Bhekizizwe William Mtolo used to run 32km a day to get to school in Kilmon, near Underberg. Weaving his way through the valleys, he quickly realised that if he was to get anywhere in life, his feet needed to do the talking.
It is little wonder, then, that he went on to become one of South Africa’s most successful marathon runners, winning races around the world including, most famously, the New York City Marathon at his first attempt in 1992.
Bizarrely, Mtolo had already caused quite a stir in New York the year before his life-changing win. In 1991, when there was increased optimism that South Africa would again be allowed to compete in international sporting events, Mtolo was invited to the famous city marathon as a guest.
“I had started doing well, and I was asked to come over and see the race,” he recalled.
Despite his excitement at a first trip abroad, Mtolo had concerns in the back of his mind. He was to stay at the Hilton Hotel with his wife during his visit, but he was a man of simple tastes.
“I was excited to go, but I was a bit worried about the food over there. I love my phuthu, and I didn’t think they knew how to make it properly over there,” he continued.
“So, my wife and I snuck in a few bags of mielie-meal into our bags, just in case we needed them.”
As Mtolo had feared, the staff at the prestigious Hilton had no idea how to rustle up his preferred meal, and he was left to his own devices.
“We organised a small stove, and my wife went about making the phuthu in our room,” he chuckled.
Unbeknown to Mtolo, the Hilton had very sensitive smoke detectors, and they were soon set off.
“We looked out of the window, and there were fire trucks coming towards the hotel. The staff came knocking, but we had hidden the pots in the bathroom and told them there was no fire,” he added.
Once the fuss had died down, Mtolo was faced with another problem. His phuthu, which had already caused him so much trouble, was still not cooked.
“We decided to put towels over the sensors and finish off the cooking, because there was no way I wasn’t going to eat after all that!”
It was quite an introduction to the big city, but Mtolo returned the following year to catch New York’s attention for all the right reasons.
These days Mtolo, 47, still has strong ties to the sport that shaped his life so considerably.
His running club, the Willie Mtolo Athletic Club, continues to grow, and he is also heavily involved in charitable causes in KwaZulu-Natal.
“Setting up things like the club and also doing charity runs has always been important to me because I know that there is a lot of talent in the rural areas,” he explained.
“But without these programmes and events, many of the runners would only be competing once or twice a year, and that is not enough to get stronger,” he added.
He also recently featured in a celebrity fundraising initiative which started in Gauteng and worked its way to Port Shepstone, raising funds for hospices and also highlighting the plight of those affected or infected by HIV/Aids.
“We gave motivational talks, and also raised more than R1.4m to help those who need it most,” Mtolo said.
Despite having cut back on competitive runs, Mtolo still runs the odd race and again completed the Comrades this year. He is still a key figure in KZN Athletics, and was a member of the executive board until recently.
Mtolo splits his time between his house in Pinetown, another in Maritzburg – where he has a butchery which is run by his wife – and the farm back in Underberg.
“This sport has been good to me, and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today, nor would I have seen so many countries around the world,” he admitted.
Having grown accustomed to running his way to and from places at a young age, Mtolo moved to Hillcrest to finish high school at KwaKhabazela High. He would soon join Hillcrest Villagers athletics club, where he started dominating the time trials.
“When I was 18, I entered the Comrades for the first time,” he reflected.
“But I was young and inexperienced, and I should have waited before trying it out. The Comrades takes it out of you as a runner, and it takes much longer to recover from,” he explained.
As it was, he still completed the race in a respectable 6:10. But he had learnt his lesson.
Mtolo was, by then, doing some work in the gardens of Hillcrest to get some extra money, and one of his employers, Kim Carlson, was to be a great source for advice and general assistance in his fledgling career.
The first proper coach he had was Richard Campbell, who helped take the promising marathoner to the next level.
His first major victory came in the old JSE Marathon in 1985, a 56km event from Johannesburg to Pretoria. Mtolo had finished second, but the winner was later disqualified for an illegitimate licence number.
Mtolo was on his way, and soon added a notable double, scooping the SA Marathon and the Ford Marathon in 1988.
By that stage, he had started working for FNB in the marketing department.
“They were wonderfully supportive of my career, and they even allowed me to transfer between Durban and Johannesburg so I could prepare for big races properly,” he revealed.
A Two Oceans triumph in 1990, as well as another notable win in the Peninsula Marathon, saw him primed to go on to bigger stages.
When South Africa was re-admitted into the international arena, it coincided with his peak years.
The win in New York took him to another level altogether, and changed his life forever.
“I had actually gone there hoping for a solid finish, maybe in the top 10,” he admitted.
“I would have been happy with that, as I didn’t really know the course and it was a strong field. But as the race went on, I stayed strong, and it was like a dream, actually.”
The dream came with a massive reward, as he won $20 000 as well as a $30 000 bonus for winning in a certain time. He also won himself a Mercedes Benz, but he regrettably never got to drive it.
“When I found out how expensive the import tax was on it, I decided to sell it in New York. I was a bit disappointed that the government didn’t at least try to help a little with that,” he lamented.
With a home and his legacy secure, Mtolo went on to win several other races around the world, including Rotterdam (1993), Macau (2000) and Hong Kong (2001).
But the one that eluded him was the Comrades, where he had to be content with two runners-up medals.
“I would have loved to win the Comrades, because that is the big one for us. But I have very few complaints about the way my career turned out. I guess in life you can’t win everything,” he sighed.
His talent and dedication has taken him all over the world, and he has met his fair share of famous people, too.
“The one regret is that I never got the chance to meet Nelson Mandela, but one of my favourite moments was meeting Baby Jake Matlala, my favourite boxer,” he beamed.
During his heyday, Mtolo’s manager for many years was Ray de Vries, who now plays a key role in setting up the Dusi Canoe Marathon each year.
“You know, Ray has always tried to convince me to get in the boat as part of the celebrity challenge,” Mtolo laughed.
“But I have always told him that water and I just don’t mix. But, then again, you never know...” – Sunday Tribune