Champion Angelina Sephooa a tough act to follow at Two Oceans Marathon

Angelina Sephooa raises her arms in triumph after winning the 1998 Two Oceans Marathon. Photo: ROY WIGLEY Independent Newspapers

Angelina Sephooa raises her arms in triumph after winning the 1998 Two Oceans Marathon. Photo: ROY WIGLEY Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 11, 2024


As excitement builds with the anticipation that Gerda Steyn will set yet another Two Oceans Marathon record at the weekend, the discerning road running follower would most likely be transported back to the early years when other women runners dominated the 56km ultra.

Monica Drögemöller’s four wins, which included a hat-trick of victories from 1990 to 1992, will no doubt be uppermost in the minds of the older generation.

No doubt there will be those who think of Frith van der Merwe, whose long-standing Two Oceans record from 1989 Steyn smashed two years ago.

For me, it is the name Angelina Sephooa I think of when the topic of great women of the Two Oceans comes up.

Like Drögemöller and Steyn, the runner from Lesotho won a hat-trick of titles from 1997 to 1999, earning herself the status of Two Oceans legend.

Now dearly departed, Sephooa was, of course, not as phenomenally fast as Steyn, but she was a fierce competitor.

The first black woman to win the race, she stunned everyone when she deposed defending champion and hot favourite Maria Bak in 1997.

The German was expected to hold on to her title with consummate ease, but no one counted on the woman from Lesotho, by then still unmarried and using her maiden surname Pitso.

She was gutsy in the race, going toe-to-toe with Bak and beating her by 27sec – her time was 3:45:45.

It was a clean sweep for Gold Fields athletics as another dearly departed great, Zithulele Sinqe, reigned supreme in the men’s race to hold on to his title from the previous year.

Thoughts that Pitso’s victory was a fluke got dispelled the following year.

Now a married woman and using a new surname, Sephooa, she had little trouble as she sauntered to victory by a good three minutes over the runner-up, but in a time much slower than that of the previous year as she crossed the line in 3:49:56.

Not since Drögemöller’s success from the early 1990s had a woman won the race in three successive years.

Could Sephooa change this was the question on everyone’s lips in the pre-millennium race of 1999. Much older but more experienced now, she ran her personal best time of 3:38:09 to join Drögemöller on a hat-trick of victories.

That year, the pre-race noise was all about ultra debutant Gwen Griffiths.

She had reached the final of the 1 500m at the 1996 Olympics before she clocked an impressive 2:36:25 in her first marathon.

To top that, Sephooa was in that race, and finished in 2:40:45 – her fastest marathon time ever.

And so it was only natural that the pundits placed their bets on the newbie to stop Sephooa from earning a hat-trick. She was faster than the two-time champion, after all.

But the ultra marathon is not always about who can run the fastest.

The Two Oceans, in particular, is a long, tough race that requires tactical acumen, grit and endurance.

Sephooa had them all aplenty as she showed by winning the previous year’s Soweto Marathon.

Wily old Sephooa left Griffiths to do all the running until just before the top of Constantia Nek – where many a Two Oceans dreams are smashed to smithereens – and then made her move.

Like an elastic, she slowly but surely stretched her inexperienced adversary as she went on to register what was then the second-fastest time in the race’s history (behind Frith van der Merwe’s), and win the race from Griffiths by a good 3min:5sec as she clocked an impressive 3:38:09.

Later on, Sephooa finished seventh and sixth at the Two Oceans in 2003 and 2004, thus cementing her status as one of the race’s all-time greats.

Apart from her great feats at the world’s most beautiful marathon, the Mosotho woman shone at the Soweto Marathon – winning in 1998 and finishing second in 2003.

In 2003 she was also a runner-up in the tough City to City 50km and got third place at the Stockholm Marathon in Sweden, having also represented Lesotho in the 2002 Commonwealth Games marathon and finishing 11th.

She died at the beginning of 2006, leaving behind a great legacy for not only Lesotho runners, but black runners in general to try and emulate her incredible feat – particularly at the Two Oceans.

Since her, there have only ever been two black woman champions in the Two Oceans Ultra – Sarah Mahlangu replaced her as champion the following year (2000), before Zimbabwe’s Thabita Tsatsa broke the Russian stranglehold on the race in 2013.

There has not been a black woman champion ever since. And it is unlikely there is any who can stop Steyn from making it five in a row this weekend.