On a cool spring morning in September 2016, Dani Smith pulled into the Engen Service Station in Woodmead. He was looking forward to filling up quickly and getting back home after visiting his local garden nursery. Dani Smith is a Comrades runner – and was easy to identify as such because, like most of his ilk, he proudly wore his Comrades race shirt as standard weekend attire.
The petrol pump attendant took a keen interest in the shirt and struck up a conversation. Dani was more than happy to go into the finer details of his fifth Comrades finish, speaking proudly of his best Comrades yet – where he knocked almost two hours off his previous best time and narrowly missed out on a sub-nine-hour Bill Rowan medal by two minutes.
The petrol pump attendant told Dani, “join me on one of my long runs if you want to get a Bill Rowan medal next year” and gave Dani his number. Dani thought this was a good idea “but then I found out his pace which was much too fast for me!”
If you’re a regular customer at this busy petrol station, it’s almost certain you’ve been served by a friendly petrol pump attendant with “Charles” emblazoned on his smart red and blue uniform. Charles worked the forecourt of the Engen Woodmead from 2005 to 2018, 12 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week.
Thousands of Engen Woodmead customers have been fortunate enough to have their tanks filled, windows washed, tyres pumped and oil checked by cheerful Charles – and if you pulled-in wearing a running shirt you would probably have been lucky enough to have a similar, memorable conversation.
On the 9th of June Charles is aiming to win a gold medal at Comrades – the oldest, largest and most competitive ultra marathon in the word. Charles has a habit of making memorable impressions. This is his story.
In 2016, Charles’ brother told him, “stop messing around and do something with your life” and that ‘something’ was to join him running. A short while later Charles found himself at the start line of the double-lap Benoni Northerns Robor Marathon, inexperienced but full of confidence. The marathon is held in late April and is one of the final Comrades qualification races.
It took just a few kilometres for Charles to rubbish the theory that it’s better to arrive at the start line “undertrained and over-rested”. He could only manage one lap – and, after a lot of walking, limped off the course at the halfway mark with swollen legs and experiencing pain unlike any anything he’d ever felt before.
Undeterred, Charles focussed on his training, setting his sights on the Soweto Marathon in November. This is one of the few single-lap marathons in Gauteng so there was no pulling out at the halfway mark – not that the sanctuary of a halfway house exit was needed. Charles’ talent was starting to show as he steamed home in 2h52 over one of the toughest marathon courses in the country.
Charles returned to Benoni at the beginning of 2017 for the first marathon on the Johannesburg calendar – the Benoni Harriers Johnson Crane. With 14,000 runners across the various events, Johnson Crane is the largest running event in Gauteng in the first half of the year. Over 4,000 runners took part in the marathon but only five finished ahead of Charles who crossed the line in 2h35.
His next event was the Edenvale Marathon. He managed to take the lead early on and held it all the way until the 35km mark, eventually finishing third in 2h34. A new marathon PB and first podium should be something to celebrate but unfortunately his morning ended in disappointment when he was told that he could not win prize money since he was running in a temporary license*.
* In 2017 a silly new rule was introduced that you had to be a club licensed athlete to run marathons. The rule was subsequently rescinded in 2018.
Uncoached and unlicensed, but brim-full of talent, Charles needed a lucky break and found one on a dusty road between Pretoria and Woodmead. Charles was doing one of his ‘long runs’ from Pretoria to his job in Woodmead when he met another runner, Ntja Mapheelle, along the way. Luckily Ntja was able to keep up with Charles long enough to chat and was impressed by his dedication and talent. Ntja took Charles’ number and told him that he would give him a call once he’d found Charles a coach.
Ntja went away, did some digging and called in some favours. A few weeks later Ntja phoned with some fantastic news, not only had he found Charles a coach, he got him an audition with John Hamlett, the man Official Comrades Coach Lindsey Parry calls “The most successful Comrades coach of all time.”*
* John Hamlett, aka the Colonel Coach, has 57 Comrades gold medals, 5 winners and the current “Down” record on his coaching CV. He’s also the only person to have coached both a male and female Comrades winner.
Audition successful, Charles was incorporated into the TomTom elite team as part of John Hamlett’s stable of athletes – and quickly earned the nickname ‘The Dark Horse’ from his team mates. His first Comrades in 2017 was a lot more successful than his marathon debut – finishing 44th in an excellent time of 6h20 (by comparison, reigning Comrades champ Bongmusa Mthembu’s 2006 debut was 6h25).
Charles was pumping petrol 12 hours day – and pumping his high-octane legs around the Johannesburg streets in whatever free time he had in-between. He was assisted by Engen who supported their talented attendant with encouragement and some small incentives.
Charles’ friendly nature and growing success as a distance athlete meant that he was building up a small but passionate fanbase. One of these was Emmanuel Isabwa, a member of the Entsika cycling team. Charles said of the meeting, “I was filling up his BMW when l saw a Comrades Marathon license disc sticker. I asked him ‘Do you run Comrades?’, he said ‘No I’m a cyclist but my wife runs.’ Then he asked me ‘Do you run?’ l told him ‘Yes – and l train with champions!’ – and Emmanuel became very interested in my story.”
When Entsika was discussing the addition of a running section to their existing sporting clubs, Emmanuel remembered his encounter with Charles and told Entsika founder and director Zakhele Mkhize (himself a 5 times Comrades finisher) about the fastest petrol pump attendant in the southern hemisphere. Zakhele’s immediate response was , “I want him for our team!”
Early in 2018, Charles received a phone call from Zakhele offering him an ‘all-costs covered, sponsored runner’ slot on the newly formed Entsika Athletics Club. Most of us would jump at this opportunity but Charles’ first response was, “I have to talk to my coach.” followed by the suggestion, “Why don’t you take my teammates too?”
Zakhele told me that he asked around about John Hamlett and was told that, “He’s a tough customer and a difficult person to deal with”, so it was with some trepidation that he approached the meeting with John to discuss a talent transfer. The warnings, however, were completely unnecessary. Zakhele and John immediately hit it off as they had a common interest in the growth and development of road running.
The ‘Entsika holistic athlete development model’ was exactly what John was after for his athletes, most of whom were about to become free agents as their current sponsor, TomTom, had just announced that they were pulling out of the country.
A thus powerful new force on the South African roads had just been born – the Entsika Elite Athletics Team – and all because of a humble petrol pump attendant who made lasting impressions on his customers!
Entsika’s company motto is, “Driven by a desire to make a difference” – a worthy aspiration and one that they certainly live up to in the way they support their athletes. The vast majority of the Entsika athletes are now employed by the company. Speaking at the Entsika Comrades team launch, Zakhele said, “We want to ensure that there is sustainable career development, like artisan training, for our athletes so that they have a career to fall back on once their running days are over.”
Charles was a direct beneficiary of these admirable upliftment practices. When Zakhele asked him what his vocational interests were, Charles mentioned that he was pursuing a Health and Safety qualification part-time. Entsika quickly offered him a permanent position at the company and paid for him to continue his studies at one of the top training institutes in the country. Charles is now just one exam away from being a fully certified Health and Safety Officer.
And Entsika’s values rub off on their staff members as well. When I asked Charles what it was like working there, a broad smile beamed across his face as he told me, “Entsika is a very good company, they change people’s lives. I’ve got direction and I’m able to focus on my running as well as providing for my family. When I’m done running, I’m a Health and Safety Officer.” Adding that, “They (Entsika) teach us to help people who are in need – like if you’ve got a neighbour with no food or clothes. They’ve helped us from point zero to give structure and support.”
The Entsika team, which includes 2015 Comrades winner Gift Kelehe, are all humble but confident – a lethal combination. When asked about his 2019 Comrades goal, Charles took a deep breath, focussed and said, “A gold medal, hopefully top five” and I could see him visualising the moment in his mind, the pay-off of over 750 hours of training.
Turning the conversation onto lighter subjects I asked Charles who his favourite athlete is, to which his immediate response was “Caster Semenya”. But he was a little cagier when I asked him if he had a Comrades hero – giving me a coy look and muttered something about “Bongmusa – but he’s our rival on the 9th of June.”
Charles’ biggest fans are his two daughters, age three and nine, but he also has some vociferous support on the Engen Woodmead forecourt. I recently popped over there, causing some consternation when I asked, “Can I speak to the manager.” However, Aldoff Ncube quickly relaxed when I told him that it was Charles I came to speak about.
Aldoff told me that when Charles started running from his home in Libro Park (about 8km away) to work they thought it was “a bit of a joke” but they took him more seriously when he started running from Pretoria to work (approximately 50km away). In 2017, the company granted Charles three months special leave so that he could go to Dullstroom for John Hamlett’s renowned Comrades training camp and Aldoff commented on the result, “Unfortunately he didn’t win – but he did very well.”
If you chat to his former colleagues, they’ll unanimously tell you Charles is “a very good guy”, “humble”, “focussed” and “like a brother”. Charles regularly pops into his previous workplace to spend some time with his former colleagues – especially since his lovely wife, Zanele, still works there as a cashier.
Charles Mkhonto has a habit of making memorable impressions on people. Dani Smith remembered a conversation he had with an enthusiastic petrol attendant three years ago. Ntja Mapheelle shared a few kilometres on the road with Charles and found him the most successful Comrades coach in the country. And recreational cyclist Emmanuel Isabwa remembered the super-fast petrol jockey, which connected Charles to Entsika, which in turn resulted in the birth of a new elite running club.
Keep a look out for the navy blue and white vests of the Entsika athletes. At around lunchtime on the 9th of June, there are likely to be several storming the finish line in Pietermaritzburg. Share in their glory as they triumphantly raise their arms to celebrate a top ten gold medal finish. Pay special attention to a friendly bearded face that spent 13 years working in a Woodmead forecourt. As ‘The Dark Horse’ gallops into the stadium and the commentators say, “Charles Mkhonto? Who’s Charles Mkhonto?”, you’ll know that there is only one race and one place on the planet where a story like his can unfold – the Comrades Marathon in South Africa.Follow Running Mann: