Comrades a test of true grit

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iol spt pic 2013 comrades women winner Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images Elena Nurgalieva wins the womens race during the 88th edition of the Comrades Marathon on 02 June 2013. (Photo by Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images)

Durban - There was a common theme running all through Friday’s Comrades Marathon Association’s final media briefing at a Durban beachfront hotel and that was: “I am here to win and nothing other than that!”

As the more senior members of each of the major sponsored elite teams passed the microphone back and forward among themselves, it became obvious that from the moment the race begins at 5.30am alongside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall on Sunday there will be no quarter asked or given over the tortuous, unforgiving 89.28km route to Sahara Kingsmead cricket stadium in Durban.

There could not have been a more competitive field of runners had they been hand-picked, with the last three winners of the men’s event all present – Claude Moshiywa (Nedbank Gauteng North, the winner last year), Ludwick Mamabolo (Nedbank GN, the 2012 winner) and Zimbabwean Stephen Muzhinghi (Toyota, 2009, 2010 and 2011 winner).

Also present were the runners-up of the past three years – Sweden’s Jonas Buud (Nedbank), Bongmusa Mthembu (Nedbank GN) and Fanie Matshipa (Samancor) – and the third-placed finishers – Lesotho runners Mpesela Ntlosoeu (Toyota) and Leboka Noto (Toyota) and local runner Gift Kelehe (Samancor).

Many of these names are likely to be among tomorrow’s top 10 finishers but, of course, there can only be one winner.

Maxed Elite coach Cuan Walker said: “We all come to Comrades with a common goal and that is to produce the ultimate winner from among the runners in your squad, who have worked together for months on end.”

Kelehe said his hopes were that Samancor would win the team prize, while Nedbank team manager, Nick Bester, said categorically that his target was for Nedbank to pocket “at least half of the 20 individual gold medals” allocated to the top 10 men and women finishers.

Johannes Kekana (Toyota) said: “It’s not easy to win the team prize, but that is also Toyota’s target.

“We have a strategy but can’t tell you what it is because it’s a secret!”

Moshiywa confessed that after winning last year’s race he had come under a lot of pressure from the exposure he received, adding: “I do not race against others – they either follow me or go their own way.”

Mamabolo had the last word when he said that fitness could not be measured on a scale, and then made an impassioned plea to all coaches: “I appeal to you to not only work on the bodies of runners but also on their minds.”

The women’s race is virtually cut and dried, with the Russian twins, Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva, looking as fit, if not fitter, than ever.

But their margin of victory could be much finer this year, as it’s under threat from British runner Ellie Greenwood (Nedbank, second in 2012), South Africa’s Charné Bosman (Nedbank), Swedish novice Sofia Sundberg (Nedbank), Britain’s Joasia Zakrzewski (Nedbank), Russian Irina Antropova (Nedbank, third last year) and fellow Russian Marina Zhalybina (formerly Bychkova, of Maxed Elite, third in 2012).

Elena Nurgalieva will be greatly motivated to chalk up her ninth victory in 12 years to equal Comrades’ legend Bruce Fordyce’s record in the men’s race, while Zhalybina is aiming to add another top 10 gold medal to her collection, which already boasts 12!

Other runners to watch tomorrow are novices Tabitha Tsatsa (Maxed) and Camille Heron (US, Nedbank), who have enviable CVs, with Tsatsa having won the Two Oceans women’s race last year.

One runner who won’t be lost in the crowd of 16 000 expected to be on the start line tomorrow is former Olympic middle-distance athlete, Zola Budd Pieterse, who made her Comrades debut two years ago, when she clocked eight hours and five minutes.

She missed the event last year when she came down with ’flu just before the race, but she is back and aiming for a seven-and-a-half-hour finishing time and a silver medal.

“I still regard myself as a novice when it comes to ultra- distance racing, and if I can do it in that time I’ll be extremely satisfied with myself, as I turned 48 last Monday,” she said.

It is almost 30 years since the debacle at the Los Angeles Olympics when American champion and home favourite Mary Decker tripped and fell while running behind the barefooted teenage Budd in the 3 000m final.

“I have long ago moved on from there, and I don’t even count the 1984 Olympics among my top 10 life experiences,” Budd Pieterse said.

“For now, Comrades is very much on my mind!”

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