Johannesburg - It might not have been the 60 minutes he promised. And neither did he ensure that the title stayed at home. But Melikhaya Frans did his utmost to live up to his pre-race assertions, alright.
The Eastern Cape running star did not cross the finish line first at the Nelson Mandela Bay Half Marathon which also doubled as the Athletics South Africa (ASA) Half Marathon Championships in Gqeberha yesterday morning – that honour going to Lesotho’s Namakhoe Nkhasi.
Frans, though, ran the Maxed Elite athlete close and, in finishing runner-up, achieved the breakthrough feat of becoming the country’s champion in the 21.1km distance.
There are few things as exciting in sport than an athlete who openly talks up his chances and then delivers on his promises. Such often gets fans flocking to sporting arenas.
Boxing great Muhammad Ali was the master of the art, no wonder some nicknamed him ‘The Lip’. The heavyweight champion almost always ‘defeated’ his adversaries before they could get into the ring as he told them how he was going to ‘whup your butt’ and often predicting what round he would knock them out in.
Very rarely does such happen in athletics. But when Frans went this route ahead of Saturday’s race in his hometown, he brought about some excitement to an otherwise generally drab sport.
“I can promise one thing,” Frans said at the pre-race media conference, “The title is staying at home.”
The title of the popular and very fast half marathon in the Windy City that was won by the likes of Stephen Mokoka and Lesiba Precious Mashele in recent years has been the sole preserve of South African runners since its inception in 2014.
And not even the presence of athletes from East Africa could intimidate him.
“If someone wants the title, then he will need to run 28 minutes at 10km. If you’re not there, then you’re out of the game. I am focusing to run a personal best here because I love this route and I know it is very fast. I think we are going to run 60 minutes.”
They nearly did, Nkhasi winning the race in exactly 61 minutes while Frans came in at just two seconds behind the winner in a thrilling sprint finish.
It was a fascinating race with all the top 10 runners clocking 61 minutes and some change.
Frans tried to make a great race of it and broke clear of the bunch after about 15km but was hauled back, although he explained later that he had decided to let the group do the hard work for him by staying just behind them.
With this victory the 32-year-old runner from the Eastern Province has finally proved his worth as one of the country’s top athletes after many years of being in the shadow of the likes of Mokoka, Elroy Gelant and Mashele.
Though he is the national record holder in the odd 30km distance, Frans was yet to have a major achievement to confirm his fantastic talent.
His run yesterday was a good minute faster than his previous best time in the half marathon, proof that the man is in the form of his life.
And it is all too well given that he is in the national team that will represent South Africa in the marathon at the World Championships in Oregon next month. With this run he should go to the US highly confident.
Mokoka, who is also going to Oregon, came in at fifth place in 61:14, a second behind last year’s national champion Mashele in fourth place.
In the women’s race, Glenrose Xaba retained her national title despite finishing in seventh place in the open race that was dominated by East African runners. Ethiopian Flaw Bezabh was the winner.
For me though it was Frans’ bravado prior to the race and his ‘running the talk’ that excited me about this edition of the half marathon championships.
Long may it continue.