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Americans Stir Buzz At Comrades Marathon

Josh Cox. Photo: Jane Monti
Josh Cox. Photo: Jane Monti

Semick and Cox hope to become first American winners since Salazar.

By Riël Hauman
(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

The South African ultrarunning scene was abuzz last week with the news that American stars Josh Cox, holder of the USA record for 50 km, and Kami Semick, reigning world 100 km champion, have entered the 85th Comrades Marathon, which will be held on Sunday between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. They are part of the 23,565-strong field that will start the world’s largest ultramarathon.

It is the first time in the history of the race that it will be run “down” for two years in a row. Two consecutive “up” runs, from coastal Durban to Pietermaritzburg, have taken place three times – one of these when the 1940 and 1946 races were separated by World War II. It was decided to have the race finish in Durban again because it is one of the host cities for soccer’s FIFA World Cup tournament, which kicks off two weeks later.

The distance for this year’s race is 89.28 km – 110 meters longer than in 2009. The first few kilometres of the route in Pietermaritzburg have been changed to facilitate an easier and faster flow of the runners out of the city.

The last time a top American runner ran the Comrades was in 1994 when Alberto Salazar won the up run on his first attempt in 5:38:39. Second on that occassion was Nick Bester (the 1991 champion), who now manages the elite Nedbank team for which Cox will compete. The only other USA runner to win the race was Ann Trason, who set an up run record in 1996 and won again in 1997 in what is still the second fastest time for the down run.

Cox, one of 171 US runners entered, said in an interview that Salazar’s victory spurred him on to tackle the Comrades and that the 1994 champion helped him with his preparation. “It is the greatest race on Earth,” he said. “I am here to win.”

Cox set a USA record of 2:47:17 in the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona 50 km between Phoenix and Tempe in January 2009. He covered the standard marathon in 2:20:29 and then continued by running 20 laps on a track to complete 50 km. Eleven months later he ran a personal best of 2:13:51 when he finished second in the California International Marathon in Sacramento. He was only 9 seconds behind winner Tesfaye Girma of Ethiopia.

Cox has a PB of 65:09 for the half-marathon (also set in 2009) and can boast a best time of 29:57.06 for a track 10,000 m. A month ago he won the Country Music Half-Marathon in Nashville in 66:47, essentially a training run.

The big question will be whether Cox, 34, can handle the distance and the tough course, on which the downhills tend to play havoc with a runner’s upper leg muscles. On the down run the route drops from 670 metres at the start to sea level – but almost all of it is in the punishing second half. The demands of the Comrades are different than those of a marathon or 50 km, and many talented runners over these shorter distances have found that their bodies cannot handle doubling (or almost doubling) the distance.

One of the exceptions, of course, was Salazar. Comrades experts will tell you that the down run is tougher than the up run, and if Cox has prepared well enough for the pounding of the downhills, he may well emulate his fellow countryman.

Apart from Salazar, only eleven men have ever won the Comrades on their first attempt (including the winner of the very first Comrades in 1921, Bill Rowan).

Cox will be up against a formidable field, led by die defending champion, Zimbabwe’s Stephen Muzhingi, who conquered the seemingly invincible Leonid Shvetsov last year. Muzhingi beat the Russian, who has since retired, by almost 10 minutes in 5:23:27, the second fastest ever on the down run – bettered only by Shvetsov’s record of 5:20:41.

Muzhingi’s victory capped a superb three years of Comrades performances – he was seventh in the previous down run and in the 2008 up run he finished third. On top of that he was fourth in the 2009 Two Oceans, only six weeks before the Comrades. This year he was fourth again, but this time he had an extra two weeks to recover before the Comrades.
The tough 33-year-old Zimbabwean will not give up his title easily and his powerful run over the last 25 km from Field’s Hill in 2009 will certainly serve as a warning to all his rivals.

Charles Tjiane, the first South African in 2009, will be back and will be aiming to improve on his third position. He has prepared with a comfortable 13th place in the Two Oceans and 9th in the Om die Dam 50 km.

Eight South Africans – double the number of 2008 – won gold medals last year, the first time since 1995 that eight local runners had finished in the top ten. Apart from Tjiane, the other seven were Fusi Nhlapo, winner in 2003, Lucas Nonyana, Mncedisi Mkhize, Bongmusa Mthembu, Peter Molapo, Bethuel Netshishefhe and Harmans Mokgadi. They are all back.

Nhlapo has never been out of the top five in his last four runs, while Netshishefhe won the Two Oceans in 2007. Triple Two Oceans winner Marco Mambo has also entered. He failed to finish his debut last year and in this year’s Two Oceans he was 16th.

Nonyana won gold medals in 2007 (9th) and 2009 (5th), was fourth in the Om die Dam ultra and should be a contender again.

But, as usual, there are many more runners who are serious contenders on paper – the problem with the Comrades is its unpredictability and the number of things that could go wrong on the day. Among these men are Sipho Ngomane, winner in 2005, Prodigal Khumalo (ZIM), Josiah Thugwane, the 1996 Olympic Marathon gold medallist, Simon Peu, who had a disappointing run in this year’s Two Oceans, Brian Zondi, Collen Makaza (ZIM), and Fanie Matshipa.

Another foreign visitor should be mentioned: Russian Grigoriy Murzin, who was second in the 2007 down run. He is returning to the race full of determination and has already proven his toughness; he could win another gold.

And then there is debutant Mzwanele Maphekula. The 32-year-old athlete was fifth, third and fourth in the last three SA Marathons and has a personal best of 2:17:14. He was 15th in the Two Oceans – two places behind Tjiane – and has prepared with great care for the longest race of his career. He has the same coach as Lusapho April, who was fifth in the recent Hannover marathon in a huge PB of 2:10:45, and is an entrant to watch.

There is another problem with the Comrades – at least in recent years – and that is that South Africa’s women seem to resign themselves beforehand to the fact that Russia’s redheaded Nurgalieva twins cannot be beaten – at least not by a local athlete.

Over the last seven years Elena and Olesya have taken eleven of the fourteen first and second places on offer. Of those seven races they failed to win only one (Tatyana Zhirkova took the 2005 event) and, when both participated, it has happened only once that there was just one of them in the top three. (Olesya did not run in 2006 and was fourth in 2004.)

It is a fearsome record, and they have also won the Two Oceans five times between them since 2004. Olesya took the honours in last year’s Comrades, as well as the Two Oceans two months ago, but Elena is usually the better one in the longer race; she has scored four wins.

Elena had the flu before the 2010 Two Oceans and afterwards Olesya said, “Today I was stronger than my sister, but she will be stronger in the Comrades.” Unless something goes wrong, this will probably be the case.”

Other Russians in the field are Irina Vishnevskaya, who won the European 100 km title last year and also finished first in the 100 km del Passatore in Italy, and Marina Myshlyanova, fourth in the last two Comrades. Czech mountain running star Anna Pichrtova is also in the field.  She has recovered for a terrible car accident on her way to a mountain race in Africa.

However, one feels that if the twins can be beaten, it will be by Semick, whose ultra accomplishments speak volumes. The American won four major ultras in 2009, topped by her victory in the IAU World 100 km Championships in Torhout, where she took the title in 7:37:24 to beat Vishnevskaya by more than 9 minutes. Semick’s time was the world’s fastest in 2009.

She also won the American 50 km title in 3:29:20, the USA 50 km Trail Championships in 7:57:35, and the American River 50 Miles in 6:45:51. Semick will have no problem with the distance and if she is on form, the twins will have their hands full to keep her from following in Trason’s footsteps.

South Africa’s two best Comrades runners of the past eight years, Farwa Mentoor and Riana van Niekerk, have experience on their side, but that may not be enough this time. Mentoor was the first South African in the Comrades six years in a row, from  2002 to 2007, and again in 2009. She did not finish this year’s Two Oceans, which will not help her confidence.

Van Niekerk, who has tended to over-race in the past, led the locals in 2008, but failed to finish in 2007 and 2009. She is the current SA marathon champion and was sixth in the Two Oceans – and then won the Loskop 50 km a mere two weeks later.

It is very possible that the South African challenge will be led by Lesley Train (fourth last year and second in this year’s Om die Dam ultra), Adinda Kruger (third in the Two Oceans behind the twins and fourth in the Loskop race) and Belinda Waghorn (third in both the Om die Dam and Loskop ultras). Train and Waghorn both had easy runs in the Two Oceans, finishing 11th and 14th respectively.

Other contenders are Lindsay van Aswegen, who was fifth in the Loskop ultra, and Joanna Thomas, the outstanding master runner from Cape Town whose seventh place in the Two Oceans gave her a win in her age category.

And don’t forget Kashmira Parbhoo, who took the last gold medal in the 2009 Comrades amid astonished cries of “Who on Earth is this?!” She was fifth in the Om die Dam race and could fare even better than last year.

Runners from 60 different countries have entered, and the average age for men is 40 and for women 42. The oldest male is Martin Weidemann (79) and the oldest female Kathleen Reid (70). Two entrants have done forty or more Comrades: Dave Rogers will be attempting his 44th and Riël Hugo his 41st. Nine others will earn their triple green number for 30 finishes if they reach the finish line in Durban’s Sahara Stadium before the 12-hour cut-off.

Prize money for the first man and woman is R250,000 (USD 32,500), while second place gets R120,000 (USD 15,600) and third R90,000 (USD 11,700). The first South African citizen (man and woman) will win R125,000 (USD 16,250), while the incentive for breaking Shvetsov’s or Frith van der Merwe’s record (which has stood at 5:54:43 since 1989) is R250,000 (USD 32,500). 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.

PHOTO: Josh Cox after winning the 2010 BAA 5-K on April 18 (photo by Jane Monti)