CAPE TOWN – Nolene Conrad faces a defining moment in her impressive athletics career on Sunday when she lines up against some of the world’s best at the start of the Osaka Marathon in Japan.
Japan is right up with Kenya and Ethiopia in women’s marathon running, boasting four athletes in Sunday’s race with marathon best times faster than two hours and 24 minutes. And with several top east Africans also in the mix, a top-15 finish in a personal best time would represent an outstanding result for Conrad.
The diminutive athlete from Blue Downs has risen to the top echelon of South African distance running in recent years and led her compatriots home at last year’s world half marathon championships in Spain, where she earned IAAF gold label status for her top-25 position.
But an elite standard marathon time still eludes Conrad, although her 2hr 34min 39sec at last year’s Cape Town Marathon came close.
Her half marathon best of 1:11:44 suggests that a five-minute improvement, which will lift her into world-class sub-2:30 territory, may not be beyond her.
“I’m definitely aiming for a big improvement on my best of 2:34:39 I achieved in last year’s Cape Town Marathon,” admitted Conrad. “My coach (Ernie Gruhn) believes that I can get close to 2:30.
I was rather cautious at Cape Town, not wanting to risk anything. That earned me a solid performance, but perhaps not quite what I could have achieved.
“I’m adopting a new fierce approach for Japan. I’m going for it - let’s see how it works out. I should be comfortable going through half way in 75 minutes, which will be a few minutes slower than my half marathon best. The course is pancake flat, so hopefully I’ll be able to hold on in the second half.”
Osaka has produced a succession of outstanding marathon times in the women’s competition in recent years, with Japan’s leading athletes edging out the traditionally-powerful African competition.
Mizuki Matsuda won last year in 2:22:44 - just over a minute slower than the 16-year-old race record - and the 23-year-old will be going all out to retain her title on Sunday ahead of the likes of 2016 winner, Kayoko Fukushi, and other sub-2:24 athletes Tomomi Tanaka, Rei Ohara and Mari Ozaki (all of Japan), and Ethiopian Merima Mohammed.
Conrad is not yet in that league, but she holds a trump card in having her mentor, Elana van Zyl-Meyer “in her corner”. One of the most experienced and successful athletes in Japan of all time, Van Zyl-Meyer will accompany Conrad to Osaka, together with Gruhn, and the pair will be on the course to encourage their charge to achieve her dream outcome.
“I’m very excited and a bit nervous,” said Conrad. “It’s my first race in Japan, but having Elana and Ernie with me will make a huge difference. If anyone knows about racing in Japan, it’s Elana and I’m sure that I will benefit from her presence.”
“Nolene is in great shape,” Van Zyl-Meyer said. “I’ve not raced the Osaka Marathon, but I loved my times in Japan and I hope she also has a great experience. They are really excited about Nolene joining the marathon this weekend and I’m sure it will work out well.”
Breakfast last week with swimming icon, Chad le Clos, may have been just the tonic Conrad needed.
“He’s such an inspiration, and every time I look at him I float,” said Conrad. But she is very much aware of the serious intent of the Japanese venture and will be looking to translate her undoubted ability into a significant jump up the international marathon rankings.@StephenGranger3