Surprise winners mark Comrades

2005-06-16 22:11
Durban - The 80th running of the Comrades Marathon brought two new winners on Thursday.

The relatively unheralded Sipho Ngomane of South Africa beat a score of fancied runners to comfortably breast the tape first at the finish at Kingsmead in Durban, while in an upset of smaller proportions, Tatiana Zirkova of Russia outran at least six competitors more favoured by the experts to win the women's race.

Comrades Marathon 2005 was a coup for the Harmony team as their runners won both the men's and women's races.

"I was just lucky today, it all went right," the humble Ngomane said.

The delighted Harmony manager, Nic Bester, said Ngomane was "geared to win the 80th race".

Ngomane only took up athletics seven years ago at the age of 16, soccer being his initial sport. Asked to explain his motivation for the change in sports codes, the modest Ngomane simply said: "I liked it [running] and just enjoyed myself."

Although many were surprised at Ngomane's victory, Bester was not: "Yes, I expected it. It was a hell of an effort and we really needed to keep Sipho in harness [after a heavy load of races earlier in the year]."

As Ngomane crested Ridge Road just past Tollgate Bridge, his senses were assailed with the sea and salty air, and with a three-minute-and-30-second (3:30) lead over Oleg Kharitonov, all the resident of Nelspruit had to do was ride the huge wave of applause from the throng of spectators on the last few kilometres in to Kingsmead.

The strong-finishing Kharitonov (37) cut Ngomane's lead to 2:35 with a kilometre to go but he had left his charge too late and crossed the line 2:05 behind the 23-year-old, whose time of five hours, 27 minutes and 10 seconds (5:27:10) was 3:03 off Bruce Fordyce's record of 5:24:07 for the Pietermaritzburg to Durban "Down Run", set in 1986.

Ngomane, though, can now lay claim to the fifth-fastest time in history while Kharitonov (5:29,15) moves to 13th on the all-time down run list.

Going up 45th Cutting, the powerful Kharitonov broke free of longtime race companion and 2001 down run champion Andrew Kelehe in pursuit of the admittedly slightly faltering eventual winner, but to close a four-minute gap in the last six kilometres to the finish suggested that the Russian had underestimated Ngomane's staying power.

In contrast to the Fordyce dictum of "take the lead as late as possible", Ngomane - surprisingly not considered a potential winner before this race despite finishing second in this year's Two Oceans Marathon - took the lead with 31 km to go and never looked back, maintaining a three- to four-minute lead from the bottom of Cowie's Hill almost to the end.

Perhaps the experts could be forgiven for not taking the threat of the inexperienced Ngomane too seriously as he had only completed one previous Comrades before - an effort well over two hours slower than Thursday's brilliant run - while the youngster (in ultramarathon terms) had already endured a strenuous season on the road in running a lot of races pre-Comrades.

Zirkova's feat in outlasting her rivals - particularly the Russian twins Elena and Oleysa Nurgalieva - was a triumph for the 34-year-old medical doctor from Siberia in eastern Russia, who was running in her third Comrades and placed third in the 2003 down run behind Elena and Oleysa respectively.

Elena, winner of the last two Comrades and Two Oceans - and the Up Run record holder - was the obvious favourite as she and her sister ran alongside Zirkova with 37 km to go.

At the St John's Avenue bridge in Pinetown, the 29-year-old Russian twins made their move in an attempt to break their compatriot and opened a one-minute lead as they prepared to confront the short but steep Cowie's Hill.

However, the psychological breakthrough was Zirkova's as she wrested the lead on the punishing Cowie's as Elena in particular slowed to a walk before picking up again, although clearly suffering from a calf-muscle cramp.

But the damage was done and Zirkova's lead quickly grew to several hundred metres - and stretched to almost 12 minutes at the finish - as she became only the third woman to break six hours (5:58:50) behind record holder of 16 years Frith van der Merwe (5:54:43) and America's Ann Trason (1997 winner in 5:58:25).

With Elena (third this year in the ninth-best time in history of 6:12:18) cramping badly in the last few kilometres, it was left to the twin who has long raced in her shadow, Oleysa, to claim the 2005 runner-up position in the seventh-best down run time ever (6:10:39) while Farwa Mentoor of Mitchell's Plain was the first SA woman home.

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