2011Comrades002 Stephen Muzhingi crossed the finished line winning the 2011 comrades marathon from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. PHOTO: SIYABONGA MOSUNKUTU

So confident are triple champion Stephen Muzhingi and his manager, Cliff Chinasammy, that Muzhingi will romp to a fourth consecutive victory come Sunday’s 87th edition of the Comrades Marathon that they have been riding around the city for the past couple of weeks with “Stephen Muzhingi – 4 times Comrades Marathon winner” splashed across both sides of their VW sponsored by Barons.

The Zimbabwean defending champion, who won the 2009 and 2010 back-to-back down runs and last year’s 2011 up run, says he is supremely confident that nothing will stand in his way of a fourth straight victory in the 89km ultra marathon that starts at 5.30am in front of the steps of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall and officially ends 12 hours later at 5.30pm inside the Sahara Kingsmead Cricket Stadium in Durban.

Muzhingi, who is running again for the Durban North-based Formula One Bluff Meats Running Club, is so confident of victory that he says he will break the Russian runner Leonid Shvetsov’s record for the down race of 5 hours 20 minutes 41 seconds set in 2007.

Muzhingi’s 2010 winning down time of 5:29:00 was some six minutes slower than his 2009 down time and more than eight minutes shy of Shvetsov’s “down run” record, but he says his training programme has been geared to slice 10 minutes off his previous best time.

“I know I am a top contender for this race and that everyone out there will want to beat me.

“They are all welcome to try, even to run beside me, but they had better watch out because I am not going to be jogging.

“ I’m going to be setting a fast pace, not around the usual four minutes per kilometre pace but more like three-and-a-half minutes,” he said.

“But whatever happens I am geared to win this race which will be my eighth Comrades.”

Should the 36-year-old Harare-born distance runner achieve his goal, he will be the first runner to have won the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon and the Comrades Marathon in the same calendar year since 1974.

Muzhingi, as in previous years, will be running in his own F1 Bluff Meats Running Club team “bus” who will provide him with a series of pacemakers and to protect him to a certain degree from would-be predators hoping to gain an advantage from his tactics.

The Muzhingi race plan has had to be revised by team manager Chinasammy following an accident on Wednesday when Muzhingi’s chief pacemaker, Jobo Khatoane of Lesotho, was knocked down by a car while on a training run.

He was hospitalised with head and back injuries and concussion, which rules him out of Sunday’s race.

Muzhingi will not have things all his own way as Shvetsov is back to try again after an absence of two years and running again in the colours of Nedbank.

The 43-year-old Russian has an impressive Comrades dossier with two Comrades titles and four gold medal finishes in five starts.

Other Nedbank runners include Claude Moishiywa, who ran into third place last year, novice Sergei Luikin, a compatriot of Shvetsov, who could be a ‘dark horse’, Henry Moyo (Malawi), Leboka Noto (Lesotho), and John Birgen (Kenya).

Fanny Matshipa, runner-up last year and the first South African runner to finish, is also in the line-up with two gold medal finishes in five starts, running for Samancor Chrome with teammate Gift Kelehe.

The Mr Price team boasts several top distance runners including Fusi Nhlapo, Ludwick Mamabolo, Bongamusa Mthembu and Prodigal Khumalo.

Running for Bonitas are Charles Tjiane, Harmans Mokgadi, Peter Muthubi and Mkhonzeni Basi.

Although six-times winner Elena Nurgalieva of Russia is the hot favourite among the female entries, this time she will be running without the company of her twin sister, Olesya, who became a mother for the first time earlier this year.

Elena’s Comrades record is impressive, winning six times in nine finishes, each finish in the gold medal category.

The 35-year-old runs for the Mr Price International team. She won the women’s Two Oceans Marathon for the fourth time last April and is now looking for the elusive “double”.

American runner Kami Semick has unfortunately scratched with an injury, leaving the main challenge to Elena to come from Russia’s Irina Vishnevskaya, Nina Podnebesnova, Natalia Volgina and Marina Zhalybina (formerly Bychkova).

Three South Africans who are expected to be in the gold medal category include Kerry Koen and Adinda Kruger of the Bonitas Club and Lindsey van Aswegen – but Farwa Mentoor and Riana van Niekerk of Bonitas may also feature. – The Mercury