Cape Town - Russians have come. Russians have conquered. And Russians will conquer again!
In a nutshell, that’s the story of the women’s race in the 56km Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon, which gets under way from Newlands on Saturday morning.
Albert Einstein said that a sign of insanity was trying an experiment more than once with the same variables and expecting a different result. The variables determining the women’s 2013 Two Oceans champion over 56km are essentially the same as in the last nine years. Einstein would also have predicted a Russian victory!
Seldom has the dominance of the Nurgalieva twins, Elena and Olesya, been more apparent, and it will be a major surprise if one of the red-heads from the Urals does not add to their impressive list of ultra-marathon victories.
And if anyone might be able to exploit any weaknesses on the part of the twins, it is more than likely to be one of their compatriots, former winner Natalia Volgina, Nina Podnebesnova or their training partner, Marina Zhalybina (nee Buchkova).
The primary reason for non-Russian athletes having next to no chance of becoming the first to unseat the Russians since 2004 is that the Nurgalievas don’t have bad races. Or when they do, through illness or other factors, the drop-off from their top form is barely discernable.
The running consistency, as opposed to running brilliance, of the Nurgalieva twins is undoubtedly one of the modern-day marathon phenomena. Their records at Comrades and Two Oceans are astounding, and at 37 years old, they are in their prime.
The second reason for writing off the chances of the remaining 3 106 women in the field is that, with one possible exception, there is no-one in the field who can match their marathon speed.
Olesya boasts a 2:27.37 marathon best, set in Frankfurt in 2008, while Elena ran 2:29.49 four years earlier. Although Olesya also clocked 2:34.08 in Turin in 2010, the standard marathon is no longer a high priority for the twins.
They just turn it on during South Africa’s top ultras. Olesya raced through the marathon mark in the 2011 Two Oceans in 2:37.38.
Of the other Russians, Volgina has a 2:27.32 marathon best, with Podnebesnova having run 2:31.37 over 42km. Zahlybina is somewhat slower with a 2:37.57 best.
Of the pretenders, one athlete stands out in marathon times. A 40-year-old Zimbabwean, Thabita Tsatsa, ran 2:29.20 in Seoul in 2008, and has a more than useful pedigree coming into the race.
A 33:20 best over 10km and 72:16 in the half-marathon demonstrates impressive speed. But the lack of compelling form coming into the race on the part of the Maxed Elite athlete, and a lack of an ultra-marathon pedigree, suggests that an African victory is unlikely this year.
A third reason for a Russian victory is that none of the Oceans athletes who have offered resistance to the Nurgalievas in the recent past, including American Devon Crosby-Helm, who placed third last year, Simone Staicu of Hungary or Lizzy Hawker and Ellie Greenwood from Britain are running this year, mostly due to injury.
Apart from Tsatsa, there are several African runners who are likely to be in contention through the first half of the race, including Lesotho’s Mamorallo Tjoka and Zimbabwean Samukeliso Moyo, fourth and fifth last year respectively, and three-times South African marathon champion Charné Bosman, running her Two Oceans Ultra debut, as is Tsatsa.
But the real race only starts after halfway, and notably after the standard marathon mark in Hout Bay, when runners face the toughest climb of the race, Constantia Nek. And it is there that the Nurgalievas are in a league of their own, and where they will win again.