- The winner of the 2021 Cape Town Marathon, Stephen Mokoka, talks about putting the disappointment of the Olympics behind him and claiming his second title in the Mother City.
- The 36-year-old reveals his footballing background, his support for Kaizer Chiefs and whether he feels Stuart Baxter is the right man to coach “the biggest team in South Africa.”
- He also speaks about drawing on Eliud Kipchoge as a source of inspiration and how much longer he sees himself competing on a professional front in the gruelling world of marathon.
Sport24 asked: How does it feel to have claimed the Cape Town Marathon?
Stephen Mokoka: It feels awesome to have won and I can say that I’m blessed. Thanks to God, my family, coach, training mates, sponsor Nike and Boxer Athletics Club for looking after me even during the pandemic. Whether you are a professional runner like myself or do athletics socially, it was awesome to be back on the road. My advice to people who do athletics socially is that if the legs aren’t taking it, just step back, take a deep breath and then try to find a pace that the body can tolerate. In a race, I always take things according to how my body feels and find a suitable pace. In terms of the 42.2km event being the first mass participation event in marathon running in South Africa in over 18 months, with 9,000 runners on the streets of Cape Town, I really hope that it’s the start of things to come and that the country will open up. I’m hopeful that the South African government, in tandem with Athletics South Africa and us runners, will continue to co-operate in line with Covid-19 safety protocols so that the privilege of competing cannot be taken away from us.
Sport24 asked: How would you describe your race preparation for the event?
Stephen Mokoka: The mental preparation wasn’t easy and some days my mind would go back to the Tokyo Olympics. (Mokoka failed to finish the marathon in Japan owing to the extreme heat). Some days I would feel positive and other days I would wonder what happened in Japan earlier this year. With marathons, it’s a very long journey as it’s over two hours of running. In terms of this year’s Cape Town Marathon, it was just a matter of taking it step by step and seeing how those two hours of running would go. In the last part of the race in which I took the lead, it was with God’s blessing and the kind of training that I done with my group. When I passed some runners around the 40-41 km mark and hit the front of the pack, I was thinking to myself, “It shows that my training went well and I think I’ve got this now.” When I climbed and turned left on the blue mark, I said to myself, “This is it; it (the race) is done!” I can say that I’m happy the victory stayed in South Africa and didn’t go away from our shores. It was for me, my team and most importantly for the whole of South Africa. Being victorious as a South African in a domestic race is a big one. My time of 2:09:58 was pleasing given the tough weather conditions. With the rain it became cold in the middle of the race and my vest and shorts were wet. The roads were muddy and you had to look where you were running and check around you. Owing to such difficult challenges, a time like that is a very good one.
Sport24 asked: Have you put the Olympics disappointment behind you?
Stephen Mokoka: There are days I wake up and ask: “What actually happened?” I don’t get answers but the only thing I say to myself is: “It wasn’t my day.” And that is how I continue and move on with my life. In sport we go through processes that are very difficult. We may have put all our eggs in one basket for the Olympics because it was one thing we wanted most as a group. (After Mokoka’s DNF in the marathon at Tokyo 2020, coach Michael Seme was quoted as saying, “That was not the Mokoka that we knew. He let his training group down and has to atone by winning in Cape Town.”) We wanted to medal at the Olympics so I understand his comments when it was not forthcoming. The reason he emphasised that the group was let down was because he is a man who believes in team work. Every type of training we do is based on brotherhood. Coach Seme was trying to say that the group didn’t get what it wanted. The man did not do well and then it does not sit well with the group. Group members have sacrificed so much in the team and we did not expect something like that to happen. We trained for five to six months before the Olympics and then to get a result like that wasn’t easy for everyone involved to swallow. In athletics, you are only as good as your last race. The next time I get beaten, people will say some other guy is better than Stephen. In sport, performance is the most important thing, and if you are able to be consistent it’s always a blessing.
Sport24 asked: Does your talent for athletics run in your family’s veins?
Stephen Mokoka: No, I actually come from a soccer playing family so I wouldn’t know where my running genetics stem from. I was a soccer player before I took up athletics and dreamed of playing for my beloved Kaizer Chiefs when I was younger. However, when I met coach Seme (who also coached Caster Semenya) running came into the picture. In my earlier days, I was doing athletics and soccer at the same time. But ever since I started working with my coach in 2005, he convinced me to be a full-time runner and nothing else. While running was God’s plan for me, I miss those days when I played soccer and don’t know where I could be now if I chose the latter sport... In terms of Amakhosi, the team has worked with Stuart Baxter before and us as supporters have followed his coaching career closely. He has done a lot for the team but this generation of players are different. The team he had in his first stint at Chiefs is different to the one now and supporters need to be patient. A bad match doesn’t mean it’s the end and you have to give the man a fair chance. For me, Chiefs is the biggest team not only in South Africa but the world. As a result, we know that much is expected of Baxter. I feel we need to give him a chance and see where he’s going to take the club.
Sport24 asked: Is ex-training mate Caster Semenya a source of inspiration?
Stephen Mokoka: Caster is an awesome lady and to be honest my mentality to compete internationally was because of her. We worked together in a training group from 2009 to 2011 and, within the space of seven months, she became a world champion. When she came back with the medal I remember saying to her, “Now it’s my turn.” I then went to run a half-marathon and finished 8th. I still crave to get a medal from the world athletics because Caster got a medal when I was training with her. She has been a great influence in my career and I always look up to her in terms of how she conducts herself in the field of play. She spends many hours in training and does work on her body in order to be as strong an athlete as she can be. The role she played when I was working with her was awesome. Even though we no longer train together, she hasn’t changed her attitude.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess Eliud Kipchoge’s career in the sport?
Stephen Mokoka: He came from a track and cross country background and developed through the process until he became a world record-holder in terms of marathon. He is the only man on earth who has run a marathon in under two hours. The race in Austria was awesome to watch. There was a lot of logistics, technicalities and technology involved. For him to eventually set a sub two-hour time was special. I was part of the first attempt in Italy in 2017. I saw what it takes to organise something like that and it’s very demanding. I remember we would have to wake up at around 4am in the morning to train at Monza. You have to practice and know the formation before the race itself. We spent almost an hour doing one small thing to get it right. I’m happy for Eliud that he secured the record as well as for the team behind him who managed to pull through. I respect the manner in which he conducts himself as a team player in a training group and admire the way he is so disciplined in only competing in two marathons a year. Even though I’m far from him in terms of (marathon-winning) time, we are still opponents so I don’t want to say he’s a role model on the road. However, I appreciate his longevity in the sport. At the Paris World Championships in 2003, I was not even a runner yet and he won the event. 18 years later and he’s still winning races. The way he does things is extremely unique and he’s currently the greatest marathon runner of all time. We don’t know what is going to happen in the future but for now his records truly speak for themselves.
Sport24 asked: What does the future hold and when will you call it a day?
Stephen Mokoka: As a runner it’s a process and you grow with age. I think I’m maturing okay in terms of the marathon. There is a certain time in life when you have to accept that you have to move on from one discipline. I have passed the stage whereby I have to be on the track. Now it’s all about longer running because it’s nicer and more fun. The body is also not recovering as quickly as it used to and the muscles and nerves can’t take the intensity training like when I was still doing track and field. I enjoy running longer distances rather than going too fast. If you want to be an athlete who runs on the global stage for a long time, you need to be selective at a young age so that you don’t over-work your body. You need to develop your body first before you can start executing the right stuff. In terms of my race load, it’s always two marathons a year, one half-marathon, two or three 10km races and one 12km. I have six or seven races in a year. As far as hanging up my running shoes, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few years but for now I’m feeling good. I still believe I can give more to the sport and the body is strong. I always set benchmarks and before I retire, I would like to see my time in the top three in South Africa – at the moment it’s around number five. If I can move that to top-three in terms of the all-time best of South Africans, I’ll be happy, along with setting a personal best time of around 2:06/7... These days, racing against the youngsters is both exciting and tough. When competing with them I say to myself, “Eish, I wish these boys can go easy on me – I’m old” but I enjoy the competition and wouldn’t have it any other way.