Mathipa’s big dreams for his growing Tembisa Mile

Run over just 1.6km, races of this kind are rare and New York’s mile race sets the standard. Now turning 10, can this Tembisa event emulate the world’s best?

Such are the disparities between Tembisa and New York that hearing the two mentioned in one breath raises eyebrows. Add 5th Avenue to the equation and you struggle to see just how the township situated north of Kempton Park under the Ekurhuleni Municipality can be equated to the world-famous American city.

Sport is, however, a great leveller. And it is through it that Donald Mathipa foresees his home township sharing something with the Big Apple. “I’d love to see the Tembisa Mile become as big as the 5th Avenue Mile in New York,” Mathipa says.

It is a big dream, a highly ambitious dream that he would probably be dissuaded from pursuing. After all, the 5th Avenue Mile, which hosted its 40th run on 12 September, is a world-renowned and fully sponsored race that attracts no fewer than 5 000 entrants. The prize money for this year’s edition of the race, the inaugural event of which was won by South Africa’s own Sydney Maree back in 1981, was $32 000 (R448 000).

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The Tembisa Mile, on the other hand, is only a decade old and will have its ninth running on 31 October. Last year’s event was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This year’s edition will see a paltry 50 invited runners, 25 female and 25 male, competing for the small change of R25 000.

The two events are chalk and cheese, really. And with South African corporates seemingly running away from backing road running, you wonder just how Mathipa and his Tembisa Athletics Club are ever going to realise this massive goal of theirs.

High hopes

But having conceived the Tembisa Mile back in 2012 and seen it grow into the relatively popular event that it is now, Mathipa has every reason to dream as big as he does. In any case, don’t they say go big or go home?

A former athlete who narrowly missed out on making it to elite status, largely owing to a lack of support, Mathipa is inspired by the backing he has received from corporate giant Spar. His belief that he can turn the popular road race into an event as massive as the New York one he so admires was strengthened.

“Things changed a lot for the Tembisa Mile in 2016 when Spar came in as one of the partners. They gave us some goodie bags which added more value to our race and, the following year, we saw a massive increase in entries,” Mathipa says.

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“The interest from the running community in the Tembisa Mile is huge. Over the years we have succeeded in attracting some of the country’s top athletes to participate in the 1.6km race, and every year we are seeing many of the respected athletes wanting to be a part of it.

“So, I have every reason to believe that with proper financial backing we can grow this event to being on par with the likes of the 5th Avenue Mile. Just look at how quickly the Westminster Mile has grown, after it was introduced as a legacy project of the London Olympics. [It is] because they enjoy corporate backing.”

But what is the Tembisa Mile really? “It’s a running party,” Mathiba chuckles as he mentions the race’s popular slogan. “Those in the know will be aware that while the mile is the main event, we also have the very popular 10km race run on the same day. But when we initiated this, our focus was on development and we saw the mile as the best way to give the developing athletes an opportunity to show their worth.”

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The Tembisa Mile idea came to Mathipa after his own running career had ended. It had seen him shine on the track as a school boy back in Limpopo, before he came to Gauteng where he did well enough on the road to receive provincial colours. The man boasts a 30:38 PB [personal best time] in the 10km, a 65:13 in the half marathon and a 2:21:22 marathon time.

“I almost made it as a semi-elite but I was just inconsistent with training due to a lot of other matters like having to work. And because of a lack of support I had to stop pursuing it as a career. But during that time I realised that most of the winners at the races we went to – mostly in the suburbs – were from the townships and they travelled far to go and win races. I thought: ‘How about we put something here in our own township so the guys can run in their backyard?’ We were fortunate in our first year because we had a lot of leftover facilities [race numbers, cones, road markers for example] from the Powerade events I’d worked at earlier in the year.”

No longer a small race

From those humble beginnings, Mathipa has seen the race steadily grow into a must-attend event for many runners – both elite and social. “In the first year we had the mile which saw the men and women running together. And we could only afford to give prize money of R300 to the winner. We also had an 8km fun run because we wanted it to be inclusive and not just competitive. 

“But from 2013 we then separated the men and the women in the mile. We were delighted to become an official race in 2014 with the mile and the 10km being fully sanctioned by CGA [Central Gauteng Athletics]. We then introduced a junior mile race and in 2018 we separated the juniors into age group categories from Under-10, all the way up to Under-19s.”

For the Mile, the Tembisa Athletics Club invites runners based on their track performances in the 800m, 1500m and 5000m events. Local lad Ryan Mphahlele and Lebogang Phalula are the current record holders of the 1.6km event that is hosted in Tembisa’s Makhulong Section at the Moses Molelekwa Arts Centre (named after the late jazz musician Taiwa Moses Molelekwa who hailed from the township) with times of four minutes, two seconds (in 2018) and four minutes, 44 seconds (in 2014) respectively.

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The race is run on a looped course and starts on the corner of Star and Asteroid streets between Makhulong Stadium and the arts centre. The runners then go towards the junction of Andrew Mapheto Drive and turn left into it before turning left into Metis Street to run behind the stadium. 

The route then takes them to RTJ Namane Street (popularly referred to as Straight Line). They then run back into Star Street, past the start, and finish at the arts centre.

Looking back, Mathipa acknowledges that having some renowned athletes take part helped raise the event’s status. “Early on we had the likes of Gladwin Mzazi, the Phalula sisters [Lebogang and Dina] as well as Nolene Conrad coming to run and it created some excitement. But the big turnaround for us came in 2013 when Johan Cronje came to run the mile shortly after he’d won the 1 500m bronze at the World Championships in Moscow. 

“Johan was in Gauteng for a wedding in Alberton and he came and participated. I couldn’t believe it when he came and, because of his status, then ANN7 came to record the highlights of the event and they interviewed him after he won the mile in four minutes, 10 seconds. That really helped raise the profile of the Tembisa Mile.”

A top attraction now

Thereafter, Mathipa saw just about all the top middle-distance track athletes asking to be invited. “We have since had the likes of Caster Semenya, Elroy Gelant, Jerry Matsau, Mapaseka Makhanya, the Kalmer sisters Rene and Cristine as well as Namaqua Nkhasi and Mamorallo Tjoka participating. This has given our race some kind of elite status. And our hope is that this will continue so that corporate South Africa can see the value in partnering with us.”

While the Mile is the flagship event, the 10km – which will not happen this year – is also very popular and attracts the big numbers, and Mathipa nurses lofty ambitions for it as well. “With the 10km, my vision was that we should have a competitive event that will accommodate elite runners, corporates and the social runner. I was impressed by the Boulder 10km in America which also has a team challenge in their race and the idea is to introduce that here. I also look to The Great Ethiopian Run in Addis [Ababa], the largest 10km run on the continent, as a race to aspire to one day be like.”

The Tembisa Mile 10km event has also attracted top names. Comrades Marathon champions David Gatebe and Gift Kelehe have participated, for example. When it started back in 2012, the Tembisa Mile looked like just a fun run and the community of Thembisa just watched from a distance.

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“Sometimes, in the community, people don’t take you seriously when you start something. But as we grew we realised that we were making an impact and the community started taking ownership of the event. Now we have people coming over to us offering to help on race day by directing participants to parking spaces and guarding their cars. And a lot of people even outside our running club help us with things such as registration and marshalling on race day.”

Mathipa and company have since decided to ensure the event is also of benefit to the community. “In 2015 we introduced what we call Peak Performance Talks, at which top athletes come and motivate the local runners. Comrades champion Ludwick Mamabolo and national marathon champion Stephen Mokoka have both spoken, as [have] Mapaseka Makhanya and Sibusiso Nzima. And these talks are very popular because our development athletes enjoy hearing from the people they admire and hope to one day emulate.

“Rene Kalmer spoke at the inaugural event and, because she’d been to the Olympics [for the 1 500m marathon], having moved up the ranks of track to road via cross country, she was perfect for us in terms of encouraging development athletes. But then Rene surprised us by going the extra mile and donated some running kit and shoes of about R25 000 which really helped us as Tembisa Athletics Club.”

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Like most townships in South Africa, Tembisa is teeming with people who struggle to make ends meet. And Mathipa sees this at the club where talented youngsters often fall by the wayside and easily end up being taken over by the streets because they cannot afford the sport – cheap as it may seem for many.

Kalmer’s help came in handy. So too that of running shoes and apparel company Brooks SA, through Clive Charles, and Run Walk for Life, both donating shoes to the club.

“Wherever we can, we also assist the clubs so that we can pay for the licences of the young kids who are members because their parents are reluctant to pay for the membership or they simply can’t afford it. And while we hardly make money from the race, having it really helps make the parents understand the need for them to support their kids. I really believe that the growth of the Tembisa Mile into something as prestigious as the 5th Avenue Mile would be great for our township in a lot of ways – particularly in helping give the youngsters here something to aspire to instead of them being lost to the streets.”

When you look at it from that angle, Donald Mathipa’s dream is noble rather than merely highly ambitious.

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