Home Sport Mthembu focused on raking in Comrades 2024 title

Mthembu focused on raking in Comrades 2024 title

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Bongmusa Mthembu. File Picture: Phando Jikelo, African News Agency (ANA)

Matshelane Mamabolo

THE Comrades Marathon Up Run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg returns to the road racing calendar next Sunday for the first time since 2019 – and the big question is whether the ‘Happy Bunch’ can be stopped.

Nedbank Running Club’s Edward Mothibi was the last winner of the Up Run, before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the race into a three-year hiatus.

A member of coach Dave Adams’s training group that calls itself the Happy Bunch, Mothibi won the Up Run at the first attempt, ending Bongmusa Mthembu’s quest for a hat-trick of victories.

When the race returned in 2022, Mothibi’s training mate, Tete Dijana, won – also in his maiden Down Run – while the man they call ‘Slender’ finished third, and another Happy Buncher, Dan Matshailwe, completed the podium positions as the Green Machine of Nedbank reigned supreme.

Last year, the race was again a Down Run, and Dijana retained his title with a new best time – though he was given a mighty scare by Comrades Marathon novice Piet Wiersma from the Netherlands, who beat Mothibi to the runner-up berth.

The rest of the elite clubs are tired of watching the Rustenburg group dominating Comrades, and a lot of them have vowed to change the status quo.

In KwaZulu-Natal, they are intent on keeping the title at home, and though many have suggested he has seen better days, three-time champion Mthembu, who won in 2014, 2017 and 2018, has been training like a man possessed.

The majority of the elite clubs are sending super strong squads to the race, and any attempt to predict who will win the men’s race would be like attempting to tell black from navy in the dark – impossible.

Hollywood Athletics Club are working hard to become the best running club in the land, and their Comrades team is as strong as they come.

The ‘Pitbull’ that is Nkosikhona Mhlakwana will lead their charge, eager to make up for that heartbreaking failure on debut in 2019 when his legs gave up on him with 500m to go when he was in ninth place, and was overtaken by the then-Entsika duo of Gordon Lesetedi and Siya Mqambeli.

Mhlakwana finished in that worst of positions, 11th, which is outside the prize money and gold medals. He made up for that in 2022 with a sixth-place finish, but was out of the golds last year.

He sat out the Two Oceans Marathon to focus on the Comrades, and should thus be a serious contender.

His teammate, Mahlomola Sekonyana, was a surprise fourth-place finisher in 2019, and will draw confidence from that fantastic run as he looks to show he is no one-race wonder.

Skhumbuso Seme will be keen to break into the top 10 after finishing 11th last year.

Lesotho’s Thobani Chagwe and Motlokwa Nkhabutlane will also be among those clad in purple trying to win the team prize.

They will face stiff competition from Entsika, who have Soweto Marathon and City to City champion Ntsindiso Mphakathi, 2019 gold medallist Mqambeli, 2023 Two Oceans champion Givemore Mudzinganyama and 2022 gold medallist Solicitor Manduwa, as well as Linda Zondi and Sanele Sibisi.

John Hamlett is a Comrades champion producer of note, and in Lesetedi he has an ever-improving athlete who was fourth last year and is eager to break into the top three.

Veteran Gift Kelehe showed last year with his ninth-place finish that he still has it in him.

Folavio Seholhle was just outside the Two Oceans top 10, but is coached by a man who knows how to bring the best out of his athletes for Comrades and could surprise.

Maxed Elite are sending seasoned campaigners Lebenya Nkoka and Teboho Sello, as well as Lebelo Momopenyane, while Nedbank’s Two Oceans champion from this year, Onalenna Khonkhobe, cannot be disregarded, even though he will be an Up Run novice – having run the Down Run for about 70km in the lead in 2022, and then stopped to let Dijana and Mothibi take the glory.

But such is the depth at the Happy Bunch that they remain the favourites, for other than Dijana, Mothibi and Matshailwe, there is Johannes Makgetla and Joseph Manyedi, who both have gold medals, while Adams has promised to bring in a surprise as well.

It is going to be a race for the ages, with the long-standing best time of 5:24.39, set by Leonid Shvetsov in 2008, likely to fall, especially with this year’s distance a little shorter than usual at 85.9km.

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