We older, veteran Comrades runners are often asked about the changes we have seen over the years at the Comrades marathon. Of course, there have been many changes, and last year’s race was a vastly different event from the one I first ran in 1977. Obviously there have been many changes in scale and charisma. The Comrades has grown to be a massive, world class event with 20000 runners, tens of thousands of spectators and 12 hours of live television coverage. The old amateur days are gone. The race is no longer a club event organised by Collegians Harriers but by a world class professional organisation called the Comrades Marathon Association. Nowhere is this professional attitude better illustrated than by the very generous prize money on offer and the fact that the race attracts runners from around the world. It has joined the pantheon of the world’s most famous races, and this is very unusual, since the Comrades is a famous ultra-marathon standing uniquely in a family of marathons and other famous shorter distance events.
But nowhere have the changes been more obvious, or more welcome, than in the women’s race. When I ran my first Comrades in 1977 women had only been allowed to run officially for two years. Until 1975 the race had been the exclusive preserve of white males. Women and black runners were relegated to having to run unofficially, to spectate, or to second the men on the road. In 1977 the handful of women runners who participated were condescendingly considered eccentricities and their race achievements received scant attention compared to the men’s race. They were not awarded gold medals for finishing in the top ten and there was hardly any mention of the fact that 1977 saw Lettie Van Zyl win for the second time and that by doing so in a time of under 9 hours she had run faster than Bill Rowan, the first winner of the Comrades marathon.
But once the early pioneer women runners had proved that the ladies could cope with Comrades’ 90 gruelling kilometres , just as well, if not better than the men, the floodgates opened and women rushed to run our most famous race. The winning times improved rapidly and in 1979 Jan Mallen ran almost 40 minutes faster than Bill Rowan’s inaugural win. A succession of legendary runners followed in the ensuing years and Isavel Roche-Kelly, Lindsay Weight, Helen Lucre, and Frith Van der Merwe became household names as they took turns breaking the women’s race record.
However at the height of their powers these women stood alone. Each one dominated the race for a few years and each was the firm favourite to win once their entry form had arrived at Comrades house. Indeed, in the late 1980s, and early 1990s Frith van der Merwe was so dominant that no seasoned gambler would have bet against her.
After Frith the age of Russian domination began, and though I hesitate to use the word “boring” the women’s race was very predictable. For a decade the only question Comrades fans had to answer was which of the Nurgalieva twins, Elena or Olyesa, would win. The twins were so dominant that between them they won 10 times and almost always, the beaten twin finished second.
But times have changed and in the last few years a glamorous group of women from around South Africa and the world have injected some real excitement into the race. For a few of these last years I worked as a television commentator and I can recall many occasions when we commentators found ourselves screaming at the broadcast producer,
“ Forget about the men’s race. Look at the drama unfolding in the women’s race. Don’t leave the women’s race for a second”
And this year’s race is no exception. It promises to be a mouth watering experience, and I challenge anyone to pick a winner.
Defending champion Camille Herron will be back to try and win the down run. She has been very active on social media sharing her excitement with us. I described Camille’s running style as being that of a giant praying mantis on the move. But this praying mantis can really gallop. She was utterly dominant in last year’s race, leading almost from the start and winning by a handsome margin, which would have been greater still, if she hadn’t stopped for a while under the incorrect finish banner. Perhaps the only question mark against her chances of defending her title is her penchant for racing lots of ultras. If she can resist that temptation Camille Herron could win back to back Comrades marathons.
If Camille is the defending champion, Charne Bosman is the defending down run champion. She ran a very cunning race in 2016 coming from way behind to snatch the lead at the end. Her Comrades CV is also very impressive boasting 4 top 5 finishes. Her consistency could be the key to a successful Comrades, and the fact that her cautious starting pace guarantees that she will finish strongly.
Four years ago Ellie Greenwood had us on the edge of our seats as she hunted down the Nurgalieva twins on the hills approaching Durban. Who will ever forget the way she ended their era with a smile and a delightful wave. This Canadian star has been struggling with injury problems recently but if she can overcome them she will have to be a serious contender on the down run.
Caroline Wostmann is a favourite among many to win her second title. 2017 was an” annus horribilis” for Caroline as her well documented struggle with injury virtually wrote off her year. However chatting to her over coffee a few weeks ago I found her motivated and very excited about her racing in 2018. At her best Caroline is very hard to beat and she badly wants to add a down run title to her 2015 up win.
Quietly hiding below the radar screen is Russian Alexandra Morozova. She came from obscurity last year to finish a surprise second behind Camille. Her anonymity make her chances very hard to assess but she has run a second place at Comrades and she’s Russian. Say no more.
Russia is technically banned from all athletics and I have to confess that I’m ignorant about the exact details of the ruling that allows some Russians to run. Given that some Russians will find a loophole there has to be a warning flag out for the chances of any Russian entrant. I expect an unknown Russian woman to be a serious contender on June 10th.
South Africa’s Gerda Steyn finished 4th last year and seems to have the necessary ingredients to improve on that performance. Her recent marathon 2.37 p.b. at the Valencia marathon Indicates that she will be a fitter and stronger athlete this year. And if I may indulge in just a hint of superstition; Gerda’s Comrades runs so far ( 56th, 14th, 4th ) reminds me of my own very similar ladder of progress back in the late 70s and early 80s. I always pay special attention to those runners who improve steadily each year regardless of the direction in which the Comrades is run.
Finally every Comrades marathon hides a few dark horses, someone who surprises on race day and emerges from relative obscurity right into the spotlight. There is no better example of a dark horse this year than KwaZulu-Natal’s Jenna Challenor. My spies tell me that this highly talented runner is considering running her first Comrades marathon this year. If she runs, she will have to be considered a serious challenger for top honours. Her second place finish in last year’s Old Mutual Two Oceans was an excellent indication of her ultra -marathon talent and she showed wise tactical sense, and great hill strength in the manner in which she stormed up Chapman’s Peak.
I fear I’ve left someone out and if I have I hope she puts me soundly in my place on June 10th but there we have it. Ahead lies the delicious prospect of an exciting women’s race in this year’s Comrades. Hasn’t the women’s race come a long way since those early days!
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