CAPE TOWN – Louisa Leballo sprang the surprise of the year when she exploded past last year’s champion, Irvette van Zyl, and series newcomer, Kesa Molotsane, to take the title in Sunday’s SPAR Women’s 10km Challenge in 32 min 55 sec – the fourth fastest in the event’s history.Over 20 000 women athletes completed the 5km and 10km races along the Green Point and Sea Point beachfront in perfect racing conditions in the 25th anniversary of the race, with Elana Meyer, winner of the 1992 event, setting the massive pink-coloured throng underway.
“It’s good to know the body can still go fast,” Leballo exclaimed. “And after many years struggling with knee injuries, it’s a relief to finally be pain-free and able to train consistently. It’s great to be at the front in a SPAR series race.
“I’ve run all sorts of races and distances, from 1 500m on the track to ultra-marathons (she boasts gold and silver medals in the Two Oceans and Comrades Marathons and a national marathon title), but now I am enjoying just 10km!”
Leballo was also the first South African home at last week-end’s World Cross Country Championships in Kampala, Uganda, finishing 33rd overall in the 10km senior race.
The depth of talent in Sunday’s line-up was impressive, with no fewer than 21 athletes stopping the clock under 37 minutes and 12 faster than 35 minutes. Cape athletes struggled to keep up, with KPMG’s Nolene Conrad (seventh) and Bulelwe Simae (20th) the only local athletes in the top 20.
Top Pretoria athlete Irvette van Zyl fought gamely to defend her title, taking out the race at speed after Zimbabwean, Rutendo Nyahora, had led for her customary first 500m. Van Zyl, Nyahora and 2015 champion Mapaseka Makhany, enjoyed supremacy through 2km in 6:36, before Van Zyl upped the ante, opening a gap on Makhanya and the rest of the field with a 3:05 third kilometre.
But Van Zyl was unable to stretch her lead to more than a few seconds, with Leballo having moved up to join Makhanya as the runners rounded the Sea Point swimming pool, just two seconds off Van Zyl’s 4km time of 12:59.
Boxer athlete Lebogang Phalula had joined the chasers, with Makhanya dropping back.
Another Van Zyl surge at 7km left just Molotsane and Leballo at her shoulder and the three kept close company for the next 2km. “I knew I had to break them before the final kilometre,” Van Zyl admitted.
“I knew Kesa had the speed, and you never know with Louisa. I tried all I could, but something was missing and I could not shake them.
“When the lead cyclist shouted there was just 500m to go, the others just exploded away and I had nothing left to give.”
It was left to Leballo to take on Bloemfontein-based speedster Molotsane, 15 years her junior, but Leballo proved the “elder statesman” in every respect and won the final sprint to the line by a second.Her time was just 28 seconds outside the race record of Meyer, who was on hand to congratulate her at the finish.