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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Comrades Marathon 2008 Result

Magnificent, majestic Leonid: A thoroughbred runner makes Comrades history

Leonid Shvetsov has broken the "Up" run record in winning the 2008 Comrades title in 5:24:47. The 39-year old Russian, who won last year's "Down" run in a new record time, was again untouchable, breaking Kotov's old record of 5:25:33 by 46 seconds. He is completely in a class of his own, and the rest of the world, South Africa included, will wake up tomorrow to the realization that Shvetsov has moved the race into a new era. Their response will be interesting - failure to respond will guarantee that the race, already a Russian running procession, remains so for another generation.

At the risk of dismissing a group of highly talented runners as "also-rans", Shvetsov is a thoroughbred race horse in a world of Comrades carthorses, so dominant was his performance today. Of course, the runners he beat are fantastic athletes in their own right, so it's a little unfair on them. But if it's victory we're talking, the gulf between Shvetsov and the rest is alarmingly large. He won by 14 minutes - Jaroslaw Janicki of Poland walked up the final climb of the day, Polly Shorts, but hung on to finish second in 5:38:29, while Zimbabwe's Stephen Muzhingi was third, a further minute or so behind.

Just a comment - to finish second in a time of 5:39 is telling, because it suggests that Shvetsov's dominance is only partly due to his own super ability. 5:39 is a very weak second-place time, and this suggests that a big part of Shvetsov's dominance is that the competition is just incredibly weak, and unable to even run to the levels of ten years ago. Of course, some of that is down to the pressure applied to the field by Shvetsov's front-running, which pushes athletes well over their normal pacing limit. But it's noteworthy, for example, that South African runners have not improved in 20 years. The natural progression of the race has left us behind, not one athlete!

A front-running, destructive effort

The real story however is the manner in which he won. Much like last year, he hit the front early, and no one was able to survive with him, even for a short while. This year, it was after precisely 3:11:48 that he went into first place, when he overtook the early race leader Tjiane.

From that point on, he was unchallenged. The commentators got excited about a South African Mabule Rapotle (who'd go on to finish an unlucky but credible 11th), who managed to hang onto his shoelaces for about 5 minutes. "He's not having it all his own way this year", and "Shvetsov won't win this race without a challenge", we were told*. Barely two minutes later, the SA challenge was over, and Rapotle was dropped. Never mind the fact that at this stage, there were over 2 hours to go, and not a single challenger was left with Shvetsov!

From that point on, it was a race against the clock, the only "race" interest remaining was to see whether Shvetsov would crack. Jaroslaw Janicki of Poland was in second, about 2 minutes back, and lying in wait to pick up the pieces IF Shvetsov cracked. But it was not to be, and Shvetsov got quicker and quicker, while the rest just got slower and slower.

Shvetsov makes history, then, as the first international runner to win both "Up" and "Down" runs, and he is also the first man to hold both records since Bruce Fordyce. His cumulative time for "Up" and "Down" races is incredible - over 6 minutes faster than anyone else in history. Quite amazing, and we'll look in more detail at the reasons for this in our Insight-Comrades post on Tuesday.

Women's race - another Nurgalieva victory

On the women's side, it was (surprise, surprise) another Nurgalieva victory. The Nurgalieva twins (Elena and Olesya) have dominated Comrades completely in the last 5 years. In fact, their dominance extends to SA ultra-running in general, having won five Comrades titles and two Two Oceans titles between them. It's usually Elena Nurgalieva who comes out on top in the ultras, making up six of those seven victories (Olesya Nurgalieva, here twin sister, is the more accomplished standard marathon runner). And the 2008 race was again won by Elena Nurgalieva, her fourth title, and a repeat of her 2006 victory.

Their dominance is part of the reason we didn't preview the women's race - it is, to be blunt, usually pretty boring, much like watching the Williams sisters playing each other in the final of tennis tournaments a few years ago. This year, however, the women's race ended up providing a little more drama than usual, and that's only because Elena fell twice in the first two hours of the race. She was apparently tripped up by men who tend to gather around the women (to get onto TV and benefit from their normally steady pace-setting). She ran for a long while with quite a limp, and blood streaming down her shin bone from a gash in her left knee.

But even that was not enough to break her race, and she ran with her sister Olesya and another Russian, Tatiana Zhirkova, until about 15 km from the finish, when she moved clear and created what would be the decisive gap.

Her winning time in the end was 6:14:36, not spectacularly fast, but hers was a courageous win, after the fall. Second went to her twin, Olesya, just over a minute behind, with third going to Zhirkova in 6:17:44.

Sadly, the first South African was about thirty minutes further back - all in all, not a great day for SA ultra running, but at least we've done a great deal to help give the Russian economy a boost.

Looking ahead - Analysis and insights into the race: Coming soon...

So that's a very short report on the race result. Because I've now done three Comrades posts over the weekend, I'll probably give it a day before doing a full analysis of the race - I don't want to jam up any inboxes with posts come the work week! Also, it will be good to digest some of the race action before doing some insight.

There's a lot more to be said, however - why SA men are so poor at the moment, how Shvetsov can win a race by 14 minutes. So the full race-report happens on TUESDAY, when I'll look at Shvetsov, and go into a little more detail into just why SA and the rest of the world need to take drastic measures to close a gap that is now absolutely enormous.

So do join us then, for the more in-depth opinion and analysis!


* I can't post on TV coverage without mentioning commentary (my pet peeve). However, on the whole, the commentary for this year's race was good - Mike Finch, Helen Lucre and Norrie Williamson were particularly deserving of credit: knowledgeable, interesting, and well-spoken/eloquent. You'd have thought those three criteria would be non-negotiable for the selection of ALL commentators, but apparently not! Still, it was better than some of the drivel served up by Supersport for athletics (and other sports) events. Hopefully, someone was paying attention...


A Deal Or No Deal said...

Thanks for the recap.

Anonymous said...

Being a runner myself, I was under the impression that some runners are uphill specialists while others are downhill specialists. It is really remarkable that Shvetsov can perform so exceptionally well running up or down. Maybe as sports scientists you have a new topic for research.