Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Comrades Marathon 2008

It's Comrades' time: The 2008 "Up" run preview

If it's mid-June, then it must be Comrades! Our overseas readers may not be familiar with Comrades concept (and lifestyle, for many SA runners), so I thought it would be interesting to give a brief run-down of the race, and then look at some of the "behind the scenes" aspects of what goes into running the race.

What's the big deal, you ask? Well, the race profile for the 2008 race is shown below.

This year's race is what is called the "Up-run", which means the runners cover the not-too-insignificant distance of 87 km between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Next year (and last year, of course), the route is reversed, and they do the "Down-run", from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, meaning that the race effectively runs on a two year cycle, which makes predicting winners even more tricky than it would normally be for a race consisting of back-to-back marathons and 5km time-trial!

A brief discussion of the route - ups and downs (but far more "ups"!)

The route, as you can see from the image above, is perhaps one of the most demanding of any 'mass event' around. By way of comparison, the Boston Marathon, which we covered earlier this year, features a sequence of hills called the Newton Hills, shortly after the halfway mark. The most famous of those, "Heartbreak Hill", is an 800m long climb that rises about 30m. On Sunday, the Comrades runners will encounter the following:

  • Cowies Hill - starts at 14km, and then climbs up 137m in 1.5km (9.1%)
  • Fields Hill - begins after 22km and rises 213m over 3km (7.1%)
  • Botha's Hill - a 2.4km climb that rises 150m (6.3%)
  • Inchanga - just after halfway (only a full marathon and then some!), a 2.5km climb that also rises 150m (6%)
  • Polly Shorts - the make-or-break moment of the elite race, a shortish climb of 1.8km that climbs perhaps 100m, but it's here that the elite race is often decided, simply because runners have two full marathons in their legs, having run 80km to this point.

The elite race - Russia vs. South Africa, impossible to call with certainty

Actually picking winners and favourites for Comrades is a lottery that even we are not going to tackle with any certainty! We're not shy to call a winner here, and even a race time in the marathons (we got London and Boston fairly close earlier this year), but for a race that is double the distance, it's a little more tricky.

What complicates the prediction is that previous form is almost irrelevant, because:

  • There's no real guide to performance over 87km throughout the year! It's not as though the elite are doing a series of "tune-up" ultra-races. Marathon performance, while a good indication, is by no means foolproof when you consider the increase in distance. Picking the favourites for a 42km race is simplified by the fact that the previous "reference point" is often only 3 or 4 months ago, and there's more certainty in translating a 21km performance to the marathon. No such priviledge over an 87km race.
  • The race changes direction each year, and there are without doubt runners who are favoured one way or the other. The South African men, for example, are traditionally a little better on the "Down-run", whereas the Russians have basically owned the "Up-run". It's been 16 years since an SA runner won the "Up-run" - don't expect that trend to reverse this year. The surest bet (if there is such a thing) is that a Russian will win. Who it will be, that's another question...!
  • Last year's winner, Leonid Shvetsov of Russia, who smashed the "Down-run" record is by no means a certainty this year, since the whole nature of the race changes. That said, you'd be a brave person to bet against someone with that kind of performance history.

The other big Russian name to look for are the defending Up-run champion, Oleg Kharitanov, who has five top ten finishes in six attempts, and should feature.

South African men - raw talent, but will they deliver?

Among the South African men, it's a real lottery. Two names I will throw into the ring are Sipho Ngomane and Leboka Noto.

Sipho Ngomane

Ngomane was, in 2005, a revelation. He won the down run in spectacular fashion, capping off an incredible season that saw him finish in the top 10 of just about every race he ran in. Unfortunately for him, it was a case of "killing the goose that laid the golden egg", because his managers and team exploited his talent to the point where he was effectively racing a marathon every month. There was a sequence of six months where he ran three ultra-marathons (50km or more) and three marathons, and then to cap it all off, he raced in the SA Half Marathon championships! It may not surprise you that he broke down injured soon after, and has never quite captured that same form. He's still competitive, and should feature, but the different between winning and losing is the difference between his 2005 and a sensible approach.

He is a sad example of the wealth of talent possessed by South Africa, but that is never fully realised because of the perverse economic incentives created for people to exploit that talent and cash in on the abundant supply. It's a case of "Let's bleed this one dry, because we know there are a hundred others like him". Very sad, and frustrating, and little wonder it's been 16 years since an SA man won this particular race.

Leboka Noto

Leboka Noto is another example of the way of SA running. He is employed full-time in a platinum mine - hardly conducive to training three or fours hours a day for a big race. I actually met Noto earlier this year - he came into the Sports Science Institute of SA and sat for a morning with Prof Tim Noakes discussing some aspects of the race that may help his performance. He was 10th in 2006, and 5th last year, and so is a candidate for race winner status. Remarkably, what emerged from his meeting with Noakes is that his training is done entirely alone, and consists of 70km training runs in the Lesotho mountains, with NO food, no water and no assistance! That's 4 to 5 hours, a couple of times a week, no diet strategy to assist.

Last year, he ran in the company of the Russians, and remarked that he was "surprised at how much the Russians drank and ate" - that is another demonstration of his raw talent, which hopefully, he can improve on this year. The simple act of eating and drinking on the run, if he gets it right, might make him a challenger. Then again, the simple change in lifestyle that would see a talented runner not have to spend the day on his feet in an underground mine might be the secret to unlocking a title for an SA man!

Our prediction - we're going conservative

OK, so here's our head on the block, and we'll be conservative, and "run with the herd" on this one. We pick Leonid Shvetsov to win, and to challenge the "up-run" record, which currently stands at 5:25.33 by his comrade (pardon the pun) Vladimir Kotov in 2000.

Shvetsov himself has said he's in the kind of shape to do it, but then so do all the main contenders - they're hardly going to admit to a month of lost training and poor preparations! So it's all based on self-reported training, which makes Sunday's race so fascinating!

As for the real "Comrades" - the race begins at 7 hours

However, the real story of Comrades is the non-elite runner - the men and women who slog it out for up to 11 hours on the roads of Natal. We'll do a post tomorrow on the "behind-the-scenes" aspects of the race, including the medical tent.

On a personal note, this is the first race in four years where I (Ross) won't be at the Comrades, in the medical tent at the finish line. The last three years have seen us there, doing research on the runners who end up requiring medical tent. It certainly adds an interesting perspective on the race, and that's what I'll talk about a little more in the next race - Comrades survivorship!

So do join us then!



Christopher Tassava said...

Incredible race. Having read through your previous postings on the event, I'll be looking forward to the post-race coverage.

For me - an avid cross-country skier - this race brings to mind the great Vasaloppet ski race, held over 90km in Sweden every March. The winners typically finish somewhere between 4:45 (in a slow-snow year) and 4:15, with the record being 3:38. I'd love to see some cross-sport comparisons: how do the the training and performance demands of a running ultramarathon differ from those of a ski race like Vasaloppet? (More on Vasaloppet)