By LaToya Newman, Gugu Mbonambi & Sapa
At the age of just 15 he was running 45km races and by 16 he had come sixth in a 60km race. It was during those early triumphs in rural Zimbabwe that Stephen Muzhingi realised he was destined to be a long-distance runner.
The 33-year-old father of a one-month-old boy yesterday became the first Zimbabwean to win the Comrades Marathon, recording the second-fastest down run yet.
Muzhingi has been living in Durban for the past four years but his wife and family cheered him on from Zimbabwe.
"My family had been watching the race on TV. They are very happy," he said.
Muzhingi finished Sunday's race just before 10.55am, crossing the line in 5hr23min26.
Speaking soon after winning Muzhingi said he was dazed and in disbelief over his win. He thanked his coach for having faith in him.
"My coach was confident that I would win, but I was not that confident - but when I saw I had 10km to go, I knew I could take the race," he said.
Muzhingi said part of his strategy was to give Russian defending champion Leonid Shvetsov, who set the down record of 5hr20min41 in 2007, a 100m lead.
"When I saw that he was tired I decided to catch up with him and then run ahead of him and from then I just kept my pace," he said.
Muzhingi walked away with a R220 000 cash prize and said he would invest the money in a business in Zimbabwe.
"I am coming back in 2010 to break the record," he vowed.
Shvetsov, who had difficulty walking afterwards, paid tribute to Collen Makaza, the Zimbabwean who set the pace for the first half of the race.
The Russian always believed in running his own race but when he realised that Makaza was 10 minutes ahead of him at the halfway mark, he had to push himself more than he would normally have done to narrow the gap.
"I've always said you have to pace yourself and run your own race but I didn't do it. It's proof that I am human and not invincible."
"The last 10km were the hardest 10km of my life. Every little hill felt like Polly Shorts. I even walked twice during the race to try and preserve some energy," he said.
The women's race saw the Nurgalieva twins running neck and neck most of the way, but 7km from the end Olesya broke away from her sister Elena to win in 6hr12min11.
"We ran the Two Oceans six weeks ago so our energy was down. Seven kilometres from the end, we were told that the next person was only three minutes behind us so we went faster," said Elena, who finished in 6hr13min13, "but Olesya was stronger than me."
The 33-year-old twins said they would return in 2010 as they enjoyed being in South Africa.
"We are not so well known in Russia and we are happy to live a low-profile, quiet life there," admitted Elena, "but we will continue to race in South Africa and possibly enter the City to City marathon later in 2009."
Tatyana Zhirkova finished third in 6hr15min02 and the first South African home was Farwa Mentoor, fifth in 6hr45min32.
Having missed the 2008 race Mentoor said she was delighted at Sunday's outcome.
She said the last 2km of the marathon were the toughest.
"I was very tired at the time and dehydrated, that's why after the race I was very dizzy," she said.
She was happy to hold the title of first SA woman in, adding that she had not aimed for first place.
"It's difficult to win against the Russian twins because they train at extremely high altitude," she said.
The last person to cross the finish on Sunday, in 10 006th place, Jerry Mboweni of Cape Town, dedicated his win to Jesus Christ.
Mboweni's wife, Vanessa, was excited as it was her husband's first attempt at the race and she said he had worked hard, overcoming an 11-year heroin addiction to make his dream come true.
Comrades Marathon Association spokesman Craig Fry said a 35-year-old man had to be airlifted to hospital in the only serious medical incident in yesterday's marathon.
He said the man had suffered severe dehydration and heart attack symptoms. He had been placed on a ventilator at a Durban hospital.
Fry added that the majority of runners taken to the medical tents had suffered from dehydration.
Roughly 600 of the nearly 13 000 people who registered for the race failed to complete the 89km marathon.