Glenrose Xaba. Ordinarily, this name should be up there with those of South Africa’s current sporting superstars. Such are the achievements of the 25-year-old athlete from Embalenhle in Secunda, Mpumalanga, that she should be a national hero.
But in South Africa, running equals track and ultra – read Comrades Marathon. Anything in between counts for pretty much nothing. This is evident in the country’s running stars, the likes of Caster Semenya, Akani Simbine, Wayde van Niekerk, Gerda Steyn and Bongmusa Mthembu.
Those who do not specialise in track or that crazy long distance between Durban and Pietermaritzburg are often overlooked, their fantastic feats notwithstanding. Just ask Stephen Mokoka. It is thus not surprising that Mokoka is Xaba’s mentor. The two run for Boxer Athletic Club and train together at the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre.
But who is Xaba?
For starters, she is South Africa’s 10km cross-country, 10km road running and half-marathon champion. She was victorious in the 10km at last year’s Soweto Marathon and chalked up wins in a few of the FNB 10km City Runs, too.
Xaba has also previously won the popular Spar Ladies Grand Prix Series and has been dominant on the oft overlooked cross-country circuit. Prior to that, she starred on the track, winning silver in the 1 500m and 3 000m events as a junior.
Not that Xaba is bothered by the uncharacteristic anonymity so in contrast with her achievements. Far from it. She is so reticent as to be almost unreachable. But on the road or cross-country gravel and grass routes, she has always been transformed, possessed by a seemingly furious aggression that has driven her tiny and not all that muscular legs through distances that gave her victories over seasoned and more renowned campaigners such as the twins Lebo and Lebogang Phalula, Kesa Moletsane and Nolene Conrad.
Adjusting to the half-marathon
If the previous year is anything to go by, then bet on Xaba shining so bright in 2020 that ignoring her will no longer be possible.
She graduated to the half-marathon in 2019 and made the kind of impact that suggests she will soon be breaking the longstanding national record of 66:44 held by Elana Meyer.
“I have always said that when I move up to the half-marathon, I should be able to run it in 68 minutes comfortably.”
She has not run the 68 yet, but she won the national championships in only her second race in a time of 71:08. She then went on to run a record-smashing 69:44 in Buenos Aires, Argentina to become the first black woman to complete the half-marathon in under 70 minutes. That time has placed her third on the all-time South African list, behind record holder Meyer (66:44) and Colleen de Reuck (68:38).
“When I ran in Argentina, I had no idea what I’d achieved. I knew I had run well, but I only found out just how fast the time was when I saw people’s comments on social media. It was very encouraging and I know that if I continue training with Stephen, I can actually run a 66 minutes and break Elana’s record.”
This would be quite an achievement considering it was the 1992 Olympic 10 000m silver medalist who encouraged Xaba to move up to the half-marathon.
“I was comfortable doing 10s and cross-country. Actually, I struggled to take up road running but it was after I went to a camp where I met Elana. She told me that I am better suited for half-marathons and that I should consider moving up.”
Reuniting with an old flame
Xaba will be representing South Africa at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in Poland in March, and what better way to show her gratitude to Meyer than to break her record there? “I know I can break the record and it would be great to do it in Poland.”
The Eastern European country holds special memories for Xaba as it was there that she ran her first international competition, the world cross-country junior championships in 2013.
“I finished position 42, but I was the first South African home. It was very exciting.”
Being first has always been Xaba’s way. She has excelled from the day her teacher, Mr Chabangu, “forced” her to quit football to focus on running. Although, granted, she struggled at first.
“I felt running was weird, so much so that when I used to do road work, I would stop mid-run whenever I saw people approaching. I was shy and I felt they would see me as a weirdo to be running. When I joined a club, the coach had heard of me and asked who Glenrose was. But I just kept quiet and did not identify myself.”
That timidity was nowhere to be seen when Xaba heard of a girl who was deemed invincible.
“There was a girl. A white girl. I heard that she always won races and that no one could beat her. And in 2011 at the Mpumalanga Championships, I said there is no way I could be beaten by a white girl. She obviously went fast as she always did, but I caught up with her and then opened up a huge gap to win. I’d never seen anyone cry so much after a race,” says Xaba, the delight of that victory seemingly still vivid in her memory.
An assured champion
Shy as she is, Xaba does not lack confidence and she is not scared to express it. At the national cross-country championships in Centurion, where she had just defended her 10km title, she got into a conversation with the Phalula twins.
One of them asked her about the upcoming 10km road championships and Xaba’s response was classic. “You all know that is my title, mos,” she said. “No one’s going to best me there.” And she lived up to those words by defending her title. Victories in the Johannesburg and Maputo legs of the FNB series followed in what turned out to be a memorable year.
While she is clearly a natural talent, Xaba’s success has a lot to do with her discipline and focus. Sometime last year, when she had a fallout with coach Michael Seme, Xaba continued training and found help from her other mentor Violet Raseboya – the wife of her inspiration and role model, Caster Semenya – as well as Mokoka, who says the young runner has the potential to be a great.
“Glenrose is a young and ambitious athlete. She is hardworking and dedicated. But we fight a lot because sometimes she is not focused. But this year something happened that put the hunger in her. There are a lot of things that are coming from her. She is going to surprise a lot of people if she stays motivated and as disciplined as she is,” Mokoka said.
Having just turned 25, Xaba is maturing and sure to take her running all the more seriously as a result. And hers is sure to be a household name in the country before too long.