The 89K race is slated for Sunday and will use the “down” route this year.
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Can Claude Moshiywa become the first South African athlete since Bruce Fordyce in 1988 to win the Comrades Marathon twice in a row? Can Ludwick Mamabolo win without controversy this time? Can Charné Bosman become the first female South African champion since Rae Bisschoff in 1998?
These are some of the questions being asked before the running of the 89th Comrades Marathon on Sunday. The race, the world’s largest ultramarathon, is a “down” run this year from Pietermaritzburg (670m above sea level) to coastal Durban and will be 89.28K in length.
All 10 of last year’s male gold medalists have returned, as well as a further four of the top ten of the last “down” run in 2012.
That race was won by Mamabolo in 5:31:03 (the slowest winning time since 1995), making him the first South African winner since 2005, but 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 before the 2013 race on technical grounds. Errors in the testing procedure, which were acknowledged by the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS), led to this decision. The SAIDS chairman, Victor Ramathesele, said 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.
Thus, a cloud will forever remain over this victory and although Mamabolo said last year he wanted to make amends by winning again, he finished fourth behind Moshiywa, Jonas Buud (Sweden) and Mpesela Ntlotsoeu (Lesotho). He was more than 13 and a half minutes behind the winner.
Mamabolo is clearly better in the down Comrades—he was second in his first race, in 2010—and will produce another strong challenge this year. He had a relaxed run in the Two Oceans Marathon over Easter, finishing only 174th in just over 4 hours, and was fourth in the Pick ‘n Pay Marathon in 2:33:42.
Moshiywa looked superb in his win in 5:32:09 last year when he beat Buud by more than 9 minutes. He took the lead on one of the big hills soon after the halfway mark and was never challenged again. He has five golds, three of them in the down run, but his best positions have come in the “up” run (third in 2011). In the 2012 down run he was ninth.
He did not run the Two Oceans this year, preferring to concentrate on his training for the Comrades. It will be unwise to bet against him winning again, but one could also put money on the fact that his rivals will not allow him to get away in the same manner as last year.
Buud is probably the most talented of all the top runners in the field. The Swede has placed second in the IAU World 100K Championships three times—2009, 2010 and 2012—and ran an outstanding 6:28:57 in the 2012 race. In addition, he was seventh in 2011.
Buud has performed better in the up run (he was also fourth in 2011) but he will be a force to be reckoned with. He was only 63rd in the last down run, but that came a mere six weeks after the World 100K race.
After finishing third in the 2009 Two Oceans, Ntlotsoeu did not have the same success in either of the two ultramarathons again, until he was third in the Comrades last year. He did not finish the 2012 down run and little is known about his preparation for this year, but he certainly has the ability to get a gold again.
The other gold medalists of last year in the race are Johannes Kekana, Henry Moyo (Malawi), Joseph Mphuthi, Mike Fokoroni (Zimbabwe), Rufus Photo and Stephen Muzhingi (Zimbabwe). Muzhingi is the only runner, apart from Moshiywa and Mambolo, who won gold in the last two Comrades.
Although “only” 10th last year, former triple champion Muzhingi at his best is a formidable competitor in the Comrades. He won in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and was sixth in 2012. When he also won the 2012 Two Oceans, he became the first male runner since Derek Preiss in 1975 to hold the Two Oceans and Comrades titles at the same time.
That win in the Cape Town ultra probably cost him his fourth Comrades win in a row. Last year he had a calf injury in the Two Oceans and that affected his preparation for the Comrades as well. He was 29th in this year’s Two Oceans and finished comfortably in 3:27:48. Two of his three wins came on the down run and he will be hard to beat again. If he wins, he will join a very select group of athletes with four victories.
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At least seven other runners are amongst the contenders for a gold medal, if not a win.
Gift Kelehe would like to duplicate the triumph of his brother, Andrew, in 2001. He was eighth in the last down run and is in excellent form after an eight-week stint of altitude training. Bongmusa Mthembu did not finish last year, but was second in 2012. Marko Mambo (Zimbabwe), a former triple Two Oceans winner, was fourth in the last down run, but he also has two DNFs against his name.
Mabuthile Lebopo (Lesotho), the 2010 Two Oceans winner (he was 11th this year), is running his first Comrades and could surprise. Mncedisi Mkhize was 11th in the Comrades in 2013, but has won five golds (two in the down run); however, he also did not finish the last two down runs.
Gert Thys will try again, but his record in ultramarathons—like that of Mkhize—is rather uneven. After finishing a brilliant fourth in the 2012 Two Oceans with a veteran (master) world best for 50 km of 2:48:39 and a course record for the full distance, he failed to finish the 2012 and 2013 Comrades, as well as the 2013 Two Oceans. In this year’s Two Oceans he was 17th (third in the 40-49 category).
Among the other international entries is prolific American Michael Wardian, who was just beaten for the last gold medal by Mkhize in 2011. Wardian finished 35th in the Boston Marathon a few weeks ago and then six days later won the Big Sur International Marathon in 2:27:45.
Apart from Lebopo, other novices who could challenge for a top position—if their legs can handle the muscle-destroying downhills—are Kenyans Shadrack Kemboi and Joseph Langat Kipkemoi, and Moges Taye Mamo (Ethiopia), who was 34th in the Two Oceans.
Among Women, Bosman Is South African Favorite
In the women’s race, Bosman has little ultra experience compared to some of her more illustrious rivals, but she will start as the favorite among the South Africans. She was the first local runner last year when she finished fifth in her debut Comrades. Before that she was second in the Two Oceans in only her second ultramarathon, just 22 seconds behind winner Thabita Tsatsa (Zimbabwe). The three-time South African marathon champion and three-time Two Oceans Half-Marathon winner made a brilliant transition to ultrarunning at the age of 37 and clocked a 3:40:19, the third fastest time ever by a South African.
This year she bypassed the Two Oceans in favor of training for the Comrades, although she did run the Om die Dam [Round the Dam] 50K and finished second behind five-time winner Riana van Niekerk.
Bosman, South Africa’s best current ultrarunner, is certainly not awed by the accomplishments of the Nurgalieva twins—or any other runner in the field—and has an excellent chance to emulate Bisschoff, who won the up run in 1998. Only two South Africans—the other one was Tilda Tearle in the 1993 down run—have won the race in the past 21 years. Both Bisschoff and Tearle are running this year.
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Bosman will surely not repeat the mistake of last year when she seemed too relaxed on entering the stadium and was passed by Joasia Zakrzewski (GBR) less than 100 meters from the finish.
Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva (Russia) have won 10 of the last 11 Comrades and in their combined 40 participations in South Africa’s two major ultramarathons have scored 17 wins and 15 second places. Elena (11 gold medals), has been the dominant force in the longer race with eight victories against her sister’s two and has won the last four races. No other woman has more than three wins. Elena won in 6:27:09 in 2013, by far the slowest of all her victories. In the last down run she beat Eleanor Greenwood (Great Britain) by just more than a minute in 6:07:12.
The twins were not at their best in the Two Oceans after having suffered from the flu in the weeks leading up to the race, with Elena placing third and Olesya sixth. With Greenwood and Zakrzewski (also fourth in 2011 and 2012 respectively) again in the race, as well as fellow Russians Irina Antropova and Marina Zhalybina, they will face their toughest challenge yet.
Antropova was third in 2013 on her 31st birthday and seventh in the last down run, and finished second in the European 100K Championships last year. She has a solid string of runs in the Comrades: sixth, sixth, seventh and third in consecutive years.
Zhalybina, of course, can boast an achievement not even Elena Nurgalieva or Bruce Fordyce can match: she has amassed 12 gold medals. Although she has never won, she was second twice (both in up runs) and in the last down run she was third. A 13th gold medal looks almost a certainty.
Van Niekerk struggled with injuries the past two years. She has not raced as much as she used to and her Om die Dam win showed she has regained the form that has given her four career golds in the Comrades.
Other top contenders are the Americans Camille Herron, who won the last gold medal in the 2013 Two Oceans; Devon Yanko, fifth in the last down run; and Kami Semick, fourth in the 2010 down run and third in 2011. Kajsa Berg (Sweden), the European 100K champion last year, Tsatsa, who did not finish in 2013 (she failed to finish this year’s Two Oceans as well), and novice Sophia Sundberg (Sweden), fifth behind Berg in the European 100K, are the best Europeans.
Two other runners could finish in the first 10: novice Alemtsehay Hailu Kakissa (Ethiopia), who was ninth in the Two Oceans, and Zola Pieterse (48 years-old earlier this week), who was 37th in her debut in 2012 and eleventh in the Two Oceans this year.
Among the other former winners who are running are nine-time champion Fordyce, going for his 31st medal (11 golds) and four-time winner Alan Robb, going for his 41st (12 golds). In the longevity stakes they are both topped by 71-year old Dave Rogers, who will try and bag his 46th medal.
First prize for both men and women is $35,000, with the first South African getting $17,500. The winner’s prize money will be doubled if he or she breaks the course record: Leonid Shvetsov’s 5:20:41 from 2007 and Frith van der Merwe’s 5:54:43 that has been standing from 1989 (on a course slightly longer than this year’s).