High hopes for Zola Budd

2012-05-30 00:00

THERE seems no boundaries for the distance running talent of the iconic Zola Budd (Pieterse), who on Sunday may well become the fastest woman runner ever to have competed in the Comrades Marathon.

The South African athletic legend, who turned 46 on Saturday, has over the years progressed from middle-distance track events to win two World Cross Country Championship titles, double World 5 000 metre records, and Olympics and various age group road performances. And now for her debut over the 90km challenge of Comrades Marathon.

Even with two rather unevenly-paced marathon and half-marathon performances, the queen of the track, who inspired a song by Brenda Fassie and the renaming of township taxis in the 1980s, has the potential of a solid silver medal. This would place her amongst the top 4% of the 16 000-runner field.

Indeed, there is even the possibility of both an age group award and a top 10 finish if everything works in her favour on race day.

As with many novices, one of the major challenges facing the U.S.-based athlete would be learning the pacing and rhythm of the ultra-marathon. Can she ignore the temptation and exhilaration of the cut-and-thrust that typifies track competition, where leaders are never allowed to break free from the field?

Ultras are about patience, discipline and an ability to run to your own rhythm. Nothing is done in a rush, there are no sudden accelerations to close gaps and a 100-metre lead may only be cut back over three kilometres.

Pieterse, as a part of her Comrades preparation, completed her debut Two Oceans Marathon in four hours 29 minutes 53 seconds and gained fifth place in the 40-49 age group.

Having gone through the first half in two hours six minutes, the Bloemfontein-born runner found the going harder later in the race, losing a category position.

Pieterse undoubtedly benefited from that steep learning curve and at the end of April ran three hours 40 minutes for fifth overall and this time a category win.

A conservative approach to the early sections of Comrades could see the latent speed of her youth provide the advantage to take her through.

One major change to her track and field days is that Budd, who was famous for running barefoot around, is now the South African distributor for Newton shoes. These shoes are designed help runners to run in a more structured and natural style and provide the necessary protection against both the sharp and unforgiving tar, but has the flexibility that promotes the ease of running that has characterised Zola’s past performances.

Promoting the shoes allows Pieterse to frequently return to South Africa for seminars and clinics, where she demonstrates the same running drills that she has done as part of her training over the past three decades.

A ‘then and now’ comparison of her running style features the same long extended rear leg albeit from a slightly lower knee lift, but there is no denying the power and drive behind the many world class performances.

Zola’s running efficiency continues and could be a deciding factor as she makes her way from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in the colours of Hillcrest-based insurers Unlimited. By Sunday that may prove to be an apt description of her running talent.

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