LOSING A RECORD - BONGMUSA MTHEMBU 6:24:05

Updated: Mar 13, 2019


My first blog for 2017 was going to discuss a cautious start to Comrades training. Then the words of a song I hadn't heard in years popped into my mind… and it became about a different ultra-marathon altogether.

She’s Leaving Home “Sunday morning at 5 o’clock As the day begins Silently closing her bedroom door Leaving the note that she hoped would say more She goes downstairs to the kitchen Clutching her handkerchief Quietly turning the backdoor key Stepping outside, she is free.” With apologies to Lennon and McCartney and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band. I knew well in advance that my 'child' would be leaving me. The warnings had been taunting me on a regular basis on social media: 'Your child is going; she needs to move on. On November 26th she’s packing her bags and going to live with someone else. You’ll look back fondly and with love, but she has to expand her horizons.'

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sad or that I hoped the day, which just happened to be 27 November 2016, would never arrive.

You see, she had come to me on a baking hot morning, on a hilly road in Stellenbosch. I had to fight many other suitors to make her mine, and the cost was enormous. Almost catastrophic. In fact, afterwards I lay prostrate on a hospital bed with an intravenous drip dangling from my arm.


On that day, 4th February 1989, I became the new SA and, briefly, World Record holder for 100 km - 6:25:07. The price exacted for this record was that, as a runner, I was never quite the same again. Somewhere, out on the glinting road that wove its way among the vineyards and strawberry fields of Stellenbosch, the zip and spring I used to have in my step - and the fighting spirit deep in my brain - were left melting and sizzling on the hot tar. Somewhere, in the boxing ring of harsh ultra-marathon competition, my brain decided, "I can’t do this again.”

I was content with that thought. I had finally made my mark on the world stage and proved I could perform in other arenas; not just on the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

The world record was taken from me a few months later, but this South African baby stayed with me for 27 years. And, as each year passed and my record survived assaults from some remarkable South African athletes, I became prouder and prouder and fonder and fonder of my child.

Before I become too big-headed and tiresome about holding a record for over a quarter of a century, let me point out that 100 km (a little over 62 miles) is not a distance we South Africans race often. We treasure our own two magnificent ultra-events, and believe the Two Oceans and Comrades marathons tower over any other.

I can honestly say I wouldn’t trade a single Comrades win for a World Championship title. Nevertheless, it felt good to see my name alongside those of our track and field athletes in the annual South African athletics statistics booklet, even if it was on the last page at the very end, almost as if it were an afterthought.

So, when I heard that a team of top South African ultra-runners were entering the World 100 km Championships in Spain in November 2016, I had an inkling my record’s days were numbered. Bongmusa Mthembu ( Comrades 2014), Ludwick Mamabolo (Comrades 2012), Gift Kelehe (Comrades 2015), David Gatebe (Comrades 2016) among others in the team were simply too talented. Even on a bad day, at least one of them was destined to annihilate my time while running on the fast Spanish course.

When the dust had settled and I had had time to digest the fact I was no longer the record holder, I recalled a conversation I had had with Wally Hayward, the greatest Comrades runner of all time. I took some comfort from it.

“Remember Bruce,” he once cautioned me “We keep titles, but we only borrow records. Sooner or later someone will take your record from you.

“I thought I was fast when I broke 6 hours in the 1953 Comrades,” he continued "but now you lot are running half an hour faster.”

I now also realise another thing the great man was telling me. If the record keeps improving, and is passed on from one runner to the next, it means the sport is alive and well. It's flourishing. If it stagnates for too long, it means there is apathy. No-one is interested. No-one cares.

I mean, does anyone really want to be the reigning world record holder for consuming the most “Mother in law's hell fire vindaloo curry samosas in an hour”? There aren’t too many challengers for that one. But now I've lost this record, there is excitement and interest being shown once more about an important South African record. And that's a good thing.

Even the casual observer could not have failed to notice that in Spain, this past November, our top runners were at best extremely naive in their tactics, at worst foolhardy. They started far too fast and raced each other, in some cases, into oblivion. The 50 km split was over-ambitious, and not only meant the individual title was not won, but that the current world record was clearly under no threat.

I hope our runners challenge for the title again next year, and that they take this year's experience with them. Working with a sensible race plan, any one of a dozen talented South African runners could break the world record. Certainly they should break Bongmusa’s SA record. And they’re too good not to retain the team gold medals.

Finally, I would like to congratulate Bongmusa Mthembu on breaking my record. Like the father of the bride, I am more than proud to have handed my child on to a great runner like you. Enjoy your time with her. The chances are it may only be for a brief time, so make the most of it.

P.S. Bongmusa, I stand open to correction, but I believe that not only are you the SA record holder, but also the African continental record holder for 100 km. Just think about that Addis Ababa and Nairobi. You don’t quite own every African distance record!

Image of me winning the 100 km ultra, run in Stellenbosch area in 1989, taken by Andre van den Berg. Used with thanks.

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