This year saw a record number of Comrades entries (24,594) just ahead of the 2000 edition (24,552). However almost a quarter of the entrants (22.4%) did not make it to the start line (the year 2000 had a meagre 2.4% start line drop off). The start line drop off percentage varies a great deal each year, with the highest being a massive 35.1% in 2011 (20% is about average). Of note is that it rarely breached 10% when participants had to run a qualifying marathon before entering.
Despite the big starter drop off, this year had the second most starters (19,078 behind the 23,961 of 2000) but drops one place to third for highest number of finishers – 16,439, just behind 2018 with 16,482 finishers (but nowhere close the 2000 record of 20,016).
One concern should be the reduced percentage of female participants. At just 18.6% of the finishers, this is the lowest amount since 2009 (by comparison the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon has just over 30% female participation).
Over 86% of the starters finished the race which is on the top end of the scale for the Up Run (and the highest percentage since 2011).
The Motivation of a Medal
The above funnel graph shows how many runners crossed the finish line every 15 minutes. The data organises itself neatly into a pagoda or Christmas tree shape which steadily grows towards each medal cut-off time. There is a significant ‘love handle’ in the final 15 minutes of every medal cut-off with the most pronounced being at the final 12-hour cut-off.
Below are the same graphs separated by male and female participants.
The graph below is the same information but represented as a ‘doughnut’ showing the percentage of runners who finished in each 15 minute time slot.
- 39% finish in the last hour.
- 48% finish in the last 75 minutes.
- 31% finish in just three of the 15 minutes splits – the 15 minutes before the Robert Mtshali, Bronze and Vic Clapham medal cutoffs.
- Just 3.6% finish faster than 7h30 (the Silver/Isavel Roche-Kelly cut-off). I am told that in the ‘old days’ before mass participation this was around 8-10%. If I can get the data I will explore this in future years.
Below are the same graphs separated by male and female participants.
Finishing Touches: Men vs Women
This graph below compares male and female finishing numbers and percentages by 15 minute splits.
Of note (cumulative percentages):
- Only 1% of women and 4% of men finish under 7h30.
- The sub 9h00 Bill Rowan medal for female runners roughly equates to the ‘Silver for men’ with 5.5% of the female field earning one.
- The new sub 10h00 Robert Mtshali medal is earned by 13% of the women and 18% of the men.*
- Sub 11h00 Bronze medals are earned by 27% of the women versus 26% of the men.
- Over half the female field (54%) earns a Vic Clapham 12h00 cut-off medal compared to 36% of the male field.
* As a proud recipient, I can confirm that real Menn earn Robert Mtshali medals.
The Impact of a New Medal
The above graph shows a cumulative tracking comparison of finishing percentages every 15 minutes whereas the graph below shows the same information without the accumulation.
There is fairly consistent tracking between the 2017 and 2019 fields although 2019 shows a minor improvement in sub-nine hour finishers (perhaps explained by excellent weather conditions). The major deviation occurs with the introduction of the sub ten hour Robert Mtshali medal that results in a more than 2% improvement in 2019.
Interestingly, the gains are quickly lost – by the 11-hour Bronze cutoff the 2019 field is 1.2% slower than in 2017. I would have expected that reducing the qualification time to 4h50 would have resulted in a faster field at the back of the race but this does not appear to have happened.
A much higher percentage of the 2019 field also finish in the last 15 minutes. The slower field at the back of the pack in 2019 is probably.as a result of a much larger 2019 field than in 2017 (since field size growth typically comes from recreational, ‘bucket list’ runners).
Finishers by Age and Gender
Comrades has traditionally been seen as an ‘old person’s race’ but the biggest portion of the field (42%) is under 40-years old – and almost half the female field are youngsters.
Only 18% of the field are over the age of 50 and this decreases to a minuscule 3% for the over 60s.
There’s an important message here: Don’t waste your youth, start training for Comrades 2020 today!
Fun Fact: The average age of a Comrades 2019 finisher is 42.
Medal Breakdown by Gender
The above table and below graphs provide detailed information on medal breakdowns by gender.
The toughest medal to earn is the ‘just missed Gold consolation’ of a sub-six hour Wally Hayward, with just 0.05% of men earning the medal.
The newly introduced female equivalent, the sub 7h30 Isavel Roche-Kelly medal, is the toughest medal for women with just 0.65% earning one.
Almost two thirds of the combined field (65%) earn Bronze and Vic Clapham medals and over half (53%) of the female field finishes in the last hour for a Vic Clapham medal.
Of interest is the gender difference in the percentage earned for each medal: For women this consistently doubles all the way from Bill Rowan to Vic Clapham whereas the men hold fairly steady between Bill Rowan and Robert Mtshali (just 2% difference) and then have a 50% increase to Bronze and another 50% to Vic Clapham.
Medal Breakdown by Age
No surprises here, we get slower as we get older. A few exceptions are able to halt the steady decline with 18 Master (50+) men earning silver and ten 50+ women earning a sub nine hour Bill Rowan.
The biggest showoffs are young men who earn more sub nine hour Bill Rowans than sub ten hour Robert Mtshali medals.
The one anomaly is the sub-11 hour bronze medal. For women, this holds at a consistent percentage for all ages with a surprise slight increase for the older ladies. Likewise for the men, although here the big surprise is that the 60+ Grandmasters earn the highest percentage of Bronze medals.
Fun Facts: Just 17 runners aged 70-years and older completed Comrades 2019. At 77, the oldest by over four years was Polokwane AC’s Johannes Mosehla in 10:20:37 (plenty of running left in his legs!). The fastest was Don Charles (70) in 10:06:08 (back next year for Robert Mtshali?) and the only lady on the list was Petra Myburgh (70) from Striders with a solid 11:45:57.
The below graph shows the average finish time for men and women by age grouping. Although the men are faster than the women, the gap between the two decreases significantly in the older categories.
When it comes to Comrades, it appears that the ladies age much more gracefully than the men!
On The Mark with @MrDowdeswell
Wits Statistics lecturer, Mark Dowdeswell, posts an annual analysis of Comrades on his Twitter account. Here are some of the highlights from his thread.
Follow: @mrdowdeswell on Twitter
Mark noted that the class of 2019 performed better than that of 2017, improving the median finish time from 10:58 to 10:54. The median finish time by seeding batch for 2019 was A – 07:40; B – 08:44; C – 09:37; D – 10:34; E (Green Numbers) – 11:35; F – 11:19; G – 11:43 and H – 11:56. He also noted that seeding batches are a proxy for age with A being the youngest and each batch getting progressively older.
Mark analysed the entire field’s splits (men in blue, women in orange) observing, “As always, women aren’t as aggressive (in aggregate) early and don’t fade as badly late in the race. Amongst men, 2.4% managed a (strict) negative split. Amongst women, 7.3% ran negative splits. [In 2017 the respective statistics were 2.2% and 8.5%.]”
Note: Some of the large negative splits appear to be clear signs of cheating. Below are some questions I sent through to the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) and their responses around cheating. I may write an in-depth article on Comrades cheats in the future.
If you thought you had a bad day at Comrades, there’s always someone who had a worse run. Mark found the man and woman who achieved the biggest positive split but still finished, “Women – 4:21:35/6:56:09 for 11:17:44 finish (2:34:34 positive split); Men – 2:52:20/6:58:32 for 9:50:52 finish (4:06:12 positive split).”
I put some ‘make-up’ on Mark’s table below which shows the medals earned by seeding batch (2017 and 2019 originals are included at the end of this section).
Seeding batch is a big determinant of the medal one can expect to earn. The most common medals awarded per seeding batch (darker blue blocks) are: A – Silver; B – Bill Rowan; C – Robert Mtshali; D – Bronze; E to H – Vic Clapham.
The DNF percentage increases as one goes down the Batch alphabet with the exceptions being the “Green Number” Es and the Elite bailers in A Batch. Mark highlights that the DNF percentage is lower in every seeding batch in 2019 compared to 2017 with the biggest drop being from 55% to 40% in H Batch.
Although the more stringent qualifying time in 2019 (4h50 versus 5h00) would be a major factor in the improved median time and overall H Batch performance, Mark says, “It doesn’t explain uniformly better results through the other seedings. More likely, the cool weather at the start had a bigger effect.”
There were 19,078 starters and 16,712 finishers – what happened to the 2,366 missing runners on the road trip to Pietermaritzburg?
The above graph shows how many runners drop from the field at each split. The number actually grows by 34 runners from the start to Pinetown. I expect that this is a combination of a few chips not registering because of the huge concentration of starters crossing the mat in Durban as well as a few runners who snuck in from the side.
The split from halfway at Drummond to Cato Ridge accounts for the biggest attrition rate (608 runners) with Polly Shortts in second place (481 runners).
There were 282 ‘heart breakers’ this year who made it all the way to the end of the race but failed to cross the line under 12 hours for a medal and an official finish. In many ways these are the people who are the real heroes – 12 hours of toil and perseverance with nothing but sore legs to show for it. No doubt they’ll be back next year to try again.
Blinding you with Data Science
Check out: Racently.com the site that provides a consolidated view of a runner’s racing performance, with all of their results in one place. Well, maybe not ALL, but a lot. The website is a work in progress, being developed on a part-time basis, with data for recent (and not so recent) races being updated regularly. The end goal is to compile a complete set of race results for South Africa. This is obviously a mammoth task but in time they’ll get there! If you find that your results are missing, then fill in their contact form. They’ll add those races to their backlog and have them up as soon as possible.
Andrew has been busy scraping the entire Comrades results history into a database – so I expect I’ll be bugging him on a regular basis in the name of data science. As a local Kwazulu Natalian, Andrew tries to make his graphs look like the Drakensburg Mountain Range.
The above graph shows how the field spreads out as the race progresses.
The second graph below is another very interesting graphic showing how long it takes per batch to cross the start line. Nearly all C Batch runners are on their way in under three minutes whereas those at the back of the pack can expect to take 11 minutes to start their journey.
I thought I’d end the final section of the Comrades metrics trilogy on a happy note. I took a look through the results and splits of runners who finished under 7h30 from the low batches and wanted to highlight one that is definitely legitimate.
Doris Fisha was a late entrant to Comrades and was seeded all the way back in G Batch for her debut run. Doris took almost eight minutes to cross the start line but still managed to finish in 7:20:38 as 24th lady for an Isavel Roche-Kelly medal (had she started up front she would have been well into the top 20).
The Malawian born Doris calls Kwazulu Natal her home these days and trains with Prodigal Khumalo’s recently formed Orcas Academy running club. Prodigal, who has a couple of Comrades Gold medals as well as many trail and road running victories to his name, is an ASA certified long and middle distance running coach with a passion for developing talented athletes.
The Orcas Academy was only founded in January 2019 but already boasts 120 members who’ve claimed 15 wins and 60 podium finishes over their short lifespan. Another of Prodigal’s proteges was this year’s 11th placed man, Nkosikhona Mhlakwana, who featured in the Elite Men’s Stats article.
Surprisingly, no African lady outside of South Africa’s borders has ever won a Gold medal at Comrades. Will Malawi be the first to enter the list in 2020?
I’m all statsed-out right now so don’t plan on doing any more Comrades statistics this year. However, if there is something missing from the above, feel free to drop me a note. If I’ve got the data, I’ll see what I can do!