Foreigners have the Comrades green number bug

2011-05-17 00:00

ON May 29, Nato Amaral will earn his green number and become the first South American and Brazilian to have completed 10 Comrades Marathons. This has been a tour of passion for the 39-year-old who first ran the race in 2001, recording his best time of eight hours 33 minutes and 28 seconds.

There have been four more Bill Rowan medals added to the tally since that first encounter and importantly for the race he has inspired and motivated many other Brazilian runners into the Comrades family.

In 2001 he was one of only two runners from South America and there were only a handful from North America.

This year, that number explodes to over 230 from North America and 115 from Brazil — up massively from last year’s 78. Over the past decade much of the increase in South American participation can be attributed to Amaral’s role as a Comrades ambassador.

Amaral knew nothing about Comrades until his coach spoke of his experiences in the 1999 Comrades and the challenges of completing the 90-kilometre course. It was enough to send Amaral onto the road. Eleven years later he will be lining up for his 10th run in yellow number 48 418.

“My running coach and friend Vanderlei Branca enlightened me about the race. He had run the Comrades in 1999 and told me that I should prepare to take on the challenge,” said Nato, who knew that 90 kilometres was not going to be easy. He started his rigorous training regime during which he would envision completing the race. This only motivated him to train even harder.

After completing his first race, he fell in love with the ultra-marathon.

“I always train hard and hope that I can help more and more people in my country to set a goal of running in South Africa and feeling the unique emotion of finishing one Comrades Marathon,” he concluded.

With South Africa having only returned to international competition from the 1993 race, the number of foreign runners going for green is impressive and includes Andre Bartels (Australia), Kurt Brennert (Germany), Shinichi Takahashi (Japan), Thomas Homeyer and Dave Obelkevich (U.S.), and Zimbabwe’s Mayellen Barnes and Brian Stewart.

Barnes ran her first Comrades in 1991. “I ran my first Comrades at the age of 27 and fell in love with the race. It has been a part of my life ever since and although I have had a couple of DNFs [did not finish], I have managed to retain my same race number for 21 years.

“I’m determined to get race number 10 689 even though the last few years have been very hard due to chronic feet problems,” said Barnes.

Dave Obelkevich from the U.S. said he is very excited for his green number run. “I met Willie Mtolo around 1995 at the Expo for the New York City (NYC) Marathon, and became more seriously interested in running Comrades. In 1999 my teammate Joe Puglisi ran it, and strongly encouraged me to run. In 2001 I did run, and was overwhelmed by the race and the spectators.

“I’m amazed at the camaraderie of everybody — even stars like Bruce Fordyce and Marina Bychkova had such awesome Comrades spirit. My best time of nine hours 48 minutes is certainly not memorable, but becoming the first American with a green number will be. Certainly it means more to me than having the longest streak of 35 finishes in the NYC Marathon. Comrades is simply the best race in the world, absolutely no competition. I tell all of my marathon friends about it, and several have already followed my lead,” he said.

Only one foreign runner, John Sneddon from Edinburgh Scotland, has completed every race since the first officially opened to international competitors in 1993. All things being equal, Sneddon will earn his double green number on the 2012 down run. Klaus Neumann, an air traffic controller from Germany, is only one lower having missed the 2009 race.

Of course, some of the better-known foreign green numbers include the Russians Oleysa and Elena Nurgalieva, Oleg Kharitonov and Vladimir Kotov, for their wins and gold medals.

No matter which way you look at it, one bite at Comrades can change your life.

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