By Riël Hauman
(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

 The Comrades Marathon is never won over the first half of the race, or even the first two thirds. On Sunday Stephen Muzhingi of Zimbabwe became the first runner to win two consecutive “down” runs since Bruce Fordyce did so in 1986 by keeping his head when all about him were losing theirs and flying down the road from Pietermaritzburg to Durban at a pace that would have resulted in a new record by more than a half hour.

Muzhingi’s winning time of 5:29:01 for the distance of 89.28 km was more than 5½ minutes slower than the 5:23:27 he clocked last year –-the second fastest time ever for the down run-– but once he took the lead for good at the bottom of the final big climb, Cowie’s Hill, after 4 hours 20 minutes of running, there was no stopping him.

In contrast to Fordyce, whose last consecutive down run victories came in 1984 and 1986 with an “up” run sandwiched in between, Muzhingi scored his in two successive years, with both the 2009 and 2010 races being downhill.

The women’s race was ... well, not a race. The Nurgalieva twins, Elena and Olesya, led from the start and were never in trouble. They were also on record-breaking pace in the early stages, but backed off after halfway when they were 7 minutes in front of fellow Russian Marina Myshlyanova.

Elena crossed the line in 6:13:04, one second ahead of her sister, who won last year in 6:12:12.

American Josh Cox, holder of the USA record for 50 km, was never a factor, but Kami Semick, world 100 km champion, finished fourth, looking relaxed and comfortable. Cox, who reached the finish just ahead of the tenth woman, said later that he had struggled with stomach problems and dehydration.  He placed 177th.

In the men’s race eight South Africans finished in the top ten, the same number as in 2009 (top-10 finishers are all awarded gold medals here). Apart from Muzhingi the only other foreigner to get a gold medal was Leboka Noto from Lesotho, who bagged the last gold.

In contrast, the South African women were outclassed by international runners, and the three who won gold medals were the fewest since the same number did the trick in 2005. Two of the women in that trio won gold again: Farwa Mentoor and Lindsay van Aswegen, who finished fifth and eighth, respectively. They were joined this time by Adinda Kruger, who was ninth.

Although the women’s winning time was the slowest for a down run since 2001, the depth was astounding. Last year’s last gold went in 7:16:13; this year the tenth woman, Czech mountain runner Anna Pichrtova, finished in 6:51:34 – the fastest ever for this position.

The top South African man was novice Ludwick Mamabolo, who finished second in 5:35:29 after running a conservative first half. Mamabolo is the grandson of Titus Mamabolo, one of South Africa’s pioneering black runners who still holds the world record for the marathon in the 50+ age category.

In third was a runner representing one of those special Comrades stories that this great race produces. In 1999 Sergio Motsoeneng finished ninth, but was disqualified after an objection was lodged and it was found that he and his twin brother Sefako had run the race as a relay, sharing the same vest, numbers and transponder (they changed more than once during the race in roadside toilets), but making the mistake of wearing their watches on different arms – and this was noticed on race photographs. Both were banned from running for a number of years.  This year Sergio was back with the stated aim of making amends for their transgression – and he did so resoundingly in 5:35:58. (He also ran in 2006 and 2009, finishing 29th last year.)

The early pace was frenetic, initially even faster than Collen Makaza’s last year, when he went through halfway in 2:34:40, the fastest ever.

The perfect weather conditions played a role in the fast pace, but the incentive money on offer to the first runner at three special “hot spots”, the first one after 28 km, certainly also contributed. Among these early leaders were two serious contenders, Michael Ngaseke and Wellington Chidodo, both from Zimbabwe. Rounding out the top ten was Charles Tjiane, last year’s first South African.

After 1:30 of running, Chidodo and Samuel Pazanga (ZIM) were in the lead together, with the sun just rising over the Indian Ocean. Chidodo, in his first Comrades, got the first incentive after a sharp acceleration to get rid of Pazanga. The pace projected to a sub-5 hour finish – more than 20 minutes faster than Leonid Shvetsov’s record of 5:20:41.

Video: Muzhingi crossing the line, talking a little bit after the race.

Ngaseke, also a novice, was now third, but passed Chidodo soon after.Fifteen minutes later Tjiane began his charge and moved effortlessly into second, looking relaxed and with a slight smile on his face. He seemed on his way to improving on his third position of 2009.

But behind him the troops were gathering. Muzhingi could be seen forthe first time, running strongly with his usual arm-pumping, shoulder-rolling style. He was sixth, followed by Frans Chauke, Lucas Nonyana and Fanie Matshipa.

Chidodo went through halfway at Drummond in just over 2:38, but on the climb away from the halfway mark Tjiane went past. With 45 km to go Matshipa had moved into sixth, with former Two Oceans winner Bethuel Netshishefhe seventh, Muzhingi eighth and Claude Moshiywa ninth. (Chidodo would have a long day on the road; he finished 2329th in 8:52:45. Netshisfhefhe would not finish.)

At Botha’s Hill (a descent on the down run), Tjiane was looking in command and running as hard as he did last year at the same stage of the race. He was nine minutes ahead of Netshishefhe, Moshiywa, Matshipa and Muzhingi when he started up Alveston Hill, the biggest climb of the down run.

Cresting the hill, his form broke down and he walked a few steps. Then he regained his composure and set off again. What he didn’t know was that Muzhingi and his group had run the two kilometres to 38 km to go in 7:23 and were rapidly gaining.

Lesotho runner Leboka Noto was now sixth, followed by Gift Kelehe, younger brother of 2001 winner Andrew Kelehe, Elias Mabane and Butiki Jantjies.

The furious pace of the pursuers, with the tough-as-nails Muzhingi in the driving seat, was soon staking its toll and Netshishefhe started struggling. Moshiywa and Matshipa threw in a couple of surges and made a gap on Muzhingi, but he pulled them back.

Then Matshipa tried again, and got away. They had cut Tjiane’s lead to 2:43. Then it was  Moshiywa’s turn to fight back and he reeled Mathsipa in, and together they went past the leader with the clock showing 3:44:44.

Seven minutes later, in the leafy suburb of Kloof, Moshiywa surged and took the sole lead. Tjiane was now in fifth, having been passed also by Muzhingi and Netshishefhe.

Moshiywa was still looking good, but Muzhingi was not to be denied. After 4:08 he was just 30 seconds behind. Just ten minutes later, in the approach to Cowie’s Hill – a hill that has decided as many down runs as has Polly Shortts on the “up” run – Moshiywa faltered.

The road up Cowie’s is winding, twisting and turning ever upward among the trees which make it difficult for runners to see a rival up ahead. This 140-metre climb put paid to Shvetsov’s chances last year and it was the deciding point again – only this time Muzhingi was in the lead much earlier than in 2009, powering up the hill with his strong, determined stride.

Moshiywa walked a couple of times and it was clear that he would be slipping backwards in the downhill run into Durban. Behind him Mamabolo’s patience – rare for someone in his first Comrades – was paying dividends and he was picking off one runner after another. He was fourth at the bottom of Cowie’s, but not the only one who had been biding his time well, because Bongmusa Mthembu, seventh in 2009, and Mosoeneng had also made up much ground and was sixth and fifth respectively.

Mamabolo passed first Moshiywa and then twelve minutes later, with the clock on 5:08:40, also Matshipa. He was looking the best of the whole following group behind Muzhingi, but he was 4:57 behind.

Then, suddenly, Mamabolo was struggling and with 7 km to go Motsoeneng passed him. But Mamabolo has not become a seasoned ultramarathoner by giving up (he was sixth in the Om die Dam 50 km earlier this year, and 18th in the Two Oceans) and he soon regained second place.

Over the last 5 km the positions of the first three did not change, but Mthembu moved into fourth and 2003 winner Fusi Nhlapo finished best of all to claim sixth after having been in the top five in his last four races.

Moshiywa, who won a gold medal in 2005 and was 16th last year, crossed the line in seventh, one place ahead of the first veteran (master), Petros Sosibo.

Muzhingi said in an interview afterwards that “there was too much pressure on me. Everyone was trying to run away from me and the pace to halfway was too fast. I just ran my own race. My coach and I planned the race carefully. I am happy, but disaappointed I did not get the record.”

Muzhingi has now finished eighth, fourth, fourth, seventh, third, first and first in his last seven outings in the Two Oceans and Comrades.

One of the outstanding runs of the day came from former record holder for the up run Vladimir Kotov, who doesn’t like the down run but finished 14th in 5:51:38 to win the 50-59 age category by more than 42 minutes.

In the women’s race the Nurgalieva twins reached halfway in 2:58:50, 7 minutes ahead of Myshlyanova. With the second half so much faster than the first half, they seemed to have their sights on Frith van der Merwe’s venerable 1989 course record of 5:54:43.

But they soon slowed down and Elena explained later that they decided to forget about the record because they were so far ahead and rather just maintain their lead.

Myshlyanova, who was fourth in the last two Comrades, was never in danger, but all the runners behind her were running magnificent races. Although Mentoor and Kruger have both run faster, they produced satisfying come-back efforts after respectively failing to finish this year’s Two Oceans and last year’s Comrades.

Mentoor has now been the first South African in the Comrades on eight occasions: six years in a row from 2002 to 2007 and again in 2009 and 2010.

Behind Mentoor Britain’s Elizabeth Hawker surprisingly took sixth, one place ahead of Irina Vishnevskaya, the European 100 km champion. In fourth Semick, the world’s fastest 100 km runner last year, may have misjudged her effort, because she looked as fresh at the finish as when she started. If she decides to return next year, she can certainly challenge the twins.

Riana van Niekerk, probably the victim of over-racing, again failed to live up to her potential and finished 23rd, while Kashmira Parbhoo, who took the last gold medal in 2009, was 18th.

Three former Comrades champions had excellent runs: nine-time winner Bruce Fordyce was 918th in 7:55:03 for his 28th medal, Alan Robb finished 1522nd in 8:13:15 to receive his 37th medal, while Shaun Meiklejohn beat them both to finish 145th in 6:45:37. Dave Rogers, 67, won his 44th medal in 10:57:43.




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