Legend Steyn backs Mbhele for podium finish

Janet Mbhele finishes 10th in the Comrades Marathon last year. | Sibonelo Ngcobo Independent Newspapers

Janet Mbhele finishes 10th in the Comrades Marathon last year. | Sibonelo Ngcobo Independent Newspapers

Published Jun 5, 2024



FOLLOWING her impressive appearance as a Comrades Marathon novice last year, Jenet Mbhele will line up for Sunday’s up run as one of the gold medal contenders.

And she has the backing of an unlikely source who believes she can actually earn a podium finish.

Comrades queen Gerda Steyn told the Xcel Running Club starlet that she has it in her to challenge for a top-three finish at the Ultimate Human Race.

“Gerda told me after Two Oceans that I can get a top three at Comrades. Iyooo!” Mbhele exclaimed, before bursting into an infectious laugh that seems to punctuate her very sentence.

“I am scared. Top three? It’s not easy. Maybe top five. But I will be happy with top 10.”

She should not be scared, though, not when she ran like the wind in the 56km Mother City Ultra for a podium finish as a novice, just like she did at Comrades last year.

Mbhele has proven her immense talent on graduating to road running after an impressive career on the track and in cross country – being national champion in both the half marathon and the marathon.

And she has graduated to the ultra distances with flying colours, too.

With no black female winners since they were allowed to participate in the Ultimate Human Race back in 1975, Mbhele is among those who have given hope that the status quo could change soon.

She goes into Sunday’s race sans the organised and often expensive training camps enjoyed by many of her adversaries who run for top sponsored clubs – Mbhele having trained at home under the tutelage of her lesser-known coach, Thamsanqa Khuboni.

“I’m not camping. I’m just training here at home, with no one to train with but my coach. He helped me do well at Two Oceans because he has run it before, and he knows it very well. So for Comrades, we did a lot of gravel training and hill work, so I feel ready.”

That such modest preparation can produce the kind of results it has talks to the athlete’s immense talent. And it helps that she does not concern herself with what the Joneses do.

“I am just going there to run my own race and not worry about the others.”

It is a ploy that has worked for her in previous races including last year’s down run, so why not stick to what has worked?

That she has graduated to the ultras and Comrades in particular is because Mbhele discovered that she’s “made for longer distances”.

“I’ve always loved Comrades, from when I was young. Of course my first inspiration in running was Mapaseka Makhanya – I always wanted to grow up to be a good runner like her,” she said, that laugh piercing through the telephone line again.

“And then when I saw Comrades, I loved those Russian twins (Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva) and later, I was really impressed by Gerda. So, I knew I’d one day run Comrades. I wanted to.

“In any case, I realised that the other distances like the 10s and 21s were too short because the race finishes before the body has really started to respond.

“That’s why I love long distance, because it gives me time to get into it, and my body delivers proper the longer I run.”

That’s bad news for her competitors for Sunday’s up run, which requires participants to be able to push on late in the second half, having worked hard in the initial stage.