It was the winter of 1999 and I had turned 25 with only two years road running experience.

I had just ran and finished my first Soweto Marathon in 1998 as a member of Zonkizizwe Running Club and full of confidence that I could easily run the Comrades Marathon. But I was not happy with my time of 3:22.34. And so I decided to use the Wally Hayward Marathon in Centurion to qualify for the biggest race in Southern Africa. I duly did, completing the marathon in an impressive sub-three hours time.

And, armed with nothing more than youthful ambition - plus my good marathon times of course - I took my bags and headed for KwaZulu Natal.

My sister Thobile bought me an air ticket to Durban and the excitement of boarding an aeroplane for the first time was immense. What I didn’t know was what Comrades had in store for me.

There was the excitement of mingling with all the other athletes at the race exhibition centre and getting those goody bags and the race number.

Although I had trained well for the race, I was a bit nervous. I used to start training at 7am and would come back home in the afternoon. I was doing a lot of road running without proper knowledge about what I was doing. I had no coach.

I remember sitting in front of the fireplace with old and experienced runners the night before the race. Some of them were telling me I was too quick to run Comrades. Others told me I would die if I ran too fast. And there were those who even expressed pity for me, telling me I had essentially bit more than I could chew.

Incredibly, there was no one willing to take me aside and offer some brotherly advice that I should focus on the short and middle distances before rushing into ultra marathons.

I wasn’t even told I had covered too much mileage in May when I should have tapered down. Boy, did I pound those roads.

Tired of hearing only negativity and my tummy filled to the brim from the pap and inkomazi I’d had for dinner, I went to bed.

The following morning I woke up at 3am to prepare for an all-day job. I spoke to the Lord, asking him to help me finish. Because it was an up-run I wore a cap so as not to see the hills ahead. I finished in 9:20.33, a bronze medal on debut. The lasting memory, though, is of a 68-year-old man from PE crying after failing to make the then 11 hours cut-off. Heartbreaking.

It took me a week to recover from the post-race aches and pains. But I was looking good in my Comrades tracksuit and T-shirts and loved the attention they got me, one who’d done the bugger.

The incredible thing about Comrades is that once you do it, you keep wanting to go back even after hearing of people who died there.

I went to three more after 1999. I got a silver medal in 2000, a Bill Rowan in 2001 and bronze in 2002.

And then I started paying for it all, suffering knee pains that forced me to quit running, the doctor telling me I’d over-run my body and hadn’t given it enough rest. To this day, I still struggle with knee pain.

I won all my medals except the last one on the simple diet of sour milk, pap and water plus the occasional energy drink provided at the race.

Looking back, I wonder what one could have achieved with the kind of training and medical and nutritional support enjoyed by athletes today. I am very happy with my medals, though, and I hope they will inspire my children and grandchildren to run the Ultimate Human Race.

* Mbongiseni Buthelezi is a freelance sports reporter for The Star

The Star