Poppy Mlambo is undoubtedly among South Africa’s top female marathon runners on current form.
Her determination to participate in the 2008 Beijing Olympics saw her shift her focus from track to longer distances, and its working wonders for her career.
When she ran a full marathon for the first time a few weeks ago, she recorded the best-ever time in the SA Ladies Marathon Championships.
Athletics South Africa’s Phiwe Tsholetsane says: “In the past, it was Zimbabwe and other African countries that dominated that distance, and we had given up on our ladies here.
"When Poppy came, she said she wanted to change that perception, to show the world that women in this country can still run long distances, and clock good times."
As the first woman home, Poppy won R100,000 at the event, and though it wasn’t a record, it was the best time ever clocked in the SA Marathon Championships.
As she prepares for the SA Track & Field Champs, Poppy spoke to gsport about her focus on marathon racing, and what endurance means to her.
What is your full name?
What is your nickname?
No, they just call me Poppy (laughs).
Where were you born?
In Dennilton, Mpumalanga.
Do you still have family there?
I no longer have family there, they moved to Joburg, so I’m not going there any more.
Where do you live now?
How old are you?
I’m 26 years.
What is your favourite race distance?
But recently you’ve won a marathon?
Yes, I won the Nedbank SA Marathon championships, a 42 kilometre, but nobody knew I was going to enter (laughs).
The thing is, I want to go to the Olympics, but my chances to qualify on the track is so little. The qualifying time for the 10,000 metres is 32-flat. For 5,000m, it’s 15:24.
So, I don’t have a chance for that. So, I decided to go to the marathon, and I spoke to my coach, and he said, ‘OK, it’s fine. I will arrange a programme for you, so you can qualify to go to the Olympics.’
After that, my coach said I was going to run sub-2:40, and he wants me to run 2:32, so that I can qualify to go to the Olympics.
How did your competitors feel when they saw you there?
They were just surprised, everyone was so surprised (laughs).
And when you won, did you get compliments from your competitors?
Ah, they said that I ran so well. And it was a surprise, because I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to run the marathon.
They asked why I didn’t tell them, and I told them I want to keep it as a secret, so that I don’t have to run under pressure, and the interviews again. I don’t want the interviews before the race. At least the interviews after the race (laughs).
My time was 2:39:16. So, I have qualified for the World Championships, but they want a 2:36 for the Olympics. But my coach says I’m going to run a 2:32.
How did it feel, to run such a long distance?
I thought it was going to be difficult for me, but there was nothing wrong. My coach said I must stay with the front group for the first half, and I ran the halfway mark in 1:24, and the second one, I ran with a 1:24. Tanith Maxwell came in second, she ran 2:40.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
My biggest achievement was in the 2004 SPAR Ladies 10km race, when I ran 32:58.
Did it break a record?
No, not exactly, the record is 31, by Elana Meyer.
So you not too far of her?
No, I’m too close (laughs).
What do you still hope to achieve?
If I can go to the Olympics, next year in Beijing.
What does endurance mean to you? / how do you achieve endurance?
I can say, if I was preparing for a marathon, I did a lot of endurance work, so it helps to have speed at the same time as having endurance, so you don’t get tired easily, if you have endurance.
Is endurance more in the mind, or in the muscles?
It’s both. Sometimes, if you tell yourself that you’re going to do something, that thing is in your mind. Even if you say, I can’t make it, there’s no such thing as ‘I can’t’.
Every time, you’ve got to be positive. Every time you’re positive, it’s in your mind. And that’s part of endurance.
What do you love about South Africa?
You know, in South Africa, we’ve got everything. Comparing some other African countries, they don’t have what we’ve got in South Africa. There’s a lot of poverty in other countries, but here in South Africa, we’ve got everything.
So, I love South Africa, I don’t think I’ll leave South Africa.
What is your next competitive event?
The SA Track & Field, on the 16th and 17th of March. I’ll enter for the 5,000m and 10,000m.