Two Chepchirchirs from Kenya and three South African Olympians provide some of the spice to a mouth-watering recipe of talent and achievement which characterises the women’s field at Sunday’s Sanlam Cape Town Marathon.
The Phalula twins, Lebo and Lebogang, spearhead South Africa’s challenge, back in business after a difficult year or two. But the inclusion of two Olympic triathletes provides much of the interest, with Mari Rabie and Kate Roberts lining up against the formidable east Africans. Rabie competed in Beijing (2008) and Rio (2016 - where Lebo Phalula placed 63rd in the marathon for South Africa), while Roberts raced in Beijing and London (2012).
Daughter of former sub-2 hr 20 min marathoner, Dr Lood Rabie, Mari Rabie will be lining up for her third marathon in Cape Town, with a view to a sub-2 hr 40 min time and a top ten marathon ranking in South Africa. “I was lucky enough to get charity entries into the London Marathon for the past two years,” said Rabie. “I was happy to be able to raise funds for Endurocad (Elana van Zyl’s running academy), having benefited myself from the academy.”
Trained at Stellenbosch and Oxford as an actuary and applied mathematician, with an Oxon MBA thrown in for good measure, and employed now in investor relations in Stellenbosch, Rabie put her significant skills set to good use in raising a quarter of a million Rand for the running academy through her London Marathon entry this year, before running to a top thirty position in 2:48:52.
In spite of her marathon aspirations, Rabie is emphatic that her days as a professional athlete are over. “I’m really now just a weekend warrior,” insists Rabie. “My focus is firmly on my work, which involves significant travelling, leaving me less time for training. But I’m keen to see what I can achieve in the marathon and Two Oceans is definitely on my bucket list!”
Rabie has been able to lean on her father’s marathon knowledge to assist her advance in the sport. “My dad writes my training programme but he is not a “hands-on” coach,” explained Rabie. I do 99% of my training on my own and fit it in whenever I can. I like being independent but appreciate his input. Unfortunately, my parents will not see me run on Sunday, as they are travelling out of town.”
Rabie’s biggest sporting career set-back came at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where a significant “mechanical” problem in the bike leg saw her drop out of the lead pack, eventually being relegated to 48th position in the triathlon. She dealt with her disappointment by achieving two Master’s degrees at Oxford University, before returning to world triathlon competition with considerable success.
Facing the best in the world as South Africa’s top-ranked triathlete at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Rabie led out of the swim, stayed in contention on the bike before finishing an impressive 11th and ending her career on a high.
But marathon racing is currently dominated by east Africans – more than three quarters of the IAAF gold label athletes are from this region - and in all likelihood the five Kenyan and five Ethiopian athletes listed in Sunday’s elite women’s field will dominate in the absence of last year’s champion, Helalia Johannes of Namibia, who has her sights on the World Championships in Doha next month.
Ethiopian Abeba-Tekulu Gebremeskel broke through the 2:30 barrier in no uncertain terms in Seville, Spain, in February this year, with a superb 2:24:53 performance and will be aiming to repeat on her home continent, but two Kenyans who share a name, are likely to be strong contenders for line honours.
At 37, Flomena Chepchirchir is in the twilight of her career, but boasts the fastest marathon time to her name – 2:23:00 sec. But her best times were run six or seven years ago and it remains to be seen if she is still competitive among the younger contenders. She raced a solid 2:32:05 at Shenzen nine months ago and will be eager to show she remains a force to be reckoned with in Cape Town.
Her namesake, Celestine Chepchirchir, is just starting out on a career which promises to deliver big things. At just twenty-three years she has already completed two world-class marathons, a 2:24:48 at Seoul in March this year and a 2:26:58 in Toronto in 2018. A win in Cape Town would come as no surprise.