Pietermaritzburg - David Gatebe is a very topical figure ahead of the 93rd running of the Comrades Marathon from Pietermaritzburg to Durban on Sunday.
There are two good reasons for this.
The first is that the Rustenburg-based athlete is the “down run” record holder and, at least on paper, threatens to take the shine away from local star Bongmusa Mthembu, who won the race last year for the second time in four editions.
The other reason is that 37-year-old Gatebe is known to have broken links with his team Entsika’s preparation camp in Dullstroom and gone to train on his own in North West, where the pint-sized competitor works as a sports officer at Impala Platinum. This brings both his physical and mental state into question for the gruelling challenge over an official distance of 90,184 km this coming weekend.
The distance varies from year to year, but there is a significant change of the finish venue from Kingsmead Cricket Stadium to roughly a kilometre away at the iconic Moses Mabhida Stadium.
Comrades runner and experienced TV commentator Cuan Walker warns the “down run” defending champ’s rivals not to read too much into the Entsika controversy.
A former manager of the Maxed team, which includes top contenders Prodigal Khumalo, Teboho Sello and Mncedisi Mkhize from KwaZulu-Natal, Walker is strongly of the opinion that there is not likely to be a record produced on Sunday but Gatebe will be among the front runners. He has commentated on the gruelling, world-famous race for SABC Sport since 2008, but will be off-air this year for a great reason: a personal attempt at a fourth Comrades finish.
The Durbanite had this to say about Gatebe: “It will be interesting to see what he does this year. He had an amazing Two Oceans [in April] where he was third. People question his Comrades results and say he is a once-off. I disagree.
“In 2016 it was the first time he dedicated eight solid weeks in camp on Comrades.
“His results showed. For last year’s race he was even fitter. Believe me when I say that because I stayed with him in camp in Dullstroom for eight weeks. The whole camp got ill the week before the race and were on antibiotics. If you look at the race, he was up with the leaders until 20 km to go and then his body shut down. This year, he is healthy.”
Walker further explained that Gatebe’s unspecified rift with Entsika team manager and coach John “Colonel” Hamlett should not discount the runner’s chances.
“I understand there was a problem even before Two Oceans, but Gatebe still did well there. I also know that David did attend the start of the Entsika training camp for Comrades in Dullstroom, but then left after a few days and went back to Rustenburg to train on his own because of supposed unresolved issues. But based on what happened at Two Oceans, I would say the Entsika issue won’t affect David for Comrades.
“David could make the race fast as he believes that he can run that fast again. If he does, I think there will be a lot of surprises in the top 10 as many guys will come from behind to pick up the pieces.”
Walker doubts there will be a new record, though.
“Definitely no record, at all. With the new finish being 1,2km longer than the previous, I don’t see any records being broken. David ran 5:18:19 in 2016 and that time was out of this world. Frith’s [van der Merwe] 5:54 from 1989 is also amazing and, because it’s longer, nobody will come close to those times.”
He predicts a winning time of 5:30/5:31 for men and around 6:15 for women.
Walker concluded that every able-bodied South African should attempt to do Comrades at least once.
“It’s an adventure. Also with the race finishing at the new stadium for the first time, it’s great to be in that history,” he said.