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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Comrades 2008 Postmortem

Hail Comrade Shvetsov: Two years, two records for the King of Comrades

We have two posts today. The first (this one) is just a recap of the race, and some of the physiology behind it. The second (which you can find below) is a little more "South African-centric", and focuses on the very weak display of the SA runners, and some of the financial reasons why this may be the case. As I say, it's quite SA-focused, but should hopefully stimulate thought no matter where in the world you are!

Leonid Shvetsov: A new breed of Comrades champion

Leonid Shvetsov is a name few in SA took notice of before last year. He'd run Comrades before - a second place in 2001, where he pushed SA's Andrew Kelehe all the way in one of the great races. But then he kind of disappeared, and was remembered as one of many Russians to run the race, nothing spectacular.

Well, his last two outings have hardly been "races". More like solo 35 km time trials off the back of a steady 50km warm-up! He stands out so dominantly from the rest of the field that one shudders to think how routine the race is going to be for the next few years. Having won by 14 minutes, and set two records in two years, he has the race in his care for the next few years. The only consolation (for the race and neutral spectator) is that he is 40 years old, and so will eventually run out power.

He is a new breed of runner for the Comrades Marathon - a sensationally fast marathon runner and an incredibly strong athlete. Certainly, fast marathon runners have tackled Comrades before - think Alberto Salazar, winner in 1996, and Zithulele Sinqe, who came close, but never conquered the race.

But in Shvetsov, we're seeing a guy who has a dozen sub 2:12 marathons in him, and a 2:09. And yes, they're not within the last few months either, but he's young enough and strong enough to carry that speed and power into the ultra distance. I don't think that Comrades has ever seen a runner with that much power and strength at the end of the race. Last year, after he obliterated the "Down" run record (which had stood for 21 years), I remarked that of the entire field, all 11,000 of them, nobody had the same degree of "bounce" in their legs as he did at the finish line.

And that was running a 5:20 Comrades! Well, the same happened yesterday. As early as the 60km mark, when he pulled clear and began his solo time-trial, he was moving differently to everyone else in the race. The leg drive, and in particular, the heel "flick" at the back was so obviously different to everyone else's (If you ever want to see the pedigree of a runner, look at the way their heel leaves the ground).

As the cameras shifted to his "rivals" (for what the word was worth yesterday), the difference in running style was obvious. Now, that is perhaps the most interesting thing about him - is that a neurological adaptation, a performance advantage he enjoys as a result of some kind of training - speed or distance, or hill work?

There is something there, and I suspect that it is neurological, or related to the muscle tendon unit. Specifically what it is, I don't know. It's certainly not cardiovascular, and considering that the elites are "only" running 3:45/km, an adaptation in the heart and lungs is unlikely the reason for such dominance.

The greatest margin of victory

His margin of victory on Sunday was almost 14 minutes - that is without doubt the largest margin recorded in my lifetime, and if I had more time, I'd look into the race stats and find out when last a victory was recorded by such a margin.

It's actually inconceivable that in this day and age, of professionalism and high competition, that one athlete can win so destructively over the rest of the field. But before the sceptics jump onto the case (we admire your scepticism, nonetheless), it must be pointed out the apart from Shvetsov, yesterday's race was actually incredibly weak. A 5:39 for second place is almost as unheard of as a 5:25 to win, and so the dominance was the result of two factors: Shvetsov's brilliance, and everyone else's mediocrity (more on that in the post below).

"Down" or "Up"? Is Shvetsov equally strong?

Back to the race physiology though, and a couple of comments on the physiology and science of it. We received a very good question from George (who always stimulates good posts) on the whole "up" vs. "down" run issue. It's without doubt true that some runners are more suited to either the up or the down version of the race. You don't have to be a Comrades runner to know that - just think of your preferred running terrain, even in a 10km training run. Some people just handle downhill running better than others, and vice versa for the ups.

Comrades, of course, amplifies that difference enormously. Think of Vladimir Kotov, the now former course record holder for the "up" run, but who was many minutes slower on the down run and never featured as a strong challenger.

And I think it certainly is true that every runner prefers one or the other, though of course, the degree of preference will vary. I also believe that Shvetsov is not a preferred "Up" runner - his strength is the "Down" run. His only other Comrades appearance (apart from that second in 2001) was a blow-out on the 2002 "Up" run, where he finished in over 7 hours! But I think he's certainly a better "Down" runner. This also lends some credence to the idea that his advantage is neuromuscular, because the "Down" run poses a far greater challenge to the muscles as a result of the massive eccentric loading on them during the race.

Briefly, running downhill involves far more "eccentric" contraction where the muscle lengthens as it contracts (an oxymoron of sorts!), and that damages the muscle more. So I think the ability to tolerate that eccentric contraction is a key factor that determines whether a runner prefers downhill running. Shvetsov's apparent "bounce" and elasticity, which suggests some kind of neuromuscular advantage, would also predict his down running ability to be a little better.

This is of course conjecture. And science doesn't know the answer, and so George is quite right, it's something for the whole field to look at!

Regardless, I reckon no matter which way you make the road point - up, down, level - Shvetsov is so superior that even if he hates the "Up" run, he'd win it 9 times out of 10. Of course, it doesn't help that his South African rivals are running more slowly now in 2008 than they were in 1978! But that's covered in the post below!



Anonymous said...

Hey my chommies... Gordon here from Detroit. You guys make it sound like this russian guy was "bred" over the last few years ...the same time period that SA runners have become slack . What you forget or overlook or ignore is that his formative training (lets say up to age 22) was all done under the "soviet machine". Right around the same time you guys were giving up your mothers breast, he was graduating from the russian athletic academy. This dude was built over 40 years, not 18 months of rah rah...

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Gijima

Thanks for the comments!

Didn't mean to overlook it at all. In fact, I agree 100% with you. But this post was not about the development of Shvetsov, it was more about the physiology of the race, so your point is correct, but I don't think 100% relevant to the post. It's certainly worth another discussion, all of its own.

But I'm not saying at all that it's 18 months of rah rah, and that's also precisely the problem for SA - no quick fixes!

Thanks for the visit! I assume you're a former South African now living in the US?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind words. I really learn so much from your blog everyday! What many people don't realize is that uphill running is actually easier for your legs.Of course it is more taxing on your cardiovascular system and this is why it "feels" harder than downhill running. But always when you run your muscles have to contract eccentrically because the foot has to decelerate during the landing phase (I believe I got that right?).

Now, in the ultra races, more so than Marathons, runners who have accumulated lots of damage to their muscles suffer form this loss of bounce as you described it. Perhaps Shvetsov's inherent ability to tolerate eccentric contractions is the reason that he is superior even in an uphill race.

Yet my 2 cent theory leaves you with the fundamental question of what exactly is Shvetsov's ability?


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi George

No problem, thanks for your support and readership!

I tried to dance around your question in the post, but it's clear that we don't know what the source of Shvetsov's ability is! You did a good job of summarizing the difference between downhill and uphill running, and I believe you're quite right when you predict that Shvetsov's ability lies in his ability to handle that loading and damage.

That's what I was alluding to in the post, when I suggested that the advantage must be neuromuscular. But no one in the world can answer the fundamental question, unfortunately. Theoretically, yes, but no proof, and I suspect there won't be for a while yet, because the technology doesn't allow us to measure the body with the required precision.

I'd love to try though, if Leonid would give his body up for science for a while!

Thanks again!