Ready for Rio

Having claimed a second South African 10km Champs title in February, Elroy Gelant is clearly in peak racing form as he heads into the all-important last few months of qualifying for the Rio Olympics in August, but the versatile 29-year-old from Potchefstroom is already thinking ahead to the next chapter in his running career. – BY SEAN FALCONER
Stephen Mokoka started the 2016 SA 10km Champs in Sasolburg on 6 February as odds-on favourite to win the road running title once again. After all, he had won it in 2015, and 2014, and 2013, and he also set a new SA record for 10,000m on the track last year at the SA Track and Field Champs in Stellenbosch. In fact, the last time he had been beaten in the national 10km Champs was in 2012, in Kimberley, when Elroy Gelant out-kicked him… so it was perhaps appropriate that the exact same thing happened in 2016 – because it needed something special to deny him a fourth straight 10km title.
Running for the Central North West Province, Elroy came home in 29:14, two seconds clear of the man in the colours of Gauteng North, as the two friendly rivals clocked the fastest times by South Africans thus far this year, and Elroy says it was a sweet victory. “It is always nice to race Stephen, and we have a great friendly rivalry. For the past four or so years I think I have still been an upcoming athlete, while he was the established star, so I have always looked up to him. At the 2014 World Half Marathon Champs in Copenhagen, he came back to me and helped me to relax, with words of encouragement and advice, which helped me to finish 12th with a new personal best of 1:01:09, so I see him as guy of calibre, somebody I really respect.”
Champion Pedigree
This was Elroy’s fifth SA title, having not only won the 2012 SA 10km title, but also having won an SA Cross Country Champs 4km short course title in 2012, then recording the unprecedented double by winning both the 12km long course and the 4km titles on the same day at the 2013 SA Cross Country Champs. He is also the SA Record holder for the 3000m indoors, having clocked 7:39.55 in Belgium in 2014, the same year he finished seventh in the 2014 World Indoor Champs in Poland, and he currently sits second on the all-time SA list for 3000m outdoors, and third on the 5000m list. In earlier years he also claimed a bronze medal in the 5000m in the 2009 World Universiade Student Games in Belgrade. To date he has represented South Africa twice at the Track and Field World Champs, three times at the World Indoor Champs, once each at the World Cross Country and World Half Marathon Champs, and twice at the African Champs.
When asked what he sees as the highlights of his running career thus far, Elroy says that the double Cross Country Champs win stands out for him, as does the SA indoor record, but he is equally proud of his performance at the World Cross Country Champs in Poland in 2013. “I finished 20th at the World Champs and it was very tough in snow and mud. The juniors went just before us and made it a bit slippery, so I was very pleased with that performance.” Now, however, he says the win against Stephen in Sasolburg has moved up to near the top of his highlights list.
“I have been racing Stephen for a few years now, and in 2013 I did the double over him at the USSA Student Champs, winning the 10,000m in 27:44, and then the 5000m the next morning in 13:15. However, I don’t have any national titles on the track yet, because Stephen always seems able to sneak past me if we run tactical races. I beat him at those USSA Champs because I went hard right from the start, so maybe that is the secret to success! And beating him in these latest 10km Champs felt just as good.”
Sporting Youth
Elroy grew up in Pacaltsdorp, near George, and was very active in his school days. “I was always the all-rounder. I played rugby and cricket in school, and started cross country in Grade 3, going on to represent the South Western Districts and winning a medal when I was only nine.” At North West University in Potchefstroom, he initially specialised in the 800m and 1500m, but his current coach, Jean Verster, and former SA middle distance great Hezekiel Sepeng, helped him move up to the 3000m and 5000m, and that remains his focus as he tries to book his ticket to Rio. “I still feel I have unfinished business in the 5000m, and I will be trying to qualify in SA in local meets, including the SA Champs in April. If I haven’t qualified yet after that, I will go to Europe to try again, but my main goal will be to qualify, not to race, so that I can conserve myself for Rio.”
Having also excelled on the road up to the half marathon distance, Elroy says he sees his long-term future in the marathon. “I knew I could show what I’m capable of in 10km and 21km after doing them for endurance training, and after Rio I plan to step up to marathons. I’m getting older, and I think I’ve done enough foundation work on the track, so my plan is to step it up next year. Still, I’m thinking of starting by just pacing a few international marathons up to the 30km mark, in order to get experience of the pace and racing in overseas marathons. In SA races are easier to pace, as overall standards are lower, but I will get the real experience overseas.
“I have no real idea of what I’m capable of in the marathon, but I think I will surprise myself. I ran a 27km race a few weeks ago and felt stronger towards the end, which is a good indication of my strength for the marathon. Still, there’s no number in my head, and it will depend on my training, which is why I think it will be great to go train with Stephen and his marathon group under coach Michael Seme. I’m currently training pretty much alone in Potch for long distance, as most of the guys here are focused on middle distance. I will talk to my coach Jean Verster about it and then decide.”
Going Pro
Having completed his honours degree from the North-West University in B.Com Human Resource Management as well as B.Com Honours in Labour Relation Management, Elroy actually held down a full-time position until the end of 2014 at the university, as a Human Resource Assistant in the Department of Human Capital and Client Services, while still managing an intense training programme. “It wasn’t easy! I would wake up at 4:30am every day to train and get home by 6am to shower before work, and then after hours I would train again, but since January 2015 I have been a pro athlete.”
“The last year was difficult as I struggled to adapt to the new environment, I think because running suddenly became my work, and I put more pressure on myself, but this year things are falling into place and I am seeing better results. I just needed time to adapt, so I kept reminding myself of my plans and telling myself not to worry about anyone else. God provided me with a talent to achieve great heights, and athletics is my soul. I can’t imagine life without it.”