Stephen Mokoka - firm favourite for the half marathon title. Photo: Stephen Granger

CAPE TOWN – The Great Rift Valley is one of the most distinctive features on the African continent.  Apart from its extraordinary geological origins, it has also produced the world’s greatest distance athletes, several of whom will be lining up at the start of the fiftieth Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon on Saturday.

Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate world marathon running. Of the fastest ten marathoners in history, six are Kenyan and the remainder from Ethiopia. Virtually all major city marathons are dominated by athletes from this region and the substantial prize money on offer around the globe represents a significant revenue source for those countries’ athletes.

To date, a similar assault by these wonder-athletes on the world’s top ultra-distance races, including the Two Oceans and Comrades, has not yet occurred, but this could be about to change, starting Saturday.

Not that athletes from the Great Rift Valley region have been absent from the Two Oceans. Kenyans John Wachira (2009) and last year’s champion Justin Chesire won convincingly, but a total of two and three gold medals respectively in the past two years from male athletes this region scarcely suggests dominance.  And Kenyan and Ethiopian women athletes have been even scarcer among the Oceans’ gold medals.

The Kenyan challenge has been significantly strengthened this year, with six top athletes looking to hunt down Thompson Magawana’s 31 year-old record. Leading the charge is 33-year-old French-Kenyan, Abraham Kiprotich, the fastest marathoner in the field with a 2:08:33 best to his name and third place in the Istanbul Marathon in 2:10:55 last November. 

Early morning action in last year's Two Oceans. Photo: Stephen Granger
Early morning action in last year's Two Oceans. Photo: Stephen Granger

Chesire returns to defend his title, while last year’s two other gold medalists, Melly Kennedy and Jesse Gichuhi and two other fast but unknown marathoners, Isaac Kiprorir and Benjamin Tabut make up the supporting pack. The possibility of a Kenyan podium clean-sweep and a new race record cannot be excluded.

Magawana’s 3 hr 03 min 44 sec, set in 1988, is no picnic, however.

For good reason it has stood for three decades, and there is a real possibility of a major blow-up on Constantia Nek of would-be record-breakers. This would open the race to those choosing a more conservative approach, typical of the impressive marathoners from the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho (who boast six Two Oceans wins), and giving a chance to leading Zimbabwe and South African athletes.

Cape Town’s Lindikhaya Mthangayi has made it clear he is chasing an Oceans victory and the Khayelitsha pastor has enjoyed an impressive build up, dominating early season road races including a close victory in the Cape Peninsula Marathon over his Nedbank teammate, 2017 Two Oceans champion, Lungile Gongqa. The two will be strong candidates for gold, if not better.

Ethiopia's Chelitu Asefa and Polish athlete, Dominika Stelmach - gold medal contenders. Photo: Stephen Granger
Ethiopia's Chelitu Asefa and Polish athlete, Dominika Stelmach - gold medal contenders. Photo: Stephen Granger

Lesotho’s 2014 Two Oceans champion and last year’s runner-up, Lebenya Nkoka, is back for another crack at the title with compatriots Moeketsi Mosuhli, Teboho Sello, Mabuthile Lebopo and Teboho Noosi all good bets for gold, as are Zimbabwean Collen Makaza (2nd in 2015), 2013 champion David Gatebe and three times Comrades champion, Bongmusa Mthembu.

Ethiopians have struggled to make their mark at Two Oceans and appear to lack the fire-power of their Kenyan neighbours this year, although Kebede Aberra Dinke finished within two minutes of a podium position in 7th last year and could prove an exception on Saturday.

The Two Oceans 56km debuts of two of South Africa’s best-ever distance athletes is a feature of the women’s competition.  Gauteng-based Rene Kalmer and Irvette van Zyl have bagged countless marathon and sub-marathon titles – including several Two Oceans Half Marathon ones – and turn their feet to the ultra on Saturday.  

Durban athlete, Jenna Challenor, is a strong title contender. Photo: Stephen Granger
Durban athlete, Jenna Challenor, is a strong title contender. Photo: Stephen Granger

Both have the ability to take the title, with Van Zyl’s recent form, in particular, making her a formidable opponent to any other pretender, of which there are several. Pretoria’s Gerda Steyn is focused on Comrades, but intends to give it her all in defense of her title. Peninsula Marathon winner, Jenna Challenor, is back at the top of her form after an injury-beset 2018 and looking to go one better than her second-place in 2017. As will Polish athlete Dominika Stelmach after finishing just two minutes behind Steyn last year.  

Zimbabwean Loveness Madziva (7th last year), Mamorallo Tjoka (Lesotho), last year’s 9th-paced Ethiopian Selam Abere Alebachew and South Africans Charne Bosman, Katy van Meter, Yolande Maclean and Salome Cooper will all be prime contenders for top ten gold medals.

The quality in the half marathon field shines brighter than ever, with top South African Stephen Mokoka back after a two-year absence to attempt to make it five wins out of five.  He will be as hard to beat in the men’s competition as will Namibian soldier, Helalia Johannes, in the women’s.

Favourite for the half marathon, Helalia Johannes, with Elana Meyer after winning the Cape Town Marathon last September. Photo: Stephen Granger
Favourite for the half marathon, Helalia Johannes, with Elana Meyer after winning the Cape Town Marathon last September. Photo: Stephen Granger

Both won Cape Town Marathon titles last September and coincidentally both ran top-class marathons at Lake Biwa in Japan last month, Mokoka finishing third in 2:07:58 – just 18 seconds off his best – and Johannes winning in an exceptional 2:22:53.  Bet on them clinching the top prizes at the Oceans Half tomorrow, despite the strongest line up in the 21  year history of that event.

Lesotho’s 2016 winner, Namakoe Nkasi, and last year’s winner, Gun Run champion David Manja, will likely have to wait for Mokoka’s absence before adding to their Oceans’ titles while top South Africans, Elroy Galant and Gladwin Mzazi, will likely also be contending the lesser podium places.

Kane Reilly and Megan Mackenzie will start as equally strong favourites in tomorrow’s taxing 24km Two Oceans Trail Race over the slopes of Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain, which gets underway from Jameson Plaza at UCT at 07h00.  The 12km race starts at 08h40.

The half marathon gets underway at 05h50 on Saturday, with the ultra-marathon off at 06h40, both from Newlands Main Road.  The winners are expected at the UCT Green Mile finish shortly after 06h45 and 09h40 respectively.

@StephenGranger3