Behind every successful sporting champion‘s journey is a story of adversity that has served as the fuel to them reaching the great heights that they have. Ntsindiso Mphakathi is no different.
On Sunday, November 5 when he entered the FNB Stadium – running at a fast pace of just over three minutes per kilometre - to realise his long-held dream of winning the African Bank Soweto Marathon, Mphakathi had flashbacks to those tough days when he was ridiculed for being ‘slow’.
“I got emotional as I approached the finish,” the man they fondly refer to as Tata explains “I had a lot of things on my mind. I thought of the struggles that I endured in the past.”
And among those struggles were those from his schooling days.
“Back when I was studying, my struggles were hard. You see, I was a slow learner at school. And when we wrote tests I used to always be the last one to finish. Often the teachers would give me extra time to finish my tests and that made me the laughing stock of the other kids. The thing was it took me long to understand what I was reading and to then come up with the answers.”
As if his struggles were not enough, Mphakathi’s biological father died when he was 15.
“He was the only one who worked in the family and when he died in 2005 things became very bad for us. So I was forced (by the circumstances) to help out and I ended up being a garden boy sometimes just so that we could get something for the family to eat. Those were tough times, but as I ran towards the finish and I thought of them, I realised that they helped to build the perseverance that eventually led to me winning this race.”
Having moved to Soweto from Tyityane in the Eastern Cape to live with his uncle and some members of his family following his father’s death, Mphakathi tried to enrol at the renowned Daliwonga Secondary School in Dube but was told he was too old.
“They sent me to Junior near Ikhwezi which was very far from where I lived. So I used to run to school daily. School started at 8am and if I left home after half past seven I would definitely be late so there could be no walking. And this happened almost daily. I would fold my school shirt and put it in my bag and run wearing just the vest on top and my school trousers which I folded at the bottom from home. I ran in school shoes – those ones called Toughees,” he chuckles “I would get to school wet and would miss the assembly and the announcements as I tried to dry myself up before classes began.”
The Toughees are not made for running though, and pretty soon Mphakathi found out just why.
“In the end I developed very bad blisters on my feet because of running in wrong shoes and they got very painful and I ended up limping my way to school.”
Sprinting to glory
There was no limping to the finish last Sunday though, Mphakathi sprinting his way to glory in a race that had previously shown him dust at the same place each time he tried. He had four top-10 finishes before this year’s resounding victory which saw him become the first South African man to win the race since Michael Mazibuko’s victory back in 2011.
His best finish was a third place in 2017, Mphakathi having made an impressive full marathon debut as a matric student back in 2014 with a ninth place finish. He was fifth last year, with his other top ten placing being eighth in 2019.
In each of those years, his dreams of glory turned into a nightmare just after the 34km mark.
“This race used to beat me at the same spot,” Mphakathi reflects during our interview over lunch at a restaurant in Steyn City “All these years it was smashing me at Puto (terminus), just after the flats (residential apartments).”
The spot he is speaking about often marks the end of many a runner’s goals for the race. It is steep incline at about the 34km mark just before the turn into Main Reef Road which is notorious for reducing most to walking.
He trained hard and had a foolproof game plan that saw him ascend that hill first and holding on to his lead to beat off the challenge of defending champion Daba Ifa Debele of Ethiopia.
Written in the stars
Incredibly though, Mphakathi says he was supposed to have won the Soweto Marathon a long time ago.
“I should have been champion in 2015 but I chickened out of the race even though I had really prepared well for it. I was working with Coach Claude (Moshiywa, the 2013 Comrades marathon winner) and he got me training at Trip 17 near Nasrec on a loop that he got me doing five laps on for a 20km distance. I did that in one hour 13 minutes and he was confident that after repeating that on two occasions I would be in great shape to win Soweto. But then towards the race we both got cold feet and we decided that I should rather do the Heroes Marathon in Mthatha. I won that race easily in 2:16 And I was at the Soweto Marathon, watching as a spectator, when the Ethiopian guy (Sintayehu Legese Yinesu) won it in 2:20 (2:23:). We were both kicking ourselves for not having trusted our initial instincts about the training we’d put in.”
There were no such doubts this time around though and his efforts bore fruit as Mphakathi smashed the competition for a glorious victory that sees him now looking back at those tough times from the earlier years with a smile.
“Those experiences made me stronger. And I knew that because I was not great with the books, I could make a living out of running.”