The Comrades Marathon is a lot like a nasty big brother that sadistically bullies, torments and tortures his weaker siblings. As one of those weaker siblings, I’ve received more than my fair share of merciless moers, violent lammies and vicious donkey klaps at the annual family reunion between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. I feel this entitles me to have an opinion and say what I like about Comrades – and occasionally I repay my serial brutalisation with a playful retort or gentle jab of my own (before running away, slowly). That is the God-given right of a ‘family’ member*.
* For example, one of the article ideas on my backlog is ’10 Things I Hate about Comrades’ but the list of things has grown so long it may in fact form the content of my first full-length book.
However, when someone outside the ‘family’ callously condescends your brutal big brother, all past grievances are forgotten, all past sins are forgiven, and all the scars and bruises from past battles become prized signs of affection. When someone outside the circle of trust insults a member of one’s household, the correct response is to immediately – and without hesitation – take up arms (or in the case of Comrades, legs) to defend the family honour. That is exactly what happened recently when the insolent, ill-informed and ignorant American ultra runner Jim Walmsley condescended Comrades with a reckless remark.
The offensive insinuation was quickly highlighted by the eagle-eyed Cuan Walker who, unlike foreign marathon commentators, does not need athletes to wear different coloured running vests for identification but is able to recognise runners by their faces. He is also able to spot nefarious slander on the internet at a glance.
Jim Walmsley was responding to the question, “Are there any records out there, world records, even some of these 24 hour runs or any records that you want, (before you retire)?” when he answered, “(As for) course records. I think Comrades has a little bit of skepticism from my viewpoint about clean competing.”
Jim Walmsley may be well-known in America but few South Africans would have heard his name – and for those who are thinking, “I’m sure I’ve heard his name somewhere recently”, it was most probably because he broke Bruce Fordyce’s long-standing 50 mile world best time by 14 seconds at the beginning of May during a 100k race (before he faded over the last 20km and ended up finishing fourth, about 45 minutes behind the winner*).
* One of the things that puzzles me is that social media went all hooey over the 50 mile world best but no one said, ‘Hey, but this guy blew so hard he could have got a job in the oval office during the Clinton administration.’ Fordyce set the previous best in 1983 on the 54-mile London to Brighton course – which he went on to win comfortably. Had Fordyce finished fourth after setting a world best, he would have been right up there with the Proteas in the queue of South African sportsmen in urgent need of the Heimlich Manoeuvre**.
** Okay, so I did check this one out a bit more thoroughly and it seems that the event was more of a poorly organised marketing event by a shoe company than a real race. It seems that whilst American Blues musicians will sell their souls to the devil at the crossroads, their ultra runners prefer selling their soles to shoe pedlars along the banks of the American River in Sacramento.
To be fair, Jim Walmsley is a very accomplished athlete – he’s won the JFK 50 mile race three times, set the course record at the 2018 Western States 100 miler and qualified for the USA 2020 Olympic marathon trials with a 1h04 half marathon earlier this year. However, despite this impressive list of accomplishments, Jim Walmsley is still not a “real runner”.
As all South Africans know, you only become a “real runner” once you have run Comrades* and, as such, Jim Walmsley does not have the required credentials to be making disparaging insinuations about the oldest, largest and most competitive ultra marathon on the planet.
* The only dispute is whether ‘real runner’ credentials are earned on your first Comrades finish or whether you need to have completed at least one “Up’ and one “Down’ run.
My first response to Walmsley’s distasteful defamation of the greatest race he’s never run was fairly emotive – as was that of several other journalists and media personalities (whose seriousness and credibility far outweigh mine). I was fortunate enough attend a recent media function ahead of the launch of the Entsika Elite Comrades team where doping and Walmsley’s cold-hearted crack provided one of the cornerstones of our dinnertime conversation.
However, by this stage I had moved on from knee-jerk emotion to a more calm, collected and considered approach. Having re-read the quote, I wondered whether Walmsley was referring purely to the Leonid Shvetsov 2008 Up record? The general consensus is that Shvetsov’s 2008 record is highly suspect (especially since Shvetsov* was subsequently discredited in 2010 after the Belgian long-distance runner, Eddy Hellebuyck, tested positive for EPO and named Dr. Leonid as his supplier).
* Shvetsov’s credibility is right down there with Alberto Salazar, the only American man to have won the Comrades (1994).
However, Comrades has two records – the Up and the Down. The current Down record was set in 2016 by David Gatebe and, as far as I am aware, has never had its legitimacy questioned. Unfortunately, Walmsley does not name any specific athletes in his all-encompassing Comrades slur – so it’s unclear whether he was referring to both Shvetsov’s and Gatebe’s times. However, Jim Walmsley has stated his intention to run the 2020 Comrades Marathon which is a Down run – so it will be Gatebe’s record that he’ll be gunning for*.
* That is of course assuming he’s not planning to do a Caitlyn Jenner on us and, post-op, go for Frith van der Merwe’s 1989 Down record instead.
The other possibility is that Walmsley is one of those Americans who is unaware that the fairly significant land mass known as Africa is in fact a continent, rather than a country – and that the 54-odd countries within Africa are distinct entities with completely different cultures, customs, conventions, [enter you own exhaustive list here], etc.*
* Just to reassure anyone who is reading this in the northern hemisphere and is still wondering whether South Africa is a geographic region or a country, I can confirm that we have our own flag, national anthem and all the other stuff required to be a ‘real’ country. South Africa even meets the strict Zappa ‘real country’ definition of the term (although both the airline and football team criteria are slightly tenuous these days).
Athletes from certain East African countries, well known for their popularity as holiday destinations for British athletes, have recently been the subject of several high-profile doping scandals. This has created a justified questioning on the credibility of performances of certain athletes (actually just athletes under the management of specific agents) from those countries.
Unfortunately, this has led some narrow-minded first world athletes to brand the whole of Africa as a drug fuelled den of iniquity. Surely Walmsley could not be that stupid? Let’s hope not but there is plenty of ignorance and blinkered bigotry when it comes to Africa – an Italian half marathon recently tried to ban all ‘African’ runners from participating in their race ostensibly “to make the point that measures must be taken to regulate what is currently a trade in high-value African athletes”.
However, just because one small section of a very large continent has a major problem with performance enhancing drugs does not mean that the other 50-odd countries should be tarred with the same brush – just as it would be unfair of me to label all Americans as ignorant (and to be clear, I am not!). Similarly, it would be unfair to question the performances of athletes from the other 42 countries in Europe just because of two countries on the eastern and western extremities.
If I put on Jim Walmsley’s sunglasses for a minute to view the world thorough his myopic eyes, I might cast a disdainful glance over current affairs in the States and make a ridiculous statement like, “(As for) uterus envy. I think white American males have a little bit of skepticism from my viewpoint after going all Saudi Arabia on their females.” I have no idea where Jim Walmsley fits on the scale between sexist misogyny and proud bastion of female empowerment but, just because some old white guys in Alabama (over 2,500km away from Walmsley’s home state of Arizona) are trying to implement Sharia* law does not mean that all, or even most men, are currently trying to do so.
* I plead a Walmsley level of ignorance here. I am not entirely sure if it is Sharia law that is being implemented in Alabama but, from what I understand, the plan is to severely restrict women’s rights. As far as I know women are still allowed to drive a car in Alabama and do not yet need to be chaperoned by a male family member when they leave the house. I’m happy to be educated on this one.
The fact that South African marathon runners’ performances at World Marathon Majors has been so dismal over the last decade* should be conclusive proof that our athletes are not doping. Last year we went batshit crazy over one of our female athletes getting a Top 20 finish. If South African marathon runners are doping and this is the best we can do, we need to ask for a refund and switch chemists.
* The only Top 20 South African performances in marathon majors over the last decade that I’m aware of are Hendrik Ramaala 10th Berlin 2011, Lusapho 3rd New York 2013, Irvette van Zyl 9th London 2013, Rene Kalmer 9th Berlin 2014 and Gerda Steyn 13th New York 2018 (thanks to Manfred Seidler for help on this one).
Walmsley gives me the cold shoulder
In a case like this is helps to clarify directly from the source. Therefore, I did everything within my power to elicit a clarification from Jim Walmsley himself, sending a friendly message to his active social media profiles as well as contacting the editors of LetsRun.com where the quote appeared.
Unfortunately, Walmsley gave me the cold shoulder. I did however manage to have an interesting discourse with the editors of LetsRun.com (who were blissfully unaware as to “what’s controversial about the quote at all”). Although we are still in the dark as to whether Walmsley’s intentions were pure, misguided or deliberately spiteful, we’re nice people down here at the bottom of Africa so let’s give Jim the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant just Shvetsov.
Aside: Is the Up Record Impossible?
The LetsRun.com team pointed me a quote from another prominent American ultra runner who has run Comrades before. He referred to Shvetsov’s record as being “impossible”. Interestingly the top 4 Up run times are all Eastern European (three Russians plus Kotov from Belarus). I can’t comment on whether they were all juiced (although ‘off the record comments’ from people who’ve watched the race from the back of press truck would indicate questionable practices from certain athletes over the years – let’s just say that those running barefoot should be careful not to step on discarded hypodermic needles at the side of the road). The fifth fastest Up run is 1988 Fordyce but it is just 3 minutes behind Shvetsov’s record. Fordyce’s records have durability but I would question whether the up record is impossible or just waiting for the right day and the right runner.
Rant Over, Time for Some Serious Anti-Doping Facts
As someone who likes to cover all the bases, I thought I’d leave the emotions and conjecture aside for the time being and get some hard evidence on the actual anti-doping procedures and protocols in place within South Africa.
How exactly does in- and out-of-competition drug testing work for South Africa’s top ultra runners? I fired off some questions to Fahmy Galant (General Manager of SAIDS – South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport) and, faster than Mo Farah can open his front door for a scheduled visit from UK Anti-Doping officals, I received a reply back.
Fahmy explained that there is Registered Testing Pool (RTP) of athletes that is updated on an annual basis, further elaborating, “The RTP is a group of athletes that are required to supply updated whereabouts information to us via the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) online system ADAMS (Anti-Doping Administration and Management System). This they have to do for each day of the year (e.g. provide physical address details, training details, etc.) and provide a dedicated 1 hour time slot per day where they will definitely be for testing so as not to incur a missed test should an attempt be tested within this 1 hour slot.”
In most countries (like the USA), national doping agencies ignore ultra runners but SAIDS have comprehensively tested a significant number of male and female ultra runners since 2012, “The inclusion of the top elite Comrades athletes in our RTP has been a regular feature since 2012 and we have consistently had between 10 and 20 Comrades runners in this RTP. These RTP athletes have been regularly subjected to urine and blood testing so that we are able to build up a profile of the athlete – called an athlete biological profile. (https://www.wada-ama.org/en/athlete-biological-passport).”
There are currently 13 ultra marathon athletes on the RTP list: Anne Ashworth, Charne Bosman, Jenna Challenor, David Gatebe, Cornelia Joubert, Gift Kelehe, Ludwick Mamabolo, Tanith Maxwell, Claude Moshiywa, Bongmusa Mthembu, Gerda Steyn, Irvette van Zyl and Caroline Wostmann.
David Gatebe is one of the few top marathoners who has managed to master the art of ultra running – and he’s the only athlete to have won the South African Marathon Champs (in 2h13), Two Oceans and Comrades. Gatebe is a long-term member of the RTP club so everything indicates that his 2016 Comrades Down record of 5:18:19 is indeed beyond reproach.
To put this in perspective – and throw some fuel on the fire of common international conceptions – David Gatabe has a better chance of being eaten by a lion on the streets of Sandton or having his leg munched off by a crocodile in a Dullstroom trout dam than he does of being able to run Comrades juiced and get away with it.
There have been a few drug DQs at Comrades over the years (which I believe shows that testing is working and that there are repercussions for cheats). Of the 2019 batch of top Comrades male and female contenders, the only athlete I’m aware of who has previously tested positive for banned substances is Joseph Mphuthi (he was the 2018 Comrades men’s runner-up and finished 22nd in 2019). Mphuthi received and served a two-year ban after testing positive for nandrolone, an anabolic steroid, after the Loskop 50k Ultra Marathon in 2014.
I was curious as to why he was not on the RTP list. Fahmy explained that a large number of factors like performance, risk of sport, sport priority and financial incentives are used to determine who is on the RTP list – which is then reviewed on a quarterly basis. However, just because someone is not on the RTP list does not mean that they will not be subjected to out-of-competition (OOC) testing, “We do, and have also targeted athletes OOC that do not fall into this RTP, thus it does not mean that athletes who are not in this RTP cannot be tested.”
I was also curious as to whether there was a loophole as many of the top Comrades athletes are from neighbouring countries and could potentially cheat the system with less rigorous anti-doping agencies, “We have worked with our partners in Southern Africa, the RADO (Regional Anti-Doping organisation) Zone VI that includes Lesotho and Zimbabwe where some of the top Comrades contenders originate to test athletes. Furthermore, in-competition testing has been conducted at the Comrades for the past 20 years.”
The profile of ultra endurance events in South Africa means that local elite athletes are subjected to extremely robust and comprehensive testing procedures. Cuan Walker, currently involved with team management for the Nedbank Elite Team (who have several international athletes on their books and produced both the male and female winner at Comrades 2019) highlights the rigour of drug testing at Comrades, “Drug testing at Comrades is proper, and even more so for South African athletes compared to the international athletes. Many of the South African athletes are tested out of competition in training. I witnessed this myself in Dullstroom – athletes were tested 3 times in a space of 10 days. Some internationals get tested when they arrive in SA and then again after the race if they are in top 10.”
I also chatted to John Hamlett, coach of the Entsika Elite Team, at his Dullstroom training camp. He commented that, whilst he is fully-supportive of anti-doping measures, the athletes are “over-tested to the point of absurdity.” He added that the SAIDS team will usually make several visits during his three-month long Comrades training camp and will take up to seven hours at a time to test every single person at the camp.
That should clear up any misconceptions about the current state of doping controls at Comrades – it’s very comprehensive! Although it’s always possible that someone is cheating the system, it’s unlikely that they will get it away with it indefinitely and can be caught retroactively – one of the benefits of the RTP list and building up long-term biological profiles* of the athletes.
* This also means that any athletes who later have the integrity of their records questioned can easily clear their name by releasing their blood data (but strangely most seem reluctant to do so).
Right back at you Jim
Now that we’ve established the South African anti-doping protocols, lets flip this discussion around and look at what kind of doping controls an American elite ultra runner would be subjected to. According to this interview with Camille Herron* pretty much nothing. No OOC testing and only a couple of the high-profile ultras would take samples from winners.
* For intentional ultra runners wanting to know how to ingratiate themselves with the South African public, there is no better teacher of etiquette than Camille Herron. She has been a fantastic ambassador for the sport and Comrades (before, during and after her 2017 Comrades win). She receives a huge amount of South African support during Comrades – many even favouring her over local favourites. Some runners are even happy to help to show her the way to the finish line.
As for the likelihood of someone getting caught with this ‘in competition only’ approach – highly unlikely. As Camille explains, “Where there is testing is the races like Comrades, UTMB, and 2 Oceans where I did my first ultra – there is in-competition drug testing, but you’d have to be stupid* to get caught [doping in a race]. Everybody knows these races do drug testing so they would be knocking off whatever they’re doing in order to not test positive.”
* Joseph Mphuthi (and the handful of other athletes who’ve been caught doping at South African ultras), I think Camille just called you “Stupid!”
Ironically, considering Walmsley’s septic scepticism, it appears that drug testing of South African ultra runners is lot more frequent and comprehensive than that in the USA. When Leonid Shvetsov’s Comrades Up record is eventually broken, the likelihood of that record being ‘tainted’ is far higher should it be broken by an international athlete.
Aside: No fault of Jim’s – the USA drug testing dilemma
In an effort to avoid being an ignorant hypocrite myself, I referred my views and opinions to some American friends who are part of a very competitive virtual “Squadrunner” running team that I am a member of (I am the token southern hemispherean). One of them (who prefers to remain anonymous since he competes with the likes of Walmsley and is hoping to go professional soon) provided these excellent perspectives on the lack of doping controls in the USA:
“A) we basically don’t have a governing body for the sport (usatf [USA Track & Field] is broke and doesn’t want to touch the sport).
B) The US has size restrictions on races that prevent them from being large enough to offer prize money of more than a few hundred bucks.
C) there’s so little money in the sport at any level that to test athletes would likely require forcing athletes to pay for testing themselves.
As athletes, elites in the US generally want to see testing, but unfortunately there’s a huge financial barrier to that occurring. It’s the couple of races with enough prestige to have sponsors that have the budget to test athletes and do (like the Western States 100).”
The Comrades Marathon Association announced that both 2020 and 2021 would be Down runs so we’ll have to wait three years until the next batch of athletes attack the Up record. Of course, the best and easiest way to settle this argument would be for someone to break the Up record – hopefully a South African on the RTP list. This would help prospective parochial visitors from biting the hand (or should that be ‘stubbing the toe’?) that feeds. We’d love our foreign guests to enjoy the unique experience that is the Comrades Marathon without having to trouble themselves over the integrity of our records.
And as for you Jim Walmsley, we’re happy to take the piss out of you before you run Comrades but, if you do manage a top ten finish, the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport will be delighted to take the piss out of you afterwards.
[This section intentionally left blank in case Jim Walmsley provides a future clarification as to whether his comment was directed at Leonid Shvethov, David Gatebe, both – or the integrity of Comrades/South African/African ultra running as a whole.]
The author has never taken drugs whilst running except one time when he ran the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon with a broken big toe. On this occasion he accepted a Myprodol in Hout Bay from an old school friend shortly after being overtaken by his wife (the two events may or may not be connected). The remainder of his 217 marathons and ultras have been run clean. He has run seven marathons in the USA and one in Canada and has never made disparaging remarks about any of them.Follow Running Mann: