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South African Men Rule Comrades Marathon

Several runners dropped out of the 89K race in South Africa.

Several runners dropped out of the 89K race in South Africa.

(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

You don’t win the Comrades by taking the lead early (unless your name is Alberto Salazar). And you don’t win it by changing your shoes either—not once, but twice.

Despite the presence of a talented international contingent, including two former champions, the 89th Comrades Marathon between Pietermaritzburg and Durban was a triumph for South African men, who took the first three places—the first time this has happened since 1992.

Bongmusa Mthembu, who was second behind Ludwick Mamabolo in the last “down” run two years ago, but did not finish last year’s “up” run, took the title this time in 5:28:34, followed by Mamobolo in 5:33:14 and Gift Kelehe in 5:34:39.

There were seven South Africans in the top 10, with triple champion Stephen Muzhingi (Zimbabwe) finishing fourth. At times the men’s race looked like a game of musical chairs, as the lead among the top five changed constantly.

In the women’s race the once indomitable Nurgalieva twins, although finishing second and third, were reduced to constant walking, accompanied by frequent glances over their shoulders, after the last big ascent, Cowie’s Hill, 18K from the finish. Spectators who have become used to their dominant performances over the past 11 years, during which they took 10 titles between them, were shocked to see them lying prone on the grass at the finish for many minutes before Olesya was taken away on a stretcher.

They were beaten soundly by Briton Ellie Greenwood, who in the last down run finished only 72 seconds behind Elena Nurgalieva (after leading at halfway). Greenwood’s 6:18:15 was almost 10 minutes slower than in 2012, but she turned a deficit of more than four minutes at halfway into a win of more than five minutes as the twins wilted under the effects of their fast early pace and the warm conditions.

The first South African woman was not the favored Charné Bosman, who dropped out after 4.5 hours of running after being in fifth for most of the race until then, but Caroline Wostmann, who was sixth in 6:51:43. Bosman fainted and collapsed, possibly caused by medication she has been taking for a thyroid gland problem.

For many South Africans, though, the most heart-warming performance of the day came from 48-year old Zola Pieterse, who finished seventh in 6:55:55. Pieterse, a two-time world cross-country champion who still holds the world junior records for the mile, 2000m and 3000m, dedicated the race to fellow Bloemfontein resident Pierre Korkie, who has been held captive by al-Qaeda for more than a year in Yemen. Korkie was her coach in the late 1980s and she—with hundreds of other participants following her example—wore a yellow ribbon to show solidarity with Korkie.

At the finish, Pieterse called the race “probably the hardest race of my life. I knew I was in great form, but you never know with this distance. But every time I suffered I thought of Pierre and then felt better again.”

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The race started in the usual fashion, with a number of over-confident runners storming off in the darkness from in front of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall, hoping to win the “hot spot” prizes offered along the way. The real contenders were biding their time in several large groups further down the field.

After 65 minutes of running, Charles Soza (Zimbabwe), Elmore Sibanda (Zimbabwe) and Anele Dlamini were leading, with Swedish star Jonas Buud, second last year, about six minutes in arrears and South African marathon record holder Gert Thys in seventh. Another Zimbabwean, Peter Tadziripa, was leading the main chasing group of about 20 runners.

Sibanda pulled away soon after, with Soza following him at a distance. Soza drew even with 1:45:40 on the clock and after running together with his rival for two minutes, moved decisively away. At this stage, Buud had been joined by Russia’s Vasiliy Larkin, 22, whose 6:18:26 in St. Petersburg was by far the fastest 100K in the world last year.

Between Buud, six-time winner of the Swiss Alpine Marathon, and Larkin was a group of 20 that contained many of the main contenders, among them 2012 winner Ludwick Mamabolo, Muzhingi, Rufus Photo, Mthembu, Joseph Mphuthi, Butiki Jantjies and Petros Sosibo. Nine-time winner Bruce Fordyce, doing TV commentary, said: “The winner will come from this group.”

On the steep climb up the Inchanga hill Thys, who has been very inconsistent in his forays over the ultra distances, with a fourth position in the 2012 Two Oceans, but also DNFs in the 2011 and 2013 Two Oceans, as well as the 2012 and 2013 Comrades, was 35 seconds behind Soza, with Collin Parura (Zimbabwe) third, Elias Mabane fourth and Mike Fokoroni (Zimbabwe) fifth.

Soza reached halfway at Drummond in 2:36:25, with Thys second 23 seconds behind and Parura third, just over 5 minutes behind the South African. Three-time Two Oceans winner Marko Mambo (Zimbabwe) was fifth behind Fokoroni, but more than six minutes behind the leader.

Photo, ninth last year, was 14th and Mthembu 15th—almost 10 minutes behind Soza. Mphuthi was even further back in 18th.

On the steep 6K climb out of Drummond towards Botha’s Hill, Thys gained on the leader with every stride and passed him at 2:44, pulling away easily and running with determination etched on his face. Earlier in the race he had stopped to change his shoes and he seemed to be running without trouble, as he did in the 2012 race, when he led by more than 5 minutes at Drummond—even though no other runner since Salazar in 1994 had led the race so early and still won.

In that race, after he had boasted beforehand that he would run under 5 hours, he started walking before the clock showed 3 hours. This time he lasted a while longer—if one does not count his second stop to change shoes yet again! It seemed to be planned, because his helpers even had a chair ready for him to sit on.

With Fordyce saying he could not believe what he was seeing, Thys sat down after 3 hours, 15 minutes of running and pulled on another pair of new shoes. (Fortunately he remembered to also transfer his timing chip.) He resumed running, but three minutes later stopped again to fiddle with his shoes, then resumed once more, but much slower now.

He was still 90 seconds ahead of his closest rival, but the signs were ominous.

And, as expected, his lead did not last long. Mphuthi was gaining steadily, cutting through the field, and moved into third, followed by a group of eight that included Muzhingi (10th last year), Photo (9th last year), Mamabolo, Leboka Noto (Lesotho) and Mthembu.

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Thys was walking at intervals and had completely lost his rhythm. At 3:55 the group passed him and shortly afterwards he sat down on the railing at the side of the road and pulled off one shoe. He then dejectedly walked to the other side of the road and got into a vehicle.

At almost the same time Mambo, who had been looking impressive, stopped and sank to the ground with a severe cramp in his leg. His race, like that of Thys, was run.

Mphuthi, who finished seventh last year, was now in the lead, but behind him Photo had shaken off his rivals and caught Mphuthi with 21K to go. His long, loping stride took him into the lead—but there was danger coming from behind.

His massive thighs eating up the ground, Mthembu went ahead just after 4:20—only to see Photo spurting past to claim the last hot spot. But that was also the end of his challenge and from there Mthembu ran unchallenged to the finish.

Behind him a furious battle raged between Muzhingi and Kelehe, brother of 2001 winner Andrew, as they stormed up the tree-lined incline of Cowie’s Hill. They traded surges—and shared a water bottle—after cresting the hill and hauled in Photo, who joined the battle. The lead changed many times and it was only after 4.5 hours of running that Kelehe and Muzhingi could break free.

Mamabolo, running easily, was now fifth, followed by Mphuthi, Sepitle Phaladi, William Mokwalakwala and Latudi Makofane. Buud, who was only 13th at the top of Cowie’s Hill, had started his push for the finish and was seventh.

Muzhingi was working hard and finally got rid of Kelehe just before 5 hours of running on the last short but very steep hill of the race. But none of them could withstand the charge of the defending down run champion. Mamabolo was looking as relaxed as if he had started the race an hour ago. He first sped past Kelehe, then Photo, and then Muzhingi.

But he had left it too late and although he looked the freshest of the top five, he was still 4:40 behind Mthembu at the finish. After the race Mthembu, who has improved each year on the last three down runs—from third in 5:37:49 in 2010 to second in 5:32:40 in 2012 and now first—thanked his coach, Willie Mtolo, who himself was second in the 1989 down run after a torrid battle with Sam Tshabalala.

In the last few kilometers, Kelehe rallied to go pas Photo and Muzhingi to claim third.

It was the first time since 1992, when Jetman Msutu, Mark Page and Shaun Meiklejohn finished in that order that South Africans finished in the top three positions. (Charl Mattheus was first across the line, but was disqualified after a positive drug test.)

Buud, a strong favorite to win who said beforehand that “this is THE race, the one everyone wants to win,” finished seventh, almost 10 minutes behind the winner. He was fourth and second in the last two up runs and is clearly a better up runner—a fact borne out by his seven consecutive wins in the Swiss Alpine Marathon.

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Larkin clearly found the tough course difficult to handle and just missed out on the 10th and last gold medal, finishing 19 seconds behind Makofane.

In the women’s race, the Nurgalieva twins went out fast and at halfway was more than 4 minutes ahead of Greenwood and 15 minutes ahead of Bosman, who was then still looking strong. Camille Herron (USA) was in fourth, 2:22 behind Greenwood. Irinia Antropova (Russia), who was third last year, was sixth and Pieterse seventh.
The twins stretched their lead to almost 9 minutes after 58K, but the first sign of trouble appeared on Cowie’s Hill, when Olesya started walking. But soon afterwards Elena also slowed and at the top of the hill they were together again. Greenwood, in the meantime, was working her way steadily up the hill—where, two years ago, she was the one doing the walking.

There was no sign of that this time and when she went over the top she had reduced the gap to less than 8 minutes. Over the next hour the Nurgalievas’ pace dropped alarmingly and both of them walked at times, looking exhausted. They kept on moving, however, but there was no stopping the slender British runner, who lives in Canada.

At 5 minutes past 6 hours, Greenwood overtook Elena without a glance, after having disposed of Olesya a few minutes earlier. From there on Elena stopped a few times, often turning completely around to look for her sister. They would finish 1:33 apart in what is by far their slowest times for the down run.

At Cowie’s Hill Herron was still fourth, but she would drop out soon afterwards. Jo Meek (Great Britain) had moved into sixth, with Frida Södermark (Sweden) seventh and Pieterse eighth. Over the last few kilometers, Pieterse was passed by Wostmann to finish as the second South African.

Afterwards Greenwood, who showed little sign of fatigue, said her win was “a dream come true.” She said she had been “tormented” by her narrow loss in 2012 and had done more speed work for this year’s race. She added that “the downhill is to my advantage,” but for the 2015 up run “I’ll train to be an uphill runner.”

Leonid Shvetsov (Russia), who holds both the up and down run records, finished in 8:26:21. Four-time winner Alan Robb achieved his 41st medal in 8:43:20, while triple winner Vladimir Kotov (Belarus) was third in the masters category (50-59) won by another former champion, Meiklejohn.