Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Kenyan ultra-marathon star Kemboi Chesire will defend his Two Oceans Marathon title on Saturday and if he covers the 56km trek around the Cape peninsula in under 3hr 03min 44sec, he will break the record set by SA’s Thompson Magawana in 1988 and earn a cool R1m incentive offered by main sponsor Old Mutual. 

Frith van der Merwe holds the women’s record of 3:30:36, posted in 1989.

A strong East African contingent is in Cape Town well-prepared after training at altitude in Kenya.

Chesire can expect no favours from Abraham Kiprotich, who has gone quicker over the standard-marathon distance of 42km than any other athlete in the elite field. He clocked 2:10:55 in Istanbul in 2018 and has a personal best of 2:08:33 at Daegu, South Korea in 2013.

The 33-year-old Kiprotich was born in Kenya but took up French citizenship after serving in the French Foreign Legion and having lived in the country for many years.

When he was just two years old his older brother, Paul Kipkoech, won the gold medal in the 10,000m at the 1987 World Championships in Athletics. Kipkoech died before Kiprotich had  reached his teenage years

Whether the favoured pair can come anywhere close to Magawana’s record will depend on conditions on the day and how they cope with the tougher sections of the race, especially the closing 14km that includes the haul up Constantia Nek.

The final hurdle towards the finish line is Chet’s Hill, named after the late Chet Sainsbury, for many years the race organiser, which is a short incline along Union Avenue.

Chesire’s race experience makes him the man to beat again, but Kiprotich knows he has the speed and power to make a fist of it. But should the chief protagonists fluff their lines, then another Kenyan, Melly Kennedy Kiptoo, who finished fourth in 2018 and sixth in 2017, could pounce. His experience at the sharp-end of the race will prove invaluable if he is in the lead bunch.

Do not rule out the chances of 2014 champ Lebenya Nkoka, says former New York Marathon winner Hendrick Ramaala.

“Lebenya has won before, why not again if he’s at the peak of his powers. He’s a mountain man coming from Lesotho and the race calls for such an athlete, so watch out for his charge when the race heats up.

“He will know about the tricky bits like the first real climb of 7km that needs to be navigated with care or things can go pear-shaped very quickly, then there is the different gradients and challenging last part of the route.

“He’s a wise runner and I don’t see him getting caught out,” said Ramaala, who was second on debut in 2015.

“Comrades Marathon winner David Gatebe, who broke the downhill record in 2016,  is one of SA’s hopes who is small in stature but big on heart. He can handle the downhills like a champ, has the speed as well, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him back on the podium after finishing third last year, and winning it in 2013.”

In the women’s event, Irvette van Zyl makes her ultra-marathon debut and it remains to be seen how she copes with 56km instead of the 42km to which she is accustomed.

But she has focused her build-up on the trip ahead and could well be the dark horse for the title. Van Zyl has trained on sections of the route and is wary of what lies in store after passing the marathon mark. Will her legs have the power to tackle Constantia Nek with venom, only time will tell.

The 2018 runner-up, Dominika Stelmach of Poland, looks a lively challenger for overall honours. Maybe she has returned for another shot at the title to bury 2018’s demon that saw her surrendering the lead to eventual winner Gerda Steyn on the climb up the Nek.