|Comrades Marathon - Results and Analysis
by Riel Hauman, author of Century of the Marathon: 1896-1996
Vladimir Kotov is no youngster anymore, and he ran his best marathon of 2:10:58 a full twenty years ago, but on South Africa's Youth Day, June 16, the 42-year-old Belarussian athlete switched on the afterburners over the last 10KM of the 75th Comrades Marathon between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and raced away from his rivals to set a new course record for the "up" run.
Kotov's acceleration, unprecedented in the illustrious history of the Comrades, brought him victory in 5:25:33 for the 87.6 km course. He broke the record set in 1998 by Russia's Dmitry Grishin, 5:26:25 on a course 300 meters shorter, by almost a minute. In the process he destroyed two of the best ultra runners in the world: Grishin and compatriot Aleksey Volgin.
Kotov, who lives in Poland, became the first veteran ("master" in the USA) to win the race since George Claassen did so at the age of 44 in 1961. For the first time in the history of the race there was no South African in the top three.
Volgin, the man with the most consistent record in the race over the past six years, was second in 5:27:07, with Grishin third in 5:32:47. The overseas domination of the gold medals (first ten) was the most complete ever: apart from Kotov, Volgin and Grishin, three other gold medals went to foreigners. Don Wallace (Australia) was eighth, Mikhail Kokorev (Russia) ninth, and Anatoiliy Korepanov (Russia) tenth.
Six more overseas runners finished in the top twenty, with defending champion Jaroslaw Janicki (Poland) 17th.
After the many disqualifications among the top ten last year because of drug abuse and cheating, the Comrades organizers had decided beforehand that no prize money would be awarded before all the drug test results were received, and a thorough analysis of videos and chip mat readings made.
The day after the race Athletics South Africa announced that all drug tests were negative.
The first South African was Donovan Wright, finishing in fourth. Wright, who has a full-time job and did most of his training in the dark of night because he could not get sufficient time off from work, brought tears to many eyes with his courageous run. He suffers from sardosis, a rare type of lymph cancer, but the disease is in remission, and his brave run was a magnificent vindication after four years of struggle and despair since winning the last gold medal in the 1996 race, his debut.
Maria Bak (Germany) won the women's race in 6:15:35, the second fastest ever for an up run - only Ann Trason's 6:13:23 in 1996 is faster. Defending champion Birgit Lennartz (Germany) was second, more than 18 minutes behind. It was the biggest winning margin since Frith van der Merwe won by almost 46 minutes in 1991.
Van der Merwe herself, coming back to the race after years of injuries and personal trauma, was eleventh. "My body had forgotten how hard this race is," she said.
The race started in a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius and 85% humidity. (Durban is at sea level; Pietermaritzburg is 670 metres higher.) Eric Mhlongo (RSA) grabbed an early lead, but the race really took shape after two and a half hours when Grigoriy Murzin (Russia) passed him. Murzin went through halfway in 2:44 (Grishin's time at the same point in 1998 was 2:44:38), with the main chasing group 2 minutes and 46 seconds behind.
The group included Kotov, Janicki, Volgin, Grishin, Korepanov and South Africans Andrew Kelehe, Butiki Jantjies, Wright, Desmond Zibi, and Walter Nkosi. It was clear that Kotov, who had failed by 8 seconds to win the Two Oceans a few weeks earlier after a desperate chase over the last few kilometers, was not going to make the same mistake again, and wanted to keep in touch with all the main contenders.
Jantjies was the first to break away and chase after Murzin, catching him at 3:21 into the race. But the rest soon caught up, and from there a cat and mouse game developed, with the group breaking and reforming constantly over the next half hour.
When they reached the 26KM-to-go sign, there were only six left: Kotov, Grishin, Wright, Nkosi (6th last year), Volgin, and Kelehe (second in 1999). The pace had started to increase, with the 10KM between 36 and 26 to go taking only 36:49 (3:41/km). The overall pace up to that point was 3:47 per kilometer, with 3:43 needed for the record.
At 4:05, on the climb to the highest point on the course, Umlaas Road, it suddenly happened: Grishin and Kotov pulled away. Realizing that Kotov was not that comfortable on the hills, Grishin put everything he had into the climb.
But Kotov, whose rolling, head-down style did not change throughout the race, came back at him on the following downhill, and the pattern of the rest of the race was set: Grishin, hill runner par excellence, would try and get away on the climbs, but the speed of his stocky rival would undo all his hard work on the downhills.
Volgin was now third, Kelehe fourth, Nkosi fifth, and Wright sixth.
The first bit of drama came at 4:15 when Grishin stopped dead in his tracks, bent forward with hands on knees and started vomiting. Wobbly, he stood for a few agonising seconds while Volgin charged past.
For a few hundred metres Kotov seemed at a loss; it appeared as if he could not believe that he had the lead. He looked behind a couple of times and seemed to lose his momentum. On the next hill Volgin caught him, and five minutes later Grishin was there too, impassive as always, but pale and gritting his teeth.
With 17KM to go, Nkosi was 20 seconds behind, Kelehe 14 seconds behind him, and Wright 64 seconds behind Kelehe. Then followed 1998 Two Oceans winner Fusi Nhlapo, who had been steadily making his way through the field.
Nkosi joined the leading trio at 4:35. They reached 14KM to go in 4:36:49, with the pace increasing all the time: the 12KM from 26 to 14 had taken only 43:40 (3:38/KM).
But Nkosi's effort to catch the leaders was too much, and just before 11KM, he fell away for good.
A kilometer later, Kotov made the crucial move. With the infamous Polly Shorts hill looming, he accelerated away from Volgin and Grishin. He reached 10KM in 4:51:28, with a gap of 30 meters; he had covered the 4KM from 14 to 10 in 3:39 pace. With his head even more bowed than before, staring at the tarmac a meter or so ahead of his churning legs, he raced up the hill that had proved so decisive in so many previous Comrades races.
Volgin, who had been third, third, third, and fourth in his previous four Comrades, tried his best to keep the gap small, and pulled away from a struggling Grishin, but he was outclassed by the flying Kotov, who crested Polly Shorts with a lead of 18 seconds and then sped the 5KM from 10 to 5 in 17:56 (3:35 pace).
Realising he had the race won, Kotov went for the record. Three astounding kilometres followed from 5 to 2 km: 3:00, 3:06 and 3:08. Such speed is unprecedented at this stage of the race - it seemed as if the previous 80-plus kilometers had had no effect on Kotov.
He ran the last 5KM in 16:09 (3:14 pace!), and the last 3KM in 10:03 (3:21/km), and stormed across the line with a huge grin spreading across his face.
"It was my day today, I had no problems," he said. Asked how he felt, he said: "After the record and first place, I'm in good condition", and added that he would use part of his winnings to take his family on a holiday in France. He won not only R100,000 for first, but also a pure gold bar of 100 ounces for breaking the record.
Kotov's pace for the entire race was 3:42.9 per kilometre, compared to Grishin's 3:44.3 in 1998. His halves were 2:46:36 and 2:38:57 - the latter including the major climbs of Inchanga, Ashburton (Little Polly's), and Polly Shorts.
The Comrades has proved a notorious burial ground for top marathoners (as are ultra races generally). Many have tried, but the only really quick marathon men who have been able to win the race since the beginning of the sixties are Alberto Salazar in 1994 and now Kotov - and both were well past their prime as marathoners when they did so.
Before that, two of South Africa's top marathoners had each won the race five times. Wally Hayward (1930, 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954) was tenth in the 1952 Olympic Marathon, while Jack Mekler (1958, 1960, 1963, 1964, 1968) won the SA marathon title in 1954 and 1957, and was second in the 1954 Commonwealth Games.
Johannes Coleman, who won the Commonwealth Games Marathon in 1938 and was fourth in the Olympic Marathon in 1936, won the Comrades in 1937 and 1939.
Behind the front runners, Wright passed Kelehe and Nkosi to claim the 25-ounce gold bar for the first South African, while Wallace (twelfth in both 1994 and 1996), Kokorev, and Korepanov took the last three gold medals, to complete the overwhelming international presence in the race.
In the women's race, Bak, who came back from a two-year drug suspension to finish second in the Two Oceans over Easter, took an unassailable lead when Volgin's wife Natalya, who had been running with her in her first ultra, dropped out with about 40KM to go. From there she steadily increased her lead over Lennartz, and South Africans Grace de Oliveira, and Carol Mercer.
Lennartz and de Oliveira kept their positions, but over the last third of the race, Russians Elvira Kolpakova (the European 100KM champion), Valentina Shatyayeva, and Marina Bychkova moved into the next three places. With Tanja Schaefer (Germany) in eighth, overseas women also claimed six of the ten gold medals.
Shatyayeva's record in the Comrades is even more remarkable than Volgin's: she has been second, third, third, fourth, third, fifth, and fifth in her seven races.
De Oliveira, who was second last year, said she was pleased with her run, but her brilliant Two Oceans, where she ran a personal best, may have taken enough out of her to keep her out of second again.
The two Germans, Rainer Mueller and Schaefer, fifth and fourth respectively on the 1999 world 100KM performer lists, did well in their Comrades debut. Bruce Fordyce, nine-time winner, ran a relaxed 8:41:11 to finish 2,686th.
A 32-year-old policeman, Deon Swanepoel, running his seventh consecutive Comrades, died in the hospital after collapsing with multiple organ failure.
(Prizemoney in SA Rand)
1, Vladimir Kotov BLR, 5:25:33 (course record) (R100,000)*
2, Aleksey Volgin RUS, 5:27:07 (R50,000)
3, Dmitry Grishin RUS, 5:32:47 (R25,000)
4, Donovan Wright RSA, 5:35:37 (R12,500)**
5, Andrew Kelehe RSA, 5:36:32 (R10,000)
6, Vusi Nhlapo RSA, 5:37:46 (R9,000)
7, Walter Nkosi RSA, 5:40:17 (R8,000)
8, Don Wallace AUS, 5:42:48 (R7,000)
9, Mikhail Kokorev RUS, 5:43:14 (R6,000)
10, Anatoliy Korepanov RUS, 5:44:37 (R5,000)
11, Sarel Ackermann RSA, 5:45:20
12, Albe Geldenhuys RSA, 5:47:46
13, Grigoriy Murzin RUS, 5:47:53
14, Rainer Mueller GER, 5:49:03
15, William Tshabalala RSA, 5:55:06
16, Nimrod Mokoena RSA, 5:55:16
17, Jaroslaw Janicki POL, 5:55:44
18, Dmitri Radylichenko RUS, 5:56:19
19, Tim Sloan AUS, 5:57:43
20, Peter Camenzind SUI 5:57:49
Veterans (40+): 1, Kotov, 2, Camenzind, 3, Livingstone Jabanga RSA, 6:01:31, 4, Nick Bester RSA 6:01:48, 5, Ravil Kashapov RUS, 6:08:10
Masters (50+): 1, Hannes Meyer RSA, 6:56:28
1, Maria Bak GER, 6:15:35 (R100,000)
2, Birgit Lennartz GER, 6:33:54 (R50,000)
3, Grace de Oliveira RSA, 6:38:44 (R25,000)**
4, Elvira Kolpakova RUS, 6:43:34 (R12,500)
5, Valentina Shatyayeva RUS, 6:46:53 (R10,000)
6, Marina Bychkova RUS, 6:47:28
7, Carol Mercer RSA, 6:48:59
8, Tanja Schaefer GER, 6:51:57
9, Rene du Plessis RSA, 6:53:50
10, Madeleen Otto RSA, 6:57:41
11, Frith van der Merwe RSA, 7:07:26
12, Amor van Zyl RSA, 7:12:58
13, Celeste Swart RSA, 7:14:18
14, Nancy Will RSA, 7:17:06
15, Elizabeth McCaul RSA, 7:17:47
Veterans (40+): 1, Bak, 2, Van Zyl, 3, Will, 4, McCaul, 5 Ingrid Prinsloo RSA, 7:30:34
*) Plus 100-ounce gold bar (worth R200,000) for course record
**) Plus 25-ounce gold bar (worth R50,000) for first South African
Here is the preview article on the Comrades Marathon, also by Riel Hauman.