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Wachira, Lebopo Return To Two Oceans Marathon

The former champions will be squaring off.

The former champions will be squaring off.

By Riël Hauman

(c) 2011 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission

(19-Apr) — After a year’s hiatus, 2009 champion John Wachira from Kenya will be back in the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon on Easter Saturday.  He will be up against defending champion Mabhutile Lebopo from Lesotho as well as the champions of 2006 and 2007, Moses Njodzi (Zimbabwe) and Bethuel Netshishefhe, the only South African winner in the last seven years.

The Cape Town race over 56 km will be held for the 42nd time, while the accompanying half-marathon sees its 14th running. The half-marathon, the largest in the country, has attracted the biggest field in its history with just over 14,000 runners entered. The ultramarathon has just under 9000 entrants.  The 56-K is the second most important ultra race in South Africa after the Comrades Marathon in Durban.

The most intriguing entry in the longer race is that of national marathon record holder Gert Thys, who at age 39 will attempt his first ultramarathon.

Eight of the top ten men and seven of the female gold medalists in 2010 have again entered the ultramarathon.  Foremost among the women are the Nurgalieva twins, Olesya (last year’s winner) and Elena (who was second).  In the half-marathon both defending champions, Lusapho April and René Kalmer, have entered.

Wachira’s victory in 2009 came as a big surprise and he denied Marco Mambo (ZIM) a historic fourth victory.  Last year Wachira was refused permission to come to South Africa by the Kenyan national federation; race organisers are keeping their fingers crossed that he will make it this time to face off against the Lesotho powerhouse.

Wachira won in 3:10:06, the second slowest winning time in eight years.  In 2010 this time was obliterated by Lebopo after his titanic struggle with his two compatriots, Moeketsi Mosuhli and Teboho Sello, who both beat Wachira’s time.  Lebopo’s 3:06:18 is the fifth fastest performance ever.

The increased prize money –-from R150,000  (USD 22,500) last year to R250,000 (USD 37,500) this year for both the male and female winner-– has ensured another top-notch field, and it is felt that the Lesotho contingent will not have things as much their own way as in 2010.  Runners from that country then filled the top three positions and five of the top ten, with Lebopo’s brother Warinyane finishing fifth and Mpesela Ntlotsoeu eighth.

The only two gold medalists not returning are ninth and tenth placed Nkosiyazi Sibanda and Sandile Ngunuza.

Mabhutile Lebopo, the older of the two brothers, will be hard to beat.  He has not done much racing this year, but after his Two Oceans victory he finished sixth in the Soweto Marathon in November, one place behind Warinyane. He will certainly be fresher that those of his challengers who raced the Om die Dam 50 km only five weeks ago – among them Leburu Kgosiemang, who won that race, Peter Muthubi, Lucas Nonyana and Joseph Mphuthi.

Four Zimbabweans will spearhead the challenge to the Lesotho stars: Mike Fokoroni (6th in 2010), Njodzi (7th), Collen Makaza (12th) and debutant Brighton Chipere.

Double Comrades winner Stephen Muzhingi, who was fourth the past two years, has also entered.  Muzhingi has proven that he is able to run a good Two Oceans, followed by a magnificent Comrades. However, this year there are three weeks fewer between the two ultras and it is unlikely that he will jeopardize his chances in the Comrades with too hard a run over Easter.

Other runners who missed out on a top-ten finish last year and who will no doubt want to improve and win one of the coveted gold medals are Samuel Bolo (11th), Charles Tjiane (13th) and Mzwanele Maphekula (15th).  The latter, who was second in 2008, could not come close to this in the last two races. Whether he will do better in 2011 is uncertain – he has already run one ultramarathon (the Bay Ultra 50 km, which he won) and was also eighth in the SA Marathon.

Apart from Thys, two other South African ultramarathon debutants will be watched with interest.  Tshidiso Bosiu has had a busy year so far and was fourth in the Johnson Crane Marathon (2:22:47), while the experienced Shadrack Hoff has had a career stretching back to the early nineties. He has won seven national titles on the road –-twice the 10 km and half marathon in the same year-– and has a marathon best of 2:11:51.  He has also won national track and cross-country titles and his SA record for 5000m has been standing since 1995; he co-owns the SA record for 15 km.

And then there is Thys.  One of the best runners produced in South Africa, he set the SA marathon record of 2:06:33 in Tokyo in 1999 –-then the fourth fastest time in history.  He became the first man to run three sub-2:08 marathons and has a career total of 37 completed marathons since he ran his first one at the tender age of 16 years, 5 months and three weeks (he won in 2:34:10).

His last completed marathon was the Beijing International Marathon in October (he was second in 2:15:56).  He started competing again last year after he had been banned by Athletics South Africa following a positive drugs test at the 2006 Seoul International Marathon (which he won in 2:10:40).  Thys went through a drawn-out appeals process until finally the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) set aside the ASA ruling and exonerated him of any doping infraction, also reinstating his Seoul time.

Thys may not win a gold medal in his first ultramarathon, but he certainly knows how to compete at this level and if he can survive the two major hills and the punishing downhill between them, there is an excellent chance that he will make his presence felt.

A number of Ethiopians will be running, but little is known about them.

One international standout about whose pedigree there is little doubt is American Michael Wardian. He was 26th in his first Comrades last year, almost an hour ahead of highly touted Josh Cox.  After competing in the Comrades, Wardian finished third in both the World 50 km Trophy (behind Makaza and Ngunuza) and IAU World 100 km Championships; he also won his third US 50 km title in a row and set his marathon PB of 2:20:57. This year he has won the Lower Potomac River Marathon.  If he makes the Two Oceans rather than the Comrades his main focus, he can come close to a gold medal.

Beginning in 2003, only three runners not named Nurgalieva have won South Africa’s two major ultras. One of them, Tatyana Zhirkova (RUS), has done it twice (once in each race); the other two, Simona Staicu (HUN) and Madina Biktagirova (RUS), will be on the Two Oceans starting line.

Staicu won the race on her debut in 2003 in 3:37:32, second only to Frith van der Merwe’s storied course record. She has not had the same success since (4th in 2004, 3rd in 2006 and 5th in 2007) and has had a quiet year so far, but she can never be discounted.  Her 3:37:15 in 2006 is the tenth faster ever.

Biktagirova, at 46 seven years older then Staicu, had much the same kind of debut than Staicu four years later: she won, and her 3:35:04 was then the second fastest ever (it still is third) and remains the course record for veterans (masters). She won the veterans category in 2008 in a time not much slower (3:36:42), but has not run the Two Oceans since.

The Nurgalieva twins seem to mesmerise their rivals with their metronomic style of running –-not to mention the united front they always present-– and unless someone has the courage to break what is almost amounting to a spell, they will win again.

The twins’ formidable record in the Two Oceans is: Elena –-1st in 2004, 2005 and 2009, 2nd in 2006, 2008 and 2010, 3rd in 2007; Olesya-– 1st in 2008 and 2010, 2nd in 2004, 2005 and 2009, 4th in 2007.

Adinda Kruger, who was third behind them last year, is not running (she prefers to concentrate on the Comrades) and it will be left to Tshifhiwa Mundalamo (4th in 2010), Samukeliso Moyo (ZIM, 5th), Riana van Niekerk (6th) and Joanna Thomas (7th) to carry the fight to the big four. Other South Africans who could challenge for a gold are Suzette Botha, Azwindini Lukhwareni, Kerry Koen, Maya Lawrie and Ursula Frans.

Van Niekerk certainly has the ability to finish in the top five. Prone to over-racing in the past, she has backed away somewhat this year and her only major race was the SA Marathon, where she was fourth in 2:48:22.

An interesting statistic is that 1269 runners, or 5.6% of the field, will come from outside South Africa, with 77 nations represented. The United Kingdom has the largest representation with 459 runners, while the USA has 184.

In the half-marathon April, the SA marathon champion, will be up against versatile Stephen Mokoka, who won the national 10,000m track title last weekend and was Two Oceans champion in 2009, Lungisa Mdedelwa, Sibusiso Nzima, Samuel Tsosane and Xolisa Tyali.

Kalmer, who won the race last year in a course record 72:39 after a tough battle with Irvette van Blerk, will face Van Blerk, Helalia Johannes (NAM), Annerien van Schalkwyk and Zintle Xiniwe. Also running will be Van der Merwe, whose course record in the ultramarathon has been standing since 1989.