Comrades 2019: Ladies Elite Field (All the Stats)

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A stat by stat account of the Comrades 2019 Women’s Race.

The Gold Standard

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Gerda Steyn was in a class of her own smashing the record and becoming the first lady to break six hours on the Up Run (only three ladies have achieved this on the Down Run). After a fast start by Ann Ashworth (2018 Down Run winner) and Camille Herron (defending Up Run champion), Steyn takes the lead early on and no one comes close to keeping up with her.

Fields Hill fractures the field directly after Pinetown. Alexandra Morozova makes her move before Drummond but can’t keep pace with Steyn and settles for second. After starting slowly, Caitriona Jennings blasts her way to halfway but struggles over the latter states of the race (doing well to hang onto third position). The most interesting pacing is by the local Kwazulu Natal debutant Jenna Challenor, who produces a great even run by for a sixth place finish.

The graph shows how dominant Steyn was during the race – but even she slows down (slightly) running up Polly Shortts and over the last split into Pietermaritzburg.

Just how good was Gerda Steyn’s run? Steyn finished 17th overall this year but she was already the tenth fastest in the entire field from Pinetown to the finish. From there she just got faster and faster, picking off elite men like a decent bowling attack dispatches with the Proteas top order. The graph below shows Steyn’s overall field position from each timing mat to the finish – for most of the second half of the race she was the fourth fastest in the entire field.

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The table below provides a detailed comparison of Gerda Steyn to the Top 20 men for each split to the finish. Of note is that Steyn runs faster than 100k World Record holder Nao Kazami over the last 3rd of Comrades! Henri Ansio’s fast finish prevents Steyn “podiuming” from Cato Ridge.

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Detailed Top 30 Split Information

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Gerda Steyn is the only lady able to run all eight splits under 4:30min/km, Morozova and Challenor manage to run all splits under 4:45min/km and Ashworth and Stelmach add their names to the list in the all eight splits under 5:00min/km category.

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The above table just shows just how few women run sub-3 hour marathon pace on any split (approximately 4:15min/km pace). However, those that do dominate the gold medal positions. Consistent pace is also a key consideration – there were 30 women under 7h30 (just over 5:00min/km pace) but very few splits have 30 women running under 5:00min/km pace.

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The importance of even pacing is further highlighted by the above table showing the medals awarded to the Top 100 from each split. All the golds and all silvers (Isavel Roche-Kellys) are in the Top 100 for every split. This leaves 70 Top 100 places to play with – and the sub-9 Bill Rowans are in the high 60s for most splits. Very few fast women blow* – a marked difference from the men.

* A phrase which has to be understood in context.

Of note is Mary Khourie (11th placed 2017 lady) who earns the last Gold medal on offer but has just one Top 10 split (9th fastest on the last segment). This proves you don’t need to win any wars to win the battle at Comrades!

The top Golds dominate the top placings for most splits although several fade over the last couple of segments. Challenor’s split times indicate excellent pacing strategy and execution – it will be interesting to see how she progresses in future years.

Strong finishes further down the field notably from Mia Morrison, Vicky Hansen and Janie Grundling.

For interest, the detailed information for the Top 30 ladies per split is included below (click to expand).

Time Waits For No Woman

As expected the youngsters in the open section of the field (40 years and younger) dominate the Top 100 splits and walk away with 65 of the Top 100 finishes.

The veterans (between 40 and 49 years) increase their number in the Top 100 as the race progresses. There are no galloping grannies in the Top 100 this year and just two master ladies (50 to 59 years) finish in the Top 100. The fastest master is three time Gold medallist Lindsay Van Aswegen who narrowly misses out on an Isavel Roche-Kelly medal finishing in 7:31:15.

Negative Splits

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Although most coaches and pundits talk about negative splits, they are incredibly rare for elite runners. Only four ladies in the Top 50 manage a ‘mat’ negative split – running faster from the timing mat at Drummond to the finish line (which is 700m longer than the first ‘half’).

Somewhat surprisingly, only one Gold medallist was able to achieve a negative split but no surprises that it was Gerda Steyn who achieves it. The other three achieving this very rare Up Run feat (no Top 50 men ran negative splits in 2019) were Vicky Hansen, Janie Grundling and Kate Rees who all finish under 7h30 to earn the new Isavel Roche-Kelly medal.

Seven ladies manage a negative pace split (running from Drummond to the finish faster than from Durban to Drummond). The best negative pace performer in 2017 was also the best negative pace performance of 2019: Vicky Hansen. Vicky is a personal trainer – so if you want to know how to be tough enough both physically and mentally to run a negative split at Comrades, I suggest booking a few training sessions with her!

Thirty ladies finish under 7h30 for the new Isavel Roche-Kelly medal which replaced the silver for ladies. This is double the amount from 2017 and I also believe it is a Comrades record (Up or Down).

Aside Positive Vibes

One of my favourite athletes is the vivacious Carla Molinaro. In 2018 she ran from Cape Town to the Comrades start in Pietermaritzburg for charity. Incredibly, she then smashed the Down Run for a ninth placed Gold medal finish.

I noticed that she ran the biggest positive split for the top women on the 2017 Up Run and pointed this out with a subtle, “Carla Molinaro got the most value for money over the second half of Comrades!” Facebook post – to which her philosophical response was:

Carla has been injured this year (and wore a moon boot for most of 2019), so I was interested in her approach ahead of the 2019 Up Run, “Yup I think it’s safe to say I completely and utterly blew up on the last up run…let’s hope that doesn’t happen this year 😜! Thank you! I’m going to go for it and run as hard as I can. I know the endurance is there with all the cross training I’ve been doing it’s just going to hurt a bit to run that far but it’s only 87km!”

So what happened on June 9?

The good news is that Carla lost her “value for money over the second half of Comrades” prize (but only just) to IronMan legend Chrissie Wellington (aka ‘Chrissie Smiles*’) who unequivocally settled the “Which is tougher – IronMan or Comrades?” debate.

* The real question is: did an astute cameraman mange to catch Chrissie Smiles frowning ?

On Up versus Down form, Carla was probably the happiest Comrades runner out there on hearing the “Double Down” 2020 and 2021 news.

Check out Carla’s The Running Company who organise and host running adventures as well a monthly Adventure Tales evening with speakers and adventure documentaries that will inspire you to get out more! You can book tickets for the next event on 3 July in Sandton here and can follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

The Difference Between Good & Great

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The ladies’ graph comparing Gold medallists to the Top 100 is very different to the men’s (who are much closer over the first half). I believe this is largely due to the difference in depth in the women’s field (since less than 20% of the field are female). This results in a wide gap of 15% between the Top 100 female runners and the eventual Gold medallists right from the start.

The gap between the Golds and Top 100 peaks at just over 17% by Cato Ridge before narrowing to 15.5% on 2019’s slowest split for all elites (male and female) up Polly Shortts.

The Top 100 close the gap significantly over the last split to just 12.7% – perhaps a sign that many Top 100 ladies got their pacing right combined with a lack of urgency from some of the Gold medallists whose positions were ‘safe and settled’ well before the finish line?

The Toughest Split

There was an unanimous decision this year amongst all elite runners: the climb up Polly Shortts was the toughest split at Comrades 2019 (in 2017 it was from Cato Ridge to Umlaas Road).

Of note, is that the ladies are much stronger than the men over the last split (which leads us nicely into the next section).

Battle of the Sexes

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The gap between the Top 100 men and women starts at over 23% but the ladies narrow the gap over every split to finish with just a 13.6% differential (probably better pacing strategies or maybe they are just more sensible than the men!).

Earlier this year, British ultra runner Jasmin Paris was the outright winner of the 268-mile Montane Spine Race along the Pennine Way and set the overall course record at the same time. This raises the question whether women would consistently beat men once the distance is long enough*?

* Anyone want to organise an out-an-back Comrades ‘battle of the sexes’ challenge to test this theory?

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The Gold medallists follow a less consistent pattern than the Top 100. The initial gap is much narrower (11%) than for Top 100 thanks to the fast start by Ann Ashworth (in 2017 it was over 13%), it increases in the middle sections before steadying around 15%, and then pulls back significantly over the last two splits.

Don’t tell Sebastian Coe and his cronies at the IAAF but the above table seems to indicate that the absence of testosterone is an advantage at Comrades. The fact that women are far more likely to run even pacing has already been highlighted – and this shows that Top 100 split men are almost three times more likely to bail than their female counterparts.

The Class of 2017 vs the Class of 2019

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The Class of 2019 totally outperforms the Class of 2017, both Golds and the Top 100 run every single split faster. The 2019 field has a much faster start and there are big pace differences in the middle splits.

Of interest is how uniform the Gold to Top 100 patterns are (the men’s equivalent graph is all over the show).

The Best Ever Women’s Field?

Many pundits proclaimed that 2019 had the strongest ever women’s field. The data says “not quite”!

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The above table shows the fastest five female Up Run finish times of all time by position (i.e. Mary Khourie’s 10th place this year is the fastest ever 10th placed female on the Up Run).

All ten 2019 golds are in the ‘fastest five’ by finish position and 2019 also earns the fastest 1st, 7th, 9th and 10th placed finishes. However 2004 makes a slighter stronger argument with faster 2nd and 3rd places as well as the fastest 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th placed finishes.

Interestingly, no 2017 or 2013 runs make fastest five list and the oldest entry on the list is Ann Trason’s 1996 win.

The Class of 2019 also make a big dent of the list of fastest ever Up Runs. Gerda Steyn enter at number 1 and is followed by Alexandra Morozova at 13, Caitriona Jennings at 19, Ann Ashworth at 24, Dominika Stelmach at 38 and Jenna Challenor at 39.

The table below show the Top 20 plus selected other results.

My Comrades Stat of 2019

Last year I highlighted that Ann Ashworth ran the third fastest time in the entire field over the last two splits (just over half marathon distance). Gerda Steyn didn’t quite manage to crack the Top 3 but her entry onto the all-time pace list is my stat of 2019.

For me, this highlights just how good Steyn’s Comrades 2019 run was: She is the 10th fastest female at Comrades by pace (the first nine entries are all on the Down run).

This is spectacular (considering the terrain covered and elevation gain involved) but even more so when compared to the men’s all time pace list (see below).

The first men’s Up run on the fastest ever pace list is all the way down in 51st position!

Also of interest is that just seven men’s Up Runs make the Top 100 by pace; Whereas 28 women are in the Top 100 and six in are in the Top 50. There is a definitely a theme at Comrades – the women are much tougher than us men!

Watch this space for the forthcoming Comrades 2019: Men’s Elite Field & Overall Field (All the Stats) articles. 

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