It did not reach the same passionate levels of the Floyd Mayweather Jnr versus Conor McGregor pre-match trash talk, but there were a few jabs thrown during the Comrades Marathon pre-race conference on Friday to inject some excitement into the build-up.
Ahead of the 93rd running of the world famous KwaZulu/Natal ultra taking place tomorrow, the men and women regarded as top contenders gathered at a hotel on Durban’s beachfront to speak about their readiness. And while the mood was generally convivial among the protagonists from the different running clubs, with many complementing each other, there were some who injected some fighting talk into the affair.
“Just know that if you did not beat me in a marathon, you won’t beat me here,” three-time gold medalist Charles Tjiane of Maxed told his competitors, before adding – matter-of-factly – that “I’m going to be a champion.”
With a best place finish of third back in 2009, many would have laughed off Tjiane. But even last year, he showed his capabilities as he led for a while before the likes of Gift Kelehe got awoken to the reality that he might run away with it by their coach John Hamlett.
“I know they call me a rabbit (because of his tendency to go out too fast). Most races I should have won, but I made a lot of mistakes. Lack of information on the route was my problem. No one told me what was happening in the races. But that is all fixed now. So don’t call me a rabbit again. This is my year.”
His clubmate, Prodigal Khumalo, also threw down the gauntlet.
“I’m in better shape than last year,” said the two-time gold medalist who finished eighth in 2017 but finished the year with a fantastic win in the Cape Ultra 100km in December.
“I am ready for the challenge and if the guys make a mistake, I will punish them.”
Although he did not direct his talk at the opposition, Entiska Athletics Club’s Kelehe was not too far behind in proclaiming his goal.
“My eyes are set on the win. We have the best of the crop here; the record holder (David Gatebe), defending and double champ (Bongmusa Mthembu), so whoever wins will have to work hard.”
Incredibly, despite their immense talents both Gatebe and Mthembu were pretty reserved in their pronouncements. Still celebrated for his fantastic record-breaking run two years ago, Gatebe humbly attributed that lightning fast 5.18.19 to the work done by other runners.
“In 2016 we had the hot spots (the sponsors put up different prizes for the first runner reaching particular points first in the race) and that record is for those people who ran because they carried me to that time,” he said, adding that his preparations went well and reminding everyone that this year’s distance was a little longer than two years ago.
Mthembu, the peak of his black cap almost covering his eyes, spoke – as he usually does – somewhat seriously and emphasised the fact that what happened in the past would have no bearing on the race.
“I forgot what happened last year. But I believe my preparations have gone well. My coach is confident that I will do what he says we must do,” said the Arthur Ford runner who won the Down Run in 2014 before adding last year’s Up Run title to become the first South African since Bruce Fordyce to win the event in both directions.
Down Run specialist, Ludwick Mamabolo – who won it in 2012 and finished runner-up on three occasions, described himself as being tired of carrying others to the finish.
“In previous years, I’ve helped people to win. You always see them crowding around me in the races. This year, it is every man for himself,” he said, adding that the race would not be won by the most physically strong runner but rather one who had the strongest mind.
Could Tjiane’s willingness to declare himself the best have dealt a psychological blow to his opponents? We’ll know sometime before lunch tomorrow.