The 54-mile race through South Africa is slated for Sunday.
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CAPE TOWN, South Africa — All eyes will be on Ludwick Mamabolo when the 88th Comrades Marathon is run on Sunday — unfortunately not only because he is the defending champion, but also because he tested positive for a banned substance at last year’s race and, after almost a year of legal wrangling, was recently found not guilty because of “technical irregularities” in the testing procedure.
The race, the world’s largest ultramarathon, is an “up” run this year from coastal Durban to Pietermaritzburg (670m above sea level) and will be 86.96 kilometers (54 miles) long. A total of 19,722 athletes have entered.
Eight of last year’s 10 male gold medalists (top-10 finishers) will be on the starting line again. The only two absent are Russian Leonid Shvetsov, who won in 2007 and 2008 (both in course record times) and is injured, and Lephetesang Adoro (Lesotho), who, like Mamabolo, tested positive for a banned substance and whose case — as far as is known — has not yet been resolved yet.
All 10 gold medalists of the last “up” run in 2011 will be there, led by triple champion Stephen Muzhingi (Zimbabwe).
At last year’s Comrades, which Mamabolo won in 5:31:03 (the slowest winning time since 1995) to become the first South African winner since 2005, he returned a positive test for the banned substance methylhexaneamine. Although his “B” sample confirmed the presence of the substance and he never denied using the drug, he was cleared a few weeks ago on technical grounds.
RELATED: Mamabolo Cleared In Doping Case
Even before that, he was allowed to compete in the Old Mutual Two Oceans over 56km (March 30) and finished 55th in 3:35:14. Last week, the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS) announced that it would not appeal the decision to clear Mamabolo. Its chairman, Victor Ramathesele, said SAIDS took note of the errors in the testing procedure and had already made improvements. Ramathesele pointed out that Mamabolo had not disputed “the chain of custody of the samples,” the testing procedure conducted by the laboratory at the University of the Free State, nor the results of the testing.
Mamabolo ran his first Comrades in 2010 and was second behind Muzhingi; the next year he crossed the finish line in seventh. Although many followers of the sport in South Africa are uncomfortable with his presence in the race, he will certainly put everything into his effort to win again. His performances so far seem to indicate that he is a better “down” runner, but few will bet against him winning another gold medal. To win the race, he will have to overcome the challenges of Muzhingi and Sweden’s Jonas Buud, as well as a number of South Africans.
Muzhingi probably made a mistake last year by trying to win both the Two Oceans and Comrades, and in the process ran the Cape Town ultra too fast. The last runner to achieve this feat was Derek Preiss in 1975 but, without taking anything away from Preiss’ accomplishment, the competition in both ultras is now such that it is virtually impossible to recover sufficiently from a hard race in the Two Oceans in the time available between the events.
If Muzhingi had won in 2012, he would have been the first since Bruce Fordyce in 1984 to triumph four times in a row. He had to be content with placing sixth, one second short of 7 minutes behind Mamabolo. In this year’s Two Oceans Muzhingi did not let himself be drawn into racing at the front and also struggled with a calf injury. He finished 34th, almost 19 minutes behind the winner. Muzhingi’s strength has always been his most formidable weapon and he has had nine weeks to recover. He should start as the favorite to achieve that coveted fourth victory.
Buud, the most experienced ultrarunner in the elite field, has finished second in the IAU World 100km Championships three times — 2009, 2010 and 2012 — and last year clocked an outstanding 6:28:57 in the race in Seregno. He was also seventh in 2011. The Comrades is his main focus in 2013. Although he was only 65th last year (but it should be remembered that he had run the World 100km only six weeks earlier), his fourth place in the 2011 up run is significant. He ran 5:42:45 after a storming second half to finish one second less than 10 minutes behind Muzhingi. He has worked hard on his speed in preparation for this year’s race and could be the big danger man.