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.
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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.
The other gold medalists of 2012 who will be on the starting line are Bongmusa Mthembu (second), Leboka Noto (Lesotho, third), Marko Mambo (Zimbabwe, fourth), Gift Kelehe (eighth), Claude Moshiywa (ninth) and Petros Sosibo (10th). Of these, only Kelehe and Moshiywa also won gold in the last “up” run; they were fifth and third. Kelehe, the brother of 2001 winner Andrew, has not shown his hand so far this year, preferring to concentrate on his training, but Moshiywa was 14th in the Two Oceans.
Mthembu has been a solid performer in the Comrades since running his first race in 2006 and has three gold medals behind his name: apart from his superb run last year, he was also seventh in 2009 and third in 2010; in 2011 he was 12th. He was fifth in last year’s Two Oceans and has the credentials to win.
The first two runners in the Two Oceans are also among the contenders for a gold medal. Former national marathon champion David Gatebe, a 31 year-old sports officer at the Impala Platinum Mine in Rustenburg, won the Two Oceans at his first attempt in 3:08:54, with Mthandazo Qhina second in 3:10:02. Qhina finished faster than the winner over the last 5km, but whether they have recovered from their efforts in Cape Town remains to be seen.
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Another runner who clearly stated that he was going for a win is Gert Thys. Thys’ overconfidence last year, when he said — after he had clocked a new world veterans (masters) record for 50km in the Two Oceans — that he would break the “soft” Comrades course record, exploded in his face when he failed to finish. So far in 2013, the inconsistent Thys also failed to finish both the South African Marathon Championships and the Two Oceans, but he set a new Western Province age record of 30:33 in the South African 10km Championships.
Other runners who could challenge for gold include Mncedisi Mkhize, Mambo, Noto, Sosibo, Charles Tjiane, Fanie Matshipa (second in 2011), Chasara Masiyatsva (Zimbabwe, sixth in 2011), Brian Zondi, Andreas Masoeu (Lesotho), Godfrey Sesenyamotse and Prodigal Kumalo (Zimbabwe).
Among the other notables in the race are nine-time winner Bruce Fordyce, who will be running his 31st Comrades, and four-time champion Alan Robb, who is one of three men who will attempt their 40th. Only three runners have done more and all of them will be there again: Dave Rogers with 44 and Barry Holland and Louis Massyn with 40 each.
Nurgalieva Twins Favored In Women’s Race
In the last 10 years the Russian Nurgalieva twins, Elena and Olesya, have only both been beaten in the same race once, in 2005, when Tatyana Zhirkova won. Elena has seven victories and Olesya owns two.
In the Two Oceans, after suffering from the flu in the run-up to the race, they were both beaten in the same race for the second time (Madina Biktagirova and Lilia Yadzhak also did it in 2007); in fact, Elena was fourth and Olesya took 12th. Of course, these positions may still change if the winner, Natalia Volgina, is disqualified after testing positive for an anabolic steroid.
Five of their main rivals are not even going to make it to the starting line: Eleanor Greenwood (Great Britain, second last year), Devon Yanko (U.S., fifth) and Emma Gooderham (Great Britain, 11th) have withdrawn, as have Kami Semick (U.S., third in 2011) and Lizzy Hawker (Great Britain, seventh).
Marina Zhalybina (Russia) will be there, as will Joasia Zakrzewski (Great Britain). Zhalybina (formerly Bychkova) has a remarkable record in the Comrades. Since finishing third in her first race in 1999, she has been out of the top five only twice in 12 attempts (apart from not finishing in 2007) and was the runner up twice (2004 and 2006).
Zakrzewski had a splendid 2011, when she finished second in the World 100km Championships, finishing in 7:41:06, and third in the IAU World Trophy 50km, and then followed this in 2012 with fourth in the Comrades (6:33:41). That race was won by Elena Nurgalieva in 6:07:12, who competed without the company of her sister.
Apart from Elena, Zhalybina (third) and Zakrzewski, three of last year’s gold medalists will contest the race again: Kerry Koen (sixth), Melanie van Rooyen (ninth) and Julanie Basson (10th). The trio were the only South Africans in the top 10.
Among the South African favorites this year is Lindsay van Aswegen, who last ran in 2010 and finished seventh. She was also eighth in 2009 (both “down” runs). Van Aswegen, a former national marathon champion, produced the highlight of her career so far in 2011 when she took third in the World 100km, just behind Zakrzewski. Her 7:42:05 in that race in Winschoten places her third on the South African all-time list.
Koen was ninth in Winschoten, the same position she earned in the last Comrades “up” run. Both she and Basson, who won the Slow-Mag 50km and was fifth in the Om die Dam 50km, could be in the top 10 again.
But all gold medal contenders will have to watch two relatively inexperienced ultrarunners. Zimbabwean Thabita Tsatsa, now 40, may yet be declared the winner of the Two Oceans (she was second across the line behind Volgina), a race she ran for the first time. Tsatsa, the second fastest marathon runner in the field and her country’s record holder, set a course record in the only other ultramarathon she has run, the Loskop 50km last year. She collected a number of age category wins in shorter races earlier this year.
Many South African pundits think the first local runner may well be Charné Bosman who has, like Tsatsa, run only two ultras: last year’s City to City 50km (she was second) and this year’s Two Oceans (she may end up second and was less than two minutes behind Volgina). Bosman, who has won the South Africa Marathon three times and took the Pick ‘n Pay Marathon earlier this year, would have gained much confidence from her come-from-behind success in the Two Oceans and although she now has to run 30km farther, she is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Other challengers include Lesley Train, Tshifhiwa Mundalamo, Salome Cooper, Riana van Niekerk and Caroline Wostmann.
And last but not least there is Zola Pieterse. The former track star, who still owns 12 South African records and now lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., made her ultra debut last year in the Two Oceans and then finished the Comrades in an untroubled 37th in 8:06:09. This year she ran the Two Oceans Half-Marathon. Pieterse, who turned 47 on Sunday, says her goal is a silver medal (sub-7:30). That should give her a place in the top 20.
The first prize for both men and women is what amounts to be about $30,000; this would be doubled for breaking the course record (Shvetsov’s 5:24:47 and Elena Nurgalieva’s 6:09:24).