|Ellie in her moment of victory.|
It's three years since I was last in South Africa for Comrades and I almost forgot how much I enjoy the event and surrounding atmosphere. This was my sixth run, my fourth 'down run' and it was the first time I hadn't focused 100% in my training on peaking and nailing the 89.3km road course. So I felt much more relaxed for starters and managed to treat it as a surprisingly fun 80-90% effort training run for Western States 100, four weeks later. I've done that with marathons to use them for training in the past, but I wasn't sure how it'd work out for something much harder like this. Judging by how I'm usually a cripple after Comrades, but am walking normally today, I think I got the balance right.
With around 4,000ft of ascent, the down run isn't exactly flat or purely downhill, but it does have a net loss of about 2,000ft. My Strava file gives a good idea of what it's like.
However, the real story was Ellie Greenwood's spectacular win. I've been lucky enough to help Ellie with coaching in the build-up, although what made the difference on the day was undoubtedly her iron will to push to her maximum.
Ellie had a lot of pressure on her with local media expecting her to break the decade long Russian winning streak. Last time Ellie ran was 2012 when she ran one of the fastest times in race history in 6:08, but eight-time winner, Elena Nurgalieva, ran 6:07. Having had injury issues through 2013, Ellie was very hungry for this race (a massive understatement). She set off at a good pace, settling into third while the Nurgalieva twins went off fast like always. She was four minutes back at 45k in 3:07, which was well within striking range.
Unfortunately Ellie wasn't feeling great and lost a little time over the next 15k to be as far back as 8 minutes. For most people racing against such dominant and successful siblings, it'd be easy to accept a solid third and a very respectable finish. But that's not the way Ellie races.
I was lucky enough to see the action first hand, although I didn't expect to. Per the plan, Ellie should have stayed ahead of me the whole way by a large margin since I was aiming for 6:30, which was far slower than her expected time. So it wasn't a great sign when I caught her at 69k with just under a half marathon to go. However, I'd seen Ellie running down the huge Fields Hill as I approached her and she was clocking off a solid pace around 6-6:15/mile and was moving well. Just as I was going to give her words of encouragement she briefly walked and I couldn't help but run past, still egging her on but with no conversation.
I kept looking over my shoulder to see if Ellie was moving well but lost sight of her within a couple of miles and hoped she wasn't cramping or injured. At 7k to go I rapidly came upon the twins who looked exhausted and kept walking uphills. If only I could have let Ellie know that they were spent then I know she'd be spurred on, but I suspect the crowd told her that as she ran by anyway.
Just 3k from the end I noticed the lead vehicle for the women was visible behind me, which it hadn't been since I passed the twins. It was approaching me fast despite the fact I hadn't slowed and was still moving the same speed as all day long. My first thought was that Elena must have found a second wind and was somehow closing fast to make sure she stayed ahead of her sister. Yet that car was approaching me rapidly and I couldn't see how she'd have turned that around so much. With 800m to go the car and lead motor-bikes went by then a green bullet shot past instead of a Russian in red. It was Ellie and she was closing with a steely focus that only champions have. I cheered and shouted out to her but she didn't even look to her left due to her single-mindedness of purpose. Looking behind I couldn't see any women so knew she'd won and achieved her biggest running ambition.
Running into the stadium I got out my phone and aimed to take a shot of her crossing the line but she was charging so hard that she finished before I rounded the final bend into the finishing straight. It was inspiring and exciting to run in behind her while Chariots of Fire played through the loud speakers. I must have been almost as excited as she was then I crossed the line and congratulated her before she was whipped away to TV interviews and drug testing.
It was one of the best running experiences of my life to cap a really enjoyable personal run throughout the day.
|Nedbank elite team, including Camille Herron, Amy Sproston, Ellie Greenwood and several others who got gold (including the first two men, just out of shot)|
|The start pre-dawn.|
|Finish selfie just before crossing the line.|
|Ellie receiving her prize on the big screen in the stadium, plus live on national TV.|
My own race:
I'd aimed for around 6:30 but didn't intend to push since I didn't want to jeopardize Western States. So 6:18 with a negative split (3:12/3:06) and a 5:40 through 50 miles was really encouraging, especially since I've never felt that good in a race before. It also makes me hopeful that one day I can come back and run a gold medal for top 10...which required a 5:40 finish time this year.
For those who haven't considered this race yet, I couldn't recommend it highly enough. Here's a more detailed race report with plenty of stats about the race from my 2010 run.
Scott AF Trainers
Clif Shot Gels x6
Julbo Dust shades