By Riel Hauman
The last time the Comrades Marathon was held on May 24 ---which used to be Empire Day in South Africa-- was in 1951. The last time a runner scored three victories in a row was in 1988 when Bruce Fordyce bagged the final of his eight successive wins. Double record holder Leonid Shvetsov could therefore make the 2009 Comrades a momentous occasion if he wins the "down" run between Pietermaritzburg and Durban on Sunday.
Shvetsov, who turned 40 a month before the Comrades, won the last down run two years ago and then also took the "up" run last year, setting new records in both races. The last man to hold both records before that was ---no surprise here-- Fordyce, until 1998 when Dmitri Grishine took his up record away.
The 84th Comrades will be 89.17 km long, starting in front of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall and finishing in the Sahara Kingsmead Stadium in Durban. The race was moved to May 24 to avoid clashing with the FIFA Confederations Cup, which takes place in Durban on June 14-29.
The Comrades was held on May 24 from its inception in 1921 until (and including) 1951. In recent years it has been run on Youth Day, June 16, or the Sunday closest to that date.
Shvetsov first ran the Comrades in 2001, a down run, and finished second. The next year he was a lowly 423rd, and did not return until 2007. He was a different runner then and broke Fordyce's 21-year-old record for the down run with his magnificent 5:20:49.
In the 2008 up run he established another record, 5:24:47, but although his victory margin of 13:41 was the biggest since 1983, he was visibly suffering over the last 2 km and not nearly as smooth as in 2007.
Shvetsov's current form is uncertain; his only known performance for the year is 2:25:50 in the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon in early February. He is now two years older than during the previous scintillating down run, but on the strength of his last two appearances in the Comrades one will not find many people who would bet against him.
He is by far the fastest marathoner of the top contenders and ran 2:10:59 as recently as 2006, in the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, where he was fourth. Apart from the Comrades, his best race in 2008 was 7th in the Lifestyle Sports adidas Dublin Marathon in 2:16:17.
Even if he does not improve on his record for the down run, it is likely that the record in the 40+ age category, Vladimir Kotov's 5:27:22 of 2001, will fall.
Kotov, who won three up runs in a row (2000, 2002 and 2004), struggled with injuries in 2008 and did not run the Two Oceans Marathon over 56 km this year. As usual, he did his final preparations for the Comrades in Europe, and although he prefers the up run and is not quite fast enough anymore to challenge the top runners, he will be a factor in the 50+ category. He was eighth last year and 20th in the previous down run.
Shvetsov's main challenge will most likely come from Oleg Kharitonov, an ultramarathon specialist who won in 2006. Kharitonov is almost exactly a year older than Shvetsov and finished second and sixth in the last two down runs. He has broken 6½ hours for 100 km and in 2007 was third in the World 100 km Championships.
He is, like Kotov, a better up runner, but in the 2005 down run clocked 5:29:15 -- just more than 2 minutes behind winner Sipho Ngomane. Kharitonov's best marathon time of 2:17:50 dates from 2002; last year he ran 2:30:55 in the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon.
Jaroslaw Janicki, older than both Kharitonov and Shvetsov, will not be far behind. The Pole won in 1999 -- also a down run -- and last year was second (the same position he also filled in the IAU World Cup 100 km). He has a rather up and down record (no pun intended) in the Comrades but although he was well beaten in 2008, he is always a tough nut to crack -- maybe not for Shvetsov, but certainly for the rest of the field.
Among the South Africans the top contenders should be Lucas Nonyana (38th in 2008 and 9th in the previous down run), Peter Muthubi (31st last year), who wants to bounce back from a poor Two Oceans, Peter Molapo (17th), Mncedisi Mkhize (7th), Sipho Ngomane (30th), Melikhaya Sithuba (12th), Harmans Mokgadi (6th and first South African), Claude Moshiywa (19th), Mabule Rhapotle (11th), Godrey Sesenyamotse (14th), and Joseph Molaba.
The only factor counting against Nonyana, whose training reportedly has gone very well, is that he has already won two ultramarathons this year -- the Om die Dam 50 km in 2:55:50 and the Long Tom 56 km in 3:30:47. On top of this he has run three marathons, with the Wally Hayward race only three weeks ago.
An inexperienced Comrades runner -- he was 61st in his first Comrades last year -- who could spring a surprise is Frans Kutu, who was fifth in the Long Tom 56 km.
And then there is debutant Marco Mambo. After three wins in the Two Oceans (2004, 2005 and 2008), he was beaten in the Cape Town ultra six weeks ago by Kenyan John Wachira. He has had some disappointing runs in the Two Oceans and this year made a tactical mistake by running down Chapman's Peak too fast.
If he does not let himself be pulled into the early charges and rather play a waiting game -- and if the Two Oceans, which was much closer to the Comrades this year than it usually is, has not taken too much out of him -- then a gold medal is a distinct possibility for the Zimbabwean.
Other top Zimbabwean entrants are Prodigal Khumalo (16th last year), Stephen Muzhingi (3rd), Wellington Chidodo and Sipho Ncube. Among the challengers from Lesotho Leboka Noto (21st in 2008) stands out.
Olesya or Elena? While the Nurgalieva twins seem to be untouchable in the Two Oceans, they have been vulnerable in the Comrades in the past. In 2005 -- two down runs ago -- they were beaten by Tatyana Zhirkova, who was third behind them last year. Elena won then, as she has done in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
Zhirkova was also third in 2006 and in 2003, and will certainly again present a formidable challenge to the sisters. She won the IAU World Cup 100 km in 2008, running 7:23:33, and was third in the Two Oceans. It should also be remembered that she has the third fastest time ever for the down run -- the 5:58:51 she ran in 2005 to join Frith van der Merwe and Ann Trason as the only runners who have completed the down run in under 6 hours.
She will not be alone in tackling the twins, however. Marina Bychkova has an exemplary record in the Comrades – she has finished in the top five on eight occasions, with a best of second in 2004 and 2006. The only blemish on her record is a DNF in 2007, the last down run. Zhirkova may be the stronger runner, but if they can put the twins under enough pressure, it could become an interesting tussle.
There is a fifth Russian who should be in the fray as well: Marina Myshlyanova, who was fifth and fourth in the last two races and last year beat Bychkova. Although she was more than 13 minutes behind third-placed Zhirkova, the 42-year-old from Chelyabinsk can be among the top five again.
All South African eyes will be on Riana van Niekerk. The Pretoria runner, who eschewed the Two Oceans this year to concentrate on the Comrades, last year broke Farwa Mentoor's six-year stranglehold on the top South African position when she was sixth in 6:43:31.
Van Niekerk, the current SA marathon champion, failed to finish the last down run, but expectations are that she will do much better this time. She did not run as many hard marathons as in pevious years, although she won the Om die Dam 50 km and was second in the Loskop 50 km.
Mentoor will be there again and expressed her confidence after the Two Oceans, where she ran sub-4 hours and placed fourth. She was followed by Adinda Kruger, and they will make sure that Van Niekerk does not have things her own way.
One of the trio could even finish in the top five if they can overcome their awe of the Russians. Mentoor has achieved this more than once and was fourth in the last down run behind the twins and Madina Biktagirova.
Among the other top South Africans are Lesley Train, Paulina Phaho and Lindsey van Aswegen.
The race has attracted 12,829 entries (10,542 men and 2287 women), the most since 2005. The oldest runner will be Martin Weidemann, who is 78. The average age of the male runners is 41 years and of the women 40.
Prize money for the first man and woman is R220,000 (USD 26,400), with second place half of that. The first SA citizen (man and woman) will win R125,000 (USD 15,000), while the incentive for breaking Shvetsov's or Van der Merwe's record (which has stood at 5:54:43 since 1989) is R250,000 (USD 30,000). The first ten men and women receive gold medals, those from position 11 to sub-6 hours Wally Hayward medals, from 6 hours to sub-7:30 silver, from 7:30 to sub-9 hours Bill Rowan, from 9 hours to sub-11 hours bronze, and from 11 hours to sub-12 hours Vic Clapham medals.