Mike Fokoroni wins the 2016 Two Oceans Marathon. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

CAPE TOWN - The Two Oceans Marathon will showcase Africa’s finest ultra-distance athletes this weekend in what has effectively become the African ultra-marathon championship.

The intense rivalry amongst many of the continent’s top distance-running countries comes to a head on Saturday in the world’s most beautiful marathon, with five African marathon super-powers going head to head along the classic circuit through Muizenberg, Fish Hoek, Noordhoek, Chapman’s Peak and Constantia Nek, before finishing on the “Green Mile” at the University of Cape Town.

While the Oceans contest and rewards are primarily about individual excellence over the challenging 56km course, there is little doubt that inter-country rivalry has strengthened in recent years and national pride has become one of the foremost elements of the race.

No fewer than 27 African countries will be competing in the Two Oceans on Saturday, but while the likes of Namibia and Botswana boast significant numbers, just five nations are expected to be involved in the battle for supremacy up front - South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ethiopia and Lesotho. It would come as a surprise if athletes from these countries did not dominate the podium and gold medal positions.

Lesotho is the smallest both by geographical area and population, but when it comes to the Two Oceans the country has consistently demonstrated that size does not matter, their athletes dominating the podium places on four occasions in the past six years.

Typically the “Mountain Kingdom” marathoners run tactically, largely as a team and coming from behind, taking control of the race in the latter stages. They did so superbly in 2014 and 2015, but misjudged the pace last year and left it too late, allowing the front-running Zimbabweans to stay out in front to the finish. Mike Fokoroni took line honours with compatriot Collen Makaza close behind in second.

While athletes from Lesotho and Zimbabwe, in particular, run together in team formation, South Africans tend to be more “club-conscious” or run as individuals, to the detriment of runners from south of the Limpopo. Their successes, such as George Ntshiliza’s win in 2011, and David Gatebe and Mthandazo Qhina’s great 1-2 in 2013, have been sporadic and often unexpected.

Kenya and Ethiopia are the real powerhouses of distance running in Africa, but have yet to dominate on the global ultra-marathon circuit, as they have over the standard marathon distance. Kenyan John Wachira’s win in 2009 has not been followed by further success from these two countries, although there has been a gradual increase in their gold medal success in recent years, particularly in the women’s competition.

There is a school of thought that it is only a matter of time before Kenya and Ethiopia plunder the majority of the Two Oceans spoils, and Saturday could see the likes of Ethiopia’s Kebeda Dinke (ninth last year), and Kenyan’s Moses Kurgat and Melly Kennedy contest the top placings.

But more likely Kenya and Ethiopia’s glory days at Oceans lie in the future, and Saturday’s podium positions will probably by taken athletes by Zimbabwe, Lesotho and possibly SA. Fokoroni and Makaza tasted success last year and will be eager for more. They are also reportedly in even better condition this time around. Compatriot Moses Njodzi, winner in 2006, is also back to his best, showing off his form in Cape Town earlier in the year with a fine win in the Red Hill Classic 36km.

Lesotho’s Moses Mosuhli will be looking to emulate his 2015 form, when he finished third in 3hr 13min 44sec, rather than that of last year, when he dropped back to 34th, while his countrymen Teboho Sello, and the Lebopo brothers, Warinyane and Mabuthile (winner in 2010) will again be strong contenders.

With the gap between the Oceans and Comrades being just seven weeks this year, some of SA’s leading ultra-marathoners, including the vastly talented Ludwick Mamabola, Bongmusa Mthembu (Comrades winner in 2014) and Claude Moshiywa, will not likely race competitively on Saturday.

This could open opportunities for the “old men” of the race, former marathon super-stars, Hendrick Ramaala and Gert Thys, who at 45 years are both reportedly focused on the podium on Saturday, but don’t write off the chances of Mthandazo Qhina and Lungile Gongqa becoming the first Cape Town Two Oceans winner since Don Hartley’s victory in 1973.

While Africa dominates the men’s field, three athletes from further afield will be strong contenders for line honours in the women’s competition. American Sarah Bard impressed with her strong-running to finish fourth in last year’s Comrades Marathon, and could surprise by challenging for the podium on Saturday, 39-year-old British athlete, Holly Rush has been in superb form in trail marathons and also has the ability to excel on the road.

But it is the Belarusian, Maryna Damantsevich, with a 2:30:09 marathon best time, who looks most likely to upset Tanith Maxwell’s hopes and ambitions, and bag another win for Eastern Europe on Saturday.

There is almost no chance of any athlete getting a sniff of the R1 million incentive on offer for a new men’s or women’s record, with Thompson Magawana’s 3:03:44 and Frith van der Merwe’s 3:30:36 likely to remain secure for the foreseeable future.

Cape Times