Feature23 Jan 2024

A marathon of a career and Paris is the next milestone for Mokoka


Stephen Mokoka in the 2019 World Athletics Championships marathon in Doha (© AFP / Getty Images)

Back in 2008, Stephen Mokoka thought 38 would be the age at which he would retire.

“I said at 38, I’m calling it quits. I’m going to focus on other things,” explains the distance running stalwart, recalling a conversation he had when meeting Andries Lessing, his manager in South Africa. But Lessing believed that by that stage, Mokoka would still have plenty to give in the sport as a marathon runner.

He was right. 

Mokoka made his marathon debut a couple of years after that discussion and has raced at least one every year since, setting his current PB of 2:06:42 last February – less than a month after turning 38.

Now, as he approaches his 39th birthday at the end of this month, any thoughts of retirement are far from his mind. His focus is instead on competing at a fourth Olympic Games in Paris in August and continuing his career in the No.1 Olympic sport for as long as possible.

Stephen Mokoka at the start of the World Road Running Championships half marathon in Riga

Stephen Mokoka at the start of the World Road Running Championships half marathon in Riga (© Adam Nurkiewicz)

“I had a proper team behind me, having family and having management that looked after me – they pushed me to focus more on cross country and track and field, and not to rush into marathons,” says Mokoka, who believes the variety of road, track and cross country competition throughout his career has aided his longevity.

“But I never believed that I would be running at this point in time.”

In fact, the Paris Olympics would be Mokoka’s 22nd senior global championship appearance. His first came at the 2008 World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, and his most recent was at the World Road Running Championships in Riga in October, where he claimed his first major international medal – team half marathon bronze – also at the age of 38.

He has competed in a World Athletics Series event or an Olympic Games every year since that international debut in 2008, bar 2022 when he was injured. Even then, he still managed to set a world record, clocking 2:40:13 on his 50km debut in Gqeberha in the March of that year.

Mokoka's global championship appearances

1 October 2023, World Road Running Championships half marathon, Riga, 11th and team bronze
8 August 2021, Olympic Games marathon, Sapporo, DNF
17 October 2020, World Half Marathon Championships, Gdynia, 7th 
5 October 2019, World Championships marathon, Doha, 5th 
24 March 2018, World Half Marathon Championships, Valencia, 16th 
4 August 2017, World Championships 10,000m, London, 20th 
13 August 2016, Olympic Games 10,000m, Rio de Janeiro, 18th 
26 March 2016, World Half Marathon Championships, Cardiff, 10th 
22 August 2015, World Championships 10,000m, Beijing, 20th 
28 March 2015, World Cross Country Championships, Guiyang, 29th 
29 March 2014, World Half Marathon Championships, Copenhagen, 12th 
10 August 2013, World Championships 10,000m, Moscow, 20th 
6 October 2012, World Half Marathon Championships, Kavarna, 8th 
12 August 2012, Olympic Games marathon, London, 49th 
28 August 2011, World Championships 10,000m, Daegu, 13th 
20 March 2011, World Cross Country Championships, Punta Umbria, 15th 
28 March 2010, World Cross Country Championships, Bydgoszcz, 22nd 
11 October 2009, World Half Marathon Championships, Birmingham, 8th 
28 March 2009, World Cross Country Championships, Amman, 32nd 
12 October 2008, World Half Marathon Championships, Rio de Janeiro, 67th
30 March 2008, World Cross Country Championships, Edinburgh, 74th 

It started with a bike

Mokoka’s original sporting focus was football but that changed in 2003 when he took part in a 5km fun run. 

“I won a bike for first prize and that bike, I used to use it to travel to the stadium,” says Mokoka, who lived 13km away. He later received a pair of Nike shoes through his participation in a national schools competition. “That’s what motivated me to come into running,” he adds.

He met his coach, Michael Seme, in 2005 when Mokoka was recruited to the Vaal University of Technology.

“It has been a long journey,” says Mokoka, whose first World Athletics profile entry is for a 3000m steeplechase race in 2003. “It started on the track. We kept graduating and growing with the pace and everything that coach said.”

It was also on the track that Mokoka achieved what he considers to be the standout championship performance of his career so far.

“Being able to become the African champion in 2016, especially in front of a home crowd in Durban, that was amazing,” says Mokoka, who clocked 28:02.97 to take the 10,000m title. “That will always be in the back of my head. After winning that, I started believing that anything is possible.”

Stephen Mokoka in the 10,000m at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu

Stephen Mokoka in the 10,000m at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu (© Getty Images)

Later that year he raced at his second Olympic Games, finishing 18th in the 10,000m in Rio after making his Olympic debut in London in the marathon. As well as his three Olympic appearances so far, Mokoka has run at five editions of the World Athletics Championships, capped by his fifth-place finish in the marathon in Doha in 2019.

It’s that performance, he says, which proved what is possible with the right preparation.

“I have had disappointment at a previous Olympics where I could not finish,” Mokoka explains, reflecting on the marathon in Sapporo.

“At Sponge Group (his training group), we try to see what could have gone wrong. We had put a lot of work in prior to the Olympics, but we noticed that I was preparing in cold weather hoping to run well in the hot conditions. 

“The shape was there, the problem was the conditions. I couldn’t cope with the conditions. When we look at how I did in Doha – we ran in October. Our summer started in September, so I managed to get six weeks of training in the hot conditions, that’s why I survived in Doha.

“I believe that (in the lead up to the Paris Olympics) I need to be away from South Africa, because it will be cold,” adds Mokoka, who finished second in Sunday’s Hong Kong Marathon, part of his preparations for Paris. “I’m hoping that somewhere, somehow, some person or some company will come on board to fund my camp so I can prepare, because I know that I am going to put in the work. 

“I believe that if I can get that support, something special will come.”

Forward focus

Alongside his consistency in the marathon – with 14 years of sub-2:11:00 performances – Mokoka's half marathon record is equally impressive. He made his debut in the 13.1-mile event in 2008, clocking 1:02:04 in Port Elizabeth, and completed his first marathon race two years later, running 2:08:33 in Seoul. Since then, he has taken his half marathon best to 59:36 – a South African record that placed him seventh in the World Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia – and his marathon best to 2:06:42 in Osaka last year.

Mokoka's half marathon and marathon season's bests

Year Half marathon Marathon
2024 - 2:12:58
2023 1:00:29 2:06:42
2022 1:01:14 2:09:58
2021 1:01:24 2:10:01
2020 59:36 2:08:05
2019 59:51 2:07:58
2018 1:01:26 2:08:31
2017 - 2:08:35
2016 1:01:26 2:10:18
2015 1:02:41 2:07:40
2014 1:00:47 2:08:43
2013 1:02:45 2:09:30
2012 1:00:57 2:09:43
2011 1:01:42 2:10:29
2010 - 2:08:33
2009 1:01:26 -
2008 1:02:04 -

“It comes from less competition, less intense running and less pressure,” he says, discussing his consistency and longevity. “I remember some guys who asked me why haven’t I done London (Marathon) before, why haven’t I done a Major? I would tell them that I am not ready for a Major yet. I believe that I need to be faster first, for me to be able to expose myself to something like that. Because it’s not easy – you need to prepare yourself physically, psychologically, emotionally.

“I’ve always tried to stay in a lane that I believe I can cope with. In future, yes, my wish is to find myself running a big major marathon and probably getting a medal from there. I have tried so much over the years.”

But now when he races, he does so as a world half marathon medallist, having helped the South Africa squad to team bronze at last year’s World Road Running Championships in Riga thanks to his 11th-place finish.

Stephen Mokoka prepares to receive his world half marathon team medal from Sebastian Coe in Riga

Stephen Mokoka prepares to receive his world half marathon team medal from Sebastian Coe in Riga (© Adam Nurkiewicz)

“I’m very grateful that I got that team medal – a global team medal – the first time that I could climb on a World Athletics podium after so many years,” he says. “It’s something that I am going to live with for a very long time. In a journey of 13 years, eventually I came out with something. I would have loved to have an individual one, but with the grace of God, eventually I managed to get on to the podium.”

As he reflects on the journey so far, what is his message to other runners who are inspired by him and his years in the sport?

“If you choose to be a runner, it needs discipline in terms of training, it needs dedication. But, most importantly, if you are patient. Reduce racing a lot – good things don’t come to people who overwork themselves,” he says.

“We look at the superstars, the Platinum athletes in the world – they focus more in training and then race a little bit. We know our sport, it’s a short career. But for you to be able to sustain it for a very long time, it needs proper discipline in all spheres – specifically training, racing, travelling and all those things. 

“They say a happy mind, a happy soul – good results always come from there. But if you are too busy – travelling a lot, racing a lot – the results don’t come. So, patience is the most important thing in everything.

If you choose this journey, choose it wisely. Find the event that you know is suitable for you and put in the hard work, and everything will fall into place.”

Jess Whittington for World Athletics

Pages related to this article