There is great optimism that yet another South African runner could claim victory in the Comrades Marathon on Sunday.
Experts in long-distance running cited natural speed‚ leg power and mental strength among key factors that have boosted local athletes in the down run of the unforgiving 90km ultra-race.
Going into Sunday’s race‚ six winners in the past nine editions of the race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban have been South African, since policeman Andrew Kelehe arrested the dominance of foreigners in 2001. "South African runners now know how to choose races carefully. They no longer over-race before the Comrades‚" said Willie Mtolo‚ a two-time Comrades runner-up who also has eight gold medals.
The 1992 New York Marathon champion‚ who guided Bong’musa Mthembu to his 2014 down-run triumph‚ added that "running the Comrades requires a person who is strong mentally and ready to take the pain". He picked Mthembu and defending down-run champion David Gatebe as favourites.
Mtolo’s sentiments were echoed by Xolani Mabhida‚ who succeeded him as Mthembu’s coach in 2017. "The down run has short hills compared to the up run and our top runners have the build‚ with muscles that can sustain speed and power over a long distance‚" he said.
Mabhida conceded that his charge, who won the 2014 and 2017 titles, will be under pressure in his quest for a hat-trick.
Renown long-distance coach John Hamlett also backed a South African winning the title on Sunday‚ looking no further than his Entsika Athletics Club, to which former champions Gatebe and Gift Kelehe (2015) belong. Hamlett‚ who goes by the moniker "Colonel Coach"‚ guided Gift’s brother, Andrew, to that victory 17 years ago.
"Andrew said to me at the time: ‘This Russian domination has to stop now!’ and he did it. From there on‚ South Africans have taken their place in the down run.
"Our guys are a lot faster and more efficient. Anything can happen on Sunday, but we’ll have the same guys going at each other again — Gatebe‚ Mthembu‚ Ludwick [Mamabolo]. But we must be careful of the threat from Lesotho."
The race on Sunday starts at 5.30am outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall and finishes at 5.30pm at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.
SA’s dominance in the down run over the years:
2001: Andrew Kelehe (5:25:51)
2003: Fusi Nhlapo (5:28:52)
2005: Sipho Ngomane (5:27:10)
*2007: Leonid Shvetsov ( 5:20:49)
*2009: Stephen Muzhingi ( 5:23:27)
*2010: Stephen Muzhingi (5:29:01)
2012: Ludwick Mamabolo (5:31:03)
2014: Bong’musa Mthembu (5:28:29)
2016: David Gatebe (5:18:19‚ record)
* Foreign runners