Mthembu and Gatebe want to win - for different reasons
Two years ago, ultra-marathon champions Bongumusa Mthembu and David Gatebe were national team training partners fighting a common cause for Team SA at the 100km World Championships in Spain.
On Sunday, June 10, the comrades will be out chasing different targets in their pursuit of personal glory at the Comrades Marathon.
Double champion Mthembu, of Arthur Ford Athletics Club, will be eager to etch his name into Comrades folklore in an attempt to complete a hat-trick of titles.
On the other hand, Entsika Athletics Club star Gatebe aims to defend the down run crown he annexed with a record run in 2016.
There is a strong sense of belief that another local will claim Sunday's race.
The prediction is based on the ongoing love affair between South Africa runners and the gruelling 90km from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
South Africans have won six of the last nine down runs since Andrew Kelehe halted the foreign legion's hegemony in 2001.
Other favourites are all in Sunday's line-up and they're all former champions: the Nedbank Running Club duo of Ludwick Mamabolo (2012) and Claude Moshiywa (2013), as well as Gift Kelehe (2015) of Entsika Club.
Pietermaritzburg hero Mthembu, 34, is so focused he politely rejected the Sunday Times request for an interview and suggested that his coach Xolani Mabhida speak on his behalf, clearly opting for his feet to do the talking on race day.
"Bongz [Mthembu] has speed and leg power, which is one thing that is needed in the down run. He has won a down run and he knows what to do to win the race [on Sunday]," warned Mabhida.
The coach said his charge has gone through all stages of training - from conditioning to the competition stage and they were currently at a tapering stage, a period of reduced training preceding a race.
"We are ready physically and mentally. Our aim is to claim a double and complete a hat-trick," said Mabhida in reference to Mthembu's up run triumph last year and the 2014 triumph.
Gatebe, 36, is also fired up, having covered his own groundwork in Rustenburg for the past six weeks. He opted to hold camp in the North West town instead of linking up with his Entsika teammates at their regular training base in Dullstroom, Mpumalanga.
"Rustenburg also offers high altitude [which most athletes prefer to boost their performance at sea level]," he pointed out.
Gatebe finished third at the Two Oceans in April and he believes lining up in the Cape Town flagship race did wonders for him as a dress rehearsal for the Comrades.
"Two Oceans gave a good indication as to how my body and mind would feel when I run the Comrades. Even Mthembu always starts there," said Gatebe, who hails from Kroonstad, Free State.
"I have been working extremely hard doing the long runs and speed work. There haven't been any shortcuts to my training; I am in good shape to try to defend my title."
From the observer's point of view, Comrades race director Rowyn James also placed a bet on a local man running away with Sunday's race.
"South African athletes tend to have more natural speed as opposed to power, which is why they have done better on the Comrades Marathon down run as opposed to the up version," explained James, who has completed 15 Comrades, seven of which were down runs.
The down run is always the longer version, he said, adding that Sunday's race officially measures 90.184km, slightly longer than the 2016 route's distance of 89.208km.
Meanwhile, Gerda Steyn and Charné Bosman will carry the nation's hope in the women's race. Their chances were further boosted this week by the withdrawal of defending champion Camille Herron of the US.
Steyn, touted as a rising star in ultra running, won the Two Oceans in April.
The race starts at 5.30am outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall and finishes 12 hours later at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.