By Riël Hauman
(09-Jun) -- One is running out of superlatives to describe the running exploits of Gerda Steyn. But maybe "majestic" would do for the 2019 Comrades Marathon. The Two Oceans champion --a title she claimed for the second time in a row only seven weeks ago-- not only won the 48th "up" run, but achieved the following milestones:
She became the first woman ever to cover the distance between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in under 6 hours when she crossed the finish line in 5:58:53.
She won by 18 min 47 sec, the biggest margin over second place since the race became an international event (Frith van der Merwe won by 45:58 in 1991, when the ultramarathon was still a purely South African affair).
Her time is the fourth-fastest in history, surpassed only by the "down" run performances of 5:54:43 by Van der Merwe (1989), 5:58:25 by Ann Trason (1997) and 5:58:50 by Tatyana Zhirkova (2005).
She is only the fourth woman who have won the Two Oceans and Comrades in the same year, after Van der Merwe (1989), Elena Nurgalieva (2004 and 2012) and Caroline Wöstmann (2015).
She finished 17th overall and became the first woman in the history of the race to win more than one million Rand in prize and incentive money.
In the men's race the "rule" that the first runner to cross the top of the last hill on the up run, Polly Shortts, 8 km from the finish, always wins, was proved to be true again when Edward Mothibi crested the hill 20 seconds ahead of defending champion Bongmusa Mthembu and denied Mthembu a third consecutive victory in 5:31:33. Mthembu, South Africa's most successful ultramarathoner of the last few years, finished 25 seconds behind. As in the last up run, Mthembu was strong on the ascent -- but Mothibi was stronger.
World 100 km record holder Nao Kazami (JPN), in his first Comrades, finished third in 5:39:16. Before the race Kazami said he had heard about the Comrades for the first time at last year's IAU World 100 km Championships (where Mthembu finished three places ahead of him) and that he would like to finish sixth because the prize money would cover his traveling expenses to South Africa. He won more than four times that.
Russia's Alexandra Morozova repeated her second place of 2017 (she was also third last year) after coming from behind over the second half, but despite running more than 14 minutes faster than two years ago (6:17:40), she was overshadowed by Steyn. The big surprise of the day was the third place in her debut ultramarathon by Irishwoman Caitriona Jennings (6:24:12).
The early lead in the women's race was taken by last year's down run winner Ann Ashworth, who set off on record pace and reached the first checkpoint at Pinetown (18.6 km) in 1:17:42 -- a time that would take her to the finish in 6:03, well under Nurgalieva's record of 6:09:24. Camille Herron (USA), the defending up run champion, answered the challenge and was only 7 seconds behind, with Steyn another 24 seconds further back.
Ashworth was still ahead as they went up the first big ascent, Field's Hill, but Steyn was now shadowing her only 30m back. Herron was third. With the course shrouded in mist and the occasional drizzle falling, the positions remained the same for a while, but just before the second checkpoint at 29.5 km Steyn took over the lead -- for good, as it turned out.
Smiling and running with smooth, quick strides, every now and then acknowledging the cheers of spectators, Steyn gradually increased her lead and after 2½ hours of running, going up the next major climb, Botha's Hill, she was 20 seconds in front. Over the next half hour she put the outcome virtually beyond doubt as she pulled away decisively and reached halfway at Drummond in 3:02:03. Ashworth was now 1:58 behind, with Morozova another 14 seconds in arrears. They were followed by Jennings, who turns 39 next Monday, Dominika Stelmach (POL) and Herron, whose pace had dropped from 4:12/km to 4:25/km.
Aygul Mingazova (UKR), 2016 winner Charné Bosman, Jenna Challenor and Noora Honkala (FIN) rounded out the top ten, but the latter was already almost 16 minutes behind the flying Steyn.
Jennings ("I felt strong in the middle," she would later say) was running strongly up Inchanga (a Zulu word meaning "long-bladed knife"), the climb out of Drummond, and passed Ashworth to move into second on the following downhill. Behind her Herron, who was more than 7½ minutes behind Steyn at halfway, abandoned the race.
At the front Steyn powered away, seemingly unperturbed by the menacing hills, and at Cato Ridge (56.89 km) she was 3:59 ahead of Jennings, who was struggling with cramps but still almost two minutes ahead of the Russian. Ashworth was fourth, while Catrin Jones (CAN) and Mary Khourie had moved into the top ten.
Reaching the flat section of Harrison Flats, Jennings rebounded and regained her rhythm, but still Steyn was pulling away, now zooming in on the course record. Nothing had changed in her action and she was now well and truly on her way to history. She reached the checkpoint at Camperdown (62.56 km) almost six minutes ahead of Jennings, with her split (4:20:39) pointing to a 6:01 finish. She ran the next 5 km at 3:52 pace and reached Umlaas Road (67.02 km), the highest point on the course, more than eight minutes ahead of Jennings, who was being caught by Morozova.
Steyn's pace dropped to 4:05/km as she negotiated the most challenging section of the second half, firstly up "Little Polly's" (Ashburton) and then "Big Polly's", which crests at 748m above sea level, but still she was stretching her lead with every effortless stride. At the top of Polly Shortts (79.26 km) she crossed the timing mat in 5:27:50 -- more than 17 minutes in front of Morozova, who had passed Jennings.
Steyn, who had missed Van der Merwe's Two Oceans course record by a mere 53 seconds, seemed to relax a little as she entered the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, but she still widened her lead to the finish, where she smashed Nurgalieva's record by 10 min 31 sec. "It is a dream come true; I had strength I didn't know where it came from," she said afterwards. "Many years of hard work came together. It's a real blessing … it's the biggest achievement I can ask for." Asked about her previously stated plans to now concentrate on the marathon (she ran 2:31:04 in New York last year, the fastest by a South African in 2018) and aim for the Tokyo Olympics, she said: "I have to reassess now; I am not making any promises. My mind is just everywhere now. It takes every ounce out of you to be a Comrades champion."
For only the third time ever, the first ten women all finished in under 7 hours (in 2017 the last gold medal was won in 7:05:55). There were five South Africans in the top ten. Bosman, who was third two years ago -- one place ahead of Steyn -- was the first 40+ finisher in eighth. Yolande Maclean made some history herself: she finished eleventh to become the first recipient of the new Isavel Roche-Kelly medal, awarded to women athletes from 11th place to sub-7:30, and for the first time in nine Comrades finishes she did not win a gold medal.
In the men's race Canisious Nyamutsita (ZIM) led for the first 2½ hours, while the main contenders were biding their time some way behind. The group included down run record holder David Gatebe, Mthembu, who won the race in 2014, 2017 and 2018 and was aiming to become the first man since Stephen Muzhingi in 2011 to win three times in a row, Edward Mothibi, who was fourth in his first Comrades last year, Marko Mambo (ZIM), Joseph Manyedi, Gift Kelehe, Gordon Lesetedi, and the two Kenyans, 2018 Two Oceans champion Justin Kemboi Chesire and Melly Kennedy Kiptoo.
By halfway the leader was TK Moshwetsi (2:43:25), with the main group of about eighteen runners almost two minutes behind him. Five minutes later Moshwetsi stopped and pulled off his vest as the others sped past and the real racing started.
With the mist swirling around them, Inchanga thinned the group to twelve. Then, as the sun broke through, Gatebe, Mambo, Mothibi, Mthembu and Manyedi pulled away. Chesire hesitated, but then followed, with Kazami behind him. The Kenyan took a brief lead and reached Cato Ridge first, but Gatebe and Manyedi were just three seconds behind. They were followed closely by Mothibi, Mthembu and Kazami.
At Camperdown Mthembu had his nose in front, but only just. Gatebe had fallen back to sixth, with Mambo now 2½ minutes behind. Over the next 5 km Mthembu, looking as good as he did in 2017, and Mothibi increased their lead and reached Umlaas Road 26 seconds ahead of Chesire. Mthembu and Mothibi, training partner of Gatebe, traded surges and when they started climbing Polly Shortts Mthembu, who had done his training in Kenya and Lesotho, made a gap for the first time.
It looked like déjà vu for the defending champion, but Mothibi had other plans. He overhauled Mthembu just before the clock showed five hours and then threw in one final surge. Mthembu, who lives in Pietermaritzburg, looked beaten as his hard Two Oceans run probably took is toll, and Mothibi reached the top 20 seconds ahead. Six minutes later the gap had doubled and Mothibi, who had completed the Two Oceans almost 45 minutes behind Mthembu's winning 3:08:40, ran untroubled to the finish, although he kept looking over his shoulder.
Behind them Mahlomola Sekhonyana moved into fourth, passing both Manyedi and Chesire, while Finn Henri Ansio also gained two places to finish seventh. Chesire, who finished sixth, is the first Kenyan ever to win a Comrades gold medal. Mambo, 48, was the first 40+ runner in eighth. Gatebe, a former SA marathon champion, finished 18th, almost 1½ minutes behind Steyn. There were six South Africans in the top ten, one more than in 2017.
Asked after the race how he overcame Mthembu's challenge up Polly's, Mothibi replied: "I gave it all. I just pushed harder. I didn't plan to win; I just wanted a gold medal." The ever gracious Mthembu's comment was: "It is so nice to see a South African do so well. I could see Edward had a plan … everything I did he could respond [to]."
Shaun Meiklejohn, the 1995 winner, finished his 30th Comrades in 6:56:16, while the two most prolific Comrades medalists, Barry Holland, 67, and Louis Massyn, 68, each achieved their 47th consecutive medal in 10:29:42 and 11:51:52 respectively (the cut-off is 12 hours). Five other runners who have more than 40 medals apiece finished the race.