Sunday, 15 June 2008

Hunky Leonid cruises Comrades

Comrades Marathon is a South African running institution; if you're not one of the 11,000 running this road ultra marathon, then chances are good that you're watching the all-day coverage on television. Today, Russian Leonid Shvetsov won the "up run" from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. It's not enough that he's a two-time back-to-back Comrades record breaker, Leonid is the epitomy of running elegance; I'm besotted.

Last year I went down to Comrades for the first time, spending the day driving between spectator points, so I didn't follow the leaders or even know who'd won until much later on; and because I hadn't watched the race I really was quite out of the front race. I was happy to be back to television watching this morning; as I've done since I was a child in the late 80's - captivated by Bruce Fordyce's incredible performances that gave him the well-deserved title of "King of Comrades".

Let's talk up run records
Bruce was the first to break the five-and-a-half hour barrier when he set a time of 5:27:42 in 1988. Ten years later, in 1998, Dimitri Grishin broke Bruce's record by 1-minute and 17-seconds to notch a 5:26:25 record. Only two years later (2000) Dimitri's record fell with Vladimir Kotov's awesome run of 5:25:33 (he was 42 years of age; that made headlines). That's a shaving of less than 1-minute (52-seconds to be precise).

And today, 8-years later, Shvetsov broke the 5:25 barrier to log a new record of 5:24:47.

For those who missed the whole Comrades party bus last year... Shvetsov not only won the down run to Durban, he also broke Bruce Fordyce's record (5:24:07) by 5:20:41; a record which had stood for 21-years!

That means that this guy has not only won consecutive up and down runs, the first man to do so since Bruce Fordyce in the 80's, he set course records too.

Shvetsov took the lead just after three hours into the race and he gained ground with each kilometer to finish 14-minutes ahead of second placed Jaroslaw Janicki, an old hand at this race(12 finishes). That's a sizeable gap. While Shvetsov's result is superb, he clearly did not have much competition. Competition helps to push the pace and perhaps Shvetsov could have clocked an even faster time.

And the South Africans?
The first South African man was Harmans Mokgadi, in 6th place with 5:47:11. I was really hoping that our talented South African runners would have a better showing. The questions I ask is: where are they? and why are our runners not doing better? This could be due to inadequate training; too much racing during the year (very likely) with not enough focus on Comrades; and insufficient planning, pacing and mental preparation. I am sure we have athletes with the potential to win and set records. The calibre of South African athletes has not improved, it has declined.

Back to hunky Shvetsov
The commentators said that he probably weighs about 73 or 74kg, which is "heavy" for a Comrades winner. He runs very, very smoothly and evenly; measured steps, big stride and an even 85-90 cadence. No cocked head, limp or lope, shoulders remain relaxed, breathing is steady and he is focused.

Emotional wreck
I get goosebumps watching runners like Shvetsov and I always get tearful watching the winners (not only Comrades, other marathons broadcast on telly too) over the last few kilometres.

Wrapped in a a blanket and perched on the couch I cheer, "Run Leonid, you can do it", with lots of sighs and applause inbetween for good measure. I also sit with my fingers and toes crossed when we get to the final kilometres and the time predictions are flying; especially during races, like today's, when the leader is chasing a record time.

To me their result is not just another race won. I admire their natural talent; the work, dedication and committment to training that has put them at the front; and I'm just over-awed at the spectacular demonstration of the human body's capabilities. All this combined leaves me a bit chocked up.

What about the women?
In the women's race, Elena Nurgalieva won... again. She didn't beat the record she set in 2006 (6:09:24) but she did run a consistent race to finish just ahead of her twin sister in 6:14:38. The women's race is quite dull; the Nurgalieva twins (and other Russians) have dominated for years.

Cut-off times
There were just over 11,000 entrants this year. By 11-hours, which was the old final cut-off time (now the bronze medal cut-off), not quite 6,000 runners had crossed the finish line. I don't know what the count was at 12-hours - the new final cut-off. Yes, we know that the majority of the field come through in the final hour but are they now an hour slower because the goal post has shifted? What I watched today said to me that half of the field running today would not have completed the race in the traditional 11-hour period (8min/km pace). I don't know what the stats are for the number of runners finishing each other this year compared to previous years but it seems that a 50% finishing rate (according to the traditional 11-hour cut-off) isn't very good?

New rule?
I heard something about a new rule implemented at Comrades this year where runners are not allowed to carry each other across the finish line. You can offer and hand or shoulder but you cannot lift, fire-man carry or haul another runner. I was there, on the field, last year when a man was carried around the track by four well meaning runners. He had collapsed one kilometre from the finish. I was standing shocked because I could see the man was unconscious; and I had a feeling he was dead. No medics ran out and they only began dealing with the man once the runners had carried him to the line, face down, one at each limb. It took minutes for them to advance less than 300m around the track. This year I did not watch the final hour; I was out running and happy to avoid the agony of watching people crawling to the finish.

I wrote a blog on this last year (Comrades, walk across the line!) and I still maintain that if you cannot get across the line on your own two legs, then count your losses and try again another year.

* Image from SuperSport's website. Leonid in the middle, Janicki on his left and Zimbabwean Stephen Muzhingi (3rd) on his right.

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