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Men Can't Close the Gender Gap

Turning the race into a true battle of the sexes is hailed as a highly successful innovation.

March 08, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

As Tatyana Pozdnyakova ran down Flower Street, the noise from the crowd, raucous, rollicking, "You go girl" noise, put a smile on her 49-year-old face and gave Pozdnyakova enough energy to raise her arms in triumph.

She beat them all across the finish, Pozdnyakova did, men and women, boys and girls. "The Challenge," the first-ever attempt by the Los Angeles Marathon at handicapping a 26.2-mile race so that men would battle women across the finish line, was a success even if men's winner David Kirui of Kenya never did threaten to catch Pozdnyakova in the final few miles.

In an effort to increase interest in the race among elite runners and fans, the top 15 women were given a head start of 20 minutes, 30 seconds. The first to cross the finish line, man or woman, would earn a $50,000 bonus over and above first-place prize money of $25,000 and a new car for the individual winners.

At the same time that they were saying on television that Pozdnyakova, the Ukrainian who trains in Gainesville, Fla., was old enough to be the mother of the 26-year-old Kirui, Pozdnyakova was gliding over the final three miles, putting more distance between herself and Kirui and bringing the crowds in the bleachers to their feet and causing the fans lining the streets to stomp theirs.

Ed Eyestone, a two-time U.S. Olympian and a television commentator for Sunday's race, said the idea of "The Challenge" was well-conceived and worth continuing in Los Angeles and at other major marathons.

"I thought it gave the race a lot of bounce," Eye- stone said. "It wasn't like Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs. It was legitimate competition, and it was no disgrace for the men to lose."

"It's a fabulous idea," said Nancy Ditz, two-time L.A. Marathon winner. "It's innovative and exciting, and it definitely caused a buzz."

Ditz said she attended the symphony Saturday night and heard concertgoers engaging in the age-old man-versus-woman argument.

Race President William Burke said he knew that "The Challenge" had served its purpose when he was at a board meeting last week.

"About 13 people, eight men and five women, none of them marathon fans, and they were arguing about whether the man or woman was going to win the $50,000," Burke said. "So next year I might just raise it to $100,000."

Although a few marathons have allowed elite women to start ahead of the men, no other major marathon had calculated a specific time handicap and offered significant prize money.

Basil Honikman, statistical director for Running USA, helped determine what the proper handicap should be.

Ultimately, Honikman said, it was decided to take an average of the difference between the men's and women's winners over the last 18 L.A. Marathons.

"What you can't take into account," Honikman said, "are factors like weather and the strategy of the racing among the women and the men."

Pozdnyakova said she didn't begin the race thinking about the men or bonus money or anything except her strategy.

"You can't have man on the mind at start and still win the race," Pozdnyakova said. "I knew man was behind me, I hear the crowd at the end, I see the times. When it was one mile to go and I see I lead man by over three minutes, then I start thinking about $50,000."

Honikman thinks that this kind of race tweaking is good for the sport. "So many top marathoners are from other countries," Honikman said, "and they aren't familiar to American fans. But you get the man-versus-woman, the 'we can beat you guys' kind of attitude, it has to be good for the sport. I think more marathons should do this. I hope the sport builds on this, because it was a great success and we didn't even get the race across the finish line we'd hoped for."

When Kirui approached the 20-mile mark, he was on a pace to catch Pozdnyakova in the final few meters. But although Kirui had a pain in his side and slowed considerably, Pozdnyakova padded on in her relentlessly consistent style, arms and legs moving in syncopated rhythm. In fact, Pozdnyakova ran the final two miles faster than Kirui and crossed the line 3 minutes, 54 seconds ahead of Kirui, who also finished behind Tatiana Titova, the second-place woman.

Though there was no man-woman sprint to the big check, the top 10 finishers were woman, woman, man, man, woman, man, woman, man, woman, man. Five women, five men. So the handicapping worked pretty well.

Pat Connelly, a respected local running coach who has competed in more than 40 marathons, said that what happened Sunday was "a great addition to the history of the marathon."

As long as the sport doesn't resort to gimmicks or tricks, Connelly said, it can only help to figure out ways to engage the fans and the runners.

"You don't want a sport to become a circus, but this wasn't," Connelly said. "I think other marathons will quickly jump on this. From what I could tell, the fans loved it. It's a great idea. It's here to stay."

Pozdnyakova's only reservation about starting ahead of the men was that it might cause slower times for the women. "Usually we are running with men at a faster pace," Pozdnyakova said. "When it is only women, it is very different."

Sacrificing the $50,000 in exchange for a couple fewer minutes off her time, though? "No, I don't think so," Pozdnyakova said.

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