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Monday, June 04, 2012

Four quick thoughts on Comrades 2012

Four quick thoughts on the 2012 Comrades Ultra-marathon

A more "South African-centric" post today, since it covers a very South African race.  Hopefully, one that promotes or encourages more international presence for the race though.  Here are some thoughts on the Comrades Ultra-Marathon.

Yesterday saw the 2012 running of South Africa's biggest ultra-marathon, the Comrades Ultra-marathon.  This race, for those who don't know, takes runners between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, a distance of 89 km, just over 55 miles.  The race alternates direction, so that one year, it's called the "up" run (Durban to Pietermaritzburg), and the year after, it's a "down" run (Pietermaritzburg to Durban).  The 2012 race was a "down" run, and the profile of the race is shown below (courtesy a runner in the race), just to illustrate the challenge faced by the 15,000 odd runners who typically start.

Added to this are typically warm temperatures and humid conditions in Durban - yesterday was a relatively mild day, with a temperature of about 23 degrees celsius in the shade, and bright sunshine for most of the day.  The temperature in direct sunlight, incidentally, was about 28 degrees for the warmest four hours of the day.  These are temperatures that come with health warnings in standard marathons in the USA and Europe, I must point out!  Cut-off time is 12 hours, the winning time is typically 5:30 for the men and 6:15 for the women.  It's a race that has managed to weave itself into the running DNA of South Africans, and for good reason - it is an epic race and if ultra-marathons are your thing, then I'd highly encourage you to come along and run this race one day!

But yesterday, my involvement was with the television broadcast, as I was part of the commentary team.  I've done the odd stint before, more as a guest contributor, but this was the first big involvement, and I thought I'd share some insights on the men's race, the women's race, the TV broadcast and the race in general.  So herewith, four quick thoughts on one of the world's great Ultra-marathons.

1.  The men's race: Some trash-talk, a lesson in realism, and a race of attrition

Understanding the men's race requires going back to a press conference held the Thursday before the race.  At this conference, the race became all about three men, who influenced the race more by their words than their strides.  Defending champion Stephen Muzinghi, course record holder Leonid Shvetsov and SA marathon record holder Gert Thys produced one of the more memorable press conferences leading up to a running race, and ensured that all eyes would be on them.  For example, it was revealed that Muzinghi has already been driving a sponsored car with the words "Comrades champion 2012" emblazoned on it.  Leonid Shvetsov said that his only previous defeats at Comrades (2009 by Muzinghi among them) were more because he lost the race, not that they had been good enough to beat him.  So the two of them were set up as the heavy-weight contenders, with a little more trash-talk than we're used to seeing from ultra-marathon runners!

Then there was Gert Thys.  One of South Africa's marathon legends, he now talks as fast as he used to run.  He claimed that a sub-5 hour Comrades would be "easy".  Not "possible", but "easy".   Just to give you the context, the current record is 5:20:49, and taking 20:49 is the equivalent of lowering the marathon record from its current 2:03:38 to 1:55:36....

Even if you think that the Comrades record is a little weak, you just don't knock around 3% or more off a record at once.  The basis for Thys' claims was that he's South Africa's fastest ever marathon runner, and a legend of the marathon discipline - back in 1998, before the days of 2:03 marathons, Thys was a world class performer, there is no doubt about that.  His 2:06:33 in 1999, along with a few other sub-2:08s made him the most consistently fast marathon runner in the world at the time.

So Thys was of the opinion that if you can run a 2:06, then running a 2:20 would be easy.  And if that was easy, then doing another would be possible.  Add on 5km and you have your sub-5 hour Comrades.  One might point out that the 2:06 was 14 years ago...  And that when you're training to run an 89km race, you don't keep that kind of marathon shape, but he felt confident.  It might also be worth pointing out that earlier this year, Thys raced in the 56km Two Oceans marathon, where he finished in 3:09.  To run a 5-hour Comrades would require that he ran the SAME pace for 89km as he had done for 56km.  It was just never going to happen, but it was this claim, and Thys' attempt to deliver on it, that set up the pattern of the race.

So to his credit, he did exactly what he said he would.  When the first pictures from the course were beamed through the darkness at the top of a famous climb called Polly Shorts at 8km, Thys was already ahead of the pre-race favourites.  The gap as early as that was over a minute, and the hammer was clearly down.  There may have been a gap, but everyone was being pulled into this super fast early pace.

Thys wasn't the early leader, but he did assume the lead inside the first two hours of the race, and then all the talk was whether he was actually capable of sustaining this pace.  And of course, the answer would be no, for the obvious reason that he was running pretty close to his personal maximum speed for 50km, and hoping for another 40km at the end of it.  He went through halfway in 2:35, projecting a 5:10 finish, but by this stage he had already slowed from the fast early pace.

Behind him, something of a group had formed, but they were also beginning to pay for a fast early pace.  The big chase group went through in 2:43, eight minutes behind, which may seem a big gap, but this is with a marathon plus 5km still to run, and much can (and does) happen.

Sure enough, at around 50km, Thys got the invoice for his early effort, and paid heavily.  He stopped to walk, and alternated walking and running for the next 30 minutes, as that eight minute lead was steadily cut and eventually completely eroded.  Shortly before the 60km mark, Thys abandoned the race.  He would later say that it was problems with blood sugar (he has had these problems before, and has some 'peculiar' ideas about energy replacement and glucose during exercise, but that's another story).

Nevertheless, Thys' fingerprint remained on the race, for his early aggression had done damage to the main field.  The dilemma they faced was that while none honestly believed that he would stay in the lead and actually run the pace he promised (the three podium finishers all hinted at this in the post-race press conference), they were nevertheless drawn into that pace.  Thys was an enigma, a first-time Comrades runner who talked confidently and called on his 2:06 to back him up, and that unknown quantity sucked everyone into a fast start.

That would tell in the second half of the race, which became more about survival than it was about attack.  Given the profile of the race (see above), the Comrades Down run is normally run with a negative split, the second half being much faster than the first.  This is the optimal way to run it.  But pulled along by Thys, the main field started incredibly fast, reached halfway in 2:43 (already slowing down considerably from the first 25km) and then ground out the second half.  Ultimately, not a single top ten finisher managed to run a negative split.  Even those who finished strongest were running big positive splits and for that, Thys can take much of the credit.

The result, at the sharp end of the race, however, was that time gaps were established very early, and the strongest runner of the day found himself in the lead with about 35 km still to run.  That man was Ludwick Mamabolo, who had come second the last time the down run was held in 2010, and this year, committed to going one better.  He assumed the lead from a walking Thys and never relented.

The only thing that changed was the identity of his challenger.  One by one, a potential threat emerged from the chasers, but soon fell away.  And then there was the ever-present threat of a Stephen Muzinghi challenge, the Zimbabwean hovering back at about 2 min down pretty much the whole way. That challenge never materialized, as Muzinghi too would fade at the end, probably paying for his own early pace, and the Two Oceans title he won in April.  No man has won both the Two Oceans and Comrades in the same year since 1974 - it's just so physiologically demanding to race both within 8 weeks.

So what we eventually got was a solo run to the finish line, which appeared to lack the usual drama of Comrades, where a bunch splits up progressively after halfway, where leads change hands, athletes fold and the excitement builds in the final 20km.  This race, in hindsight, was created with 89km to go, and then it was decided with 40km to go.  That's not to say there wasn't drama behind.  The top 10 at the finish line was completely different to the top 10 with 15 km to run - it was as if the cards were being shuffled in the pack.  Some runners went backwards, some came through strongly, then blew, others did finish strongly, most notably Leboka Noto who got third, and Shvetsov, who grabbed fifth and beat Muzinghi, a mini-victory of sorts for the Russian.  None of this was seen on TV, unfortunately, because only one motorbike camera was on the course and so much of the drama happened "anonymously" (more on this below).

But in the end, the ace in the pack, and the only man who didn't change positions in the final 20km, was Mamabolo, who won in 5:31:03.   Second went to Bongmusa Mthembu, and third to fast-finishing Noto.  As for the big three pre-race favourites, a DNF, a fifth and a sixth are reminders that when you race over 89km, the margins are small.  So perhaps best not to talk before you run.  And invest in a new coat of paint for your car if you're Stephen Muzinghi.

Women's race: Same outcome, different process, as Nurgalieva wins.  Again

The women's race, as has become tradition, was won by Elena Nurgalieva of Russia.  This was her tenth race, and she claimed her seventh win, to go with two second places and a third.  That level of consistency is remarkable given how much can go wrong in a race of this length.  She's managed to avoid, or overcome, all those factors, as well as rivals, who it must be said, have been thin on the ground in many races.  Usually, the biggest threat is twin sister Olesiya, who missed the 2012 race after having a child a few weeks ago.

This year, however, she did find herself in a race.  Here too, the identity of the challengers changed.  First it was America's Devon Crosby Helms who showed strongly, but soon faded.  Then Natalya Volgina pressed at the front, but dropped off after halfway.  And then it was Eleanor Greenwood, an accomplished ultra runner from the UK, now living in Canada, who really did extend Nugalieva.  She linked up with the Russian around halfway, and showed more than enough aggression to drive what had been a sedate early pace faster and faster.

That would get rid of Volgina's challenge, but unfortunately, the pace would also tell on Greenwood, who started to feel cramp coming on with about 20km to go.  It reduced her to a walk on Cowie's Hill, though I have to say it was one of the more aggressive walks I've seen.  She may have had to walk, but she was going to minimize any time losses by power walking up the hill.  In the end, she succeeded, remarkably managing to keep the gap to just over one minute, despite a mix of walking and running for the final hour and a half.

Nurgalieva has the race perfected, however, and she went on to record her fastest ever time, a 6:07:12. She showed her quality, to resist a very good challenge from Greenwood.  The women's splits show how the race should be run - 3:07 to halfway and 3:00 for the second half.  The gap between second and third was enormous, fully 23 minutes, which does reveal that there is still something of a lack of depth in the women's race, despite its ever growing appeal.

As for the South Africans, first was Kerry Koen in sixth place, and the usual post-mortems about why our South African women cannot compete with the Russians (and now English) women.  The simple truth is that our women Comrades runners are too slow over standard marathons.  Most of the SA women in this race have marathon bests of around 2:50 to 3 hours.  So here again, if the Comrades winning time is going to be 6:10, you need to run back-to-back marathons in 2:55, with an extra 5km.

Can you do that, when your best marathon is 2:50?  Simple answer, no.  So in the same way that Gert Thys demonstrated that a 5-hour Comrades is not possible, SA women reveal the key principle that running distances are inter-connected, and so you need to recognize that just because your performance at the Comrades distance is the problem, the root cause lies elsewhere.  In this case, it's the lack of marathon credentials that our women bring into the race.  Until SA can develop a group of 2:30-something women marathon runners, who then turn to Comrades, it will continue to be a good day for the GDP of Russian athletes.

And the same principle, incidentally, is true for anyone reading this.  If you are stuck at a longer distance, my advice is to turn to the shorter distance to find the improvement.  It's not always true, of course, particularly among the elites, but for most, get faster shorter, and build on that as you increase the distance.

3.  The TV broadcast:  Criticisms and experiences

Right, so on to my involvement, the TV coverage.  The feedback from the viewing public has not been great - the Twitter comments were not great, and neither are those on the running boards here in SA.  In fact, they've been scathing, of the production more than the commentary (we pretty much worked off the concept "Here are the pictures, talk").  I hope that my own commentary wasn't too much part of the problem (if you have suggestions, especially criticism, then I really would love to hear them.  In a positive way of course, but please don't hold back - how else can anyone improve without criticism?)

I think the bigger issue, which is regrettable, is one of budget.  Followed by politics.  I don't know much about either, but it's quite clear that there are limitations in what can be achieved.  I'm loathe to be too critical, because having now been part of the machine, I recognize the challenges faced by people responsible, who are, for the most part, working hard with good intentions to deliver a quality product.  And honestly, I think it's relatively good.  It can always improve, yes, but some of the criticism is just destructive, and I'd again encourage you to be constructive with your views.  There are many global races that have at least a similar standard to what I saw yesterday.

And yes, there are problems.  I mentioned above that in the men's race, a lot of the drama was happening off camera, because there was only one motor-bike for the elite men.  That's because the second bike had a mechanical failure, and so where normally, we'd see the chaser and the changes in position behind, yesterday we only heard about it and watched the eventual winner.  That's a budget thing, through and through.  If you watch the Tour de France, realize that there are three helicopters and four motor-bike cameras, for a race of 180 cyclists bunched tightly together.  Here's we're on one helicopter and two bikes (one men, one women), for a race with time gaps of many minutes.  And yes, "budget" is a frustrating excuse, but it's the reality.  I do wish it were better, however, and I sympathize with this frustration.

But commentary-wise, my thoughts.  First, we don't seem to appreciate the value of silence.  Sometimes it's good to let the pictures do the talking.  Not for minutes at a time, but sometimes a pause is more powerful than forcing comment.  What happens instead is that there's a lot of direct pressure (there's a director in your ear) to keep going, keep talking, and the result is that people often start saying things because they're pushed to, not because they want to.  That adds up to inane and meaningless commentary, sometimes.  I did it myself yesterday, on numerous occasions, though it was better than usual.  There've been times in the past, depending who else is in the commentary team, that it feels more like a competition to see who can say the most in the shortest time!

Then one of the issues we have in SA is a language one.  We need, quite rightly, to take this race to all followers.  That means the commentary team has to have English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa.  It also needs males, females, and because this is SA, it needs black, white in each category.  Reality of SA, unfortunately (if you are international and bemused...welcome to SA).

So the team is put together this way, and it swells under the demographic pressures.  Add another white male, another white female etc and eventually, it's too many people, and the quality is inevitably to be diluted, even if only because they chop and change so often that as a commentator, you can't tell a story, work with characters.  There is a belief in the SABC that variety is better, but that's only true when it does not come at the expense of quality.  And yes, Comrades is a mammoth day, 12 hours of talking, but five or six excellent commentators will do better than ten, if they have more quality.

This also introduces the problem with what many of you suggest - you can't have split audio feeds because then you would need a team of commentators for each language, because it would be boring to have the same person for 12 hours.  So rather than have a squad of 30 commentators (imagine the quality then), they go with alternating language.  An english commentator, Zulu (or Sotho or Afrikaans) insight and so on.  A lot of people got really irritated with that, but it's a reality of SA, and I don't have a problem with it at all.

Next, is the training of commentators.  Now, I'm one of them, and for all I know, it was painful to listen to.  I got some feedback, some good, some bad, for which I'm grateful, but here's the thing - there is no training, no mentorship.  The way it works is improvement by experience.  That is, you mess up, you practice, you hopefully get better.  Problem is, unless your learning is guided by someone outside, you adapt in the wrong direction.  Maybe get more verbose, more monotonous.  So it really requires some investment to teach people the basic skills, and review their performance.

I don't expect to get any official professional feedback from my own commentary performance, for example.  I may get the odd comment, which is usually a compliment (because people throw out compliments in passing, but rarely divulge criticisms because they're scared of hurting feelings).  And I hate this, because I had to have made mistakes.  I was either unclear, too verbose, too monotonous, inaccurate, irrelevant.  Not eloquent enough. Something will always go wrong, but unless you know specifically, how do you improve?  So I beg for someone to criticize, be negative, make suggestions that will help me improve.  Constructive criticism is hard to come by...

And I use myself as an example, but the point is that every one of us is in the same boat.  There's no official platform for self-improvement.  I'm begging to be criticized so that I can get better, but that facility doesn't exist.  So when you are watching and tearing your hair out at the commentary (and trust me, I can relate), just understand that everyone bar one or two in that Comrades commentary team is an amateur, who is knowledgeable and doing their best, but they're soldiers without weapons.  This lack of attention to quality is not unique to this situation - it's always easy to do something, it's much more difficult to do it well.  Recognizing the investment in people and that quality matters is the difference between average and good, good and great.

Finally, the other big criticism is the number of inserts and interviews that they run in the last part of the race.  Once the elite runners are in (by 7 hours), they have another 5 hours of TV coverage to show everyone else finishing the race.  I hope that we realize how special this is - it's unique to have a full day of TV broadcast when it's "only" the public running.  But this is Comrades, and this is what makes it special.

The result of this, however, is that there is footage of thousands of runners finishing, and the pressure is really on the commentators to provide some kind of audio to the image.  Appreciate how challenging that is for 5 hours.  What do you say?

So in answer to this, the SABC puts together a range of short inserts on stories within the race.  A man running for charity, a guy doing his 40th run, a historical reference of some sort.  And they show these in this five-hour period.  All good in principle.  Some of the inserts are good.  But the problem is that it really angers the viewers, because they are watching specifically to see their loved one finish!  So having sat in front of the TV screen for 2 hours in the hope of seeing that loved one for 2 seconds, they suddenly find that they're taken to an insert or an interview with a sponsor, or dignitary, or a charity, and that causes them to miss the footage they've spent hours waiting for.

It's rather like having the power fail as that key moment in the match is about to happen.  And it's here that it feels that perhaps we're a little out of touch with what the viewer really wants.  I wonder if the viewer wouldn't be happier just watching footage, getting the stadium announcer for long periods?

The best compromise, of course, is to have a split screen, and have your insert or interview playing, while you keep the camera on the runners as they finish.  And when doing interviews, don't show the presenter and interviewee, rather cut to the footage and keep it going.  I'm not sure whether there are financial implications to the split screen idea, but it does seem an easy win, based on the feedback I was seeing on Facebook and Twitter yesterday.

Anyway, that's a very South-African discussion topic, and I welcome your thoughts, as always.

4.  Comrades has a quality that must be experienced

Last point, and it's a short one.  The Comrades has a quality that really does need to be experienced to be understood.  Even if you just watch it.  It's part of our DNA in South Africa, this race, as it is so ingrained in our running culture.  Zola Budd, South Africa's famous barefoot champion of the 1980s,  ran Comrades yesterday and said tongue in cheek that she had to do it because in South Africa, you aren't recognized as a runner until you do!  (She ran with legend Bruce Fordyce, incidentally, and they finished in a respectable 8:06.  Fordyce was aiming for silver in 7:30, but had a difficult day.  Maybe also glucose problems with insufficient carbs...)

But until you experience the day, and in particular the last two hours, when over half the field finishes, you don't see the appeal. The most agonizing part of the day, but also the hook for most (consciously or not) is the 12-hour cut-off, when a gun is fired and whether you're within 3m of the finish line or not, you get no medal.  It's amazing to think that over 12 hours, 2 seconds can make the difference between a happy memory, a medal and contentment, as opposed to frustration and heart-ache when you have failed.  But that is the point, the challenge, and it's the reason to run the race, regardless of your ability.

 I was interviewed yesterday on TV and asked when I'd run it.  I dodged the question then, but I know it's the future, just because it's an event worth being part of.

Perhaps next year, this article will have been the seed that brings you to South Africa!