The tall, muscular figure running into Durban’s Sahara Kingsmead Stadium almost gets lost amongst all the other shapes and sizes, but there is something about the look on this man’s face and the way he beats his chest that makes you look twice. Sibusiso Buthelezi, a runner from Johannesburg Harriers Athletic Club, is not only finishing his very first Comrades Marathon, he is also proving that determination can make you realise your dreams. Who would have guessed that merely two years ago, this man was 50kg heavier, weighing in at an astounding 143kg? This is the story of one man’s transformation from ‘fat boy’ to Bill Rowan medallist.
It is 3:30 in the morning. Sibu, as he is known to his friends, is suddenly wide awake and lies silently in the dark. That’s when he decides he has had enough of his big body. Today is the day to start running. He gets up and fumbles in the dark to find his shoes. He can’t even remember when last he had them on. Sibu then reaches for his size 48 tracksuit pants and shirt. A couple of minutes later, he breathes the cool morning air, silently welcoming the darkness, knowing that at this hour no one can see his 143kg frame trying to exercise. He knows a 4km route close to his house in the south of Johannesburg and approaches it with a walking/running attitude.
That was 7 August 2007, a day Sibu will never forget because it changed his life forever. “That day, I ran from one lamppost to the next and then I walked from the following lamppost to another. It took me 50 minutes to finish 4km. By the time I got home, I was exhausted and sore, but within me there was a lot of excitement. It was me against the world. I did not want to share my plans with anyone because I have disappointed them too many times before,” says Sibu.
Up until then, he had lived a life of too many cigarettes, beers shared with friends while watching sport on television, eating oversized portions and sometimes even eating two meals for lunch in the canteen at work. Though he was not chubby at school, he was also not the fittest boy in class either. While studying for his BCom Accounting degree, his weight fluctuated constantly and when he started working as Head of Operational Risk at African Bank in 2004, his weight problems reached an all time high.
“I am very outgoing and love spending time with my friends, many of whom I have known since school days. I am always surrounded by people and to me a good time means sitting and chatting with friends. Unfortunately, that is also how it all went wrong. We used to drink a few beers and while drinking you end up eating more and more,” says Sibu.
Sibu has a big frame and boxed at school and university because his father was a professional boxer. He also tried a bit of weight training, but time and again, he would fall off the wagon and go back to his old ways of no exercise. “I had moments where I was trying to be fit and health conscious. But sometimes I trained so much that when I lost interest, I did so completely. I didn’t even want to drive past a gym because it made me feel guilty. It wasn’t a happy life. My weight was forever fluctuating,” says Sibu.
He started gaining so much weight that he had to buy size 48 pants. “Every time I bought clothes, I had to buy one size bigger. It was horrible. I don’t have to wear a suit to work, but I still like to dress nicely. Unfortunately, my size kept me from doing so. I bought clothes that would fit instead of clothes that I liked. The belt of my pants just made the last hole.” His usual cheerful attitude towards life started changing. “I became nasty and spiteful because I thought the world was unfair towards me.”
Every time he saw his friends, they would comment on his increasing size. Sibu tried to down play it and often joked along. “A lot of my friends said I looked more like a taxi driver than a man who worked in an office. Inside, I felt bad but I tried not to show how much it bothered me. The funny thing was it didn’t make me eat less. The only other time I felt guilty was when I bought clothes.” At work, he struggled to climb two flights of stairs and by the time he reached the top, he was drenched in sweat. But Sibu kept on eating and drinking, anything from pizza to beer. Eating became a habit, it became synonymous with socialising. But after his first run on 7 August 2007, Sibusiso’s life started changing.
CHANGE AND DETERMINATION
He started running every day and also changed his eating habits. “I started taking a lunchbox to work, filled with a sandwich, fruit and salad.” Initially, he did not make any drastic changes as he was scared he would be put off by bland diet food and not stick to his new programme. He slowly introduced dietary changes such as no longer buying snacks at the vending machine, but rather nibbling on fruit and dried fruit. He no longer ate at the work canteen and changed to eating low fat products. “I just made small changes, for instance I still had a bit of mayonnaise on my sandwich, but it was the low fat version.” He cut out red meat and only had chicken once a week. He mainly ate fish and vegetables or stir fry for supper. “By then my wife (Lizzy) realised it was not just another one of my whims and she supported me. She got my running clothes ready in the morning and prepared all my food,” says Sibu, who also added a weight training routine in the evening to his exercise programme.
By September 2007, he was running 8km, though he still started at 3:30 for fear of people seeing him and making fun of him. “I remember the security guards laughing at me when I ran. At work, a lot of people doubted me and said I would never last. In my mind, I created an imaginary book called my humble pie book. Every time someone laughed at me, I would write his name in my humble pie book. The names in that book increased every day,” says Sibu.
Initially, he didn’t weigh himself. “I was so scared because I wasn’t even sure I could maintain it, but I could feel I was losing weight. My belt was now in the third hole.” Only six weeks into his new programme, he worked up enough guts to get on the scale. He still weighed a hefty 136kg, but was 7kg lighter than before.
Sibu kept on running, alternating between 8km and 10km runs. He eventually confided in a friend, Meetash Patel, about his desire to tackle a running race. In November 2007, Sibu, weighing 107kg, and Meetash ran the Soweto 10km in an hour. “It was my first race ever. I enjoyed it so much and just wanted to do more,” says Sibu, who was still not running in proper running shoes. He describes his shoes as a pair of takkies he bought over the counter a couple of years earlier. They were so old, he kept the front parts together with tape.
In February last year, Sibu ran his first 21.1km at the Deloitte Pretoria Half Marathon. “My time was 2:07 and for the first time I was not embarrassed to run. I was a man on a mission.” He completed a couple more half marathons before a friend at gym, Zola Mafeje, convinced him to join Johannesburg Harriers Athletic Club. Sibu’s goal was to run the Soweto Marathon and by the time he ran it in November last year, he had already slimmed down to 97kg. His first marathon was no walk in the park and the words ‘hitting the wall’ soon became a reality. “Things went well up to the 36km mark, but then my body suddenly just came to a stop. I had to walk and even that was too much of an effort. My feet hurt and I had blisters. I eventually finished the race in 4:18. That’s when I realised I also needed proper running shoes.”
By then Sibu’s humble pie book was nearly empty. “People congratulated me on my weight loss. It inspired me because I had the weight of an audience on my shoulders. I did not want to disappoint them.” In February this year, he ran the Dischem Half Marathon in Bedfordview in a time of 1:43. A couple of days later while running in Meyersdal, a suburb south of Johannesburg, he met up with a group of runners who meet every morning at 5:00 at the Virgin Active gym. “They saw me running and said I should join them. The next morning I was there. It was so nice. For the first time, I ran with people who knew different routes. Some of the runners were faster than me, all were more experienced and they talked about running all the time. It changed my life and my running improved so much. Everyone just accepted me. At first we just spoke about running, but later we shared other things too,” says Sibu.
He never really gave Comrades much thought but after a couple of weeks running with his newfound friends, it slowly started becoming a dream. “Every time I ran with my new group, every second sentence had to do with Comrades. That’s when I decided to tackle it.” By then Sibu weighed 92kg, ideal for his frame and height.
He qualified for Comrades in a time of 3:39 at his second 42.2km ever, the Cape Gate Vaal Marathon. Shortly afterwards, he ran his first ultra marathon, Om die Dam, which he describes as a learning curve. The race made him realise he is an impatient runner who starts fast but fades in the latter part of the race. “After Om die Dam, I ran the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon and also had to negotiate the last few kilometres. I thought that was the way it was going to be at Comrades; run faster in the first half and negotiate the second half. I had a finishing time in my mind but never said it out loud. My goal was to finish in the single digits. 9:59:59 would have been perfect!”
A LIFE CHANGING DAY
He felt prepared, but also very nervous on Comrades day. “People always say you feel emotional after Comrades, but for me it was the other way around. I was very emotional at the start. There were so many people around me, but I felt so lonely. I looked left and right and it seemed as if everyone around me knew exactly what they were doing, except me. I was scared I would not finish and disappoint myself as well as my family and friends who were there to support me,” says Sibu.
He saw the sub-nine hour bus at the start and decided he just needed to stay ahead of it. At the 30km mark he joined a smaller group of runners and did everything they did. “I had no idea what I was doing so I thought I might as well join them. I was like a student. When they walked, I walked and when they ran I ran.” Just after the halfway mark, the sub-nine hour bus passed them and Sibu decided to take a chance and join them. “There are so many things about Comrades that I don’t even remember because I was too emotionally involved in that race.”
At about the 70km mark, Sibu’s energy was low and he started thinking of falling back, but at that moment he heard someone screaming his name. It was his wife and two boys, Njabulo (6) and Vukani (3), joined by friends cheering him on. “No one will ever know how much energy that gave me. I didn’t pull back and hung on to the bus.”
Shortly afterwards, he ran past a feeding station with speakers announcing the tenth lady, Kashmira Parbhoo, had just made her way into the stadium. Kashmira is one of Sibu’s running friends, with whom he trains in the mornings. “When I heard Kashmira’s name, I thought, it looks like this is our day! And as we started getting closer to the stadium, I realised that a sub-nine hour was on the cards for me. It was the most amazing feeling. When I ran into the stadium, I saw my family and I beat my chest for my boys. That day was so emotional not only because I finished the race, but because I realised I had come a long way. For the first time, I saw myself as a runner.”
OVERCOMING HARD TIMES
When one speaks to Sibu’s friends you quickly realise how much he is loved and respected, not only for his sheer determination to lose so much weight, but also because of the many hardships he has endured in life.
At the age of 4, he was kidnapped in Soweto where he grew up, but as his kidnappers fled with him in their car, they were involved in a car accident and Sibu was rescued. In later life, he was involved in a serious car accident and landed in hospital with a blood clot in his brain. He could not read, write and had no feeling in his arm and one part of his face. “Doctors thought it could also be a brain tumour that I had before the accident. They wanted to operate, but I refused and started seeing a homeopath. A couple of months later it was gone,” says Sibu.
He believes running has brought him closer to his family. “In the past, I would get home late and not see my kids before they went to bed. Now I can account for my time and I make sure I spend quality time with them. My family also comes with me to races. Races have become a family outing for us. We wake the kids and they dress up. On the way to the race, my wife plays my favourite music by Tracy Chapman. My family is proud of me and my eldest boy has also started running a little bit now.”
Sibu could never go back to his old ways. He looks forward to his morning runs and enjoys his healthy way of living. He is inspired by people from his running group, especially Cindy Beeming and her husband, Arthur, with whom he has a special bond. “They are just such inspiring people with an amazing ability to make everyone around them happy and feel good about themselves,” says Sibu.
He loves running because it is an undiscriminating sport. “All shapes and sizes run. There is no such a thing as this one has a R10 000 bike and that one has a R3 000 bike. Runners are all equal in those long kilometres on the road. It’s just you, your running shoes and your fellow runners around you.”
Sibu would like to run many more Comrades and one day maybe even compete in an Iron Man. “God has given me a lot of chances in life. I have learnt how to live my life in the right way. This is one chance I am not going to mess up.”