It would seem that being born in East Africa has become a prerequisite for a medal in recent years at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, yet South Africa’s Stephen Mokoka will be trying to buck the trend in Copenhagen next March.
After finishing eighth in the Bulgarian town of Kavarna at the last edition of the championships 12 months ago when he was the first man from outside of East Africa to cross the line, Mokoka is aiming to follow in the footsteps of his famous compatriot Hendrick Ramaala and get on the podium in the Danish capital on 29 March 2014.
Ramaala is South Africa’s only senior men’s individual medallist, with silver medals to his name in 1998 and 1999, but the 2013 South African Half Marathon champion will be attempting to become the first man born outside East Africa to take a medal in the event since USA’s Dathan Ritzenhein in 2009. Indeed, the US runner is the only non-native East African to have won a medal at the World Half Marathon Championships in the last decade.
“Last month we did our Half Marathon championships. I won the race so I hope that they’ll put me in the team and, if they do, I’ll be there,” said Mokoka. I’ve been eighth twice (also in 2009), so I’m hoping to finish in the top five and maybe break my personal best of 1:00:57. If I can do that, I’ll be happy.
He got a confidence boost by finishing a good second in the Great South Run over 10 Miles in the south of England on Sunday and, in the wake of the IAAF Gold Label Road Race, the 28-year-old winner of the 2013 World University Games 10,000m has every reason to be optimistic.
The 2014 World Half Marathon Championships are a key event in his programme as he looks to carry out a 10-year plan devised by his coach, Michael Seme.
“My first World Half was 2008 in Brazil, and I ran in 2009 and last year. The experience I had in Rio in 2008 was the toughest. The conditions and the pace were tough, but coming eighth in Birmingham the next year showed I had learned from the experience, and then last year coming eighth again showed I was consistent," he explained.
Ramaala the role model
“Hendrick Ramaala was second twice and other South African runners have also placed well, so I want to be able to finish on the podium one day. It’s important to me to carry on that tradition at the World Half Marathon.”
In challenging the best endurance runners in the world, Mokoka has come a long way from his early experiences in the sport, when his choice of events was less about winning and more about trying not to be beaten too heavily.
“When I was still young, I didn’t know what I was doing,” he recalled. “I wanted an event I could be a success at. I tried 1500m but people were outclassing me and I tried 5000m and I wasn’t surviving, so I picked an event that I could go to the South African Championships in and I saw a spot in the Steeplechase.
“I ran two Steeplechase races: the provincial championships and the nationals. Winning the provincial championships was important to me and then going to nationals, they took me straight to run with seniors and I realised that wasn’t the event for me either. I needed power and height, and I didn’t have them!”
His early experiences as a teenager contrast markedly with his 2013 season, where he has produced personal bests over a range of distances from 800m to 10km on the road.
This year also saw him crowned World Student Games champion in the Russian city of Kazan over 10,000m in July, and he took the Half Marathon silver medal four days later, as well as competing in the 10,000m at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow the following month, where he finished 20th at the end of a long track season which saw him racing at home as early as February.
Looking at the road ahead
The track is where he will remain focused for the next two to three years, but the Half Marathon and the Marathon are where the South African sees his future.
“For now, my coach and I have agreed that I should stay on the track for a little while, because if you look at Half Marathons and Marathons, people are running 58 minutes or 2:03, so that shows me that you need to have a proper base from track. Having that speed makes running on the road so much easier.”
However, that doesn’t mean that road running is entirely off his radar.
“Me, my coach and my manager have agreed that I’m going to do one Marathon a year, but I don't know where my next one will be and I’ll focus on the track and keep on learning from my Marathon each year.”
It’s a learning process that will continue in Copenhagen, with Mokoka also having Ramaala’s national Half Marathon record of 1:00:07 on a standard course in his sights.
Dean Hardman for the IAAF