CAPE TOWN – At age 33, Stephen Mokoka may have been winding down his athletics career.
But after a lengthy stint on the track and cross-country, he is back with the marathon at the right time, and it has breathed new life into his running.
The highlight of his track career may have been the 2016 African Championships in Durban, where he won the 10 000m gold medal, and placing 18th at the Rio Olympics. It was a vast improvement on his London Olympics display four years earlier, where he ended 49th in the marathon.
He was unable to hold on to the SA 5 000m record, though, which was broken by Elroy Gelant, while Hendrick Ramaala holds the 10 000m mark.
Mokoka had another go at the 10 000m at the World Championships in London last year, ending 20th, and in the Commonwealth Games this year, where he finished in a creditable sixth position.
But the big breakthrough came in last November’s Shanghai Marathon, where he was victorious in a strong time of 2:08.35, after running 2:10.18 in 2016.
He followed that up with the fastest time by a local athlete on South African soil in winning the Cape Town Marathon this past Sunday – which doubled as the national championships.
Mokoka produced a time of 2:08.31, which is not far off his personal best of 2:07.40, set in Shanghai in 2015.
“We ran into a headwind in the first half and started struggling a bit, so after halfway, we tried to push the pace. I’m happy with how the race turned out,” Mokoka said afterwards.
“The course was perfect. If we didn’t have a headwind, I think we could have run faster.”
That will be the next aim: Gert Thys’ 1999 SA record of 2:06.33.
Mokoka will probably only run another marathon in 2019 again, but his major focus is likely to be the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
New marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge produced his stunning time of 2:01.39 at the Berlin Marathon a few weeks ago, so perhaps Mokoka should sign up for that fast course next year.
I can say that 10 days later it still feels like a dream pic.twitter.com/3UaRzJY5Mc
The SA women’s marathon champion was also crowned at the Cape Town Marathon, and it was Nolene Conrad – who hails from Blue Downs – who claimed the title in a new personal best of 2:34.39.
That time earned her eighth place overall, with Namibian Helalia Johannes winning in 2:29.28, the quickest time in South Africa in over 30 years.
Who knows, the 32-year-old Conrad may just eye her mentor Elana van Zyl-Meyer’s SA mark of 2:25.15 going forward.
Thank you to my TEAM coach, mentor , sponsors, friends, family, training partners, supporters and fans- I could not have done it without you! Proud to be associated with this amazing event- Thank you @CTMarathon it was special! #SAChamp #PB2:34.38 pic.twitter.com/rWx6W4PLVm
She will no doubt, like Mokoka, plan her schedule carefully over the next two years in order to peak at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But it is their excellent performances at the Cape Town Marathon that should provide hope for other South African marathon athletes that they can push for competitive times by persevering over many years.
And guess what? Mokoka is the same age as Kipchoge at 33, so hopefully he is in his prime right now.