How The 2018 Men’s Comrades Down Run Was Won
In the men’s race, it’s all fun and games until well after the halfway mark at split five, the Winston Park – Pinetown split. This is where all eventual top five finishers run their fastest segment and sorts out the real contenders for the Comrades crown from the pretenders.
From Pinetown there are just five real challengers for the win (with Steven Way behind as a possible sixth). Bongmusa Mthembu turns on the gas and no one else comes close to match him over the last 21km – where he runs the fastest final two splits in the field.
There was a lot of talk about Steven Way’s strong finish but interesting to note that Bongmusa Mthembu was faster than him in all seven splits (and still significantly so over last two splits).
How The 2018 Women’s Comrades Down Run Was Won
The women’s race is more tactical than the men’s – pacing is much more even and there are far fewer top runners dropping out not finishing after unrealistically fast starts. By the halfway mark in Drummond there are just five contenders for the Rose Bowl. The next split to Winston Park quickly turns it into a three-horse race between Ann Ashworth, Alexandra Morozova and Gerda Steyn.
Alexandra Morozova makes here move in split five to Pinetown. Team Massmart’s Ann Ashworth, a surprise leader at this point, loses her lead to Morozova with 23km to go. Ashworth, known to her training partners as the Iron Lady, shows her mettle with an incredible last two splits to win by 5m30s.
It was a brilliant race strategy and execution by Ashworth (and her coach John Hamlett) who ran almost every split faster than one before.
I discussed Ann Ashworth’s pacing strategy and race execution with her, “John gave me a pacing plan to half way. I had targets through 15km, 30km, 42km and 45km. I worked out the average pace per 5km split and then set my Garmin onto 5km laps to track my pace. Unfortunately, I really suck at maths and from 15km I miscalculated my pace per 5km and started to run slightly faster than the plan (by a few seconds).”
The race strategy from halfway was left open to how Ashworth was feeling and how the race was unfolding – but she missed seeing John Hamlett at halfway so simply followed what she’d heard her coach telling the Ensika men’s team to do over the second half of the race (Hamlett is also head coach of the Ensika team whose runners include Gift Kelehe, David Gatebe and Gordon Lesetedi).
Ashworth and Hamlett finally reunited with 17km to go. Ashworth was worried that she was being caught and Hamlett fuelled this fear, “He told me that the ladies were catching me and I needed to move… so I just ran my heart out all the way to the finish. I pretty much thought Gerda or Alexandra were going to overtake me on the grass – I was terrified!”
Statistic of the Race
My overall “Stat of the Race” is that Ann Ashworth was the third fastest in the entire field over the last 21km (from Pinetown to Durban). If Moses Mabhida stadium was further up the KZN North Coast we could have had a Frith van der Merwe 1989 situation on our hands (where an overall top ten placing for a female was a possibility)!
The Difference Between Good & Great at Comrades
How to Win a Gold Medal in the Men’s Race: Speed Up at Split Five & Maintain Pace to the Finish
The difference between average pace for per split between gold medallists and the top 100 gradually increases over the race. The graph highlights the marginal differences between the top 100 and Golds over the first 30km (first two splits to Cato Ridge). The difference doubles on split three (to Drummond) and doubles again on split four after halfway (to Winston Park).
The biggest difference comes roughly two thirds into the race at split five (from Winston Park to Pinetown). This is the “moving split” in the men’s race – highlighted by this being the fastest split for gold medal winners but only the fourth fastest for top 100.
All the eventual men’s top five and most of the top ten run their fastest average pace over split five – and all of them (except Gift Kelehe) run split five at a faster pace than the previous split (from Drummond to Winston Park).
The ability to increase pace at split five into Pinetown and then maintain pace over the last two splits is the difference between the gold medallists and the also-rans on the Comrades Down run. Interestingly, the blistering pace of split five is followed by the slowest two splits of the race for both the gold medallists and the top 100.
The ability to maintain an even pace over the 90km route is another factor that determines the difference between good and great: There is only a 27 second difference between fastest and slowest split pace for Golds but this rises to 46 seconds for the top 100.
How to Win a Gold Medal in the Women’s Race – Run A Consistently Fast Pace For 90km
There is a big difference between how the men’s and women’s races unfold which is highlighted by the data and graphs. From split one, there is already a significant difference (13%) between the top 100 and eventual gold medallists (perhaps highlighting less depth in female field as well as more realistic pacing by female top 100 contenders who have a far lower dropout rate than their male counterparts).
The pacing difference holds in split two, increases slightly in splits three and four, holds over splits five and six and decreases slightly in split seven.
Although turns of speed determine the podium positions, the biggest factor determining the gold medal winners in the ladies’ race is the ability to run fast and maintain the pace over the race: The difference between the fastest and slowest paced split is just 17 seconds for the gold medal winners but doubles to 34 seconds for the top 100.
I asked current Up Run champion, Nedbank runner Camille Herron (who unfortunately had to pull out of this year’s race with an injury), for an independent view of the ladies’ race. She agreed with the above analysis – her biggest takeaway being, “If you pace the beginning and middle pretty even-keel and then use the downhill very effectively (gravity is your friend!), you can really run the downhill course strong.”
Most of the gold medallists finish strong, especially Ann Ashworth, Gerda Steyn (who passes a tiring Morozova for second place) and Tanith Maxwell – who run the first, second and third fastest over the last two splits respectively.
The importance of pacing is highlighted by Professor Andrew Bosch commenting on Tanith Maxwell’s performance (Bosch is responsible for her training programmes as well as physiological and scientific support), “The splits are pretty close to what we determined, including overall time. We went after an average pace of 4:15min/km as we figured that would be good enough for a podium based on all previous races. Tanith ran exactly that. Unfortunately, for the first time in history of the race that was NOT good enough for a top three.”
Maxwell, running in Adidas Supernova Boosts, finished in one of the fastest fourth places ever – just 14 seconds behind Russian runner Alexandra Morozova. She was the first female novice (her longest run before Comrades was the 56km Two Oceans Marathon) as well as first lady veteran (40+). Interestingly, Maxwell’s fourth place would have been good enough to win the last Down Run in 2016 (won by Charne Bosman in 6:25:55) and, had she managed to overtake Morozova, it would have been the first all-South African female podium since 1993.
Although the men’s and women’s races play out totally differently, it’s interesting to note that there are some similarities in the overall pacing data. Notably split four (Winston Park – Pinetown) is the fastest for gold winners but fourth fastest for the top 100 whereas split one is the fourth fastest for gold winners but second fastest for the top 100 for both genders.
Detailed Split by Split Analysis of Comrades 2018
Note: Tables are for Top 30 and comments Top 100 for split (as opposed to overall) performance.
Split 1: Pietermaritzburg – Lion Park
The men’s ♂️race starts with a much larger group of hopeful champions than the much more dispersed women’s race (just 22 seconds separates the top 30 men compared to almost ten minutes for the top 30 women).
There is a much higher dropout of the “TV Runners” in the men’s race (about 20% of top 100 men in first split don’t finish compared to only 5% for top 100 females).
Split one is the second fastest paced split of the race for both genders. There are 70 men who run the split under 3:45min/km and more than 100 who are under 4:00min/km. In the women’s race, the early pace setter is Charne Bosman who is the only women under 4:15.
This is also the split where youthful exuberance shows itself – having the highest amount of “youngsters” (‘open’ runners who are less than 40 years old) with 79 ‘open’ men and 67 women in the top 100.
All eventual gold winners are in the top 100 from the word go with Teboho Sello (who eventually finishes seventh) being the lowest placed man who’ll win gold (98th) whilst Devon Yanko is lowest placed female (14th).
A number of ladies remarked on that they were taken by surprise with the pace at which the race started (the leading ladies ran the first kilometre under 3:45min/km). One of these was Boxer Superstores athlete, Tanith Maxwell, who is no stranger to speed having the fastest standard marathon time in the women’s field of 2:32:33). Maxwell highlighted the importance of sticking to the race plan over the first section, “I realised that the first 15-20km of comrades, leaving Maritzburg are tricky and challenging – the climbs are tough and this can play on the mental aspect. I knew this section must be conservative and slower than the predicted overall race pace.”
Split 2: Lion Park – Cato Ridge
This is the fastest paced split for both the male (3:43min/km) and female (4:52min/km) top 100. There are still plenty of male champion hopefuls at this stage with 56 men under 3:45min/km and more than a 100 under 4:00min/km. The women’s section is already down to just six ladies vying for the title who are able to run the split at under 4:15min/km (this is the joint highest with split three).
Going out too fast is a major danger, particularly in the men’s race – early leaders in the men’s race seldom win or even manage to hang on for gold. At this stage, there are only two eventual men’s gold medallists in the top ten, whereas there are already eight female gold medallists in the top ten. Steven Way is the slowest of the men’s golds (43rd) whilst all female ♀️gold winners are in the top 14.
Split 3: Cato Ridge – Drummond
This is the third fastest split for both men and women but is the split that ends the naïve optimism of many male runners – being the last split averaging less than 4:00min/km.
The pace slows down dramatically on this split: Only 21 men are under 3:45min/km and for the first time, less than 100 (72) are faster than 4:00min/km. The same six women from split two are still maintaining a pace under 4:15min/km.
The average age of the men’s top 100 increases significantly here as some of the young stallions find they’ve gone out too fast and are replaced by seven veterans (40+) and one master (50+).
The men’s field is starting to sort itself out with all eventual gold winners in the Top 20 (Steven Way is still the slowest over the split in 19th). All female golds are in the Top 12 and the only top ten lady in this split who fails to win gold is Russia’s Nina Zarina.
Split 4: Drummond – Winston Park
The first split after halfway is the third slowest split for men and second slowest for women. Just how tough this section is both physically and mentally is highlighted as it is the only split with no men able to run under 3:45min/km and only fifteen who manage a sub 4:00min/km pace. There are three women under 4:15min/km – and these are the eventual top three in exact finish order.
This is the also split where the male gold medal contenders really show themselves – after biding their time before halfway, there are suddenly nine gold medallists in the top 11.
Split 5: Winston Park – Pinetown
This is the “moving split” for gold medallists and is the fastest second half split for both genders. Ten men manage to run under 3:45min/km – nine of them get golds.
The top ladies also turn it on over this split – there are only six sub 4:00min/km splits over the entire female race and four of them occur in this split (these four runners also end in top four overall). Alexandra Morozova makes her move here and takes the lead with 23km to go.
There are nine female golds in the top 11 (Yolande Maclean is the gold outlier with the 15th fastest split).
Split 6: Pinetown – Mayville
This is the slowest split for the Top 100 of both genders – but this is the split where the race is won. There is just one man under 3:45min/km and one lady under 4:00min/km – they are Bongmusa Mthembu and Ann Ashworth respectively, both of whom will win their races (Ashworth is also sixth fastest in the overall field).
If you want to get advice on running Comrades, you can do no better than getting it from Bruce Fordyce. Ashworth, who won the race wearing Puma Speed 300s, explained “Bruce Fordyce told me to take very small steps down Fields Hill to save my quads so I went down there quite cautiously. As I was leaving the offramp Alexandra blasted past me… and I thought: ‘Oh… gosh… wonder if she can hold that or if she’s trashed her quads on the downhill’. I just held my pace. And slowly the gap closed. When I knew I was catching her I made a tactical decision to really pick-up at the bottom of Cowies Hill… which is what I did.”
There are just five men under 4:00min/km – all five of these eventually finish in overall top six. There are just three women under 4:15min/km – all three of these finish in the overall top four.
This is the best split for the older runners in the field: 40% of the top 100 are over 40 years old for both genders.
Note: 3rd fastest man has very dodgy splits (which have been reported). I’ve left his name in results, if he ran that time he deserves plaudits, if he cheated he deserves ignominy.
Split 7: Mayville – Durban
This is the third slowest split for men and second slowest for women. As for split six, there is just one man under 3:45min/km and just one lady under 4:00min/km. Once again, they are achieved by Bongmusa Mthembu and Ann Ashworth (Ashworth is also the fifth fastest overall), who show the rest of the field how to win the Comrades Down Run.
In the women’s race, nine of the gold medallists are in the top 11 fastest split times. The exception is Carla Molinaro who slows considerably and is 17th fastest. Molinaro is perhaps the most interesting gold medallist at Comrades 2018, arriving at the race off a 19-day 800km “taper” (running for the “Long Road To Comrades” charity).
Her approach to the race was simple, “To be honest my plan consisted of running as hard as I could for as long as possible.” As for her unique training and tapering approach, she admits that this had both positive and negative impacts, “During my race I felt really strong despite my muscles being sore. I had done the Down Run two years ago and the downhills broke me at about 60km – so this year I felt like I was in much better shape and felt a lot stronger at the same point. The last 10kms I found really hard, I could tell that I was slowing down and I just tried to hold on to a top ten spot with all my will.”
Although she’ll be running for Great Britain in the 100k World Championships, Molinaro (who was born in Johannesburg), has decided to settle in South Africa and has recently joined the Nedbank team. She plans to follow a more conventional training program next year and will definitely be someone to look out for.
The men are much more spread out over the final split with six gold medallists in the fastest 12 and three in the 30s. The biggest bonk amongst the gold medallists comes from Down run record holder, David Gatebe, who went from running sub 3:45s in each of the first five splits to 4:15 and 4:32 (only 60th fastest) on the last two splits.
Aside: Corporal punishment at Comrades 2018
South African Air Force Corporal, Malusi Dlomo, has an exemplary service record of 7 silvers and 1 Wally Haywood at Comrades. He was hoping for second Wally in 2018 but went down in flames after Pinetown. With 10km left he was heading for a dishonourable discharge having slowed down to over 5min/km and was plodding to the finish until Ann Ashworth flew past him.
In his own words, “I felt exhausted and I dropped my pace, I told myself that I was going to run 6:30 because I was jogging until Ann Ashworth caught me.”
He said he knew women finish Comrades stronger than the men and hoped to latch onto Ann’s pace for 5km to get him closer to home base but “after joining her the fatigue disappeared” – he was hooked with the “cameras and people along the road cheering (for Ann as first lady)” and was surprised to see the pace was well under 4min/km.
Dlomo ran the 4th fastest final split in entire field (which was his best ever) and says he rested enough before Ann caught him which helped (but it had nothing to do with fear of being “chicked”). Dlomo is based in Limpopo and runs for the Nedbank Team. Although Nedbank help their athletes out with shoes and supplements, he is not personally sponsored and ran Comrades in Nike Vaporfly 4% which he bought himself. He’s won the “Fittest Soldier” award for the last two years and plans to defend his title in August.
As for whether he plans to let the leading lady inflict Corporal Punishment on him again at Comrades 2019? He hopes not – largely because he’s up for promotion to Sergeant in October.
We salute Malusi Dlomo for another fine Comrades performance!
Toughest Split on the Comrades Down Run?
The toughest split on the Down Run is undoubtedly split six from Pinetown to Mayville. Everyone except ️the men’s gold medallists are slowest on this split (the men’s golds go into cruise control on the final split which is their slowest).
Interestingly none of the men’s or women’s gold medal winners ran split six faster than the previous split – Ann Ashworth was the closest being just two seconds slower.
Battle of the Sexes
Top 100 Men vs. Women
The fastest-to-slowest split rankings are very similar for both genders (the only minor difference is between splits four and seven, fifth and sixth slowest for men, are reversed for women). The difference between the fastest and slowest split is 46s for men but just 34s for women (which is statistically significant especially when you consider women are running a slower min/km average pace).
The difference between the top 100 average pace per split for male and female narrows every split – it starts at 73 seconds (a 25% differential) at split one and goes down to 53 seconds (under 17%) by the last split.
Is this proof of the long-held belief that women are better at pacing Comrades than men? I’ll let you decide!
Gold Medallists Men vs. Women
Although the top 100 follows very similar patterns for both genders, this does not apply when isolating the gold medal winners. Although the first half split rankings are the same, there is a wide variance over the four second half splits with the notable exception of the “moving split” (split five from Winston Park – Pinetown) which is the fastest split for both.
The difference between the fastest and slowest split is 27s for men but just 17s for women (once again, statistically significant especially when you consider women are running a slower min/km average pace).
The male gold medallists run splits one to five consistently 14 – 16% faster (all between 37 and 41 seconds) than their female counterparts. However, the gap narrows to 34 seconds (13%) in split six and is further eroded to 29 seconds (just 11%) over the final split.
More proof that women are better at pacing Comrades than men? Still letting you decide!
The Toughest Comrades Medal to Earn?
Undoubtedly, the Wally Hayward is the toughest medal to earn. Just ten (0.08%) of the men’s field earned this medal (which is substantially down from 16 earned in the 2016 Down Run).
Female silvers are the second toughest to achieve with just 0.5% of the women’s field earning one. However, the total amount (17) is one up from the 16 earned in 2016.
Although the Wally Hayward for men is often compared in difficulty to the silver for females, only 20% of the field is female so (at current ratios) about 68 men would need to earn a Wally to achieve equality.
How Age Impacts Performance
Male Age Performance by Split
The youngsters start fast (79 in first split) and slowly drop off throughout the race until the final split which sees a resurgence. The over 40s follow the opposite trend and a few over 50s pop into top 100 splits over the second half. The highest placed 50+ runner is Ronald Shibiri who finished in 83rd in an excellent time of 6h33m.
Female Age Performance by Split
There is a much more even spread of between Open and over 40-year old runners than for men – and there is also less fluctuation throughout the race. The exception is final split where five over 50s suddenly appear. Amazingly, Canadian Elizabeth Waywell in the 60-years and older ‘grandmaster’ category features in the top 100 from split two until to the end of the race – and finishes in 66th in the women’s race (8:12) which is faster than any 50-year olds.
Finishers by Age Category
Although the common belief is that Comrades is “an old person’s race”, this simple table highlights that Comrades is less attractive for the over 50s. A massive 81% of the male and 85% of the female field are under 50-years old. Over 60s still running Comrades are very rare especially for females (although it’s never too late to run Comrades and there were a few novices in the over 60-year old category as well).
Medals Age Breakdown Group (% on Age Group)
No surprises here. As you get older your times get slower. Your best chance of running a silver or better (sub 7:30) is before you turn 40 although Bill Rowan percentage (for sub 9 hours) is much more equal. The men’s 60 and older category was the tightest finish at Comrades 2018 with David von Senden from Austrailia (7:37:40) beating Jeppe’s Errol Shear by just 16 seconds.
Aside: Von Sendon (AUS) vs. Sheer (RSA) – The Most Epic Battle of Comrades 2018
Defending Grandmaster champion, Australia’s David von Senden, thought he’d have it all his own way again in the men’s 60+ category. Little did he know that Jeppe’s Errol Shear was slowly hunting him down over 89km.
Shear, a Sasfin Fund Manager by day, capitalised on his prudent first half investment (where he minimised his risk exposure) – cashing in with the fastest men’s 60-years and older time for each of the last three splits.
With just one kilometre to go and the finish line in sight, a magnificent sight unfolded as Shear finally hauled-in and overtook a depleted von Senden.
Like Lance Klusener at the ’99 Cricket World Cup, the South African almost snatched an unlikely victory from the jaws of defeat – but unfortunately Errol got ‘Alan Donald legs’ in the final few hundred metres and the Australian ran him out by 16 seconds.
Medals Earned by Age Group (% on Medal Type)
This is just a slightly different view from the previous age grouping table where the percentage is calculated by dividing the medals earned per age category by the total medals awarded in that category (i.e. three M40 golds / ten golds total = 30%). You can compare this percentage to the “% of Total Field” to further highlight how we slow down as we get older.
The Fastest Ever Down Run Times
After Comrades 2018, the top ten Fastest Female “Down Runs” have a new entrant: Ann Ashworth in at number ten.
However, this only tells part of the story. This year was the longest Comrades in 23 years and third longest Down Run ever. If one rates the athletes on average pace per km, Ann Ashworth would crack the top five – highlighting the quality of her victory.
The top ten fastest male Down Runs sees Bongmusa Mthembu knock his 2016 time out of 9th place and join Leonid Shvetsov as only double-entry on list.
When pace per km is considered, Mthembu’s 2018 win is third. Scoring by average pace would also see Fordyce 1984 and Kotov 2001 making the top ten (with de la Motte 1986 and Mthembu 2016 exiting).
When comparing the top ten overall finish times, also of interest:
- Only two male and female years coincide (2007 & 2018).
- There are three second place finishes on the men’s list and two on the women’s list.
- Bongmusa Mthembu is the only third place finisher on either list (Mthembu’s winning time this year is five seconds faster than his 2016 third place).
- The female list covers the last four decades, the male list three decades (it has no entries from the 90s).
- There are only two South Africa ladies on the list (Ann Ashworth and Frith van der Merwe).
- The male list has only two international runners.
SA Police vs. Metro Police at Comrades 2018
A fun a frivolous stat to end off with.
It looks like fighting crime keeps one a lot fitter than writing tickets: SAPS Silvers 10 – Metro Silvers 0.
There are a number of possible reasons for the poor Metro Police performance:
- They spend way too much time hiding in the bushes.
- Every time they see a photographer they want to grab the camera and hide under a bridge.
- They can’t pass pacing busses without blue lights.
- They didn’t make use of the support tables but kept stopping to ask spectators for cooldrink money.
To be fair, there are a lot more SAPS than Metro Police entrants!Follow Running Mann: