Running on fighting spirit

Mbulaeni Mulaudzi is not throwing in the towel just yet. In fact, the reigning 800 metres world champion scoffs at the idea that he is about to turn 31 and will have to make do with a spot on the couch when the World Athletics Championships start on August 26 in Daegu, South Korea.

A grade-one hamstring tear — a referral from an ongoing lower-back complaint – has ruled him out of a title defence, leading to suggestions that it is yet another setback in the injury-plagued twilight of the athlete’s career. And the word that every professional athlete dreads — retirement has reared its ugly head.

But Mulaudzi is having none of it. “No. I can’t think about that now. I still feel I need to go for the next four, five years and then I can stop,” he said.

Fighting talk, it must be said, if Mulaudzi believes he can still be competitive at the ripe old age of 36 in 2016. Former 800 metres world-record holders Wilson Kipketer and Sebastian Coe were 33 when they called time on their careers and Brazil’s Joaquim Cruz was 30 when he attempted a comeback. Kenya’s Sammy Koskei was past his best at 27, as was South Africa’s own Marcello Fiasconaro, who set the 800 metres world record in 1973, running for Italy.

Mulaudzi may believe that he can defy the odds, but those odds are stacked against him. What is even more frustrating is that South Africa’s world champion was in the process of putting a disappointing season behind him and applying the finishing touches to eight weeks of intensive training with coach JP van der Merwe when injury struck.

Mulaudzi has battled the lower-back injury and the resulting inconsistency of performance all season, but believes he was just about back to his best before tweaking the hamstring in a time trial drill at the University of Johannesburg last Saturday.

“I did a 600 metres time trial and it was actually the fastest 600 I’ve run this season. Then, in the second trial, I was actually moving much faster than the first one, and when I came around the bend I felt the hamstring go and it just hasn’t recovered.

“It’s only a grade one tear, but I just don’t feel comfortable at all running with it. I’m really disappointed and it’s just frustrating. Just two weeks ago I was in very good shape and everything was going well.”

It is important to retain perspective here — Mulaudzi’s season best of 1:45:50 places him only 65th on the list of the world’s fastest 800 metres times this year. That is still some way from his personal best of 1:42:86, set in 2009, and David Rudisha’s world-leading season best of 1:42:61.

So, just how competitive did he expect to be in Daegu? Interestingly, one genuinely gets the sense that Mulaudzi was in a good space. If you speak to his agent, Peet van Zyl, there was a pervading sense of confidence in the Mulaudzi camp, even if his 2011 results suggest that it may have been misplaced.

Mulaudzi thinks he was in the shape required to take on and beat the world’s top 800 metres contenders in South Korea. Well, everyone except Kenya’s David Rudisha — the world record holder — who is clearly the man to beat at the world championships.

The sense one gets is that Mulaudzi was rather daunted by the challenge posed by Rudisha, but only Rudisha.

“I knew it was going to be tough for me to retain the title,” he said. “But for me to finish on the podium I didn’t see as a difficult task, particularly with the fitness that I have now. That was definitely achievable, regardless of what medal I could have won.

“Rudisha would have been my main challenger. The other guys I’m not so scared of. I’ve looked at the times they’ve been running this season — most of them are fit with no injury problems — but it’s been difficult for them to run 1:43 or 1:44. They weren’t consistent, and when Rudisha went to the front no one was able to go with him. It looked like the guys were scared to run or they weren’t strong enough.

“So for me it was just a small hurdle to be in good shape, to be healthy and then to jump over those guys. My biggest problem was going to be facing Rudisha, because he’s strong. But the other guys at the championship I know are not so tough.”

Confidence was thus not an issue for the man who won the world title in Berlin two years ago and has an Olympic silver medal from the 2004 Games in Athens in his closet.

He is also a 2004 world indoor champion, so pedigree is not the issue — it is just that pesky back injury and the by-product in the form of the hamstring tear.

But if he genuinely has plans to mount a serious challenge to the likes of Rudisha, who is only 22, just getting running fit and injury free must be his priority. And that is what he says he is focusing on for the next few months – he wants to be in shape to take on the London Olympics in a year’s time.

“It’s definitely on my mind and, with some good preparation, there’s nothing stopping me from doing what I want to do.”

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