UCT Memorial 10KM Race – Remembering Isavel Roche-Kelly

25 Apr 2024 | By Stephen Granger (Issued by the Western Province Athletics)
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25 Apr 2024 | By Stephen Granger (Issued by the Western Province Athletics)

Merrilyn Smith, Isavel Roche-Kelly and Lindsay Weight were all extraordinary athletes who contributed substantially to South Africa’s marathon and ultra-marathon legacy.

All three ran for the University of Cape Town (UCT) and their lives are celebrated each year at the UCT 10km Memorial Race, run each year on a scenic, but hilly course from the Groote Schuur campus.

The first woman home wins the Merrilyn Smith Trophy and many of the country’s  former greats have their names engraved on the trophy.

Athletics South Africa Road Running Chairperson, Enoch Skosana, was at the finish of the Two Oceans Marathon, just a few metres away from the route of the UCT
Memorial 10 km race.

“When our universities promote sporting excellence, and running in particular, this leads to greater physical and mental well-being of its students,” reflected Skosana.

“Hosting the Two Oceans Marathon and its own Memorial Race in a few weeks time are examples of this.

“This year’s 41st edition of the race on Sunday 5 May especially celebrates the life of IsavelRoche-Kelly, one of South Africa’s most talented distance athletes ever.

Now a household name at the Comrades Marathon, both through her record-breaking victories and her name on a Comrades Marathon medal, Roche-Kelly left the planet all too early on the threshold of achieving greatness as a cyclist.

Just eleven months after embarking on her running career with a 500 metre jog around her residence at UCT, Roche-Kelly became the first athlete to run under 7 hrs 30 min for the Comrades Marathon (7 hrs 18 min), improving the previous record by over an hour.

Just a year later she was back at Comrades – this time on the ‘up’ run and her time of 6 hrs 44 min bettered that record by over two hours, ensuring her place in Comrades history.

After her second Comrades win, Roche-Kelly switched focus to the standard marathon, and just over three months later had improved Sonja Laxton’s national mark to 2:43:16 at Faure.

She improved the record by a further minute with an astounding 2:42:27 on the hilly Winelands Marathon course two months later. Two weeks prior to the Faure marathon, she showed surprising speed by staying the pace at the national cross-country championships in Cape Town, to finish fourth, just seconds behind experienced track and cross-country athletes, Di Massyn, Beverley Malan and Rita Minnaar.

Roche-Kelly’s unique spirit and positive view on life cobbled to her extraordinary athletics achievements made the diminutive Isavel a giant at the clubhouse and throughout the university, where she was named UCT sports star in 1980 and 81.

Isavel won a USA sports scholarship but a nagging back injury put a premature end to her ambitions. She returned to SA in 1983, barely able to jog, but was determined to run the first UCT Runners Memorial race in memory of her friend and teammate, Merrilyn Smith, which proved to be her final race.

Two years later, at just 25, Isavel was killed in a cycling accident in Ireland, while
training to make the Irish Olympic team.

“The fact that so many of the 24 winners of the Merrilyn Smith trophy are attending this event this year speaks to the esteem in which these three remarkable athletes are held,” continued Skosana. “And I understand that several are flying into Cape Town for the occasion.

“Although Merrilyn Smith and Isavel Roche-Kelly competed before my time as  competitive athlete, I was well aware of the exceptional achievements of Roche-Kelly. And I always admired the writing and commentary skills of Lindsay Weight, who of course was also a double Comrades Marathon champion.

“The fact that former champions, such as these three, can still inspire our athletes today is encouraging and I encourage as many as possible to remember and celebrate their lives at the University of Cape Town Memorial Race next month.”

Isavel Roche Kelly
Isavel Roche-Kelly