by Stephen Granger
When Nontuthuko Mgabhi lines up in October at one of the world’s most gruelling footraces – the Marathon des Sables ( the Marathon of the Sands) – a multi-day stage race across 250km of scorching sands in the Sahara Desert in Morocco, she won’t only be racing for herself. She’ll also be racing for a bunch of kids back home in South Africa.
The general manager of human resources at Richards Bay Coal Terminal Nontuthuko Mgabhi is not your average long-distance runner. Not only does she race impressively on road and trail in the “too busy in career to run as an elite” category, but she returns an immense value to her community as a legacy of her ultra-distance running adventures.
A Masters degree in industrial and organisational psychology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal set her on her career path and, together with her strong family upbringing in rural KwaZulu-Natal (“my parents gave me love, guidance and support in abundance and without measure”), equipped her for a top position in human resources at Richards Bay.
Mgabhi was born in the deep rural village of Mseleni in northern KwaZulu-Natal. “My parents could not afford to provide me and my siblings with a good quality education, due to socio-economic factors,” relates Mgabhi. “But their parenting skills more than compensated for this. My parents have always been my pillar of strength and I regard my mother as my role model. I commenced my formal school career at the age of 4 and, according to my mother, even at that young age I was independent in my approach to life.”
The strong commitment to education by Mgabhi and her seven siblings (six sisters) led to Mgabhi to complete her post-graduate qualification, register as a psychologist and earn a position in senior management at Richards Bay Coal Terminal. All she needed was a vehicle to expand horizons and test her physical ability and she was to find an ideal one in the form of distance running.
Mgabhi started running in 2013 ‘for fun and to stay fit’ but soon discovered that running could offer more than fun and fitness. Eight years later this remarkable woman has conquered many running ‘Everests’, made a significant impact on the lives of thousands of young children and is about to set off on her biggest adventure to date.
“I don’t run for a podium, I run for the love of adventure and of making a difference – specifically raising funds to help children in need of basic school infrastructure,” explains Mgabhi. And running has brought adventure to the 34 year-old KZN athlete, in spades.
Five years after the start of her running career, Mgabhi found herself lining up for the Karkloof 100 miler (one of three she has run over that distance), a race which was to have a lasting impact on her. “Part of the entry fee was going to go towards a feeding scheme run by Southern Lodestar Foundation (SLF),” Mgabhi explained. “After the run SLF asked me to visit one of the schools they were supporting through the provision of nutritious porridge to children.
“From the list they gave me, I chose Khiphinkunzi Primary School because their story resonated with me as a rural village girl myself and also because they are based in Mtubatuba, Dukuduku Village, which is less than an hour’s drive from Richards Bay. Meeting Khiphinkunzi was a match made by the universe indeed.
“When I arrived, I saw just how much the school was in need. In particular, there was a desperate need for basic infrastructure, and I felt I had to do more.”
Mgabhi’s determination to find a way to lend a hand led her to take part in the World Marathon Challenge in early 2020, just weeks before the COVID lockdown, where she ran seven marathons on seven continents in seven days and raised R1.7 million – sufficient to construct five new classrooms with furniture to replace the totally inadequate structures being used by the school.
“We were based in a hotel in Sea Point,” Mgabhi explained. “We ran our first marathon in Cape Town along the Atlantic seaboard. We then flew to Antarctica for the second marathon, without a doubt the hardest of the seven. I had to dig deep to finish the race in gale-force winds. To my surprise I finished 4th…I guess it was tough for everyone.”
The World Marathon Challenge team ran their third marathon in Perth, Australia. In contrast to Antarctica, it proved a relatively comfortable road race, on a flat course and run in cool conditions at night. It was then off to the Asian leg in Dubai, before ticking off Europe (Madrid), South America (Brazil) and finally North America (Miami) for the seventh marathon.
COVID has curtailed Mgabhi’s racing this year, although she raced well at Ultra-trail Drakensberg 62km, moving up after a conservative start to grab a top-twenty position with a strong finish. “Definitely the UTD 62 was a tough challenge,” Mgabhi reflects. “My strategy is to always start easy and build up as I go along. This feels like a natural progress and it’s rewarding to see yourself move forward through a challenge.”
Although Mgabhi’s input had transformed Khiphinkunzi Primary School, she still burned to do more. “Education changes lives. It changed mine, that of my siblings as well as the entire family. It goes to show that genius is equally distributed, unfortunately opportunities are not.
“But education does give one access to opportunities. Hence my wish is that we ‘Leave No Child Behind’. Unfortunately, many children from deep rural villages are out of sight and out of mind, they are not seen, they are forgotten and invisible. We all have to play our part to reach out to them and shine the light that was shone on us.”
Recognising the substantial further needs at Khiphinkunzi, Mgabhi looked for a new challenge and opportunity to fund-raise and discovered the world’s toughest desert footrace – the Marathon des Sables. “Through MDS my goal is to raise R1.1 million to build new toilets and a new administration block,” Mgabhi explains.
“The school is in desperate need of these facilities as currently the principal and twenty staff members all squeeze into one small old classroom, now used as an office. The school has a total of 657 learners, in need of toilets as the old (bathroom) structure raises hygiene concerns”.
In order to secure the funding and prevail against the toughest conditions imaginable at the Marathon des Sables, Mgabhi is hard in training under the watchful eye of her coach and well-known ultra-distance athlete, Prodigal Khumalo.
Regarded as one of the toughest races on the planet, Mgabhi will run for six consecutive days through sand, sand and more sand in heat and wind, with the longest single day of 91 km, in order to complete the challenge.
“For some reason I truly respect MDS,” Mgabhi admits. “Maybe it’s running a race where runners are self-sufficient, each runner carrying a backpack up to 15kg of food, sleeping material and so on. I have never run a stage race where runners are self-sufficient.
“Also running in the desert with extreme heat is a challenge that I respect. MSD is considered the hardest footrace on earth, and I think it truly epitomises the hardship most learners from rural villages still face. Finishing the MSD will send a strong message of hope: Do Not Give Up!”
Finishing MDS will not come easily. Does she have it within her to complete the challenge? One person who believes strongly that she does is her friend and mentor, Elana van Zyl. “ Nontu is one of the most inspirational runners I have ever met,” says Van Zyl.
“She is a talented runner – and has shown enormous determination and resilience, but it is her incredible motivation and drive to empower others that will give her reason and power to stick it out at MDS when things get really tough ! It is one of the toughest events in world – but truly believe Nontu will pull it off”.
Mgabhi feels humbled by her friendship. “Elana is authentic and passionate about running for a cause. She is truly inspirational and passionate about empowering girls and women, and this resonates strongly with me.
“When Elana heard about my world marathon challenge and the school I am supporting, she was generous to include me in her elite only Cape Town Marathon last year. It was truly heart-warming as she said; ‘Nontu, you will be a runner who will run the Cape Town Marathon for something.’
“I then trained hard, as I promised her I would run a personal best time. Thanks to my coach Prodigal, I was able to improve my time by 6 minutes to 3 hrs 20 min.”
Mgabhi has overcome substantial odds in her own life and enjoys a leadership position at Richards Bay Coal Terminal. Why would she not prefer to relax on her couch at home rather than pit herself against some of nature’s most formidable challenges?
“On my death bed, I believe I won’t remember the time I spent lounging at home on my sofa,” Mgabhi reflects. “but I will remember memories I created with people, adventures and challenges which I dared to show up for…the lives I have touched and been touched by. Life is also better when you are engaged in an activity. It’s good for my wellbeing. In life you’ve got to love something a lot and running is that something for me!”
Anyone wishing to support Nontuthuko Mgabhi in her desert challenge should contact her on [email protected].