By Riël Hauman
(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
April 4, 2015
CAPE TOWN — A smile is worth a thousand words.
When Caroline Wöstmann sped past defending champion and race leader Nina Podnebesnova (RUS) less than 5 km from the finish of the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon here, a wide grin lit up her face – an almost unbelieving smile that stayed there until the finish on the grass of the sports fields at the University of Cape Town. When she came into the media conference a good while later, it was still there – and for good reason: she had become the first South African winner in 14 years, and the very first since the race became a real international event.
Wöstmann, 32, won in 3:41:23, an almost incredible 73 minutes and 20 seconds faster than her only other attempt at the race two years ago. She finished as the first South African in last year’s Comrades Marathon (sixth in 6:51:43), but this was the greatest victory of her short career. In the Comrades she won R205,000 (USD 16,400) in prize money and incentives; here she took home R257,500 (USD 21,859).
The men’s race was dominated by overseas runners and there was only one South African in the top ten – the fewest since the same number in 2010. Like last year, the winner was from Lesotho: Motlokoa Nkhabutlane, who finished in 3:10:27, just more than two minutes ahead of Zimbabwean Collen Makaza.
Nothing came of the expected challenge from South African marathon star Hendrick Ramaala, and the only SA athlete who won a gold medal was Mthandazo Qhina, fourth in 3:14:26. Ramaala was not even the first veteran (master); the 40-49 category went to Johannes Kekana in 3:21:50.
WOMEN’S WINNER TAKES PATIENT APPROACH
Wöstmann, a chartered accountant who lectures in management accounting and finance in Johannesburg, although she lives in Pretoria, is “a breath of fresh air in South African road running”, as one journalist put it.
She herself was elated.
“My coach said I should aim for 3:50. I said no, 3:50 is too hard. I don’t know how it happened. [Spectators] said I was twelfth on Ou Kaapse Weg [just after halfway]. I’m training for the Comrades and I felt good up the hill, so I overtook some girls up the hill and then some more going down. Then I thought I might make the podium, but I started doubting myself.”
After passing Podnebesnova, “for three kilometers I put the accelerator down. But with 2 km to go, I did feel a bit tired”. No one would have guessed that, because she finished looking as fresh as the proverbial daisy amid a roar from the crowd.
Earlier, Podnebesnova went out like a bullet, and she admitted later that she was chasing Frith van der Merwe’s race record, which has stood since 1989. In cool conditions – although the headwind picked up from around 15 km and it also started raining – she reached the halfway mark in 1:48:53 – more than a minute ahead of Tanith Maxwell, in her first ultramarathon, Paulina Njeya and Chelitu Bogale Assefa (ETH). Wöstmann was more than four minutes behind the leader at this stage.
The strength-sapping climb up Ou Kaapse Weg, which rises to a demanding 315 meters above sea level – more than 130 meters higher than Chapman’s Peak on the traditional route – took its toll on the leaders. Podnebesnova reached the standard marathon mark in 2:46:08, Maxwell held on to second, but behind them the strongly running Wöstmann had cut the deficit by more than a minute. She was now third, almost a minute ahead of Thabita Tsatsa (ZIM), the 2013 winner.
Behind her the 2014 runner-up, Shitaye Gemechu Debellu (ETH), who had looked uncomfortable earlier on, had dropped out.
They reached the next climb, Southern Cross Drive, which rises to 181 meters, at 45 km, and by now Wöstmann had gone past Maxwell, who was running smoothly but had no answer to Wöstmann’s charge. Unlike Ou Kaapse Weg, which is open to the elements and rather bleak – made worse by the recent wildfires which caused the race to be run over this pass instead of Chapman’s Peak – the ascent through the leafy suburb of Constantia is sheltered by trees lining the road and it is difficult to see far ahead.
What was happening ahead of the flying Wöstmann was that Podnebesnova had started to falter. Her strong, rhythmic stride shortened, her shoulders started to sway, and for the first time her face showed strain.
At 50 km, about 2 km beyond the crest of the hill, the Russian (3:19:51) was still ahead, but the South African was now only 41 seconds behind. Her time of 3:20:32 here is more than 20 minutes faster than her personal best for the distance. The inevitable came in less than two kilometers, with the clock showing 3:26, and Wöstmann was away in a flash. With her blonde hair tucked into a white cap turned front to back, she smiled broadly – not for the television camera, one thought, but a smile of utter joy and contentment with a job well done. A rare sight indeed in a race that demands so much of the competitors.
The job was not over, of course, but there was no stopping her. She ran the last 6 km in 20:51, compared to Podnebesnova’s 24:13 and Maxwell’s 23:08.
Podnebesnova, who won last year in 3:40:07, finished in 3:44:04, while Maxwell, just as happy as Wöstmann, went over the line in 3:45:18.
“I was going for the record,” Podnebesnova said. “I started a little too fast and after 15 km I felt it. The weather was also a killer. The wind was too strong and the rain was a problem. But maybe next year.”
Wöstmann, who was met at the finish, like all the top athletes, by distance legend Haile Gebrselassie, is the first South African champion since Gwen van Lingen took the crown in 2001 – when, incidentally, the race was also run on the “alternate” route over Ou Kaapse Weg. But that was before the international ultra stars began coming to Cape Town for the Easter race in large numbers.
To find two South Africans in the top three one has to go back another year, 2000, when Sarah Mahlangu won and Grace de Oliveira was third. There were only two foreigners in the top ten then.
Since her sixth place in the 2014 Comrades Wöstmann has come under the guidance of sports scientist Lindsey Parry at the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre. This has changed her outlook completely and “made a huge difference”, resulting in one personal best after another. One of these was her 2:44:57 marathon in Port Elizabeth in December.
“All this training was for Comrades,” she said. “They say that a good Two Oceans blows your Comrades, but I guess I’ll find out in training this week. I’m sure Lindsey will know what to do.”
The five South African women in the top ten are the most since six turned the trick in 2010. Charné Bosman, who also has her eyes on the Comrades, was fifth, Njeya ninth and another Comrades hopeful, Julanie Basson, tenth. Former winner Simona Juhász-Staicu (HUN) was sixth and American Devon Yanko –a bread baker who lives near San Francisco– seventh.
ATHLETES FROM LESOTHO LEADS MEN’S RACE
In the men’s race a large group of runners containing all the main contenders formed soon after the start, allowing the usual “TV runners” to set off into the darkness. Looking good among them was defending champion Lebenya Nkoka (LES), with his countrymen Nkhabutlane (who was second in 2011 but finished only 49th last year after suffering an injury), Moses Moeketsi Mosuhli (who did not finish last year after third in 2013), Warinyane Lebopo (4th last year), Mpesela Ntlotsoeu, Lebohang Mahloane, Teboho Sello and Lehlohonolo Raletebele around him.
By halfway, with Ou Kaapse Weg looming above them, the lead pack of Lesotho stars had Qhina, Makaza, Mike Fokoroni (ZIM), Mohammed Temam Hussein (ETH) and Edward Mothibi with them. Sello was slightly in the lead in 1:34:12. South Africa’s marathon record holder, Gert Thys, was 40 seconds behind, but would soon drop out.
While there was no one charging from behind, as Wöstmann would do in the women’s race twenty minutes later, the hill steadily thinned the group out while the rain came down just as steadily, and only eight reached the marathon mark together in 2:24:00 – Nkhabutlane, Makaza, Mosuhli, Qhina, Fokoroni, Sello, Nkoka and Raletebele. Mothibi was just behind, with former champion (and triple Comrades champion) Stephen Muzinghi (ZIM) and Charles Wachira Maina (KEN) around 40 seconds in arrears.
Then came Southern Cross Drive and, while not as high as Constantia Nek on the traditional route, it played the same role and decided the outcome. On the steepest part Nkhabutlane and Makaza, who was third in 2012 and fourth in 2013, took control and surged away from their rivals. Even Nkoka, so dominant last year after the summit of Constantia Nek, had no reply (and would drop out soon after 50 km).
The twosome tested each other, both looking strong. But in fact one was much stronger, and Nkhabutlane delivered the blow as they turned right at the top of the hill, just before 48 km where they joined the traditional route. He ran the next couple of kilometres at sub-3 minute pace and although he said afterwards that he was “still scared that there were some guys behind me, but I decided to just go on and not think about anyone else”, it was clear that he was on his way to victory.
Makaza held on for second in 3:12:41, 63 seconds ahead of Mosuhli. Muzhingi finished strongly to take seventh, his best position since his win in 2012. A struggling Ramaala was 17th in 3:24:00, more than 12 minutes slower than last year.
Nkhabutlane, who lives in the capital of Maseru, said the Lesotho runners’ success stems from training together in the mountains of their country, although they do not go to the highest altitudes. “That makes one slow. I trained for six months for this race, working on my speed. I couldn’t have done it without my team-mates. We train together and during a race we work well, talking to one another to see which one is stronger [and] to encourage each other.”
Both Nkhabutlane, 30, and Makaza, 32, said they would not run the Comrades because they considered themselves too young. The Lesotho athlete added that he wanted to qualify for his country’s 2016 Olympic team in the marathon (he has a PB of 2:14:51, also run in Cape Town).
In the women’s race grandmaster (60+) Nancy Will, 62, set a new world age-category best of 4:12:54 at 50 km, but at the finish her 4:44:48 missed the course record by 21 seconds.
Two runners, Tony Abrahamson and Louis Massyn, finished their 40th Two Oceans, in 5:16:47 and 6:57:42 respectively.
MOKOKA AND PHALULA WIN HALF-MARATHON
In the accompanying half-marathon the men’s race was decided in a sprint finish, with Stephen Mokoka (1:04:03) just edging out Elroy Gelant (1:04:07) and Joel Mmonne (1:04:08). All three said their focus will now shift to the track to try and qualify for the World Championships. Lusapho April, who will run the Boston Marathon on April 20, finished fifth in 1:04:23.
In the women’s race the Phalula twins, Lebogang (1:14:51) and defending champion Lebo (1:15:34), sandwiched Mapaseka Makhanya (1:15:11), who was fourth last year.