South Coast’s ‘Tiger’ makes Comrades history

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Quintin van Jaarsveld

Zwelitsha Gono wrote his name in the annals of South African athletics history when he became the first black athlete ever to obtain 40 Comrades Marathon medals on Sunday.

The evergreen 63-year-old South Coast Striders legend cut it rather close in this year’s 89-kilometre down run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban as the 12-hour cut off threatened to spoil his milestone.

However, “Tiger” as he’s affectionately known, showed the heart and remarkable running prowess that have characterised his extra-ordinary career to cross the finish line in 11:50:41, earning a Vic Clapham medal and cementing himself in Comrades history.

“It was such a special feeling to cross the finish line,” Gono told eHowzit from his Transkei home on Wednesday. “It was like a dream…I couldn’t believe it. Even now, I still can’t believe I’ve made history.

“To be the first black athlete to win 40 medals is a huge honour. I’m so happy and excited that I still don’t feel the after effects of the race.”

Gono said he’s far from pleased with his time, but added it mattered little in the grander scheme of things.

“It’s my worst time ever. I was very slow because I didn’t prepare as thoroughly as I would’ve liked. I feared I might not make it, so despite it being a bad time, I enjoyed the run and I’m very happy that I managed to finish.”

He set the goal of completing 40 Comrades in 2005 when he was honoured with the Old Mutual Spirit of Comrades award, an accolade awarded to a maximum of three individuals per year for embodying the true spirit of the Comrades Marathon and for being an inspiration to humanity.

“I promised the Comrades Marathon Association that I’d do 40 and I’ve fulfilled my promise,” a pleased Gono said.

Gono fell in love with running in 1968, when he ran for his school in the 1500m and 5000m disciplines. “As soon as I started running, it got into my blood and nerves,” he said.

He then specialised in the 5000m and won a Midlands title in 1972, and went on to made his Comrades debut as a 21-year-old the following year.

He’s now one of just 14 athletes to have obtained 40 or more Comrades medals in the 91-year history of the Ultimate Human Race.

His permanent race number is 1180 and his fastest time was six hours and 13 minutes, which earned him a 20th overall finish and a silver medal.

His astonishing Comrades collection consists of 14 silver medals, one Bill Rowan medal, 21 bronze medals and four Vic Clapham medals.

Far removed from high tech training facilities and a world of specialised nutrition, Gono’s self-devised training regimen sees him run 10km on weekday mornings. He’s unsure of the distance he covers over weekends, he knows simply he runs for two-and-a-half hours.

Rather than envy the luxurious top-class training other athletes enjoy, “Tiger” says his humble mountainous training has shaped him into the powerful and strong-willed runner he is today.

“I live in a very rural area surrounded by mountains. I run up and down the mountains, that’s why I’m so strong,” he said.

Fresh off his historic feat, Gono says he’s new goal is to reach the 45-medal mark.

“I will specialise in up runs from now on, so I will be there next year and every second year after that until I get my 45th medal.”

Wayne Wridgway, running captain of the Uvongo-based Striders, hailed Gono as a boundary-breaking athlete.

“Tiger truly is my hero and one of the most humble yet incredible and dedicated participants in Comrades history,” Wridgway told eHowzit.

“I watched him at Hillcrest where he was running with quite a big crowd. I think runners latched onto him because he’s such a prominent figure, and I made a huge fuss when he passed us.

“He’s just a machine and I couldn’t be prouder of him.”

After cheering Gono on in Hillcrest, Wridgway returned home where he watched the remainder of the race on television. He followed Gono’s progress via the Comrades tracking service and admits it was an anxious wait.

“I saw him at the last cut off point with about 20 minutes to go and thought to myself ‘he could walk and still make it’, but he didn’t come, didn’t come, didn’t come and I thought ‘what is going on?’ but he obviously knew what he was doing with all of his experience.”

Wridgway added Gono’s an inspiration to all of his fellow runners.

“He’s a kind and friendly man who sits after races answering hundreds of questions from fellow runners just longing to obtain some of his vital running advise and knowledge and always tells us stories about our club and founder members and inspiring each one of us to dig deeper and try harder in everything we do.

“He once told me that he joined South Coast Striders because it was one of the first five clubs in South Africa to open their doors to black athletes to recognise their abilities and for that reason he says he’ll never leave this club for any other. I hope that we do him proud in the way we run our club today.”

Another major moment for the Striders was the dynamic debut of multi-time club champion Michael Mzobe.

The short-distance star had no ambition to complete the Comrades. Instead, he set out to lead the race by speeding through the first 30km and appear on television, and he accomplished all of those goals.

“It was a very special race,” the 27-year-old told eHowzit. “It was very hard for me because I ran at full speed the whole way [30km]. I wanted to put the South Coast Striders on the map and I feel I did that – now everyone knows the Striders come out hard.”

Mzobe said he plans to run up to the halfway point of the race next year and will then decide whether he’ll make a run at the full race distance in 2018.

Wridgway praised Mzobe, saying, “I’m incredibly proud of Michael. He’s potentially one of the best in the country. He’s got such raw talent and natural ability. Watching him is like poetry, he has such a great running style.

“We expected to see him soon after the start because he’s a really fast runner, but to see him in the lead in person was one of the best moments ever. I’m very happy for him.”

Fifty-nine Striders in total were among the some 20 000 athletes from across the globe who participated in the race.

A total of 49 locals finished in the allotted 12 hours, including several novices, and yielded a collective medal haul of one silver, six Bill Rowan, 25 bronze and 17 Vic Clapham medals.

Mthokozisi Cele was the standout Strider this year, securing a silver medal with a stellar time of 07:24:20, while Mavela Nyembezi, Goodman Nqayi, Maxwell Mpiti, Scelo Shusha, Brother Moyo and Siphiwe Jula bagged Bill Rowan medals.

Former running captain Isak Ludick, Pink Drive runner Deborah Berridge, Lennox Mthengwane, Mthobisi Mgedezi, Chris Mortimer, Alfred Lushaba, Zandile Dunywa, Liezel Dudley, Vusi Vezi, Isaac Madlala, Innocent Thusi, Terry Naidoo, Reshen Sookooram, Fikile Finiza, Yoganathan Appanna, Morgan Moodley, Mark Dunstone, Gary Dunstone, Dylan Bense, Martin Venter, Rakesh Ramdhun, Selvanathan Ramaloo, Cathy Mather-Pike, Xolani Dlangalala and Donnovan Mulder claimed bronze medals.

Earning Vic Clapham medals were Gono, Maxwell Mkhize, Emmanuel Yigwana, Raymaond Gaze, Ivan Govender, Nkosinathi Shonga, Gary Lennon, Fikile Mkutyukelwa, Kerry Farren, Senzeni Ncane, Swalleh Ameer, Mahomed Narath, Anton Rossouw, Freek Stander, Daniel van Niekerk, Bernardt Keudel-Schaffer and Sally-Anne Anthony.

“I’m extremely proud of all our runners. They paced themselves well and can be proud of their achievements,” said Wridgway.

Photos by Michelle Wridgway

Striders results:

CLUB POSITION NAME TIME MEDAL
1 MTHOKOZISI CELE 07:24:20 SILVER
2 MAVELA NYEMBEZI 07:30:04 BILL ROWAN
3 GOODMAN NQAYI 07:32:42 BILL ROWAN
4 MAXWELL MPITI 08:04:15 BILL ROWAN
5 SCELO SHUSHA 08:11:37 BILL ROWAN
6 BROTHER MOYO 08:24:48 BILL ROWAN
7 SIPHIWE JULA 08:25:48 BILL ROWAN
8 LENNOX MTHENGWANE 09:02:43 BRONZE
9 MTHOBISI MGEDEZI 09:10:41 BRONZE
10 CHRISTOPHER MORTIMER 09:22:09 BRONZE
11 ALFRED LUSHABA 09:25:37 BRONZE
12 ZANDILE DUNYWA 09:39:23 BRONZE
13 DEBORAH BERRIDGE 09:43:03 BRONZE
14 ISAK LUDICK 09:43:11 BRONZE
15 LIEZEL DUDLEY 09:58:08 BRONZE
16 VUSI VEZI 10:02:02 BRONZE
17 ISAAC MADLALA 10:17:17 BRONZE
18 INNOCENT THUSI 10:19:14 BRONZE
19 TERRY NAIDOO 10:20:38 BRONZE
20 RESHEN SOOKOORAM 10:20:38 BRONZE
21 FIKILE FINIZA 10:22:08 BRONZE
22 YOGANATHAN APPANNA 10:37:18 BRONZE
23 MORGAN MOODLEY 10:37:43 BRONZE
24 MARK DUNSTONE 10:41:57 BRONZE
25 GARY DUNSTONE 10:41:57 BRONZE
26 DYLAN BENSE 10:42:35 BRONZE
27 MARTIN VENTER 10:43:14 BRONZE
28 RAKESH RAMDHUN 10:43:23 BRONZE
29 SELVANATHAN RAMALOO 10:43:23 BRONZE
30 CATHY MATHER-PIKE 10:48:36 BRONZE
31 XOLANI DLANGALALA 10:49:40 BRONZE
32 DONNOVAN MULDER 10:54:27 BRONZE
33 MAXWELL MKHIZE 11:03:36 VIC CLAPHAM
34 EMMANUEL YIGWANA 11:15:39 VIC CLAPHAM
35 RAYMAOND GAZE 11:27:41 VIC CLAPHAM
36 IVAN GOVENDER 11:32:25 VIC CLAPHAM
37 NKOSINATHI SHONGA 11:43:17 VIC CLAPHAM
38 GARY LENNON 11:43:17 VIC CLAPHAM
39 FIKILE ROBERT MKUTYUKELWA 11:43:54 VIC CLAPHAM
40 KERRY FARREN 11:43:56 VIC CLAPHAM
41 SENZENI NCANE 11:44:41 VIC CLAPHAM
42 SWALLEH AMEER 11:46:36 VIC CLAPHAM
43 MAHOMED NARATH 11:46:36 VIC CLAPHAM
44 ZWELITSHA “TIGER” GONO 11:50:41 VIC CLAPHAM
45 ANTON ROSSOUW 11:52:02 VIC CLAPHAM
46 FREEK STANDER 11:52:02 VIC CLAPHAM
47 DANIEL VAN NIEKERK 11:52:02 VIC CLAPHAM
48 BERNARDT KEUDEL-SCHAFFER 11:53:08 VIC CLAPHAM
49 SALLY-ANNE ANTHONY 11:57:02 VIC CLAPHAM

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