Gift Kelehe to run his final competitive Comrades Marathon

Gift Kelehe - the name has become so synonymous with the Comrades Marathon that the idea of him no longer racing is somewhat unfathomable. Picture supplied.

Gift Kelehe - the name has become so synonymous with the Comrades Marathon that the idea of him no longer racing is somewhat unfathomable. Picture supplied.

Published Jun 8, 2024


A stellar Comrades Marathon career is coming to an ‘end’ tomorrow. A champion passionate about athletes’ welfare is running competitively for the last time on Sunday.  A member of the only set of brothers to reign victorious at the world’s most famous ultra marathon is bidding his favourite race goodbye. And he intends to do it in a ‘golden’ way.

Gift Kelehe - the name has become so synonymous with the Comrades Marathon that the idea of him no longer racing is somewhat unfathomable. But such is the nature of sport. No matter how good, an athlete cannot remain competitive forever.

And so it will be that his 15th start of The Ultimate Human Race is his swansong.

“I am going for race number 15, and it will be my last race,” Kelehe says “But it will not be the end of me with Comrades. I won’t be fading away from the race completely. I’m talking to them (Comrades Marathon Association - CMA) and I could be coming back in some capacity, maybe to manage the runners and be of assistant in some way.”


One more time

Such is his love and passion for the race and runners’ welfare in particular that it would be folly to not to have him involved.

First though Kelehe has the small matter of an 85.91km run up from Durban to Pietermaritzburg to get out of the way in pursuit of an incredible eighth gold medal.

It is bound to be an emotional race for the diminutive runner from Rustenburg. After all, he has lived Comrades Marathon from his teenage years, Kelehe having watched his brother Andrew work his way up for years to winning the race back in 2001 – a feat that saw the title returning to South Africa for the first time in three years following the Russian domination of the KwaZulu-Natal ultra.

Then, only 19, Gift was at the finish line to celebrate that glorious moment and knew there and then that he wanted to experience the same thrill of breasting that finish tape as his brother did.

Coach John Hamlett told him then that he was too young for Comrades, but the colonel knew there was something there.

Fast forward to 2015 and Gift was making Comrades history with his victory – ironically at the age of 33 just like his brother was in 2001 - the Kelehe brothers becoming the first local siblings to win the race. The Nurglieva twin sisters (Elena and Olesya) from Russia also achieved the feat.

He remembers that May 31 day as if it were yesterday: “That race keeps playing back on my mind. I went there very confidently because at the (pre-race) press conference I said, ‘I am here to run, and I am here to win’. The coach told me to work these guys, grind them slowly until they are finished. And I did just that although Mohamed (runner-up Hussein) stuck with me until I pulled away from him and from there on there was no looking back.”

He had already won three gold medals prior to that victory and then went on to finish in the top ten a further three times thereafter with last year’s ninth place, a sign he is ageing well.


A year to forget

Of course, that victory was his best moment. His worst was six years earlier in 2009 when he came in at 111th position.

“I ran a 6:40 then and I was cramping so bad in the last 20km, and coach found me on the road trying to put on some spray on my calves. He took the spray away from me and threw it across the N3 and told me ‘this thing won’t help you. You must just run’. I got back on the road and ran. It was so painful.”

Perhaps what most will remember Kelehe for with regards Comrades is his advocating for better prize money for the athletes. For years, he has called on the CMA to increase the winner’s prize to at least a million rand. He was seen as a troublemaker by the powers that be for that. And things came to a head in 2022 when the race returned after a two-year Covid-19 induced hiatus.

Inexplicably, the CMA reduced prize money citing lack of finances due to the race not having taken place for two years, but Kelehe was having none of it and raised his misgivings at the elite athletes’ pre-race media conference. He pulled out of the race there and then in a stance against what he believed was exploitation of the athletes. It was a seminal moment in the history of the race, but unfortunately none of the other elite stood in solidarity with him and went on to race for peanuts.

Kelehe had made his stance though and he lived with it, a character trait that Hamlett always praises of his athlete whom he describes as ‘a man of integrity’.

And you always get that from engaging with Kelehe who is not wont to call a spade a garden tool.

As he looked ahead to the race, he declared himself prepared and having put in all the work necessary to do well at Comrades. He is delighted that it is an Up-Run this year.

“I love the Up-Run because in the Down those declines at Fields Hill and Bothas’ Hill, they hammer your quads and by then you’d have been running for a while. On the Up it is only tough in the first half so you can pace yourself proper to be ready to smash in the second half.”


Putting in the hard yards

And he knows glory can only be achieved through putting in the effort at training, which he has done every year since Hamlett agreed that he can start running Comrades.

“It’s all about hard work. Nothing will come easy without training hard. And even though it is difficult to balance because of work responsibilities that lead to your training suffering a bit,” explained he man who works for the Road traffic Management Corporation.

That he has lasted as long he has in Comrades is because he just loves the race.

“What drives me is the connection I have with this race. You run it once and you get connected to it so much. It becomes a part of you, it becomes a part of your system. And my connection with it runs deep, It started when my brother won and for me to then win it was just something else.”

He knows winning it again will take something special, but he believes he can still get one last gold medal.

“Gold is possible, yes. Comrades is a funny race. Anything is possible there. You might be coming and say you want to win the race and then on the day it shows you flames, something different. It can humble you. So, the key is to be patient with it. Be very disciplined with your run.”

He has done that numerous times over the years. And he will do it one last time on Sunday.