JOHANNESBURG – As South African road runners begin the countdown to Sunday’s Old Mutual Soweto Marathon, a former three-time winner of the famous race is crossing his fingers that a local finally breaks the foreign stranglehold on the race.
Joshua Petersen, multiple champion of the People’s Race in the late 90s, feels the only way the locals can ensure the title stays on home soil is through teamwork.
“Back in our time we helped each other,” Petersen said yesterday at the FNB Stadium where the race will start and finish. “Of course we were in competition, but we used to get together and train with each other, share tips on how one can improve and that is what helped us. I ran for Mr Price but I trained with Fusi (Nhlapo) who was with Liberty.”
Even at races, Petersen believes, there is space to work as a team for South Africans.
“If you look at the East Africans, they generally run together at races. They help pace each other and that is how they manage to dominate. I think as South Africans we need to learn to do that. We should put the issue of running for different clubs aside and work together to win these kind of races.”
Petersen challenged clubs and road running associations to come together and work at ensuring that the sport that is growing extremely fast delivers top class athletes who will be able to compete against the foreigners who come into the country and take the titles.
The Soweto Marathon, for instance, was last won by a South African male runner back in 2011 by Michael Mazibuko. Since then it has been athletes from Lesotho and Ethiopia who have reigned supreme.
Of course the Soweto Marathon is one of the toughest races in the country and winning it needs takes supreme effort.
“It is very tough. And I realise now that this new route is even tougher than the one we ran on back in the day. And because of this, runners need to put extra effort.
“Their training has to be very intensive if they are to beat those east Africans. Kenyans and Ethiopians are also human and they can be beaten. They key for athletes must be discipline. Prepare well and get a good rest, sleep well.”
Unaware of the start list for Sunday’s race, Petersen could not say which of the locals he fancies to be among the challengers end the foreign domination.
No doubt though that Ntsindiso Mphakhathi will be there or thereabouts among the leading men. The Easter Cape runner was the first South African home last year and has vowed to improve on his third place finish.
If the men are having it hard being the first marathoners to run on to that hallowed turf of the FNB Stadium, not so the local women.
Irvette Van Zyl won the race last year to end the foreign dominance and she will be back to try and defend her title.
“I’m excited to be back. I didn’t think I’d be back so soon,” said the Nedbank Athletics Club runner who gave birth just five months ago. “It would be nice to win back-to-back. Of course I always line-up to try and win and I think I am fit-ish. I’m very excited.”
More than 30 000 runners will be similarly excited as they line-up to race either the marathon, the half marathon and the 10km races that will take them through Soweto and past some of the township’s iconic monuments such as the Mandela House, Regina Mundi Church as well as the Hector Pietersen Memorial.
How fitting it will be then, says Petersen, for a South African man to win the marathon: “I’m really crossing fingers that it stays home.”