The 2019 Comrades Marathon will be remembered for many reasons, but the two standout performances of the year were undoubtedly those of men’s winner Edward Mothibi and women’s winner Gerda Steyn. – BY SEAN FALCONER
Winning the Comrades Marathon is considered the pinnacle of achievement in South African road running, and adding that title to your name opens the door to fame, media attention, sponsorships, endorsements and more. However, the way that Edward Mothibi and Gerda Steyn won the Comrades titles in 2019 went a step further, and their performances in the Up Run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg will long live in the memory.
After an eventful men’s race that featured several changes of the lead and then an exciting breakaway group of five contenders, it eventually came down to Mothibi, who finished fourth last year in his debut Comrades, going head-to-head with three-time winner and double defending champ Bongmusa Mthembu as they hit the final ‘Big Five’ climb on Polly Shortts. With most people following the race expecting Mthembu to once again use his strength on the hills to pull clear, it looked like things would go according to script as he opened a small gap on the challenger, but instead it was Mothibi who threw in a surge of his own and made the decisive move on the notoriously steep hill.
The old adage once again proved true, that the first runner to crest the top of Polly’s with 8km to go will go on to win the race. By the top, Mothibi had pulled 20 seconds clear of Mthembu, and he then powered his way to the finish at the Scottsville Race Track in Pietermaritzburg to claim the win in 5:31:33. Mthembu finished 25 seconds adrift in 5:31:58, with World 100km record holder Nao Kazami of Japan taking third in 5:39:16 in his debut Comrades.
After the race, Mothibi said that he had dug deep into his reserves of strength to overcome Mthembu up Polly’s, but that he had actually surprised himself by winning: “I didn’t plan to win; I just wanted a gold medal! I gave it all. I just pushed harder.” For his part, a gracious Mthembu conceded that the better man on the day won, and he added, “I could see Edward had a plan… everything I did he could respond to.”
Other notable finishers in the men’s race included Justin Chesire coming home sixth to become the first Kenyan to win a Comrades gold medal, and Zimbabwean Marko Mambo finishing eighth and first veteran. Also, in a heartbreaking finale, Nkosikhona Mhlakwana made a late surge to overtake Gordon Lesetedi and Siya Mqambeli to go into ninth position with just a hundred metres to go, only to stumble and falter, then watch helplessly as the last gold medal eluded him. Further back in the field, 1995 winner Shaun Meiklejohn finished his 30th Comrades in 6:56:16, while the two leading Comrades medallists of all time, Barry Holland and Louis Massyn, achieved their 47th consecutive medals in 10:29:42 and 11:51:52 respectively.
The early leader in the women’s race was 2017 Down Run winner Ann Ashworth, who was on pace to run a 6:03 and smash Elena Nurgalieva’s Up Run record of 6:09:24, but it was Gerda Steyn who took control of the race just before the 30km mark, then flew up Botha’s Hill and further extending her lead to just under two minutes over Ashworth by the halfway mark in Drummond. For the rest of the race she serenely extended her lead, never looking troubled, and reached the finish in an incredible 5:58:53, smiling, waving and even doing a jig on the line.
Steyn had won the Two Oceans Marathon for a second time just seven weeks before the Comrades, where she missed Frith van der Merwe’s course record by just 53 seconds after deciding not to push too hard and thus save her legs for the Comrades. It didn’t look like the 56km Cape ultra had any adverse effect on her Comrades performance, however, as she became the first woman ever to complete the Up Run in less than six hours. Reminiscent of Van der Merwe’s incredible winning run in 1991, when she finished 15th overall in the Comrades field, Steyn came home 17th overall, winning by a margin of nearly 19 minutes over second-placed Alexandra Morozova of Russia (6:17:40), who was also second in 2017 and third last year. Third place went to debutant Caitriona Jennings of Ireland in 6:24:12, with Ashworth taking fourth in 6:27:15.
Steyn’s performance earned her a cool R1.2 million in prize money – R500,000 for first place, and incentives of R500,000 for a new course record and R200,000 as first South African finisher. Her winning time is the fourth-fastest ever run by a woman in the Comrades (although the three faster times were all on the Down Run), and she is just the fourth woman ever to win the Two Oceans and Comrades in the same year, after Van der Merwe (1989), Elena Nurgalieva (2004 and 2012) and Caroline Wöstmann (2015). After the race, Steyn said, “It is a dream come true! Many years of hard work came together today. It’s a real blessing… it’s the biggest achievement I can ask for.”