Modern Athlete Magazine Issue 161 September 2023 | Page 33

Images : Courtesy Eugene Lekay

When Eugene Lekay lined up for the 2023 Comrades Marathon in Pietermaritzburg , he had one goal in mind : To make it to the finish line in Durban within the 12-hour cut-off and finally get his 10th finish in the Ultimate Human Race . He had earned his ninth medal in 2012 , but in spite of trying repeatedly since then to get his 10th medal , and his Green Number , things simply had not worked out . The 58-year-old school teacher from Cape Town had a track record of finishing just inside the final cut-off , but from 2013 onwards , he had usually been stopped at one of the intermediate cut-off points along the route . Some years he actually made it all the way to the finish , but outside the allowed 12 hours , so this year he was determined to get the job done !

“ I had such a good run this year , it was smooth and trouble-free ,” says a beaming Eugene . “ I never had to rush or panic , as I was always ahead of the pace I needed to run to finish , and I made it through that problem Sherwood cut-off that everybody complained about after the race with about 20 minutes to spare , I think . I didn ’ t even see the cut-off point at first , because I went to go and greet one of my friends there . When I realised that it was the cut-off point , I still said to my friend , hey I must move here , because I had been cut off right there the year before , but I was safe . I carried on running and with six kilometres to go , I could see the lights of the finish ahead , so I started walking . Some of my running friends came past me and they asked , what is going on now ? I told them I ’ ve got plenty of time , so I ’ m not going to run now , I ’ m just going to enjoy myself .”
It was only when he passed the last kay to go marker that Eugene began running again , to finish the race in style , as he puts it , and he crossed the line in 11:45:53 , comfortably under the 12-hour cut-off and faster than anything he had posted at Comrades since 2006 . Having soaked up the moment on the finish line , he was ushered into the Green Number area to receive the cloth Green Number that had been waiting for him since 2013 . “ It was a big bonus for me knowing that the race was two kilometres shorter this year and we didn ’ t need to go all the way to the Moses Mabhida Stadium . I actually never liked that Moses Mabhida finish , because there ’ s no atmosphere for the runners , so I was even more happy to finish at Kingsmead again , and of course , to get my Green Number , that meant everything !”
Taking Up Running
Eugene is a born and bred Capetonian , having grown up in District Six , and after a 30-year career in teaching , says he is now semi-retired , but still helping out at Bramble Way Primary in Bonteheuwel . Having done some cross country running while he was in school , Eugene took up road running in 1997 . “ That was the year when they started to campaign for the Cape Town Olympics , and part of that was the Old Mutual Victory Run , so that is how I started running ,” he says . “ My first race was a five-kilometre fun run , and then I did another at the old Cape Town
Marathon , when it was still sponsored by Old Mutual and started in Pinelands .”
Having joined the Bonteheuwel Athletics Club , he moved up through the distances and ran his first marathon in Durbanville , then in 1999 , he decided to tackle the big ultra-marathons , completing the Two Oceans in 5:10:17 ( his PB for this race ) and the Comrades in 10:55:09 ( when the cut-off was still 11 hours ). To date , Eugene has completed the Two Oceans 17 times out of 21 attempts , most recently in 2022 . “ I love the Two Oceans and I ’ d like to get my Double Blue Number there . My best time was that five hours 10 minutes , but there were also lazy races where I came in at 6:57 , 6:58 , even 6:59 . I like to time my races to come in close to the finish ,” he says with a smile .
With that first Comrades medal in the bag in 1999 , Eugene returned in 2000 and earned a second bronze medal with a 10:49:33 finish , his fastest ever Comrades , but in 2001 , he was not quite fast enough and missed the final cut-off by mere seconds , in spite of a final sprint effort in the stadium . The official records give him an unofficial time of 11:01:28 for that race , but he actually only just missed out on a medal .
“ I missed it with four seconds on the field , and my only reward that I got for that finish was a Reeboksponsored bag , but that was one of the races that I will never forget ,” says Eugene . “ Even though I missed the cut-off , I was in good spirits afterwards , because I didn ’ t think that I would be able to finish the distance . Both my knees were injured before the race started , and at 60 kilometres I thought I would never make it , so to get all the way to the finish was still good .”
Medals and Misses
In 2002 he once again made the final cut-off by several minutes ( 10:54:10 ), whereas in 2003 , with the cut-off now officially extended to 12 hours , he was able to cruise home comfortably in 10:58:50 , putting him on four medals . “ I think that was the year that boxing champ Baby Jake Matlala ran the Comrades . They made a mistake and gave me an A seeding , so that year I started right near the front with all the celebrities , but still finished in 10:58 , just over a minute before the cut-off . I may have been one of the slowest A seed finishers in the history of the race !”
After skipping the 2004 race , Eugene returned in 2005 , and over the next three years earned another three medals , clocking 10:55:29 in 2005 and 10:59:10 in 2006 . Thankfully , that extended cut-off paid off for him in 2007 , when he needed 11:58:34 to get in , and that put him on seven medals . “ That 2007 run was actually my best finish , because that year I didn ’ t train a lot for Comrades . My dad passed away in November of 2006 , and then my sister as well in February of 2007 , so I hardly did any training , I just came in there and finished . To make up for that , I did the Bainskloof Ultra 80km the next week after that , and I finished that in 11 hours and five minutes . That was a very good achievement .”
More misses followed at Comrades in 2008 and 2009 , and then Eugene lined up in the special 2010 race , running down to Durban in order to finish in the Soccer World Cup host city , and he clocked 11:51:40 for his eighth medal . “ That was another of my best Comrades runs , because I was more relaxed . When I saw that I ’ m going to finish comfortably , I took my time . I even
stopped to wash my face before I walked in the finish and over the line . By the way , I did the same thing this year before I finally got my Green Number .”
In 2011 Eugene decided not to enter , but says it was an unpleasant experience : “ I was at home watching the race , and it just wasn ’ t the same to watch the race and see all your friends running there , so I was back the following year .” In that 2012 race , he claimed a ninth medal , coming home in 11:53:11 , but in 2013 things began to go wrong for Eugene at Comrades . that was the year temperatures soared on race day , and he was amongst the approximately half of the field that did not finish the race . In spite of his best efforts , he then failed to finish the race every year up
Eugene mid-race , getting support from friends along the way