|Comrades Marathon - Preview
by Riel Hauman, author of Century of the Marathon: 1896-1996
It seems likely that the biggest road race ever held in South Africa will again be dominated by foreign runners. Whatever happens, and whether a South African manages to win or not, the 75th running of the Comrades Marathon on Friday, June 16, will provide a spectacle unmatched by any other sport in the country.
The "Big C" is an "up" run this year (from Durban to Pietermaritzburg), and a record 24,505 runners have entered. Of these, 809 are foreigners. The race distance is 87.6KM.
The Comrades will have a cut-off of 12 hours this year - one hour more than in the past. This - and the magic of the 75th celebration - has drawn 8,492 novices to the event, three times that of 1999.
The oldest runner will be 78-year-old former chairman of the Comrades Marathon organizing committee Toppy Fanner. He last ran the race in 1971 and, if he finishes, will be the oldest to do so after Wally Hayward, five-time winner who ran in 1989 at the age of 80.
The past two years the men's race was won by an overseas runner - Dmitry Grishin (Russia) in 1998, and Jaroslaw Janicki (Poland) in 1999. Grishin, who has won the last two up runs, also broke Comrades hero Bruce Fordyce's record in 1998, when he raced across the line in 5:26:25.
On the women's side, after an uninterrupted foreign win streak lasting from 1994, unheralded Rae Bisschoff (44) sprung one of the biggest surprises in Comrades history by winning in 1998. But last year victory went to Germany's Birgit Lennartz.
The last time two South Africans won the same edition of the race was in 1992, when Jetman Msutu and Frances van Blerk did so. That was the year when Charl Mattheus, the original winner, was disqualified for using a banned substance. Mattheus is also the last SA winner; he claimed the title in 1997.
Grishin will start the race as favorite. His brilliant run in 1998 was an exhibition of uphill running of the class last seen in the days of Fordyce. Grishin did not have a good race last year, and will be determined to make amends.
Although the up run also has a number of hard downhills, it does not wreak havoc with one's legs to the same extent as the down run, and Grishin's proven uphill capabilities will make him hard to beat.
Among the runners who will try to wrest victory from him are Janicki, and Russians Alexei Volgin, Anatoliy Korepanov, Ravil Kashapov, and Grigoriy Murzin, as well as Mattheus, and a host of other very talented South Africans - probably led by Zithulele Sinqe, Sarel Ackermann, Andrew Kelehe (second in 1999), Walter Nkosi, Jan van Rooyen, Nick Bester, and Lucas Matlala (third in 1999).
And then there is German novice Rainer Muller, whose 6:27:20 was the world's fourth fastest 100KM time in 1999. Murzin, who won the world title in Shimantu, ran 6:23:29 for second on the world list, while Kashapov clocked 6:33:46.
But watch out for Vladimir Kotov. The 42-year-old Belarussian, who has been living in Poland for ten years, has an unfinished Comrades under his belt, and is determined to win the race. In 1980, Kotov was fourth in the Olympic Marathon in Moscow in the closest mass finish in the race up to that point.
His scything run through the Two Oceans field on Easter Saturday failed to catch leader Joshua Peterson by eight seconds, and the experienced Kotov will not make the same mistake again.
Kotov showed that he still had tremendous speed in his legs at the end of the race, even after the battering they took on Ou Kaapse Weg (Old Cape Road), the biggest hill on the route. Yes, the Comrades is almost another marathon longer, but if he can reproduce the same form on Friday, he may well be the first master winner of the race since George Claassen in 1961.
Lennartz, who, like Janicki, did not complete the Two Oceans, won the Comrades in her debut last year. She will be up against Maria Bak (Germany), winner of the race in 1995 (and second in 1996 and 1997), resurgent record-holder for the down run Frith van der Merwe, ultra-consistent Valentina Shatyayeva (Russia), Marina Bychkova (Russia, third last year) and an array of SA ultra specialists.
Among the women there is also a very talented German novice: Tanja Schafer, who was, like compatriot Muller, fourth on the world 100KM list last year with her 7:45:39.
I have the feeling that if there is going to be a local victory, it will be in the women's race rather than the men's - in the form of small but tough-as-steel Grace de Oliveira.
De Oliveira, one of South Africa's top road runners for more than a decade, has been steadily moving up in distance, and was second in her Comrades debut last year. In the Two Oceans she ran relaxed, yet came third in a personal best.
De Oliveira, who described her 1999 race as "cautious", cannot afford the same conservative approach again. A sound tactician, she will no doubt be making her presence felt much earlier this time.
In a move to prevent the situation encountered last year when three of the top ten finishers were disqualified - two because of drug offenses and one because he ran the race as a relay with his brother - the organizers have decided to withhold all prize money until the drug testing results are available, and the results have been verified. Much more stringent measures to eliminate cheating have also been instituted, and the number of random drug tests will be increased.
Both male and female winners will receive R100,000 in prize money (approx. USD $15,000), as well as a special solid gold medal donated by the Harmony Gold Mining Company (these medals go to the first ten men and women). Harmony is also offering a 100-ounce gold bar each (worth approximately R200,000) to the first male and female finishers who break the course records: Grishin's 5:26:25 and American Ann Trason's 6:13:23 of 1996 (when the race distance was 87.3 km and 86.7 km respectively).
The first South African man and woman to finish will each receive a 25-ounce gold bar.
A new award introduced this year is the Bill Rowan medal for finishers between 7:30 (the cut-off for silver medals) and 9:00. Rowan was the winner of the first Comades in 1921, and the new medal commemorates him and his time of 8:59.
For most runners, though, gold or silver medals will be the furthest thing from their minds. They will be running merely to finish (usually more than 45 percent finish in the last hour).
These runners will rely on the 52 refreshment stations to get them to Pietermaritzburg, and will consume 1.3 million water sachets, 400,000 sachets of Powerade, 60,000 liters of Coca Cola, and 30,000 liters of bottled water along the way - not to mention 900 cases of bananas, 350 pockets of oranges, one ton of potatoes, and 100 cases of energy bars.
As a Comrades media release dryly put it: "Certainly no runner need arrive at the finish in Pietermatizburg hungry."
Whether the runners come to run or eat, or both, the 2000 Comrades will surely live up to its reputation in providing yet another day-long drama.