‘Fluke’ winner may miss next Comrades

In an effort not to waste anybody’s time, as they put it, Comrades organisers asked team managers to each select 10 athletes who should attend the press conference after this year’s Comrades Marathon. Only those with a realistic chance of winning should be considered.

Ann Ashworth was not on Nick Bester’s list. To the 1992 gold medalist, her attendance would be a waste of her time.

“Nick Bester told me and Comrades that I didn’t need to come,” Ashworth says.“When my coach [John Hamlett] asked why I didn’t need to come he said: ‘Well, she’s not going to win.’ When someone like Nick Bester says ‘Ann is not a threat’, he’s just putting into words what a lot of people think. He is someone that should know the competition.

“For me to win, he was absolutely speechless [when I did] …I’m still waiting for my apology.”

After Bester’s denunciation, Ashworth said she would be willing not to attend.Comrades, to their credit, invited her anyway.

Ashworth never thought she had a chance of winning on June 10. It’s hard to blame her; the voices of scepticism weren’t limited to Bester’s.

Before the event, no one gave her a shot at challenging for first. She has been around the road-running scene for years, but winning the world’s oldest and longest ultramarathon was a distance too far for her imagination.

“I don’t have cred, I don’t have street cred. People don’t think of me as the person who wins Comrades — until now,” she says. “In the build-up to it I was just: ‘Ann Ashworth — ja, she’s a better than an average runner but so what?’ So I really was the dark horse and came out left field and people think that it was luck.”

Throughout the race, the doubt would pervade her performance. She struggled to comprehend that she was at the front of the pack and constantly expected to be overtaken. Even post the 60km mark, realistic expectation failed to strike home. As she entered the grass —the final stretch —she braced for her Tommy Malone moment; the runner who fell at the finish line and couldn’t crawl over it in time.

But it never came.

What followed instead was a spurt of fame. Everybody wanted to know who this Ann Ashworth was that had won the Comrades seemingly from nowhere. Her phone rang persistently as journalists scrambled to get comment on her miraculous achievement.

Now that the interview requests have dried up, her attention has turned to how she can replicate her win. Despite being thrust into the conversation, an attempt is far from guaranteed.

“As it stands, unless I’m able to find support I won’t be able to race next year,” Ashworth says. “[My husband] David and I used all our savings for last year, then I racked up a bucket load of debt to do it this year. My Comrades money paid off 80% of it, I’m still finishing off the rest of it. Unless I find support, I won’t be able to do it again next year. That, for me, is an extremely tough pill to swallow because I’ve proved that I can [win]but no one’s willing to help me to do it again.”

Equipment, products, nutrition, coaching, physiotherapists —all of these cost money. Money, which one might struggle to earn when having to take more than 10 weeks’ leave to train. The reason no one would be willing to help Ashworth is there’s little incentive for them to do so. South African running rules prevent professional athletes from displaying sponsors on their clothing —only their club and technical/kit sponsor are allowed.

Ashworth can run the Comrades recreationally for free but no one is under any illusions that it can be won at no cost.

Years before she ever ran the Comrades Marathon, she would go with her father to watch it as an eager spectator. It’s a competition she holds dear and it will always be a part of her identity.

This year it even threatened to make her a household name, unless she is plunged back into the obscurity from whence she came.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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