JOHANNESBURG - In most circles, Charles Mkhonto would be regarded as arrogant. Yet, far from being cocky, Mkhonto is simply a man who believes in his abilities. And he is not afraid to vocalise it, sometimes to his teammates’ irritation.
He was regaling us with his short, yet pretty good, running history when Thabiso Bontsi - his teammate at Entsika Athletics Club - interjected: “You can’t count that because you were disqualified.”
The retort from Mkhonto was classic: “But the fact is that I was number two in that race (the Sarens Marathon in Edenvale), the disqualification was merely for using a temporary licence.”
We are in Dullstroom at Entsika’s training camp, sitting in front of the pool on a cool morning and the runners are talking about their readiness for the Comrades Marathon, or as they call it, the ‘Big C’.
While many of them speak humbly about their goals, Mkhonto makes bold pronouncements that would leave an uninformed observer thinking he is the most experienced of the lot and probably the oldest given his beard.
He is, actually, the least experienced in the group, the 34-year-old going only for his second race having made his debut last year. And what a debut it was. Coach John Hamlett had proclaimed him the dark horse and actually believed he had what it took to win. He finished 44th in a time of 6:20:13 - pretty pedestrian for an elite but mightily impressive for a debutant. But he sets very high goals for himself does Mkhonto and he looks back at last year’s run with disappointment.
“I could have done much better hey. I was aiming to win but then I had some pain on my side and all I wanted to do was finish. I am fully fit now and I am aiming to finish the race in 5.30. Anything is possible. I believe I am the dark horse for this race. I can win it.
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“I am training with the champions here and that is really great motivation for me. I’ve seen it in the training that I can stick with them and I will do so at the race. They must just not make the mistake of letting me go. Once they leave me, I’m gone. They will never catch me.”
And he knows when to pounce. “A lot of the runners are good in the 42km (marathon) and 50km. After that many tend to struggle. So from the 70km mark the strong men start moving and I will be there with them.”
That he is tackling the Down Run that is generally regarded as very tough given its demands on the body, particularly the upper legs, for the first time does not scare Mkhonto.
“I believe the training I’ve done here will be good for me to withstand the pressure. My man, this place is harsh and gruesome. I can’t come here for two months and not achieve anything.”
Inspired by David Gatebe’s record-breaking win in 2016 to seriously take up running, Mkhonto said he was in awe when he arrived at the camp last year after Hamlett spotted his talent.
“I couldn’t believe it when I met him (Gatebe). And when I ran with him and I was coping, I really grew in confidence and that’s why I went to last year’s race believing I could do well. That didn’t happen but I can tell you now, I am the dark horse.”