Whether an ardent long distance runner, a fan or a distant observer, most people agree that Leonid Shvetsov is a Comrades legend and, depending on whom you speak to, the verdict varies from ‘the guy is the complete athletic specimen’ to ‘he is a freak’.
Regardless of your standpoint, the facts surrounding Leonid Shvetsov do not lie. He has the up and down records firmly under his belt and anyone with any aspirations of winning the 2009 Comrades will be using Shvetsov as their marker.
Predicting the winner of a Comrades Marathon is never done with much certainty, due to the nature of long distance running and the beast of a course. However very few wise bets will drift from the name of Leonid Shvetsov this year. Modern Athlete spoke to the man about his chances this year, his experiences, his motivation and his special affinity with the Comrades Marathon. After finishing second to South Africa’s Andrew Kelehe in 2001, most would have borne the psychological scars of the defeat for years, but not Leonid. He remembers the race with a feeling verging on fondness, as it was there that he learnt some valuable lessons. “I entered ‘new territory’,” he recalls, “I felt really good overall, but suffered badly from a lot of downhills. I started cramping 15 to 18km from the finish line, which allowed Andrew to break away from me. Good experience! It paid me back in 2007.”
It is this ‘never say die’ and ‘always see the silver lining’ attitude that distinguishes him from the norm. One would assume that on his return to Russia, he would have isolated himself for a few years of intense Rocky-like training, so that he could come back and obliterate the Comrades fi eld. However, the converse it true. According to Shvetsov, “I worked as usual; no major deviation from my typical pre-marathon preparation.”
So what does ‘training as usual’ entail for Leonid Shvetsov? Two speed sessions and a long run per week. The rest of the days are easy, depending on how I feel. Generally, between 190 to 200. I do not run more than 210km per week,” stresses Leonid. For him, training is not just physical, it is also in the mind. He told us he trains not only his legs, but his head too and claims that he came back to the next Comrades mentally stronger than before. The perception of Eastern Europeans as intensely focused on winning and socially isolated from other nations is a stereotype that many sports-related movies have helped to perpetuate. However, the mere mention of the Comrades Marathon ignites a sparkle in Leonid’s eyes. His achievements at the event are ones that he is extremely proud of and the marathon itself is, in his opinion, the premier ultra-distance marathon of the world. When we asked him, “Why Comrades?” Leonid responded emphatically, “In my opinion, it is the most prestigious ultra-race in the world; by far the largest, not only in prizes, participants and spectators. There really is a special aura about it.”
Leonid was born in Saratov, Russia on 28 March, 1969 and as a young boy, he dabbled in various sports, from swimming to volleyball. At the age of 10, he decided to take to the track. “I soon realized that speed and a jumping technique were two attributes that I did not possess, so the shorter distances and the hurdles were discarded and I focused on the 1 500m and 5 000m races from the age of 15.”
He also participated in the 3 000m steeple-chase. His PB in this event is 8:43:70 and at the age of 19, he scooped a fifth place in the 1988 World Junior Champs. At 22, he tried marathons for the first time and since then has run over 40 marathons (three times at 2:09, three at 2:10, four at 2:11 and approximately 35 at sub 2:20).
Injuries, so commonplace to most athletes, have also threatened to hurt Leonid’s career. He has had two very serious knee injuries, one of which took place just before Comrades in 2002. He has also had back and median thigh injuries, related to a lot of hard road running, but despite these injuries, his resolve to compete and desire to win are firm.
Leonid is incredibly focused and his steely determination is evident. So, who helped instill this trait in him? Who is Leonid’s most significant mentor? “My first and only coach used to read us a lot of books about Soviet and world sports stars, their lives and training, such as Vladimir Kuts (two-time Olympic Champion in the 5 000m and 10 000m in the Melbourne Olympics) and Lasse Vir?n (same distances, but with four gold medals in two Olympics – Munich and Montreal).”
Besides ripping up global marathon records, what else excites this exceptional athlete? Leonid has a keen passion for reading and a long-standing affinity for classic cars. He is also a committed family man. Of his father, a mathematics and mechanics professor and his mother, an oil and gas engineer, he says, “They still live nearby me and I see them whenever possible.” When his schedule allows, he also loves spending time with wife Olga (26) and three children: Artem, aged 6, Arina, aged 2 and Makar, born January 27th this year.
The big question surrounding Comrades 2009 is ‘can Leonid make it three in a row?’ When speaking to him, one gets a sense that this difficult race is just another day at the office for Leonid. “I will run my own race and stay focused.” What may seem to be arrogance or disrespect towards the other runners on the field, is actually simple dedication and a promise to himself to run the race to the best of his ability. He stresses that he acknowledges anyone in the leading pack and states that he has no preconceived plans or person-specific tactics. “I always race myself, first and foremost,” insists Leonid. “When it comes to Comrades, I always run to win, so yes, I want three in a row.”
The evening before Comrades, he will be sitting down to a pre-race meal of pasta and vegetables. On the morning of the race, it will be oatmeal and cookies. His routine is very basic and although we tried to unveil a mystical secret – some sort of hidden power or a training regime that would expose how Leonid is capable of achieving his superhuman feat, for example – all we can reveal is a man who is extremely focused, a man with the determination to accept nothing less than the best from himself and a man with a rock solid belief in his own ability. We did push him for some advice for the mere mortals taking part in this year’s Comrades: “If you want to run a satisfying Comrades, run YOUR OWN race.” It is that simple folks! While most of the country is hoping that a surprise local athlete will win the final stretch come Comrades day, don’t be surprised if we are once again left in awe of this Russian super-athlete.