2011 Comrades Marathon Preview

Comrades MarathonSunday will see the world’s most competitive ultramarathon. It won’t be held in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains nor Europe’s Alps. Nope. It’s the 86th Comrades Marathon and will be run in the 52 miles that stretch between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. Not only is it the world’s most competitive ultra, it’s also the world’s largest with more than 10,000 finishers in recent years and an incredible 19,617 entries this year! Almost as shocking is the fact that only 4,882 of those runners will be “novices” as Comrades first-timers are known.

While the race has received scant attention in the US, that might be changing. This year 179 Americans signed up for the race, the third most of any nationality. The vast majority of racers are, not surprisingly, South African, but there are also 253 UK residents, 152 Australians, and 115 Brazilians signed up for the race. As suggested, these ranks include a number of the world’s best ultrarunners. We’ll highlight a few familiar runners who’ll take part in this year’s race.

Leading the American men is Michael Wardian. In case you’ve not been paying attention, Wardian was the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) 2010 Ultraraunner of the Year, has placed third at the past two IAU 50k World Cups, and was also third at the 2010 IAU 100k World Championship. He’s also got no fewer than five USATF ultra-distance national championships. Last year at in his Comrades debut, Wardian placed 26th in 6:02 coming through 50 miles with a PR split of 5:21. He’ll be looking to move into the top 10 for a “gold medal” this year. (We interviewed Wardian before last year’s Comrades.)

Wardian, a runner with The North Face, will be joined by teammate Ian Sharman. Sharman, a British national living in the States, bested Wardian by mere seconds at last year’s race, where he placed 24th in 6:01:13… just 73 seconds off his sub-6 hour goal. (Read his in-depth 2010 race report.) Since then, he’s run the fastest trail 100 mile time on American soil with a 12:44 at Rocky Raccoon this past February. (iRF post-Rocky Raccoon interview)  This will be Sharman’s fifth Comrades.

Wardian and Sharman will be challenged by a bunch of studs … that we know nothing about such runners as the defending champ, Stephen Muzhingi, along with Jaroslaw Janicki, Ludwick Mamabolo, Lucas Nonyana, Oleg Kharitonov; Bongmusa Mthembu, Peter Molapo, Fusi Nhlapo, and Peter Muthubi.

Wardian and Sharman are damn good ultrarunners, but the household names among this year’s women’s competitors may be even more impressive. We think that’s fair when talking about the likes of Lizzy Hawker, Ellie Greenwood, and Kami Semick!

Hawker’s won the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc more times than anyone else with three victories (iRF post-2010 UTMB interview), but her skills aren’t reserved to the mountains. She’s also a speed demon on the roads. For example, in 2006 she won the 100k road world championship in 7:28:46. Last year, Hawker returned to the 100k world championships and battled for the lead all day before finishing third in 7:33:26.

It was Greenwood who locked with Hawker in epic battle at last year’s 100k World Champs (the race is worth a read) and ended the victor in 7:29:05. That victory should come as no surprise as Greenwood has won at least eights ultras in the past year with no losses that we can think of offhand. Those wins includes a second overall finish and women’s course record at last August’s Canadian Death Race and seventh overall at the American River 50 mile in 6:25:43 in April.

Another past world 100k champion (2009 in 7:37:24), Kami Semick was fourth woman at last year’s Comrades Marathon. She just published her race recap. Last August, Semick won the Vermont 100 in 16:42 and this spring finished second to Greenwood at the American River 50 with a time of 6:34:37.

While Amy Sproston might not have a 100k world championship to her credit, she’s quickly gaining the recognition she deserves in the ultrarunning world. For example, she joined the Montrail Trail Running Team this year and backed that up with a fourth place finish at the Miwok 100k in 10:02:41 earlier this month on the heals of a five week injury hiatus. Last November, she won the JFK 50 mile in 6:57:16, the eighth fastest women’s time in the race’s long history.

All that said, the twins Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva will be hard to beat. Joining them up front among the women will be Marina Myshlyanova, Farwa Mentoor, Tatyana Zhirkova, Lindsay van Aswegen, and Adinda Kurger.

Call for Comments
Who will you be rooting for this weekend? Who else of note is running?

Do you have any interest in running Comrades? Why or why not?

There are 34 comments

    1. Trail Clown, Hamilto

      Wardo actually broke Sharmanian's superhero marathon record just one week after Sharmo set it earlier this year. So now you've got to root for both runners!

    2. Nyasha Gororo

      Stephen is going to be very hard to beat. He missed the course record by about 4 minutes two years ago and came semi-close again last year. He did say that he was not at his best last year, suffering through the last quarter of the race with intention of just winning it and not breaking the course record. He does have a pretty stout resume, with great finishes at Two Oceans among other races. He's not that popular in the West or in Africa-where marathoners get the most exposure- but he is a fierce competitor. He's even talked about the prospect of someone running Comrades in 5:10 or better. I don't think that's going to happen this year but I can see him breaking the course record and getting a three-peat.

      I do have a lot of respect for Ian and Michael but Stephen's gonna be hard to beat.

      Nyasha Gororo, Conway, AR

  1. Flaco

    I'm an American living in SA and the running culture here is incredible. Besides Comrades, the other major race of the year is Two Oceans which is 56k. Muzhingi (Comrades champ) has some blog posts at RunningTimes.com that are worth checking out (especially the one about how these incredible runners struggle to support themselves and how that affects their races and careers). I stick to the trails and there is great trail running here (first ultra is in July) and I feel lucky to train at a nearby park with zebras, giraffes and ostriches (haven't beaten them yet).

  2. Jacko Kelly

    This is a great web-site and I will continue to follow it as much as I can. Very inspiring for a newbe like me. I'm 60 and only feeling 30ish in this sport. At the same time, I'm realistic about my speed. My 1st ever 50 km race a few wks. ago clocked me at 5 hr. 9 min. which I am very proud of. The ultra-running community here in Halifax, NS is very supportive and growing in interest among many runners. Hopefully it will only get better here for more events.

    Thanks for having this web-site. Have a great run,


  3. Sarah Lavender Smith

    I'm definitely thinking of running this race some year, mainly because I want to travel around South Africa. How tough is it to get in? I glanced at the website and see something about needing to qualify, but I haven't deciphered it yet. If anyone has advice about how & when to register, I'd appreciate it.

    1. Anonymous

      One uasually have to qualify before each May by running a 42.2 km marathon in under 5 hrs or a 50 km under 6 hrs. The qualifying time then needs to be submiited to the Comrades Marathon Association to be able to run the race.

  4. Dan Cumming

    My eye is on Ellie Greenwood, one of the nicest people you could ever meet unless she is wearing running shoes and a race bib! Ellie ran with our club in Vancouver, Canada until her work took her to Banff, Alberta where she specializes in running up and over the mountain-tops. Ellie pretty much defines the word "competitive". With races like Comrades, only the foolish make definitive predictions, but I think it safe to say at the end of the day, Ellie will be right there.

  5. ken michal

    I'm really excited to see Ellie Greenwood tear it up at this event!!! I'm also excited to see my friend and running partner Edie Harbaugh toe the line in South Africa!! If you read this in time, best of luck Edie and Ellie!!!!

    All Day!


  6. Karen Pride

    Ellie Greenwood all the way! And not just because she is a Canuck! Ok, it is but, she can also run fast and she is having a stellar year! Guaranteed it will be exciting to get the results and race report.

      1. Dan Cumming

        Stop! You're both right. Ellie is a Brit by birth but all the running is a purely Canadian product. Plenty of talent to share. Not long to go now. Bet there are some nervous people in SA right now. Best wishes to all for a great race and amazing experience.

  7. Thad Sweet

    I ran Comrades last year with Team World Vision (our team included Josh Cox, Bart and Laura Yasso, and Andy Baldwin) and the experience was just amazing! I barely finished, coming home in 11:44 and some change, but it was by far the best thing I've ever tried. I absolutely cannot wait to go back! As far as who wins this year, I don't really have much of a preference. It's very interesting to see new people win large events, and find out more about them after the fact. International races like Comrades open my eyes to the fact that there is a huge world beyond our American borders. The people of South Africa really make this race something special. I've never been more out of place, yet felt so at home in all my life.

    1. Susan Grave

      Yup, this one day in the calendar is certainly something that pulls South Africans of all colours, shapes & sizes, together:-) I've stood on the side of Old Main Rd (Hillcrest) for the past 24 years – something I don't miss out on! So delighted to see so many fellow Zimbabweans in the top 10 – perhaps they were running away from Mugabe:-)

    1. Susan Grave

      Glad to hear that:-) I remember seeing Wally doing the race in '88 & '89. My goodness, such a 'bus' surrounded him – sure the fellow would have done much better without all these runners who just wanted to be near him:-)

  8. Coach Weber


    1 Stephen Muzhingi (ZIM) 5:32.45,

    2 Fanie Matshipa (RSA) 5:34.29,

    3 Claude Moshiywa (RSA) 5:42.05,

    4 Jonas Buud (SWE) 5:42.44,

    5 Gift Kelehe (RSA) 5:43.59,

    6 Chasara Masiyatsva (ZIM) 5:44.33,

    7 Ludwick Mamobolo (RSA) 5:50.17,

    8 Charles Tjiane (RSA)5:50.46,

    9 Brian Zondi (RSA), 5:51.08,

    10 Mncedisi Mkhize (RSA) 5:51.17


    1 Elena Nurgalieva (RUS) 6:24.11,

    2 Olesya Nurgalieva (RUS) 6:24.35,

    3 Kami Semick 6:26.24 (US),

    4 Ellie Greenwood (GBR) 6:32.46,

    5 Farwa Mentoor (RSA) 6:35.49,

    6 Irina Vishnevskaya (RUS) 6:42.07,

    7 Elizabeth Hawker (GBR) 6:48.28,

    8 Adinda Kruger (RSA) 6:49.01,

    9 Kerry Koen (RSA) 6:56.20,

    10 Riana van Niekerk (RSA) 6:56.38

    1. Susan Grave

      The twins had a bit of a bad run … one fell on her left hip. They were rather 'exhausted' after doing Two Oceans on Easter Saturday.

  9. DXB

    It is so great to see the interest the top US long distance runners are showing in Comrades. Being South African I have grown up with race and we spend nearly all 12 hours glued to the TV watching the amazing people who take on this race (I hope to run it one year soon – busy working on my distance). I think we take "our amazing race" very much for granted because long distance running is so entrenched in RSA. Thanks for the site – I enjoy reading the views from ohter places in the world.

    1. Dan Cumming

      Here is one of those "views". I too was glued to my computer, as here on the West Coast of Canada, you may be surprised to hear, Comrades was not broadcast – all 12 hours on our TV. But just think what the miracle of the electronic/digital age means to events like this. There I sat until something like 3:30am watching a live streaming video of the race. If you read back in the message string you will see that I am a friend of Ellie Greenwood, so she was the focus of my direct interest. For a first time, I think she did amazingly well coming fourth among women. While we haven't heard much from her yet, back here at home, the message she did send was typically her – she thanked a local runner who helped and "coached" here through some of the most difficult parts of the race after the half-way point. Isn't that what running is about though – very competitive but always supportive.

      Ellie was greatly inspiring, but so was my more normal friend Benji Chu, who was just doing this epic race like so many others. Funny enough, I never saw him even once on the streaming coverage (of course I did not stay up until his finish at 9:24:54 either! I did watch him on the tracker function though and can't wait to hear his stories. Benji is a great and kind person in his own right, being the driving force behind something we call Run for Change, a program to help homeless/shelter people find a different direction and meaning in their lives.

      I now know four people who have done Comrades. The above two as well as Bart Yasso (the Runners World coverage of his race last year brought tears to my eyes) and a chap named Steve King. Steve is a bit older now (not as old as me) but was a very good runner and race walker in his day. His present claim to fame is as an event announcer/commentator and he is known and sought after by running, triathlon, cross-country ski and other such events in our region. I have known Steve for some 26 years, having belonged to the same running club and more recently having collaborated in editing/writing a book called Running in the Zone: A Handbook for Seasoned Athletes. Which, by the by is how I know Bart – he contributed to the book. There are a total of 26 contributors but the one constant that comes through is how runners love their sport. That is so evident in the spirit of Comrades. Running can be done by most people and is unique in that it can satisfy almost everyone by allowing them to set goals and meet challenges without having to win a thing! At my age and personal condition (back problem that leaves me a bit hobbled) the only person I can beat consistently is me. So, that is pretty much what I try to do. That is clearly what so many Comrades competitors are doing – meeting a personal challenge – it is both wonderful and amazing.

      1. Susan Grave

        Oh, this is so wonderful for me, a southern African non-runner, to read:-) I've followed this race on radio, TV and on the sidelines since about 1975 .. long before the 'reign' of Bruce the King:-)

        You should experience the 'ubuntu' (goodwill) of all the spectators lining the course … we clap our hands until they're raw & shout until we're hoarse:-) Been doing that for more than 24 years. There is much 'magic' about Comrades and it all shows in the camaraderie displayed on that one day. Do you know the origin of the race?

        Best wishes to you all on Memorial Day


        1. DXB

          I have spent 11 years on the side of the road at Comrades and at the finish, supporting my husband – he has done 21 (2 silvers). Watching it from the side of the road is an amazing experience and it is also what got me to start running.

          As to the origin of the race it was started soon after world war one by Vic Clapham as a way to remember comrades who had fallen during WW1.

          1. Susan Grave

            Yup, I do know the origin of the race .. was wanting to know if overseas runners knew of it:-)

            Look forward to seeing many more Americans next year .. only problem is that some of the runners are 'hauled' into Mr Price, Nedbank etc & we don't know their countries of origin.

          2. Dan Cumming

            I can't tell you how much runners do appreciate spectators cheering them on. I have been running marathons and lesser distances for many years. That said, the marathon is a long way to go and takes a relatively long time to do. In my case, longer and longer, but that is another matter. In any case, cheering spectators lift our spirits and make it easier to struggle through when the going gets difficult. I have run New York where the crowd is sometimes 8-10 deep and at the rate I run, that was way on into the race, but they were still there making everyone feel like they were cheering just for them. I went to Boston to support my daughter and the crowds there are different but special in their own ways, including traditions of particular areas and the way they cheer.

            So, to all those who spectate at any of these events – a huge thank you for being there to support us, and that includes spouses and family above everything.

      2. DXB

        Ellie had a fabulous race and I hope she comes back next year. The womans' race is mostly dominated by the international runners and she has just as good a chance to win, especially now she knows what it is all about. Although the "down" run is totally different to the "up" run. I read the article on Runners World USA last year on Bart Yasso's 2010 Comrades. It was indeed inspiring and an incredible achievement for him.

        I would love to do one of the "big city" marathons one day (New York, Boston, London, Rotterdam etc.) as I believe they are also an experience. We usually receive live TV coverage in South Africa of all the major big city marathons and I think the atmosphere at those races is just as good as our big races here.

        1. Dan Cumming

          I imagine there is a good chance Ellie will come back (just my opinion). Unfortunately, I don't see much of Elllie anymore as her work took her from Vancouver to Banff, probably a good 1000km away. However, through the miracle of social media and her blog it is not too hard to keep up on her exploits. If you are interested, that blog is entitled Trail Running Tales. She posts accounts of most of her races, so I imagine that the Comrades story will soon appear.

          I too write a blog: Running in the Zone and actually had a whole piece written on Comrades but something has gone very wrong because when I went to post it, the whole thing just completely disappeared. When I get it sorted, I will have to start again. You can still see everything that was there, I just have a problem for the moment with posting anything new.

          I have run New York – a fabulous experience, made better by running it with my daughter, who used it to qualify (very demanding) for Boston. I accompanied her to Boston when she ran it. So, I have the feel of both those events. New York had 40,000 runners and about 2 million spectators. No matter how fast or slow you run, they seem to stay and cheer and everyone feels like a rock star! Boston is completely different because everyone has had to run a very good marathon to get there. In my daughter's case it had to be under 3:40. I am 66 and the time is still just over four hours, 4:15 for me. All those times are going down next year by effectively 6 minutes – knocking 5 minutes off and doing away with the 59 second "grace" they allowed over the nominal qualifying time. If you ever have an opportunity to do either of these it is worth the effort. Same daughter and I have entered the lottery for the London Marathon in 2012. Fingers crossed until about October when they announce the lucky names who get to run.

        2. Susan Grave

          Our son did London & Berlin marathons and says the atmosphere is not quite the same as in KZN. Suppose it's just seeing those different faces standing out there and enjoying a braai (barbecue). Whatever, we passive runners also deserve some applause for supplying the vocal support on race day:-)

          Are any of the runners into doing triathlons? I've done a mini one – jumped off the end of a pier in Durban, fully clothed, swam to the shore and then a sprint to the car:-)

  10. Edie Harbaugh

    The website is hard to understand.

    Basically, you can register (& pay $180 race fee) starting September 1. You do NOT have to qualify prior to registering, and as soon as you pay you're registered. Registration for 2011 (an up year) closed in November, for down years it seems to close sooner.

    You have until May of the race year to submit a qualifying time from a marathon or greater distance. The times are here: http://www.comrades.com/marathoncentre/race-info at the bottom. 5 hours for a marathon, and 13:30 for 100K, which is actually tougher than Western States, where 14 hours qualifies.

    So it is very easy to get into–just pay your money in September, and qualify by race time! Your qualifier event determines your seeding–the faster the time, the closer to the start line you are. As the race is gun to gun, this penalizes the slow.

    I loved running the race and would highly recommend it.

  11. Anonymous

    Yes! ;-) I knew that but being a Canadian figured "British" was close enough. My Scottish ancestors may be angered by that little bit of geopolitical laziness!!

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