Three-times Comrades Marathon champion Stephen Muzhingi buries his head in his cupped hands.
He is apparently breaking down. Deep down.
He grimaces, struggling to choke back tears which have already flooded his eyes.
A long pause follows. He is deeply absorbed. Reflecting.
One ought to forgive him. After all, he is still recovering from the pain of losing his wife Erina, who died in February last year.
But, he is not mourning Erina’s death, whose lengthy illness since 2016 took a knock on his performances at the Comrades Marathon, Two Oceans and other global events.
Rather, he is recollecting the events which followed after losing his father back in 1988 when he was still a mere nine-year-old Grade 3 pupil at Shingirirayi Primary School in Sanyati. Muzhingi’s mother, Siyai who would die under his watch in 2011 was forced to leave their homestead by the relatives. Her crime?
“She was accused to have had a hand in my father’s death,” whispers Muzhingi.
He would never see her until he was forced to look for her to help him acquire identification documents to enable him write his Grade 7 examinations.
Predictably, Muzhingi and his siblings dropped out of school in the aftermath of the father’s death and everything that followed.
He and her younger sister were whisked away to Chivhu where they were to help out in tending livestock and maintaining their uncle’s plot.
“It was hard seeing my age-mates going to school while I was tending livestock at such a young age.
“I ended up also herding neighbours’ cattle for a fee. My uncle (father’s brother) had already told us that he couldn’t afford to pay tuition for us so we had to be at his plot while he stayed in Harare.
“It was very hard but as a young boy, I didn’t know what that exactly meant.”
It took the then headmaster at Mashambamuto Primary School, a Mr Zvaita to rescue the boy who
would grow up to beat the worst imaginable odds on his way to the top.
“I had a bicycle rim known as jenjere in village lingo which I had been given by my mother when we were still in Sanyati. So this headmaster always saw me driving it in full speed and for long distances.
One day he approached me and offered to pay my fees provided I would in return do piece jobs for him including travelling for more than 51 kilometres to and from Chivhu Centre to buy him fuel.
“I gladly accepted and that is how I returned to class. I would do the piece jobs and always run for the 51 kilometres or so to and from Chivhu Centre. That is how I managed to complete my primary education.”
By the time Muzhingi finished his Grade 7, he was already a cult hero in the whole Mashonaland East province for his long-distance running prowess, thanks to the 51-kilometre fuel-buying routines to Chivhu which most certainly helped him build endurance.
But it was always going to be tough for the poor boy graduating from secondary school.
“I was contemplating dropping out. My ‘contract’ with the primary school headmaster had expired. I had to find ways of raising my own school fees. “This is how I started entering races including the Dairibord Cross-country. “Fortunately, I was winning and I managed to raise my school fees including that of my young sister. I even paid for my examination fees from the money raised from winning these events.”
But fate would always try to derail him.
After a brief stint with the Air Force of Zimbabwe Athletics Club in 1997, Muzhingi joined Renco Mine.
It was during his stay at Renco Mine that his athletics career was almost cut short after he was bitten by a venomous black mamba.
“I just remembered waking up at Parirenyatwa Hospital about three weeks later with a doctor looking over my bed. He (doctor) asked if I was a sportsperson as he revealed only sportspersons would have their bodies withstanding such venom…”
Traumatized, Muzhingi wanted to return to Chivhu but two of the greatest athletes to emerge from this country, Callisto Chiromo and Esau Magwaza took him under their wings at ZRP Support Unit Club.
With a special rehabilitation programme to follow, Muzhingi slowly rediscovered himself. Meanwhile, besides his training schedules he had become a barber at the camp working for Chiromo.
It was not until he claimed a silver medal at the Africa University Marathon that another renowned athlete Samson Dingane advised him to try highly-paying South African events.
Savages Half-Marathon was up next in Durban on May 26, 2004.
Muzhingi decided to tempt fate.
He got stranded on his arrival in Johannesburg for two days.
“I literally became a destitute. I would have returned home but I had no money on me.”
Luckily, he met two Zimbabwean runners Moses Njodzi and Malvern Paradza who were on their way to Durban as well. The pair quickly contacted Durban-based South African coach Cliff Chinasami and asked him to buy an extra ticket lying that one of the then highly-rated marathon stars Kelvin Pangiso had just joined them.
“I was so upset to see the three minus Pangiso yet they had misled me to believe they were coming with him. They arrived with a nobody (Muzhingi) instead,” said Chinasami.
Muzhingi clocked 14th place having been begrudgingly entered on Pangiso’s ticket much to the dismay of Chinasami.
“I was so disappointed with how Muzhingi performed. However, I picked some positives and I decided to start drilling him,” Chinasami added.
However the Zimbabwean runner would come out 115th in his debut Comrades Marathon in 2005.
Chinasami decided to be patient with him.
And in 2009, Muzhingi did not only win the world’s most challenging marathon but also became the second fastest runner in the history of the event, coming home in 5:23:27.
He successfully defended the crown in 2010 and would also become the first black athlete to win the “up-run” Comrades when he retained the title in 2011.
The year that followed, he would also grace the podium, this time around winning the Two Oceans Marathon, becoming the first Zimbabwean to score a Comrades hattrick and adding a Two Oceans to the haul in consecutive years.
His life changed drastically. Now Muzhingi is an owner of five houses in Harare and Chitungwiza among other properties.
Muzhingi knows there are several raw gems out there and is investing towards the development of grassroots talent.
“I am starting an academy to help out youngsters,” he said.
But in the meantime, he is already preparing for the Comrades Marathon and the Two Oceans which were both cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 41-year old believes he can once again post his name on top of both events’ boards next year, now that he has fully recovered mentally from the pain of losing his better half and physically from a nagging injury.