The fairytale record times proved elusive, but Sunday’s Sanlam Cape Town Marathon delivered high quality racing, thrilling competition and a world-class event to make Africa proud and begging for more.
Almost 8 000 runners completed the marathon, run in near-perfect conditions, with another 7 000 completing the short 10km dash along the Sea Point Promenade.
Ethiopia reigned supreme in the marathon, with Addis Ababa-based athletes, Asefa Mengistu Negewo and Betelhem Moges Cherenet coming out on top in closely contested races, with both generous in the praise of the Cape Town event.
Negewo missed his planned flight on Thursday and with it the elite athletes’ media briefing on Friday.
But while other athletes talked top times and high-class performances, Negewo let his feet do the talking, surging clear of his rivals in the final kilometres to win in 2 hrs 10 min 01 sec (2:10.01) – the second-fastest winning time in the history of the race, 1 min 20 sec off his own record set last year.
“I enjoy racing in Cape Town,” Negewo said. “It seems to be good to me! Last year we went with the pacers, but I felt a slight twinge in my hamstring at the start, and thought I would be more cautious today. Perhaps that cost me a faster time, but I’m pleased with the win.”
While Xolisa Tyali flew South African colours in the lead pack when the racing got serious in the latter stages, it was debutant George-born Elroy Gelant, who finished strongly in fifth place in 2:12.49 – the first South African home.
“It was a great race – what a privilege to run in a world-class event at home,” Gelant remarked.
“The conditions were near-perfect and the supporters along the way really made a difference. I found myself running on my own after 35km, and it was only the music and singers who kept me going!
“Being my first marathon, perhaps I was a bit cautious and did not go out with the leaders. In hindsight perhaps that cost me a better time, as I had a lot left in the second half. But I had an enjoyable run, and hopefully it will earn me a place in the team to compete in the Commonwealth Games in Australia next year.”
The race unfolded in three stages. Initially a large lead pack stayed in formation behind the designated pacesetters, feeling their way after a super-fast first kilometre well under three minutes.
Secondly, drama unfolded when South African pacesetter, Desmond Mokgubu, stopped abruptly at 6km, able to go no further after a stomach bug had left him up most of the night with illness.
This left Kenyan Henry Kiplagat to repeat his impressive pace-setting of last year on his own, but this time no one had the courage to go with him.
Kiplagat cut a lone figure at the front of the race until the leaders caught him at 31.5km after he slowed and stopped as planned.
The race exploded into action in the third and final stage, with a lead pack of six jockeying for position and power.
Tyali was prominent in setting the pace, with another Ethiopian, Ketema Bekele Negasa also to the fore.
But when Negewo upped the pace approaching 36km, only Negasa and Kenyan, Duncan Maiyo were able to respond.
Seemingly drawing energy from the giant icons of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu on the Civic Centre as the trio approached the mayoral centre, Negewo surged again and this time for keeps.
A minute later he was on his own, never again to be headed as he crossed the line at the Green Point Track in triumph.
The women’s competition proved fiercer still and also revolved around the designated pacer, in this instance 37-year-old Namibian, Helalia Johannes.
As in the men’s race, the elite women were reluctant to go with Johannes, who kept to the promised sub-2 hr 30 min pace until deep into the race.
However, instead of dropping out the race after 30km, Johannes opted to continue as she had every right to do, and was still ahead of the large group of chasers as she turned into the Green Point precinct with little more than a thousand metres to run.
Closing fast, 26-year-old Cherenet finally caught her prey in the final kilometre, showing impressive finishing speed and breaking the tape at the stadium just six seconds clear of the Namibian.
Kenyan Agnes Kiprop took third in 2:30:57, just 30 seconds ahead of two more Ethiopians – Meseret Asefan and Fantu Eticha, with Naomi Maiyo in sixth in 2:31:30.
Incredibly just 1 min 10 sec separated the top six finishers in one of the most closely contest women’s marathons of all time.
“I cannot describe the feeling when I broke the tape,” Cherenet confided. “It was unbelievable. What a great race – my first time in South Africa, but certainly not my last.”