In Russia, long distances breed long-distance runners

Russians have a strange attitude to running—especially the pinnacle of the sport, the marathon. If European and American marathons attract tens of thousands of runners who battle months in advance of the race to secure admission, only about 3,000 sign up enrol for the Moscow marathon during a successful year.
Given the sport’s lack of popularity in Russia, it is all the more admirable that some Russians have the courage to make marathon running a long-term commitment, and that one Russian athlete currently leads the world in this event.

Only two Russians have ever won the 30-year-old London Marathon. In 1991 Yakov Tolstikov was the first to break the tape near Buckingham Palace. But this April, Lilia Shobukhova, 32, won the marathon in only 2 hours 22 minutes.

Although Lilia’s tight schedule didn’t leave much room for sightseeing, London struck her as a clean and beautiful city. What she remembers best is the abundance of accessible parks, stadiums, green spaces—the kind of facilities that almost impose a healthy lifestyle on the laziest of coach potatoes.
Lilia noticed these things out of the corner of her eye, while her attention was dutifully fixed on the gruelling 26.2 mile course, and the course ultimately repaid her.

“The London Marathon distinguishes itself on account of its level, smooth-faced road surface, which enables runners to perform to the best of their ability. This marathon is every runner’s dream,” she said

Lilia’s trademark distance used to be the 5000 meters, but after she finished sixth in this event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she realized that she couldn’t compete with speedy runners like Meseret Defar or Tirunesh Dibaba. Accordingly, she decided to “change lanes,” and chose to concentrate on longer distances.
Perseverance is the key to Lilia’s success, and she trains so much that she doesn’t have to deprive herself of food or follow a particular diet until the last minute.

“In the week prior to each marathon I adopt a high-protein diet for three days only, before switching to carbohydrates,” she said.

Since her debut as a long-distance runner a year ago, Lilia has won two of the three major marathons she has undertaken— in Chicago and London— and is currently leading the prestigious 2010 World Marathon Majors Series. She is keen to run in the New York, Berlin and Boston marathons.

“There are no two courses alike,” she said, radiating enthusiasm and self-confidence. In other interviews she has extolled the advantages of age (being a little over 30), and thus well-equipped to run 25 miles, which requires stamina rather than speed.

Liliya took up athletics at elementary school, but she only became a member of Russia’s sporting elite in 2006, when she became the world indoor record holder in the 3,000 meters, with a time of 8:27:86. Two years later, she set a European record n the 5,000 meteres, when she ran 14:23.75.

Despite her success thus far in marathon running, Lilia is coy when talking about the forthcoming London Olympics. “I should first win a slot on the national team,” she said. These days she prefers to retreat to the daily routine she shares with her husband and coach Igor Shobukhov and their young daughter Anna.

Outside of sports, Lilia longs for breaks out in the country and is interested in interior design. She has invested some of her prize money in the construction and decoration of her family home in the Urals city of Beloretsk.

Of course, only top athletes run marathons to earn a living. For everyone else, marathons are a gauge of personal achievement— whether this means physical endurance or an act of pain that also secures valuable donations to charity.
Anton Gazizov, 30, has been running marathons for almost a decade, since his university years. He moved to the UK in 1996 at the age of 17 and became friends with a young man who ran races to raise money for charity.

The pains and pleasures of running weren’t new to Anton; he had been running since his school days and belonged to his college team. What was new was his friend’s emphasis on charity – running for the sake of someone in need.
Anton used his first London marathon experience to raise money for children in his hometown of Astrakhan. Anton’s acquaintances donated $300-$400 for his first run, and he spent the money on textbooks for Astrakhan teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Between 2002 and 2010 he then ran seven marathons – from Athens and Berlin to Moscow, Paris and Rome, which turned his charity into a significant outreach project.

With thousands of pounds accruing from donations by well-off colleagues at the bank where he worked, Anton expanded his fund into a registered charity called ‘ROSTOK,’ which manages a fund to help educate 6-15 year-old orphans and children from single-parent or low-income families.

Anton has managed to run a marathon in under 3.5 hours, but believes his time at this year’s New York Marathon may creep up to four hours. He is moving back to Moscow from London to follow his career, and it is hard to train in Russia’s capital.

“Runners and cyclists have equal claims on London’s roads, as have pedestrians and drivers,” Anton says. “But running between home and the office as I used to do living in England, is something you can hardly imagine in urban Moscow.”
He continues, “The city is not yet as green and pedestrian-friendly as London. But I hope things will eventually change in line with the European pattern.”
Anton also believes he may improve his colleagues’ outlook on charity. His new employer is a bank with both Moscow and London offices, but unlike their London team, staff in the Moscow office has yet to make any contribution to his forthcoming run in New York.

He said, “Giving money out of your own pocket for charity may still be mistaken for waste in Russia and fundraisers’ requests are viewed suspiciously. I want to make people see such donations in a new light.”

“It is not begging – charity promoters are making real efforts to deserve these donations. If I didn’t think I have a duty to support my charity, I would limit myself to running for pleasure,” Anton said.

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