CAPE TOWN – Stephen Mokoka has flown South Africa’s distance running flag for several years, but seldom has he had as big a chance to lay down a “hall of fame” marker as he will when he lines up at the start of Sunday’s Cape Town Marathon in Beach Road.
Since its relaunch in 2014, the Cape Town Marathon has been dominated by athletes from east Africa, notably Kenya and Ethiopia, as has been the case in marathons around the world. Willy Koitile, Shadrack Kemboi and Asefa Negewo (twice) have taken line honours in the men’s competition and Lungile Gongqa’s runner-up position in 2015 is the closest South Africa has come to tasting victory in Cape Town.
But Mokoka, currently SA’s leading marathoner, has yet to race Cape Town, and hopes are strong that the Johannesburg athlete, who has beaten the world’s best over sub-marathon distances, including a notable victory over top Kenyans in last year’s Cape Town Onerun over 12km, will do so again tomorrow on the biggest marathon stage in Africa.
Mokoka’s 2hr 07min 40sec personal best marathon time is 61 seconds quicker than Negewo’s 2016 race record of 2:08:41 and there is every chance that the South African could triumph this weekend. Mokoka thrives when the stakes are high and appears to draw energy from hometown support.
He also lifts his performance when running with teammates and although he will be competing against provincial rivals - Cape Town Marathon doubles as the 2018 national championships - he will collaborate with any South African against the bigger threat from visiting athletes.
In this respect, his Gauteng teammates, Desmond Mokgobu (winner of this year’s Beppu Marathon in Japan in 2:09:31) and Xolisa Tyali (second best South African last in the Cape Town Marathon year) and the Eastern Cape’s Michael Mazibuko (third in 2015) could play an important role.
Mokoka’s current form is not in question, having recently pocketed yet another national title - the half marathon championship in Port Elizabeth in the impressive time of 1:01:46 - and he raced to his 10 000m track best time of 27:44 at the Commonwealth Games in April.
It will not be easy for the South Africans, who will be up against a stronger line-up of international athletes than ever before, mostly from the eastern highlands of Africa. Kenyan Albert Korir’s 2:08:17 is the fastest in the field after Mokoka and the 24-year-old has been winning marathons over the past 12 months, notably last year’s Vienna Marathon in 2:08:40.
His compatriot, Kipsang Kipkemoi is not far off the pace with his third-placed finish of 2:08:26 in Seville last year, while Ethiopian Fikre Assefa’s 2:08:36 (set in placing second in the Kospice Peace Marathon last year) is just a few strides behind.
If Johannesburg-based Mokoka is the “hometown favourite” in the men’s race, Bishop Lavis-born Nolene Conrad will undoubtedly be “Cape Town’s golden girl” in the women’s. Conrad’s top 25 position at this year’s World Half Marathon Championships in Spain earned her IAAF gold label status and a gold medal for Conrad on Sunday will go down as one of the finest Cape Town sporting achievements of the year.
Conrad will start as one of the favourites to win the national championship, ahead of quality athletes of the calibre of Christine Kalmer, Mapaseka Makhanya, Cornelia Joubert and Fortunate Chidzivo. But her strongest competition could come from Namibian Helalia Johannes.
The marathon gets underway from Beach Road, Granger Bay, on Sunday at 7.00am followed by the Peace 10km at 7.30am, while the Peace Trail 10km and 22km races take place tomorrow morning.