The 94th Comrades Marathon and 48th Up Run was held on 9 June 2019. This is a stat by stat account of the Men’s Elite section of the race – with a few anecdotal interludes thrown in to break the statistical monotony.
The Gold Standard
The race starts at a fast pace but everyone (other than a few naïve television commentators) knows that the first half of the Up Run is for the television cameras, the second half is where the medals are earned.
Eight of the eventual Gold medallists are still in the running at Drummond (halfway) but this drops to five by Cato Ridge. The pull up to Camperdown starts to splinter the lead group and the climb to Umlaas Road completely fractures it down to a two horse race between Edward Mothibi and Bongmusa Mthembu.
There was plenty of talk before the race whether the Two Oceans champions, Mthembu and Gerda Steyn could do the double. Both were confident but only Steyn delivered. Edward Mothibi gave Two Oceans a miss and his Comrades monogamy saw him winning Comrades on Polly Shortts. Small margins but that is the difference between first and second on the Comrades Up Run.
Below is the very short list of all humans who have won the two largest ultra marathons in the world in the same year. Derek Preiss is the only man on the list and achieved the feat (in fact he did it twice) albeit in the early years of Two Oceans when the field was not as large. He is also the only person to achieve the double with a recovery time of less than 50 days.
Of interest is the first ever Top 10 Finnish finisher, Henri Ansio, who runs his own race and secures the seventh Gold medal, one behind Justin Chesire who becomes the first Kenyan to win a Gold medal at Comrades.
Aside: Countries winning Gold at Comrades
This year saw three new countries added to the Gold medal table, Japan, Kenya and Finland. Below is a table showing all countries whose men have claimed a Gold medal at Comrades (as per Comrades results site which may not be 100% correct for very old results).
Bongmusa the Bridesmand (Near and far missus*)
* Pun intended
The 2019 men’s race was the third closest in history – and the closest Up Run finish of all time. It is also Bongmusa Mthembu’s second bridesmaid appearance (he’s tenth on the list from the 2012 Down Run where he finished just behind Ludwick Mamabolo).
Phil Masterton-Smith also appears twice (once as a winner, once in second place). The ninth closest race was won by Derek Preiss by just 1m36 in 1974 and (as mentioned earlier) in doing so he became the the first and only man to win Two Oceans and Comrades in same year.
No one remembers who came second unless your name is Tommy Malone. Malone, who sadly passed away earlier this year, won the 1966 race ahead of Manie Kuhn by the 21st largest ever margin (17m39). I wonder what he would have given to trade a few 1966 seconds with Manie Kuhn a year later – the closest ever finish when Kuhn secured victory on the finish line by just one second!
Aside: A new ultra in Durban
Tommy Malone was great friends with his fiercest Comrades rival, Manie Kuhn. However, this didn’t stop Tommy putting one over Manie when he got the chance – especially when the opportunity to unleash his wicked sense of humour presented itself.
After their competitive running days were over, Tommy was able to maintain his lean and trim form whereas Manie became larger than life (in the literal sense). At a Comrades get together, Tommy noticed that Manie’s belt size had increased a couple of notches since their last meeting. Tommy hushed the room before loudly announcing that there was a new ultra marathon planned in Durban, “Two-laps around Manie Kuhn”!
For completeness, the full list of first and second places differences is included below (click to expand). The one anomaly on the table is Leonid Shvetsov’s 2008 Up Run record – there are no other wins greater than ten minutes this side of the late 1980s.
Top 30 Split Information
Mothibi and Mthembu are the only men to run three sub 3:45min/km splits as well as all eight splits under 4:00min/km. Seventh placed Ansio is the only addition to the list when the bar is lowered to all splits under 4:15min/km.
Most of the non-podium golds have a terrible last split – and if you ran from Polly Shortts to the finish faster than 5:57min/km (which 2,145 men did) you beat David Gatebe!
An interesting comparison of race execution is that between the Scandinavian connection of Findland’s Ansio (a perfectly executed progressive run for seventh place) and Sweden’s Olsson (who was too prudent up front and finishes 14th despite running the last split 30 seconds faster than anyone else).
* It’s very unusual for the last split to be ‘won’ by a non-Gold (Olsson). The second fastest last split was also by a non-gold – Malusi Dlomo. I wrote about Dlomo after last year’s race – he’s the fittest man in the defence force but seems to make a habit of getting his second wind in the final segment (in 2018 he started running again when Ann Ashworth passed him and used her to pace him to the fourth fastest final split).
Of interest is the big talking Brit, Lee Grantham, whose tongue-in-cheek pre-race interview comments suggested he’d be running fast enough to have time to catch his breath before greeting the second placed finisher (no confirmation that Mothibi returned to the finish line after his shower, cool down and post-race nap to greet Grantham).
Another runner of note is Zimbabwe’s Mike Fokoroni (6:01:37) who narrowly misses out on adding to his record haul of four Wally Hayward medals.
Aside: The Prodigal’s protege arrives home just too late
Another Zimbabwean with a penchant for earning Wally Hayward medals is Prodigal Khumalo. Prodigal’s Comrades CV includes two Golds, three Wally Haywards and two 6:01 silvers.
The Wally Hayward medal is essentially a ‘consolation for not winning Gold’ medal – and Prodigal probably needs more consoling than most: He has twice finished in 11th position and once in 12th.*
* He should actually have three 11th positions as his 12th was in 2015 when Joseph Mphuthi’s Gold medal was allowed to stand despite that fact that he was serving a doping suspension.
Prodigal was injured this year but is very active training young athletes in the Kwazulu Natal region where he is based. One of these talented youngsters is Nkosikhona Mhlakwana – who just happened to be this year’s 11th placed finisher!
It was Mhlakwana’s Comrades debut and he provided television viewers with some heart-wrenching visuals as they watched him slip from ninth to 11th position in the space of a few hundred metres. No doubt he will add many Gold medals to his collection in future years.
How the 2019 Up Run went down
The above table highlights how the Men’s Up Run went down. The two sub-3:45min/km splits in the beginning are irrelevant “TV running”. The sub-3:45min/km splits from Drummond are the ones that count.
It’s all fun and games until halfway. The six runners who run 3:45min/km pace from Drummond to Cato Ridge are Justin Chesire, Bongmusa Mthembu, Edward Mothibi, Joseph Manyedi, David Gatebe and Nao Kazami with the noticeable absentee being 47-year old Marko Mambo who is dropped by the younger runners.
The short split to Camperdown (5.7km) drops Kazami and Gatebe and the shortest split of the race (4.5km) to the highest point on the route at Umlaas Road leaves only Mothibi and Mthembu at title contenders.
The table also highlights how Top 100 men get slower and slower as the race goes on and Polly Shortts well and truly emasculates the field.
Although the men’s pacing is more varied than the women’s, consistency is still key to earning a Gold medal – only the last split sees any gold medallist failing to be in the Top 100 for the split. Likewise for the ‘consolation prize’ of a sub-six hour Wally Hayward medal with only Olsson (110th over split one) and the last Wally Hayward medallist, Tshepo Dikobo (528th over the last split), missing out on running all splits in the Top 100.
The number of Silver medallists steadies from halfway comprising close to 80% of the Top 100 times, whereas the number of Bill Rowans decrease except for the final split. A couple of overeager runners go out way too hard but manage to hang in for a sub-ten hour Robert Mtshali medal (both making it by less than ten minutes). Kudos to them – many men who go out to hard fail to complete the race (52 DNFs from the Top 100 per split men – which is almost three times higher than the women).
For interest, the detailed information for the Top 30 men per split is included below (click to expand).
Time Waits For No Man
As expected the youngsters in the open section of the field (40 years and younger) dominate the Top 100 splits and walk away with 76 of the Top 100 placed finishes.
The veterans (between 40 and 49 years) increase their number in the Top 100 per split as the race progresses and a few masters (50 to 59 years) show that their hairy old legs still have what it takes over the second half of the race but none manage a Top 100 finish position. The closest is the 51-year old Russian, Oleg Kharitonov (seven Golds and 2006 winner), who finishes 102nd in 6:43:09.
Another master (and former winner) who shows the youngsters how it’s done is the 57-year old 1995 champion, Shaun Meiklejohn. Take a look at Meiklejohn’s Comrades CV below – I doubt we’ll see anything like it again. An incredible 10 Golds and 20 Silvers with a ‘slowest’ time of 7:16:48 all the way back in 1982 on his debut run as a 20-year old Comrades virgin!
There are a handful of runners who’ve run 30 Comrades or more but Shaun is definitely the ‘fastest’ to get there (in terms of time spent on the road). The only blemish was a DNF in 2018 after a hamstring tear forced him to retire from the race. His comeback time in 2019? A sub-seven hour 6:56:16, putting all but 175 of us to shame!
The Myth of the Negative Split
Although most coaches and pundits talk about negative splits, they are incredibly rare for elite runners. Only four ladies and no men in the Top 50 managed a ‘mat’ negative split – running faster from the timing mat at Drummond to the finish line (which is 700m longer than the first ‘half’).
This highlights just how tough the Up Run is (and how good the four ladies who ran negative splits are). Mthembu was the only man to manage a negative split in 2017 and if he was able to repeat the feat in 2019 he would have cantered to victory.
As it was, only Mothibi and Mthembu manage a negative pace (running from Drummond to the finish faster than from Durban to Drummond) – and by just 2 seconds. This is also a marked difference to 2017, where nine of the gold medallists ran negative pace (and no other Top 50 man ran negative pace).
The first negative split I could find was British runner Steve Hobbs in 83rd (6:39:09). He’s written a detailed blog post about his run (well worth the read) and interestingly ran his race purely on heart rate – only twice did he know his running time, at the halfway timing point and then at the finish line! Steve is an English runner who has a professional athletics coaching business – which, as far as I know, makes him the first running coach to have actually managed negative splits at Comrades!
Aside: Parry can’t dodge Fourways’ Hairless Demon
The Comrades Coach, Lindsey Parry, is probably responsible for more negative splits than anyone else. The accomplished coach who masterminded the Caroline Wostmann/Charne Bosman 1-2 in 2015 and their 2-1 in 2016, was responsible for coaching half the athletes to run negative splits and secure a Top 50 finish at this year’s race (Vicky Hansen and Kate Rees). I also know plenty of runners further down the field who’ve followed Coach Parry’s training programs and race day plans to join the elusive negative split club.
So why has a negative split evaded Parry? He lays the blame squarely on the smooth, shiny shoulders of the “Hairless Demon” – Fourways’ finest, Kirsten Leemans (who just happened to finish one position ahead of Steve Hobbs at Comrades 2019).
Parry explained that he came close to running a negative split in 2012 with a solid Silver time of 7:10:18 (a ‘solider’ Silver of 7:00:55 would have secured him a negative split). At every other Comrades, Parry admits that he’s made the mistake of running the first half of Comrades with Kirsten and reaching the halfway mark “far too hot”.
Kirsten used his first Comrades in 2008 as a warm-up earning a Bill Rowan – and has subsequently run 11 consecutive Silver medals. Under Parry’s patient tutelage, Kirsten secured a Top 50 finish in 2016 (6:17:10).
Whilst Lindsey and Kirsten are able to bond over their effeminate first names (and postulate ad nauseam as to what their parents where thinking when they filled out their birth certificates), Kirsten is able to live up to the derivative of his surname, “Le Mans” by keeping his finely-tuned engine humming at the same pace for 24-hours whilst his silky smooth legs metronome their way over the tarmac.
From personal experience, I can tell you there are three things to avoid doing with Kirsten unless you want your day to end very badly:
- Run the first half of a race (especially a long one like Comrades) with Kirsten.
- Try to drink vodka for any period of time with Kirsten.
- Sit in the back seat of Kirsten’s car when he’s carrying a can of mace.
Running with Kirsten makes Parry weak at the knees (his calves and hamstrings don’t feel that great about it either). Following his most recent incineration in 2017, Coach Parry has watched the last two Comrades from the sidelines. However, he promises that he’ll be back in 2020 to “put his money where his mouth is” and secure a negative split of his own.
Check out: The Coach Parry Online Training Club where you’ll find over 80 time goal training programmes and get direct access to Lindsey and the rest of the Coach Parry coaches plus be part of one of the most active running communities online. You can also follow Coach Parry on Facebook , Instagram and Twitter.
The Difference Between Good & Great
This year the deviation starts as early as Pinetown (18.6km into the race) – which is much earlier than normal. In 2017 the split happened at Winston Park and in the 2018 Down Run it was also two splits in before the Golds and Top 100 diverged.
The difference between the Golds and Top 100 doubles on the split to Drummond (which is the fastest split for golds) and then doubles again to Cato Ridge.
However, the Top 100 eventually narrow the gap, albeit slightly, on the penultimate split up Polly Shortts before making big inroads on the last split.
The Class of 2017 vs the Class of 2019
The 2019 Golds and Top 100 both start faster than their 2017 counterparts. The Golds hold the faster pace to Umlaas Road before slowing significantly. There is more fluctuation with the Top 100 but they are also much slower from Umlaas Road.
For the women a faster start in 2019 equals a new course record. For the men a faster start in 2019 equals a much slower finish!
The Class of 2019 vs Comrades Alumni
The above table shows the fastest five male Up Run finishes of all time by position (i.e. Shaun Meiklejohn’s 1998 9th place is the fastest ever 9th place on the Up Run). I recently wrote about drug testing protocols at Comrades (and how much further ahead South Africa ultras are in relation to ultra running in the rest of the world).
This table adds to the body of conjecture that doping was rife at Comrades for several years*. Whereas all ten 2019 female Gold medallists make it onto the women’s list, Mthembu’s second place this year is the only entry onto the men’s list this entire decade! Either men are getting slower and less competitive (which is highly unlikely) or something sinister was going on in the ten year period from 1996 to 2006 (with 46 out of 50 entries coming from this era).
* I am definitely not saying that all runners were on the juice – although dark clouds of suspicion certainly hang over certain athletes.
The other interesting correlation is that SAIDS (the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport) started comprehensive testing at Comrades in 2003 – which coincidentally marks the drop off in ‘fastest 5’ times (40 out of 50 are pre-2003). The good news is that this indicates current doping protocols are working well.
Of note are the two oldest entries on the list, the 1988 runs of Bruce Fordyce and Nick Bester.
On the all time list of fastest ever Up Runs, Edward Mothibi and Bongmusa Mthembu enter at 12 and 13 respectively whilst the first Asian runner (male or female) to win a gold medal at Comrades, Japan’s Nao Kazami, is 44th*.
* That is of course excluding the Hong Kong born Bruce Fordyce from the list of Asian competitors.
The table below shows the Top 20 plus selected other results.
Note: The next two sections of this report are exact replicas of the same sections within the Female Elite article.
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
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?
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.
Watch this space the forthcoming article on “Overall Field (All the Stats)”.
Afterword: In Memoriam
Two former champions, Tommy Malone and Jackie Mekler, passed away in the weeks preceding and following Comrades 2019 respectively. Tommy Malone was a larger than life character whose exploits have already been mentioned. Tommy was a regular reader of this blog and I will cherish the comments he left and the few interactions we had.
Yesterday, Dave Jack phoned me with the sad news of Jackie Mekler’s passing. Dave had also phoned me a few weeks before Comrades asking if I would help to promote Jackie’s autobiography, Running Alone, with a few social media posts. I was thrilled at the opportunity and naturally said that this was not a favour but a privilege.
Apparently Jackie’s greatest fear was that no one would remember who he was and he’d be sitting alone at the Comrades expo next to a big pile of books. His concerns were totally unjustified, at the expo there was a steady queue of people waiting to meet Jackie and get their books signed. Judging by the social media posts, spending a few moments with Jackie Mekler was the highlight of many people’s Comrades weekend (it was certainly mine).
Jackie Mekler was one of the all-time greats and probably the greatest ultra runner of his era – it’s unlikely that we’ll see his like again. Perhaps the highlight of his long and impressive career was the second of his five Comrades victories – where he became the first man to break six hours on the Up Run. His time that day was 5:56:32 – six decades later in 2019 and it would still have been good enough for 16th position.
Jackie was an intensely private person – when I chatted to him about the book and asked why it took almost 45 years to get from the first draft to publication – his simple, matter of fact answer was, “It’s difficult to bare your soul to the world.”
He maintained his need for privacy in death, as per his wishes he will be cremated at a private ceremony attended only by his immediate family. For those who wish to celebrate Jackie’s life by making a charitable donation in his name, the suggested option is: The Comrades travel fund for travel, accommodation and food for disadvantaged runners (Nedbank Hyde Park / Account 1972022199 / Branch code 197205). This fund is administered by Vreni Welch and is for runners of all clubs.
Jackie’s fascinating autobiography is already on its second print run. The book is available on Amazon (as an eBook in South Africa and print on demand in the UK and USA) and hard copies are available at the Sweat Shop. Full details are available at www.runningalone.co.za. Proceeds from book sales will go to Jackie’s estate (he is survived by his wife, Margie, and their two daughters).
Jackie Mekler was a remarkable man who led a remarkable life. The long runs in heaven just got a whole lot longer. Thanks for the memories Green Number 9.Follow Running Mann: