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Olga Markova — April, 2011
Olga Markova is a World Class female distance runner from Russia who won the Boston Marathon in 1992 and 1993, becoming the first Russian to do so. She finished in second place twice at the New York City Marathon in 1991 and 1992. Olga set the world's best performance of the year for 1992 when she won the Boston Marathon, clocking 2:23:43 which is also her personal best time. She has won numerous road races including the 1992 Gate River Run and 1990 Army 10-Miler. Injuries in the mid-1990s cut short her reign as one of the world’s top marathoners, but she still runs competitive times in shorter distances as a Masters racer. Olga’s personal best times include: 5k – 15:35; 10k – 32:17 and marathon – 2:23:43. Her coach was Viktor Smirnov and manager was Grigory Viniar. Olga lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, with her son, Yegor, and resides part of the year in Gainesville, Florida.
GCR:As a teenager you focused on middle distance running and racing. What was your thought process behind moving up in distance to the marathon?
OMI wasn’t quite fast enough to run with the top middle distance runners as my best times were only 4:24 for 1,500 meters and 2:07 for 800 meters, so I looked for a way to improve my competitive standing by trying a different distance. It was different for a girl my age to move up to the marathon. But my coach thought it was better to move up to the marathon than the 5,000 or 10,000 meters based on something he saw in me.
GCR:What did you do to train for your first marathon, what was your race plan and how was the transition to such a longer distance?
OMMy longest run for that first marathon was only 25k (15.5 miles) and my highest weekly training was 100k (62 miles). We went to the Russian Championships and my coach told me to try to run at a pace of 4:00 per kilometer, but I ran faster than that. I came in 17th with a 2:42 time and was very excited. I thought it was easy compared to the fast pace of middle distance racing. I hadn’t done serious marathon training and it sparked me to train harder as I thought that maybe I had found my right race distance. After starting out with that 2:42, I ran a 2:40 and followed that with a 2:37.
GCR:You burst onto the United States Marathon scene when you won the 1990 Marine Corps Marathon in 2:37:00. Why did you decide to come to the United States to race, pick that specific marathon and what are your main recollections from that race?
OMI met some very nice people when I visited Washington, D.C. in the United States and decided that I would race the Marine Corps Marathon when I returned. It was a good race and I knew I was in the lead early in the race. The course was very scenic through the United States’ capitol city.
GCR:During your next three marathons you dropped your personal best by minutes at a time from 2:37 to 2:33 to 2:28 and then to 2:23. Were there any significant changes in your training or were you just getting more experienced with the marathon distance?
OMIn each marathon I learned something and got smarter. I mentioned that my first marathon felt easy and this continued for several marathons as I was running faster, but still not as fast as I was capable of running. I kept using my experience and race knowledge to get faster.
GCR:With your 2:28:18 second place finish at the 1991 New York City Marathon you really made your mark as one of the marathon’s elite women. What was it that propelled you from a very good marathon runner to the top echelon?
OMI think it was a natural progression that was continuing. I came to New York with my own race plan and goal. After the half marathon point I was feeling strong and decided to try and catch Joan Benoit and some others runners who were ahead of me.
GCR:In the 1991 NYC Marathon you caught the lead pack with a few miles to go and were briefly in the lead. Did this surprise you and did you think you had a chance to win at that point?
OMIt was somewhat surprising, but I was feeling good mentally. Since I was running with Liz McColgan and she was such a great finisher, I didn’t think I would have a chance to win. My personal best for 5,000 meters wasn’t close to hers, so I knew it would be tough to move past her.
GCR:Despite Liz McColgan’s pulling away from you for the win, what did this mean to your running career and invitations to other races?
OMEach time I raced well it opened the door to another race so this second place finish gave me the opportunity to race the next spring at the Boston Marathon. It was a breakthrough for me to place so high in a major marathon.
GCR:Five months later you won the 1992 Boston Marathon with another personal best time of 2:23:43. What did it mean to you not only to win the Boston Marathon, but to be the first Russian woman to do so?
OMFor Americans a runner is a big hero if one wins the Boston Marathon. In Russia it was a much smaller news story when I won, though it was special to me. Maybe now it is a bigger thing in Russia as there is more publicity about the major marathons and we have had more champions since I first won.
GCR:Wanda Panfil was way ahead of course record pace through 15 kilometers, with Uta Pippig and Yoshiko Yamamoto also ahead of you. Did you think the pace was too fast or were you confident in using the same strategy you used the previous fall in New York where you paced yourself, moved up and almost won?
OMI thought they were out very, very fast. My first 5k was in 15:57 and my personal best was only 15:35. I made the decision to stay behind, keep in contact and then try to move up later on. This plan had worked in New York and seemed like a good plan since I had used it before with success and because they were running so fast.
GCR:How strong were you on the hills of Newton where you took the lead and had you trained on the course or done specific hill training for the Boston Marathon?
OMBefore each marathon we would do lots of hill training. I like running on hills instead of flat courses as they aren’t as boring. Also, you get a bit of a rest on the down hills. One of our favorite hilly training areas in Russia is in North Caucasus. It is a very pretty place for training in the mountains. I didn’t do any training on the Boston Marathon course, though we did drive part of the route one time. Some runners like to know everything about a course in advance, but sometimes I think it is better not to see and just to race. When I ran over the hills in the Boston marathon they were not that hard. If a runner has the right training and pace the hills won’t be so difficult.
GCR:Despite winning the 1992 Boston Marathon with a time that was nearly three minutes faster than any other Russian woman in history, you were not selected as a member of Russia’s 1992 Olympic team. How disappointing was this and was it difficult to watch the Olympic Marathon on television?
OMIt was painful for me then and is a pain that is still there in my life. I was strong in the Boston Marathon and had a fast result, so it was hard as I never had another chance to go to the Olympics. I was in the United States during the summer leading up to the 1992 Olympics and in great racing shape as I ran personal bests that year at many distances. It was hard to watch the Olympic Marathon as I should have been running with the women. Still I was young and thought I would do it the next time, but the next time didn’t happen.
GCR:For the second straight year you were New York City Marathon runner up in 1992 finishing about two minutes behind Lisa Ondieki. Did you feel before the race you were primed for a victory and what were the critical points that allowed Lisa to win?
OMI had a long year of racing with the Boston Marathon in the spring and many months of good racing afterward, so maybe I was emotionally tired. And since I had passed Lisa the previous year, she may have had extra reasons to try to beat me that time. She was just stronger than me and got the win. Afterward I thought, ‘Olga, you ran 2:26, so that isn’t too bad!’
GCR:It is often said that it is harder to stay on top than get to the top. How tough was it repeating as Boston Marathon Champion in 1993 now that you had a target on your back?
OMBoston always has a strong field, but I decided again to run my own race. Some runners try to run another person’s race and it doesn’t work out best for them. The other top runners all knew I won the year before, so I surely couldn’t surprise anyone like I did the first time I came in second place in New York.
GCR:You ran through Wellesley with your countrywoman, Valentina Yegorova, who won the 1992 Olympic Marathon when you were left off of the team, before pulling away from her. Did this give you some measure of satisfaction with the team selectors who didn’t pick you?
OMAfter I moved into the lead by myself I didn’t even know that Valentina had dropped out as she was behind me. I am a friendly person and Valentina and I are good friends so there weren’t any bad feelings between us. She deserved to be on the Olympic team and is a great runner as she also won the Silver Medal in the marathon at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. We are from different areas in Russia as I am a big-city girl and she is from a small village, but now we both live in Gainesville – she and her family live here year around.
GCR:You were all alone through the hills and stretched out your lead to win by over four minutes. With such a big lead did you race a bit more conservatively and did it give you a chance to really enjoy the crowds?
OMI knew that I must have had a big lead as the reporters on the press truck in front of me were talking, laughing and not paying much attention to the race. I figured that they were like that since there must not be anyone coming up behind me. If someone was trying to catch me the photographers would all have had their cameras out. I still worked hard until the last turn with about a half mile to go. After that turn it looks like such a long way to the finish and the air gets cooler, but that is when I start to enjoy the crowd and the finish.
GCR:With such success at both the Boston and New York City marathons, what are your favorite things about each race?
OMI love Boston because I won there twice. I like both courses because they aren’t flat and are tough. New York is more difficult because of the hills in Central Park at the end. In Boston the last 8k is easier because it is flat.
GCR:After your tremendous improvement in each of your first four marathons and defending your Boston Marathon title, you didn’t improve your time or win another major marathon. As you look back, what factors led to the inability to sustain such a high level of competitiveness?
OMI was so young when I had my success and then injuries started. I had lower back problems and hamstring injuries. Each time when I tried to return to my normal training schedule it was difficult. Maybe I was coming back from the injuries too quickly. I did race well at 10k and 15k, but whenever I tried to increase my distance to more than 100k per week to train for the marathon injuries would return. My last marathon attempt was in London and I dropped out after about halfway. So I decided not to train for the marathon after that. I only ran about 15 total marathons. Some people have a lengthy career in their sport, but others are like me who have a shorter career. I just say, ‘thank you God,’ that I had a few years where I was at the top.
GCR:You recorded victories and top finishes at moderate length distance races such as Falmouth, the Army Ten-Miler and Jacksonville River Run 15k. Do you like these racing distances more so than the marathon and do any of these races stand out as far as some tough competition and close finishes?
OMMy favorite distance is the 10k though it wasn’t the distance where I had the most success. In most races where I won I remember being in the lead the whole way and then trying to hold off other runners who had a strong finish. Since most of my competitors had more speed that was the strategy I had to use to try to win. When I was running my best 10k races I would start out with around a 5:07 mile and by the end I was running about 5:20 miles.
GCR:When building your marathon training base what weekly mileage did you typically average and for how many months? Did you have a training cycle with a ‘down week’ periodically?
OMWe would train sometimes at a training camp and slowly build our training volume. For example, if we had three months before a marathon we would increase our distance for two weeks, and then have two lower weeks before increasing again. The most I ever did was 100 to 110 miles per week.
GCR:How long were your long runs, how often did you do them and what pace did you run?
OMI never ran for more than two hours for time or a distance of 30k. I don’t think it was smart for me to run more than that as it led my body to overstress. Some runners like to run for three hours, but that is not for me. What I did do though was to often run 25k on Wednesday and then 30k on Sunday so I was running two fairly long runs in a week instead of one longer run. My long run was usually at an easy pace because the day before I often ran an eight to 10-mile tempo run. So my long run was like a recovery run.
GCR:What were your favorite workouts for stamina and speed?
OMThe favorite of my coach and me was to do ‘tempo clicks.’ I would run one click (kilometer) at marathon pace of 3:25 and the next kilometer at 4:00 pace (interviewer’s note – this equates to approximately 5:25 per mile and 6:30 per mile). We also did fartlek alternating one minute faster than marathon pace and then one minute slightly slower than marathon race pace. We didn’t go to the track and do repeat miles at a certain pace like many marathon runners, but the focus of my training was to change paces with both being challenging. Sometimes we would do seven or eight times 1,000 meters with a short 30 second rest. If I had shorter races like 10ks or 15ks I might do 10-15 times 400 meters with a 400 meter jog recovery. Also, when training for those shorter races if we did other intervals on the track, such as 800s or 1,000s, my recovery jog would be half of what I was running.
GCR:Did you like to incorporate racing at shorter distances to sharpen your mental focus for the marathon and when did you do your last long runs leading up to a marathon?
OMUsually I didn’t race much before a marathon. In the last few weeks I would focus on the upcoming marathon and my training. I did a 30k three weeks before the marathon and a 25k two weeks before the race.
GCR:How did you get started running as a youth, were there other women running who were role models and did you enjoy long distance running at an early age?
OMWhen I was a kid I tried to do all types of things to see if I had talent. I did some painting. My brother was a cross country skier so I went with him and found out it was very hard just to carry all of the equipment. In school I was always the first runner and thought I should get invited to a training camp. They invited some of my friends who I had beaten so I didn’t know why I didn’t get asked to participate. Finally when I was 14 years old I convinced Coach Smirnov to take me to his training group. The biggest role model was Tatyana Kazankina who won three Olympic Gold Medals in middle distance.
GCR:Speaking of being a role model, how is it for you to be the first Russian woman to win a major marathon and to have others follow in your footsteps?
OMSvetlana Zaharia, who has been here in Gainesville to train a few times, told me I was her hero. I am not sure about others but I think some of them do look up to me.
GCR:What was the impact of your manager, Grigory Viniar, and coach, Viktor Smirnov, on your running career?
OMCoach Smirnov paid attention and he saw that I was very serious about my training. I was motivated, was there every day and didn’t skip training. When I started out I wasn’t in real good shape but just had a few extra pounds. Many years later Grigory Viniar helped me to get into races which would have been harder to do on my own. I was lucky to have them both in my life to help me be successful. Despite their help, when I won the Russian Half Marathon a few times in the late 1980s I still wasn’t invited to be on the national team in the marathon. Even though I was running well, the officials told me I was too young.
GCR:Over the years you have trained quite a bit in the United States, especially in Gainesville, Florida. What are your primary reasons for using this area as a training base?
OMIn the beginning I didn’t know any English, but Grigory worked with Americans to find a nice place for winter training after my second place finish in the 1991 New York City Marathon. We wanted a winter base with good weather and he found Gainesville where I trained for two to three months before Boston. There were good races for me in Florida such as the Gasparilla 15k and Jacksonville River Run 15k. The Gainesville area also had good trails and tracks for running. I usually use the track for speed work even when I am training for marathon racing. It’s because I am particular about my times and like to know at what pace I am running. When I am running on the roads I like to know my pace per click (kilometer) or per mile.
GCR:When you were in Russia, how harsh was winter training and did you ever train inside on a treadmill?
OMIt was very cold in Russia in the winter, but I never ran indoors on a treadmill. We would run on roads or in a park and sometimes it was tough. If it was extremely cold, like minus 35 degrees Celsius, I probably would have skipped a run, but at minus 25 degrees Celsius I would still go for an hour run. I would wear a scarf in addition to covering the normal areas – only my nose and cheeks would get cold.
GCR:When you were first exposed to Western Culture and particularly the United States, how surprising was it compared to what you expected based on your upbringing in Russia?
OMThe stories we received in school were that capitalism was bad, kids were working in factories until 9:00 or 10:00 at night and that life was very hectic in the West. It was propaganda and it was a time when both the United States and Russia were using propaganda with their citizens. When I came to the United States in 1990 I first came to Washington, D.C. which struck me as a huge city with big buildings that was different than I thought I would see. It was surprising as so many people – men and women, young and old - were running for fitness as in my city in Russia there were only a few runners. Another surprise was how everyone was smiling in the U.S., so I started smiling more when I went back home. It was funny as I was smiling, but didn’t always receive a smile in return. Back then in Russia very few people had cars so they were bundled up in clothes in the cold winter waiting for the train or bus so it was hard to smile.
GCR:Even though you may not approach the times you ran when you were younger, how does it compare to train and compete as a Masters runner?
OMIt is still fun even though I am running slower. It is a different feeling to be working hard to run a 37 minute 10k that may have been a 33 minute 10k when I was younger. I try to still run every day, but not much speed work as I have had a strained Achilles tendon. When I am training well I still try to do two hard days each week of tempo runs or intervals and one longer run. I’m not really in the kind of shape to compete in the Masters division for example at the Jacksonville River Run against someone like Colleen de Reuck. As far as my competitiveness, if I run a 37 minute 10k, then the next time I want to run 36:45 and then improve to 36:30. So I am mainly competing with myself to continue to get faster when I can.
GCR:What advice can you give to marathon runners who are moving up from shorter distances and struggling with keeping motivated?
OMThe first thing I would say, especially to middle distance runners, is that it may look impossible to run marathons when you are racing 800 and 1,500 meters, but with ability and training it actually can be done. Runners who are racing at 5,000 and 10,000 meters have a good combination of speed and distance already. What they should do is to get a good coach to guide them in their marathon training. Some people over train as they don’t need high weekly mileage or long runs that are as far as other runners require to race their best. They just try to do what they think everyone needs to do and they get very fatigued or injured. I have seen many runners train hard, harder and harder until they wind up empty of energy. A final point is that when thinking about moving up to the marathon racing distance a runner has to really want to so that they can mentally do the required training to race well.
GCR:What is your current running and health regimen and what are your future goals both in the sport of running and in life?
OMAs I mentioned, I do try to run every day. During a week I run about 80 to 100 kilometers (around 50 – 60 miles). My longest runs are perhaps 20 kilometers which is just a bit short of a half marathon. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the first time I won the Boston Marathon, so I would possibly go back for the festivities and to run at a slow pace if I am invited. I can go back and run the Boston Marathon and die! That is just an expression or joke! (Some conversation with Olga led me to note that this compares to the U.S. version of the ‘Bucket List’ of Americans doing things before they kick the bucket). I look forward to spending more time with my 13 year old son – it is hard to be away from him when I am in the United States. I enjoy spending time working with children’s physical fitness as I have two degrees in Physical Fitness from the Institute of Sport. I have a pretty quiet life which I enjoy and I hope to be healthy enough to continue to do so.
GCR:How did growing up as a child in Russia with the influence of Communism, the cold winters and other factors contribute to your development as a person?
OMWhen I was growing up I felt I was living in a happy country. I had everything I needed – parents, a home a school, things to do and food. As I grew there were some tough times. When I began to travel around the world I found I had a great opportunity and made great friends. I believe that we all should try to be kind people. There are two main things I have learned about life: First, life is full of surprises and opportunities and we never know what will happen the next day and second, life isn’t black and white – there is more gray.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsTennis, reading, watching movies, taking photos and shopping – every woman likes shopping!
NicknamesIn school as a child they called me ‘Morkovka’ which sounds like my last name and means ‘carrot,’ which was the other kids way of trying to be funny and get a laugh
Favorite movies‘Scent of a Woman’ with Al Pacino – I really like the part when they are dancing the tango
Favorite TV viewingCNN, National Geographic and Discovery; In Russia I like to watch news from around the world such as the BBC news
Favorite musicSting and The Police, Bob Marley, The Beatles
Favorite booksMy favorite authors are Alexsandr Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev and Boris Akunin. I enjoy classic detective books. When I was a child in Russia we read books by Mark Twain that were translated into Russian – both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were popular for Russian children to read
First carLada - a small Russian car
Current carLand Rover
First jobIn Russia it wasn’t popular for teenagers to have jobs. My first job after I graduated from the University was when I joined a military club named Ska. I ran for them and I received a salary. I went to special events which required me to wear my military uniform, but mainly trained as a runner
FamilyBoth of my parents have passed away. I have one brother who is married and has a daughter and I have a son, Yegor, who is 13
PetsI now have my first dog, Maverick, who is a German Shepherd. It was always a dream of mine to have a dog
Favorite breakfastCoffee; cheese and crackers and sometimes a spoon of honey
Favorite mealI don’t each much beef. I like chicken, fish and pasta. For side dishes I like potatoes, rice and vegetables – just everyday foods
Favorite beveragesA glass of wine with a good dinner; tea and coffee. I am not a big water drinker as our drink of choice in Russia is green tea or black tea with milk or cream
First running memoryIn school whenever there were races where all of the children participated, I always seemed to win. I have some certificates of achievement from those races
Running heroesWhen I started running as a middle distance racer I looked up to Tatyana Kazankina. When I became a marathon runner I looked to Rosa Mota, Ingrid Kristiansen and Grete Waitz for inspiration
Greatest running momentThe second time I won the Boston Marathon was even more exciting than the first time. It is also a great memory as the next day I was invited to fly to Washington, D.C. with Cosmos Ndeti, Alberto Salazar and the two Masters champions to meet and run with President Bill Clinton. It was something for a Russian girl to be running with the President of the United States. My own Russian president didn’t invite me for tea!
Worst running momentMy third Boston Marathon in 1994 when I didn’t finish. My back was hurting and I wasn’t up with the lead women. For a while I had had an argument going on in my head between continuing toward the finish and dropping out. Then after about 30k I dropped out as my back was hurting worse and worse
Childhood dreamsI thought about being a teacher since every day I went to school to learn and I could just keep going to school to teach
Embarrassing momentWhen I was a teenager we travelled to a big USSR under-16 age track meet. When I got to the track I didn’t have my spiked shoes. I had to take a bus back to the hotel to get my shoes. Though I did get back to the track in time for my race, I but had less time than normal for my warm up
Favorite places to travelI’ve spent a lot of time in the United States and always enjoy when I am here. I like Boston and especially enjoy visiting the part of California around San Francisco and Monterrey. I haven’t travelled much to Europe but I am hoping to visit more European countries. I like Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. My next dream is to go to Spain – since they didn’t select me to go to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics, it’s time! I can see Barcelona and die! (Olga laughs once more at her joke - again a Russian expression equivalent to the ‘Bucket List’)