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The Rise of Liliya Shobukhova

by Barbara Huebner

When Liliya Shobukhova was a young girl, she would run for miles with the neighborhood boys among the giant pines of Beloretsk. The city of 68,000, in the southern Ural Mountains and home to a popular ski resort on Mount Mratkino, nestles in a shrine to nature so picturesque that it’s known as “Little Switzerland,” an idyllic place for an active child.

But Beloretsk is also an industrial city. Founded in 1762 as a settlement for an ironworks, the city’s life was long played out before a backdrop of blast furnaces and sledgehammers. Now called the Beloretsk Metallurgical Plant, the facility was a stalwart of production during the deprivation of World War II, and both of Shobukhova’s parents worked there while she was growing up. The fall of Communism in 1989, when she was 12, made for tough economic times, and keeping food on the table was sometimes a struggle.

Shobukhova appears to have taken lessons from both the forest and the factory: Love running for its purity. Embrace the work that’s required. And never — ever — quit until the whistle blows for the day.

Liliya Shobukhova winning the 2011 Bank of America Chicago MarathonNow 34, Shobukhova has for the past two years been ranked the #1 female marathon runner in the world by Track & Field News magazine and has won back-to-back World Marathon Majors titles. Her time of 2:18:20 in winning her third-consecutive Bank of America Chicago Marathon last fall makes her the second-fastest woman in history, behind only Paula Radcliffe. She has broken the Russian national record in every one of her last three marathons.

So consistently dominant has she been that it’s easy to forget Shobukhova has been running the marathon for less than three years, and that even then she made the transition by accident. That she took up running at all, it turns out, was really just luck.

“Initially, I was an ice skater,” she says. “I didn’t have such good results.”

In third grade, when school officials began to organize students into sports clubs, little Liliya’s classmates begged her to try running. “Nyet, in the beginning I did not run well,” she answers, to the obvious question. “I just enjoyed sports. We would play basketball.”

Even after she won her first race, a village 2K when she was around 13, her ambitions did not center on athletics. “I liked at that time to draw fashions and clothing, and thought at that time that I might want to be a designer,” she recalls.

In higher grades, as her running showed more promise and her dedication grew, she was chosen under the Russian system to attend one of the Specialized Children and Youth Sports Schools of the Olympic Reserve. She did not blossom as early as childhood friend and classmate Galina Bogomolova, who by 2000 was already representing Russia at 10,000 meters in the Olympic Games, but finally made her international debut in 2001 at 3000 meters at the European Cup, placing fourth in 9:06:78.

The next year, Shobukhova won the Russian national title at 5000 meters (15:25:00) to establish herself as a distance threat, and in 2004 joined Bogomolova in Athens for the Olympic Games, finishing 13th at 5000 meters.

Given her success in the marathon, it’s easy to forget how good Shobukhova was on the track. In 2006, at the Russian indoor championships, she ran 8:27.86 to break the world record for 3000 meters, and followed that up with a silver medal at the IAAF World Indoor Championships, behind Ethiopian superstar Meseret Defar. In 2008 ran 14:23.75 for 5000 meters. Shobukhova is still the fourth-fastest woman in history at both of those distances.

“That blend of her speed and her strength is magnificent,” says Carey Pinkowski, race director of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. “She’s got the speed, she’s got the core velocity, she’s so efficient. She brings that athleticism from the track to the marathon.

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Shobukhova finished sixth at 5000 meters. Among the athletes ahead of her were Defar again, Tirunesh Dibaba and up-and-comer Vivian Cheruiyot, who in 2011 would be named the IAAF Female Athlete of the Year after her double World Championships victories at 5000 and 10,000 meters.

It was time, said her manager, to move up to the 10,000 meters. “Shobukhova doesn’t have blistering speed,” explained manager Andrey Baranov. “At 5000, against Dibaba or Defar, she didn’t have the speed in the last meters. The way people look at Shobukhova now in the marathon, they looked at Dibaba in the 5000. We saw a limitation, so we looked for where we can be the strongest runner.”

One little problem: his client had no interest in doubling her laps from 12.5 to 25. Zero. Mentally, said Baranov, she was unwilling to go there. A 10K on the roads, fine, but a steady diet of mind-numbing loops on the track was not, she made clear, in her future.

That’s when luck stepped forward. In September 2008, soon after the Olympics, Shobukhova had a plane ticket in hand for a 5K in Providence, RI, when plans fell through. Baranov quickly discovered that the Philadelphia Distance Run, a half marathon, was set for the same day. There, Shobukhova ran 1:10:21 to beat Catherine Ndereba, the four-time Boston Marathon winner who had just won her second consecutive Olympic silver medal.

“At that moment,” said Baranov, “Shobukhova became a marathoner.”

The awards ceremony was still under way, he said, when his phone rang with an offer to run London in 2009. There, Shobukhova ran 2:24:24 in her debut, to finish third. Later, she lamented that had she started faster she might have won.

Never mind. “Better to get up hungry from the table,” Baranov told her.

That fall, she won the first of her three marathons in Chicago, in 2:25:56. Since then, Shobukhova has:

Liliya Shobukhova (left) with daughter Anna and husband IgorWhen Shobukhova turned to the marathon in 2009, she switched from her childhood coach, Tatiana Vasilievna, to her husband, who rated her 2011 Chicago performance a 10 out of 10. “The good thing is that we are together,” she says of their dual relationship, then sighs and chuckles in a way that needs no translation. “And bad thing is that you can’t separate the two things. Everything is always being watched. I can’t even meet with my friends.”

The couple is using part of the two $500,000 awards Shobukhova has earned as the top woman on the World Marathon Majors leader board for 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 to build a combination hotel-sports center in Beloretsk, where Igor also grew up. All paperwork is in order but, to minimize distractions, construction won’t begin until after the Olympics. They see the facility, to include a small stadium, track, and gym, as something of a legacy, “so that our children will have somewhere to run that we didn’t have as kids.”

With them in Chicago, as she has been every year, was daughter Anna, born in 2003. Although Anna can’t always travel to her mother’s training bases in the warmth of Portugal or at altitude in Kislovodsk, she joins her during school vacations. When Shobukhova is training at home in Belortesk, a typical day includes training in the morning, taking Anna to her shift at school by 2:30 p.m., training again in the afternoon and taking a short rest before picking Anna up again at 6:30. Then, she said, “In the evening I have to prepare dinner and feed everybody.”

The day her daughter was born, says Shobukhova, was the best moment of her life, and making her first Olympic team just 11 months after Anna’s birth the best moment of her career.

But if an enriching family life is one key to her success, it is not the secret. “I do the work that I have to do,” she says. During a training cycle, she runs three weeks heavy (210-220 kilometers, or 130-135 miles) and one easy (180K, or 110 miles). Many of the workouts are uphill. A typical week, according to a Russian training magazine translated by Baranov:

Tuesday: Morning: 500-1000m repeats, mostly uphill.

Afternoon: 10-12K easy run

Wednesday: Morning: 20-22K

Afternoon: 15K, then 10x100m uphill

Thursday: 28-30K, including warm-up, then 22K of tempo starting at 3:40 per kilometer and increasing to 3:30 before finishing the last 3K very fast.

Friday: 20-25K easy run; 10x100m uphill

Saturday: Interval session in morning, 4x5K or 5x3K or 7x2K. At the beginning of a training cycle, rest between intervals is 2.5 minutes. By the time the marathon has arrived, rest has dropped to a minute.) The last interval of each session is the fastest.

Sunday: 35K out and back, including long uphills and long downhills. Last 3K the fastest.

Monday: Day off (or 10-15K easy run)

In the evenings at training camps, (not at home, because “there is no time”) Shobukhova likes to embroider. Her mother and grandmother in Ukraine, she says, embroidered beautiful pillows and curtains, while she prefers to embroider pictures that can be framed. Stitch by stitch, the second-fastest female marathoner in history slowly coaxes landscapes or animals from the blank fabric, relaxing a little more with each tuck of the needle.

Then the next day, she goes out and moves a different kind of needle.

“Every workout, no matter what she does, in every run the last kilometer she tries to run faster and faster and faster. It doesn’t matter the distance. If it’s 100 meters, she tries to run faster. If 35K, the same,” explains Baranov. It becomes automatic, mechanical.

“In all of my training, I always finish fast so that I won’t forget [in a race] that it’s the finish and you have to go fast,” Shobukhova says.

She most definitely does not forget. Known as one of the great closers in the business, Shobukhova actually ran the last 2K of the 2011 Chicago Marathon faster than Moses Mosop, 6:52 to 7:04. Mosop set a course record with his 2:05:37 victory.

“If you could somehow take all the great performers [in history] and somehow line them up, she would be hard to bet against,” said Pinkowski, citing her precision, meticulous planning, mistake-free execution, and avoidance of injuries. “Liliya now against Paula in her prime, or Joan in her prime, or Ingrid, or Rosa Mota, or any of the great ones that have competed here over the years, I think you’ve got to put her at the top of the list. I think she could go a lot faster.”

Indeed, Shobukhova’s biggest smile of the post-race press conference in Chicago was reserved for a reporter asking if 2:15 is now on the table.

“Not right now,” she said. “I don’t realize how you have to train for 2:15; 2:17 I maybe already have in my head.”