RRW: Can New Star Caroline Wöstmann Win Comrades Marathon?

By Riël Hauman
(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

(28-May) — A year ago Caroline Wöstmann was just another good South African distance runner. Much has changed for her in the past year, and on Sunday she will line up in the 90th Comrades Marathon as one of the favourites.

The Comrades is an “up” run this year from the coastal city of Durban to Pietermaritzburg. The distance will be the longest up run since 1985 – 87.72 km. This has been caused by road-works in Pinetown, and the deviation will occur between 69 km and 67 km to go.  The rest of the route used in the last up run, 2013, remains the same.

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Both defending champions, Ellie Greenwood (GBR) and Bongmusa Mthembu, will be on the starting line. More than 22,000 runners have entered.

Wöstmann, 32, was the first South African in the 2014 “down” run (her fourth Comrades) as a relative unknown, but finished more than 33 minutes behind Greenwood. Her best marathon time then was 2:53:35. In December she first hit the headlines with a win in the Port Elizabeth City Marathon, improving to 2:44:57.

In this year’s Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon Wöstmann took her rise to the top a step further when she overhauled race leader and defending champion Nina Podnebesnova (RUS) less than 5 km from the finish of the 56 km race. She won in 3:41:23, an almost incredible 73 minutes and 20 seconds faster than her only other attempt at the race two years ago. She was the first South African winner in 14 years, and the very first since the race became a real international event.

Wöstmann led what seemed to be – and is hoped to be – a revival of South African fortunes in the Two Oceans after the more than a decade long domination by Russians, who had won eleven of the previous thirteen races. With debutante Tanith Maxwell’s third place there were two South Africans in the top three – something that last happened in 2000.

Since her sixth place in the 2014 Comrades Wöstmann has come under the guidance of sports scientist Lindsey Parry at the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre. This has changed her outlook completely and “made a huge difference”,  she said after the Two Oceans, resulting in one personal best after another.
But, despite her elation with the win in Cape Town, she said a the time that “all this training was for Comrades. They say that agood Two Oceans blows your Comrades, but I guess I’ll find out in training this week.”

Some experts have expressed concern about Wöstmann’s racing programme since the Two Oceans. One week after the ultramarathon she finished second in a half marathon, and over the past three weekends she has raced the Jackie Mekler 25 km (finishing third) and then two consecutive half-marathons, winning both, in 1:20:50 (just 17 seconds slower than her PB) and 1:24:24. This does not seem like ideal preparation for a gruelling race such as the Comrades.

Another factor is whether the friendly, likeable Wöstmann will be able to handle the huge pressure generated by her Two Oceans win. She knows that she will carry on her shoulders the hopes of all South African fans to become the first local winner since Rae Bisschoff turned the trick as long ago as 1998 –which was also an up run. What is more, only two runners in the history of the Comrades have ever won the race after also taking the Two Oceans. Both did it twice: Derek Preiss in 1974 and 1975, and Elena Nurgalieva in 2004 and 2012.

Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva will be there again after they stayed away from the Two Oceans this year. The Russian twins have ruled South African ultrarunning since 2003 and have taken ten Comrades wins between them in the last twelve years, with eight of those going to Elena. To this they can add twelve second and third places.
They are a formidable force, especially when they are running together, and they will surely be more rested than in previous years when they also competed in the Two Oceans. In that race they have scored seven wins in the eleven years up to 2014.

But are they showings some cracks in their armour? In last year’s Comrades they were both beaten by Greenwood and in the 2014 Two Oceans they managed “only” third and sixth. They certainly appear more vulnerable than, say, five years ago and runners like Greenwood, Wöstmann, Charné Bosman, Devon Yanko (USA), Podnebesnova and Irina Antropova (RUS) will be far less intimidated by them than their rivals have been in the past.

Greenwood scored a decisive victory last year, taking revenge after she had finished only 72 seconds behind Elena Nurgalieva in the previous “down” run (after leading at halfway). With great tactical awareness she turned a deficit of more than four minutes at halfway into a win of more than five minutes as the twins wilted under the effects of their fast early pace and the warm conditions and were reduced to walking often.

Afterwards Greenwood, who showed little sign of fatigue, said her win was “a dream come true”. She said she had been “tormented” by her narrow loss in 2012 and added that “the downhill is to my advantage”, but for the 2015 up run “I’ll train to be an uphill runner”.

Since the Comrades Greenwood has won the IAU World 100 km Championships in 7:30:48, and in the first weekend of May finished third in the BMO Bank of Montreal Vancouver Marathon in 2:47:23. Now the time has arrived to prove that her training to run uphills has been successful. There are certainly few people who would bet against her.
Apart from Wöstmann, the top South African challengers will be Bosman, who was fifth in the last up run but failed to finish last year because of illness (and then, healthy again,  was a relaxed fifth in this year’s Two Oceans), Julanie Basson, who was ninth last year and since turning 40 was the third veteran (master) in the Two Oceans, and newcomer Emmerentia Rautenbach, who won  the Akasia Marathon and finished second to Riana van Niekerk in the Om die Dam 50 km race.

Van Niekerk, owner of four gold medals (all in up runs), withdrew from the race this week when tests showed that she has cancer of the pancreas. The discovery came as a great shock, because “I am very fit and was excited to run on Sunday,” Van Niekerk, 38, said.

The international challenge, apart from the Nurgalievas and Greenwood, will come from Yanko (seventh in the Two Oceans and fifth in the 2012 Comrades), Podnebesnova (13th in her only Comrades, 2012), Antropova (third and fourth in the last two Comrades and fifth in the World 100 km), Joasia Zakrzewski (GBR), who was fourth in the last up run and third in the World 100 km last year (as well as second in 2011), and Maria Zhalybina (RUS), who was sixth in the previous up run and since 1999 has won twelve gold medals – the same tally as Elena Nurgalieva.

Faring much better than the women, South African men have now scored three successive wins, something which last happened in 1992. All three of these winners will be competing again: Mthembu, Claude Moshiywa (2013) and Ludwick Mamabolo (2012).

Moshiywa, who won the up run in 5:32:09 (the first SA winner since 1992), has said that he wants to go under 5:30. Although he did not finish last year, he achieved golds in all four races he ran before that. “My preparations have been going well and I am 100% ready,” he said. Moshiywa, now 40, has a full-time job and runs before and after work. The longer distance may preclude him from achieving his goal; a sub-5:30 time was last seen in 2008 when Leonid Shvetsov set the current record of 5:24:47 – but the distance then was almost a kilometre shorter.

Mamabolo, who was declared the winner three years ago in controversial circumstances, was second last year – almost five minutes behind Mthembu – and also finished fourth in 2013. (He returned a positive test for the banned substance methylhexaneamine in 2012. Although his “B” sample confirmed the presence of the substance and he never denied using the drug, he was cleared a few weeks before the 2013 race on technical grounds. Errors in the testing procedure, which were acknowledged by the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS), led to this decision. The SAIDS chairman, Victor Ramathesele, said Mamabolo had not disputed “the chain of custody of the samples”, the testing procedure conducted by the laboratory at the University of the Free State, nor the results of the testing.)

Mthembu won the 2014 race by taking the lead only after more than four hours of running, but if Mamabolo had not waited too long before beginning his chase, things could have turned out differently.

Mamabolo, who is clearly better in the down Comrades, was 19th in the 2015 Two Oceans. Mthembu did not run that race, but in March was second in the Zululand District Ultramaraton over the same distance as the Two Oceans.
A fourth South African must be counted among the favourites: Gift Kelehe, brother of 2001 winner Andrew. Gift was third last year and has done his final training in the thin air of Dullstroom, where his training group of seven athletes ran around 250 km a week for the past two months. He lost 9 kg in the process. He is coached by John Hamlett, who also coached his brother when he was Comrades champion.

In the previous up run Kelehe had to pull out after 55 km with a stress fracture. In the 2011 up run he finished fifth.

Other SA men who should challenge for a gold, if not a win, are Fanie Matshipa, Latudi Makofane, who won the last gold in 2014, Rufus Photo (fifth last year), Mncedisi Mkhize (sixth), William Mokwalakwala (eighth), and Mthandazo Qhina (second in the 2013 Two Ocans).

Sweden’s Jonas Buud, second to Mamabolo in the last up run, is absent, but the man who was third in that race, Mpesela Ntlotsoeu (LES), is among a talented group of international runners who will try to end the string of local victories.

Ntlotsoeu, who also has a third place in the Two Oceans to his credit but failed to finish this year, will have the company of a number of countrymen – 2010 Two Oceans winner Mabuthile Lebopo, Teboho Sello, Lebohang Mohloane and Temo Rapuku.

The Zimbabwean hopefuls are led by Stephen Muzhingi, fourth last year and the only man since Bruce Fordyce to win the race three times in a row (2009-11). Muzhingi was a comfortable seventh in the Two Oceans. Other contenders are Collin Parura, Charles Soza, Marco Mambo, himself a triple winner of the Two Oceans, Mike Fokoroni, Chasara Masiyatsva and Prodigal Khumalo.

The best of the Ethiopians should be Mohammed Temam Hussein, who was eighth in the Two Oceans.
Three runners lead the challenge from non-African countries. Max King (USA) is the current World 100 km champion – he won the title from Buud in 6:27:43 – and was also fourth in the Western States Endurance Run last year. In March he finished ninth in the Asics LA Marathon in 2:17:32. King has not run the Comrades before, but his experience in other ultras is certainly sufficient to gain him a gold medal on Sunday.
Sage Canaday (USA), the course record holder in the White River 50 Mile Trail Run, scored big wins last year in the Pikes Peak Ascent and the North Face Endurance Challenge Championships. Running an ultramarathon on the road is not the same, but he will surely not find the course too tough.

Vasiliy Larkin (RUS) seemed to find the Comrades course a bit difficult to handle last year and missed the golds by one place and 19 seconds, and then placed seventh in the World 100 km. One can expect him to be better prepared this year.

First prize for both men and women is R375,000 (USD 31,000), with the first South African getting R175,000 (USD 14,500). An incentive of R1.5 million (USD 124,050) is on offer if the first male and first female break the course record – Shvetsov’s 5:24:47 and Elena Nurgalieva’s 6:09:24 from 2006 (on a course just slightly shorter than this year’s).