Russian twins want 1-2 finish
The Nurgalievas are here for Sunday's Honolulu Marathon
It's no wonder Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva are celebrities in their home country of Russia. Their flawless white skin, flowing red hair, attractive smiles and easy-going personalities draw plenty of friends and admirers. But what incites the most attention is their ability to keep pace with the best female athletes in the world -- mile after mile.
Other female contenders include:
» Eri Hayakawa, 25, from Japan. She ran 2:28:11 when she placed second in the Honolulu Marathon in 2004. She won here in 2003.
» Albina Ivanova, 29, from Russia. Her personal record for the marathon is 2:25:35. Her best performance in the Honolulu Marathon was second in 2002, when she ran 2:29:53.
» Alevtina Biktimirova, 24, from Russia. Her lifetime best is 2:25.12, set last year in Frankfurt, and she came in sixth in this year's Boston Marathon in 2:26:58.
» Lyubov Denisova, 35, from Russia. Her best performance was in 2004 at the New York City Marathon, where she ran 2:25:18. Earlier this year she placed third in the Los Angeles Marathon in 2:26:18. In 2002, she served as the pacemaker in the Honolulu Marathon.
» Olga Romanova will serve as the pacemaker this year, a runner otherwise known as the "rabbit" who is paid to set a certain pace and drop out halfway through the race.
The 30-year-old twins are taking a break from the bitter cold encompassing their training ground in Russia's west Ural Mountains in an attempt to finish 1-2 in Sunday's 34th annual Honolulu Marathon. In their first appearance last year, Olesya won the women's division in 2:30:24, and Elena finished fourth in 2:38:50. This year, both claim they are fit and ready to race.
In an animated interview with the Nurgalieva sisters at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach, the universal language of laughter is infectious. But storied answers in Russian to an interpreter who must simplify them leaves outsiders wondering if they're missing out on a lot of fun.
When asked which of the two might win, each pointed to the other. However, further investigation revealed that Olesya has more strength and speed for the relatively "short" marathon
distance of 26.2 miles. And while both have competed in the nearly 55-mile Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa, Elena has won the grueling event three times.
The Comrades race course alternates each year. One year it goes uphill from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, the next it travels back down, allowing for two different course records. This year, Elena set the uphill record of 6:09:23.
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Olesya Nurgalieva, left, won last year's Honolulu Marathon, while her twin sister, Elena, finished fourth.
To put that performance into perspective, Elena ran two sub-3-hour marathons back to back -- uphill -- then threw in another 3-plus miles for good measure, maintaining a blistering pace the entire way.
"I prefer longer," Elena confirmed.
Both agreed that her style is more economical, smoother, and better suited to 6 hours of racing at a stretch.
"In longer distances, hardly anyone can compete with her," said Mikalai Litvin, an HPU graduate student who served as the translator.
Olesya's best performance this year was a ninth-place finish at the Boston Marathon in April, where she ran 2:30. Though she placed second in Comrades last year, she chose to sit out the South African event this year to focus on the marathon distance.
But in reality, the sisters are not too far apart in the marathon. Olesya's best time is 2:29:35, set in 2005 at the New York City Marathon. Elena's personal record is 2:29:49, set at the Frankfurt Marathon in 2004.
Preparation for a marathon involves speed work on a track, with plenty of hours on mountain trails -- their preferred training ground -- up to about 124 miles per week.
Eschewing treadmills for the outdoors means bundling up when the weather gets cold. When asked to describe what they wear, they laughed and talked about donning enough layers to resemble turnips. They also wear special masks and goggles. Reactions they get from truck drivers passing them on the road are fairly universal: a finger at the temple moving in circles.
But they are accustomed to the cold. Before deciding to focus on professional running, the former champion cross-country skiers coached other athletes at their college in Russia, where both earned degrees in biology.
"The doors of their college are always open for them," Litvin repeated.
Giggling followed, and he tried to interpret.
"Apart from professional running, they are trying to learn English. But it's so boring, they just open the book and fall asleep."
Honolulu Marathon Association president Jim Barahal said that the women's race this year is "wide open," with several contenders in the mix. The Nurgalievas said Japan's Eri Hayakawa, and three other Russian women all have impressive marathon times -- indeed, faster than their own.
"It's going to be a tough one," said Olesya.
Queries about their race strategy received nebulous answers. In an effort to break 2:30, would they push the pace early? Would they drop back and let the hired pacemaker block the wind down the highway? Or wait to see what the other women do before making a move later in the race?
The athletes smiled and said they would watch what happened after the gun was fired.
"It's not like running 800 meters," said Elena. "It's a long distance."
Sleep, diet, hydration, weather and your belief in yourself all play roles on race day, they said. In other words, anything can happen.
Both confirmed that they enjoy Hawaii and plan to stay for 10 days after the race to visit the North Shore, shop and "relax," a word they pronounced perfectly in English. In fact, when they arrived in Honolulu on Sunday, they "just dropped their stuff and went shopping," they said. But in an effort to rest their legs, they'll save the rest of their shopping for after the race.
Even though both will vie for the $40,000 first-place prize money, they seemed thrilled to know that they would receive a shell lei at the finish line. It's all part of the Aloha spirit they like so much.