Durban - South African runners placed first, second and third Sunday in one of the most competitive Comrades in the 89-year history of the event.
Never had the lead changed hands so often in the men’s race as Bongmusa Mthembu (Nedbank) eventually got in front of the field at Cowie’s Hill and stayed there during the final hour of the 89km ultra-marathon, to the delight of the crowds lining the route and those packed inside Sahara Kingsmead.
“I had a plan and it worked,” said Mthembu, who crossed the line in five hours 28 minutes and 34 seconds, almost five minutes clear of his nearest competition.
The 30-year-old from Bulwer was the first KZN winner since 1995, when Shaun Meiklejohn took the line honours. His time was the seventh-fastest down run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
He was followed to the finish line by Ludwick Mamabolo (Nedbank) of Joburg in 5:33:14, Gift Kelehe (Samancor) of Limpopo in 5:34:39 and the first foreigner, three-time Comrades winner Stephen Muzhingi (Toyota) of Zimbabwe, who came fourth in 5:35:18.
The race started wide open.
Even before the highest point at 18km into the route, it was clear that the contenders were likely to come from a large group of runners taking a conservative approach to the early climbs, while Charles Soza burnt the tar on his way to collecting the hot spots at Lion Park and the halfway mark
SA marathon record-holder Gert Thys was making his move in Soza’s slipstream by halfway and took the lead soon after the Comrades wall of honour.
The pack diminished considerably as they climbed through to Botha’s Hill with Mamabola, Mthembu, Muzhingi and Kelehe the known contenders.
“We weren’t concerned about Gert. We knew we would eat him up like cake around 60km,” Kelehe said and, true to his word, the lead was claimed by three-time Two Oceans winner Marco Mambo as the leaders closed on the Nedbank mile in Kloof.
Next to take the spotlight was Rufus Photo, of the Pietersburg club, who positively bounded down Fields Hill, opening more than 150m on his more experienced rivals.
Mthembu made his move, closing Photo down, but just failed by one second to wrest the final Cowie’s Hill hot spot, which Photo reached in 4:20:53.
A few strides later Mthembu was driving up the infamous Cowie’s and, although Muzhingi, Kelehe and Mamabola were in pursuit, it was clear the Arthur Newton trophy would stay in the host province for the first time in 19 years.
Despite an extended seconding stop at the foot of Cowie’s, Mamabola timed his final charge to claw back almost two minutes on Muzhingi and Kelehe to claim second spot, reversing the order of the 2012 down run, with the Samancor runner third and Muzhingi fourth.
“I was confident I could do this,” said Mthembu, who is coached by 1989 runner-up and New York Marathon winner Willie Mtolo.
“I wasn’t mentioned in the (pre-race) media conference which increased my confidence as I was being overlooked,” added Mthembu, who spent two months training in Lesotho and earned R505 000 in prize money before the sponsor’s bonus for being first, first South African and first from KZN.
Mncedisi Mkhize secured KZN’s second gold in sixth position and Meiklejohn added to the local celebrations with victory over the ever-green Vladimir Kotov in the 50-59 age group.
Team Nedbank also produced the winner of the women’s race, Eleanor Greenwood, who eclipsed the Russian twins, Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva (Toyota), who came second and third respectively. Irina Antropova (Nedbank), also of Russia, was fourth in 6:34:08, and Britain’s Jo Meek (Toyota) was fifth in 6:47:02.