Cape Town - Stephen Mokoka said in the build-up to the ASA Half Marathon in Nelson Mandela Bay that a low 61 would be needed for a win.
In the end the 34-year-old came within a whisker of running a personal best (PB) to hold off an aggressive Elroy Gelant.
Mokoka crossed the line in 60:56, with Gelant hitting 61:00 - a personal best by 10 seconds - and Precious Mashele having the race of his life to claim third in 61:21.
The thrill-a-minute race at Pollock Beach, Summerstrand was hosted by Eastern Province Athletics (EPA) in conjunction with the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality.
In near perfect conditions, some 3 000 or so athletes set off at 07:00 with the best of South Africa looking to shut out the foreign challenge from Kenya and Ethiopia. While the men were successful in that attempt, it was the 18-year-old Tadu Neru from Ethiopia who dominated the women’s race from the gun to the finish.
A big pack of 25 athletes in the men's contest, with all the main contenders, went through the first 5km after a slow first kilometre (3:05). It was after 8km that the pace picked up dramatically when the duo of Kenyans Bernard Bil and David Maru began driving the pace, with South Africa's Gelant throwing in surge after surge.
Mokoka, Gelant, Mashele and Joel Mmone then attacked and dropped the Kenyan challenge in the final 4km. First to fall off in the closing stages of the race was Mmone and when Mokoka threw in another surge in the final 2km, Mashele too had to give way.
Mokoka's famous finishing kick stood him in good stead as he was again able to get a small gap on arch rival, Gelant to see Mokoka coming home for his hat trick of consecutive wins, with Gelant having to settle for second yet again.
"I knew we could go fast here. This is great course, the conditions were perfect and the youngsters were keen and helped push the pace," said Mokoka. "It is always good to win a national title again. I felt good and I know I am on track for a good marathon in October."
Neru won the overall title in the women's open race in 1:10.20 with Kenya’s Sarah Naibei second across the line (1:10.54).
But it was Glenrose Xaba who grabbed the national title in her first ever competitive Half Marathon as the first South African across the line. Though third overall, Xaba came flying home in 71:08 to have the race of her life.
The target for her was a fast time and a shot at representing South Africa at the World Half Marathon Championships at Gdynia, Poland March 29, 2019 and her 71:08 debut certainly made a massive statement.
"I am very happy with my race today. I wanted a sub 75, so to run a low 71 was a surprise for me," said Xaba.
Two Oceans and Comrades winner, Gerda Steyn, was fourth overall and second South African home, also clocking a PB with her 71:53 (previous best 72:35).
"All credit must go to EPA and their sponsoring partners, the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality," said Aleck Skhosana, the president of Athletics South Africa. "This was an incredible race in many respects.
"Mokoka defended his title to win for the third time and made a statement of his preparedness for the World Champs in October. It was also an overall great performance by our athletes to relegate the Kenyans and Ethiopians off the podium in the men's race.
"Congratulations to Glenrose, whose performance keeps showing itself on a regular basis. But it was Gerda whom I think was quite a revelation with her runners-up finish on the national race, to show that she is in top form after the Comrades.
"ASA will now await the selectors to make their choice of deserving athletes for the national team, which will then be put through a preparation programme for the World Half Marathon Championships next year."