Get to know three-time Comrades Marathon champion Bongmusa Mthembu before the 2018 IAU 100k World Championships. In the following interview, our first with him, Bongmusa talks about how his 2016 100km world championship race went, how the team race might play out, and his long history with running.
Bongmusa Mthembu Pre-2018 IAU 100k World Championships Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Bongmusa Mthembu before the 2018 IAU 100k World Championships. How are you?
Bongmusa Mthembu: Thanks very much. Thanks for having me. It’s a privilege for me once again to represent my country. I’m so happy. I’m looking forward to once again race against the world. It will be nice. It will be fantastic although I know it will be tough. I believe we’re going to do well as South Africans. The race temperatures I’ve seen will be almost the same because in South Africa it’s almost summer, and here it is summer again, so I think we will do well.
iRunFar: Yes, it might be little hot for some of the runners on Saturday. Is that an advantage for your team?
Mthembu: Definitely should be an advantage. I’ve also seen the route, and that’s definitely to our advantage. We’ll see. We are so excited to be here.
iRunFar: It’s not as hilly as Comrades, but it’s not flat.
Mthembu: Not flat at all—there is a little bit of climb. I think the most important thing for us is to do those loops because to run 100k of loops is hard. But we are professional athletes and we are well prepared for that since we’ve been nominated to represent our country. I’m so happy. As I’ve said, I can’t wait. The experience I’ve had now from the previous championship I’ve run and participated in, coming here today, it will be fascinating to see how we perform.
iRunFar: Is it a different sort of mental challenge? At Comrades, it’s the most important race in South Africa and the world maybe in ultrarunning. Here, there aren’t one million fans. There’s the loops. Is it more challenging mentally?
Mthembu: Yeah, definitely. It should be challenging. As a professional athlete, you need to be strong for all those things. It’s those obstacles that you face in the race. We can’t complain about that. Yes, we talk of Comrades, and it’s a huge race. I think it’s watched all over the world. But to be here, this is the greatest stage we can imagine as an athlete to compete against athletes from other countries and to compete at this level. Each and every athlete, this is a privilege and an honor that we get in our countries. We will perform at the highest level. Yes, there’s no matching the fans, but other than that, what is most important to us is to compete. That’s why we’re here, and this is what we’re going to do.
iRunFar: You raced two years ago in Spain and were second place, so you can improve.
Mthembu: Yes, definitely. I was new and didn’t know what to expect in the last championship I ran. The last kilometers, I’ve seen what mistake I had, but I’ve done my homework. I believe we’re going to do well together. What is most important is to work together. Yes, it might happen with other countries, but we don’t know their strategies or motives for ourselves. Once we’re able to work together, then definitely at the race toward the end we will be separated, but once we’re able to work together as a South African team, I’m sure we can do well. As I’ve said, we’ve seen the route and the route is not that flat. This means it will be to our advantage with all those little climbs. I’m so excited to see all the guys perform. I know that, as Bongmusa, I’m a little bit under pressure because the guys will be like, “Bongmusa knows how to run 100k,” but we motivate each other. We’ve been together a couple of times now coming here. We always have been together and our country has done so much for us to be here. For now, it’s about our emblem, our country, our friends back home, and definitely our legacy that we want to leave as an athlete.
iRunFar: The South Africans are so used to following Comrades, it will be fun to have a team who can really compete here and quite possibly win. Do you think the Japanese will be the biggest challenge on Saturday?
Mthembu: Yes, definitely. We have tried to analyze which country will give us some problems or some competition. Japan is one of those countries. We can’t look past the USA. I’ve seen them at the last championship and also Brazil—those guys can run. What is most fascinating now is that I’ve seen other countries are taking this championship very seriously which means the other countries are going to compete at the highest level. I’m just curious to see what the guys are going to do now. They know Bongmusa. They know South Africa and that we can run these distances. That’s what I’m saying that the most important thing is to run together as a country and toward the end we can be separated. I know now that I can see them that there is nervousness that we are here. They have seen the results of Comrades, and they remember what we did the last championship that we ran. Once we are able to use that against them, I’m sure we can do well.
iRunFar: Who do you think will be the other top finishers from the South African team?
Mthembu: Claude Moshiywa is another guy who didn’t run so well in Comrades because he had an injury. But now, the preparations for Comrades, I’m sure he had already done all the preparations for Comrades, so when he got the injury, that was his part for rest. Coming here, I’m sure this guy will be able to do well. Once he’s able to be strong in his mind, I’m sure he will do well. The other guy, Thusio Mosiea, is good. We know how to run the longer distances. There might be nervousness among them, but I’m not worried about them. Once they allow that nervousness, they won’t be able to run. They need to enjoy the race. They need to go with the flow. I just told them when we finished a jog, “You know, guys, you don’t need to be fast from the beginning. You start to push from halfway to the finish.”
iRunFar: You said you can improve somethings for the 100k roads. What are some of the things you can do better?
Mthembu: Yes, I remember last championship that I ran, the last 12k, it was walk and run. The mistake I did was maybe from the excitement or the nervousness, I didn’t take as much stuff as I have to take during the race while my body was responding well. So, I started to take in those recovery and my supplements, but my body was already finished and didn’t pick it up. The last 12k was walk and run and walk and run. I won’t do that this time, and I’m sure I can run 6:20 or 6:19.
iRunFar: Yeah, wow. That would be amazing. So you think you should start your nutrition earlier in the race and not wait.
Mthembu: Exactly, not wait until my body can’t take in anymore. I’m just want to make sure that my body can keep going. I need to take my nutrition at that time so that by the time I reach the last 12k or 10k, my body is still carrying some.
iRunFar: You’ve won Comrades a couple times. I’d love to go back in time. When did you start running? How long have you been running?
Mthembu: It’s been a long time. I’m 15 years a professional athlete now, and that’s when it all started. I grew up in rural areas, if you might know, some very rural areas and not in a town or city. That’s where Bongmusa grew up. At a young age I ran. I played soccer, but then when I grew up I decided to go and pursue running. From there, I didn’t look back until now.
iRunFar: You’ve been ultrarunning for awhile now.
Mthembu: Yes, definitely, as I’ve been running Comrades now for the past 10 years now. It’s been 12 years that I left shorter distances and came to ultramarathons up until now.
iRunFar: Do you enjoy it?
Mthembu: Absolutely, I enjoy it. You know, I know my strength. I don’t have much speed, but I can’t do speed, but with the endurance that I have and the strong mind that I have, I think that’s why I’m doing well in ultra distances.
iRunFar: Excellent. Great luck this weekend, Bongmusa, and great to meet you.
Mthembu: Thank you so much.