Durban - Comrades Marathon champion Bongmusa Mthembu says running in the elite company of former champions Ludwick Mamabolo and Stephen Muzhingi spurred him on to win the 89th edition of the race on Sunday.
The 30-year-old became the first KwaZulu-Natal winner of the ultra-marathon for 19 years when he crossed the line in a time of five hours, 28 minutes and 34 seconds (5:28:34).
He finished the 89.28 kilometre race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban more than four minutes ahead of Nedbank Running Club team-mate Mamabolo, the defending 'down run' winner from 2012 who recorded a time of 5:33:14 to finish second.
Three-time champion Muzhingi (5:35:18) ended in fourth place.
Mthembu ran alongside the pair for most of the race until making his move with around 17 kilometres - just past Pinetown - remaining.
“As you run with those guys, that's what gains you the confidence,” he said.
“I wasn't feeling any pressure even though those guys are some big names and you have to respect them. People like Stephen Muzhingi, Gift Kelehe (who finished third) and Ludwick - these guys have a lot of golds.
“That's exactly what gives you confidence. It's feeling comfortable at the same time as keeping up with them. They are guys that don't just give up so easily, so as long as I was there, I felt good.”
Mthembu was only 15th at the halfway stage as he kept close to the main contenders including Europe's top challenger, Jonas Buud, and David Gatebe, the former Two Oceans Marathon winner.
“I was keeping an eye on my watch all the time and was always comfortable with the pace,” Mthembu said.
The full-time athlete from Bulwer just outside Pietermaritzburg in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, eventually took the lead just before Cowies Hill as front runner Rufus Photo began to tire.
Mthembu never looked back, finishing strongly to claim the R350 000 top-prize, after he came second two years earlier, third in 2010 and seventh in 2009.
“It means a lot to me to win,” he said.
“I've been working hard towards this for a number of years. I've had to be patient because I always knew my time would come one day.”
Mthembu described how he used to watch the race on a little five inch television growing up and how he used to upset his parents because of his love for the sport.
“I'm serious. I grew up with sport, not just running. I didn't just get here by sitting at home. My mum and my father were always beating me because I would come late from playing sport.
“Since I was young I was always in love with sport. In the rural areas there's a lot of sport, so I was always involved.”
He insisted there would be “no partying” after the win, instead he would focus on preparation for the race in 2015.
“We don't have parties, rather we have to continue to work hard,” Mthembu said.
“This is a process of maybe five to six years. I'm being honest with you.
“I have to keep working hard because you never know what may happen next year. I can never forget that this win comes with hard work. I need to stick to that.”