, said his win was a triumph for not only his family but for rural athletes.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, and I’m trying by all means to be my son’s role model. My whole family was here, even one of my staunch church-going family members. One thing we must know is that most of SA’s running talent is from the rural areas and that talent needs to be properly cultivated,” Mthembu said.
One thing now is clear: the myth of South African athletes not being able to hold their own in the up-run has been totally debunked.