PIETERMARITZBURG — Not since Bruce Fordyce’s all-conquering reign in the 1980s have Comrades Marathon pundits and spectators asked themselves about a runner: “Can he do it again?”
Stephen Muzhingi has brought that question back.
The Zimbabwean won his third consecutive Comrades title last year, becoming the first to do so since Fordyce won his eighth straight race in 1988.
Now he wants to be the first man to hold the Two Oceans and Comrades ultra-marathon titles in one calendar year since Derek Preiss achieved the feat in 1974 and 1975.
“He can do it,” says former Comrades winner Nick Bester.
“Somebody else will have to stop him, but he himself is ready and he’s confident. He’s definitely the man to beat.”
Russian course record-holder Leonid Shvetsov has returned after a two-year interval and will be eager to reclaim the title Muzhingi poached from him in 2009.
Sunday’s race, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, will be Muzhingi’s toughest. To win this year, he will have to quickly get over the fear, pressure and loneliness of being out in front.
So confident is the 34-year-old that he describes his impressive Two Oceans victory during the Easter weekend as a practice run for the impending Comrades.
It is for this reason that race commentator and analyst Cuan Walker believes Muzhingi will not make it four wins on the trot.
“It’s like he’s not as hungry to win,” Walker says.
“Muzhingi will definitely be the favourite, but I don’t see him winning the race this year.
“Muzhingi’s first win in 2009 was a good one; he ran a very fast time and won by more than seven minutes. But in his second win a year later, everyone around him basically gave up and handed him the race, and the same thing happened last year with Fanie Matshipa.
“I think this year the contenders are hungrier than ever, not just to beat Muzhingi, but to win the race.”
There will be a strong South African contingent, including last year’s runners-up Matshipa and Claude Moshiywa, Bongumusa Mthembu and assured novice Gert Thys chasing the champion.
Bester, who was a training adviser to the last South African to win the Comrades, Sipho Ngomane in 2005, says there is a strong possibility a local winner could emerge.
And “Mr Comrades” Fordyce will run the Comrades a remarkable 30th time this year.