Love them or hate them, road ultra marathons come no bigger or better than the ‘Ultimate Human Race’, Comrades. This year is an ‘up’ run. Starting on the coast in Durban, the course stretches 86.96km to Pietermaritzburg at 670m above sea level. Over 19,000 runners will test themselves over the ‘Big Five’; Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shorts. From the base of the first hill, Cowies, to the top of Botha’s Hill you climb 502 meters in the space of only 22 kilometers. Any seasoned ‘Comrade’ will tell you this translates into a lot of climbing. The first half of the ‘up’ is challenging, it needs to be respected and paced, any early exuberance will be paid for dearly later on in the day.
But before the release of the gun, the atmosphere at the start is to be savored. It will burn and impression onto your heart that you will never forget. As darkness encompasses every runner the sounds of ‘Shosholoza’ a Ndebele folk song that originated in Zimbabwe fills the air. Although not the national anthem, the song is so popular in South African culture that it is often referred to as South Africa’s second national anthem. As the final words are sung (translated):
You are running away
You are running away on those mountains
train from South Africa
‘Chariots of Fire’ theme starts and with it the nerves and goose bumps increase. It is an incredible moment. The recorded ‘cockcrow’ of Max Trimborn adds to the sense of occasion and history and then with the sound of a horn you re released. Magical.
Episode 8 – Comrades Special – A show decicated to the Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa. We have interviews with Bruce Fordyce, Ellie Greenwood, Steve Williams, Caspar Greeff, Nicolaas Claassen and Zola Budd. In addition we bring you news and results from around the world, our current favourite blogs, Talk Training with the Ten Commandments of Ultra Running a Meltzer Moment with Speedgoat Karl and of course up and coming races.
The 2013 race
Ludwick Mamabolo won the 87th Comrades Marathon and as such is the favorite for this years race… however, the defending champion is not without controversy, he tested positive for a banned substance at last year’s race, after almost a year of legal wrangling, was recently found not guilty because of ‘technical irregularities’ in the testing procedure and has therefore been awarded his prize money and his title.
Eight of last year’s ten male gold medalists will toe the starting line again. However, Leonid Shvetsov, who won in 07 and 08 setting course record times is injured, and Lephetesang Adoro tested positive for a banned substance, so they will not join the 2013 race. Triple champion Stephen Muzhingi raced in the last ‘up’ run and without doubt will be one-to-watch this year.
Mamabolo won the race last year in 5:31:03 but his participation this year is clouded in controversy. In 2010 Mambolo participated in his first Comrades and then finished second behind Stephen Muzhingi. Will this be the result for the 2013 edition?
My hot tip for the race and a relative dark horse is Jonas Buud from Sweden. Jonas is a fast man over the 100km distance and as he proved at the 2012 TNFUTMB he can run hills too. Jonas ran 6:28:57 at the IAU World 100km Championships in Seregano last year and previously he has finished second on three occasions; 2009, 2010 and 2012. He is not new to Comrades; in 2011 he had an excellent run and finished fourth in an incredible time of 5:42. He has openly said that Comrades in 2013 is his primary focus. Watch this space!
Of course Bongmusa Mthembu and Leboko Noto are also toeing the line, they placed second and third respectively in 2012 and of course they bring speed and experience to the race. In addition, Mambo, Kelehe, Moshiywa and Sosibo also obtained ‘Gold’ in last years race… it is a stacked and experienced field.
David Gatebe, won the Two Oceans at his first attempt in 3:08:54 and without doubt will come to Comrades with high hopes and aspirations. Mthandazo Qhina, second at Two Oceans in 3:10:02 also joins Gatebe to add some spice to the Comrades mix.
As per usual, Comrades will be a highly competitive race and a surprise may very well come at any time. The depth of the field goes way back. However, Comrades is not just about the front of the race… it is the ‘Ultimate Human Race’ for a reason and as such, the vast majority of the 19000+ participants are just ‘ordinary joes’ like you and I. It is what makes this race so special. The support, the roadside parties, the crowds and the everyday runners testing themselves.
One of those ‘joes’ is nine-time winner Bruce Fordyce, who will not be running his 31st Comrades. He posted on backabuddy last year that his 30th, would be his last.
Four-time champion Alan Robb will return. Robb is one of three men who will attempt their 40th completion of this iconic race.
It is impossible to talk about Comrades and the ladies race without mentioning Elena and Oleysa Nurgalieva. Affectionately known as the ‘The Twins’ or ‘The Russian Twins’ they have dominated the race in the last 10 years. Elena has won the race seven times and her sister, Oleysa two times. The only break in this tradition came in 2005 when Tatyana Zhirkova won the race. Comrades is the home of the twins but Two Oceans did not go well for them and one has to question if they are arriving for the ‘up’ run in the best form.
Unfortunately, the anticipated battle and potential ‘break’ of the Russian stranglehold on the race coming from Ellie Greenwood is not going to happen. Ellie is out of the race with injury. Certainly from a British perspective I was really hoping that Ellie would return this year and move up from second to top the podium.
Another notable ‘Brit’ not at the race is Lizzy Hawker. Lizzy had injury over the Christmas period and has recently done a personal adventure in Nepal; she then followed this with a multistage race in the same area but just a couple of weekends ago she pulled out of a 24h race. She is now focusing on the 100m Ronda del Cims in Andorra, late June.
Americans Devon Yanko (previously Crosby-Helms) who has placed fifth in 2012 and Kami Semick, who was third in 2011 are not running. This in my opinion leaves the door open for Brit, Joasia Zakrzewski.
Jo had an incredible 2011 race. I remember it well, I was stood next to her on the start line. By the time we both reached the finish, she was showered, changed, fed and relaxing. Not only did she surprise herself but the whole of the female field at Comrades. She followed this incredible performance in 2012 with fourth place overall in a time of 6:33:41. My hot tip for the podium and without doubt a potential winner of the race. C’mon Jo! (Excuse the British bias)
Marina Zhalybina has a remarkable record at Comrades. She was third in her first attempt in 1999. She has finished the race twelve times and has always placed in the top ten.
Charne Bosman had a great run at Two Oceans. She is new to ultra but she has won the South African marathon and I guess she is the SA hope!
Without doubt, the ladies race this year is less stacked. Melanie Van Rooyen, Kerry Koen and Julanie Basson all return from 2012 and all three obtained gold medals.
Ultimately I see the ladies race as a battle between ‘The Twins’, Zhalybina and Zakrzewski with Bosman as an outsider.
Last but not least, we had all hoped to see Zola Budd (Pieterse) toe the line. She ran her first Comrades in 2012 and finished in 8:06. This year she was returning with a year of knowledge and without doubt she was going for ‘Silver’ and a sub 7:30 run, however, just yesterday she withdrew from the race on doctors orders. Unfortunately she has the flu.
First to last, the Comrades Ultra Marathon is an incredible race. It stirs the emotions and it mobilises a population. Come Sunday morning as Chariots of Fire fade and the sound of the cockerel crows I will be glued to my laptop screen with a tear in my eye… I have only run this iconic race once. It left a lasting impression and one that I would love to repeat.
I will be back one day.