CAPE TOWN – Willie Bhekhizizwe Mtolo stands out as one of the premier distance athletes produced by South Africa.
The athlete from the foothills of the Drakensberg is the only South African to have won the New York City Marathon.
Son of a farm worker in the Underberg district, Mtolo now owns his own farm.
“I farm maize and some livestock,” Mtolo says proudly. “This is the part of the country I love and where I feel at home. I was given good advice when I won some money and invested in property, rather than in fast cars. I bought my farm after winning the New York Marathon and have been enjoying farming ever since.
Although Mtolo was one of a number of ‘rags to riches’ athletics’ success stories of the 1980s, unlike the majority of the distance greats, such as Mathews Temane, Xolile Yawa and Gibeon Moshaba, Mtolo never worked on the mines.
“When I said to my parents that I was old enough to go to the mines, they wisely said that I must first finish my education. And then it was all about running and I never did become a miner!
“I had been walking or running 16km to school every day then another 16km home. So I developed a strong base of fitness. I won a local marathon and that attracted the attention of the local club, Hillcrest Villagers.
“They were looking to win the Gunga Din team trophy at Comrades and persuaded me to enter. I was only 19 but thought it would be easy as I was doing 32km each day to school and back.
“In the end I ran a junior record of 6 hrs 10 min and placed in the top 20 but in hindsight it was a mistake to race that distance as a teenager. At that stage I had no coach to guide me.”
Mtolo has happy memories of racing in Cape Town, with wins in 1990 at the Peninsula and Two Oceans 56km Marathons.
“I’m really pleased about the Cape Town Marathon achieving gold label status - the only one in Africa. It’s great to be able to attract top international athletes to our country rather than the other way round and it gives our marathon athletes ‘home ground advantage’.
“I wish that we could have more gold label marathon races in other provinces some day, but for now, it’s great to have Cape Town.”
Mtolo regrets not being able to race internationally until he was 28, when he won two marathon titles in 1992 - at Enschede in Holland and New York.
“I had been invited to New York the year before when they anticipated the return of South Africa to international athletics. So I had an idea of what to expect.
“My wife and I packed some bags of mealie meal in our luggage just in case. I asked the chef at the Hilton Hotel if he could cook it, but he had no idea, so I said to my wife ‘we have a stove and a pot so let’s just cook it in our room.’ Unfortunately this activated the smoke detector and triggered the fire alarm. Fire engines soon arrived and we had to kill the stove and hide it under the bed!
“Fortunately they didn’t discover us but the food wasn’t completely cooked. So we covered the smoke detector with our towels and continued cooking. Everything worked out and the food was exactly what I needed before the race, rather than the fancy hotel food!”
A South African connection also worked in Mtolo’s favour. “I caught sight of (former South African marathon star) Mark Plaatjes at the start. He was living in the USA then but not running New York. He was very encouraging.
“You can win the race if you run the times you’ve been running in South Africa,” he told me.
It was a day which changed the life of Mtolo, who started the ‘Willie Mtolo Athletic Club’ to support local runners, one of whom was three-time Comrades champion, Bongmusa Mthembu.