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
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
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
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
"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
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