Comrades: Dijana Favourite For Men’s Title

Multiple champion Bongmusa Mthembu leading the charge of the other contenders

RW Reporter |

In 2022, the Nedbank Running Club forever changed the dynamics of racing the Comrades Marathon. Onalenna Khonkhobe, the young runner from Klerksdorp, bolted like a rabbit from the start of the race; and would not stop until he ran out of steam 67km into the race.

Khonkobe was not only on record pace (5:18:19 – David Gatebe, 2016), he was also on pace for an astounding sub-5-hour finish. While the experts knew that this relentless onslaught was not sustainable, it made for entertaining watching of the race and also showed just what a class act Khonkobe is.

Behind him a pack of five men (Tete Dijana, Edward Mothibi, Dan Matshailwe, Johannes Makgetla and Joseph Manyedi), all from Nedbank, ran as a team. All five, as well as Khonkobe, were from the same training group in the North West. They had planned the race to the finest detail. Khonkobe would go out as the proverbial hare and set a blistering pace to keep the non-Nedbank runners guessing, while the pack would remain together.

It worked, as all five finished in the top 7 of the race with only three time winner, Bongmusa Mthembu (4th) and Nkosikhona Mhlakwana (6th) splitting the top 7. The Nedbank team had come close to an unprecedented top five clean sweep and changed the face of the race forever.

All five are back for the 2023 Comrades Marathon, again a Down Run due the ongoing roadworks in and around Pietermaritzburg; and all five have prepared in much the same way as in 2022. The only difference is that the opposition is now forewarned. As they say in the classics – forewarned is forearmed. With all that said, let’s look at the top contenders.

Tete Dijana (Nedbank)– 1st, 2022
Tete Dijana has to be considered as favourite to defend his title. The 34-year-old, when searched for on the two most accurate and commonly used athletics statistics pages, World Athletics and Tilastopaja, does not have a deep record to his name. For example, there is no official marathon personal best. World Athletics only have four official races behind his name, starting with a 5000m (14:48.23) in 2011, no records until 2021 where he is listed as running a 65:46, another 5000m in 2022 (15:01:60) and his 50km time of 2:39:04, run in 2023. Tilastopaja only reflect results from 2022 and 2023, crediting him with a 29:57 for 10km and 1:08:10 in the half marathon and his 50km time. The German Ultramarathon Statistics page, DUV, sheds more light on his ultra record.
Here we find that Dijana has quite the Ultra pedigree. 3rd at the 2020 Om Die Dam, 2nd in the 2022 Nedbank Runified 50km Ultra (2:44:09) and his only other outing at Comrades in 2019 of 47th (6:25:03). Dijana and his training compatriot Edward Mothibi were the last two standing in the 2022 Comrades Marathon after Khonkobe’s blistering assault, racing together from around 20km to go, before Dijana moved away with roughly 10km left and opened a gap of just over 3min on the 2019 champion. Based on his 2:39.04 run at this year’s Nedbank Runified 50km (faster that the official World 50km record of Stephen Mokoka, 2:40.13) and how he flew away from the field in the final kilometre, Dijana is in better shape than he was in 2022. Ominous signs indeed.

Edward (Slender) Mothibi (Nedbank)– 2nd, 2022/ 1st, 2019
Edward Mothibi has an impressive Comrades Marathon record. Fourth on debut in 2018, Mothibi claimed victory in only his second outing at The Ultimate Human Race when he defeated the defending champion and three-time winner, Bongmusa Mthembu in a titanic battle in 2019; and then 2nd in the 2022 edition of the race. Mothibi is well known for his systematic approach to racing. In 2019 when he won the race, he only placed 95th at the Two Oceans Marathon, coming into the finish in 3:53:23. Compare that to the approach of Bongmusa who won the race in 3:08:29. Mothibi was clearly racing on fresher legs. He followed a similar approach in 2022, competing only in the Nedbank Runified 50km in March where he finished 3rd. His next race was Comrades (in August in 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic). In 2023 he again has approached his preparations for Comrades in similar fashion, running in the Runified 50km in late February where he finished 3rd with a new personal best of 2:45:27. His marathon personal best of 2:13:54 from 2021 shows there is speed in those legs and he will have to be considered as a challenger for the win again.

Image courtesy of SASCOC

Bongmusa Mthembu (Arthur Ford) – 4th, 2022
Dubbed the greatest ultramarathoner in the world in 2018 by virtue of his 5th in Two Oceans, 3rd at the World 100km Championships and his win in the 2018 Comrades Marathon, Bongmusa Mthembu – Bongs to his friends – brings with him an ultrarunning record that cannot be ignored. After a ‘slow’ start to his ultra career when finished 54th in the 2006 edition of the Comrades Marathon, and taking a couple of years to learn how to run the race (31st – 2007, 52nd -2008), Mthembu has featured in the top ten at Comrades on nine of his last 11 runs; and on the podium seven times, with three wins.

He has also finished 2nd and 3rd at the World 100km Championships (2016/2018), finished in the top ten at Two Oceans on three occasions, with a win in 2019. Mthembu’s vast experience came to the fore in the 2022 Comrades Marathon where he let the Nedbank quintet go and ran his own race, gradually carving up the field in the latter stages of the race to finish in 4th.

His approach to the Comrades Marathon in 2023 is vastly different to that of previous years. Mthembu has for the first time in his running career competed in the Om Die Dam 50km which he won in 2:56:33 and will be foregoing the Two Oceans Marathon (15 April), giving his body more time to recover for The Ultimate Human Race. With his vast experience and pedigree and intimate knowledge of the race, Bongmusa Mthembu will be a factor come race day.

 Nkosikhona Mhlakwana (Hollywood Athletics Club) – 6th, 2022
He is still considered as the ‘New Kid on the Block’, but there is a racing acumen within the mind of Nkosikhona Mhlakwana that speaks to a very experienced ultramarathoner. Debuting at the 2019 Comrades Marathon with an 11th place finish, Mhlakwana succumbed to cramps lying in 9th place with the finish line literally in sight meters away. So bad were the cramps that he had to hold on the side barriers before making his way to the finish. In the process he was passed by two other athletes. Since then though he is a different athlete.

Wins in the 2021 Ultra Trail Drakensberg 62km and Mangosuthu Buthelezi 52km coupled with an 11th at Runified 50km and 16thin the Ultra Trail Cape Town 100km, showed he had developed immensely. But it was his 2022 Two Oceans Marathon second place finish, where he went toe to toe with Ethiopia’s Edndale Belachew and only having to give way to the latter’s faster leg speed on the grass at the finish area at UCT, that Mhlakwana announced his pedigree as an ultramarathoner to be reckoned with. Mhlakwana finished 6th in the 2022 Comrades Marathon. He has chosen to make the 2023 Two Oceans Marathon a big focus and with the 8 weeks recovery available between the two races, Mhlakwana will be looking for a top ten position in 2023.

Dan Matshailwe (Nedbank) – 3rd, 2022
Another one from the stable of Dave Adams in North West is 29-year-old Dan Matshailwe who finished 3rd in the 2022 Comrades Marathon. Matshailwe was a novice in the 2022 race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, but that did not deter him. It was only in the final stages of the race that he had to give way to his more illustrious teammates, Tete Dijana and Edward Mothibi. But Matshailwe comes with pedigree. A 2:14:06 marathon shows there is some speed in those legs and the Down Run is one that does tend to favour the speedsters. Matshailwe will have learned a substantial amount in training with Mothibi and Dijana and in last year’s race; and will have to be considered as a contender again for a podium position.

Joseph Manyedi (Nedbank) – 7th, 2022
If one looked at Joseph Manyedi on his debut at the Comrades Marathon in 2015, few would have that he would be a major contender, after all he crossed the finish line in 235th position. A year later it was 140th and in 2017 he crossed the line in 176th. Nothing to get excited about, especially as a year later he was still only 115th. But that was the yar everything changed and in 2019 he was a different athlete. Manyedi won the Om Die Dam 50k that year and finished 5th at Comrades while also finishing just outside the top 10 at the World 50km Championships in Brasov, having to settle for the worst position in racing, 11th.

Just before the Covid Pandemic shut down racing in South Africa, Manyedi was 9th at the Om Die Dam in 2020 and showed his potential a year later at the Nedbank Runfied 50km finishing in 12th.

Manyedi continued his improvement in 2022 by making the top ten at the Runified 50km (9th) in 2022 before going on to come home in 7th in the Comrades Marathon last year. Manyedi is wiser, stronger and dangerous. At 40-years of age he is still fiercely competitive and will once again be in the mix to challenge for at least a top 10 finish in the 2023 race.

Mahlomola Sekhonyana (Hollywood Athletics Club) – 4th, 2019
He is looking like his ominous self from 2019 as Mahlomola Sekhonyana looks to once again challenge for a top five position in the Comrades Marathon. In preparation for 2019, Sekhonyana ran a marathon personal best of 2:27:58. In 2022 he brought that down to 2:25:16. Sekhonyana has been quietly going about his business in preparing for the big day. It was this very same quiet preparation that saw him finish 4th in 2019. Sekhonyana is older and wiser and his preparations will be meticulous without any fanfare. Not for him, the posting on social media; it is all about the work he puts in. Under guidance of Mdu Vura Khumalo, Sekhonyana has developed into a very dangerous adversary for the big day on 11 June.

Onalenna Khonkhobe (Nedbank)
There is no finish next to the name of Onalenna Khonkhobe for the simple reason that the was the man who went out at a blistering pace as the unofficial pacemaker for the Nedbank team in 2022. Khonkhobe broke away very early into the race and was on what the experts called a suicide mission. He went through halfway in 2:26:30 and was on course for a sub-5-hour finish. Many believe that had he gone out at record pace (5:18:19) and not at sub-5-hour pace, he may well have not only hung on the lead and finished; but could well have rewritten history and record books. With the race now officially finishing at Hollywoodbets Kingsmead, the race will be at least 1km shorter than in previous years when the race finished at Moses Mabhida. Chances of the record going are now very high and Khonkhobe could well be instrumental in that. Surprisingly Khonkhobe has no official marathon time with the global statisticians, but his 1:03:13 half-marathon time run in 2022 will give anyone an indication of just what speed this man has at his disposal. Khonkhobe was 6th in the 2022 Two Oceans Marathon and 2nd at the N12 Ultra 50km in 2022 in the build-up to last year’s Comrades. This year he showed once again that he is in shape by finishing 2nd at the Runified 50km in Gqeberha at the end of February, clocking 2:39:41, also under the previous record set by Stephen Mokoka.


Other athletes to look out for who will be in the challenge for a top ten placing are last year’s 10th place Lutendo Mapoto. Finishing second in the 2020 Om Die Dam Marathon was his big breakthrough as he went from a best place of 19 in the 2017 Comrades Marathon into the top 10 in 2022. Perennial dangerman, Gordon Lesetedi finished in arguably the most hated position in racing, 11th in 2022. Lesetedi will be looking to get back into the top after finishing 9th in 2019 and 6th in 2018.


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