Gift Kelehe at the finish line during the 2018 Comrades Marathon.
Image: Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images
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Beneath Gift Kelehe's seemingly combative attitude against the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) lies a steely desire to see the elite runners’ lot being improved from what he feels has been undervaluation of the runners who help make it the great race it is.

A Comrades Marathon champion in 2015, Kelehe has had many run-ins with the organisers of the world famous KwaZulu-Natal ultra. Most recently he had to pull out of last year’s edition on the eve of the race in protest against the reduced prize-money that saw the winner Tete Dijana pocketing a meagre R260,000.

Kelehe has always reasoned that a race of the Comrades’ stature, for which the elite runners give up so much and spend a fortune to prepare, should be paying the champions at least a R1m before additional bonuses.

He has, unfortunately, not received backing from his fellow runners who largely seemed to view at him as crazy during last year's protest. But Kelehe’s fight is not just for him.

“His fight for better paydays for athletes is way deeper than just for his own pockets,” his coach John Hamlett told TimesLIVE.

“And he dislikes the fact that so many athletes, some great, are sidelined financially due to no support. He wants what all should for the elite athletes — decent support and the respect they are due given that they are the ones who uplift the sport’s stature.”

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Gift Kelehe wins the 2015 Comrades Marathon.
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Kelehe says he was disappointed his fellow runners did not support him in his stance.

“It seemed like I was a troublemaker last year because I was the lone voice. But that’s how it goes.

“Now, I hear there’s an increase but there is not really because that’s what was paid before last year’s reduced prize money. In 2017, I told Rowyn James, the race director, that they should be paying the champion a million. And I still believe that’s what the Comrades champion should get.

“And perhaps even more now given the inflation. But this year, I’ve decided to let go of the politics and go and run.”

Hamlett, the revered coach who was also responsible for Kelehe’s older brother, Andrew, winning Comrades in 2001, believes the sport would be better off if those in charge took Kelehe seriously.

“I often hear people snubbing Gift for what he says but mostly I find very little that is untrue. He is a logical guy whose only desire is to help others and he gets really angry when people or events take advantage of others.

“That he became a policeman to help others in another part of his life and remains true to that just shows what kind of man he is.”

Kelehe, 42, is returning to the race he dearly loves for what he thinks could well be his last run and, though some would — again — think him crazy, is daring to dream he can add the Down Run title to the Up Run one he won in 2015.

“I am coming back full force,” Kelehe said during his high-altitude training camp with the all-conquering Nedbank Running Club in Dullstroom, where he and his teammates prepared for Sunday’s race. He looks lean and much younger than his years. Hamlett said it is due his training.

“He is certainly in the best shape I have seen him since 2015. Gift has the mental fight to come back if the day allows. He has an immense ability to fight even when it’s not a good day — and could be unbeatable if it’s a great day for him.”

Kelehe acknowledged he is long in the tooth and would have to dig deep to get a seventh gold, let alone a second title. But he says the man who boasts a Down Run personal best (PB) of 5:34, in 2014, is going to give it his all.

" You race Comrades with experience, that’s what these younger ones who have the speed will have to earn over the years. And I know my experience will work for me at this year’s race. "
- Gift Kelehe

“I believe I still have the stamina and Comrades experience to challenge for honours. Yes the youngsters have the speed but Comrades is a very tactical race where the change of pace is a process and you need to know what’s happening around you and not just run. My main aim is to get a podium finish [top three]. I am looking to run a sub 5:24.”.

That he believes he can slice ten minutes off that time nearly ten years later speaks to the confidence he has in his fitness and experience.

“In ultra distance you get stronger and better with age. Just look at what [Vladimir] Kotov did,” he said, in reference to the legendary Belarusian who won three Comrades titles as a veteran (40-49) and set a masters’ (50-59) record of 5:48:12 in 2012.

“You race Comrades with experience, that’s what these younger ones who have the speed will have to earn over the years. And I know my experience will work for me at this year’s race.”

That achieved, Kelehe has plans to pass what he has learnt from his champion brother, coach Hamlett and numerous teammates over the years to help others.

“I was talking to coach John saying to him maybe this has to be my last Comrades. It is not decided yet but I’ve been running this race for a long time and I would love to give back to it. I spoke to the board chair and said maybe going forward I could be one of the bus drivers, maybe help those who want to get the Robert Mtshali medal [for runners who finish from nine to sub-10 hours]. Who knows?”

And then they go around saying Gift Kelehe is combative, Gift Kelehe is a troublemaker, Gift Kelehe is anti-Comrades.

They just don’t get the man.

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