7 Marathons, 7 Continents, 7 Days
In February, Nontu Mgabhi became the first African woman to run the World Marathon Challenge (seven marathons on all seven continents in consecutive days). We found out how she managed such a daunting feat – and what motivated her to even try.
I was born in a deep rural village called Mseleni. Growing up there helped me develop the heart for social justice. And although I live in a suburb now, I honestly still see myself as a rural girl – I see myself reflected in all the girls from the village.
This is perhaps the reason I ran the World Marathon Challenge; my motivation was to raise R3.5 million for 657 underprivileged children from the deep rural village of Dukuduku in Mtubatuba, KZN. When I saw the learning conditions they are subjected to, I immediately saw myself in them, and I felt the need to pay it forward – to improve their school infrastructure, and inspire them in all ways possible.
I am so fortunate that the universe made it possible for me to get scholarships and all the other financial aid that enabled me to ascend the many ‘mountains’ I faced when I was growing up – to study up to Master’s level, and become a registered psychologist. I am forever grateful to the people who supported me and took many chances on me.
I’m now General Manager of Human Resources at Richards Bay Coal Terminal. (In 2017, Nontu made history when at 30, she became the youngest executive ever appointed at the Terminal.)
My wish is that we hear many more stories of breaking new ground and rising against all odds – although my biggest wish is to close the gap between the rich and the poor. Genius is equally distributed, but opportunities aren’t.
It’s for this reason I started a project called Go Beyond for a Child. This initiative aims to give children from rural villages a fair chance at success, by providing them with a decent learning environment. I do this through running long, tough footraces, to raise funds for them. I am blessed to be able to marry my two passions: education and running.
Mountains, Roads, Gravel… and Ice
Prior to the World Marathon Challenge, I’d completed three 100-miler (160km) races. Two of them were trail races (the Karkloof 100-miler) that I had to finish within 36 hours, and the other was the African Centurion Walk – walking 160km in 24 hours.
I’ve also summited Kilimanjaro, and done a number of stage races. Plus I’ve completed five Comrades Marathons, to go with the over 50 marathons since my first 10km in 2013.
But I’d never trained for, or in, a place like Antarctica. So I visualised what Antarctica would be like, and I practised mantras that would help me deal mentally with its difficulties.
Bad weather in Antarctica meant the race director had to come up with a plan quickly – he managed to get hold of a Russian military aircraft, operated by Russians who had experience in such conditions. For the other continents, we used one dedicated private charter plane.
“Inspired by Nelson Mandela’s quote ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done’, I was willing to fail – at least I would have failed while taking action.”
Over the seven days, we flew almost eighty hours. The only time we could sleep was when we flew from one continent to the next. I only showered three times – we were pressed for time. My main recovery was stretching, drinking water and eating a lot. And laughing a lot.
I draw inspiration from athletes like Brigid Kosgei and Gerda Steyn – and my coach, Prodigal Khumalo. I enjoyed watching Brigid’s incredible performance when she smashed the record for fastest marathon at the Chicago Marathon: 2 hours, 14 minutes, four seconds. She was utterly incredible.
Gerda Steyn is also such a phenomenal and talented ultramarathon athlete. She thrilled me the most when she set the Comrades Marathon ‘Up’ run record in 2019 in 5:58.53, becoming the first woman to finish under six hours for that race. I fantasise about meeting her in person, and going for a short run (for fun!) with her.
Running this event has changed my perspective on what’s possible. I’ve come to the conclusion that many things we think are impossible are in fact inviting us to do them – waiting for us to make them possible.
The Challenge also opened my eyes to how ‘the world is one country’ – that all humankind are my brethren, and how doing good should be a way of life. I was amazed at how similar the participants were to each other, despite our vastly different backgrounds. Next time you think you’re ‘too different’ to someone else… think again.
And I was humbled that a majority of the participants were also running for a cause. Some of the causes really moved my heart.
I don’t think my life will ever be the same again. This challenge transformed my soul. I didn’t expect to claim fourth position in the Challenge, because my focus was not to race but to endure. So I feel proud of the result. And I sustained absolutely no injuries.
I feel blessed!
Ed’s note: The World Marathon Challenge involves running in Novo (Antarctica) and is followed by marathons in Cape Town (Africa), Perth (Australia), Dubai (Asia), Madrid (Europe), Fortaleza (South America) and Miami (North America).