Last year's runner-up is favored this year
By Katherine Nichols
Special to The Advertiser
Svetlana Zakharova loves to cook, and her favorite hobby is needlepoint.
Seeing her blue eyes sparkle under a swash of red hair, it's hard to envision her appearance Sunday when her competitive fire will make her the favorite in one of the toughest women's fields ever assembled at the Honolulu Marathon.
After placing second here last year and blazing through the Chicago Marathon in 2:21 in October, the 32-year-old from Russia has established herself as the one to beat in a group of elite runners eight of whom have broken the 2:30 barrier in Honolulu for the 30th annual event Sunday.
"Her credentials put her at a much higher level than any other runner in the race," said Alberto Salazar, former world record holder in the marathon, three-time New York City Marathon champion and two-time Olympian.
"No one can compete with that," agreed Toni Reavis, host of New Balance Elite Racing on Fox Sports who is covering the Honolulu Marathon for the 20th year. But Reavis is also quick to point out the unpredictable nature of the event, adding that several women are capable of winning and "a lot of it comes down to: Whose day is it?"
Though course records would be nice, Zakharova and the men's defending champion, Mbarak Hussein, said they primarily are focused on winning their respective races. Both set personal records in the marathon within the past two months and have structured their training around victory here. With strong fields on both sides, experts believe the results will be determined in the last few miles.
"The men's race always comes down to Diamond Head," said Reavis. "And the women are starting to have tactics like the men."
Hussein defends men's title
Despite his 2:09 marathon only a month ago, Hussein feels confident and rested.
"I didn't push that hard," he said in a telephone interview from his home in New Mexico earlier this week. He went to the Seoul International Marathon to run and "see how I'm feeling. I kind of surprised myself."
Defending his title in Honolulu has been his focus all year.
After winning the 25th Ho-nolulu Marathon, Zakharova has her sights set on the 30th.
Through an interpreter, she said she chose Chicago's October race over New York's November event this year to give her more recovery time before Honolulu. She "is not scared" of other competitors, but said that every marathon is "unpredictable."
Zakharova envisions a pack of seven or eight women following the pace setter, a 2:26 marathoner who is expected to drop out at the half-way point.
"While the pace setter is there, we'll be running as one crowd that's a certainty," she said. "After that, I'll watch what happens and go from there."
When asked his race strategy, Hussein laughed and said he's tried many times to create one. "And it doesn't work. You have to respond to what's happening."
Because many of the top men have run well recently, any one is capable of winning. If someone makes a break, "I will have to watch," said Hussein, noting in particular fellow Kenyon runner Jimmy Muindi, a two-time Honolulu Marathon champion who ran 2:08 in September. "It's a really tough field this year."
If the weather is good this Sunday, that group could push the leader to 2:12, said Hussein still short of the 2:11:43 course record established in 1986.
In long races, and especially with Hawai'i's winds and humidity, Mother Nature usually helps determine course records. Elite athletes in the Honolulu Marathon tend to add three to five or more minutes to their best times.
"The toughest part is the weather, always," said Hussein.
"It makes it a much more tactical race," said Salazar. It comes down to who can handle the heat, who runs the best pace that day. A miscalculation in pace or strategy can send a potential champion careening into 10th place.
Race is unpredictable
More often than not, "the favorite doesn't win," Salazar said. "In a marathon when it's hot, you can throw all predictions out."
But Zakharova and Hussein are prepared. Hussein trains at midday, and Zakharova stopped in Washington D.C. before coming to Hawai'i this week to give herself 10 days in a climate warmer than Russia.
This might be enough. After 10 days an athlete's body acclimatizes as much as it's going to, according to Salazar. After that, the benefits are psychological.
Yet what Zakharova does to relax between training sessions is every bit as important as her steel will. When asked if she cooked as well as she sewed, she laughed, "All Russian women are excellent cooks."