Updated: Mar 13, 2019
During the recent 2016 Comrades I spent my time in the SABC commentary box, with Helen Lucre and Arnaud Malherbe. We had an excellent view of the finish line – the studio is positioned above it, so we never had to peer around a keen spectator to see what was happening. We also had five different screens, sourced from cameras in tracker vehicles following the leaders, as well as at key positions on the Comrades route. And am I glad we did!
This 2016 Comrades ‘down’ run was easily one of the most dramatic I have ever watched. The speed and strength of winner David Gatebe was a delight to observe. He was in total control from the moment he struck for home, and his six push-ups on the finish line showed he had more to give. I remember thinking that if he continued with form like this, he may well win again next year. If so, he would be the first South African men’s repeat winner for some years.
Stephen Muzhingi from Zimbabwe and Russia's Leonid Shvetsov were the last male repeat winners. Vladimir Kotov won three times, but only ever the ‘up’ run. Was the pounding of the down run too much for his legs? Perhaps he illustrates what I say repeatedly: a Comrades runner needs both strength and speed. Hence my gym programme, created by former Mr Universe, Reg Park, and Tim Noakes, reputed sports scientist.
Many other notable men have won the Comrades four or five times, but not for quite some time. There's Alan Robb with four wins, whom I found to be an incredibly worthy opponent. Before that, we have to go back to the 1960s. Jackie Mekler may have taken a decade to win his five, but his first was with a comfortable 45 minutes to spare.
Wally Hayward went even better. There was 20 years between his first and second win, but he went on to take five victories. I believe his greatest performances were when he ran the Comrades in his eighties. Hardy Ballington, who won the Comrades for the fifth time in 1947, after being interrupted by World War II, dominated much of the 1930s. Arthur Newton, also a 5-time winner, is considered to be the father of modern ultra-marathon running .
Most interestingly, the closest anyone’s come to my record of nine wins is a woman, Elena Nurgalieva. Elena has won 8 times and, once the ban on Russian athletes is lifted, could still win another. Her twin sister, Olyesa, has won two. So, between them, they have 10 amazing Comrades titles.
This year, the women’s race was extremely dramatic. Both Caroline Wöstmann and Charne Bosman displayed incredible courage. Caroline, winner of the 2016 Two Oceans Marathon and last year’s Comrades winner in the woman’s class, fought hard to achieve her first consecutive win. However, Charne proved too strong for her, and achieved a well-deserved victory. That being said, Caroline proved that if you show courage and grace in defeat, you are looked upon as a winner as well.
After the race, I was extremely gratified to be told by Charne that she constantly referred to my book when she wanted to fine tune her training for the Comrades. I find a great deal of pleasure in helping others achieve their best (which is why I created this website), and being told that I'd made a difference to someone like Charne was fantastic.
However, perhaps my finest moments in the commentary box came as I observed the throngs of happy, but ordinary, Comrades runners crossing the finish line. Of course, no-one who finishes the Comrades is “ordinary”, but it was the slower runners who seemed to epitomise the Comrades spirit. Cheers echoed into the Durban sky as the 10, 11 and 12-hour buses thundered home. It was a celebration and a confirmation that, at its best, the human spirit is indefatigable.
Since that heady day, my focus has mostly been on parkrun, the creation of Paul Sinton-Hewitt and which I head up in South Africa. It is the perfect place for a passionate runner like myself.
Not that it's the only thing I do. I have also just been a featured speaker at the Festival of Ultra-Running in Wiltshire. No surprise, my topic was the Comrades marathon, and I know there were many in the audience who are now determined to run it in the future.
Interestingly, I felt very much like a sprinter in the company of some of the other speakers. Having never run further than 100 km, I was fascinated to meet those who had. Emma Timmis, who ran across Africa from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Aleks Kashefi, who ran unaided from Lands End to John ‘O Groats in the UK. Mimi Anderson, who has run back-to-back Comrades and will run from Los Angeles to New York in September. We ultra-runners are an extraordinary group of people.
So, for those who plan to tackle next year's Up Comrades, my advice is to keep in mind that the weeks after an ultra are very much a rest phase. The build-up to Comrades only starts gradually in about October, but really only gets serious in February next year. In the meantime, focus on planning which races you will run in the next few months. Use this time to decide upon your all-important qualifying race and plan accordingly.
Finally, if any of you get the chance, please try and watch some of this year’s Comrades marathon. It truly was inspirational.
Image used with kind permission of Ellie Greenwood.
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THE 1986 COMRADES MARATHON
TACKLING A DOWN RUN
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