Zimbabwe's first Comrades win

Brad Morgan

25 May 2009

Zimbabwe's Stephen Muzhingi derailed Leonid Shvetsov's attempt at a third Comrades Marathon win in succession on Sunday, while the Nurgalieva twins continued their domination of the women's race as Olesya succeeded her sister Elena as champion.

Muzhingi's victory was the first ever for a Zimbabwean in the Comrades, but it shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise. After all, Zimbabweans have won the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon in four of the past five years.

In addition, Muzhingi finished third on the Comrades "up" run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in 2008, seventh the year before that, and also finished fourth in this year's Two Oceans Marathon, which he used as preparation for the Comrades.

Different challengers

However, one had to keep in mind that the "up" and "down" (Pietermarizburg to Durban) runs have proved to be two different animals, with only very special athletes able to dominate in both directions.

One of those, clearly, after record-setting victories in both directions, was Russia's Leonid Shvetsov. He set the "down" run record in 2007 with a spectacular time of five hours, 20 minutes and 49 seconds. In 2008, he took victory in the "up" run to Pietermaritzburg in five hours, 24 minutes and 48 seconds.

Shvetsov looked superb in his victory in 2008, but the Comrades can be a cruel race and no one can be sure of smooth run - world-class athletes like the Russian doctor included.

Cramps

Sunday's race proved far tougher for him than it had been the previous year, and with nine kilometres to go he had to let Muzhingi go when cramps struck. The Zimbabwean raced comfortably clear and went on to a superb victory at Sahara Stadium Kingsmead in Durban.

For Shvetsov, the last 10 kilometres felt as if they would never end. After struggling through to the finish, almost 10 minutes behind Muzhingi, he said they were the hardest 10 kilometres of his life.

Reflecting on his effort, he said he had disregarded his own advice and paid for it: instead of running his own race, he had panicked when Zimbabwe's Collen Makaza led by 10 minutes at the halfway mark. Shvetsov explained that he had pushed too hard to narrow the gap and paid the price.

In recent years, South African men have shown themselves to be better runners on the "down" run, and they proved it again by filling out the rest of the top 10 places.

First South African

Charles Tjiane, despite struggling towards the end, finished third, a minute and 11 seconds behind Shvetsov. He was followed across the line by 2003 champion Fusi Nhlapo, with Lucas Nonyana rounding out the top five.

The rest of the top 10 consisted of Mncedisi Mkhize, Bongmusa Mthembu, Peter Molapo, Bethuel Netshifhefhe, and Harmans Mokgadi.

The Comrades King, Bruce Fordyce, completed the race for the 27th time, while four-time champion Alan Robb racked up his 36th consecutive finish.

Dave Rogers, however, failed in his attempt to complete it for a record 44th time. Nonetheless, he still holds the record of 43 finishes. Rogers, who is 66 years of age, has promised he will continue to run the Comrades.

Women's race

The battle for the women's title was, almost predictably, between the Nurgalieva twins, Elena and Olesya. Elena had previously won the Comrades in 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2008. Olesya had won in 2007 and finished second in 2003, 2005, and 2008.

Tatyana Zhirkova, the champion in 2005 in the third-fastest time in the history of the race, presented a potential threat to the twins, but she came up just short of her fellow countrywomen.

The Nurgalievas had shown good form in the lead-up to the race, winning the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town after crossing the finishing line together, although the organisers later gave the victory to Elena.

Olesya ran her personal best in the standard marathon in Frankfurt in late 2008, clocking a world-class time of two hours, 27 minutes and 37 seconds, which demonstrated that besides endurance she has speed, and she proved it on Sunday.

Speed

After running together most of the way with her sister Elena, Olesya pulled clear near the finish when the twins learnt that Zhirkova was not far behind. Afterwards, Elena admitted that she could not match the speed of her sister.

Olesya took victory in six hours, 12 minutes and 12 seconds. A minute and two seconds later, Elena cross the line.

The fast-finishing Zhirkova was third in a shade over six-and-a-quarter hours. She was more than 15 minutes head of fourth-placed Marina Myshlyanova, who gave Russia a 1-2-3-4 finish.

Fifth place went to Farwa Mentoor, who had been the top South African finisher for six years in succession before Riana van Niekerk had ended that run in 2008. Another South African, Lesley Train, finished in sixth.

Marina Bychkova of Russia ended in seventh place, and three South Africans then completed the top 10: Lindsay van Aswegen, Belinda Waghorn and Kashmira Parbhoo.

Equal prize money is awarded to men and women in the Comrades Marathon. The winners picked up cheques of R220 000 each, while the second place finishers received R110 000, and the third-placed athletes R82 500.

2010

The organisers have already designated next year's Comrades Marathon a "down" run once again. It will be the 85th edition of the race, and they're expecting a big turnout to coincide with South Africa's hosting of the Fifa 2010 World Cup.

With a field of 20 000 entries expected - which would make it the second largest in the history of the race, trailing only the 23 961 of 2000 - a bigger finishing area would be needed than Alexander Park in Pietermaritzburg. That's why Sahara Stadium Kingsmead will be used again.

TOP FINISHERS

MEN

    1. Stephen Muzhingi (Zim) 05:23:27

    2. Leonid Shvetsov (Rus) 05:33:10

    3. Charles Tjiane (RSA) 05:34:21

    4. Fusi Nhlapo (RSA) 05:36:17

    5. Lucas Nonyana (RSA) 05:39:29

    6. Mncedisi Mkhize (RSA) 05:41:14

    7. Bongmusa Mthembu (RSA) 05:41:52

    8. Peter Molapo (RSA) 05:42:25

    9. Bethuel Netshifhefhe (RSA) 05:43:35

    10. Harmans Mokgadi (RSA) 05:44:49

WOMEN

    1. Olesya Nurgalieva (Rus) 06:12:12

    2. Elena Nurgalieva (Rus) 06:13:14

    3. Tatyana Zhirkova (Rus) 06:15:03

    4. Marina Myshlyanova (Rus) 06:30:42

    5. Farwa Mentoor (RSA) 06:45:33

    6. Lesley Train (RSA) 07:01:07

    7. Marina Bychkova (Rus) 07:03:24

    8. Lindsay van Aswegen (RSA) 07:08:55

    9. Belinda Waghorn (RSA) 07:09:36

    10. Kashmira Parbhoo (RSA) 07:16:13

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Run between the capital of Kwazulu-Natal province, Pietermaritzburg, and the coastal city of Durban, the 90-kilometre Comrades Marathon is arguably the world's greatest ultra-marathon (Photo by Stephen Pryke, copyright South African Tourism)


A steam engine follows some runners along the Comrades Marathon Route (Photo: Umgeni Steam Railway)

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