When Stephen Mokoka sped to the fastest marathon time on an accredited course in South Africa in winning last year’s Sanlam Cape Town Marathon, he was standing on the shoulders of many distance athletes who had made marathon magic in the Mother City.
Mokoka’s time of 2 hrs 08 min 31 sec was a few seconds outside Zithulele Sinqe’s incredible 1986 national championship time of 2:08:04, but statisticians have ruled that Port Elizabeth course on which the great marathon was run was not within recognized standards.
But Cape Town had long before featured in the national record books, with top male and female athletes having excelled in races such as the Peninsula, Stellenbosch, Kuils River and Winelands Marathons.
“Iron Man” of distance running, Willie Olivier, came within a whisker of becoming the first South African athlete to break 2 hrs 20 min, with a superb run down the traditional Main Road course between Green Point and Simon’s Town to win the 1968 Peninsula Marathon in a national record of 2:20:21.
The honour of breaking 2 hrs 20 min fell to marathon legend, Ferdie le Grange, who raced to a superb 2:19:02 on a hilly marathon course in Durbanville in 1971. Le Grange was in a class of his own in distance running in the seventies and established his second of six national marathon records just two months later on the same course, clocking 2:17:51. Le Grange would later take the record to a world-class 2:12:47 in Port Elizabeth in 1974, but just on a decade later Cape Town was again to witness marathon glory as Johannesburg athlete, Bernard Rose, stepped up to the plate.
Geoff Bacon had taken Le Grange’s national record to 2:12:10 in Port Elizabeth in 1980 and three years later Rose lined up at the start of the Peninsula Marathon with that mark very much in mind. Incredibly, Rose raced across the finish line at the Naval Sports Fields in Simon’s Town in exactly the same time to tie the record, sharing with Bacon the honour of being the country’s fastest over the distance, until the brilliant Stellenbosch University track and cross country athlete, Johan Dreyer, lowered the mark to 2:11:42 at the Van Riebeek Marathon in Kuils River.
South African women have also enjoyed similar marathon success in Cape Town, with Stellenbosch University cross country and road star, Judy Ryan, outlasting her UCT rival and superb ultra-distance athlete, Isavel Roche-Kelly, in the seven-lap Stellenbosch Marathon in September 1980 to race to a national marathon record of 2:44:28. Roche-Kelly hit back the following year, lowering the mark twice within two months, first clocking 2:43:16 at the Stellenbosch Marathon in September, before further improving the mark with an extraordinary performance over the testing Winelands course, clocking 2:42:27.
The Peninsula again featured in the record books, with Adelene Joubert setting a national best of 2:37:46 in 1985. Monica Drogemoller, the only athlete to win four titles at Peninsula Marathon, lowered the Peninsula record to 2:37:19 five years later, but by then Sonja Laxton (2:35:44) and Annette Falkson (2:33:39 at the national championships in Cape Town) had bettered the mark before the great Frith van der Merwe lowered the record to a world-class 2:27:36.
Since readmission to international sport, South Africans have run fast marathons in international races abroad, with Gert Thys and Colleen de Reuck the current owners of the official marathon records, with respective times of 2:06:33 set in Tokyo and 2:26:35 in Berlin.
Cape Town Marathon Race Ambassador, Elana Van Zyl, ran faster in her marathon debut, clocking 2:25:15 in the 1994 Boston Marathon, but the course is listed as “aided” by the IAAF. She ran her only South African marathon in Cape Town, however, cantering to victory in the 2001 Peninsula Marathon in 2:44:01.