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Forged in Steel.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom Demerly near edge of ship.
I got a call from Doug Kurtis, Race Director of the Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Bank International Marathon, last week. Doug wanted to use a cyclist to escort the lead female in the marathon and, on the recommendation of my friend Kathy P., called to invite me to do it.

That is quite an honor: Provide security and navigational escort to one of the finest distance runners in the world. Do it in one of the best races in the U.S. Get a front row seat to elite marathon racing and be able to ride a bike, utterly unmolested, across the Ambassador Bridge in broad Daylight and then back through the Windsor Tunnel, something that has never been allowed.

That's a pretty easy invitation to say yes to. And incidentally, while I've already said it, thank you again Doug and Kathy: That was awesome.

That is quite an honor: Provide security and navigational escort to one of the finest distance runners in the world.

Do it in one of the best races in the U.S. Get a front row seat to elite marathon racing and be able to ride a bike, utterly unmolested, across the Ambassador Bridge in broad Daylight and then back through the Windsor Tunnel, something that has never been allowed.

That's a pretty easy invitation to say yes to. And incidentally, while I've already said it, thank you again Doug and Kathy: That was awesome.

The Detroit Free Press/ Flagstar Bank International Marathon is a big race in its 26th year. Over 6,500 runners participated in this years event which included a relay and a 5K. The racecourse is spectacular. Beginning at the new Comerica Park Tiger Baseball Stadium and winding through Detroit to cross the Ambassador Bridge, a majestic suspension bridge over the Detroit River, then into Canada for a picturesque jaunt along the river with a delightful view of downtown Detroit. The race dives into the subterranean tunnel underneath the Detroit River, covering over a mile underground, and emerges right in downtown Detroit again to a throng of cheering spectators. From there athletes get a tour of Belle Isle, site of the Detroit Gran Prix, and then a run through charming Indian Village subdivision and the greetings of its friendly inhabitants. Then the race finishes on the 40-yard line of the new Detroit Lions stadium, Ford Field. It is Detroit at its very best. Detroit has taken some serious hits in the media over the past couple decades, some deserved. But make no mistake, the new administration of young gun Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is on a roll to keep the city on the right path. So far, so good for Kilpatrick. Doug Kurtis, the Race Director for The Detroit Free Press/ Flagstar Bank International Marathon, has won the event himself and once held the world record for the most sub-2:30 marathons.

So, on the morning of October 5th I was in the company of some pretty interesting people to help out with a pretty impressive event. Mayor Kwame said his political stuff, laced on his running shoes and got ready to give it a go. I initialized my Timex Ironman GPS Performance Monitor, zeroed out my cyclometer and got ready to try to pick out the women's leader from the thousands of runners lined up behind me and the caravan of other lead cars, police motorcycles and one bicycle. Me. Doug had a big sign made that was bolted to a special bracket on the back of my bike that read: LEAD CYCLIST FEMALE RACE LEADER. It was cool.

Anita Baker sang the National Anthem; there was a countdown and BANG! We were off for 26.2 miles of big fun.

Elite marathon runners are incredible. Last weekend in Germany a man set a new marathon world record of under 2:05:00. I figured out his pace: 4:46 per mile, for 26.2 miles. To me, that is unfathomable. I can't run one 4:46 mile, let alone 26.2 of them in a row. That is running 12.9 M.P.H. give or take.

So when the race began I thought I wouldn't be shocked by the runner's speed. I was wrong. It was like the start of a 5K. Much faster than I imagined. The elite runners went out hard and fast, going through the first turns so fast that they were leaning like track runners. I let the lead males go through to follow their escort vehicles and watched behind for just a moment for the lead women. It didn't take long to pick her up. It was 30 year old Elvira Kolpakova of Berezniki, Russia, Commonwealth of Independent States.

Kolpakova went through the first mile in 5:55 according to my Timex GPS Performance Monitor. I had a good GPS lock despite some tall surrounding buildings and could track Kolpakova's speed and distance accurately throughout the race with my Timex. My cyclometer, calibrated the night before, confirmed our position and speed on the course. I had a map of the course laminated on my handlebars to confirm our correct path throughout the race.

Leading an elite athlete through a race like The Detroit Free Press/ Flagstar Bank International Marathon is serious stuff. Times are strange and anything can happen. Protesters try to get publicity in the Tour de France by blocking the course, showering the athletes with political flyers and even assaulting them. It's a long shot, and nothing like that has ever happened here in Detroit, but you can't be too alert. Then there are the normal hazards of any race: Going off course, chuckholes where you can twist an ankle, a car getting on the racecourse. I was there to make sure none of this happened to Kolpakova, or whoever was leading the women's race. That means watching every intersection before you get there. It means watching the hands of spectators who are close to the course. It means keeping an eye on windows and rooftops and the road surface. It means checking your course map and knowing the streets you are on and where you are at all times. So I had a lot to do watching over our elite Russian guest.

To make matters a tad more complex, Kolpakova speaks as much English as I do Russian: Not much. We were like the Apollo/Soyuz cosmonauts and astronauts. When Kolpakova had to communicate with me, she spoke English. When I had to communicate with her, I spoke Russian. I learned a little Russian going back two decades ago and then again on board the Akademik Ioffe, a Russian Naval Minesweeper turned research vessel that took runners down to Antarctica for, of all things, a marathon in Antarctica. I was onboard the Ioffe in 1999 to do the marathon in Antarctica. Onboard the Akademik Ioffe I reviewed useful Russian phrases such as "Good Morning", "Good Day", "Please", "Thank you", "Have a pleasant watch" and of course, for the trip down to Antarctica across the roughest ocean in the world, "Where may I vomit?" These would be very useful during the marathon.

Kolpakova took the lead early. She went to the front and busted out two super fast miles administering an early and humane coup de grace to her competitors. Kolpakova is a machine. Marathons are a sprint to her. In 2001 she won the World 100km Championship, a hellish 62-mile running race in Cleder, France. Kolpakova won the World Championship in 7:31:12. For most of us running a marathon is a big deal. For Kolpakova, its speed work.

During the 26th Detroit Free Press/ Flagstar Bank International Marathon I got the chance to study Kolpakova up close, from just a few feet away, for the entire race. I could see her facial expression, see her stride, watch her interaction with other runners. I could hear her breathing and footfall. I watched what she took at the aid stations and how she took it. When I wasn't busy providing for her safety I studied her during the race, and it was a fascinating study.

How does a person do what Kolpakova does? Run a marathon at those speeds so casually? How did she run 62 miles at a pace faster than most recreational runners can do a 10K in? What could I learn from Kolpakova? What is the Russian's secret? Perhaps some of it lies in the history of her heritage.

When I was a kid I had a book about the siege of Stalingrad. The Nazi's invaded Russia in 1943 and laid siege to its three largest cities, Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad. I loved that book and read it many times. The Russians were determined in their resistance. Conditions were horrible: Unimaginable. When Russian boy-soldiers, many only eight or nine years old, ran out of bullets they lured German soldiers into ruined buildings and toppled slabs of concrete onto them. One boy would dart into view to trick the Germans into hurling a grenade at them. The decoy boy's comrades would grab the live grenade and throw it back at the Germans. The Russians had almost no food. Millions starved to death. Millions froze to death in the clench of the iron fist that is Russian winter. But the Russians did not give in. Ever. A Russian soldier wrote a letter home to his fiancée. I remember it now without even having to look it up it was so incredible, so touching, so amazing in its determination and fortitude:

"My Dear Tatiana, This will be my last letter, as I will die soon protecting the city. We will never let it fall. My last wish, except to see your face in the summer, is to kill one more German soldier before I die."

In Leningrad the story was much the same. Hitler, at the height of his twisted dementia, ordered the entire city "killed". The siege in Leningrad lasted 300 days. The Germans, of course, lost. By the end of the war 27 million Russians died. That is correct. 27 million. But they never gave up. During the bleakest hours of the siege of Leningrad the Russian composer, Dimitri Shostakovich wrote his Seventh Symphony for Leningrad. The symphony was performed for the first time in Leningrad during the siege by a group of freezing, starving musicians in a bombed-out, unheated orchestra hall. Please listen to Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony for Leningrad. Tears well up in my eyes every time I hear it. It is such a beautiful piece of music, composed in the heart of a man so determined in such an abysmal place and time. The music speaks volumes of Russia and Russians. Such beauty and struggle in determination. Amazing. You must hear it. It speaks of the unflagging Russian spirit.

So in studying Kolpakova during The Detroit Free Press/ Flagstar Bank International Marathon I saw the very spirit that saved Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad. I saw the spirit and determination that put the first man in space, and the first satellite in orbit. Kolpakova comes from a culture that reveres stoicism. They revere hard work and sacrifice. Nothing is too hard and suffering is an honor. Complaining is never tolerated. You must be hard to be a Russian.

Kolpakova is small; probably about 5'4" is my guess, maybe 5'5". The Russian does not have the build of a distance runner. She does not have the gangly proportions of a Kenyan. She is stout. Sturdy as a Russian tank or a Mig. As the Russian asserted her dominance on the race crossing the difficult climb up the Ambassador Bridge, exposed to a chill wind in the low 40's, she did not flinch in her concentration. Her head did not so much as nod to take in the beautiful morning view from the bridge. She simply concentrated on what she was doing: Winning the race. Her gaze was fixed dead ahead, brow slightly taught in concentration. She was unwavering, like a Russian soldier in their oath. Her breathing labored briefly, but was quickly brought to heel on the descent. She was in control. She was never under pressure.

At the aid stations the Russian would grab one cup, almost always Gatorade. She only took water three times during the entire marathon. The rest of the time she took Gatorade. She ran through four aid stations without taking anything. She rarely spoke. When we exited the customs checkpoint at the Canadian frontier after crossing the bridge the course momentarily doubled back on itself. Kolpakova could see her quarry here, get their measure. Learn what had to be done. She glanced briefly with no concern on her face. She saw a line of elite men and relay runners behind her. She looked at me and asked, in one word, "Whoo-mahn?" I told her, "", "No, you champion!"

She did not smile. She simply went back to work. She had many miles left.

Kolpakova wore the simple race clothing provided her by her sponsors. A singlet, running briefs, her racing flats and a $4 pair of cotton gloves with a cheap yellow fleece headband. It was freezing out that morning, but it didn't affect Kolpakova. She did without all the high tech fabrics and breathable, packable jackets with zip-off sleeves and vented armpits that the recreational runners had behind her. A Russian does not need those things. I remember reading a story about the (then) Soviet Nordic Ski Team. In preparation for the Olympics, at the Russian Olympic Training Center, the cross-country ski team trained without gloves in -10 degree Fahrenheit weather. When the television network covering the Olympics visited the Training Center to do an "Up Close and Personal" on one of the athletes a correspondent asked the Russian coaches why the athletes were skiing in the freezing weather without gloves. The coaches told the correspondent they did not have room for frivolous things like gloves in their Olympic budget.

Kolpakova went through mile 13 without a worry or a glance. She was in the lead, the lead was building. The Russian's breathing did not change; her pace did not falter.

I thought when I took Doug's invitation I would get to see some drama, some incredible effort and pain etched on the face of the leader. That I would finally know the depths of suffering required to win a marathon by seeing it on the person's face. That I would bear witness to the gradual descent into desperation that must occur to every athlete trying to run 6-minute miles 26.2 times in a row.

I saw none of that. It was as banal as watching a Russian shipyard at peak efficiency. Everything worked perfectly, efficiently, without fanfare or pride.

Elvira Kolpakova simply looked at what had to be done, did it, and said "Thank you" (Spa-ce-bo).

Today, the day after accompanying Elvira Kolpakova to victory in The Detroit Free Press/ Flagstar Bank International Marathon, I ran 8 miles. I thought about Kolpakova a lot. How fast the Russian was. How determined. I wondered if I would ever be that. My grandparents did not have to endure sieges, wars, purges. My parents did not raise me to embrace humble servitude so deeply. I do not come from a culture with such a desperate, violent, determined history. Those qualities are not part of my moral fiber.

I am not that tough. None of us are. Kolpakova was forged in steel. The product of her grandparents, her parents, Mother Russia. The product is durable, reliable. It works in all conditions without need for repair or even complaint.

How does a person like Elvira Kolpakova do what she did on Sunday, October 5th at The Detroit Free Press/ Flagstar Bank International Marathon?

She is way tougher than we will ever be. That is how.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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