The Sunday Independent’s Matshelane Mamabolo, left, tunes up for Two Oceans with Gladwin Mzazi. Picture: Matthews Baloyi/Independent Media
JOHANNESBURG - Right behind The Square shopping centre in Zone 5 Diepkloof, Soweto, is a piece of land that is a breeding ground for all kinds of future sporting stars.

Apart from the dilapidated netball court with its hard surface, everything else is typically township.

The soccer ground is bereft of grass and every kick towards the rusty poles leaves the asthmatics around cupping their mouths and noses as they strive to protect themselves from the dust.

The long strap of ground that passes for a sprinting track is similarly without a proper surface and has no visible lanes.

For longer runs, athletes go around on the uneven grass patch, doing their best to avoid running into holes as well as broken bottles and rocks.

Yet it is here that Gladwin Mzazi - as well as the Phalula twins (Lebo and Lebohang) - sometimes train in preparation for top events such as the upcoming Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon (OMTOM). It is the home of the Boxer Athletic Club.

Sure Mzazi and the Phalulas do train at the University of Johannesburg’s top class facilities but they are at home here and on Thursday adidas-sponsored Mzazi spent about an hour working on his strides and stamina.

Flanked by the club’s development coach Isaac Langa as well as an enthusiastic youngster from the club’s junior ranks, Mzazi allowed The Sunday Independent into his zone.

Later that evening he finished seventh in the KPMG SunMile in Sandton: “It was a good run,” he said, panting. “I’ve not run competitively in a long while and will do a 10km on the road on Saturday to see where I am ahead of Two Oceans. ”

Mzazi has just recovered from injuries that kept him out for a while. But he is fit to run on Saturday and is looking to improve on his third place from the 2014 edition of “the world’s most beautiful (half) marathon”. While it was near impossible to tell his readiness for the race during our hour and a bit workout at the grounds on Thursday morning, there was an unmistakeable confidence in his voice as he spoke about how he’s looking forward to the race.

“The guys are talking about going for the record and that’s got me really pumped up for the race,” he said as we negotiated our way over bottles as well as rubbish strewn all over the ground. “My aim is to do better than my third place at Two Oceans. If I can beat my time (63:46) from 2014, then maybe I can win it. When the competition is tough it makes for fast times and I think the line-up this year has the potential to run very fast times.”

Defending champion Namakoe Nkhasi of Lesotho plus Mzazi’s teammate, Lucky Mohale, as well as Elroy Gelant who beat him at the SunMile will all be competing. But multiple champion and record holder Steven Mokoka has said he’s not fit enough for the race.

“Last year many of us were at the World Half Marathon Champs and we missed out on Two Oceans. But I’m excited I’ll be going to run there again because Cape Town is my favourite place to run. I always do well there,” Mzazi gushed.

When he finished third in 2014, Mzazi felt he had been a serious contender to win. “But the last hill (Constantia Nek) got me and the guys left me. I’ve worked very hard with new coach JP Van Der Merwe and I am ready. I know a lot of people want a big return from me and I want to do just that.”

The fact he has not had a 21km run since his injuries in October and another earlier this year does not bother him much.

“It would have been nice to have had a half marathon under my belt before Two Oceans. And it was sad when one was cancelled two weeks ago here (in Soweto). But I will be okay. I’ve trained well.”

Besides having all the Boxer AC members, his technical backers adidas as well as his pregnant wife Lebo Phalula rooting for him, Mzazi also has the support of just about all the Sowetans who use the Diepkloof training ground - be it soccer, netball or running.

Sunday Independent