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All Defending Champs Will Return To Two Oceans Marathon

Saturday is the 44th running of the annual South African race.

Saturday is the 44th running of the annual South African race.

(c) 2013 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Only one thing seems (fairly) certain about Saturday’s 44th running of the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town, South Africa: the weather cannot be worse than last year, when torrential rain lashed the Peninsula, which made running the 56-kilometer ultramarathon a nightmare and turning the sports fields at the finish into a more-than-ankle-deep quagmire of mud.

The accompanying half-marathon will be run for the 16th time. The biggest half-marathon in South Africa, it broke all entry records this year, with more than 16,000 runners expected to start. Its “big brother” also has the largest field in its 44-year history, with more than 10,000 athletes entered.

All four champions will be back to defend their titles: Stephen Muzhingi (Zimbabwe) and Elena Nurgalieva (Russia) in the ultramarathon, and Xolisa Tyali and René Kalmer in the half-marathon.

For the second time in the history of the event, the top 10 men and women in both races will be tested for prohibited substances by the SA Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS). In previous years, random testing of the top 10 was done. After last year’s ultramarathon, eighth-placed Lucas Nonyana returned a positive test and received a one-month suspension. This resulted in Odwa Tunyiswa, Kimutai Lezan (Kenya) and Moeketsi Mosuhli (Lesotho) each moving up one position and the latter receiving the 10th gold medal.

An interesting entrant in the ultramarathon is Ludwick Mamabolo. He was first across the line in last year’s Comrades ultramarathon, but then tested positive for methylhexaneamine and was suspended. Almost a year later his case is still pending, but Fahmy Galant, Doping Control Manager of SAIDS, said that Mamabolo’s suspension has been “provisionally lifted [with] conditions attached to it pending the finalization of the hearing.”

It could not be ascertained what these conditions are but at the beginning of the month, Mamabolo finished third in the Springs Striders 32km.

Apart from Muzhingi, eight of the 2012 gold medalists have entered again. The only one missing is Lezan.

The big question on everyone’s lips is how will Muzhingi approach this year’s Two Oceans? After having won the Comrades three years in a row (and finishing fourth, fourth and fifth in the Two Oceans), he produced a storming run over the last few kilometers in the 2012 Two Oceans to score a solid victory over Henry Moyo (Malawi) in a personal best of 3:08:08, the 10th fastest winning time ever.

RELATED: 2012 Oceans Marathon Recap

This victory made him the first male runner since Derek Preiss in 1975 to hold the Two Oceans and Comrades titles together (although Preiss scored his wins in the same year).

Eight weeks later, Muzhingi’s aim to emulate Preiss came to naught when he could do no better than sixth in the Comrades. Most experts agreed that the two ultras were too close together for Muzhingi to have recovered sufficiently.

This year, there is an extra week between the two races and that could change the way athletes like Muzhingi and others who have their sights on the Comrades approach this weekend’s race. Moyo, who has not been able to finish the Comrades in his two tries, ran his best Two Oceans in 2012 and has been in the top 10 four times. He led over the last big climb, Constantia Nek, last year, but could not stay in front when Muzhingi started his charge with 4km to go.

There will again be a strong Lesotho contingent, among them two of the gold medalists of 2012, Tsotang Maine (7th) and Mosuhli, as well as Mabuthile Lebopo, the winner in 2010, Warinyane Lebopo, Lebenya Nkoka, Sekeke Lesolo, Teboho Sello, Motlokoa Nkhabutlane, who was second in 2011 but failed to finish last year, and Mpesela Ntlotsoeu, who had a disastrous race in 2012.

South African marathon record holder Gert Thys led the South Africans in 2012 with his fourth place, course record time of 3:09:42 for veterans (masters) and world best for veterans at 50km of 2:48:39. In typical Thys fashion, he was then brimming with confidence for the Comrades, but could not finish the longer race. Thys has not been racing as much this year as he did before last year’s Two Oceans and also failed to finish the South African Marathon in February.

After the Two Oceans last year, Thys said he would have won were it not for his blood sugar level falling too low in the latter stages of the race (he has had insulin difficulties throughout his career). He is still an exceptional runner — although he tends to be inconsistent — and if he can solve the problem of maintaining his blood sugar level, there is little reason why he cannot finish in the top three.

Other South Africans who can mount a challenge are Bongmusa Mthembu, who finished a mere 34 seconds behind Thys in 2012, Mthandazo Qhina (6th), Nonyana, Tunyiswa (8th) and of course Mamabolo, who was 23rd last year. There is also Vusi Malobola, who won the last gold medal in 2011 and was 13th last year. He finished third in the City to City 50km in 2012 and has not yet reached his potential in the Two Oceans.

RELATED: Dean Karnazes Profile

Russia’s Nurgalieva Twins Return

In the women’s race, Russia’s Nurgalieva twins are back together again after Elena had to run without the company of Olesya last year (and scored her fourth victory). She then went on to win the Comrades for the third time in a row. Their amazing streak of dominant performances in South Africa’s two premier ultras now reads as follows: seven first and seven second places in the Two Oceans, and nine wins and seven second places in the Comrades. They have tallied 31 top-three finishes in both races since 2003, having been outside the top three on only two occasions.

Can anyone beat them?

There are only two runners in the field who can match their career-best marathon times: Natalia Volgina (Russia) and Thabita Tsatsa (Zimbabwe). The twins ran their personal bests nine (Elena) and five (Olesya ) years ago, and have not come close to this level again. Tsatsa, now 40, recorded hers in 2008 and Volgina (the fastest marathon runner of the four) got hers in 2006.

Volgina won the Two Oceans in 2002 and returned last year after an absence of nine years to finish second. Tsatsa has never run the Cape Town ultra, but she won the Loskop 50km and Township to Township Marathon last year. She clocked a solid 1:22:50 in a half-marathon at altitude earlier this year.

The Nurgalievas’ track record makes them the favorites, but they have been shown to be vulnerable in the past when put under pressure for an extended period of time. This seems to be the only way to beat them.

Tsatsa, her country’s marathon record holder with a 2:29:20, certainly has the credentials to challenge the twins — and so does Volgina, who is four years younger than the Zimbabwean.

Another debutante could lead the South Africans. Charné Bosman has run only one ultramarathon before, when she finished second in the City to City 50km last year, but is the fastest South African marathoner in the field and one of only three South Africans who have won the South African Marathon three times. She has kept a rather low profile in the run-up to the race, but she did win the Pick ‘n Pay Marathon earlier in the year (in 2:48:21 on a course that was 600-700m too long), as well as the Woodlands Dairy 15km, and set a personal best of 1:14:59 in the McCarthy Toyota Half-Marathon. Despite her lack of experience, she could finish in the top five.

Apart from Elena Nurgalieva and Volgina, six of the top ten in 2012 are returning: Mamorallo Tjoka (Lesotho, 4th), Samukeliso Moyo (Zimbabwe, 5th), Lizih Chokore (Zimbabwe, 7th), and the three South Africans Ntombesintu Mfunzi (8th), Tshifhiwa Mundalamo (9th), and Paulina Njeya (10th).

Another local runner who could break into the top 10 and even finish as the second South African is Julanie Basson. She was in the unenviable position of eleventh last year and then took the final gold medal in the Comrades. This year she has been second in the Johnson Crane Marathon and sixth in the Pick ‘n Pay race. Last year, she was seventh in the South African Marathon and also won two other marathons.

Half-Marathon Will Also Be Competitive

In last year’s half marathon Tyali scored a narrow win over Joel Mmonne, who will again compete, as will the third-place finisher Lucky Mohale. Along with winning the Two Oceans, Tyali also claimed victory in the Gun Run and Pretoria half marathons in 2012. He will have to contend with 2011 winner Lusapho April, who also grabbed victory in the South African Marathon that year and started off this year with a time of 44:30 for 15km. Other contenders include Elroy Gelant, South Africa’s 10km and cross country champion who finished 20th in this past weekend’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Lungisa Mdedelwa, Gladwin Mzazi, and track star Juan van Deventer.

RELATED: Half-Marathon Training Plans

Defending champion Kalmer has been struggling with an injury over the last few months and in the early part of 2013, she uncharacteristically lost a number of races, although she did win the Springs Striders 32km in 1:58:48, the third fastest ever by a South African. This past weekend she won a 15km race in Pretoria in 54:02. She was the top South African finisher in the London Olympic Marathon.

On the other hand, Irvette van Zyl (second last year) has been in good form and won the first 12 of her races in 2013. Strangely, she ran the Lisbon EDP Half-Marathon last weekend in 1:14:25, the fastest by a South African woman this year — something which will certainly not do her chances on the tough Two Oceans course any good.

The South African duo’s main rival will be Zimbabwean Rutendo Nyahora, who beat them both the previous weekend in the first race in the Spar Grand Prix Series. Nyahora was third last year.

Tanith Maxwell, the third of South Africa’s Olympic marathoners who last ran the Two Oceans in 2010, is also in the field, as are the 2012 fourth- and fifth-place finishers, Zintle Xiniwe and Christine Kalmer.

The male and female winners in the ultramarathon will each receive what amounts to $26,750, while the half-marathon victors will earn $2,675. Race organizers have offered $10,700 to anyone who breaks the course record in the ultramarathon. A course record in the shorter race would lead to a $1,070 payday.

A total of 1,821 runners in the two races (6.5 percent of the field) are from outside South Africa. An interesting statistic is that 72 percent of the field in the ultramarathon is men, while in the half-marathon the split is 50-50 between the genders.