Can the strength and precision of pacing required to set a world 100 mile (161 km) record under eleven-and-a-half hours plus a previous up-run win, compensate for the speed of a 2:09 marathoner? Which twin will first put a foot over the line?
Those are the questions that will take the next 30 hours to answer.
In the men’s race, 2006 winner Oleg Kharitonov goes toe to toe against down-run record holder and relative speedster Leonid Shvetsov.
Shvetsov is determined to own the fastest time for both up and down runs and, in theory, as the third fastest marathon runner ever to have entered the race, his potential could take him 10 minutes under the five hours, 25 minutes and 33 seconds set from Durban to Scottsville race course in 2000.
Although Kharitonov’s time was slower, the distance to the Oval is around a kilometre longer, but 2006 was the year he learnt how to pace his effort over the up-run, something that Shvetsov has yet to experience. The American based doctor has only one up-run experience, back in 2002 where he finished 423rd in just under the silver cut-off.
Yesterday, Shvetsov’s management were still negotiating which club he would run for as he flew into Durban, which must be an unsettling factor for the man who as an individual will have to be satisfied with the R220 000 first prize. This could have been boosted by up to R125 000 in incentives depending on the club selected.
History works in Kharitonov’s favour. Arthur Newton, Hardy Ballington, and Wally Hayward all set world 100 mile track records and became multiple Comrades winners.
Not since the dominance of the Fordyce era has a runner won consecutive Comrades, but this fitness instructor could well correct that situation.
“I trained with Shvetsov for six months so know something of his strengths … I will only decide my tactics when we are on the road,” said Kharitonov. “Strength plays a big part in the up-run so I don’t think he has all the advantages.”
Denis Zhalybin, a long time running and racing partner of Kharitonov, returns after a debutant ninth in 2003. This is the man who pushed Oleg to his 100 mile record. Don’t be surprised to see the pair working together on the day.
Grigoriy Murzin, who will turn out in Nedbank colours, could be a surprise package. He has largely been overlooked in pre-race hype, but a fourth on the last up-run and second last year puts him in the fight for a top three.
The man no-one can afford to overlook is Vladimir Kotov. The three-time up-run winner and holder of the fastest time, only arrived back in South Africa yesterday and flies into Durban today. Recovery after a niggling chronic injury and the motivation of turning 50 saw him undertake 80 days of specialised training in the Polish mountains. Talk on the grapevine says his training times turn the age clock back a decade. If true, this could be an age-defying race the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Hayward’s return in 1950.
Even amongst the athletes the Nurgalieva twins are clear favourites for the women’s race, but which one? “If I can come here and twice break the up-run record, I don’t see why I can’t make it three,” said Elena, whose 6:09.24 must be the twins’ target. However, since her year off to focus on marathons it is Olyesa who has had the edge in the ultras winning the Two Oceans and last year’s down-run. “Improving my marathon has helped and I feel I have the edge, but if I don’t beat Elena I won’t cry,” said the 2:29 marathoner who confirmed they will again run stride for stride.
Tantiana Zhirkova and Marina Bychova look to lead the fight to fill the podium, with the battle for first South African the next real focal point.
“The goal is first South African — training went 100%, I couldn’t have done more; I will run my heart out and see what happens,” said Riana van Neikerk with the passion that we last heard from Farwa Mentoor in 2002 at the commencement of her six-year streak as first South African. The Cape athlete has been extremely quiet this year and was beaten by Van Neikerk in the Two Oceans, but Mentoor’s Comrades passion runs deep and her crown will not be abdicated lightly.
This could see local lasses Grace de Oliveira or Carol Mercer, both capable of just over seven hours, picking up the pieces and scrapping it out for the first South African crown as they did in 2001.
While the questions will be raised and beliefs challenged over the next 30 hours, the answers will be delivered on the road … and that’s what makes the Comrades marathon one of the greatest races in the world.
Visit The Witness website to catch all the action of the 2008 Comrades Marathon. Log on to www.witness.co.za to get the updates on the race as they happen. Readers can get all the news, photos and videos throughout the day, and are encouraged to send their Comrades photos and videos to firstname.lastname@example.org on the day. Runners can get their official results on Sunday evening off the website any time after 7 pm. Also available are information and maps on road closures and the layout of the finish at The Oval stadium.