By RIËL HAUMAN
(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission
NOTE: Sll runners RSA except where indicated otherwise; this race is always held the Saturday before Easter –Ed.
(20-Apr) — The history books will show that two South Africans, Bongmusa Mthembu and Gerda Steyn, won the 50th Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon over 56 km in convincing fashion against top international competition. However, it is a pity that the dramatic change of route two days before the race –forced upon the organizers by the threat of riots and demonstrations along the route, a sickening kind of politically inspired blackmail that has become all too prevalent in South Africa in the run-up to the general election next month– overshadowed their stellar performances.
Especially Steyn, who defended the title she had won with such apparent ease last year, delivered a performance of a calibre that has not been seen by a South African ultramarathoner since the days of the great Frith van der Merwe. And, fittingly, she came within a whisker –considering the distance– of Van der Merwe’s 1989 record: her 3:31:29 fell just 53 seconds short.
If Steyn had not slowed down when she ran onto the grass of the sports fields of the University of Cape Town about 300 meters from the finish and started clapping the outstretched hands of the spectators along the finishing straight, she would certainly have come closer to the record.
Mthembu, who won in 3:08:40, reaffirmed his status as the best South African ultramarathon runner of recent years. He has won the Comrades three times (2014, 2017 and 2018), the first runner since Bruce Fordyce in 1983 to achieve this. In the World 100 km Championships in 2016 he broke Fordyce’s 27 year-old SA record (which was then the world record) with his second place in 6:24:05; last year he finished third in the global race.
It is the first time that both champions are South Africans since Joshua Peterson and Sarah Mahlangu won in 2000.
Threats of disruptive action and possible danger to the participants in the ultramarathon on the section of the route through the seaside village of Hout Bay –where ongoing political protests have led to acts of violence and extensive damage to property and infrastructure during recent weeks– caused the organisers, after a crisis meeting on Thursday with police, the traffic department, emergency services, the Western Cape government and the Cape Town metro council, to change the route to run over Ou Kaapse Weg (Old Cape Road)– the same alternate route that was used in 2000 through 2003 and again in 2015 (when the road over Chapman’s Peak was closed).
For the first time in decades the race was also not broadcast live on television because of a contractual dispute between Athletics South Africa and the near-bankrupt South African Broadcasting Corporation (there was a live stream on the internet, however).
Conditions for both races were ideal after overnight rain, which continued intermittently, but not heavily, throughout the morning, and no wind to speak of.
The early lead in the women’s race was taken by Kenya’s Priscilla Lorchima, with Steyn and Loveness Madziva (ZIM) following closely and Mamorallo Tjoka (LES), who did not finish last year but has a third and three fourth placings to her credit, next.
With the big climb up Ou Kaapse Weg looming, Steyn and Tjoka broke away before the halfway mark, which they reached in 1:46:27. With the first half of the race not being much different from what it was in 1989, Van der Merwe had passed this point in 1:41:15. By now Irvette van Zyl, running her debut ultramarathon, was just behind them. Madziva and Lorchima were the only others within a minute of the leaders, and they were followed by Dominika Stelmach (POL), second last year, Ramadimetja Babili, Charné Bosman, and Jenna Challenor– the latter more than six minutes behind.
Tjoka was first at the marathon mark, in 2:40:13, but Steyn was only two seconds behind. Van Zyl, not running as easily as before, was 1½ minutes in their wake. (Van der Merwe had reached the marathon point in Hout Bay, after the climb over Chapman’s Peak and on the start of the ascent of Constantia Nek, in a sizzling 2:36:00.)
Then the real racing began.
Steyn, who ran her marathon PB of 2:31:04 in New York last November, twice tested Tjoka, whose marathon best is more than six minutes slower (but run on the same day in Soweto), on the flat road through Tokai after the steep descent down Ou Kaapse Weg. Each time she pulled away, but each time the tough Lesotho runner fought back and closed the gap.
Then, on the third try, Tjoka could not hold Steyn any longer and the South African surged away, looking as comfortable and in control as when she passed Stelmach last year. There was no stopping her and she flew past 50 km in 3:10:21 –a mere 1:42 from the world record Van der Merwe had established as this point (which still stands).
Then Steyn really showed what she is capable of by running the last 6 km almost 50 seconds faster than Van der Merwe, covering the distance to the finish in a jaw-dropping 21:08 (3:31/km). She had demolished Tjoka’s challenge, finishing 6:54 in front –almost three times the margin she enjoyed over Stelmach last year.
Van Zyl, who said (amid tears) that it was “a horrible race” and that she had to make four roadside stops, held on for third in 3:41:32. She was followed by Stelmach (3:50:12) and Jenna Challenor (3:51:56), who was second in 2017 but failed to finish last year. Next was Charné Bosman, the first veteran (master), who said her main aim was the Comrades Marathon in June.
“I’ll definitely be back next year for the record,” Steyn said. “I felt good the whole way and really enjoyed the cimb up Ou Kaapse Weg. It was a great race in every way. I was not going for the record.”
South Africa’s best marathoner between 2011 and 2014 and winner of forty national titles, René Kalmer, finished eleventh in 4:00:39, just missing out on the gold medals (given to the top-10 finishers) and the magic 4-hour barrier.
PATIENCE PAYS FOR MTHEMBU
In the men’s race Mthembu, who has won three gold medals in the Two Oceans and was fifth last year, and David Gatebe, who won the race in 2013 (and was third last year) and holds the “down” run record in the Comrades, did not let themselves be carried away by the stated record-breaking aims of the Kenyan contingent. At 15 km they were about a minute behind last year’s winner, Justin Kemboi Chesire and his compatriots Kennedy Kiptoo Melly and Abraham Kiprotich (the latter born in Kenya, but now representing France). Neither Kiptoo nor Kiprotich would finish, although Jesse Gichuhi, who started more conservatively, ended up seventh.
Kiprotich, who served a drugs ban in 2014-2016 and ran 2:10:55 in the Istanbul Marathon last year, led until just before the marathon mark, but threw-in the towel shortly after 50 km. Sintayehu Legese Yinesu (ETH) took the lead from Kiprotich and reached the marathon point in 2:19:26, with Chesire following in 2:20:29, Mthembu and Gatebe, both looking full of running, in 2:21:02, and 41 year-old Capetonian Mthandazo Qhina, who was the first South African in 2015, in 2:21:07.
After the race Mthembu said: “I planned to run consistently and kept something in the bag for the final stages. I knew the Kenyans were going for the record and let them go as I thought they would probably pay for their fast pace.”
Mthembu’s plan worked like a charm. At 50 km Yinesu was still in front (2:48:22), but Mthembu (2:49:15) had cut the gap significantly; Gatebe was still behind Chesire, but only by 13 seconds.
With the Ethiopian slowing, the champion of the last two Comrades went into the lead two kilometres later and won in 3:08:40, the fastest time since Stephen Muzhingi ran 3:08:08 in 2012 and the quickest on the alternate route. Gatebe passed both Yinesu and Chesire to finish second in 3:10:30, his fastest since he won six years ago.
“It was a great feeling to come past the Kenyans and Ethiopians in the final quarter of the race,” Mthembu added. “I’m a professional athlete and must be able to recover in time for the Comrades [on June 9]. But my goal today was on Two Ocoeans and I’m delighted to have finally won it.”
Qhina (3:17:33) finished sixth to earn, on top of his prize money, handsome incentives as the third South African and first Western Province athlete. Another local athlete, 2017 champion Lungile Gongqa (3:18:56), was eighth. He was followed by American Zachary Ornelas (3:19:23), who won the American River 50-Mile a year ago.
There were five South Africans in the top ten — two more than last year.
Four special athletes displayed their longevity. Louis Massyn (68) and Tony Abrahamson (69) both received their 44th medal in 6:46:04 and 5:12:18, respectively. Two 70-plussers, John Brimble (7:04:32) and Ian Bocock (7:11:20), achieved their 39th and 41st medal respectively.
In the accompanying half-marathon Helalia Johannes, who won the Nagoy Marthao in March on March 19th in a pb of 2:22:25 at age 38, smashed the course record by more than two minutes (and also broke the Namibian national record) with her 1:10:30 for an overpowering victory (her fifth) over Betha Chikanga (ZIM). Seven of the first ten women were from Zimbabwe. In the men’s race Elroy Gelant won in 1:03:20 in front of Jobo Khatoane (LES) and favourite Stephen Mokoka.
Top 5 Results
Ultramarathon (gun times):
1. Bongmusa MTHEMBU, 35 3:08:40 ZAR 250,000 + 7500i (=USD 18,025)
2. David GATEBE, 37 3:10:30 125,000 + 5000i
3. Justin Kemboi CHESIRE (KEN), 26 3:11:23 65,000
4. Sintayehu Legese YINESU (ETH), 28 3:12:34 35,000
5. Mabhutile LEBOPO (LES), 43 3:16:04 25,000
1. Gerda STEYN, 29 3:31:29 ZAR 250,000 + 7,500i (=USD 18,025)
2. Mamorallo TJOKA (LES), 34 3:38:23 125,000
3. Irvette VAN ZYL, 31 3:41:32 65,000 + 5,000i
4. Dominika STELMACH (POL), 37 3:50:12 35,000
5. Jenna CHALLENOR, 37 3:51:56 25,000 + 2,500i
Half-Marathon (gun times):
1. Elroy Gelant, 32 1:03:20 ZAR 25,000 (=USD 1750)
2. Jobo Khatoane (LES), 27 1:03:31 12,000
3. Stephen Lesego Mokoka, 34 1:03:37 6,000
4. David Manja, 27 1:03:40 5,000
5. Melikhaya Frans, 29 1:04:11 4,000
1. Helalia Johannes (NAM), 38 1:10:30 PB/CR*/NR** ZAR 25,000 (=USD 1750)
2. Betha Chikanga (ZIM), 22 1:14:29 12,000
3. Fortunate Chidzivo (ZIM), 32 1:15:39 6,000 + 2500i
4. Caroline Mhandu (ZIM), 23 1:16:41 5,000
5. Rutendo Nyahora (ZIM), 30 1:17:51 4,000