Target has runners
shooting for records

The pace of the "rabbit" could help
determine how well the top runners fare

Lyau wins by aiming just to finish

By Jerry Campany

That Svetlana Zakharova is going after the Honolulu Marathon women's record is no secret.

That compatriot Lyubov Denisova -- who doesn't even plan to finish the race -- is also going after a part of it is somewhat of a secret.

Denisova, who finished second in New York this fall, is the women's pace setter this year, meaning she will be tasked with giving Zakharova and the other contenders a target to chase on their way toward the winner's check. Denisova will have to be the fastest and most consistent runner through at least the first half of the race, all without any dream of winning.

Honolulu Marathon "It is a huge responsibility setting up the pace," Denisova said through her manager and interpreter, Konstantine Selinevich. "All of the cameras are shooting you and you have to help the lead runners."

Whenever race director Jim Barahal believes the course record may be in reach, he pays a world-class runner to serve as the "rabbit." This year it is Denisova's job, and it is not a job to be taken lightly. The rabbit must lead the pack of elite athletes through at least half the race, running a consistent time before dropping out if she so chooses. She doesn't get the glory that comes with winning, she just does her job and goes home.

She only hears about the job she did when she fails, which is often, considering that only one of nine elite athletes can win and any little thing can throw them off.

The only glory the rabbit gets is when the eventual winner matches her pace and puts in a record time, and it is only a fleeting "thank you" on the way to pick up the winner's check.

It will be Denisova's first experience as the rabbit, but she is taking it as any other race, just one that ends sooner than the others she has run. Or, just another day in the life of a world-class marathon runner.

"She is very calm, not really nervous," Selinevich said about the weight of an entire field of runners on Denisova's shoulders. "She is a professional."

Although it is her first experience as a rabbit, Denisova has the experience of those chasing her -- as well as her many experiences chasing rabbits -- to rely on. She cruised to second in New York thanks to her pace setter in that race, and hopes to return the favor.

Silvia Skvortsova, 28, is one of the few with a realistic chance at beating Zakharova to the line, and spent her last race blazing the trail for Denisova. She has run more than a mile in Denisova's shoes and can tell her what to expect. She can tell her that it gets easier each time you do it and that there is a certain freedom in knowing that you are the only elite athlete allowed to drop out. She can also tell her that it is never as easy as hitting the correct pace and going.

"I was scared of her hurting her neck," Selinevich said about Skvortsova's experience setting the pace for Denisova. "She was supposed to set a certain pace, but the pack was not going with her, so she had to slow down for them."

When that happens, the rabbit has some serious decisions to make. In this year's Chicago Marathon, the men's pace setter got to his contracted distance and felt good, so he decided to keep going. He won the race, which never makes a race director happy.

Local runner Jonathan Lyau was in that race.

"The pack kept waiting for him to drop out, when they finally realized he was not going to drop out it was too late. They had to sprint to catch up."

Honolulu race officials do not have to worry about that happening this year. Denisova fully intends to drop out after her duties are finished, mostly because Selinevich handles six of the Russian racers and says he wouldn't do anything to hurt his favorite race.

"I like Hawaii so much," Selinevich said. "We'll keep coming back as long as they will let us. We try to give back the friendship that the race gives us, they treat the athletes so well."

Make way for the Russians: Although Zakharova is the easy favorite in the women's race, the fact that she is going for the record makes it anyone's to win.

Should Zakharova push herself to the point of breaking down, there will be a glut of women behind her willing to put her in second place for the sixth time.

Eight of the runners in the field -- including Zakharova -- have run a marathon in under 2 1/2 hours. Skvortsova is one of the many Russians who Selinevich insists has as much a chance of winning as Zakharova, along with Albina Ivanova, Alevtina Ivanova and 23-year old Tatiana Khmeleva. The Russians swept the medals stand last year, but winner Lyubov Morganova is not running this year.

Irina Bogacheva of Kyrgyzstan won the race in 1998 and 1999, but has just been getting faster. She won the Twin Cities Marathon this year and is running in Honolulu for the third time.

If anyone has a chance to break up the Russian sweep, it will be Hellen Kimutai of Kenya or Franca Fiacconi of Italy. Kimutai is the first elite Kenyan in the field and Fiacconi has run in Honolulu twice, finishing in the top four each time.

Men take the hill: The men's race should come down to veterans Mbarak Hussein and Jimmy Muindi.

They have 15 Honolulu appearances between them, with each winning twice.

Hussein, the defending champion, ran a 2:09 at the Seoul International Marathon only a month ago, but he considers that a warm-up for this event.

Whatever happens, they expect it to come down to a duel on the final ascent of Diamond Head. Other Kenyan contenders are Ondoro Osoro, who is coming back from being shot in the neck after enjoying the world's fastest debut in the Chicago Marathon in 1998, David Mutua, Bernard Kangogo, Joseph Kimani and Fred Chumba.

Tanzanian Francis Robert Naali is the only elite athlete not from Kenya, and could break the Kenyans' six-year winning streak. Naali, 30, won the Commonwealth games this year with a time of 2:11:58.

Honolulu Marathon

When: Tomorrow, 5 a.m.
Start: Ala Moana Blvd./Queen Street
Finish: Kapiolani Park
Late registration: Today, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Outrigger Reef on the Beach Hotel.
Radio: KGMZ-107.9 FM
Web site:

Honolulu Marathon

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