ULTRA-DISTANCE runner Stephen Muzhingi is bracing for probably his toughest ever Comrades marathon race as he bids for a record fourth successive title on Sunday. The Zimbabwean athlete first won the event in 2009 when he dethroned record holder Leonid Shvetsov and then went on to retain the title in 2010 and 2011.
Shvetsov is returning after a two-year interval and will be eager to reclaim the title on the route from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, which is a down run.
But what makes Muzhingi one of the race's major draw cards is his bid to be become only the second man in history to win both the Two Oceans and Comrades Marathon in the same year.
In April the long striding Muzhingi won the 57km Old Mutual Two Oceans when he stopped the clock in 3 hours 08 minutes 08 seconds to become the first man since the turn of the century to win back-to back ultra marathon races.
Muzhingi had bagged a triple crown in the 87km Comrades when he won in May 2011 and is now on the threshold of becoming only the only the second runner in history, since Derek Preiss, to have won both the Two Oceans and Comrades ultra marathons in the same year.
South African national Preiss won both races in 1974 and repeated the feat in 1975 and the record stood for 37 years until Muzhingi came to rekindle the excitement by winning the 43rd edition of the Two Oceans.
According to reports from South Africa where Muzhingi has been camping ahead of the Comrades race, former winner Nick Bester believes the Zimbabwean athlete will be the man to beat.
"He can do it
"Somebody else will have to stop him but he himself is ready and he is confident.
"He is definitely the man to beat," Bester said.
However, Comrades race commentator and analyst Cuan Walker argues that Muzhingi will not win a fourth succesive title.
"It is like he is not as hungry to win.
"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," Walker said.
All time Comrades record holder winner Bruce Fordyce who won nine titles is running for the 30th time and will start along the expected 19 000 runners.