He’s Zimbabwe’s greatest ultra marathon runner.
(c) 2012 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
Can Stephen Muzhingi do it?
Most of the talk around the running of the 87th Comrades Marathon on Sunday has focused on the tough-as-nails defending champion from Zimbabwe –although, as usual, there are a number of serious contenders for the title.
The South African ultramarathon, the world’s largest, is a “down” run this year from Pietermaritzburg (670m above sea level) to coastal Durban. The distance will be 89.28 km, the same as it was in 2010.
“It” in the first sentence refers to two sides of the same coin: If Muzhingi wins again, he will be the first runner since Bruce Fordyce in 1988 to take four titles in a row. (Fordyce, of course, won eight in succession.) And he will be the first male runner since Derek Preiss in 1975 to win the Two Oceans and Comrades in the same year.
Muzhingi’s victory in the Cape Town ultramarathon over Easter was narrow yet had the stamp of authority on it, and one had the impression that he could have gone much faster. He beat Henry Moyo (MAW) by 27 seconds, with Collen Makaza (ZIM) third a further 10 seconds back.
In the run-up to the Comrades Muzhingi has been quietly confident, as always. He seems to have every skill needed in his armory and it will take a superb effort to beat him. When asked about the return of double record holder Leonid Shvetsov (RUS), Muzhingi said: “There is no pressure [on me] at all. If anything, after resting for two years, it is Mr. Shvetsov who is under pressure. I am feeling good, I am prepared and I am focused on my victory!”
It should be noted that his margin of victory in his two down run wins were much bigger than when he won the “up” run – 9:43 and 6:28 respectively.
Moyo, who did not finish the 2011 Comrades, will again be there to challenge Muzhingi. He will not be alone, as all nine gold medalists (top-10 finishers) behind Muzhingi last year will be back. Only one of them, Ludwick Mamabolo, who was seventh, also finished in the top thirty in the Two Oceans.
The others are, in the order they finished, Fanie Matshipa, Claude Moshyiwa, Jonas Buud (SWE), Gift Kelehe, Chasara Masiyatsva (ZIM), Charles Tjiane, Brian Zondi and Mncedisi Mkhize.
Four of the top ten of 2011 also finished with gold medals in the last down run, in 2010: Muzhingi, Mamabola (second in his first Comrades), Matshipa (4th) and Moshiywa (6th). Matshipa’s record in recent Comrades races is second only to that of Muzhingi, but he failed to finish the IAU World 100 km last year.
On paper these four, plus Kelehe, look like the toughest rivals for Muzhingi, but the Comrades seldom goes according to paper.
Among the hardened ultrarunning men who will surely play a role are Peter Muthubi (10th in 2010), Lucas Nonyana (5th in 2009, but a DNF last year), Brian Zondi (2nd in 2006), Marco Mambo (three-times winner of the Two Oceans, but has yet to finish a Comrades), Petros Sosibo (7th in 2010), Leboka Noto (LES; 5th in 2007) and Bongmusa Mthembu (3rd in 2010). And one should not forget former winner Fusi Nhlapo, who was fifth in the last down run.
Shvetsov, now 42, has reportedly trained very hard for the race. He set a new record of 5:20:41 in the 2007 down run and then repeated the performance in the next year’s up run with 5:24:47. Both records still stand. Although he will probably not get close to those times again, a top ten could be within his reach.
Others who could challenge are the overseas visitors Buud, who followed his excellent Comrades run last year with a seventh in the World 100 km Championships and a fourth consecutive win in the Swiss Alpine Marathon (78 km), was second in the 2010 World 100 km and won the European title over the distance, and American Michael Wardian, who missed gold by one position last year and earlier this year placed second in the US 50 km Championships.
And what about Gert Thys? The South African marathon record holder, now 40, completed his first ultramarathon in the Two Oceans in April and set a new world best for veterans (masters) of 2:48:39 at 50 km and then also broke the course record with his fourth-place finish.
Thys threw down the gauntlet at Muzhingi at the post-race media conference (receiving just a blank stare from the champion) in a challenge that can be regarded as realistic. But then he damaged his case –and raised considerable laughter– by describing the Comrades record as “soft” and promising to become the first athlete to finish in sub-5 hours.
There is no denying Thys’s brilliance and he has set a number of national and provincial records since turning 40, but the Comrades is not a jog in the park. Thys may win –that is not beyond the realms of possibility– but if he runs at sub-5 hour pace he will not see the finish line.
A runner who could surprise with a gold medal is Mthandazo Qhina, who will be running his Comrades debut. He was 6th in the Two Oceans after having won the Peninsula Marathon and has a faster marathon time than most of the top contenders.
Other talented debutants are Teboho Sello (LES), Zongamele Dyubeni, Amos Maiyo (KEN) and Jobo Khatoane (ZIM).
ELENA NURGALIEVA TO RUN WITHOUT TWIN SISTER OLESYA
One can start a discussion of the women’s race with a question, too, but it is not the usual one about which of the Nurgalieva twins is going to win. Olesya has had a baby (she was not injured, as previously announced), and Elena will be on her own (as she was in the Two Oceans).
Rather, the question is: Can Elena be beaten? She has won the race six times (and the Two Oceans four times), but yes, she can be beaten –and maybe Kami Semick (USA) or Ellie Greenwood (GBR) are the ones to do it.
Semick finished fourth in her debut in 2010 and last year moved up one position, fewer than two minutes behind Olesya, and 2:14 behind Elena. She finished very strongly in both races and on each occasion looked exceedingly fresh (if such a thing is possible after 90 km of running). And that, in the view of this reporter, is the problem, or the reason for the twins’ dominance: No South African runners, and only Tatyana Zhirkova, Nina Podnebesnova, Madina Biktagirova, Lilia Yadzhak (all Russians), and Mamorallo Tjoka (LES) among the international elite, have tried to put them under pressure and shake them out of their comfort zone.
Elena will not be able to rely on her sister’s usual support and Semick and the others should use this to their advantage. The American and Greenwood are two of the most talented and experienced ultrarunners on the planet. Greenwood successfully defended her title in the American River 50 Mile earlier this year (only four men beat her) and ran a PB 2:42:16 in the Vancouver Marathon in early May. Last year Semick was second to Greenwood in the American River ultra, while they finished in the same order in the Western States Endurance Run. In the Comrades Greenwood was one position behind Semick. There is little doubt that they could win on Sunday, but then they must run to win from the start and not run to follow Nurgalieva.
Among the South Africans the main challenge should come from Adinda Kruger, Farwa Mentoor, Julanie Basson, Kerry Koen and Lindsay van Aswegen. Kruger has finished 9th, 9th and 8th in the Comrades, as well as 6th in this year’s Two Oceans (3rd in 2010) and has not come close to her potential yet.
Mentoor has been the top South African nine times out of the last ten years and will surely make her presence felt again, but the other four mentioned above could sweep her from the throne. Van Aswegen, who was eighth in the last down run, finished third in the World 100 km in 2011 (and was the first veteran).
Other foreign runners who could make an impact are Lizzy Hawker (GBR; 6th and 7th in the last two years), Russians Marina Zhalybina (formerly Bychkova, 2nd in 2004 and 2006), Natalia Volgina (2nd in 2002 and 2nd in this year’s Two Oceans), Irina Vishnevskaya (6th last year) and Nina Podnebesnova (5th in the 2011 Two Oceans), as well as American Devon Crosby-Helms (last year’s USA 100 km champion and third in this year’s Two Oceans), who ran a PB 2:38:55 in the USA Olympic Marathon Trials earlier this year.
And what will Zola Pieterse do? The former double world cross-country champion, who turned 46 on Saturday and still holds three world junior track records and four SA senior and junior records, tested the ultra waters (almost literally, considering the weather!) at the Two Oceans and came away with a fifth place in the veteran category. Then she won the category in the Loskop 50 km, finishing fifth overall.
Typically Pieterse, she has tried to underplay her Comrades participation –as she did before the Cape Town ultra– but she is a competitor at heart and no one will be surprised if she achieves a top-five position in her category.