Born in Bulwer, outside Durban, Mthembu, last Sunday’s Comrades Marathon winner was raised in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands and his rural surroundings forced him to use the most basic form of transport – his legs.
“I walked long distances from a young age, which made me strong,” he says.
During those long walks, Mthembu would often break into a jog, and by the age of 10 he was running regularly, developing the endurance base that would one day make him one of the most feared ultra-distance runners in the world.
It should come as no surprise, considering where he lives, that when Mthembu decided to take up distance running as a sport, his first goal was to compete in the annual Comrades Marathon.
And with legs of steel, strengthened by the dirt roads surrounding his rural home, combined with a talent for long-distance running, Mthembu did not simply want to take part. Even at a young age, he knew he could win the prestigious 89km race.
“When I started running my first dream was to win Comrades,” he says.
“I fully understood how tough it would be and that it could take me more than 10 years to reach my dream, but I knew as long as I worked hard I could make it.”
Having paid his dues in eight previous attempts at the race, Mthembu’s dream became a reality last week as he surged clear ahead of the Cowie’s Hill descent and tore away from the field to win the race.
It was the culmination of a disadvantaged upbringing, years of hard work and the crucial force that drives any Comrades victor – the will-to-win; a steely determination to keep fighting when everything within the body and mind is screaming for the athlete to stop.
“Now that I’ve done it, it feels awesome. I prayed for this victory and my prayers have been answered,” he says.
Mthembu has proved his ability on the “down” run, securing four gold medals, but he is yet to shine on the “up” run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, achieving a best placing of 12th in 2011.
Having become the first man from KwaZulu-Natal to win the Comrades Marathon since Shaun Meiklejohn in 1995, he now wants to be the first South African to win the race in both directions since Bruce Fordyce grabbed his ninth victory in 1990.
At the age of 31, under the guidance of former New York Marathon winner Willie Mtolo who has coached him since October, Mthembu feels he has a lot left in the tank.
“Until now the ‘down’ has worked for me and I still have to prove myself in the ‘up’ run, but if I listen to my coach and work hard, I know I can do it.”
Having been raised with few privileges, Mthembu does not yearn for fame or fortune, but he does hope his running achievements and the financial incentives that go with it will help him provide for his nine-year-old son and his girlfriend.
“This Comrades victory is going to change my life but I didn’t do this because I wanted to be famous.
“I want to be a real man with a house, cars and a wife. I want to provide for my family.
“And I still want to achieve more. I want to run abroad and also give back to the sport by assisting young athletes, especially in rural areas.
“I want to help the next generation of stars reach their dreams like I did.”