Durban - The 2018 Comrades Marathon women’s race is expected to be a battle of experience against speed with defending down-run champion Charné Bosman and rising star Gerda Steyn set to challenge for the title.

A host of contenders have withdrawn from the iconic race, including 2017 champion Camille Herron of the US and 2015 winner Caroline Wöstmann.But this should not detract from what should be an intriguing battle between front runners Steyn and Bosman.

Steyn has emerged as the favourite following her impressive Two Oceans Marathon victory in April when she became the third South African woman to win the title in the last decade.

She has shown immense speed over the last year, racing to a new 42.2km personal best of 2hr 37min 22sec at the Valencia Marathon in December 2017 and finishing fourth at last year’s Comrades.

Asked whether she felt the weight of expectation, Steyn said winning the Two Oceans reduced the pressure in a sense.

“I thought after Two Oceans that I would be even more anxious because I won, but to be honest it now feels like the pressure is off because I have already achieved this year,” she said.

“I am very calm and, of course, to win the double would be an amazing achievement for me, but I do not feel the pressure. I told myself that whatever happens, happens and it is a bonus if I claim a top position.”

Steyn elevated herself to favourite status after her Two Oceans victory and will be looking to emulate Wöstmann’s 2015 feat of also winning Comrades in the same year.

This sounds simple in theory, but defending down-run champion and seasoned campaigner Bosman is the biggest threat to her achieving the historic feat.

Bosman has been on fine form this season, finishing third at Two Oceans while winning the Loskop 50km ultra.

What Bosman lacks in speed she more than makes up for in strength and experience and will be difficult to beat.

“So far I have experienced one of my best years in races like Loskop so I am feeling well and healthy,” Bosman said.

“I will give it my best. I’ve worked hard in the gym, so I believe I am a much stronger athlete than two years ago.

“I did everything possible to be at my best for this year’s race.”

Her 2016 victory came when she reeled in defending champion Wöstmann in the dying stages and overtook her with 3km to go to the finish.

That victory should serve as an indication of her grit, determination and tactical ability, which is a potent combination in the gruelling race.

“I don’t want to start out too fast but I still want to run a competitive race and I want to finish strong like I did at Loskop and Two Oceans,” Bosman said.

“I have my plan, the times I need to run going through certain points, and I feel like I am my biggest competition at the moment.”

While both athletes acknowledged the threat they posed to their respective ambitions, they said they would focus on their own race plans.

“I definitely see Charné as the biggest competition but, at the end of the day, it is you against the distance and the race,” Steyn said.

“So with the others pulling out, it doesn’t make too much of a difference to me.

“I have stuck to my plan, I haven’t changed anything in my race plan.”

Although the smart money is on the 28-year-old Steyn, who boasts good speed, Bosman’s experience will be a major advantage.

“You need a strong mind and you need to hold on in that race, because both the elite athletes and those running further back, go through the same emotions,” Bosman said.

“This race is never over. You saw what happened in 2016: I was 18minutes behind Caroline at Cowies, and with 10km to go I was 10minutes behind her.

“It shows you, the race is not done until you’ve crossed the finish line.”

Bosman is chasing her fifth Comrades gold medal, while history beckons should she win a second title to become the first South African to win the race more than once since Frith van der Merwe in 1991.

The Mercury