27. Nontuthuko Mgabhi: Running 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents

Sue Stockdale talks to Nontuthuko Mgabhi, General Manager Human Resources at Richards Bay Coal Terminal, South Africa, about the mindset, commitment and preparation it took to successfully run seven marathons in seven consecutive days, on seven continents in February 2020.

Nontu became the first African female to complete this challenge, and in the process also raised a substantial sum of money to improve conditions for children in an underprivileged rural school – the Khiphinkunzi Primary School in Mtubatuba, South Africa.

Nontu is a registered Industrial Psychologist. She holds a Masters Degree in Industrial Psychology, and has an Advanced Business Management Diploma from ESMT, Berlin, Germany as well as Post Graduate Diploma from GIBS, Johannesburg and Rollins Business School, Florida, USA.  She holds the position of General Manager Human Resources at Richards Bay Coal Terminal Limited (RBCT) which is the single largest export coal terminal in the world, established in 1976. Prior to joining RBCT, Nontuthuko has held a number of senior positions including in Rio Tinto, South African Breweries; and was a Senior Lecturer (Organisational Development) in the School of Psychology; for the University of KwaZulu Natal. 

To connect with Nontu Mgabhi you can find her on Facebook and via her fundraising website or on LinkedIn .


Nontuthuko Mgabhi transcription

Sue Stockdale: [00:00:00] hello, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the Access to Inspiration podcast. The show where you can get inspiration from people who may be unlike you. We hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend your day to day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of. Achieving. Today, I’m talking to Nontu Mgabhi. Now Nontu is an amazing woman. She is the first female from Africa to run seven marathons on seven continents in seven consecutive days. And she’s also General Manager of human resources in her day job.  Welcome onto to the podcast.

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:00:48] Thank you Sue for having me. It’s my pleasure to be with you.

Sue Stockdale: [00:00:52] Now, I’m fascinated to learn more about your adventurous spirit, perhaps I should say your marathon spirit and [00:01:00] perhaps you could share with me, first of all, what it was like when you finished that marathon effort of seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. What did you feel like at the end of that?

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:01:11] The feelings really I had so many mixed emotions that overwhelmed me, you know, first feeling was, I just did not believe I just finished. Feeling number two was because when we finished in Miami I had booked a hotel very close to the finish line, knowing that my legs would be tired. So when it got to the hotel, I open the door and I look at their bed and I’m, Oh my God. Today I’m going to sleep. Remember for seven days I haven’t been sleeping in a bed because you sleep while you flying to the next destination. I remember opening a shower because throughout the seven marathons, I only had an opportunity to shower only twice. So I opened and said  Oh my God, [00:02:00] today I’m going to have a warm shower. I was overcome by those feelings of appreciating the little things that you often take for granted. But when I look back and then I said, did I really pull through?  Thinking about the likes of Antarctica? Those were difficult marathons. So I was really overcome by what the human spirit is capable of achieving.

Sue Stockdale: [00:02:23] And did you have a good sleep?

Nontu Mgabhi:: [00:02:24] Oh yeah. Yes, I did. I must say I did regardless of different time zones, but I just slept flat.

Sue Stockdale: [00:02:34] What a wonderful ending. So tell us a bit more about what did this challenge involve? Where were the marathons and how did you go from place to place?

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:02:43] The plan was – it always starts in Antarctica because the weather conditions, they are not predictable. So once you do Antarctica, it becomes a little bit better to actually know for sure that we will be able to cover other continents. [00:03:00] So when we were due to leave for Antarctica on the 6th of February, because we all met in Africa and Cape town. So when we were in Cape Town airport, we’ve got a report that the weather conditions in Antarctica are so bad that our private charter plane won’t be able to land. So we had to go back to the hotel and attempt leaving for Antarctica the following day and the following day. And unfortunately the weather conditions were still not great. So the race director then decided let’s just start with Africa. And for me, it was like pure joy. First time having First female from Africa. And we started in Africa, as they say, God visits all other continents, but he lives in Africa. So, anyway, that is, the race director had to now organize a Russian operated aircraft with people who are obviously experienced in landing in tough weather conditions. So when we finished Cape town, we had to [00:04:00] quickly rush to Antarctica. Then Antarctica became the second marathon thereafter. We went to Australia, Perth after Australia, Perth, we then went to Asia in Dubai. After Asia, Dubai, we went to Europe and Madrid, Spain and thereafter. We went to South America, in a city called Fortaleza. And then we completed our adventure in North America, in Miami.

Sue Stockdale: [00:04:28] Quite a series of marathons’s to have to undertake and in quite different temperatures. I imagine as well.

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:04:34] That’s correct yes. And that also brought it own challenges to your point. I mean, yeah. You leave Antarctica and you fly  back to Cape Town to change flights so that we can get back to our dedicated plane that will cover us for all the continent and having to fly to Australia, which is quite warm. Having just completed Antarctica was quite a thing. And obviously after Australia went [00:05:00] to Dubai, also very warm. So it was quite adjusting to different time zones. Also flying long hours, compromised sleep. It makes it more physical, challenging more than anything else.

Sue Stockdale: [00:05:14] So how did you come to believe that you could do it? If somebody asked me to participate in that, I just say, well, I can’t possibly do that. What made you believe that you could do it?

Nontu Mgabhii: [00:05:23] You know, Sue is you can never know hundred percent that you can do it. You just got to get to a point where you actually don’t demonize fear. You do things afraid.  You experience both with emotions of courage and emotions of being nervous. And you accept them as deeply human as they are, because they are deeply human. So first, for sure. Believe in yourself. And number two, it’s about [00:06:00] understanding that courage like Brene Brown puts it beautifully. It’s actually not about winning or losing. So I got to a point way before I registered for the race, I was like, am I sure I can do this? can I do that assignment? I got to a point where I said, I don’t need to be sure. Courage is not about finishing these marathons or not. It’s about showing  up. And right now I’m deciding to show up. Once you see it as an opportunity to just to show up, then you just do that. You show up.

Sue Stockdale: [00:06:30] I love that mindset that you have just get on the start line and in a way the rest will take care of itself.

Nontu Mgabhi:: [00:06:36] Yes.

Sue Stockdale: [00:06:36] Tell us a bit about your background, where you grew up and was running part of your life then, or did you come to running later on in your life? I actuall grew up in a deep rural village of Mseleni. So that’s where I did all my primary school and high school. And obviously in a deep rural village, a schools that are underfunded, sports is [00:07:00] luxury. It’s just not mentioned. So, you know, when you don’t even have school books, you don’t even have enough teachers in one classroom based like over hundreds of you. So thinking of sports. Oh my goodness. Who’s going to supervise you for that sport. You know? No, one’s got time for that. So when I was young, I was not involved in sports at all.

Nontu Mgabhi:And after my schooling in Mseleni, then I was fortunate to get a sponsorship to go and study. And then I went for my studies up to master’s level. I finished. And then I qualified as a psychologist and I worked and worked for South African breweries. And then after I went to Rio Tinto, that’s when I started exercising. And really it’s amazing because a journey of a thousand miles really begins with one step. If I share with you that my love for running came from just entering for a 10 kilometer fun walk, not even a run, a fun [00:08:00] walk. And I must say, even that walk  a friend who said Nontu let us go to Durban. So I’m in Richard’s Bay. Let us go to Durban for East coast peak walk. Some like that sounds cool. I mean, nice weekend Durban. You know, let’s get away from a small city and go to Durban and have fun. And then I was like, no, I cannot finish 10 kilometers. Maybe let me enter for five. And then she’s like,  no, you want to have a lot of fun. You wont actually feel the kilometers and needless to say she was right. I enjoyed it so much that when I finished, I started to adopt a healthy lifestyle whereby every morning I wake up an exercise and then going from that.

To undertake a marathon it requires quite a time commitment. If nothing else to do the necessary training, how did you find the time? Let alone the belief that you could do it?

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:08:53] For exercise I schedule it in the morning. I actually treat it as me [00:09:00] time. It’s actually sets the tone for the day. I wake up at half past four in the morning, every day, and I start my runs just before five o’clock. Why do that? It’s because I’ve got full control in the morning. No one can say they want to visit me at four or 5:00 AM and there’s no work assignments during that time. Whereas if I live at later in the day, there might be a late meeting. There might be a relative or a friend who wants to see me. So now I need to negotiate my run with my commitments or my relationships. Whereas if I schedule it’s in the morning, I’ve got full control and I always believe that waking up early. Then the rest give you that edge. I do believe in going to bed early and waking up early. So finding time for me was not a big issue. What I needed to do was just not to wait until I’m ready. For example, from the time I started running [00:10:00] from no running within nine months, 90 kilometers.

Sue Stockdale: [00:10:04] Wow. That’s an achievement.

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:10:07] And you know, when I signed up for the marathon, For me, again the thinking was, let me show up. If I bail out half way so be it, I was in the arena. I  did it. I would have loved the fact that I did and I signed up and needless to say, I finished. I think what is more important is don’t wait until you are a hundred percent ready. Just do it and then see.

Sue Stockdale: [00:10:33] Oh, I know that you were fundraising as part of this marathon challenge for a good cause. Was that why you participated in the first place or did you want to then once you’d signed up for the challenge, then think about supporting the cause, which came first?

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:10:48] It’s interesting you’ve highlighted that. I’ll be quite honest with you. In 2018, I did a hundred mile, 160 kilometer nonstop race to celebrate my 32nd birthday. [00:11:00] So in 2019, I thought to myself, Hmm, I’ve done hundred miles, something that I always thought it’s difficult and almost impossible. And then I asked myself what’s next. So I went and looked for challenges that will help me challenge myself and push the limits. And then I came across the seven marathons. And then I thought to myself, I can’t just do it for myself. Then I remembered a school I met in 2018 that was in dire need for better school infrastructure. Then I thought, ah, okay, sign up for this race. I’ll get to satisfy my adventurous spirit, but also get to change people’s lives. And that for me was just a beautiful combination.

Sue Stockdale: [00:11:43] So there’s a kind of bigger purpose. You get the personal satisfaction and, you know, you’re helping others as well.

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:11:50] Absolutely. Yes. It’s fulfilling for me. It’s fulfilling for others. So cheerful giver, cheerful receiver, everyone is full of gratitude.

[00:12:00] Sue Stockdale: [00:12:00] It’s a win, win all around there.

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:12:02] Yes.

Sue Stockdale: [00:12:03] How has your success inspired those that you work with now in your day job?

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:12:09] It’s interesting. You’ve asked that question because to be quite honest with you, I am more inspired and humbled by people I work with. If I even think about how I got to do this challenge credits to my boss Alan, Waller the CEO of Richards Bay Coal Terminal because I had seen this challenge and I thought to myself, it’s just not possible. Two things made it not so possible. It’s the price obviously to enter.  And then, so it was a Monday, he was doing his walkabouts and he came to my office. he asked  hi Nontu how was your weekend? I said the weekend was good I came across this and I’m like, I love it. But I was like, Oh no, I can’t do this. Obviously it’s physically challenging, but also it’s expensive. And then he asked me if you were to do it, it would be nice if you do it for a [00:13:00] cause. And I said, how did you read my mind? Because I was thinking about a school in Mtubatuba. And then he said, we will support you for your entry, go fundraise and build that school. So he actually inspired me to do this, so he inspired me more than anything else. And you know, it’s humbling.  So when you see people extremely excited about what you do, you know, it shows that we really connected. We are one with the universe. We are one with each other. And also I want to believe because I’ll obviously make my biases known. I’m very passionate about women empowerment. So what we do at work has actually empowered so many ladies. There are so many ladies who are now running so many ladies who are taking on challenges, because I want to believe that by being who we are, we are also giving others permission to be who they are.

Sue Stockdale: [00:13:55] Wow. I can see that if you hadn’t expressed what you wanted to do [00:14:00] on that day, you never would have known that there was somebody out there that would be able to support you and help you to make it happen.

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:14:06] Absolutely. And that day, Sue just showed me one thing that all dreams are possible.

Sue Stockdale: [00:14:13] So what did you learn about you from this experience about you as a human being Nontu?

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:14:20] What I learned more than anything else  Sue I’ve always in a charitable person. I loved giving, but this experience has actually centred touch my soul so much and connected me to my higher purpose. Like right now as you’re going through, COVID-19 the school that I supported by building the five classrooms through people’s donations. They close the school, obviously because of COVID-19 and closing the school because many learners from that school depend on free meals that are served at school means that they will go hungry.  So during this time of COVID-19 from April to [00:15:00] now, I actually distribute food parcels. I run some of the virtual races and raise money to distribute food parcels up to now, I’ve distributed over 250 foot parcels and over 5,000 cloth masks to help them to comply with COVID-19. And these are the things that although was charitable even before, but I was not doing it intentionally. So it has actually connected me to actually feel that joy of giving like Mohammed Ali said, we all actually need to pay our rent of being in service to someone else. So that’s the thrill that I’m getting out of this, and this is deeply humbling and fulfills my soul.

Sue Stockdale: [00:15:48] No, I can see that the passion and the energy that you talk about it. I’m wondering whether your background in psychology and the role that you play in human resources in your workplace. Were there any learnings [00:16:00] from that that you were able to bring to be able to successfully complete those marathons? Because I guess it’s not just about the physical capability. I know that from my Arctic expeditions, it’s about the mental capacity. So I’m wondering whether there are any crossovers for you?

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:16:14] Absolutely, absolutely. Right. Because I always see running is a good metaphor for life. What I can say. I learned from the challenge and applying in my role as a HR practitioner is with the right amount of stuff. People are capable of achieving more. So I think about every time when we got into the plane, we’re able to get into wifi, the messages I was getting people sending me photos that I haven’t seen, because they were obviously updating the social media. People were so excited and believing in myself so much. And it goes to show that even at work as leaders, we need to ask ourselves the [00:17:00] question before we say someone is not performing. Someone is not productive. Somebody is not engaged as to how much support have we given them. And this support does not necessarily mean holding hand all the time, but be willing to actually invest a reasonable amount of time to attend to a person’s fears or feelings, because if you don’t do that, then you will spend a lot of time to attend to their  unproductivity. So what really keeps me going, I must say was also people believed in, me when the going was getting hard in Antarctica, I was like, no, I cannot disappoint myself. I can not disappoint people. The second one is preparation is key for success. Prepare for what’s coming because I’ll be honest with you Sue I had to build a very robust training program per month. I was ever reaching about 550 to 600 kilometers to train my body, to cope with fatigue and change my mind to keep going. Even when I [00:18:00] don’t feel like so preparation is very important. Sometimes you overlooked for promotions, but maybe it’s because you don’t prepare. The third one is own your story and own your craft. Have the courage, just to show up, have the courage to do that presentation, have the courage to raise your hand and say, I’m ready for that assignment. I can do it. Give it to me. So, yes, at the time when you are a hundred percent ready, just show up. You’ll be amazed by the outcome.

Sue Stockdale: [00:18:31] And I think that also goes with the earlier point, you were mentioning about providing support because showing up can as much be about providing support for somebody else as it is for showing up and having courage to do things for yourself.

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:18:45] Yes. Yes. And that encouraging voice, when you see Nontu struggling to own her story Sue whispers in Nontu’s ear. Yes. You can do it go.  Because support does not necessarily mean money. [00:19:00] I mean, a lot of time, it just means being able to actually encourage the heart.

Sue Stockdale: [00:19:07] I love that phrase that you said there. I can just see how that resonates with people and encouraging the heart. So after such an amazing challenge, you know, a life changing experience, I imagine what’s your next challenge? How have you taken that learning and. Utilized it further or have you said, well, that’s it. Now I can put my feet up and do nothing else?

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:19:29] it’s almost impossible not to do another one, but for now I’m focusing on finishing the building. The buildings should be completed in November. And the next challenge that I would like to do in 2022, obviously in light of COVID in 2021, it will make the risk to plan a lot for in 2022, I would like to run the North Pole marathon and, and I’ll be doing this to support A Girl Child. I have an Academy, Go Beyond for a Girl Child where I [00:20:00] mentor and support 20 girls. So what I’d like to do when I ran the North Pole marathon, the cost for it is reasonable. So I can pay for myself for the race itself, fully and raise funds to assist. There are girls who are like 12, 13 years who actually come from child headed families. They are 12. But they’ve become a mother and a father looking after their siblings who are five, six, and there’ll be like four of them living in one room. So I’d like to build them three houses. It sounds like an ambitious dream, but it’s just a basic structure just to give them a place to hide their head. So that’s what I would like to do because I really, truth be told, Sue.  Women we face so many barriers when it’s compounded with poverty. It’s can be really discouraging.

Sue Stockdale: [00:20:53] And it’s heartening to hear that again, that by giving to others, you actually give to yourself, it sounds like it’s a worthwhile [00:21:00] challenge to do when you can have a bigger purpose.

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:21:02] Yes.

Sue Stockdale: [00:21:04] So not to, if you had the opportunity now to go back in time, knowing what you know now, what would you have told your younger self about life and what’s possible?

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:21:13] I love that question so much that resonates with me on many levels. What I can actually tell my younger self about what’s possible. Firstly, I would tell my younger self, hear what people say, but in the end, make your own decision. It’s okay to listen. But in the end, make your own decision because it’s in your hands. Ultimately it’s in your hands. Secondly, I would say don’t take feedback or criticism from people who are actually not in the arena. Be selective about from whom you take feedback, because sometimes we see the world as we are, and it’s so easy to project our fears on others, our limitations on others. So having a select few [00:22:00] who are in the arena in action themselves, that you take feedback from and do not listen to what a girl child should do or should not do. As you grow up, you are told many things around what girls should behave like or what the girls should not behave. Like be who and what you want to be.

Sue Stockdale: [00:22:22] It’s been really fascinating to hear about the success that you had and what it took to achieve that success. How can people find out more about you if they want to look on social media?

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:22:33] Can check me out on Facebook as Nonthuko Mghabi and if people who wish to support the causes I’m doing. They can send an email to nontu.mghabi@icloud dot com

Sue Stockdale: [00:22:55] Fantastic.

Nontu Mgabhi: [00:22:56] So visit the websites on www.gobeyondforachild.com

[00:23:00] Sue Stockdale: [00:23:00] Thanks so much for those wise words Nontu. It’s been a real pleasure to speak to you. Thank you so much for your time today.

Nontu Mgabhi:[00:23:08] Thank you very much, Sue.

Sue Stockdale: [00:23:10] Well, I hope you enjoyed listening to Nontu talk about her marathon challenge and what she learned as a result. Next week, I will be talking to Vinay Chandra, founder and CEO of High Peak Software about what he has learned from being a serial entrepreneur. I’m sure he will be interesting. So I look forward to joining you then .

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