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She's 49, but It's Not Like Old Times

L.A. Marathon champion Pozdnyakova is part of a fast-growing segment of runners: women 40 and up.

March 05, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A year ago, Tatyana Pozdnyakova won the women's division of the Los Angeles Marathon in 2 hours 29 minutes 40 seconds -- an outstanding time for someone about to turn 48.

Pozdnyakova is believed to be the oldest winner, male or female, of any big-city marathon. In addition to prize money, her triumph brought her a measure of fame and focused attention on a fast-growing segment of competitive runners: women 40 and older.

"Many women have come to me since Los Angeles last year and told me they admire me," Pozdnyakova said. "They want to know my secret. My secret? Only that I love to run."

She turns 49 today and is back in Los Angeles to defend her title Sunday.

She jogged onto the University of Florida track here Tuesday morning with two fellow runners from the former Soviet Union, Firaya Sultanova, 43, and Tatiana Titova, 38.

Titova and Pozdnyakova were taking one of their final training runs for Los Angeles. Sultanova is aiming for the Boston Marathon next month. They run together every day, three women with washboard stomachs, steely legs and flower-shaped barrettes in their hair.

A 28-year-old man who was preparing for a run started chatting with the women, and the conversation turned to age.

Titova told him she was 38, then pointed to the 5-foot-2, 115-pound Pozdnyakova and asked, "How old you think she is?"

The man guessed 38.

When Titova told him that Pozdnyakova would soon turn 49, he gasped, put his sweats back on and left the track.

"Yes, I am the old woman," Pozdnyakova said. "I am always old woman now. What can I do?"

Born in Ukraine, Pozdnyakova began running to keep an older sister company when she was a college student in the Soviet Union. She ran the 800 and the 1,500 and did well, making some national teams.

She met and married Alex Zahoruyko, a runner from Russia. Pozdnyakova had a son 17 years ago, Eugene, and she ran through the pregnancy and kept competing for her country, the Soviet Union at the time.

Gradually Pozdnyakova began entering 5K and 10K races. In 1994 she entered a marathon, her first.

"I did well. I won," Pozdnyakova said. "But also, I loved the running of this distance. I found I could run a long way and feel better the longer I ran."

Four years ago Pozdnyakova, Zahoruyko and their son came to Gainesville to train in the winter because the deep snow in Ukraine was too tough. There is a small colony of ex-Soviet runners, mostly women, who train with Zahoruyko.

Pozdnyakova, who runs up to 130 miles per week, did about 12 kilometers of fast and slow laps Tuesday morning. She broke for lunch and to attend her English and writing courses at a Gainesville junior college. She was back at the track in the afternoon for another 18 kilometers.

"And that was the week of her race. That's totally amazing," marveled Pam Reed, 43, who has won the last two Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathons, beating the guys in the 135-mile summertime trek from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney. Reed, who is director of the Tucson marathon, began competing in ultramarathons in 1990 and has noted the increased involvement of masters women (those 40 and older).

"I don't keep the hard numbers, but I see more and more women my age and older competing in the long distances, in the marathons, the ultras, in the 50-mile and 100-mile runs," Reed said in a telephone interview. "I think our bodies are suited to it and our temperaments too."

Rich Benyo, editor of Marathon & Beyond magazine and author of 17 books about fitness, health and sports, said women approach running differently from men. "They come out to the track in groups. They support each other and they have fun," said Benyo, director of this weekend's Napa Valley Marathon. "Their point is to complete the race, be it a marathon or ultramarathon, rather than to win. But what happens, in distance racing, is that you improve naturally over five to seven years. And when people see improvement, they keep going. Pretty soon, they start to win races."

Or at least finish them. A total of 1,279 women between 40 and 49 completed the 1997 L.A. Marathon; last year the figure was 1,455. And nationally, 54,000 women in that age group finished marathons in 2002, compared with 20,000 in 1992, according to USA Track & Field, the sport's governing body. The trend prompted MORE magazine to create what it says is the first marathon for women 40 and older.

Helen Klein, 81, of Sacramento is among the 1,500 entrants in the race set for New York's Central Park later this month. She began running marathons and longer distance races when she was 55. In the next two weeks she plans to compete in a 50-mile race in addition to the over-40 event."I admire Tatyana," Klein said. "What she did last year was very impressive."

Jacqueline Hansen, a two-time world-record holder in the marathon in the 1970s and the first woman to cover the distance in 2:40, says age is less a barrier than ever.

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